Caution--suicidal thoughts contained herein.
There was a weight on the bed by him when his eyes opened. “Well, at last the hero awakes,” Ferdi said quietly. “Apparently you gave Bard and old Willi a scare last night, and Paladin and Eglantine as well. Aunt Lanti asked me to see to you when you awoke.”
“How did you know I was waking up?” Frodo asked.
Ferdi was smiling from what Frodo could tell through the grey haze that again threatened to obscure his vision. “I told you before--when folk wake up their breathing changes, and then their muscles tense. You’d be surprised what I’ve learned to tell by listening to how people breathe or feeling how they move. Piper’s thrilled, for he can’t hide from me when we play I’ll-hide-and-you-seek-me unless he leaves the room.”
Frodo gave a weak laugh. Ferdi carefully lifted the clean tumbler that had sat on the bedside table. “Now, I’ve been told to have you drink this.” He carefully brought it over the bed, keeping one hand on it to steady it as Frodo took it. It was Sam’s tea, and once he had it in him he felt much better. “I’m told you’ll most likely feel thirsty and should get to the privy and then have a fair amount to drink before you go to breakfast. I think you’ll find Pal and Lanti quite subdued--apparently Willigrim read them quite the lecture.” He put the empty tumbler back on the table and stood up to help Frodo rise. “So, now Bard knows you’ve been beaten.”
“He told you?”
“No, I told him and about the wound on your neck, and he admitted he’d seen the whip marks. Said you’d insisted they not tell anyone.”
Giving his cousin a sidelong glance he realized was wasted even as he gave it, Frodo commented, “For all the good it did.”
“Oh, he won’t tell anyone else, not even Pearl--or not for some time, or until you give him permission, you know.” Ferdi stretched. “Smitting did his best to clean the suit you wore last night, although I suspect you’ll want it properly laundered soon. He laid out the outfit you rode here in.”
“Sounds as if there was a good deal of activity in here before I woke,” Frodo said with a sniff, shaking his head to clear his vision some. It appeared to help at least a bit.
“They gave me poppy juice twice after I was returned home, and I’d have slept through a herd of oliphaunts had they been turned loose in my room. Did you and Sam manage to see any, also? Pippin said they had a number at the battle before the city--Piper finds the whole idea intriguing, you see, and begs him to describe them when he comes.”
“Yes, Sam and I saw one in Ithilien. The Southrons were marching to the Black Gate to join Sauron’s army and had one with them with a war tower on its back. I’ve never imagined a living thing that immense. It was at least four times Aragorn’s height, and he’s no small Man. Pippin and others we met in Minas Tirith told us about the ones at the battle, and how they all had to be killed. Sam was heartbroken. He’d love to have an oliphaunt, I suspect. And you can believe your room wouldn’t have held a single oliphaunt, unless the newborns are considerably smaller than their parents.”
“You sound better at least,” Ferdi said. “Well you’d best get to the privy and back and get dressed, then go be gracious at second breakfast.”
Frodo still felt fragile when he went to the Thain’s private dining room for the morning meal carrying his saddlebags and cloak with him. This time the daughters and their husbands were present as well as Ferdinand, Reginard, Everard, and even Folco Boffin, and all were polite, thoughtful, and markedly solicitous toward him. Conversation this morning was on Took business, as was quite normal for such breakfasts here, while their ladies explained how they intended to spend the rest of the day. Frodo found himself listening to the jibes and exclamations with marked relief from how he’d felt last night. Somehow the discussion got onto shoes, and as one who’d spent a good deal of time among Men and Dwarves Frodo found himself appealed to as one who had personal knowledge on the subject. The discussion on different types of footwear and stockings and how each was designed to be used became quite humorous after a time as they considered why women among Men might wish to wear shoes that raised them taller than they really were.
“Where are the children today?” he asked.
“Piper is at Budge Hall visiting Estella, for whom he’s developed a surprising fascination; while Pansy and Isumbrand are remaining in the nursery for second breakfast--they spilled far more than their fair share of juice and buttermilk at first breakfast,” Pearl explained. “If I have to wipe up another puddle this morning I’ll scream.”
“Did you sleep well, dearling?” his nominal aunt asked him.
“Yes, quite well, once I finally dropped off,” Frodo said. “And you? I didn’t leave you--too upset, did I?”
