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The Acceptable Sacrifice
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97: Illusions Shattered

97: Illusions Shattered

As they left Frodo’s door in the growing dusk of September sixteenth, Saradoc and Esmeralda Brandybuck were shaken. They’d known that Frodo had been writing down what had happened to himself, Sam, Merry, and Pippin out there beyond the borders of the Shire; now he’d read to them out of his book what precisely had happened to Merry and Pippin, and had told them more--and more of what had happened to himself and Sam as well. Then he’d collapsed

All four of them--all four of them!--had almost died while they were gone. Each and every one had been a hero indeed. All four of them had done what few Men or Elves could do--faced Sauron and his closest servants as directly as was possible, and survived. It was no wonder that the new King so honored them.

They didn’t speak as they headed down the Hill and the road into Hobbiton, each wanting to think over what had been learned. They tried to imagine what this--this Black Breath was like, this feeling of overwhelming horror and fear and grief which could stifle the soul and so the life as well. So often they’d caught moments when memories of horror could be seen reflected in Merry’s eyes; during the time he’d stayed in the Hall they’d heard the cries of his nightmares, saw the stiffness that would come over him, felt the coldness that would, from time to time, grow in Merry’s right arm.

They were turning out of the Row toward Hobbiton when they realized a figure was headed toward them, and with the memory of Black Riders and orcs and Lotho’s Big Men in their minds they halted and melted sideways into the hedge. The person was halfway past them when they realized that this was no stranger, but was Merimac.

“Mac?” Sara asked as he stepped out of the hedge. “What is it?”

His brother turned, clutching at his chest, although he appeared to recover quickly enough from his surprise. “The Thain sent me to see if you’d left Bag End as yet. He and Eglantine decided to stay the night at the Ivy Bush as well, and hoped to--discuss things--or so it appears.” He took a deep breath, shaking his head. “I have no idea what happened tonight, but they are about the most serious I’ve seen them since the Time of Troubles began. Is Frodo really in a bad way?”

“They told you that?”

“No, but I can’t help hearing a few words here and there.”

Sara felt the grief hit him anew as he said quietly, “It doesn’t appear to be good, Mac. But at least we know better what they all went through. Believe me, if we discuss this with Pal and Lanti we won’t be excluding you.”

Esme asked, “Do they seem to be upset?”

“No,” Mac said as they turned to walk back into the village together, “not upset so much as terribly serious, like I said.”

They were soon in a position to know as they entered the Ivy Bush. Timmins came to meet them. “Master, Mistress; the Thain and Missus Eglantine, they’ve took the private parlor. If’n you’ll just come this way.” So saying he led them through a door to the right and into a cozy room with a cushioned wooden settle and several chairs at one end and a table with six chairs at the other. Pal and Lanti sat together on the settle, their arms about one another, Lanti’s face full of grief, Paladin’s still thoughtful as it had been when he left Frodo’s dining room.

The Thain looked up at them, his eyes apparently weary. “I ordered a meal for us--it ought to be brought in shortly. Is ale acceptable?”

All nodded, and the three from Buckland brought near three of the chairs to sit opposite the Tooks, and for some moments all sat quietly, looking at one another or lost in their own thoughts. Finally Paladin Took raised his eyes to meet those of Saradoc Brandybuck. “Have I ever told you, Sara, that I am one of the stupidest Hobbits ever born in the Shire?” he asked.

Saradoc considered his friend briefly. “When it comes to the way you’ve been treating Pippin lately, I find I can’t disagree. Generally speaking, however, I find you are not exactly accurate.”

“Did you learn some more after we left?”

“I saw those scars of his, helping him get out of his clothes and into a nightshirt. We both saw Sam using the herb the King showed him for its vapors. You could see Frodo relaxing more with its steam rising by his head. And Sam described how he found Frodo after he’d been poisoned, up at the top of an orc tower, and then what it was like going--going through Mordor and climbing the mountain and all. We were very lucky to even see Frodo again, you know. Apparently only the healing skills and power of the King brought Frodo back to us at all, and I strongly believe he’s had very delicate health since he woke in Ithilien.”

Paladin nodded slowly. “And the two of them, Frodo and Sam, are the Cormacolindor, the Ringbearers, the two who went into the darkest danger of all to protect the entire world, not expecting to come back again.”

“Corma-what?” asked Esmeralda.

