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53
The Lost Restored

Especially for Radbooks, Pearl Took, Soledad, and Lindelea, with nods to Fiondil and Alassiel. And with thanks for a delightful tea! Heh! And great thanks to RiverOtter for the Beta.


~~~

The Lost Restored


His Light was unveiled as he lifted up his arms and called, and Gwaihir, Lord of the Great Eagles, came to him.

“What would you have of me?”

“Call for two of your vassals--we must fly more swiftly than the steeds of the Nazgûl.”

“The north wind blows swiftly, but we shall outstrip it, my friend.” So saying, the great bird leaned down as low as he could so that the Wizard could clamber up his back and settle himself just above Gwaihir’s wings. Gandalf flattened himself as well as he might against the back of the Eagle’s head as the great creature raised his wings and sprang into the air, crying out to call to him Landroval and Meneldor, two of his closest kin, and with but the briefest of circles over the battlefield the three Eagles headed south and east to where Orodruin was tearing itself to pieces.

As they approached they could see two figures balanced precariously on a hillock of slag and ash at the bottom of the volcano, each leaning in against the other to hide their eyes from the horror about them. As the Great Eagles swept closer they swooned away and fell, their fingers still touching even as they looked to give over their lives. Landroval swooped down and scooped up one of the figures, while Meneldor caught up the other, both turning immediately to speed away northwest again. Once Gwaihir circled recklessly through the ash and fumes let out by the ruin of the mountain, dodging debris as both desperately sought for the other who ought also to be there.

“I see nothing!” Gwaihir called over his shoulder.

One last sweeping gaze did Gandalf give before going still, listening within, then crying back, “Nay--there is nothing left here for us to find. He perished with the Ring Itself! Hurry--we must go more westerly. The Dúnedan has been brought free of the devastation of Sauron’s creatures to await us!”

Three great beats of the mighty wings and the Windlord was even with the others, then leading them over the Ephel Dúath to where Aragorn had been carried by Shadowfax, back to where most of the healers had been left within the far northern confines of Ithilien. As they swept over the last of the escarpments of the Mountains of Shadow they saw that the healers’ camp had been set in readiness, that fires were already lit and kettles of water set to heat, that blankets had been made ready, and that the first of the wounded were being brought to them in the wagons sent now onto the battlefield. And they saw the King himself standing near an open place where they might light, already reaching to take the body held by Landroval even as he noted that held by Meneldor and that the only burden borne by Gwaihir himself was the swiftly dismounting Wizard.

“Are they alive?” he asked briefly.

“Barely. There is hope--Estel.”

“But not----”

“Nay, although I’d looked to carry him out in my own arms, were he to be found.”

Aragorn nodded distractedly as he looked back to the meager body held by Landroval. Gandalf could see the muscle of the Man’s jaw work, the grief and compassion he was even now schooling that he be able to do all that could be done for these two small heroes....

But the third! “I feel Gollum may yet have a part to play, for good or ill, ere the end.” Was that not what he’d said to Frodo?

Why, Atar?

He recognized himself he could not survive Its destruction, my faithful servant. Even these did not look to survive that. They were willing to sacrifice themselves that the rest of Arda might remain safe. Their sacrifice is accepted and their lives given back again to know the full fulfillment due each of them. But It stole even more from him than it did from either of these. At least he is now safely passed through the Fire into my embrace.


The Istar cradled Sam’s body to him, carrying it within the tent where baths had been set ready for them. There were burns, cracked skin, blood almost baked onto clothing and skin on his sleeves and shoulders, in his hair and down his face, although Gandalf was willing to wager a goodly portion of it was Frodo’s. He could see, however, two wounds on the head--one on the temple and the other on the brow. And the thinness--Sam Gamgee was never intended to be emaciated--this he knew with every sinew of his being. But what must Sméagol have been like, then? He gave a glance at the totally limp form Aragorn was already setting down on the makeshift table and felt his insides clench, for Frodo was even sparer than he remembered Gollum having been....

Could they even be called back? Looking at the total slackness of Frodo’s body he wondered, even as he felt the authority of the King in the invocation Aragorn was murmuring steadily under his breath as he removed Frodo’s clothing to see him bathed.

There was a bustle about the tent that held them as they worked to cleanse the blood and filth from the bodies of these two. It was quite some time before Legolas looked in briefly to tell them that Peregrin had been found. Gandalf looked up from where he was just beginning to dry Sam’s hair, startled to realize it was now evening. Aragorn was even then lowering Frodo’s body one last time into a fresh tub of water, hoping to strip it of the last of the grime and blood before he saw it anointed and settled onto a cot.

