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6
6: The King's Visit

6: The King’s Visit

The King sat his horse upon the headlands, staring off to the West. He had come too late, for the ship had sailed and those who had come to bid farewell to the Ringbearers had returned Westward to the Shire. It had all been for naught, or so it appeared. He’d felt the moment when the ship had found the Straight Path at last, lifting away from the bent surface of the world of the mortal lands to take them across seas Men could no longer set eyes upon to the shores of Aman.

He sat his horse upon the headlands and watched the rolling of the waves, seen only as glimmers in the darkness of the night, which had fallen as he sat there, and felt them calling to his own heart. He, too, had eaten the lembas granted the Fellowship by the Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn; he knew now that throughout his life he would have times when the Sea Longing would take him, although as the Dúnedan and King of Arnor and Gondor he had tied himself inextricably to Middle Earth until the day of his death alone would release him from the confines of the mortal lands. How he wished for the moment, however, that he might be on the deck of that grey ship that bore the brother of his soul on his long journey, that together they would see the dawning of the day when at last that ship came within sight of white shores and glistening towers only a few mortals had ever seen.

“Cherish him!” he prayed the Valar. “Let him know easing in body and spirit, and let his Light shine fully once more that when the day comes for me I might find my way by it.”

Aragorn son of Arathorn bade goodbye in his heart to his adar, to the Lady Galadriel, to the Lord Gildor Inglorion, to Lord Erestor, to many of those who had cherished the child Estel growing up in the hidden vale of Imladris. And he bade farewell to Gandalf and to old Bilbo, grateful that Frodo went not alone of his kind to his new home. Frodo would need the support Bilbo would give him for as long as the old Hobbit might stay, he knew. And he bade farewell to Frodo Baggins, the Lord Iorhael, as he sailed to his healing.

He was almost ready to turn his horse about when the voice spoke behind him. “What does the King of Men do here on this headland?”

He turned to look down at a figure dressed in dark robes, an owl upon his shoulder. Behind him stood a taller, more familiar figure, that of Lord Círdan himself, his face shining faintly in the starlight. “Lord Radagast; Lord Círdan,” he greeted them as he inclined his head. Círdan appeared inscrutable as those of the Firstborn often did to mortals, but Aragorn sensed both amusement and compassion in him. Radagast, on the other hand, evidenced merely curiosity.

The shipwright spoke. “Their ship sailed upon the twenty-ninth. They wished to be at least a week upon the waters to his strengthening ere the sixth might come. However, I sense that he lies even now on his berth, weakened and near release, although they do not allow him to go without contest.”

“And even now they sail upon the Straight Path,” Aragorn said.

“It will serve the better for his healing,” Círdan acknowledged.

“Sam, Merry, and Pippin have returned toward the Shire?” the Man asked, unnecessarily, he knew.

“Yes, that they have. The ship set sail at sunset and they watched the Light of Eärendil borne by the Ringbearer as long as they were able to do so, remaining to the dawn ere they retrieved their ponies and returned toward their own lands.”

“Sam knows that he is granted this grace also?”

The Elf sighed. “Yes, he now does, although the Ringbearer had left him in doubt as to whether this might indeed have been offered him.”

Aragorn looked Westward once more. “Oh, Frodo--what are we to do with you?” he asked the starlit skies and the rolling glistening of the Sea. He looked back at the two who stood looking up at him. “I thank you for your words, for they comfort me, although they also raise concern, that my small brother should be in such weakened condition.”

Círdan raised his arms, and the Man saw that he bore a bag that he now offered. “Here, Estel of Imladris--your adar left this for you. He sensed you would seek to come to him, although he did not believe you would arrive in time.”

The brown Wizard spoke. “My brother will do all he can to encourage yours to remain to his fulfillment, Dúnedan. And Bilbo of the Shire is at his side. That one will know the arguments needed to draw Iorhael to remain within the bounds of Arda.”

“I rejoice this is so,” Aragorn answered. “The one force sufficient to move the will of a stubborn Baggins, I have learned, is that of an even more stubborn one.” The three of them shared a smile.

“I bid you farewell,” Aragorn said to them. “And I thank you for the comfort you prepared for all of them. I only grieve I did not come in time.”

