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The Acceptable Sacrifice
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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92
92: Challenging Thain and Lady

92: Challenging Thain and Lady


Pippin sat on the ground at Frodo’s feet while Frodo sat on a cushion placed on the remains of the stump for the old oak atop the Hill. “Every time I go to the Great Smial it’s the same, Frodo. Da asks me the same questions over and over and over again, almost begging, demanding I change the story, make it something he can want to believe. And Mum is insisting I retell it so I wasn’t in any danger, to make it a glorified Hobbit walking party, no more dangerous than when we used to walk from the Tooklands to Buckland to stay a week at Brandy Hall.” He turned away, looked at the clouds being driven across the sky in the distance by a wind that wasn’t bothering them there on the Hill. “He doesn’t want to believe in the Ring or Sauron or goblins, as he insists on calling them. He doesn’t want to hear that I am a knight of Gondor and a Captain of the King’s own Guard. He doesn’t want to hear about the siege of Minas Tirith, or seeing you thinner than you are now in the enclosure in Ithilien.”

Frodo sighed. “I’ll go see if I can talk sense into them, Pippin. They can’t keep on denying the truth forever, you know.

“Well, Da seems intent on doing just that. As for Mum----” Pippin shook his head. He looked pale and distressed, so much so Frodo was alarmed. Pippin never despaired--had always been the one to find the humor needed to bring others out of their moods. Frodo felt frightened to see Pippin in one of depression such as he now displayed.

“I promise, Pippin--I’ll go talk to them and see if I can get them to see sense. I have to go to Michel Delving anyway next week.”

“Are you up to it, Frodo?”

Frodo straightened. He was indeed feeling better than he’d been on the day of Brendi’s visit, and he had no intention of letting down his guard in such a manner again, not this soon. “Yes, I’m up to it. I’ve been paying Sancho and Pando to ride Strider for me and get him back into condition, and I can certainly make it from here to there and then to Tuckborough, you know.”

When it came to carrying out the deed, however, he was concerned he’d spoken perhaps a bit prematurely. He attended the meeting of the family heads alongside Sam, giving the reports on the reparations he’d seen paid and receiving the latest claims and reports from the committee that had investigated them. He nodded, and stated, “My banker of discretion and I will see to it these are paid out in the next two weeks then.”

Sam would be returning to Bag End that night, but was invited to the Mayor’s house for dinner. Frodo had also been invited, but he begged off, indicating he was staying with Paladin and Eglantine and needed to finish the trip to the Great Smial. Sam, reassured by Frodo’s apparent strengthening over the past two weeks, smiled after him, then turned to follow Will across the square while Frodo turned to the stable with Paladin, Bard, Tollie, and Eldred.

At first the ride was full of questions regarding the growth of little Elanor and the gardens at Bag End, and then descriptions of Pippin’s niece and nephews. Frodo nodded and smiled, but as he no longer made comments eventually all went quiet for the last third of the ride.

Paladin watched his Baggins cousin surreptitiously as they rode. Old Bilbo had spared no expense on seeing to it Frodo was trained to ride well, and he continued to ride with the grace that he’d shown for the past thirty years; but there was a level of concentration to him today that indicated that Frodo was finding this ride a bit harder than he usually did. He had always been pale, and paler still since their return from their adventure; today he was appearing almost grey by the time they passed through Tuckborough and the main entrance to the Great Smial came into sight. He dismounted with a care that was beyond his usual ease, and his fingers seemed to fumble at the saddlebags and the tie for the extra waterskin he carried fastened to his pommel. Bard was quick to assist him, and insisted on taking the saddlebags from him; to Paladin’s surprise Frodo didn’t argue but appeared grateful. He walked slowly and a bit stiffly--Frodo, who’d always been the best, most graceful dancer in the Shire, who’d walk from Hobbiton to Buckland and back to the Great Smial in a matter of a week and then dance the night away afterwards. He did carry the two water bottles slung from his shoulders, and Paladin was concerned.

Bard saw him to the room given him in the Great Smial, and there Frodo unpacked what he’d need for the evening, indicated to Smitting, who’d always served as valet to family guests, he could see to releasing the creases in the suit laid out.

“Gladly, Master Frodo,” Smitting replied. “Knowing you ought to be due about now I took the liberty of preparing a bath for you in the bathing room, and poured some oil of mint into it.”

Frodo was again grateful, telling the old servitor so. He took his striped dressing gown and headed for the bathing robe, grateful to find he was alone. He swiftly undressed and slipped into the filled tub, rubbed himself with the cloth, then rose and toweled himself, and was knotting the belt for his dressing gown when Paladin entered with old Ferdinand. Frodo was grateful he was out of the bath already, not wishing his uncle to see him unclothed and thus seeing the scars.

Perhaps it would have been better, Iorhael, if he had seen them, for then he could not so easily deny what you have need to tell him.

It was a thought, he realized. However, now he had the dressing gown on him he had no excuse for removing it again and showing those scars. “Uncle, Ferdinand,” he said in greeting as he carefully tipped the bath into the shallow trough that drew the spilled water into the drains. Once it was empty he took his discarded clothes and went back to his room where his clothing now lay, neat and smoothed looking, across the bed. He took the tumbler that sat by the bed and filled it with some of the tea from one of the two water skins and drank it down, then ate some of the trail mix which Sam and Rosie had fixed for him to eat. He ate it gladly, and then relaxed in the chair by the bed, dozing briefly until there was a knock at the door.

“Yes?” Frodo called.

“It’s Ferdi. May I come in?”

“Do!”

His cousin opened the door and came into the room. “Where are you?” he asked when he found the bed and realized it was empty.

