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The Acceptable Sacrifice
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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98
98: Heart Torn

98: Heart Torn


Cyclamen Proudfoot woke in her room in the depths of Number Five, stretched and rubbed her eyes. She wanted to see if Cousin Frodo was all right, for what Pando had told her of how their older cousin looked as seen through the hedges of Bag End’s gardens had not been promising. She wasn’t supposed to leave the Row to go beyond the turning of the lane without a proper invitation--her mother hoped her daughter would at least be more proper in her behavior than her adopted son. Today, however, Cyclamen was determined to defy her mum’s order if she had to.

She hurried to the privy, came back and dressed in the illumination of the rush light, carefully brushed her hair and that on her feet as well, then slipped through the kitchen where she snagged herself a sweet morning roll and an apple, then rushed quietly through the rest of the smial to the front door and exited. The day was glorious, and she rejoiced in it. A brisk breeze was blowing, and the leaves were in their last heavy green before they began changing colors. She could smell the mown hay of the party field--Frodo had arranged that the cuttings of it should go to the stable at the Ivy Bush where his and Sam’s ponies were housed, and they’d just mown it for the last time yesterday. She hoped it wouldn’t rain before it was all dry, for Frodo had explained that if it should grow moldy it could make the ponies ill.

She eyed the upper lane, and then paused, seeing Samwise Gamgee coming down it, slowly, his posture indicating he was feeling very sad. As he came lower down the lane toward the wooded area she realized he was crying. Had something happened to her cousin?

Sam passed the bench and walked down into the woods themselves. Cyclamen finally let herself follow him, keeping him in sight as he walked slowly through the trees until he came to a taller stump against which he leaned. Now he was crying openly, one hand pressed against his eyes, although his sobbing was almost soundless.

Cyclamen was startled when a very tall person stepped out of the tangle of young trees and approached Sam.

“My Lord Samwise Hamfastrion,” the tall one said. “He is not well?”

Sam raised his head to look up at the tall one. He didn’t appear the least bit surprised or alarmed, Cyclamen noted. “Lord Erestor? You was sent?”

“Yes--Elrond wished certain things brought to the easing of the Lord Iorhael.”

“I hope as they will help him indeed, sir. He’s not sick--not truly sick, I think, but he’s terrible weak, you know. And that place where--where the Nazgul stabbed him--it’s achin’ somethin’ awful. I know as he’s plannin’ to go to Lord Elrond, but I’m afraid as it might be too late.”

“You know he’s going to Elrond?”

“He’s not said so as yet, but he’s not tried to hide it--not from me. If he gets to Rivendell....”

Lord Erestor sighed. “I have brought this for your master,” he said. “Part of this is what he needs to finish his preparations, and part of it is things he has requested.” Sam reached out to accept the large leather packet handed to him by the tall one--was that an Elf? Cyclamen wondered. He continued, “We will do all we can to see him eased and restored, my Lord. You may rest easy on that concern.” He set his long, slender fingers on Sam’s shoulder, then laid his hand on Sam’s head in blessing. “Let your heart be at rest for him, sweet Lord. Now, namarië.”

Sam gave a reluctant nod, straightened, and then gave a deep, courtly bow such as surprised the spying child. Cyclamen stepped to the right so that Sam wouldn’t see her, and watched as he paused just before he emerged from the trees and wiped his eyes and brushed at his shirt, then walked purposefully back up to the green door of Bag End. Cyclamen followed him and watched from the edge of the woods, then felt a touch on her shoulder. She turned and looked up--and up! at the fair face of the one who had spoken with Samwise Gamgee. She was half frightened until she looked into his eyes, and then she felt compassion for this one, one who had seen grievous things in a life so long she couldn’t imagine its experiences. He sank to his knees and still loomed over her, and now she saw that humor, interest, and a great caring lay there in those eyes alongside the grief. Gently she reached up and touched his cheek with one finger.

“You know and care for the Lords Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee?” he asked her in gentle tones.

