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5
Openness Returned

5: Openness Returned

Finally most of the guests took their leave, and at last only Paladin, Eglantine, Saradoc, Esmeralda, Merry, Pippin, Freddy, and Budgie remained with Brendilac Brandybuck at Bag End. They gathered finally in the dining room with Sam and Rosie. Marigold had offered to take Elanor for an hour so her parents could speak plainly and without distractions with those left of what life with Frodo had become. Sam courteously poured wine, cider, or ale for each of those remaining, and once each had a cup before them and perhaps some of the remaining food to nibble on, he began to speak, quietly describing the last two years.

“He didn’t wish any to realize as how weak he was, as to how wounded he’d been. He didn’t wish for any of you to know of the scars. If’n he’d been able to hide the fact as he’d lost his finger, he’d of done so. But he’d realized if he just did things as he was used to doin’, most folks would never even notice. And if they did notice he’d threaten them with the Look and they’d back off and not mention it--or at least not where he could hear it.” No one laughed, but there were some understanding smiles to that observation.

“So he did his best to hide how he was feelin’, and I suspect as most folks never even noticed there was ought wrong with him.”

He sighed. “So, he’d go out and do things anyways, and I was all for it, for he needed some purpose, I knew, to keep him grounded, anchored, here to the Shire. But we didn’t dream that the anniversaries of when he was hardest hurt would affect him so. Each time he got worse, and he about give up a time or two, but he’d always pull through anyways, though never as much as he’d done afore.

“He’d not of lived through the sixth, you see.”

Budgie Smallfoot cleared his throat and looked at his friend and employer before he added his confirmation of what Sam had said. “When he came to Mr. Freddy’s house last year he was fine until the evening came, and then the memories of the time when he was stabbed in his shoulder hit him, and he just collapsed with them in the guest room. His heart was racing and laboring badly. He was in great distress. Then last spring he was concerned that the memories would return again as they had the previous year on the anniversary of when he was bitten by the great spider, so he arranged for Sam and Rosie to go to the Cottons’ farm to spend time with them and for Freddy and me to come to Bag End. It was worse still. And last summer during the period of extraordinarily hot weather we had--he collapsed. The heat was to blame, yes, but so was his heart in general. It was actively failing then. He was certain he’d not survive when the memories returned in October again.”

They were all looking at one another now, each realizing that he or she had known this was true, had seen a piece of the puzzle, had realized the face Frodo presented hid the reality of his fading. They spoke at length, and of how Frodo had yet felt this was little enough in face of what would have been lost had he not done what he’d done. His life had been little enough to offer, he’d felt, in comparison to the destruction of the Shire which would have occurred had he not agreed to take the Ring out of it, much less the enslavement of all of Middle Earth had the Ring gone back to Sauron. “He thought it an acceptable sacrifice,” Sam described it, and the rest had nodded their understanding.

For Thain, Master, and their wives the talk was a revelation, for not only were they finally coming to grips with what Frodo and the others had done and its fuller implications for all, but they were seeing clearly what they’d caught only glimpses of in the past--that Samwise Gamgee was far more than the simple rustic soul most assumed he would be, considering the fact he labored as a gardener, that he’d never sought to be anything else, that he spoke with the language of the lower classes.

Today, with him dressed as he was, with the watch chain stretched across his rich brocade vest, with his solemn dignity as he sat there, the worthy Master of Bag End now, there could be no hiding the fact Sam was one of the finest Hobbits in the Shire. And there was the fact which Frodo had made plain to them at that dinner of his--Merry was a Knight of Rohan and Holdwine of the Mark; Pippin was a Knight of Gondor and Captain of the Guard of the Citadel; but Samwise Gamgee was a Lord of all the Free Peoples of Middle Earth, and a beloved counselor of the King himself. From that day forward none of those present would ever treat Sam with anything less than full respect and deference.

At last Saradoc and Esmeralda Brandybuck requested that Sam and Rosie bring Elanor and come with them back to Brandy Hall for a few days. “Please,” implored Esme. “Frodo was as our older son, after all; we want so to understand what he went through. And we’d like for you to see where he spent so much of his time as a lad.”

Sam finally agreed, and once Marigold had returned with Elanor and promised to come in daily to care for the cat, they changed into suitable riding gear, packed Sam’s saddlebags and pack, saw to it the bairn was clean and fed, and joined Master and Mistress for their return to the Hall. Meanwhile the Thain and Mistress Eglantine took their leave with great tenderness toward all, and left to return to the Great Smials, for there was much which had gone ignored in the past few weeks.