“In the chair over here.”

“Are you dressed yet?”

Frodo shook his head, realized what he was doing and flushed, and answered, “No, not yet.”

“You’ll be eating with Pal and Lanti in their private parlor rather than the dining room. The rest of us have all decided that we will eat in the main dining room tonight, wanting to avoid having to be party to what could well be another scene. None of us have eaten with them recently during Pippin’s visits, either, and we find it makes it easier for both them and for Pippin, not having to have witnesses. At least you aren’t planning to wear a sword--or are you?”

Frodo flushed again, and was glad his cousin didn’t see it. “No, I’ve not worn a sword since our return from Gondor. It’s not my part to strike another blow, and for that I’m supremely grateful. Not that I was any good at using a sword to begin with. Are Uncle Pal and Aunt Lanti upset when Pippin wears Troll’s Bane, though?”

Ferdi gave a sigh as he nodded. “Oh, yes, they are--especially Paladin. Shall I help you dress, then? The meal should be starting in about fifteen minutes, and Paladin is becoming quite the stickler for folk being on time any more.”

As he helped Frodo dress the blind Hobbit felt the raised scars on the back of Frodo’s neck. “Frodo, is something wrong here?” he asked.

He felt the temperature of Frodo’s skin rise as he answered carefully, “Just scars, Ferdi.”

“Scars from what?”

Frodo shrugged, a gesture Ferdi could feel and recognize. “From the quest. From one of the times I was injured.”

Ferdi moved his fingers slightly and found one of the whip weals, realized this scar was ropelike and made a line down Frodo’s shoulder and back. He took a deep breath. “And someone also beat you?” he asked quietly.

Frodo wanted to pull away, but forced himself to stand still. Finally he answered, “Yes, I was beaten. And I was bitten, poisoned, and stabbed as well.”

After a moment Ferdi sighed, “I’m so sorry, Frodo. If I could have spared you any of it....”

“You couldn’t. And they’re only scars now.”

“The ones on the back of your neck feel as if they’ve been more than just scars. Do they drain?”

“Yes,” Frodo answered, surprised his cousin could discern this with touch. “Yes, about every couple months.”

“My old dog when I was young had a similar lump that would periodically drain,” Ferdi commented. “Felt just like that. They finally found a seed was buried down in the skin and were able to pull it out, and after that it stopped.”

“None of those who have examined it are willing to do so with these, considering they’re on the neck and how easily a misplaced probe could leave me paralyzed.”

“Probably just as well, then.” Ferdi helped Frodo with the last of his dressing, then offered to brush his feet for him. “You’ve lost weight again,” he commented as he knelt in front of Frodo.

He could hear again the reluctance of Frodo’s reply. “Yes, I have. Keep doing it, and it drives me about mad.”

“Sam concerned?”

“He and Rosie keep trying to help me regain it, but it seems harder to do each time.” When he took up his hair brush and began to use it on his head Ferdi could tell by the subtle shifts in weight as he drew it down. At last he set the brush down as Ferdi rose from the floor and held out the foot brush. “Well, I think I will pass inspection.”

“Don’t let them drive you into a passion of frustration, Frodo.”

“I’ll try not to do so,” Frodo promised. “Shall I see you to the main dining room, then?”

The door to the Thain’s private parlor was open when Frodo presented himself there. Paladin and Eglantine were already within, looking up at him with posture and expression that were at one and the same time concerned, apologetic, and defiant. Frodo took a deep breath as he entered in. “Uncle Paladin, Aunt Eglantine,” he said quietly. He wore again the outfit he’d worn at the banquet before Yule, and with his quiet dignity he again seemed something like a star, distant and beautiful.

“Frodo,” returned Lanti, her voice rather soft. “We’re glad you agreed to come.”

Have they forgotten that I just told them I’d be coming?

No, Iorhael--they have not forgotten; but they remember with shame how they behaved before and are merely grateful you are willing to give them another try.

But if they do not behave any differently....

They hope to be able to do differently this time. Do not forget, child, that they are yet at heart fairly simple farmers and parents, and were never prepared to deal with that which is beyond their experience.

If they hope to have Pippin return to the Great Smial they’d best open themselves to try to understand. He cannot bear to have the truth of what he went through denied.

Know this, Iorhael--you will not be alone this evening as you face them.


With that reassurance he approached the table and gave a courtly bow.

Lanti was blushing as he straightened. “You don’t have to bow to us, Frodo.”

Frodo shrugged, unconsciously smiling slightly. “I suppose you’ll just have to bear with it, Aunt. I think I was too long in Aragorn’s court, and I find that in formal moments I will slip back into court etiquette. You do look lovely tonight, Aunt Lanti--that shade of lilac so becomes you.”

“I see. Pippin says the same--about the court etiquette, I mean.” He could hear the faint echo of the grief that their son felt impelled to behave in such a formal manner to them.

“He actually had to learn two forms, one for when he was on duty and in full uniform, and a second for those times when he was merely accompanying the rest of us, when he must be seen as one of the King’s Companions.”

Lanti and Pal both looked somewhat confused by this as Frodo took his seat. “And how does one go from being one of the King’s Guard to being one of the King’s Companions and back with any degree of dignity?” Paladin asked.

“Well, Pippin appears to do so fairly well and with a surprising degree of grace, considering he never ceases to be--well, Pippin. He’ll stand before Aragorn’s throne with his sword at the ready, alert and on guard, for hours at a time; or he’ll stand before whatever door Aragorn is behind with perfect stillness and dignity. Once he’s off duty, however, he seems impelled to move for a time, and will usually hurry off to the gardens where he’ll run in circles enough to release much of the stillness he’s been forced to assume until he feels relaxed enough to return to the guest house in the Sixth Circle. Then he’ll be out of his uniform as rapidly as he can manage, see it properly hung; and then, changed into civilian garb, will be into the kitchen to see what tidbits he can consume or get away with or to take his turn preparing a meal.