“Frodo’s my cousin, though he’s loads older’n Pando and me,” she said. “He’s been sick, and I don’t like it for him. Pando says when he’s outside he’ll write, then sort of slip off asleep ’fore he even realizes, and he blinks and rubs at his eyes as if they was fuzzy on him. And his shoulder hurts him, hurts him a lot--Pando says, and I seen it, too. He shouldn’t oughta hurt like that--he’s too nice. Can you really help make him better?”

“We will help, we hope, to bring him to those who can. We will do all we can for his easing, Yavanna’s child.”

“But my mum’s Geli--well, Angelica, really, but my daddy calls her Geli-love.”

She could tell he was politely holding in his laughter, although she had never been fully able to understand just what it was about what she said that made grownups want to laugh at it. “Ah, small mistress, a worthy one you are, I think. Yavanna is the Vala whom we feel is the patron of your people. Certainly if Dwarves are the children of Aulë, Hobbits are those of his consort.”

“But Cousin Frodo says we’re the children of Iluvatar.”

The Elf smiled. “All are the children of Iluvatar, child, even the children of Aulë. You can rejoice for that truth.” He put one finger under her chin to look more clearly into her eyes. “You love your cousin Frodo Baggins?”

She nodded solemnly.

“We will rejoice the more to serve him as we are allowed, then, and the Shire is even the more blessed.” As he’d done with Sam, he rested his hand briefly on her head, and then he rose and disappeared into the trees.

She felt reassured as she looked after the way he’d gone; then walked out to sit on the bench and enjoy her apple and roll.

*******


Three hours later Frodo was well on the way to Michel Delving. The herbs Lord Elrond had sent to be added to Sam’s tea had proven very potent indeed, and he’d felt a surge of strength he would not have believed had he not experienced it himself. He had a number of documents in his saddlebags which had to be signed by Will Whitfoot and filed, and he had a particular person to see. Hopefully he could get a good deal of business completed today.

When he rode into the village Frodo took Strider into the public stable, relieved the gelding of his tack and saw him groomed and his manger filled, then went to the inn to take a room for the night and get a light noon meal. He then went to the Widow Millpond’s home.

Aramos Millpond had become an friend of sorts of Bilbo Baggins, though he was some years younger than Bilbo had been. Like Bilbo, Aramos was enamored of books, and the two of them had done a great deal of mutual borrowing, lending, trading, and acquisition over the years. But where Bilbo had been content with one copy of each book in his collection, Aramos had found himself collecting almost everything that came to hand, and had particularly loved collecting books done by particular copyists.

To protect his collection Aramos had purchased a hill not far from the Three-Farthing Stone and had excavated it himself, carefully planning the ventilation, making certain the floor was all of stone carefully laid on a thick layer of gravel and sand. He’d had a friend help build the bookcases and fasten them to the walls, a project in which Bilbo and young Frodo had also taken part from time to time. Not long before Bilbo left the Shire Aramos had brought his collection to his newly finished library and had it carefully arranged. Then he’d died suddenly, leaving his wife Button with a comfortable hole and income and a collection of books she herself had no interest in. In fact, she held a certain animosity toward that collection, having long felt it had drawn more attention from her husband than she did. Indeed, so great an envy did she hold for it that she’d ordered the door covered not long after Aramos died, after which she’d done her best to forget she owned it at all.

This was a collection of books of which Sharkey’s folks had remained unaware; and there had been nothing about this particular hill to draw their attention, as the absence of windows showed clearly no Hobbits had built their homes there; and its immediate removal from obviously arable land hadn’t made it obvious as a possible place of caches of goods.

Frodo, however, now found that, although he was leaving the Shire, he still wanted that special hole and the collection it contained, for he’d conceived a project while still in Gondor which he now intended to set into motion for the children of the Shire--particularly for the children like Pando and Cyclamen Proudfoot, Dianthus Sandheaver and her brothers, and Elanor Gamgee and those brothers and sisters to come over the years.

Button Millpond came to answer the door, a small yet still hale Hobbitess in her early eighties, surprised to see Master Frodo Baggins once more on her doorstep.

“Frodo? Now, I must say that this is a surprise. Won’t you come in, dear lad?”

“Thank you, Mistress Button,” he said as he gave a bow and followed her into the smial.