“We were the ones who got you upset, Frodo,” Paladin said quietly and with a good deal more dignity than he’d shown the previous evening. “I hope you can bring yourself to forgive us.”
“It wasn’t quite an easy subject to approach. But then--then it wasn’t exactly--an easy time for any of us. It’s hard for us to talk about it, you know. We saw some wonderful things out there, and met wonderful people like Aragorn and Lord Faramir and Captain Beregond and even Barliman Butterbur; but we also saw hard times. Any time you are caught in a time of war, it can be quite ugly.” Frodo looked back at his plate. He’d eaten a decent enough amount for his first breakfast, and he didn’t think he’d lose it. Eglantine looked at what he’d eaten and was grief-stricken at how little he’d managed to get down him. “We here in the Shire are actually recovering quite quickly, you must realize. It will take some years yet before they have the new gates for Minas Tirith finished, you know, and so much of the First Circle for the place needs to be rebuilt. Sauron’s troops sent missiles and balls of fire over the walls, and so many buildings were destroyed.”
“And you really like our King?” asked Eglantine.
Frodo smiled a true smile that lifted the hearts of all others at table with him. “Like him? I love the Man past bearing. He calls me ‘small brother’ a good part of the time.”
Reginard looked at his cousin with interest. “Small brother? You’re not exactly small by any standard.”
“Well, I am compared to Men. And, then there’s the fact that even for Men Aragorn is quite tall--well over six feet.”
Reginard straightened and gave a shrill whistle. “Over six feet? Most Men aren’t much over five and a half, not, I’ll admit, that I’ve seen that many, of course.”
“Those of Dúnedain blood are tall anyway for Men, usually right around six feet. But Aragorn is a good deal taller even than his cousins.”
Ferdinand sipped thoughtfully at his tea. “I’ve seen a few in Bree who were extremely tall, the ones they call----”
Frodo laughed. “The ones they call Rangers? Well, those are Aragorn’s kinsmen. They are the Northern Dúnedain. And if you saw the one they called Strider then you saw Aragorn himself. Narcissa’s dad met him, you know.”
Folco was surprised. “Uncle Fortumbald met the King?”
“Well, long before he became King, of course. He used to guard the borders of the Shire, and would accompany Fortumbald when he drove out to Bree. Narcissa told me about it.”
Ferdinand looked at his cousin. “Remember that time when you were taking a load of lettuce and cabbage to the Pony, and I was with you, and the tall Men rode a good three wagon-lengths behind us all the way there and back, Pal?”
Paladin nodded reluctantly. “Grey and green cloaks, silver stars?”
Frodo smiled. “Yes, that’s the Dúnedain for you.”
“And one of those might have been the King?”
“It’s possible, if he wasn’t doing rounds about the other guard posts or off seeking Gollum.”
The Thain straightened. “Why would he be looking for that creature? And I thought that Gollum was just a----”
Frodo’s face lost its smile. “You thought it was just a character in a story Bilbo made up? If only.”
“But why would your Aragorn be looking for this Gollum?” Folco asked.
Frodo shrugged. “Gandalf asked him to do so--he needed to question him.”
Pal looked at Frodo, almost afraid to set him off as he had the preceding night. “Question him about what?”
“About where he’d found the Ring.”
“Did they find out?”
Frodo finally gave a small nod. “Yes. Yes, he did. In the river where It had slipped from Isildur’s finger.”
Paladin took a tentative breath, then gave a small nod of his own. “Oh. I see.”
Frodo suddenly added, “By the way--Gollum started as--as one of our distant relatives--a Stoor, apparently.” He watched his uncle’s reaction carefully.
Again the Thain answered, “I see. Er, thank you for telling me that, Frodo.”
After another awkward silence Frodo asked, “The ones who followed you when you went to Bree that time--how many were there?”
“Did either of them sing?”
“No. One was wearing a black glove, and the other had the shiniest sword imaginable.”
“Then the one wearing the glove might well have been Lord Gilfileg. He wears such a thing, or so both Aragorn and Lord Halladan have told me.” After another moment he asked, “How do you know about how shiny the sword the other one carried?”
“He didn’t wear it in a sheath like the first one did--just pushed through his belt.”
“I have no idea who that might have been,” Frodo said. “No one’s mentioned such a one to me. Lord Gilfileg is called Black Glove in Bree, and Lord Hardorn, I’m told, was called Bowman. They called Aragorn Strider.”