Pippin, however, insisted on going back to Buckland with Merry. “I’ll come to stay with you in a couple weeks, but I’d already promised I’d help with the building of new paddocks for the Hall and some other projects, and they’ve waited too long as it is. And, I hope you’ll understand, I need some time just to realize that Frodo is gone. It’s one thing when you’re racing to catch him before he’s gone or returning home or hurrying here or there; it’s quite another thing to just waken to the fact we need to get through this day without him, and it’ll be this way from now on.”

“I understand, son,” Pal told him. His mother just held him closely and murmured in his ear how much she loved him and how wonderful it was to realize just how much he’d grown in the past three years.

Merry couldn’t restrain himself. “It’s not as if you hadn’t had time and enough to realize just that. Glad you’ve finally noticed.”

Pippin’s parents had the grace to blush. Paladin examined his nephew. “I see Pippin’s not the only one we underestimated, Meriadoc Brandybuck,” he commented. “Considering how willfully blind we were behaving, he’s lucky he’s had you and your parents by him all this time as well as Frodo and Sam.” Then he said, and it was obvious this was from the heart, “Thank you, Merry, for sticking by him when we couldn’t.”

And Merry was able to forgive them for Pippin’s sake.

Some were headed into Bywater to the Dragon while others went to the Ivy Bush in Hobbiton to fetch their transports; soon all were mounted and met along the way to the Road, riding North and then East toward Buckland. Sam rode his Bill, who seemed perfectly happy to be going out once more; Rosie, carrying Elanor, rode the pony Berry given Sam by Éomer of Rohan; while Esme, who’d come in the Took coach, rode Frodo’s own pony Strider, stroking the gelding gently for the sake of the master he’d lost. As they rode Sam was asked to tell what he knew of Frodo’s decision to leave Middle Earth.

“Not much I can tell,” he said, shrugging. “While he was still servin’ as Deputy Mayor we received packets from Lord Strider and the Lady Arwen, along with letters and the first coins of the new King’s coinage. Mine didn’t say much--seems as Strider was mighty busy that day or somethin’ like. He explained he’d written more to Frodo, and that they’d arranged for a special grace, but he was leavin’ it to Frodo to share with me what it was. But he never did.

“He was terrible weak after the illness in the spring, back in March, but he did his best to hide it, for we was expectin’ Elanor and he didn’t want me worried for him when he felt as I ought to be focussin’ on Rosie and the bairn. Also, he wasn’t necessarily eatin’ proper or gettin’ his tea as often as he ought. More and more as he was writin’ he’d get involved and he would just keep on till the fit passed, and then he’d stop and drink his tea and eat some o’ what we’d brought to him.

“But after we got back from the farm he lost his balance in the kitchen and burnt his hand, he did. So I had Marigold come stay while Tom was off on business, and Widow Rumble’d come for a few hours a day, too; and they didn’t realize I was servin’ him foods as would keep and that the tea was really a draught. They’d see the food was just sittin’ by him, so they’d take it away, thinkin’ as he wasn’t really hungry; and I guess as Marigold was always makin’ him fresh tea--but regular tea. By the time as Elanor was born on the twenty-fifth he was quite weak. Was in his study, lyin’ on his sofa there when I went to tell him and he named her. Then when I come back with her I realized as he couldn’t rise, and that again his tea had been changed. Insulted my sister sayin’ as this tea wasn’t fresh enough, for she’d brought it to him only minutes afore, and that was when I first explained as it was properly a draught to her.

“This time he never fully recovered, and he was havin’ nightmares pretty regular. It was weeks afore he finally was strong enough to walk into the village or climb the Hill again. Then in May he went to the Great Smial to try to get the Thain and the Mistress to see reason about Mr. Pippin, and I guess it was a disaster, and that night he had to be put to bed with a draught.”

Sara sighed. “So they admitted to me. When he tried to tell them of the Ring and the nature of the Black Riders and Sharkey he became so frustrated with their unwillingness to listen he became ill. Willigrim found him collapsed near the healer’s wing, I understand, and put him to bed with a draught of poppy juice.” He saw a tightening in Sam’s jaw at that. “What is it about poppy juice, Sam?”

Sam shook his head. “Nothin’ really, sir; but he appears to of tried it on his own on one other occasion, though I never saw any sign as he ever used it again. He was havin’ bad nightmares and headaches through much of May and June, though they appear to of got some better afore Midsummer. He finally seemed better after that, which surprised several. Went to Buckland for Mr. Merry’s birthday and seemed right cheerful about it, and was goin’ to the Great Smial with them after, only it was so hot and he became ill and asked to be taken to Budgeford instead. You heard Mr. Freddy--by then he’d realized as he was dyin’--probably was certain of it durin’ the bouts of headaches afore Midsummer, in fact.