She led him into the second parlor, one which was as elegant as that in Bag End but more comfortable, and settled him into a chair there before the fire. That this house had once held a large number of books was evident, for there were shelves everywhere, although they were now covered with a wide variety of objects which held no resemblance to books at all. Here in the second, more formal parlor they held figures of many sorts, for such had been the focus of Button’s passions for some years. She fussed about for some time, producing a wonderful tea complete with eggs, toast, and sponge cake, some of which he accepted and did his best to consume.

Finally they came down to business, and Frodo explained the focus of his call.

“You want them?” she asked amazed. “Whatever for? You’re much too old for the stories for children, and most of the others he had Bilbo already had copies of, unless those gatherers and sharers managed to steal them away as I understand they did so much of here in Michel Delving.”

“I don’t want them for myself,” Frodo explained, “but I do have some in mind who will cherish them.”

The negotiations were prolonged and came at the cost of eating dinner and then a late supper with her. Button had become rather lonely, and having such a handsome Hobbit in her hole made her feel young again, and she posed and flirted outrageously, feeling quite safe with him. At last she agreed, and the papers Frodo had prepared and had checked by Brendi were presented to her. When he was deputy Mayor he’d managed to pull the copy of the deed to the place and had copied out the particulars; and Oridon had been able to have the property checked to make certain the property markers were in their proper places. At the same time Frodo bought several acres of farmland almost right at the Three-Farthings Stone, and had the paperwork for this prepared as well.

Button was disappointed when all was finally concluded. However, she was now seeing weariness in Frodo’s eyes, and realized that although he’d been alert and pleasant enough through his visit, nevertheless he was not particularly well.

“You will come again, won’t you, Mr. Baggins?” she asked hopefully as she finally saw him to the door.

“I’m afraid not, Mistress,” he said. “I’ve not been in good health for some time, and I’ve decided to take one more journey while yet I can. But at least I have managed this day to prepare the basis for a legacy for the Shire that I pray will serve her well long after I myself must leave it. But I regret I’ll not see you again--not for some time at least, I fear. I’d forgotten how wonderful a lady you are.”

His sincerity touched her, and she gave him a gentle kiss on the cheek before he left. He found himself hugging her, and at last left the hole to return to the village center and the inn for the night.

Ordo Goodbody was also staying in the inn that night, having taken over a good deal of his father’s business over the past few years, and in the morning was awakened by a knock at his door made by Frodo Baggins. Frodo had several last directives to give to his bankers of discretion, and Ordo accepted them quietly over first breakfast, now and then asking questions to make it clear in his head what was wanted, and at last nodded.

“And now you’ve added a library and a field to your properties? And what are to be done with them, for Da’s indicated as you’ve told him you’re transferring your estate soon enough?”

“These are to be gifts to the Shire itself, and it will be fully described in one of the codicils I’ve prepared. For now the need is simply to see them paid for so the title will transfer properly as of the eighth. The funds are to be replenished as a result of this letter, the original of which I’ve sent off already to my bankers in Minas Tirith. They’ve agreed to accept letters sealed with my token of recognition for the next few years until Fosco and Forsythia come of age.” He handed over the letter, and Ordo added it to the file being made to add to Frodo’s account once he arrived home again.

It was noon before Frodo finished with all the paperwork he needed to complete and ate a light noon meal. He at last quitted the inn with his saddlebags and headed across to the Council Hole.

It was a busy day, and he spent some time sitting in the banquet room examining once more the sideboard his father had fabricated and carved, carvings which served as a sort of map of the Shire and all the folk whose stories had touched the imagination of Drogo Baggins. Near the Eastern border was a depiction of the Brandywine River, the hole Drogo and Primula had once owned, and small figures of Primula wading into the river with Frodo himself as a small child. In the environs of Hobbiton was a depiction of the Hill and Bag End, Bilbo on its step; the Row where Bell Gamgee held her newest infant son; and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins listening at the window of a home in the village. The Tooklands were clearly delineated, and he could see the farm which Paladin and Eglantine Took had farmed then as well as the Great Smial and Tuckborough.

He was still busy with this examination when Hillie touched his shoulder. “Frodo, Will can see you now.”

