Once abed Sam dozed for a short time, then woke and lay there, restless until at last Rosie turned to look at him. “Go on with you,” she said. “You’ll not have many more chances, I fear.”
Sam sighed and nodded, and rolled to kiss and embrace her, then slid out of bed. However, instead of reaching for his dressing gown he reached instead for his Elven cloak and slipped it on, then quietly went down the passage to the next door, opened it, and went in.
Frodo lay, pale in the starlight that shone in through the window--no headache tonight, thought Sam, grateful for small blessings. As had been true much of the time lately he lay back against several pillows that raised his torso somewhat. For one who’d always preferred sleeping on his side Sam suspected this must be almost uncomfortable, certainly unnatural, for the older Hobbit. Quietly he took one of the chairs from before the fireplace and set it in the corner, then taking Frodo’s favorite oversized shawl off the back wrapped it around him for added comfort and sat back in it. Frodo’s breathing seemed easier than it had been the three nights they’d been away from Bag End, and Sam trusted it was the easing of Frodo’s heart by Gandalf’s counsel that had granted this greater soothing.
Sleepin’ like a little lad, he is, Sam thought.
He’d not sat there long before the door quietly creaked open again, and a curly head peered in, then was joined by another. Without speaking two forms clad in softly glimmering nightshirts stole into the room and approached the bed, one going around the foot to come at it from the other side. Sam found himself smiling as the two cousins on either side of the bed contemplated how best to insinuate themselves into it.
There was a sigh from Frodo. “Well, I must say I’ve waited longer than I’d thought to for you two to come in,” he said. “Get in--no, wait, Merry mine. What do you think, Samwise Gamgee, is there room for the four of us here?”
Merry and Pippin turned in surprise, peering into the darkened corners of the room.
“I thought as you was asleep, Master,” Sam said as he rose.
“With you slipping in to keep watch over me? And, as I said, I rather expected these two. Whose bed is Gandalf sleeping in, then?”
“Mine,” Pippin admitted. “I said I’d sleep with Merry so he could have one of the longer ones.”
“Very thoughtful,” Frodo responded, turning his head toward his younger cousin. He then looked back at Sam. “What do you think, Sam? Shall we make it a foursome tonight? I think it will be comforting for all of us.”
In moments the shawl and Sam’s cloak from Lorien were draped over the arms of the chair, and all four of them squeezed onto Frodo’s bed, Merry on the side toward the window, Frodo next, Sam on his other side, and Pippin on the end toward the doorway. “Why all the pillows and cushions, Frodo?” Pippin asked.
“It’s easier to breathe if I don’t lie flat, or so I’ve found. And Elrond said that it was best I do so, also.”
“They had cushions to ease him the last two nights. Don’t know as where they all come from, but they had ’em when they was needed,” Sam said softly, sliding his arm between the pillows to have it around Frodo’s shoulder.
“Best not do that,” Frodo cautioned, “or you’ll awake with your arm still asleep. Believe me--after years of having younger cousins slip into bed with me after bad dreams, I know.”
“Nonsense,” Sam yawned. “As light as you are now, Mr. Frodo, you’re no burden at all.”
Frodo turned his head further to smile into Sam’s eyes, then angled himself to curl as well as he could into Sam’s embrace. Sam could feel the body of his Master relax further as true sleep took him, and he was glad.
However, Frodo had been correct about the arm going to sleep, a discomfort Sam gladly endured for his friend’s sake.
Frodo ate a light breakfast with the others, and again retreated into the study, calling for Brendi to come with him, allowing only Gandalf to sit in on the consultation. At second breakfast he accepted only some fruit and the draught Sam presented to him, following it with a cup of apple juice. He walked out into the garden with Narcissa, where they talked and enjoyed the last of the roses and dahlias and autumn crocuses, then returned to the study where Rosie had left a mug of Sam’s athelas tea and a second of rosehip tisane and a plate of nuts and celery stuffed with cheese for them to share. There Frodo opened up the Red Book, searching out the lay Aragorn had recited for them at Weathertop, then the Lay of Nimrodel, going on to read to her a good part of their visit to Lothlorien until elevenses.
He then went to the parlor where he sat holding Elanor and speaking with Narcissa and his aunts while Rosie went about her chores, assisted by Ivy Boffin, until luncheon was ready.
He took his nap with Elanor lying next to his hip, his hand against her shoulder, and woke, markedly quiet but apparently at peace, a time later. Gandalf had fetched Strider, Jewel, Stybba, Bill, Thrush, and a couple other ponies rented from the Ivy Bush, and at a whistle Shadowfax, who’d been grazing much of the day in the Party Field, came from near the mallorn tree up the lane to Gandalf’s side. Soon all the gentlehobbits were mounted, and they rode off to the Three Farthing Stone to examine the last resting place of Sharkey.