“That song that the Elves sang at the Free Fair--it was written for them, and especially for Frodo,” Paladin explained. “The King himself commissioned it in the honor of Frodo and Sam. It’s the story of why Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee are now Lords of all the Free Peoples of Middle Earth. And Merry and Pippin ratified the honor for us here in the Shire.”

“The Ringbearers,” Saradoc said. “What little I’ve been able to piece together up to now indicates Frodo volunteered to take it there.”

Esme’s face was pale, and her eyes were beginning to swim with tears. “All those years when he was young and we thought we might lose him due to his heart--and now--now we’re losing him due to this journey.”

Eglantine turned to search the face of her husband’s sister. “He tried to tell us, Frodo did. And we couldn’t believe it--we didn’t want to believe it. And then it appears that--that he was sent home mostly so that he--he could have time to say goodbye to us.”

Esme gave a great snort. “Frodo--say goodbye? Oh, not Frodo Baggins--he’s never said goodbye since his parents died. And even now he’ll use any--any words but that. It’s why he’s always preferred to slip away before anyone else is aware he’s even awake, so he can avoid making farewells, so he won’t run the risk of not seeing folk again.”

Paladin looked at her in interest. “So--so that’s it. Bless the lad.”

A knock at the door indicated Timmins and Mags had the meal ready. They moved to the table as the two who cooked and served at the Ivy Bush brought in a late supper. Once the door was shut behind them once more, Frodo’s five cousins began slowly and thoughtfully eating.

“The last time he was back at the Hall,” Eglantine asked, “how was Frodo then?”

“I barely saw him,” Esme said. “He arrived while Sara was in Bree and I was in the Southfarthing. I got home and was told he’d arrived while I was gone. I found him sitting in his bedroom, sitting in the chair by his window, looking out it the way he used to do after Drogo and Primula died. I drew him out to the parlor for a proper chat, but I immediately appear to have gone wrong.”

“How?” Paladin asked her.

“I asked him if he was well, and--and I said how thin he’d become. Of course he said he was all right when it was plain he was not all right and hasn’t been all right for ages. That’s when I said that--that he would say he was all right even if he was on his death bed. He went totally white and stood up and started to leave--then he stopped and clung to the chair, there with his back to me. And he said that he loved me and asked me to have his trap ordered brought around. And he hurried out and disappeared. No one has ever been able to disappear in the Hall like he could. We have no idea where it is he disappears to, but he’s been able to do it since he was fourteen. I--I wanted to find him. After I told Mac Frodo had asked for his trap I started looking for him, but I couldn’t find him. By the time I returned to the entrance they’d brought the trap and Frodo was gone. Then I found Mac again and asked him to go after Frodo, and make certain he wasn’t in any difficulty.”

“I went and got my pony right away,” Mac said. “I found him finally--he’d turned down a side lane by the Longburrow’s woodlot. He was talking to an Elf--a very tall Elf with long golden hair. The Elf said he’d seen the Elf-friend and had stopped to talk with him, and that he would accompany him until he got home. Frodo asked me to tell Esme that he meant what he’d said.”

“That he was all right?” asked Pal.

“No,” Esme explained, “that he loved me, I think. Then as soon as he got back to Bag End he sent me a letter to let me know he was home and well. It was as if he hadn’t almost collapsed right there in the parlor.”

Paladin gave a deep sigh. “Well, you did far better than we did in May, practically commanding him to tell the story the way we wanted it rather than the way it happened. I don’t know what got into me for so long. I could see as we rode to the Great Smial from Michel Delving that Frodo wasn’t riding easily, and that he was very tired when we arrived. He was trying so hard at dinner to remain calm--and then finally----” His face threatened to crumple. “He told me that such a terrific number of folk were certainly believing in what I refused to believe in, and at last he couldn’t do it any longer, said if he stayed any longer he’d collapse.”

“About an hour later,” Lanti continued, “Willigrim came in and told us just how fragile he was. He had to give him poppy juice for the pain. He informed us--that if we kept it up with Frodo we could possibly cause him to suffer a seizure of the heart or a brainstorm.”

They continued to pick at their food in silence for some time until Paladin simply pushed his plate away and picked up his mug and drained it. “I’m not certain what to think any more,” he said. “They’ve all been trying to tell me that Pippin was grown up now, had already begun taking on an adult Hobbit’s responsibilities. But how could I accept that? He’s our Pippin, our dear, exasperating lad! Here I’ve been holding onto the idea that Pippin’s leaving was proof of just how irresponsible he was--and from the first he was doing his best to be responsible, realizing how much Frodo needed to be reminded of his sense of humor and the--the love of our own folk in order to get through what he was going to have to endure.