Aragorn was as weary as he’d ever seen the Man as they finally straightened from the cot where the two of them had been laid, called back to their lives within Arda and lying together deep in healing sleep, at least for now. “I need proper beds for them, with multiple feather mattresses with lavender and rosemary and rose petals worked into them. With no fat to their bodies their skin will soon begin to break down seriously if there is not a good deal of padding under them. Perhaps a sheepskin with fleece for each of them to lie on...clean sheets.” He looked at the healer who’d worked side by side with them here, a young Man whose competence and great compassion had drawn Aragorn’s attention during the long night after the victory in Minas Tirith. “Eldamir, if you will bring what you can to see to the closing of the wound on his hand--we may have bone splinters to remove....” He was almost swaying as he stood.

“You must rest, Lord,” the healer cautioned.

“I must see to Pippin first,” Aragorn rejoined, drawing to himself the power of the Elessar stone he wore. “He will not come back to himself for the others, I fear.” He looked down on the two, too-still forms lying there. “I will return, my small brothers, my valiant ones. And when I do I hope to bear word of Pippin’s progress toward healing again.”

*******


By the next evening they were moving further south, and now each of the three desperately wounded Hobbits was wrapped in a separate sheepskin. A laden wagon had approached the island of Cair Andros two days previous, driven by a farmer from near the ancient town of Halabor. He carried fifteen sheepskins with the pelts still attached and two bedsteads with him. “I am no fighting man,” he explained to those who labored there on the island, “but I would help as I can. These skins were to go to Halabor to be sold at the next fair. But I’d ween the healers could do with them. The bedsteads belonged to my daughter who married a year back, and my son who was slain by raiding easterners who took much of our flock of sheep. May they comfort someone here.... And my wife--she sent posies of flowers and herbs to help sweeten the air, and pots of ointment made of the lanolin our sheep produce into which pounded herbs and flowers have been mixed. May they ease those who have fought hardest.”

From the fortress of Cair Andros were brought featherbeds stuffed with finest down from a storehouse long ago stocked by the healers and thankfully ignored by the orcs who’d taken the island. These were added to the wagon, and the wagon ferried across to the east bank of Anduin and driven as far as the Field of Cormallen where it had been agreed the main army would encamp, well away from the noisome lands that lay between the Dead Marshes and the ruins of Mordor. Once they reached the new camp where the trees grew in groves and the ground was covered by grass rather than undergrowth and the land well drained, the Hobbits, along with all of the rest of the wounded, would rest the better. Aragorn carried Frodo’s body in his arms as they rode, even as Elladan carried Sam and Gandalf carried Pippin. Perhaps they ought to have traveled in the wagons with the rest of the wounded, but Aragorn had stated his belief they would more easily stay with them should they lie in arms they sensed belonged to ones who cared for them. Certainly Shadowfax was carefully choosing his way so as to jostle Pippin as little as possible.

Even so he felt the Hobbit seeking to shift in fevered dreams. “Hush, sweetling,” he murmured even as he’d heard Paladin Took murmur the same once when he’d visited the Shire when Pippin as a lad had been ill. “Rest easily, beloved one--you are not alone.” He looked back to where Aragorn rode nearer the wagons of the healers, knowing that the Man wished desperately for some movement from the Hobbit he carried. With that thought he held his own beloved burden the closer.

They are warded about by many who love and honor them, faithful one.

He could sense many of his brethren who’d long served Estë and Irmo--and Námo--encircling the company and remaining close to the emergent King and the one he bore, and was grateful. And by Aragorn, unnoticed, he thought, marched Eonwë himself.

Aragorn was sitting Frodo up as he rode, preparing to trickle more precious fluid into his mouth--a task that must be repeated frequently, considering how dry the two bodies had been when found. Sam had obviously been stinting himself for Frodo’s sake during the last stages of their dark journey; yet now, although he had not the strength to suck as yet, Sam at least would automatically wrap his tongue about the lamb’s nipple attached to the water skin used with him, and would swallow naturally. Frodo, on the other hand--he seemed at this point to be only able to swallow for Aragorn, and care had to be taken that he not strangle on it. They’d had to use boluses on the Ringbearer--an indignity Gandalf and Aragorn agreed would not be told to him once he was awakened. Aragorn was singing the invocation for healing as he coaxed Frodo to accept the slow drops of thin broth. When at last he looked up to catch the Wizard’s eyes there was a look of guarded triumph that told that Frodo had been able to accept more than he’d had before.

And I would have gladly shredded fish with my bare hands and fed it to Sméagol, he thought.

At least he rejoices now not to need such service, Olórin.
Gandalf could feel the humor and love that reminder carried, and smiled, beginning to hum an ancient lullaby under his breath as he carefully slipped the nipple of the bottle he carried into Pippin’s mouth. He smiled as, even though deep in healing sleep, Pippin yet sucked eagerly at the broth contained within it. My beloved, greedy Took, he thought. Greedy for food; greedy to learn, greedy for all that life can bring you. Ah, but it’s brought you a good deal of pain this time--but as we all know, once you’re able to sit up again you’ll be eager take in all the beauty of this place and the joy of being with those you love that you can. He was aware of an unseen but familiar hand upon his shoulder, and a helpful breeze gently brushed a curl away from Pippin’s eyes.