Hillie was pleased to see Frodo again, but was concerned when Frodo rose and gave a slight stagger before he took up the stack of documents he’d brought and walked, far more slowly than the Took liked, into the Mayor’s office. And the amount of silver hairs to be seen in Frodo’s dark curls concerned him even more.

Will looked up from the documents he’d been perusing to smile at Frodo, and at first he didn’t notice anything amiss. “Good to see you, lad,” he said. “And here the gossip, as I see, has been exaggerating as usual. You’re looking good, Frodo. Sit down, sit down and let me see what you’ve brought me.”

He went through the new property acquisitions quickly enough, and smiled to see them properly prepared and signed.

“I will need a few signatures for witnesses,” Frodo said, “and Button has indicated these would recognize her signature.”

He handed over the list, and Will smiled. “No problem with that, Frodo--all of these will sign with no difficulty. And there are several here who will sign on your behalf. Now, what are you going to do with these?”

“The library will be the basis for a library for the Shire. I will be donating a number of the books Bilbo left me and that I’ve acquired since to it as well as most of my bookbinding tools and materials, materials for copying books, and so on. I will be signing over the title to the Shire to be administered jointly by Sam and his heirs in turn and by Fosco and Forsythia and theirs, once they come of age. The land is to be used to establish a garden of healing herbs for the use of all healers who desire to be part of the project. A second library of works on healing herbs and techniques will be begun there, and again I’ll be providing some of the first volumes to serve as a core around which to build a more extensive and complete collection. My experience with healers and herbalists since I was wounded has made it plain to me that not all have access to the same information. Some have been superbly trained and have broad knowledge and skills, and are aware how differently some individuals need to be treated from others. Then I’ve met those whose knowledge is so rudimentary it is a wonder they don’t kill the majority of those they seek to treat--and Aragorn has said much the same. I’d like to see a proper guild begun to seek out and train those with the healing gifts and love of others that make them best suited to the field, and to see information made equally available to all.”

Will nodded, although this was all beyond what he’d ever considered. A guild for healers? Yet it certainly made sense.

There were several transfers of title to register, and then finally the adoption of Sam Gamgee as his heir, which shocked Will. Only as he considered Frodo’s will did Will Whitfoot accept that Frodo knew this was necessary--now. That Frodo had withdrawn from Hobbit society and had accepted only a few invitations to anything in the past year, and those only from very close friends and family, was known. That Frodo’s health had itself been continuing to decline was something Will hadn’t considered at all, in spite of the evidence he’d seen at the Free Fair. After all, after that Frodo had been to Buckland twice and to Budgeford--he had to have recovered....

Will searched Frodo’s face, saw him rubbing at his shoulder absently, saw the thinness, the withdrawal going on in his gaze. He stopped his protestations, stopped his personal denial. Frodo was now actively fading--he had to accept it. A deep pain of his own inside him, Will took up his quill and dipped it into the red ink, and signed.

What could he say? How could he begin to express what Frodo meant to him, how his intelligence and compassion and caring had helped the Shire to recover after Sharkey and Lotho? How could he begin to express how much he loved this younger Hobbit who was in so many ways like a son to him?

Willeden Whitfoot rose from his chair to come around the desk to shake Frodo’s hand. At first he couldn’t speak, and he realized Frodo wouldn’t, that he’d said all he could or would. He took Frodo’s hand and held it--and suddenly was embracing him, and Frodo hugged him--briefly--in return.

“Whatever happens, Frodo--you are still one of the best the Shire ever produced.”

“Thank you, Will,” the soft reply came.

And then Frodo was pulling away, gave him the tiniest of nods, and was leaving. Brendi would come to collect what was needed, but for now most of it remained on Will’s desk, except for the will, the deed to Bag End, and the document of adoption, all of which Frodo took with him.

Will watched as Frodo paused before going through the door for the briefest of moments, saw Frodo roll his shoulders under the saddlebags he carried and straighten himself, and step through it, never to return.

Will retreated to his chair, turned it away from the documents on the desk and the door, and sat in it, drained and full of grief.

*******


“Hello, Frodo.”