Círdan shook his head. “I do not know that it would have been wise, youngling. His heart was already laboring, and gave a distinct lurch when he heard the approach of the two younger Periannath, that he must now bid them farewell. Whether he would have been able to bear the additional grief of a greeting and then a parting from you is, I fear, doubtful. He was near to the limit of what he might endure.”

It was a sobering thought, that his last farewell might have pushed Frodo past that limit. Aragorn took a deep, sighing breath, looked one last time over his shoulder at the place where he’d seen the great gleam of light as the grey ship lifted from terrestrial waters, in his heart entrusting those it bore one last time to the keeping of the Valar. He inclined his head again, and turned Olórin Eastward once more. “Now, Olórin. Thank you again,” he said, turning his attention back to the Elf and Wizard.

Radagast stayed him but a moment. “You have named this one after my brother?” he asked.

“I hope no offense will be taken by it,” the Man answered him.

“No, for it is a great honor, I realize. I believe you have named him wisely, child. And the gift of his heart and loyalty is well given. Go--your brothers wait for you some ways East of Bree.”

A last nod, and the King of Arnor and Gondor spoke to his steed again and they rode away.

Sometime past midnight he made a camp near the Southern borders of the Shire, and he slept deeply for one of his kind. He awoke as dawn approached, went to the stream by which he’d made his refuge and washed himself and drank, then returned to roll up his blankets. Clouds had moved in during the later night, and he realized it was likely to rain shortly, although he sensed the rain would not last long. Then he paused, turned his head to see a Hobbit looking at him from the cover of a blueberry bush that stood a few feet from where he’d rested, its leaves a brilliant scarlet as it prepared for its winter sleep.

Aragorn could see the bow the Hobbit held, strung and with an arrow at the ready, but all aimed now at the ground. The Perian appeared alarmed at being seen by this Man, for usually Big Folk had difficulty discerning their smaller brethren when they wished to remain hidden. However, this Man had experience at spotting Hobbits, having companioned five of them at various times.

Aragorn smiled. “I greet you, small Master,” he said courteously. “I was readying to prepare a dawn meal for myself. Will you join me?”

“What are you doing so close to our borders?” the Hobbit asked suspiciously.

“I rode in haste to the West, and now return Eastward to seek out my brothers, my friend.” He looked into the bag given him by Círdan and smiled. “Ah,” he said with satisfaction, “I see my adar has left for me a slab of bacon and some eggs. Will you join me in them?” He drew out the bacon and then one of his belt knives with which to shave it into slices.

At first the Hobbit appeared alarmed at the sight of the knife until he saw the use to which the Man was putting it. At last he replaced the arrow in the quiver he wore and unstrung the bow, then shouldered it, although he still watched the Man somewhat warily. “You aren’t like the others, those who have settled over there,” the Hobbit commented, indicating a hollow a bit Southeast of their position.

“No,” Aragorn said, “I suppose I’m not. I am a Ranger of Arnor, while they are settlers from South of here, I must suppose.”

“How come you got the same cloak as the Travelers?” the Hobbit asked.

The Man lifted his head in interest. “Then you know Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin?” he asked.

The Hobbit shrugged. “I’m related to three of them. And how do you know their names?”

“I’ve met them, and they’ve met me,” Aragorn answered him. “I am called Strider.” He reached into his personal bag to bring out his small pan.

His companion gave a patronizing sniff, and went back to where his own pack lay behind the bush, rummaged in it and brought out a sizable skillet. “You’ll never cook enough in that,” he commented.

The two of them soon had a fire going surrounded by rocks, and when the Hobbit judged all was hot enough he set the skillet over the fire, balanced on the rocks. Aragorn brought out the eggs, each carefully wrapped in straw and a leaf, while the Hobbit arranged the bacon. “I take it you’re related to Merry, Pippin, and Frodo through the Old Took,” he commented with a meaningful look at the bow.

The other shrugged. “Appears you do know your Hobbits,” he commented. “Yes. Beligard Took at your service, sir.” He gave as good a bow as he could from his kneeling position. “Where are you coming from?”

“I rode in haste to the Elf Havens at Mithlond, and now return Eastward to see my brothers and perhaps some of my kin,” the Man said.

“A good journey to you,” Beligard said.

“Thank you. Are you a Bounder or a Shiriff?”

“Bounder.”