At last they reached the proposed camp. A litter was brought to lay Pippin upon, and once he was carried to the healer’s tents where accommodations had been set for his cracked ribs, broken leg, and splinted hip, Elladan came forward with Sam to surrender him to the Wizard in Pippin’s stead. Eldamir had ridden ahead of the main host, and had seen the two bedsteads unloaded and set up within a stand of beech trees, and even now Berevrion of Annúminas and Elphir of Dol Amroth were themselves seeing the straw mattress covered with featherbeds, sheepskins with pelt side up, and fresh linens. They’ve been rinsed in violet water, he realized as he laid Sam’s body gently on one of the beds.

Aragorn paused in the act of laying Frodo on the other. “His spirit is stronger,” the Man murmured. “The scent--it heartens him somehow.”

“Violets are a flower he and his Aunt Esme both favored, as I recall,” Gandalf grunted.

Aragorn was suddenly pulling the form he held away from the bed, and the Wizard could see the spreading streak of dampness down his side. Gandalf was instantly alert, knowing how the body could react at the moment of release, but Aragorn was quickly smiling ruefully at him. “Another detail we will not share with him once he’s fully back with us,” he whispered as he saw the slight form unwrapped, and he called for fresh water to be heated for the cleansing of the Cormacolindo.

*******


He wasn’t certain what had happened, but he no longer felt any heat about him--indeed things were comfortably cool. Yet he was aware of a great Light about him, and he was reluctant to waken fully lest he find himself once more in the Sammath Naur with the glare of the Fire about him. He’d--he’d fallen--he was dimly aware that was true. He’d fallen--fallen with the Precious! But now that thought brought him not delight but disgust. How--how had he come to want that?

Waken, beloved child. The nightmare is past, and it is time to rejoice in the Day given you. The voice was familiar, but he had the feeling it had been long and long again since he’d last heeded it. He sensed humor when it again sounded in his heart. Last heeded? Oh, I agree it has been a time since you heeded me, but once you did know me. Waken.

He came to full awareness, and realized there was indeed Light and to spare about him, filling him, cleansing him. He looked down--and saw hands he barely remembered, the flesh pinkish rather than grey; his feet covered with a down of hair rather than being smooth and slightly webbed. And about his face fell not lank strands but a curtain of hair, dark brown and with a slight curl to it. How long had it been since he’d felt such about his face and neck?

“Sméagol?”

“Sméagol!”

He looked about and saw them coming, and he cringed back, remembering what he’d done....

Do not fear, child, but listen to them.

“No! Oh, no--not now! Sméagol hurt them--betrayed them--killed him--killed him dead, he did! No--don’t make me----”

But there was no time for further protests, for they were upon him--Déagol; his grandmother; his father, who’d disappeared when he was almost too young to remember, taken by the orcses; and his mother, who’d died not long afterwards along with the sister who hadn’t lived more than an hour.

And Déagol put his arms about Sméagol, at which Sméagol whimpered with fear; but there was no shaking--only a fierce hug. “Oh, Sméagol--you have come! I’ve wanted to thank you--you saved me from that!”

He tried to pull away, but the hug grew fiercer, more filled with joy. “But I hurted you--I hurted you, I did!”

“Yes, you did--but to waken here and find I was freed from that thing! Oh, Sméagol, you can’t believe what It wanted me to do! It wanted me to hurt you! It wanted me to hurt Grandmother! Oh, Sméagol--It didn’t wish me to be happy any more, or to delight in the river and the sun and the good food we had....”

And Sméagol knew, knew all too well just what kind of life he’d spared his friend, the friend who’d been as a very brother to him! How could he have felt It was more important than Déagol--than his family?

And his grandmother was reaching to take him into her embrace next. “Oh, my precious one--how I sorrow I didn’t see you’d been taken by something greater than you! But you’re free of It now--you’re our Sméagol again!”

And then his parents were embracing him, expressing their grief that they’d been forced to leave him behind; and he saw a shy figure he realized was the sister lost to him with his mother....

But two he looked to see were not there.

Master--Master--where is he? Where is the fat one? I betrayed them, too! Sméagol betrayed them--hurt kind Master!

Yea, you hurt both of them--there is no disputing that. But know this--in doing so, you saved them--saved them both. Behold!