Afterwards Sam couldn’t truly say what it was that Gandalf did, but certainly he shone with a distinctly blue Light as he stood singing in a soft voice over the grave, his eyes closed, the fine white staff held in his right hand as his left hand made movements in the air over the resting place for Saruman’s bones. That all felt something seem to snap over the surprisingly small plot of land was obvious as all shifted markedly, and seemed freer somehow as they moved once the song was done. Only Frodo appeared sadder as they returned to Bag End, and he didn’t remain up for dinner, instead retreating to his room and going to bed once he’d accepted the second draught for the day. Sam and Esmeralda took a mug of soup to him, shortly after supper was over. For Esme’s sake he drank some of it, but he was all too soon shaking his head. “I’m sorry, Aunt Esme, but I can’t seem to accept any more right now.”
“Perhaps you shouldn’t have gone with the others,” she suggested.
“I know it wasn’t necessary,” he admitted, “but I felt I ought to do so anyway. He started out well, at least.” He shook his head and looked up at the ceiling. “How one created to stand in the Presence could fall so far still disturbs me to the depth of my soul. It could so easily have happened to me, though--indeed, it almost happened to me.”
There was a knock at the door to the bedroom, and quietly Gandalf entered. “I must go now, Frodo. Is there anything else I can do before I leave?”
Frodo smiled as he shook his head. “No--just stay by Bilbo, and help him know the delights of Elvenhome for me. I only hope he can stay awake for it.”
Gandalf laughed. “You need not worry for that.”
“And when Legolas comes--stand by to comfort him. I don’t know how he’ll take Aragorn’s death, or more importantly, the Lady Arwen’s. To watch one he’s always thought of as one of his own people accept death won’t be easy, I fear.”
“I believe Gimli will choose to accompany him, which will give him great comfort.”
“Until he chooses to accept the Gift and--and go wherever it is the Children of Mahal go. But then Legolas will be there, on Tol Eressëa, and that should help him greatly when that time comes.”
“Yes, as usual you are correct, Iorhael.” The Wizard approached the bed and knelt by it, took Frodo’s hands and held them, and murmured to him in subdued Sindarin. Now and then Frodo would answer him, and at last nodded. The Wizard inclined his white head over that of the Hobbit, and gently, almost reverently kissed his brow. “Rest well, mellon nín,” he murmured. “And when you do go, go out in joy.”
Frodo smiled up at him, and for a moment both seemed to shine in the dim light of the bedroom. “May your voyage go well.”
As Gandalf reached to take up his staff from where he’d laid it on the floor he looked up ruefully. “I fear I shall be very bored. I’d planned to tell you many a tale, and now I shall be left to the company of too many who’ve heard them all before.”
All laughed as Gandalf rose to his considerable height. “Mistress Esmeralda,” he smiled, giving her a most gracious bow, “I look forward to hearing all about how you’ve spoiled your grandchildren when Sam comes to me at last.”
“He’s still not asked her,” Frodo sighed. “I’d hoped he’d speak by now, after all, and give me that satisfaction to take with me. But if she comes with her brother----”
Gandalf flashed a smile at the Hobbit. “He’s assisted many another to follow their hearts. I’m certain that when the proper time comes Meriadoc Brandybuck will follow his own.” He examined Frodo’s face for a moment. “I see you intend to be a part of it, no matter where your own spirit may roam.”
“Of course. After all, he, too, is like a brother to me, my Merry mine. I’m only sorry I won’t be present to see Uncle Sara preside this time.”
“Don’t be so certain, Frodo Baggins,” the Wizard sniffed. “You’ll be surprised at what is permitted and even encouraged.” He turned toward the gardener. “Will you walk out with me, Sam?”
Merry and Pippin looked up from the draught board they’d been sitting over unmoving for the past half hour, apparently relieved to see the Wizard come out at last. They rose hastily and followed Sam and Gandalf out the door. Together they walked down the hill in the gathering dusk, stopping at the turn of the lane. “It is here, apparently,” Gandalf said quietly, “that our Fellowship ends, here in the heart of the Shire, as this land looks to lose, unknowingly for the most part, one of its own brightest Lights. I know he would have left it anyway, but I cannot but grieve not to have him by me for what time might have been granted him.”
The green door of Bag End opened again, and Brendilac Brandybuck, accompanied by Narcissa Boffin, came out and down the steps to the lane. Gandalf watched in silence as the two joined those already about him. “You are truly leaving Middle Earth?” Narcissa asked once they were close enough for her to speak in a low voice and be heard.