“I don’t know for certain when it was as he chose at the last, but I suspect it wasn’t till not long afore he left. There was that hot night in September when he slept the last time atop the hill. After that he was workin’ hard to--to get all his business done. It may of been then.”

“So, he’s known since he got the coins from the King the choice was open to him?” Sara asked.

“Apparently.”

“But he didn’t tell you?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

It was Rosie who answered as Sam shrugged. “He wanted Sam to stay here, have a full life, stay by me. Didn’t want Sam runnin’ away from life just when it was again openin’ up for him, to give it all up for his sake.”

Saradoc looked at Esmeralda, who was looking back at him, her face concerned. Esme looked at Rosie and Sam and asked, “But I still don’t understand why he’d consider staying here with such an offer before him, particularly after what he said at the dinner that he was too scoured out to feel he had anything to offer to a wife. Why would he even consider lingering in Middle Earth? He’s always loved the Elves and speaks their languages and understands their writing and history. I’d think he’d have gone in a heartbeat.”

Sam gave a deep sigh before answering slowly, “First, he never felt as he did nothin’ of worth. You’ve heard him--in spite of bein’ told how many times it took the three of us to do it--hisself, me, and that Gollum, and none others at the time but us could o’ done it, still he members that at the last he couldn’t finish it or keep hisself from bein’ took by It. Then he members cursin’ Gollum and that Gollum did die just as he said. He felt--dirty--for havin’ been took by It that last time, and horrified as he could curse anythin’ with death, especially as Gollum died exactly as he’d said. ’Tween the two, he felt he deserved nothin’.

“Then, I suspect as he didn’t feel right about goin’ there as a mortal, for those lands weren’t meant to be lived in by mortals.”

“What he said in the letter he wrote Merry was that he was afraid he’d lose himself if he went, although I’m not certain what that meant,” Sara added. “He indicated this idea terrified him.”

“He wrote that?” Sam asked. At Sara’s nod he stared thoughtfully off into the distance. “The Lady Galadriel was certain as she’d lose herself if’n she were to take the Ring, that the Ring would make her into exactly the same kind of monster as Sauron hisself. But certainly goin’ to the Undying Lands shouldn’t ought to cause that kind of change in him.”

Sara said thoughtfully, “In the end, what choice did he have? Stay and most likely die in a few days of horrible memories, or go and at least have the chance of healing. If Budgie is right and each time one of these--anniversaries--came he was just getting worse and worse, it sounds as if should he have survived this next one he’d most likely have been bedridden for what time he had left, which probably wouldn’t be all that long.” He shook his head. “Those who are bedridden tend to develop the lung sickness, you know. I’d hate to see him with that again.”

They continued riding in silence, knowing that for those who couldn’t sit or stand for any period of time the lung sickness could be deadly.

They stopped at The Floating Log for a meal and the night. The Master sat on one side of the table with Mac on one side and Esme on the other; Pippin sat opposite him with Sam on his right and Merry on his left; Rosie sat on the end between Sam and Esme, while Berilac sat at the other end of the table. They ate their shepherd’s pie and mushrooms fried with bacon, butter, and onions thoughtfully. Finally when most of the food was gone Saradoc Brandybuck gave his son a searching look. “I think it’s time, Merry, for you to talk. We need to understand, and you need to talk about it. What made you believe Frodo was in danger?”

Merry gave a deep sigh, and finally began. He told about the growing restlessness he’d observed in his cousin, and how this was seen also by Sam, Pippin, Freddy, Folco, and even Berilac. The three others who were named nodded to confirm this. He explained the Conspiracy and the parts each played in it, and how Sam was their primary spy, and the growing concern once they realized why Gandalf felt Frodo needed to leave the Shire.

At first he spoke hesitantly; but as he continued, the narrative became more certain and flowing. He explained the other reasons why he’d felt Crickhollow was the right place for Frodo to settle if he moved to Buckland besides the privacy it offered and the similarity in feel to what Frodo had known at Bag End. The ability to have ponies available and the access to the gate in the Hedge were explained, and his parents nodded thoughtfully.

“I did take ponies that were already mine,” Merry explained needlessly. “And I actually bought the provisions with my own money so as not to leave Frodo feeling guilty that we were taking food from the Hall. I tried my best to make certain I was behaving responsibly.”

“Why didn’t you want Frodo to go alone?” his mother asked him. “After all, he’s been doing walking trips for thirty years and has a great deal of experience at it.”