“When Aragorn visits us in the guest house he’s perfectly at ease as he was when we were traveling together, joking, watching to make certain none is too solemn. But when he must appear in the Hall of Kings when he’s not on duty he’s usually perfectly behaved. Believe it or not, you have managed to prepare him for courtly manners, Aunt. Looks like a young Lord, he does, with his erect posture and his proud manner. And many of the greatest Lords of the Realm will listen with surprised respect when he’s called upon to speak to a matter before them for consideration, for, Uncle, you, too, have managed to teach him much of good sense and thoughtful reflection. And believe me, many in Gondor are in strict need of common Hobbit sense at times.”

The two who brought the meal entered, and Frodo automatically rose courteously as they approached. Once the platters and bowls were upon the table and the servants withdrew, Frodo turned briefly to the West, quietly invoking the aid of the Valar to continue as calmly as they’d begun. Paladin, he noted as he sat down again, appeared uncomfortable at having seen the Standing Silence performed by Frodo.

“So,” Paladin said, “you didn’t stay in the castle or palace or whatever they call it there.”

“The Citadel. No, we didn’t do so, although Aragorn did give orders comfortable rooms be readied for us if we decided to accept his invitation to remain with him. Although we did remain there one night, and on occasion I would rest there during times when I was attending on him after he was crowned King.

“There are a number of guest houses on the next lower level of the city, and a house was given to our use there. The four of us slept on the lower floor, while Gandalf, Legolas, Gimli and either Lasgon or Mistress Loren would sleep in the rooms on the upper floor of the house. Mistress Loren found our insistence we sleep on the lower floor quite upsetting, as in Gondor sleeping rooms are usually on the upper floors of their houses--or at least so it appears in the city of Minas Tirith.”

“Why didn’t you wish to remain in the--the Citadel?” Eglantine asked.

“Aunt Lanti--can you imagine what it would be like? Living there in the midst of hundreds of servants, all of them gossiping and spying? It’s bad enough here or in Brandy Hall--there it would be impossible to find any semblance of privacy.”

“So you didn’t have true servants?”

“Well, Lasgon and Mistress Loren were intended to be servants, of course; but they quickly became like family to us, and didn’t gossip about with the other servants of the Citadel. They were quite nice, you know. Lasgon was as good a lad as I’ve ever met, and Mistress Loren was very considerate. And Aunt Lanti, I’ll have to send for her recipe for griddle cakes filled with fruit and creamed cheeses--they are superb.”

They ate in silence for a few minutes, although both Paladin and Eglantine noticed Frodo ate nowhere near a proper portion. As he pushed his plate away from him they saw his grieved yet determined expression. He looked up in time to catch his aunt’s concern, and his cheeks grew slightly pinker. He decided he’d best be as direct as he could over the matter so as to keep the situation from growing worse.

“I will tell you now that I am not able to eat as much as I was accustomed to do before we left the Shire. I have not been fully able to do so since Sam and I were rescued from the destruction of Mordor, and I’m unlikely to ever fully recover. I know that Isumbard has told you this, and I suspect he’s done so more than once. I know he discussed it with Aunt Esme as well, and although I was embarrassed at the time I no longer try to hide it from family, as it’s too difficult any more trying to pretend it’s different.”

“Then your health----” Elgantine couldn’t seem to finish the question.

“My health is not particularly good, and hasn’t been and isn’t going to be much better.” His voice was almost harsh, and they could see a degree of defiance in his eye. “But I am able to do what I can and must, and I will continue doing so for as long as is given me.”

“Does it have to do with the loss of your finger?” Paladin suddenly demanded.

Frodo gave a great sigh and shook his head. “The loss of my finger? Does it have to do with the loss of my finger? No, not particularly, although all has to do with the situation which led up to that loss. I accepted a particularly grave duty, and I managed to see it through to nearly the very end, at which time it was--was literally taken off my hands. I lost my finger, but that has been the least of my concerns. Better to have lost a finger than what I nearly lost, Uncle Paladin.”

“Your life?”

Frodo gave an ironic snort. “The last thing I was concerned with was staying alive, Uncle. Indeed I expected to die, and thought I’d need to do so. When I realized I’d survived I was shocked.”

“What’s worse than losing your life, Frodo Baggins?” his aunt demanded.

He looked at her, and she could clearly see the haunted look in his eyes. “Worse than losing my life? Losing myself, Aunt. I was terrified I’d lose myself, and I came so very, very close to doing so, and more than once. The last time----” He shuddered and looked away, and he raised his right hand to rub at his left shoulder. Both his aunt and uncle could see the pain in his eyes.

“Is there anything I can do for you, Frodo?” Paladin asked, his voice suddenly full of proper concern.

Frodo’s expression was sad and full of grief. “You can’t truly help me, Uncle Pal. The greatest healers in Middle Earth can only offer me temporary easing. The one thing you can do is to let Pippin tell you what he can, and listen--truly listen as he tells it. He almost died out there----”

“No!” insisted Eglantine. “No, for you said you left him behind that he might remain safe....”

“I wanted to leave him safe from the danger my presence brought him. But my presence wasn’t all that any of us faced, you know. Until Sauron was defeated there was nothing but danger on all sides, facing everyone. It even came here!”