“Yes, child, I go as I must.”
“And you can’t stay for--for----”
“No, lady, I may not. This time it is for another to offer Light upon the way.”
Sam felt a thrill of hope, and he looked up keenly into Gandalf’s eyes. “Then someone else....”
“If all goes well from here, he will have the guidance he needs, although it appears all has not gone particularly well to this time.”
“And there’s nothing we can do for him to help him stay?” Pippin asked.
“Do you wish to see him totally bedridden, Peregrin Took, having to struggle just to breathe at the end?”
Pippin, his face pale even in the dim light, shook his head. Suddenly he held out his arms, and Gandalf sank to one knee to embrace him, then held out his other arm to embrace all three. “I will not say, do not weep,” he whispered to them, “for not all tears are an evil. But stay by him and let him comfort you as he can, and do not fear to let him go when the time comes, as come it must.” He kissed each head gently, then at last rose, looking at Brendi and Narcissa where they stood together, holding on to one another in their mutual grief. He smiled at them. “And a special joy he intends for the two of you, if you will recognize it and rejoice to accept it when it becomes evident.” His smile grew brighter as he leaned down to set a hand on the shoulder of each. “Ah, our Iorhael was well named. And he has loved so many worthy, bright and shining ones. Know peace, children.”
The other current residents and guests of Bag End had come out to the pavement outside the door. Gandalf looked up at them as Shadowfax walked up the lane to him. The three Travelers stepped back to allow horse and rider room, and Gandalf held out his staff for Pippin to hold one last time as he gave a twisting leap to mount the great silver steed. Once astride, the Hobbit held up the rod for the Wizard to take. Staff in hand, Gandalf looked once more on those Hobbits about him, those who stood above before the door of Bag End, and those who now came out along the Row to see the sight of the one Big Folk none had reason to fear, in awe to see the changes in one they’d thought they’d known as well as a body could know such a vagabond.
“Hobbits,” Gandalf said with wonder, “must be among the most dear of all the Creator’s children. I’ve followed your history for so long, and yet you’ve always managed to relieve me and astound me and give me reason to know joy and delight and respect for your companionship.” He bowed his head in deepest respect to all, then spoke a word and Shadowfax turned toward the bridge north toward the Road. “Rejoice, all you who are Hobbits of the Shire!” he called as the great steed gathered speed and began his run to catch up with those others who also headed for the Grey Havens.
On the fourth of October the Bolger coach came up the lane to Bag End, stopping before the steps up to the gate and the round green door. Fredegar Bolger opened the door and pushed out the folding steps, then emerged, turning back to assist his sister out after him. Budgie Smallfoot, his friend and personal healer, called from the box, “I’ll take this on into Bywater to the Green Dragon and see the ponies stabled, and we’ll be back as soon as we can.” His wife Viola handed out the three cases and the hamper to the two departing passengers, and once Freddy had refolded the step and closed the door Budgie gave a chirrup as he slapped the reins, and the ponies started down toward the sharp curve halfway down to the Row and the other turning onto the way toward Bywater.
Sam came out, followed by Frodo, who was neatly dressed save for the oversized grey shawl he wore wrapped about his shoulders.
“There are some--changes to the plan,” Frodo commented once the greetings were given. “It appears--I’m not to be granted the privacy I’d counted on, although it no longer disturbs me as it did. But I’m glad you’ve come at last. I fear you each will have to sleep in an inner bedroom, and I hope, Estella, you won’t mind sharing a room with my cousin Narcissa. Ivy left a few days ago to return to Overhill, for she feels she’s done all she can and is at peace with what will come. But the entire family is gathering about me. You’ll have to share with Folco, Freddy. He arrived yesterday, you see. I hope there will be room at the Dragon for the coach and ponies, for I fear the Ivy Bush is out of stable room. Most have been considerate and have agreed to stay at one of the inns, although I do believe the Whitfoots intend to stay with Griffo and Daisy, although I’m not certain if they’ve informed them as yet. But I fear Angelica and Rico plan to impose on Ponto and Iris. I hope it is not all too stressful on her parents.”
Frodo appeared to be well enough, but up close his color was particularly pale at the moment. “What in Middle Earth?” Freddy began.
“It’s too long a story, cousin,” Frodo told him. “However, it appears I’ve not managed to be anywhere as--as secret about it all as I’d intended. Let’s go inside.”