“That was here in the Shire, Mum,” Merry said. “For all he’s the one who’s actually read the most about the outer world and heard the most from Bilbo what it’s really like, yet he was the worst of us for facing the outer world in the end, particularly alone. He’ll eat meat he buys at the market; but you remember how he was the year he was nineteen and he’d helped care for the lamb he called Softkins and how he wouldn’t eat lamb again here in the Hall for a year after Softkins was butchered. And you found you had to keep him from helping with the poultry when he realized the hen with the twisted wing had been taken for the kitchens, for how long was it before he’d eat chicken again? Once his supply of jerked and smoked meat ran out, what would he live on out there in the wild? If any ruffians found him, maybe he’d stop one or two with his punch; but if it was a party of, say, four or five, what defense could he offer himself?

“He needed us, Mum. He needed my practicality and Pippin’s good spirits and energy and Sam’s capabilities. He’d never have made it to Bree alone, I’m afraid. He’d certainly not have made it to Rivendell alone.”

His mother looked down and gave a reluctant nod.

Pippin described the trip from Bag End to Crickhollow, while Sam described the discussion with the Elves. They skimmed through their experiences in the Old Forest. “I’ll certainly not underestimate it again, Dad,” Merry said solemnly to his father; “and if I ever have to go into it again I’ll be extremely circumspect and respectful. Although the fact I personally know Ents and wood Elves now may offer me some acceptance by the trees in there. But I still don’t want to enter there anytime but when Tom Bombadil might be abroad, for I would want to be able to count on calling him in case of an emergency.”

Sam described their time in Bree, the meeting with Strider, and the trip to Amon Sul. Merry told of the rest of the trip to Rivendell and the terror for Frodo and what might become of him. Pippin described the confrontation at the ford and how the waters swept the Nazgul away.

It was very late when all at last went quiet as Sam repeated what Gandalf had told him of the great earthquake and the way all signs of Mordor and its might were swallowed up by the earth itself. All other patrons had quitted the common room a long time ago, and even the innkeeper had gone to bed after presenting their table with a small cask to keep them company, realizing that this conversation between the Master and his son and these guests would likely go on much of the night.

Esme’s face was grey with a combination of fatigue and horror at what the four of them had been through. She looked at Sam with grief in her eyes. “How were you and Frodo found?”

“It were Gandalf and the great Eagles,” Sam said with a sigh. “Their lord Gwaihir, he carried Gandalf, and they flew from the battlefield toward the mountain. Must of been dodgin’ the fire and explosions and all, for that mountain was tearin’ itself to pieces with us on it, it was. I’d carried Frodo out of the chamber afore the worst of it worked itself out, and he come to once we was out of there to crawl down the mountain with me. We found a hill of ash and stone and moved onto it, but couldn’t get off it or nothin’. Frodo was hisself again, and very calm. Was thinkin’ as we’d be dead in a few minutes, and was ready to give over, he was. He comforted me as he could, and we held each other, and then neither of us member any more till we woke in Ithilien. I woke up and there was Gandalf, but he wasn’t as I membered him, and I realized I was on a bed and not dead after all; then Mr. Frodo woke again--he’d been dozin’, they told me, after he first woke up. He was cheerful enough then, but it didn’t last.

“Why of all things they took us to a feast I don’t know, for neither of us could eat proper at that point. Frodo became tired so quick, although he was doin’ his best to hide it even then. I’ve never seen such a one as him for makin’ certain as he seemed to be fully in control when he wasn’t. So I did my best to help him as secret as I could, standin’ by him to help him stay upright and all.

“It were a few days afore we really began to feel ourselves again. The camp was huge, and a good deal of it was set aside for them as was seriously wounded. They had another camp for the wounded Southrons and Easterlings, but it was separated from ours. Lord Strider and his Elvish brothers was goin’ back and forth a good bit from the one camp to the other. Until almost all was ready to travel they wouldn’t do so, and certainly Mr. Frodo and me needed feedin’ up.

“It tore at him to realize he couldn’t eat normal no more--tore his heart to pieces, it did. His hand would hurt somethin’ awful, with the muscles crampin’ up on him and achin’; his shoulder where he was stabbed at Weathertop would ache much o’ the time. He was plumb frustrated, he was. But in time he recovered and even began to laugh a bit; and the day we finally left for Minas Tirith he was quite happy--until he got seasick on the boat as was takin’ us down the river to the harbor near the city.

“Yet the next day as he was takin’ the Crown from Captain Faramir to bring to Gandalf for the crowning he was shinin’ as much as Strider hisself. ’Twere right odd, lookin’ from one to the other, seein’ both just full of Light and all. Even Gandalf was shinin’, he was.”