“And all four of them have tried to tell us--even the King’s letters have told us--just how deeply all four of them are respected out there. There’s all that correspondence between the Frodo and the King and his Steward--going back and forth, and the notes to me as Thain--it was plain there was deep respect, even love between the King and Frodo. But to learn....” He paused for some moments.

Suddenly he looked intently into Sara’s face once more. “The reports that as young as he was, Peregrin Took had been made a knight of Gondor and a Captain of the Guard of the Citadel and one of those who serves on the King himself--I made myself believe it was just an honor because he was brave enough just to leave the Shire, because they were humoring him. I made myself believe that he carries that sword just for show--even though we were told how he and Merry led the Battle of Bywater, even though when he stayed here he would go out to the archery field and work with his sword, and when Merry was with him they’d--they call it sparring. I thought that was just for show, too.

“He tried to explain that his sword had become part of him, and I wouldn’t believe it. But to hear Frodo explain they actually have Pippin--our little Pippin--teaching new recruits how to handle a sword--Frodo was dead serious, wasn’t he, Sara?”

Saradoc nodded. “Yes, he was. They spar there at Crickhollow, Merry and Pippin do. Watching them is fascinating. They’ve had padded suits of a sort made to protect themselves, and sometimes work with wooden practice swords instead so they can practice cuts and blows on one another. It looks to be a lot of it in fun, but you can see it takes skill to do it properly.

“Lord Halladan told me that in Gondor Pippin had to practice daily, and that although usually he’d spar against Merry and their shorter recruits, he’d shown he could hold his own against many Men much taller than he was, that he’d learned well to use the advantages of his height, particularly againt folk who aren’t accustomed to being matched with someone so much smaller. Said that Merry is good as well, and deadly fast; and that he has practiced well at slipping behind what he calls the defenses of his opponents.”

Again all went silent for a time. Finally Eglantine murmured, “I’ve been so frightened by Pippin’s nightmares. And to find out just what those nightmares have been about!”

Paladin gave a slow nod of his head. “And,” he said slowly, looking down into his cup, “to think I called him a coward--and childish--and--and irresponsible.” Silent tears rolled down his face. “Can he ever forgive me, do you think?”

Esmeralda, who sat on his other side, placed her hand on his shoulder, then drew him to her. “It will be all right, Pal,” she said. “Oh, big brother of mine, he’s Pippin, after all--once he’s certain you are truly willing to understand, he’ll forgive you.”

Paladin Took buried his eyes in his sister’s shoulder and wept--wept for what he’d done to his son.

During breakfast the next morning Lanti suddenly looked up from her eggs to catch Esmeralda’s eyes. “What about Frodo?” she asked. “Do you think we ought to arrange to come stay with him or something?”

“I certainly didn’t get the impression Frodo was already on his deathbed,” Sara cautioned. “And I’ll tell you from experience--Frodo won’t stand for being coddled. Fastest way possible, I think, to spark him into running away.”

“We should still arrange to come there to Crickhollow to see the lads,” Pal suggested.

“They’re not planning to be there when we get back,” Saradoc advised him, shaking his head. “They had arranged to go down to the Southfarthing again where they had that trouble not so long ago, and do a sweep of the area in case any of the Men settling down beyond our borders that way were thinking of causing any more problems. They aren’t planning to be back until the twenty-fourth, or so Merry told me before we left. Said that if Pippin had--had managed to last the week at home he was going to come down and join him at the second Longbottom plantation. Then he and Pippin were planning to come here to visit with Frodo around the first of the month or so. Seemed rather serious about it.

“I’ll tell you what--Lord Halladan told me he’d be back in Bree right there around the twenty-sixth, meeting with some of the Rangers who patrol the region. Shall we plan on perhaps going out and talking with him some more, all of us--perhaps convince the lads to go with us? They may talk more easily--and be convinced to believe we want to know and want to believe them now--if we have him on our side.”

The Tooks exchanged looks, then both looked seriously at Sara. “Yes,” the Thain said with determination. “We’ll do just that.”

Lanti took a deep breath and held it briefly. “It’s frightening,” she said, “insisting now they tell the truth. That my little Pippin was so badly hurt--and so brave and all! And it’s not just for show--the tabard and all. It’s real!”

They finished their breakfasts, paid for their accommodations and meals, and after gathering their goods they went out to the stableyard to reclaim their ponies and head for home.


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