Pervinca asked, “And you truly care deeply for the King?”
Again Frodo smiled. “Yes, I do.”
Ferdi laughed. “So, he calls you Small Brother sometimes. Did you ever call him Big Brother?”
Frodo laughed. “No, not Big Brother--Tall Brother.”
Pimpernel commented, “He certainly seems a nice sort, this King Aragorn Elessar.”
“Oh, he can be pretty overwhelming, too, you know. He certainly had Sam flustered when we met him. Tall Man, all dressed in stained green cloak and green leathers over worn dark boots, long sheath hanging from his belt, eyes that could see through marble--or so you’d think.”
“But now they get along all right?” Paladin asked.
Frodo laughed again. “Get along all right, Uncle? Oh, indeed. And you should see Aragorn listening when Sam starts handing out his advice, listening as solemn as solemn--‘Yes, Lord Samwise; oh, no, I’d not do that, Lord Samwise.’ It could be quite funny.”
“Lord Samwise?” asked Eglantine.
Frodo just smiled and refused to answer. He managed to eat just a bit more and indicated he needed to leave.
His aunt and uncle accompanied him to the door, and waited till one of the grooms brought Strider around. Lanti examined the pony. “He’s quite lovely. It’s too bad he was gelded.”
Frodo had gone a bit solemn again. Finally he said, “He can’t help it.”
It was such an odd thing to say Eglantine looked at him, but he wasn’t looking back. He moved forward, tied on the saddlebags, fastened both of his water bottles over the pommel, and then turned to his aunt and uncle to embrace them.
“Ride safely, Frodo,” Paladin cautioned him. Lanti said much the same, and he smiled somewhat wryly. With an obvious effort he swung himself up into his saddle, and with a nod of his head he rode away, heading back through Tuckborough.
As he rode, however, the grey mist was coming back, and the pain in his shoulder. He made it into the village proper and was afraid he’d fall out of the saddle, and pulled the gelding over into the shade of a great chestnut tree. He found himself grateful Sharkey’s folks had never managed to make it this far, to cut this tree down. He managed to dismount without falling down and sat himself on the low garden wall before the smial that lay beyond the chestnut tree. He’d managed to fumble the full water bottle off the pommel as he dismounted, and now he uncapped it and drank from it. He sat for a few more moments until the pain eased and the greyness again rolled back. He realized he was breathing heavily, as if he’d been running.
Why does it take so much effort just to sit here? he asked himself.
As at last his breathing eased he looked around and noticed the indication this was a house for one of the village healers. He looked at it dispassionately, and at last rose and approached its door.
On the edge of Michel Delving he had to stop again, this time went behind a bush to relieve himself, afterwards came back to where Strider stood patiently, and noted again he’d stopped by a healer’s place. Three doses, he thought. If it comes to that, three doses ought to do it, I’d think.
The healer watched Mr. Frodo approach his pony and slip the vial he’d just purchased into his saddle bag. His wife came from the back of the smial to find out what was going on. “Is that Mr. Baggins, Dado?” she asked.
“Yes, it is.”
“Is he ill?”
“No, not ill exactly. Just has those headaches as so many seems to have, and a shoulder as pains him a good bit.”
“Why does his shoulder pain him, do you think?”
Dado shrugged. “Well, you’ve heard as he was off in the outer world with him as is the King now, helpin’ to fight some enemy or another? Well, seems as he has a war wound of some sort on his shoulder.”
His wife straightened a bit, her eyes widening. “War wounds? On a Hobbit?”
“Well, there’s no question as he was in a good bit o’ pain while he was here, there isn’t. Just hope as he waits till he’s home and has a good chance to get some sleep afterwards afore he takes that poppy juice I give him.”
“I’d hope so, too,” his wife responded. “Well, the strawberry fool is finished if’n you’d like a bit of it.”
“Wonderful, lovey,” he answered her, and went back into the house.
Throughout much of May and early June Aragorn spent time a couple days a week in the King’s Hallow. He knew somehow that Frodo was in distress, although he refused to admit it in his letters. He’d come through the time of memories in October barely, had almost let go then. In March, on the other hand, he’d stubbornly held his ground, had done his best to hide how badly he was doing, mostly, Aragorn believed, to keep from causing distress to Sam and Rosie while they awaited the birth of their first child.