“The only danger that came here,” insisted the Thain, “were those awful Big Men of Lotho’s.”

Frodo felt the frustration begin to grow in spite of his intent to remain calm and reasonable. “Those weren’t just ruffians, Uncle,” he said stiffly. “If you’ll listen to Pippin and what he can tell you of what he saw in Isengard he’ll tell you what many of them truly were. Yes, some were plain Men, but a goodly number----”

“You think you know more than I do of Men, Frodo Baggins?” insisted Paladin Took. “I’ve been to Bree more than once, I’ll have you know!”

“Uncle Paladin, you certainly can’t, from a few visits to Bree and back, consider yourself an expert on what all Men are like, can you? I’ll remind you that we spent almost a year in the company of such creatures, and I’m here to tell you they are many and varied. Even Sam was surprised to find out they are far more complicated than he’d supposed at first, and that they are indeed even far more varied than are Hobbits. Strider is complicated enough in and of himself to serve for a roomful of Hobbits, one moment calm and the next intense, teasing and terrifying by turns.”

He turned slightly away from his two older cousins, sighing. “I’ve seen them from all over--those who are as accustomed to worrying simply over the next meal or harvest as much as Hobbits, those who are merely bullies, those of the high Dúnedain blood, those who have been sworn to Sauron’s service for generations beyond count, the wise, the foolish, the selfish, the selfless....”

He turned back to his uncle with his chin raised. “I’ve been threatened by Men and saved by them, sometimes both by the same Men. I’ve seen those as fair and unearthly as any Elf and those who are worse than the worst beasts. I’ve seen those like Aragorn and Faramir who are highly educated and wise, and those like Butterbur who can barely read yet can, as Gandalf assures me, see through walls in time, as well as the ones like Bill Ferny who are merely creatures of appetite intent on taking what they can without having to labor for themselves.”

“There was that Sharkey----”

Frodo didn’t allow Paladin to finish. “Saruman was no Man, Uncle. He was no more a Man than is Gandalf--or Sauron.” His expression was full of grief. “His body is dead, and he was not accepted back among his brethren, but I must assume his spirit either floats on the wind or has been thrust outside the Gates of Night alongside that of Morgoth.”

“You don’t believe the stories of the Valar, do you, Frodo?”

Frodo examined Paladin’s face carefully. “Why should I not, Uncle? I’ve spent time with Lord Glorfindel, after all, and he has seen the Valar face to face.”

It was a sobering thought, and for a time all sat merely looking at one another. Finally Eglantine asked, “Why did you take Merry and Pippin with you?”

Frodo looked down on where his hands now lay in his lap. “They didn’t give me any chance to leave them behind.”

“Why did you tell them you were leaving?”

He was stung. “I didn’t tell them! They’d figured it all out on their own, including Sam. They’ve known me for years, and could see how restless I was becoming, how I wanted to leave the Shire and find Bilbo again.”

“Then how did they find out you were leaving?”

“I told you--they figured it out between them, and decided to keep a strict watch on me to keep me from trying to leave alone. I would never have dreamed of taking them with me once I realized what was at stake, and particularly not Pippin. I tried so hard to slip away, but they’d not allow it. They’d all but put a bell about my neck, and were giving me no privacy at all. Merry was, as he assured me, even listening at the windows as shamelessly as ever Sam did....”

“Sam listens at windows?”

“Well, of course he’s done so, not that anyone’s ever minded before. We’ve always known if we were speaking in a room with an open window there was a good chance Sam would be working in the bed outside it, listening. How could he keep from hearing us? But he was always discrete and never spoke of what he heard, you know.”

Paladin and Eglantine looked at one another, each trying to understand.

“Well,” Paladin finally said, returning to the same subject, “why didn’t you forbid them to go with you?”

“How, Uncle?” Frodo demanded. “How am I supposed to tell them no, once they’d figured it out? Believe me, I tried. Lord Elrond tried, too. Pippin threatened him about it, even. Told him he’d have to send him home tied up in a sack to keep him from following after me.” He shook his head again. “The year he was eleven and he kept running away from the farm and the Great Smial to Bag End or Brandy Hall--didn’t you try to stop him?”

“I did everything I could think of to keep him home--had his door locked and his window sealed....”

“Well, you know how it is, then.”

For a moment the Took and the Baggins shared the knowledge that a determined Peregrin Took was not to be stopped by normal means. At last Frodo looked up and to the right, remembering. “They had it all planned, had their packs ready, had ponies ready, had even money ready we could spend in Bree and perhaps at any other inn we might find. They had planned for every contingency, every argument I could use against them. Merry had checked the maps between the Shire and Bree and had even gone through the ones in Bag End as well. He’d even had Pippin bring him a couple from the Great Smial, or so they let me know while we waited in Rivendell. There was no more chance of me dissuading them than there was of me dissuading Sam.”

He sighed, thinking about Sam. “As for Sam--I’ll let you in on a secret--he’s even harder to convince than Pippin. Be glad both weren’t your sons.”

“At least Sam was of age, Frodo.”

“Yes, Sam and Merry were both of age, and Pippin as determined as only a Took can be.”

“A Took or a Baggins.”

After a moment Frodo returned, “Yes, there’s that.”

“And you couldn’t keep them safe?”

“No one in all of Middle Earth was safe during that last year, Uncle. And Merry and Pippin were insistent it was the two of them who were seeking to keep me safe. All of them were trying to keep me safe, you know.”

“And why were two such young Hobbits trying to keep you safe?”

“Because I was carrying It, trying to keep all safe from It and Its power and influence. It was all I could do to deal with that much of the time; and as the journey went forward I had less and less time or endurance left for anything else.”