Beligard Took added a couple apples and brambleberry tarts to the meal, and brought out a packet of tea as well. Aragorn brought out his wallet of leaf afterwards and they each filled a pipe and sat, companionably smoking. “How did you come by Longbottom Leaf?” asked the Hobbit.

“Merry sent me a barrel for Midsummer, and Pippin a barrel of Old Toby and a cask of ale from the Prancing Pony. They were being very generous.”

“So, you do know them, then.”

“Did you doubt me?” the Man asked him.

The Hobbit shrugged. “One never knows with Men,” he said. “Obviously you’re nothing to do with those Big Men of Sharkey’s.”

Aragorn shuddered. “Thankfully, no; and my folk have been dealing with those of them ejected from the Shire as we’ve been able to identify them. None had best trouble your people again.”

“We thank you, then.”

At last they took leave of one another, Beligard pleased to see this Man made certain his fire had been put out and was properly buried, and the eggshells and wrappings for the six eggs also properly and neatly disposed of. He watched as the bearded Man vaulted onto the back of his horse, then rode to the tree over whose branches he’d hung his belongings to reclaim them and settle them about his person.

“No saddle or bridle?” asked the Hobbit.

“No,” the Man said. “This one is not any more likely to accept such things than his sire. Well, my friend, I wish you a pleasant and peaceful period of service, and bear Strider’s compliments to the sons of Thain and Master, and to the Master of Bag End if you should see him.”

“None to Sam Gamgee?” Beligard queried, his head slightly cocked to the side.

Strider’s face became solemn, even sad. “I fear that when you come to Hobbiton you shall find Sam Gamgee is the Master of Bag End. Fare thee well, my friend.” And with a word to his great grey horse the tall Man was gone, disappearing steadily to the East.

It was late on the second day after that he came even with Elladan, Elrohir, and two other Elves from Imladris. The faces of his brothers, he realized, were as strained as his own. Elladan examined him carefully. “We were laying wagers as to whether you would arrive in time,” he said. “I take it you came too late.”

“Yes. I spoke briefly with Círdan, and with Radagast, who was with him. They tell me that Frodo was very much weakened when he left, and I was advised it was as well I did not make it to bid him farewell, for his heart was again laboring.”

Elladan looked to his twin, and then both sighed. He turned back to his mortal brother. “When I came to him last fall he was near to death, Estel; and yet he chose to live to see the birth of Lord Samwise’s first-born and beyond. Ada is by him, as are Mithrandir, Daernaneth, and Master Bilbo. If any can aid him to hold on, it is these.”

“Such is my hope. I would see him healed and able to rejoice fully once more.”

Elrohir was examining Aragorn’s mount. “How is it,” he said, a touch of envy in his voice, “that you have come to ride one of the Mearas, brother?”

Aragorn told the tale of Roheryn straining his leg in Rohan and the coming of Éomer followed by the great grey, and the horse’s acceptance of himself as its rider. The sons of Elrond were impressed, and bowed respectfully to the horse. “We greet you, brother,” Elladan said for both, “and thank you for accepting this one.” Olórin snorted, sniffed at their hands, and indicated he accepted them as companions. And so the party looked to find a place to camp.

Glorfindel joined them early on the sixth of October, apparently pleased to find Aragorn with the others. “From what I can tell all is well about the valley,” he said as he dismounted from Asfaloth, pulling from the white stallion’s back a bundle of provisions. “Have you determined what you will do now?” he asked Elrond’s twin sons.

“Estel wishes to remain a few days more to perhaps speak with Merry and Pippin once they have returned to Buckland,” Elladan answered him, “after which we have determined to go South to spend some time with himself and our sister.”

“If,” Elrohir tempered, “you do not require our presence in Rivendell, that is.”

“No, Rivendell will remain well governed while the two of you are away, and I believe the four of you will do well to be together at this time. No, go, and may the Stars light your path.”

“And you do not stand in danger of such grief as we know or are likely to know?”

Glorfindel gave an enigmatic smile. “I perhaps have more direct experience with such grief and partings than do you,” he said. “No, I will come to no great harm remaining here in the North until you choose to return.”