Aragorn had seen that child, knew from the fall before her birth it would be a girl-child, that she would be remarkably pretty for one of any race. He’d seen her lying in Frodo’s arms, then as an older girl dancing with her father, helping her mother care for an infant. But after the few glimpses of her as an infant in Frodo’s arms, there’d been no other image of Frodo with any of Sam’s children, which Aragorn had realized would be many. Well, Frodo had managed to hold on for that child, the one he’d told Elladan he wished to see. Would he now let himself go, or choose the ship?
He’d looked at times into the Orthanc stone, and had seen Sam and Rosie with their daughter and the cat Frodo’s letter received in late April had spoken of, and had seen the gardens of Bag End--which were remarkable indeed! He’d seen Merry with his father and with Pippin, and had realized that Merry and Pippin were living apart from their families in a house of their own long before the letters came speaking of that fact. He’d seen Sam and Rosie’s wedding, and that the marriage cord had been used. But the stone was refusing to show Frodo. All he saw of Frodo was Frodo’s right hand. He’d see that hand writing interminably--the chapters of his book for Bilbo; letters; reports; lists; and sometimes things Aragorn couldn’t read but which he believed were Frodo writing out his anger and frustration as Bilbo had advised him Frodo had always done. Sometimes Frodo appeared to be drawing, but he couldn’t see the drawings. Sometimes he’d be cooking, and he could always see what was in the pot. Often he’d be stroking the kitten, or caressing Elanor’s curls, or on occasion the hand would be lying on the reins of his pony’s tack. There was usually a mug or glass by Frodo’s hand, and often he’d be drinking from it.
The previous summer there’d been one day when he’d seen a face somewhat similar to Frodo’s face and equally similar to Merry’s, intelligent, full of humor and wit, one which had known grief, and he’d been holding Frodo’s hand between his own. Now on occasion he’d see him again, this unknown gentlehobbit, with Merry’s parents, with Merry and Pippin, traveling across the Shire, speaking with the one Aragorn now knew was the Mayor, occasionally with what Aragorn was certain was Thain Paladin. He saw often two dark heads, always from behind or in shadow, lad and lass, never their faces, either. He saw a Hobbit woman’s face, thinner than that of most Hobbit women, again strongly reminiscent of Frodo’s and Pippin’s faces, saw the grief and the stubborn determination in it. One day she was speaking with Pippin; on the day of Sam and Rosie’s wedding she was watching someone across a dancing ground.
But the one face he wished to see was not shown to him--only the right hand, growing increasingly gaunt once more.
Frodo Baggins sat on a low stump, glaring at the hithlain rope that lay in tangles about his feet. “Why can’t you just cooperate?” he cried in low, anguished tones. “Why do you keep letting the knots release just----”
He stopped, weeping, staring at the silvery light that seemed to emanate from the fibers.
You know why, Frodo. It was not made for such a purpose as you’d put it to.
But I can’t let him find me....
Do you truly think he’d not be the one to do so, even here?
But I hurt so much--so very, very much! I can’t bear that much more of the pain!
You are not asked to bear pain for a great deal longer; nor will you ever be asked to bear it unaided. But would you be like Lord Denethor?
But I don’t seek to take any others with me!
Do you not realize that finding you as you’d intended, either here or in the bathing room, knowing it was intentional, would have destroyed a good deal of his soul? No, you’d not slay him outright as Denethor sought to do with his son; yet in the end it would be no different, having lost so much of himself in finding you so. In the end, which would be the more honest--what Denethor sought to do, or what you have purposed?
Frodo sat, still weeping, for some time before he found his hands automatically lifting the end of the slender rope, coiling it. As he came to the last bit he wasn’t surprised when the knot on the loop about his neck gave way and the rope, which earlier had refused to hold two knots at a time and had stubbornly wrapped itself in tangles about his legs and the brush he was nowhere near, now easily slipped into the coil which lay so smoothly against the palm of his hand.
For the last several weeks he’d known some moments of peace between bouts of prolonged pain and melancholy. He’d tried twice to ease his own way out, once using the three doses of poppy juice which had been secreted in the locked drawer of his desk, and today, after four sleepless nights full of painful nightmares starting any time he tried to close his eyes, using the one bit of rope he’d been able to find.