It?”

Frodo looked deliberately into Paladin’s eyes. “Sauron’s Ring. The Enemy’s Ring of Power.”

Very slowly Paladin responded, “I don’t believe in this Ring of Power, and you know it, Frodo Baggins.”

“Just because you refuse to believe in It doesn’t mean It wasn’t real, Uncle.” Paladin could see the pulse beating in Frodo’s temple and at his throat. “Ferdi can’t see the Sun rise or the glow of the stars any more. Does that mean that since his vision failed they have ceased to exist?” He straightened. “For something you refuse to believe in, It had plenty of belief from about everyone else. Aragorn wouldn’t accept It from me, or the Lady Galadriel or Gandalf; while Sauron and Saruman were both searching desperately for the blasted thing! Why do you think Saruman sent the Big Men to Lotho? They were looking for It! And that’s why the Black Riders were sent here, too, to find me and the Ring. If I’d stayed, far worse would have happened than the loss of a single Bounder and the door to the Crickhollow house having been blown open.”

After a time Paladin said softly, reasonably, “I only want to know what really happened.”

Frodo looked at the older Hobbit with disbelief. He rose and started away, then turned and clung to the back of his chair. “We keep telling you what happened, and you won’t believe it! What are we supposed to do? Just tell you a nice sweet story in which the Black Riders are only talking bunny rabbits trying to figure out how to sneak a few extra carrots out of the vegetable plots of the Tooklands, or in which the Ring only served to make me invisible? Oh, how I wish that had been the limits of Its influence.”

“If It was so bad, why weren’t Pippin and Merry affected by It?”

“Gandalf tells me I’d worked hard to make It ignore other Hobbits but me almost the whole time I had it, somehow deep in the part of me that just knows which way is up and can remember where things are supposed to be when it’s too dark to see. But It certainly worked at Boromir--Gandalf, Sam, Aragorn, and I could all see It at work; and both Legolas and Aragorn have told me how It worked at them as well. And during the time Sam carried It----”

For just a moment Paladin Took forgot he wasn’t supposed to believe in the Ring and Its power. “You let Sam carry that thing?”

“He thought I’d just died, so he took It to finish the quest. I was paralyzed and deeply under the influence of a poison you can’t begin to understand, Uncle. Even if I’d been aware of him taking It from me, I could not have stopped him from doing so. Yes, Sam carried It, for about a day and a half, I think--until he learned I was only under the influence of the spider’s poison and would recover in time--then he did his best to rescue me. And while he carried It the thing tried Its best to corrupt him, too. You are fortunate that Samwise Gamgee was too wise to allow It purchase on his soul before he could get It back to me. And----” Again he shuddered.

Both Paladin and Eglantine looked at Frodo with deep concern, for he was shivering as he clung to the chair. His color was greyish once again; his brow furrowed in pain. He let go of the back of the chair with one hand to again rub at his shoulder, breathing deeply. He focused on Paladin. “If I don’t leave the room, I will collapse with pain, I fear. Listen to Pippin--before it’s--it’s too late.” He turned and stiffly left the room.

He started first for the hallway to his own room, then stopped, doubled over as he clutched at a table along the wall. Finally he was able to straighten again, and now turned instead toward the wing which held the infirmary.

*******


Willigrim Took was leaving the infirmary once one of the younger healers had taken over for the night. Two children had managed to open the locked door to a cleaning cupboard and had sampled an aromatic furniture wax they’d found there, and were now recovering after taking an emetic, while three older family members were resting their weary old bones and their laboring hearts after long and fulfilling lives. Old Pelindin had regaled him with a tale of when he was young and that dashing Bilbo Baggins would come to visit....

Willigrim was himself in his late eighties and certainly didn’t consider himself young. But it was hard even for him to consider old Bilbo as ever having been dashing. He smiled as he closed the door to the hall behind him--and then he heard the sobs of pain.

A figure was huddled against the curved wall of the passage, head between knees, hands clasped desperately about his legs, shoulders shuddering. It took moments to register this was the nephew to that very Bilbo Baggins he’d just been hearing tales of, and that Frodo was in desperate pain.

Willigrim knelt by Frodo and put his arm about him, realizing he was barely more than skin and bones. “Frodo? Frodo Baggins? What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Was at dinner with--with Pal and Lanti. Were insisting--insisting I tell them what they--what they wanted to hear. The pain--my shoulder, my head, stomach--it hurts so badly. I get stressed--they’ll hurt so badly.... Oh, Aragorn!”

“What?”

Frodo was almost panting with pain. “Oh, Aragorn--Aragorn--I need you!”

Willigrim didn’t have the slightest idea who or what Aragorn was, but recognized distress when he saw it. He considered taking Frodo back into the infirmary wing, but decided against it. No, that would only start more gossip, and probably not particularly flattering gossip about the Thain and his Lady if what Frodo was saying was true, which Willigrim thought quite likely. He loved and honored Paladin and Eglantine, and certainly thought they made a remarkably fine pair to lead the Tooks and the Great Smial; but how they’d treated Pippin was, he felt, plain awful. He’d spent an evening with Isumbard and Ferdi after the wedding of Sam Gamgee and Rosie Cotton, and the two of them had both lamented how their aunt and uncle had treated Pippin and Frodo.

“All four of them did remarkable things,” Bard had commented. “Did you know that Pippin killed a troll? Or that Merry was made personal esquire to the King of Rohan? As for Frodo and Sam--both are now Lords of all of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth for what they did to aid in bringing down Sauron.”