Frodo turned to see Narcissa Boffin behind him. How many must I see anyway? How many times must I have my heart torn in two? Gently he responded, “Hello, Narcissa.”

“You look quite well today.”

Oh, if you only knew how it really was. “I fear the looks may be deceiving. What are you doing here in Michel Delving?”

“Came to have Mum’s will signed by Will Whitfoot. You?”

“Much the same--updating mine one l--once more, getting some other business done.” He looked at her, saw again the scene in his vision, of Brendi as bridegroom, Narcissa as bride, Fosco serving as the family member closest to the bride seeing her safely conducted into her new family, Aragorn as the one performing the ceremony.

“Will you be giving your birthday party next week?”

“No, I will see--a cousin I’ve not seen in a while.” But I could have had you as my wife--for a time.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Do you wish to join me for dinner tonight at the inn?”

What would it have been like, had I taken you as wife? Would the influence of the Ring have remained with me to destroy our ability to love one another? “I would like to--but I cannot. I must go home tonight.”

“Perhaps next week, then, back in Hobbiton.”

“Don’t count on it, Narcissa. I collapsed at dinner the other night.” He searched her eyes. Can I tell you where I must go? Can I tell you that I probably wouldn’t live more than a few weeks at best if I stay--that I might not live past that anyway? “I doubt I have much time in any case.”

She was shocked. “But you----”

Oh, Narcissa--it is now far too late for me, but you can still know happiness--here. You can still know the joy of love, of a family. He considered for a moment, then his lips twitched slightly as he thought, In a way I can give you children, although not in the same manner in which Sam gives them to Rosie. Would you mind if they come to you slightly grown? Finally he said softly, “I regret you just arrived as I must leave. I wish you joy, Narcissa.” For you can know it--here, in Middle Earth--with Brendi, with Fosco, with Forsythia, with whatever children Brendi might give you. Yes, I wish you joy. I truly wish you joy.

He turned away then, toward the stables, his saddlebags over his shoulder.

But he didn’t make it that far.

“Oh! Frodo! Mummy--it’s Mr. Frodo! Oh, Gamma, you didn’t tell me Mr. Frodo was here!”

Frodo closed his eyes, and automatically he raised his face to the sky.

Ah, Iorhael--they deserve to be able to see you one last time, to know they saw you before you left.

But again my own heart is being torn in two.

You think that theirs are not going to also know pain? They would feel intense regret for not having seen you that one last time, for not having the chance to express their love for you. Then after a moment, At least when you go aboard that ship you will be able to take the memories of those who look on you with love.


Frodo took a deep breath and straightened, turned to force a smile. “Hello, Mina, Aster, Dianthus,” he said.

Dianthus was bouncing with excitement. “Oh, Frodo--I’m so glad. You must come back to the house with us--I just made some brambleberry tarts all by myself--and they’re good! Please say you’ll come!”

He couldn’t deny those eyes or the pleasure in the eyes of the two ladies, and in moments he was being dragged toward the Whitfoot house. Dianthus was full of delighted chatter. “I have two hens now, not just one--two hens and a rooster. Do you have a rooster, Frodo? Did you ever have one?”

“No,” he said, as he was led into the house and down the passage toward the kitchen. “I would help care for the poultry at--at Brandy Hall at times, but that’s the closest--to having chickens of my own. But the rooster--would peck at all who came near save for Aunt Menegilda.”

But as Frodo was seated at the table Mina noted his breathing was too close to panting to be due solely to their pace as they’d walked, and his face somewhat grey. “Would you like a mug for some of your tea, Frodo,” she asked. “Did you bring it with you?”

He looked at her blankly, realizing he didn’t have his water bottles. He retraced his steps mentally. “In the Council Hole,” he said finally, “either there in the banquet room by the great sideboard, or in the inn where I ate my lunch.” He started to reach for his watch, then paused as he remembered he’d already prepared it for its presentation to Sam on the eighth. “The time?” he asked.

“It’s four o’clock,” Mina said, “or at least it’s nearly so.”

“It’s past time then,” he said. “Perhaps that’s why....” He stopped.

“I’ll go find it,” Dianthus offered.

“No, dearling,” her mother said, shaking her head. “How many did you have? Were they the ones you used to bring?”