One of their party had stayed in hiding outside Bree, and was able to intercept Lords Halladan and Eregiel as they left the Breelands to return to Annúminas. They joined the King’s camp and exchanged such news as was to be found. Aragorn listened with interest to the description of the interview with the Master of Buckland and the Thain of the Shire and their wives.

“So,” he commented at last, “these have indeed remained in ignorance of what has happened to our friends; and now the Thain and his lady seek to understand the truth at last. A good sign, I hope, for they were still denying anything of import had occurred according to one of the most recent letters I received from Sam.”

“They were often shocked by what they heard, but appeared to be accepting what was told to them as we spoke. As for Master Saradoc, his brother, and Mistress Esmeralda—all were intent on learning as much as they could of what had happened, for it appears that while the others would not listen, Sir Meriadoc has refused to speak openly with his family of what he endured. All appeared more hopeful as we spoke.

“All were most distressed, however, by the news of the condition of Lord Frodo and his decision to leave the Shire, and spoke of him with a great deal of caring and concern.”

Aragorn gave a great sigh. “It has been difficult for all of us,” he commented. “Alas, my small brother,” he said, looking Westward. “So many love you, and care for your welfare.”

After speaking briefly of the business on which Halladan had sent their kinsman Berevrion to Gondor, the two Dúnedain took leave of their King and his companions and once more left for Annúminas.

One of the Elves offered to take a message into the Shire and bring it to Merry and Pippin once he determined where they might be, and the remaining four moved their camp West of Bree to a clearing on the opposite side of the West Road from the Barrowdowns.

Once the new camp was settled, Aragorn leaned back against a tree and closed his eyes. In time he dozed, and as his thoughts began to wander he found himself entering a dream. He stood in an indeterminate space looking down on a bed—a berth aboard a ship, he recognized. On the bed, covered to his chest, lay Frodo. Near his head, on a low stool which had been placed beside the bed, stood Bilbo, his now-sparse hair white and wispy about his face, which showed equal parts worry and exasperation. Beside Bilbo stood Elrond, the sleeves of his robe rolled up as he accepted heated towels from Lord Gildor and wrapped them about Frodo’s left shoulder and arm. A brazier hung from the ceiling, and over it had been placed a basin of water in which athelas steeped. Gildor left the small cabin to be replaced by Gandalf.

Aragorn realized he was not alone in the place from which he watched, that his mother was on his right and a Man he must assume was his father was on his left, also watching, as were a Hobbit couple opposite them. The Hobbitess looked a great deal like Merry, but with eyes as blue as Frodo’s own and with Frodo’s strikingly arched brows and long lashes; the gentlehobbit had Frodo’s aquiline nose and cleft chin, and was as handsome as Frodo, although he was considerably broader than Frodo. Were these Frodo’s parents?

Throughout the ship the attention of all was fixed on this cabin and on Frodo Baggins; one of the songs of healing was raised and echoed from the salon, personal cabins, the deck of the ship, even from the rigging and tiller.

Aragorn realized they were seeking to call Frodo back to himself from wherever his spirit wandered, and his heart was wrenched by the paleness and thinness of the Hobbit’s face, the worry line between his brow deeper than he remembered and not eased by his unconscious condition. “Oh, Frodo,” the Man murmured as he set himself to step out of himself to follow after the wandering spirit and perhaps call it back to its proper place.

This time the Place where he found himself was one he’d seen rarely before, at times when his adar had been caring for Elves hurt to the death of the body. It gave the appearance of a great field of green grass and flowers of all colors and kinds, many of which he didn’t recognize. On the beyond the field rose a great edifice that he recognized with awe as the Halls of Waiting; and there was on the other side of the field the beginning of the Way that led to the Halls and the gardens beyond them. Aragorn saw no sign of the Gates of Mithril with which he was familiar and between whose leaves Frodo had stood the last time he’d sought to call the Hobbit back to his body. Had Frodo already gone through the Gates and was this vision simply an assurance Frodo was dead? Or had something altered for his friend that this time he was able to approach the Halls more directly?

Frodo stood still on the near side of the field, his attention fixed on the building. Almost Aragorn approached him, but a hand on one shoulder held him back. He looked up to see the face of the one he thought to be his own father looking into his own. No, our son, let the Perian try it first. If he fails, perhaps this small one will then respond to you.