“And well they ought to be,” Ferdi responded. “Frodo didn’t expect to survive the destruction of the Ring, after all, and I doubt Sam did, either. The Creator Himself brought the two of them through it all, I suspect. Sauron’s goblins would be pouring in over our borders now if the two of them hadn’t made it through Mordor.” He’d sipped at his ale, then added, “If only Aunt Lanti and Uncle Pal would stop trying to convince themselves Pippin just conveniently stayed out of the way the whole time. Of course, they’d like to pretend that none of them was in any danger.”

Bard had shaken his head. “It’s as though they hope that by having been outside the Shire when the Big Men came somehow Pippin was supposed to have been sheltered from all of it. But where do they think Merry and Pippin learned strategy or to use those swords of theirs? And all four of them came back wearing fine mail and swords, after all.”

Ferdi sighed, took another drink, then set his mug back down on the table top. “Even Pearl doesn’t want to believe what Pippin and Frodo have tried to tell us,” he said.

“Well, I didn’t want to believe, either, not at first,” Bard responded. “However, you can’t continue denying things forever, you know.”

“Unless you’re Paladin or Eglantine,” Ferdi said dryly. “Has Frodo talked much of it to you?”

“Not a great deal, of course. But, when you work by him constantly in the Mayor’s office for as long as we did, it becomes impossible not to have finally picked up on most of it, particularly after having been at the table here the first few times Pippin was here or Frodo’s other visit. And when I’ve been able to eat with Pippin and Merry they have spoken more freely of what they did. Frodo’s terribly proud of both of them, you know, and highly distressed with how Aunt and Uncle have been treating Pippin. It’s a good part of why he gave the two of them permission to stay in the Crickhollow house. Commented they were all walking wounded.”

“Walking wounded?” Ferdi’s tone was considering. “Good enough description of Frodo himself, I think. Are Esme and Sara as hard on Merry? Are they refusing to believe their dear lad was in danger also?”

“No, they appear to believe as much as they’ve been able to pry out of him, but have gone overprotective of him, particularly in light of the nightmares.”

“Wonder if theirs are as bad as Frodo’s?”

Bard had straightened in interest. “What do you know about Frodo’s nightmares?”

“I heard one side of one of his last time he came. Went in to ask him something--I can’t remember what--and realized he was sound asleep and was whispering half of a conversation.”

“A conversation with whom?”

“With the Ring.”

After a moment Bard said, “Oh.” Then after another moment he’d shivered. “I’m so glad I never saw the horrid thing, much less had the chance to be touched by its influence.”

Ferdi nodded--surprising how natural it still was for him to nod, blind as he now was. “Now, if Pal and Lanti will only give over being terminally skeptical....”

Then Willigrim had been out front when Peregrin had arrived for dinner nine days ago, and had been saying goodbye to a former apprentice who’d come to share dinner with him when Pippin had left three hours later, his face white, barely holding in his fury and tears. The grooms had his pony already saddled and bridled, and one had commented, “He lasted a good quarter hour longer than I’d wagered. Maybe this time they actually gave him the chance to speak a bit.”

And now here was young Frodo, in such pain. “You say, your head?”

“And my shoulder.” Indeed he was beginning to rub at it. “I was stabbed there....”

“Stabbed?”

“Yes, with a Morgul knife....”

He straightened. “I’ll go get something for the pain. Can you hold on a moment?”

After a bit of a delay Frodo nodded. Willi straightened and turned back to reenter the infirmary, going directly to the medication cupboard. His fellow healer looked up from where she had been leaning over one of the two children, feeling his pulse. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Found young Frodo out there in the hallway. Appears to be in a quite a bit of pain.”

“His shoulder?”

Willi paused and turned to look at her just as he snicked the lock open. “Yes, his shoulder. What do you know of it?”

She took a deep breath. “Isumbard was asking me what might be helpful dealing with the pain there, back when Mr. Frodo was deputy Mayor, about a year and a half ago. Said Frodo had apparently been stabbed there or something like, and had been advised it wouldn’t properly heal, and caused him a good deal of pain, especially when he was tired or under a good deal of stress.”

“Well, he’s just told me the same.” That decided him on the particular herb he’d use then. He reached in and took out a small vial sealed with a blob of glass melted over its top.

She recognized what he held in his hand as he was locking the cupboard again. “Poppy juice?”

He nodded. “If the pain is this intense.”

She nodded. “It would certainly help him sleep.”

He was out through the doors again. Frodo was now lying on his side curled up in a ball, rocking his head from side to side. He knelt by Frodo and felt the pulse at Frodo’s neck. Heart was laboring--far too young to have a pulse like that. “Frodo, it’s Willigrim. I have something to help the pain. Shall I take you back to your room? Do you think you could walk?”

After a brief interval Frodo nodded, and with Willi’s help he sat up, then got slowly to his feet. Willi draped Frodo’s arm over his shoulder, realizing how thin he was now with concern, and he slowly helped his distant cousin back to his room. Somehow he managed to come across no one until he got to the wing that held Frodo’s room, where he found Smitting sitting in his small waiting room reading a book, his cat on his lap.

Smitting straightened with alarm. “What’s wrong with Master Frodo?” he asked.

“Came down to the infirmary wing to seek me out,” Willi explained. “Says his shoulder is aching him. Can you go get me a goblet of wine and a fine stirring rod?”

“Gladly.”

“And if you see Isumbard about, send him here. He can perhaps tell me more.”