“Two,” he answered her, “and yes, the ones--the ones I used to bring. One is empty, and the other half full.”

“So it is medicinal,” Aster asked.

He nodded, lowering his eyes. “Yes,” he admitted. “I’m supposed to drink it several times a day, and plenty of water as well.”

She said, “I see. Be back as quick as I can,” and she headed back through the house toward the square again.

“Are you sick, then?” asked Dianthus.

He shrugged, then sighed. “I’m not certain--if it’s really being sick,” he said. “It’s not like a cold. But I do need the draught right now--to help me. It helps to--to fight the weakness.”

“Why are you weak?” the child asked.

He shrugged. “Long story.”

Mina brought him a mug of water which Frodo accepted with a nod of thanks and sipped from, then closed his eyes.

“What’s in the draught?” Mina asked, “in case I need to try to fix up some more?”

“Athelas evidently, chamomile, willowbark, honey, and--and I’m not certain what else. Lord Elrond sent herbs to--to mix with it.”

“Athelas?”

“Kingsfoil. Another name for it is athelas. It’s the King’s herb.” He could feel the draught wearing off now, and was frightened to feel the strength slowly draining from him once more. He sipped at the water.

Mina sat beside him and set her hand on his forearm. “You hang on there, Frodo. You’re not alone, you know.”

He nodded in return. “Thank you.”

“Would you like to lie down for a time?”

He shook his head.

Mina looked at her granddaughter. “Dianthus, go get a small plate and bring Frodo one of your tarts.”

“I will, Gamma,” she said.

Frodo asked, “The boys? Bucca?”

“Rode to Tuckborough to discuss plow ponies with one of the Thain’s agents. Have you seen the Thain lately?”

Frodo slowly nodded. “Day before yesterday. They came to dinner. Sara and Esme also.”

“Are they still doubting Pippin?”

“They were. I hope not any more.”

“Did you tell them all about the Ring, then?”

He looked at her. “Who told you?”

“Bucca, Aster and me--we figured it out.”

He sipped deeply from the mug, then rubbed at his shoulder.

“That’s aching again?”

He nodded slowly. Dianthus set a saucer with a tart on it before him.

“Why did you come to Michel Delving?”

“My new will--to have Will sign it. And I’m--I’m adopting Sam as--as my heir.”

Mina felt both alarm and a level of pleasure go through her. “Does he know he’s your heir?” she asked.

He shook his head. “No, not yet.”

She straightened. “You haven’t told him yet? Whyever not?”

He shrugged. “When it’s time--time to go--I’ll tell him.”

In the distance of the smial they heard the front door open and close again, and shortly after Aster entered the room with the two bottles. “They were at the inn, Frodo. You left them there.”

Mina rose and brought a second mug and allowed Frodo to indicate how much to fill it, pouring the liquid from the bottle into it.

He took it. “Thank you--all three of you.” He slowly lifted it and sipped from it, then set it down; after a moment drank more; then finally raised and drained it. He looked at the mug thoughtfully. “Don’t know what all is there in it,” he said, “but it is powerful.”

Dianthus was looking at him, still standing where she’d been when she set the tart in front of him. “You said ‘time to go’,” she said. “Where are you going?”

He looked at her for some time. She refused to waver. Finally he said, “I’m going on--on another journey, soon, on my birthday.”

“Where are you going?”

“Far away.”

“How will you go?”

“On my pony to the Havens. Then on a ship.”

“Are you going to see the King?”

She saw the sadness in his eyes. “No, not this time.”

“When will you come back.”

“I won’t be able to come back.”

She considered him for a time. “Are you lying to me, Frodo? They do that, you know, when they think I’m too young--too young to understand. Are you really dying?”

He took a long breath. Finally he said, “If I stay, I will die. If I go--If I go they think they can help me. Maybe.”

“Who?”

“Lord Elrond. Lady Galadriel. Lord Gildor.”

“They’re Elves.”

He nodded.

“Where are they going?”

“They’re going on a voyage. They asked me to go with them.”

“Why can’t you come back when you’re better?”

“The ships that go there don’t return. There are rules.”