“All three of them were beautiful that day,” Pippin said, sitting straight and tall. “I first understood what being a proper king was looking at Aragorn as he was crowned, I think. And both Frodo and Gandalf were so proud of him, and so we were proud of all three of them.”

“After we were in the city,” Merry said, “Pippin and I were often called to serve Aragorn and King Éomer, for after all we were sworn to their service now. Then Pippin had to do weapons practice, and I began going with him. Frodo was much on his own, although Aragorn made him one of his counselors and had him meet with deputations and all. It took a week before he began to explore the city, although the rest of us were checking out the Fifth Circle at least from our second day. There were a good number of feasts, and we had to attend. Frodo was so angry because he had to be served small portions and digestible foods while he saw the rest of us eating these truly wonderful dishes and as much as we wanted. Even then he could get sick.

“Then we realized his neck where the spider bit him was infected again and was draining. It’s done that again and again, about every two months since, although he’d try to hide it.”

“A couple o’ times it didn’t even last much over a month,” Sam put in.

They all sighed.

Pippin went on, “Aragorn wanted us to remain for his wedding, although no one would tell us what it was we were waiting for. He was getting more and more testy by the day as he waited for some sign Arwen was indeed coming to him, until the day he went up on the mountain with Gandalf and found the seedling of the White Tree and brought it back to the city and planted it where the old one had died. Then he was more cheerful and hopeful and began actively planning for the wedding and her coming.”

“A few days after the wedding,” Merry said, taking up the tale, “the Rhohirrim returned, and the next day we set off for Rohan for the funeral and home. But we couldn’t travel all that quickly, so it took a fair amount of time. We stopped in Rivendell to see Bilbo, and he had rapidly begun to age once the Ring was destroyed. He was so frail compared to how he’d looked only the previous winter. Frodo appeared to be all right, but I know Bilbo was very troubled for him. Once we left Aragorn behind, Frodo stopped accepting the draughts offered him; once we got to Rivendell finally Elrond got him to accept them by presenting them as ‘tea.’ Only then would he drink them.

“Gandalf came with us to Bree and just beyond, and then told us he was going into the Old Forest to speak with Tom Bombadil. We then went on alone, and after we got home--well, you know basically what happened then.

“It was a shock to realize that we couldn’t truly go home again, though. We weren’t the same, and it was impossible for most folks to begin to understand; and here at home things were changed as well. Frodo was devastated, for we’d left the Shire to protect it and it hadn’t been protected at all. And he felt that somehow by selling Lotho Bag End, that lout took it as permission to set himself up as a sort of miniature Sauron right here in the Shire. Frodo felt fully responsible and wanted to see it all set right.

“But he couldn’t begin to do it all himself, for he physically couldn’t do it any more. And once he realized that the spider bite was going to continue getting infected again and again and he was suffering from bouts of the memories on the anniversaries of when he was worst hurt he began to withdraw. Hid out in Bag End and wrote to avoid having to let folks see how badly hurt he was.”

“What about the scars we don’t see on you?” Sara asked him.

“Actually, most of the scars are where you can see them,” Merry said. “Not like Frodo’s where most of his except the finger were hidden by his clothing. But we all have scars inside, in our hearts, from some of the most awful things we saw and heard.” He looked down at his right hand. “Frodo’s left shoulder and arm would go cold and numb if anyone mentioned Mordor, the Nazgul, the Black Breath, or the Witch King of Angmar. My right hand does the same, although not as strongly, and I usually recover faster than he did.”

Saradoc winced at the use of the word did.

“You saw some of our nightmares last year when we were all at Bag End for Frodo’s birthday, and you heard some of Pippin’s and mine when we’d stay in the Hall.”

Again there were nods of agreement. Esme asked, “But what were the ones Frodo had before?”

Sam raised his chin. “Gandalf, Strider and me, we talked about that. Gandalf says as they was brought on by him havin’ the Ring. Said as he was learnin’ how to deal with it, but the dreams was gettin’ stronger and stronger all the time for him, and comin’ more and more frequent. Was havin’ dreams of Sauron lookin’ for him and Gollum lookin’ for him, too.” He shuddered with disgust. “It was right hard for Frodo, havin’ such things. I didn’t learn of them until he was lookin’ at maps as was sent to him by Lord Elrond, lookin’ for moon letters on them. Found them, too, he did. He’d been havin’ them for years by that time, from what he told me.”

Esme shuddered herself.

They soon went to bed, thoughtful and exhausted. They left the tavern late, and arrived at Brandy Hall in the early evening. But Master and Mistress had a good deal to think about now.

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