In a few minutes Smitting was back with Isumbard, whom he’d met coming to see Frodo, carrying with him a bottle of wine along with a couple glasses. Bard looked in the door to Frodo’s room to see Willi holding the chamber pot before Frodo’s face while Frodo was seated on the floor, retching up all he’d eaten. Bard thrust his bottle and glasses at Smitting and hurried to kneel on Frodo’s other side, supporting him as he could. Both looked at the pale, sweating face with concern, then looked at one another. Smitting was looking in from the door, shocked at Master Frodo’s condition. Frodo hadn’t had a great deal in his stomach, some nuts and sultanas, some poultry and potatoes boiled with herbs, a light gravy, some peas and carrots, a bit of bread. Nowhere near what a Hobbit his age and height ought to have eaten for a meal.

Bard straightened and looked about, saw the water bottles, and nodded as if this was what he expected. “Sam sent his tea. Good enough.”

“Tea?”

“Yes, a medicinal tea Sam was apparently taught to make for him when they were in Gondor. The King taught him, it seems. Our new King, you see, is a trained healer.”

Willi looked at Frodo with interest. “The King is a healer and felt Frodo should have a draught at hand?”

Bard had risen to uncap one of the bottles and fill the bedside tumbler from it. “He’s drunk some--the skin is partially empty.” He knelt with the tumbler and held it out to his cousin. “Here, Frodo--rinse your mouth with a mouthful of this and then drink the rest down if you can.”

Frodo gave a weak nod and did as he was instructed, sipping slowly at first, and then carefully draining the cup. “Thanks. It ought to help--help settle my stomach, although it feels as if I might have been through another--another of the inflammations of the stomach I suffered while in Gondor. I think I might have had such an inflammation a few weeks ago, but I’m not certain. It appeared to get better when Sam gave me the draught for the infection on my neck.”

“What draught?” Willi asked.

“From Menegilda’s herbal. When I was young I copied out an Elven herbal for Aunt Menegilda--Bilbo had translated it already. I illustrated both--both the translation and the--the copy I made before Bilbo sent it back off to Rivendell to Lord Elrond. It had a few recipes in it as well as the descriptions and--and pictures of the herbs.”

“If your stomach was better after a draught intended to help fight infections then it is possible it was indeed inflamed. So, Elves also keep herbals, do they?”

“Lord Elrond definitely would--he’s--he’s a healer himself.”

Bard had taken the tumbler and was refilling it. Willi took it when he was finished and sniffed it carefully. “Smells like chamomile and willowbark and honey in it, and some ginger?”

Frodo nodded. “He sometimes puts ginger in it, for my stomach.”

“Can’t tell what the main herb is, though. Don’t quite recognize it, somehow.”

“It’s an herb the King showed Sam from what Sam will say,” Frodo said.

“Does it help?”

“Yes.”

“How much does he have you drink?”

“Usually about three quarters of a mug twice a day; more if I’m having a bad day, but usually no more than four mugs.”

“But most days not quite two full mugs a day?” At Frodo’s nod Willi gave one of his own. “We’re going to get you undressed and into bed, and give you something for the pain specifically. Is it still pretty intense?”

“Yes. Very.” Frodo’s answer was emphatic for all the softness with which it was delivered.

“Good enough then,” Willi said. “Still feel nauseous?”

“No, not now.”

Willi put the lid on the chamber pot and handed it to Smitting. “Will you go and clean this thoroughly, please? Bard can help me with Frodo.” As the valet disappeared back down the tunnels toward the privies Willi turned back to Frodo. After Frodo had drunk half the second tumbler of tea Bard set it on the bedside table and together they raised him to his feet and began undressing him.

“I can do that,” Frodo protested.

“Right now let us do it, Frodo,” Willi directed. “You’re still pretty shaky.” Indeed, Frodo was extremely pale and grey, the sweat still bedewing his forehead and upper lip. They soon had jacket and vest off him, then his braces released--beautiful workmanship on all, and the braces with their band of stars were of a fabric Willi didn’t recognize. It was as the trousers were removed he and Bard could see clearly how very thin Frodo actually was. The legs of these had been made longer than normal to partially hide the fact Frodo had little in the way of weight to him and absolutely no proper cushion of fat. They removed the shirt to find he had a quilted shirt of silk under it, close fitted to his body, with sleeves which came halfway down his upper arms. “What’s this?” Willi asked.

“It was made--made to fit under my mail. It’s light and keeps me warmer, so I wear it often--often, to keep me from--from feeling chilled.”

It had been anything but a cool day, and that Frodo had yet felt chilled made Willi concerned. Bard was unfastening the second saddlebag and found a nightshirt, a particularly fine one again of silk, and brought it to lay on the bed. Frodo sat heavily beside it, rubbing at his shoulder. Willi watched with concern. “I’ll need to look at that,” he said, and with a look at Bard the two of them prepared to relieve Frodo of the silken undershirt.

Frodo’s cheeks became slightly flushed. “No, please....” But Willi ignored him and they soon had the shirt off.

The scar was reddened. The skin was plainly long healed, but the bloodflow under the skin indicated it was still somehow irritated. Willi held his hand to it, feeling it carefully, noting the slightly feverish feel to it. Yet he didn’t sense an abscess of any kind. He could see the line of the original wound, rather jagged looking, he thought, and what appeared to be two incisions over it. “It was badly infected?” he asked.

Frodo shook his head. “No.” His voice was rather flat, Willi thought. “A--a shard of the blade broke off inside the wound. The knife was--was made specially to do that, to leave a piece inside it. Lord Elrond had to probe twice to get it out.”

Willi shuddered with disgust. “Made by Men, I must suppose. A nasty race.”

Frodo stiffened. “No, Men didn’t make that--wraiths did. Wraiths did, or Sauron himself or those of his closest servants. It was a Morgul blade.”