He should have known from the start that the hithlain rope would be no good. He remembered well enough how it had slipped its own knot loose once the two of them had safely reached the bottom of the cliff in the Emyn Muil. But why there seemed no rope to be had right now, in the home of Samwise Gamgee, Sam who’d always sworn a coil of rope was a necessity and had always kept ells of the stuff in the toolshed and the storerooms for use for any purpose at all, except for this length of Elven rope from Lothlorien--That’s real Elvish rope, that is!--was a mystery to him. What had Lotho and Sharkey done with it all? Between what Sam had twisted himself and what his Uncle Andy and brother Ham had brought on a regular basis, there must have been enough rope to reach from the Shire to Tol Eressëa and back to the Citadel of Minas Tirith again!
Tol Eressëa. Reach to Tol Eressëa.
But I’m a Hobbit!
And Tuor was a Man.
Something in that last thought brought his fevered imaginings and protests to a dead halt. Eärendil had been half-Elven--and half mortal. Tuor had been a Man, a Man given a mysterious, unknown grace, he who had married the Lady Idril and who had inexplicably sailed into the West. Even Beren and his wife who’d chosen mortality had been granted renewed life and, it was told, time to walk in the gardens of Valinor before he and Lúthien left the bounds of Arda.
Unknown grace. Known grace.
Grace. But what was that grace to him? He lifted the water bottle he’d worn over his shoulder, uncapped it, drank from it, sealed it once more, then sat for a time, contemplating it. The sheer absurdity of it all hit him--he’d come out here to die, to hang himself, had expected not to go home again save wrapped in his Elven cloak perhaps, when at last some imagined soul found his pathetic remains at some distant time in the future--and he’d come with a bottle of Sam’s tea over his shoulder, the packet of two thin slices of bread coated with butter and jam Rosie had given him as he left to start his “walk” in his pocket.
He shook his head. He wanted to laugh. He wanted to cry. He wanted to just lie down and let go. He wanted----
You are offered the grace.
At last he rose and walked slowly back to Bag End. He nodded at Sam and Rosie, who looked out at him from where they sat together in the parlor, their arms about each other, Elanor in her father’s lap, the small orange cat in Rosie’s. Sam ought not to be inside on a day like today--he should be out in the garden, and Rosie ought to be hanging out the clothes---
On the line that has inexplicably disappeared from Bag End?
----And he ought to be in the study, finishing Bilbo’s book.
He went through to the storage room and replaced the rope in Sam’s pack. The pack was just where he’d left it, just as he’d left it, everything just as he’d left it. Had Sam already seen? Was that why he and Rosie sat in the parlor instead of being about their usual pursuits? Because of him? Sam hadn’t sought to stop him, hadn’t come after him calling his name into the ragged woods that grew now at the bottom of the Hill, where Sharkey’s folks had cut down so many of the trees they’d both loved. He’d not said anything. Would Sam have let him go like that, his Sam? But the voice was right--in the end, when he’d found the illusion of peace he’d thought he’d wanted, it would have been Sam who would have come out into the wood, gone deep enough to find the taller trees the Big Men hadn’t cut down, who would have found what was left, and brought it home.
He replaced the rope and the other things--the extra cloak, Captain Faramir’s pans as Sam always called them, the small, sharp knife. He paused, looking at the knife, and returned it to the pack, too; finally replaced the pack back on the shelf.
He’d had two chances and had backed out of the first one, and had been balked by an uncooperative rope the second time. Somehow he knew the third time he’d not be stopped--or stop himself. But that, he now knew, was cheating.
He returned to the parlor and settled into his chair, and accepted Elanor into his arms. And, as he looked down into her bright, inquisitive eyes and murmured to her in Quenya as to how very beautiful she was, he began to breathe again.
He finally went to his room and lay down once more, finally drifted into that sleep he so needed. At first the dreams were again dark, full of the darkness of the Sammath Naur, full of the horrors of the Ring again berating him----
And then a Light shone behind him, and he turned from the fire, turned to the Light. There was a clear path before him, away from the Mountain. He held the Lady’s star gem in his hand and no longer the Ring. It was no longer the scent of sulfur and brimstone that filled his nostrils but the clear scent of the Sea. He was not running this time, was walking, walking steadily. In the distance was that quay toward which he’d hurried so many times in his dreams, just missing Bilbo’s ship as it pulled away. This time he’d not hurry, for he knew it would wait for him, not leaving until and unless he’d managed to arrive at the quay--or to pass it.