As he led the way into the parlor Frodo sighed. “It’s a relief that most are gone at the moment. The Tooks and Brandybucks went to the Great Smial three days ago, although they intend to return tonight, I think--tonight or tomorrow morning. At the moment it’s Brendi, Folco, Narcissa, Merry and Pippin, and the four of us, and now you. I’m so glad you did come, Estella, although I wasn’t certain you would.”
“I’d heard from Melilot that Freddy was coming here and that the Master and Mistress had come here with the Thain and Aunt Eglantine, and I felt I ought to come, also. What is it, Frodo? My brother was most unhappy I insisted on coming, and won’t tell me what the to-do is all about.”
“Well, he’s not known all of it, for I’ve been far too--distracted--to let anyone know. You were all to receive letters today to advise you to come for the eighth, but I must assume you left before the Quick Post messengers reached Budge Hall.”
“The eighth? What’s important about the eighth?” she asked.
He gave her a tired smile as he sank into his chair. “I suspect on that day you would need to be here for my funeral and the reading of my will.” He reached up to rub at his left shoulder, and his eyes closed. “I’m more tired today, for some reason, even with the draught,” he said.
It was obvious Estella had thought he was joking until she saw the unfeigned pain in his eyes. “But--Frodo!” she dropped the hamper and case she’d carried, and leaned forward to take his left hand in hers. Feeling the cold in it, she looked down at it in dismay. “What is it, Frodo?” she demanded. “You mean...?”
“Yes, I mean that. I’m growing very weary, I find, and I think it will be well to rest. Don’t be upset, please, Estella. Please. I’ve had a far easier time of it for the last several days than I’d looked to know. But the journey I made was too much for this body of mine, and has taken its toll of it. I’d wanted to go quietly and without fanfare, but that, apparently, is not to be. However, the moment isn’t yet.” He gave a small smile.
“Rosie’ll have a meal on shortly, soon as Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin come back,” Sam said quietly as he took up the rug folded on the top of the chest by Frodo’s chair and draped it over his Master’s knees. “Miss Narcissa and Mr. Folco’ve said as they’ll eat while they’re out, as both have business to attend to. You feel like eatin’ with us, Mr. Frodo?” he asked.
“I’ll try, Sam, although I don’t feel like having very much.”
“We’ve a mushroom soup, or a broth.”
Frodo’s smile was still delightful. “I’ll try the soup, Sam.”
“Good enough, then.”
Yet, after that, talk turned to other things, and Estella found herself answering questions about her parents’ health and the doings in Budge Hall and Budgeford. Pippin, Merry, and Brendi, followed closely by Budgie, Viola, and their infant son, came in from the market carrying supplies, and with them came Pando Proudfoot and his little cousin Cyclamen carrying two pies, one brambleberry and one apple. Frodo brightened to see them, and as Pando carried the pies to the kitchen and Budgie and Viola were shown to their room so that Viola could nurse and change little Drogo, he drew the lass onto his lap. “What story did you think of to tell me today, Cyclamen?” he asked.
Quickly the child began telling of herself and her brother going to fight a great dragon that had carried Frodo off to its lair to keep with its great pile of gold and jewels.
He laughed. “How is it I was carried off instead of ending up getting eaten?”
“You were wearing your silver shirt you wore when you came back from the King’s city,” she said, “and the Elf sword your uncle gave you, and you were all shining and bright like the stars, and so he decided it would be more wonderful to take you and guard you with his jewels than to eat you. Anyway, with your shirt on you’d be to hard for him to eat. But it’s no fun just sitting in a dark cave with only a dragon, so you didn’t want to stay, and you were glad when we came to rescue you.”
At that moment Rosie came out to announce the meal was ready. “I’ll come back tomorrow if I can and tell you the rest,” she promised. “Mummy’ll have our nuncheon on the table, too. If not tomorrow, the day after.”
“We’ll see,” he said. “I hope you can do it tomorrow, though.”
“You be busy the day after?” she asked.
His face was more solemn, but still smiling softly as he said, “I’m afraid I might. But we’ll see.” He kissed her hair, and let her go, and watched as she followed her foster brother out the door. “Take care of her for me, please, Pando,” he asked.
The lad nodded, his face sad and slightly troubled. He was older and more experienced than Cyclamen, and understood that the concern here was that there might not be enough tomorrows for their older cousin to do all he’d like to do. Having lost his birth parents when he was not much older than his foster sister, he already had faced loss through death, and wasn’t certain he wanted to endure it again.
Once the door closed behind them, Frodo closed his eyes and leaned his head back, and slipped into a gentle doze. Sam recognized it, for he’d seen it often enough in the past few weeks. “He’ll not be comin’ to the table after all,” he advised Estella and Freddy quietly as Budgie returned from the bedrooms.