Willi looked into Frodo’s face with surprise and noted the stern expression. “Sauron?” Frodo didn’t answer, reached down for the nightshirt, and Willi saw the whip weals on his back. “Springs of water!” The healer’s voice was shocked.

Frodo looked over his shoulder somewhat defiantly, then turned back to pull the nightshirt over himself. He was shaking again. He said quietly, “And, yes, I was whipped as well. You are not to tell anyone--not even Uncle Paladin or Aunt Eglantine.”

“Does Pippin know?”

Frodo shook his head slightly. “Does Pippin know? How could he help but know, do you think? Of course he knows! We’ve all seen one another’s scars.”

Then the strength seemed to leak out of him somehow, and Willi was catching him to keep him from slipping off the bed to the floor again. With Bard’s aid they got him under the covers. Smitting returned then and knocked on the door to return the chamber pot; and he’d also remembered to bring the stirrer requested earlier by Willigrim. The healer thanked him and soon had his own draught mixed. At last he held it to Frodo’s lips. “Drink this now. It’s poppy juice in wine, and shortly you should feel very sleepy and the pain ought to ease. You will feel much better in the morning, of that I’m certain.”

Once Frodo had the wine all drunk, Willi left Bard by Frodo to feed him more of Sam’s tea as he would take it. “Stay by him until he’s deeply asleep. After that he ought to be well enough till morning.” And with that the healer headed for the Thain’s private parlor.

“Enter!” called Paladin at Willigrim’s knock. He and Eglantine were seated on one of the narrower sofas, their arms about one another. The Thain’s face was pale and drawn, while Lanti had plainly been weeping. They looked at Willi rather guiltily, he thought.

He stood with his hands on his hips, looking from one to the other and back, wondering how he ought to begin. He’d wanted to show them the rough side of his tongue, but now thought they realized just how badly they’d behaved. Without waiting to be invited to sit down he took one of the lighter side chairs and set it down in front of them and sat himself on it where he could look into their faces.

“I’ve just come from Frodo’s room,” he said finally. “I can’t begin to tell you what condition he was in when he came to me.”

“He said,” Paladin said with a sad sigh, “that he was afraid to remain or he’d possibly collapse.”

“Well, he did. I found him on the floor outside the doors to the infirmary, in intense pain. I’ve just seen him to bed, and he’s in quite a state, weak and shaking. Now, I don’t begin to understand what he went through while he was gone from the Shire, but it strongly appears he was hurt extraordinarily badly. Our new King sent him home apparently with a draught he takes every day, at least twice a day.” Both Thain and Lady looked up at him with surprise. “He’s barely more than skin and bones, and whoever made that suit he was wearing cleverly made it to hide that fact. He suffered a nasty stab wound to his shoulder which obviously had to be opened and probed at least twice, both according to what he’s said and as shown by the scars from incisions. Even though the scar is at least a couple years old, it is still inflamed. His head and gut are both aching as well as his shoulder.”

“He rubs at the shoulder frequently,” the Thain admitted. “Bard and Pippin both say it pains him frequently, especially when he’s tired, ill, or upset.”

“Well, he was upset enough tonight, I’ll have you know. His heart was laboring when I found him.” The two opposite him exchanged worried looks. “I don’t know what was said at dinner, but you can’t let it go on. He cannot be allowed to get into such a state again--his health I would say is delicate right now, and it could lead to a seizure of the heart or apoplexy or worse. Do you wish him to suffer a brain storm, or die on the carpet of this room?”

“It’s just that--just that----” Eglantine couldn’t seem to finish the thought.

“From all I’ve heard, every time he or Pippin tries to tell you what happened to them out there you keep wanting them to make it have happened differently. Well, I’ll admit I’ve not known Frodo well, but I’ve never known him to lie--not since he was a teen, at least. He’s not going to lie now just to convince you that he and Pippin and the other two were in no great danger. From the condition he’s in, he was near death at least once, and probably more than that. Stop pressuring him, treat him with the love he deserves. You want him to live to visit the Great Smial again, you treat him with courtesy and gentleness and respect. He loves you, and it’s tearing him apart you won’t listen.

“And, I’ll now add, you’d best start listening, really listening, to your son as well. Frodo’s not the only one who needs to be listened to, you know.”

Paladin spluttered, “But that tale is so unbelievable!”

“The fact he grew over five inches at his age is unbelievable, Paladin Took--but it happened anyway--him and that Brandybuck both. I know you’ve accepted the fact he’s taller at least, for you’d not have had that new bed that’s the scandal of the place made if you hadn’t. Well, something made the two of them grow like that, and just maybe what he’s telling you as caused it is the plain truth. And he’s been hurt, too--I saw him leaving last week, limping as he was. Suspect his hip was hurt, if you’ll only ask him; probably other places as well. And when I’ve seen that Merry, he’s been rubbing at his right forearm the exact same way Frodo rubs at his shoulder. Then there’s that scar on Merry’s forehead he tries to hide with his hair, not to mention the fact their friend Sam has one near his temple as well as on his forehead. All four of them have recovered from serious injuries from what I can tell.

“You want your son never to return and take his place as Thain when the time comes, you just keep on as you’re going--you’ll manage it well enough. But if you want him to ever come home again, I suggest you start by listening, really listening to him.” With that Willigrim rose. “I’ll suggest you each have a single glass of wine and take a warm bath and go to bed. And when you see Frodo in the morning, if he doesn’t decide to just disappear the way he seems to like to do, I suggest you be right gentle with him. Understand? And now, Thain, Mistress, I wish you good night.” So saying he left, closing the door quietly but decidedly behind him as he exited the room.

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