Bilbo came from behind Frodo to stand at Frodo’s left shoulder, looked beyond his younger cousin at the greatness of the Halls briefly, he gaze fascinated and almost eager to go to them himself. But at the last moment he turned away, focused his attention on Frodo as he placed his hand on Frodo’s shoulder, physically turning him to look into his eyes. “Frodo, look at me!” Bilbo commanded.

In this place there was no worry line between Frodo’s eyes, and his expression reflected not pain but distance. The thread continuing to tie him to his life in Arda was most tenuous, and he felt full ready, Aragorn realized, to snap it and go on. But the mere presence of Bilbo there beside him strengthened that cord whatever Frodo’s own desires might be. Aragorn found himself offering his own thought to the words Bilbo spoke: It is not yet your time, Frodo. Come back to us. You have joy and delight yet to know ere you come there as you must. But don’t leave us merely because you can!

Frodo’s expression began to become more present, more alive again, and it was most alive with frustration. For a moment Frodo’s awareness flickered beyond Bilbo’s presence, seeming to perceive Aragorn watching, then focused back on his older cousin. Then all were again in the cabin looking down once again on Frodo as he came awake. “What would your mother say to you spurning a gift before you’d properly received it?” Bilbo was asking.

There was a significant amount of resentment and stubbornness to be seen in Frodo’s face as he looked back at Bilbo, and Aragorn found himself wanting to laugh. Then again Frodo’s attention flickered briefly away from Bilbo, to the watching Aragorn.

You, too, would bind me here to Arda, brother? the question was asked.

No, small brother—I would not bind you to any place. But I would see you know joy ere you leave us completely. I will not see you again in this life, but I would still have you know the healing offered you, body and spirit, before you accept the Gift in the end. It is a different gift that you are offered now. Will you not at least unwrap it as Bilbo suggests, and test to see whether or not it is good?

He was aware of the Elfstone he wore at the neck of his shirt suddenly flaring with Light, and he offered this to Frodo for his strengthening, and without volition Frodo accepted it; at which time in Aragorn suddenly awoke in the clearing where they now camped.

“What happened, gwador nín?” asked Elrohir. “The Elessar suddenly flared with surprising brilliance, just as you reawakened.”

The Man shook his head. “I apparently watched Frodo choose to live and heal,” he answered. “It was rather disconcerting.” He looked into the faces of his Elven brothers. “Describe to me the appearance of my father, please,” he asked.

The twins looked at one another, then back at him. “Much as you yourself look, Estel, only not quite as worn. His face was perhaps somewhat longer than yours, and his eyebrows not as straight,” Elrohir said.

“He had a mole low on his left cheek,” added his brother, “and his hair parted more to the left as well.”

Both were intrigued by their mortal brother’s smile. “I see,” he commented. He looked from one to the other. “I apparently stood by both my parents, and nearby were what I must assume were Frodo’s parents as well. All four of them appeared intent on seeing Frodo’s choice, although I cannot think why mine should be drawn to stand witness.”

Glorfindel had a peculiar smile. “Not all of the Creator’s actions are clearly explained to us, son to Arathorn and Elrond both. Do not worry yourself unduly about this at this time.”

Aragorn nodded, then sighed. “At least I have hope the grace hasn’t been offered in vain,” he said, at which the others nodded.

On the tenth Pippin, Merry, and Sam rode out of the Shire to the camp, and Aragorn was relieved to see them at last. The faces of all three showed evidence of healing grief, grief Aragorn himself shared. He was amused to see that all three were examining him and his companions much as they were being examined in return. “You all right?” Merry asked him, accepting his nod in response.

Aragorn explained how Arwen has advised him that Frodo had chosen at the last and how he’d received the gift of Olórin in Rohan after Roheryn had temporarily lamed himself. “I was riding toward Imladris when I met my brothers coming to join me. We camped here hoping that we could hear from you what happened as Frodo, Adar, and the Lady Galadriel rode to the Havens. What can you tell me?”

“Little enough,” Sam said quietly, and he sighed before he answered their friend’s request.

“And you were told by Adar that he’d had time to see to it all he loved had come to good?” the King continued. At Sam’s solemn nod he sighed, looking at the other two. “How was it you came in time?”