“It’s an awful rule!” Her vehemence surprised even Dianthus.

“No--it was imposed after awful things happened long ago, Dianthus.”

“Do you want to go?”

“I didn’t--not for a long time. But I finally chose. I could--could feel better, really better, at last. I haven’t felt better for so long.”

“Your shoulder?”

He was shaking his head. “Not just my shoulder, dearling. Inside me, where it’s hurt and been empty.”

“But why does it feel hurt and empty?”

He continued to shake his head. “It’s the way it’s been for some time. I left the Shire the last time to try to protect it--to protect all of you.” Tears were forming in his eyes. “I tried--but they came anyway. At least Sauron’s folks didn’t--didn’t stay--not then. It was bad enough, facing Sharkey’s malice.

“I wanted to see home again, to see a land not harmed by that evil we faced out there, but Sharkey and his folk were here anyway when we got back, and we had to fight the last battle here in the Shire itself. I did my best to see the Shire healed, and I hope it’s--it’s almost as well as it was before we left. The Shire is healing--is almost healed fully, but I’m not.

“I’m not sorry I accepted the duty, but it emptied me, Dianthus. It emptied me, and I need refilling. I hate feeling empty--empty and alone and lost. We all sacrificed to save Middle Earth, every one of us in the Fellowship. Now it’s time to----”

He couldn’t speak further. He was crying openly, and Mina knelt by him, drew him to her breast, held him, let him cry and just held him, murmuring into his ear. “Oh, dearling--it will be well. It’s almost over now, and you can rest. Ach, lovey, you’re not alone. You’ll never be alone.” She looked at Aster. “Take the two of you off. I think as he needs just one at the moment.”

Aster nodded, and placing her hand on Dianthus’s shoulder she drew her out of the room.

Frodo wept some minutes more, and then calmed. Mina pulled away long enough to dampen a clean cloth for him to use in wiping his face, and he pulled out his own handkerchief to blow his nose.

Once he was calm again she sat again beside him, searching his face. “You volunteered to take It to Mordor to Its destruction.” At his nod she asked, “And you were hurt--not just your shoulder and your finger, but inside, inside where you live?”

“Yes.” His eyes were fixed on his hands, which lay now with fingers laced on the table before him.

She looked at him for some minutes before asking, “Did you tell Will?”

He shook his head. “I think he’s figured out--that I expect the will to be executed soon, though.”

“Do you want me to tell him?”

“Please, no. Please ask Aster and Dianthus not to tell.”

“Why?”

He raised his eyes to hers, and she also saw the weariness in them, much as her husband had done earlier. She reached to set her hand over his laced fingers, and murmured, “It’s all right, Frodo--I’ll make certain they know they aren’t to discuss this with anyone else.”

“Thank you.” He dropped his gaze again, then closed his eyes and rubbed briefly at his shoulder, pulling his right hand away from her touch.

She straightened. “Frodo, you know that your mum and I were cousins through the Goolds.” He nodded, looking up at her rather sideways. “By blood I’m as closely related to you as are Sara and Esmeralda and Paladin.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Since you returned to the Shire and I came to know you as I have--I’ve come to love you, and at times it’s been almost as if I had Fenton back again.”

He looked at her more directly.

“Primula was my cousin, and although we weren’t real close--certainly not as close as she was with her Brandybuck relatives, still I loved her dearly. I know she must be as proud of you as I am, and I’m certain as she would do this if she could.” And she leaned forward to kiss him gently on his forehead. She then captured his hands and held them briefly. “Know this, Frodo Baggins--wherever you go, her love goes with you, along with my own.”

He rose to his feet, and she rose with him. His eyes were closed again, and once more a few tears squeezed out in spite of all he did to try to contain them. He drew her to him, and held her tightly for some moments, gently kissed the top of her head, then pulled away. He took up his saddlebags and the water bottles and finally the tart as well, and walked toward the back door out of the house. Then he turned and looked at her, and suddenly smiled, that sweet smile that was his alone, that smile that lit the room and caused her heart to lift. He finally turned and went out the door and closed it quietly behind him.

This time no one stopped him as he returned to the stable to collect Strider and head back to Hobbiton.

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