The healer looked at the drowsing form seated in the chair, his brow furrowed. “He’s even thinner.” He looked down at the ankles that showed beyond the lower edge of the rug. “Those aren’t as badly swollen as I’d looked to see,” he commented.
“The herbs as Lord Elrond give me for him do seem to work well,” Sam admitted. “But although he’s more alert with this mixture than the last one as was sent, he’s not as well as he ought to be--not by a long ways. It’s probably as good most of those as of been here’s gone at the moment, for he presses hisself to stay awake when they’re here.”
“Do you have a footstool we can put his feet up on?” Budgie asked.
A footstool was fetched from Frodo’s bedroom by Pippin along with a cushion, and Sam gently lifted Frodo’s feet to place them on the combination. He made certain a mug of water was set on the chest at Frodo’s side, and led the way to the dining room. “Too many to eat at the kitchen table right now,” he sighed. “At least the weather’s remained clear for him. Havin’ the sky clear seems to cheer him, especial at night.”
The meal was simple, a thick mushroom soup and bread, with sliced cold meats and some fruit. Sam produced small beer and cider for the company to drink, and after the Standing Silence they began to eat with no chatter. At last Freddy asked, “What has happened to bring all of these here?”
“Sam had best explain about the offer Frodo refused,” Merry suggested.
As he talked, Sam watched the eyes of the new guests widen with surprise and dismay. “They offered to allow him to go with them, and he refused?” Fredegar Bolger asked, totally at a loss to understand.
Sam nodded. “So home we come, to find as all was gatherin’ around.”
“Gandalf had found us not far from the Sarn Ford and hustled us along,” explained Pippin, “and apparently our parents realized from what they saw of him at that dinner of his that he was--dying, and drove here together from Buckland.”
Brendi sighed. “I--I had to know, as did Ordo and Oridon as his bankers of discretion. I finally screwed myself up and came. Wrote to my other clients there was serious illness in the family, and I expected I’d be able to reschedule appointments after the tenth. And apparently Narcissa Boffin saw him in Michel Delving--she’d gone to register Ivy’s new will and arrived as Frodo was leaving after registering his revised one, and he all but admitted he was fading. She told her mother and Folco, and so she and Ivy arrived not long before Frodo and Sam returned.”
“Letter I had this mornin’ from Mayor Whitfoot said as his wife and daughter’d seen Frodo after he left the Mayor’s office and realized just how ill he was, and then they got the letter last night--messenger come to the house with the letter from the deputy Mayor earlier than it said on the envelope, for he’d got word as his eldest in Tuckborough was finally ready to deliver, and he wanted to make certain as they got theirs aforehand to have to open today. Will answered it right away, he did. And Mr. Frodo got word from Missus Iris as Missus Angelica and her husband’s comin’ to stay with her and Mr. Ponto, for Missus Angelica’s always cared for her cousin, she has.”
“But what’s he ill with?” asked Estella.
“His heart is failing him,” Budgie said simply. “He’s been able to hide a great deal of it, but as it’s become worse it’s getting harder and harder to continue to do so. And the whole situation has been complicated by the effects of what happened to him, out there. He says he was near to death several times, and the others say the same. Between evil memories and an extraordinarily delicate stomach, he’s lost weight and can’t regain it properly.”
“We’ve seen two bad attacks,” Freddy added, “and he’s not likely to survive another.”
“Attacks of what?” she persisted.
“Memories the likes of which you cannot imagine,” Pippin said. “He has seen the heart of evil itself and managed to survive it. But as weak as he is becoming, he’ll not be able to bear much more.”
Estella searched his eyes, and saw a pain that was beyond her ability to fully understand. In looking at those of Merry she saw it reflected there, as was true of Sam. “But----”
“All of us fought that evil, Stel,” Merry said quietly. “Even your brother felt the effects of the Black Riders, although I’m grateful he experienced nothing worse than a very mild case of the Black Breath at the time. I had a far worse case, and it almost killed me. Frodo survived far, far worse still, and fought it with every fiber of his being, and won through; but one cannot do such a thing without being profoundly changed. Some of those who’ve fought what we did failed, and turned to join the very evil they had sought to face. Others have been so emptied inside they can barely get on from day to day. Frodo’s one of those. But he’s still seeking the Light, and--and all too soon he’ll be joining it. He went too far to find his reward here in Middle Earth.”
Estella saw the agreement present in her brother’s eyes and those of Sam and Pippin, and the acceptance in those of Rosie, Budgie, Brendi, and Viola.
Elanor put down the apple slice she’d been gumming. “Fo,” she said, turning to look at the door to the passage outside the dining room. Estella turned, but noted the doorway remained empty.