Merry and Pippin looked at one another, and at last Pippin described Gandalf’s arrival and words and the lembas given them to be stuffed into saddlebags and pockets; then the mad ride across the Shire and over the Western Marches to the Havens; how Gandalf had left them early on the last day to hold things to their arrival; the arrival and nearly wordless leave-taking. “Frodo himself said nothing,” Pippin said, confirming what Sam had already told. “He appeared both upset to see us, and relieved at the same time. The look on his face was—distant. He no longer belonged here, here in Middle Earth. It was Elrond who accepted Bilbo’s choice to board the ship; Gandalf took Frodo’s hand once he committed himself.”

“When he hugged us,” Merry said softly, “it was one of the most—most intimate of embraces I’ve ever felt from anyone; but at the same time he was already withdrawing. He was the thinnest I’ve ever seen him save when he lay on the bed in Ithilien. He was so pale, and it was as if his body barely held his Light within it.”

Aragorn held out his arms to Merry and drew the Hobbit to him. “If any can convince him to accept the grace fully, Meriadoc Brandybuck, it is those with him. I have been assured repeatedly that the Lady, our adar, Gandalf, and Bilbo particularly will not allow him to go without great argument.”

“As long as he doesn’t go Baggins stubborn on all of them,” Merry muttered, and all found themselves chuckling unexpectedly.

“I think he’ll be well opposed this time,” Aragorn said, releasing Merry and smiling into his eyes through his tears. “He’s outmatched at four to one, you see.”

Pippin laughed clearly. “Frodo might indeed manage to give just Bilbo a contest of wills; but with the others to back Bilbo up? I think Aragorn’s right, Merry.”

Sam said quietly, “Well, if he managed to make it through the sixth, I suspect as he’s doin’ well enough now. If he could get past the memories and all.”

Merry nodded solemnly. “Freddy and Budgie have told us how strongly it all hit him the last two times, and what Rosie told us of what her father saw that first March thirteenth…. It’s been getting worse and worse each time, each anniversary.”

Lord Glorfindel and one of the two others who’d accompanied Elladan and Elrohir had prepared a meal, and now began serving it to the four mortals among them. Aragorn looked surprised to find himself presented with platter and cup, and thanked the Elven warrior before turning his attention back to the three Hobbits.

“How do things go with your parents?” he asked Pippin.

Pippin shrugged and looked down at his plate. “Well enough.” He smiled as he raised his eyes to meet Aragorn’s. “Frodo apparently finally read to them out of his book all the things we’d done. They’ve apologized to us, and do truly want to know and understand now. And they’ve listened—truly listened—at last. It is such a great relief!” He glanced sideways at Merry and gave a twisted grin. “And even my beloved cousin here has managed to forgive them.”

“And that wasn’t a particularly easy thing for me to do,” Merry admitted. “They’ve been driving poor Pippin and Frodo about mad with all their denial and stubborn insistence the story be retold without all the things they couldn’t believe in.”

After a time of mutual silence Merry asked, “What will you do now?”

“I must return to Gondor now, and Minas Tirith. Yet I can’t hold the trip wasted, for I’ve seen much along the way, if only fleetingly; and I’ve been able to speak with Halladan and Eregiel about Arnor’s situation. And I’ve seen you three, of course.”

Pippin stood up and at attention. “For your journey—do you wish me to accompany you, my Lord? It is, after all, my duty as a Guard of the Citadel and your personal Guard.”

Aragorn gave him a smile, rose, and set his hand on his Hobbit Guardsman’s shoulder. “No, your leave is not up as yet, although you are to hold yourself in readiness for when I come North officially. I suspect we will be holding conferences between the folk of the various lands that make up the North-kingdom in a few years—two or three years at the most. At that time we’ll be asking the Thain or his representative to attend those conferences, and probably others from the Shire as well.”

Pippin saluted solemnly. “We will be ready, Lord King,” he said, then smiled. “My da is going to attend these conferences if I have to bring him tied up in a sack!”

At last they took leave of one another, with Aragorn mounting Olórin and bowing deeply to them from the grey’s back, then turning back toward Bree and the road South, accompanied by the sons of Elrond, Lord Glorfindel, and one of the two Elves who’d been part of the company. Then they went to their ponies and mounted them, turning West back toward the Shire, escorted by the Elf who’d brought the message to them that the King wished to speak with them.

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