And he looked as directed, and saw----

----Saw the one who’d tied him and led him with a rope about his neck back to the Elves--the nasty Elves----

----The Elves who brought him fish and fruit and fresh meat and sweeter water than he’d known in years and the juice of wholesome fruits; who gave him not a bare cell but a spacious room with a soft bed; who brought him out of doors to the tall tree and allowed him to climb it that he might feel the wind on his face and begin to rejoice in the beauty of the world again. Nasty, had he called them?

And even this one had not treated him badly until after he’d bitten the Man’s hand. At the time the act had felt sweet; but now he realized it had been vile, and he hated himself for having done so.

By the Man was the Wizard, the Grey One with the Light at his heart--he’d threatened Sméagol; threatened him with fire! He’d frightened Sméagol, he had! Made him tell his secrets! Made him admit he’d killed his cousin, and been expelled from his family hole!

But the Wizard had first been kind, if impatient. He’d asked nicely, and hadn’t truly hurt Sméagol after all. And he’d called for bread and fish and a flagon of water, and had advised the Elves to be gentle with him.

And he saw the fat one--and Master--Master who’d loosened the rope from about his ankle, who’d spoken to him kindly, who’d looked at him as if--as if he were a person again, a real person, not just a freakish creature with no worth left to him--Master, who’d truly understood what had happened to him--Master, who’d wished good for him!

And even the Fat One, for all his wariness and hard words, had never truly hurt him!

Look at them! Look at what they’d come to! Master shouldn’t look that way, as if he--as if he were dead!
Again he began to whimper, although at once the Light was again wrapping Itself about him with comfort and reassurance--and love, even as he stood securely--and safely--between his grandmother and Déagol, his parents behind him, each with a hand on his shoulder.

Look again, best beloved. See how they are being held with competence and love, how they are being cared for, how that love protects them even as now you again feel that protection about yourself.

“But his hand--Master’s hand--it’s wrapped in bandages--Sméagol did that--I did that--to get that! Sméagol did that--bit off his finger!”

It was needful, child--It had taken him at last, and had It remained with him he would have been lost. Yes, you took It, but did not seek to master It and so It could not take you, either, at the end. It was enough for you to hold It once more, even as It betrayed you that last time--betrayed you and Itself. Rejoice, child--It can betray no one else, not ever again. You did what was needful, and now you know your reward. Too much of darkness and isolation have you known. He gradually brought you back toward the Light, and this is all he wished for you and more, that you might be once again Sméagol and no more slave to It.

*


Gandalf felt eyes watching him and Aragorn and paused, turning to look up. He felt that Love focused on the four now within the grove, and realized that the Light of Eternity was pressing close to the barriers of Time that someone might be reassured. He felt strengthened, and noted that his friend was also responding to that special warmth as he focused his attention on seeing Frodo’s body cleansed and anointed and dressed anew in a clean shirt donated by one of those who’d marched with them to the Black Gate--the Men who’d survived the battle competed for the honor of sending what they could to the needs of the three Hobbits. He thanked that Presence for Its concern and reassurance, and turned his attention again to seeing Samwise made comfortable.

*******


Eldamir was looking into the tent where the Wizard rested in the early afternoon. “Mithrandir--Mithrandir--it has happened! He moved, Mithrandir--he not only moved his head--he turned himself slightly in his sleep!”

Elation filled the old Man’s body he wore as he swiftly rose. “At last! Does the Lord Aragorn know?”

“I sent the guard from the door of the enclosure to bear word to him. He knows by now!”

Aragorn was already emerging from his tent as Mithrandir let the flap to his fall behind him, and the look they shared was full of mutual gladness and thanksgiving to the Powers who also saw to the strengthening of these two.

Merry sat on a stool between the two beds, holding a hand of each in his own. “Frodo turned on his own, Gandalf!” he said with a fervent gladness as they entered. “He turned on his own! He’s getting stronger! Oh, Aragorn, isn’t he getting stronger?”

The word was spreading swiftly through the camp, and they began to hear cheers and the joyful sound of laughter and singing from the Men.

The initial pavilion raised over the two beds had been removed once it was realized that Frodo and Sam were distressed by it. Now only a carefully anchored canvas curtain stood about them, sheltering them from drafts and the importuning attentions of curious soldiers, many of them desperately young and thoughtless. There was no roof to block sunlight, moonlight, and starlight or the sight of clouds and sky--only the shifting leaves of the sheltering beeches were between the Hobbits and the brightest of the light of Anor when she was highest. And they rested the more easily for this. As Aragorn leaned over Frodo’s bed there was the slightest hitch of protest in his breathing, the least movement of Frodo’s head as he sought to escape the slight shadow.

“Oh, Frodo--you do come back to us, do you not? Ah, my beloved small brother!”

“Go, Merry, and tell Pippin. Even though he’s not awake yet himself it will bring him easing to know.” So saying, Gandalf lifted the Brandybuck off the stool and set him on his feet.

“Yes--I need to tell Pippin! Oh, Gandalf, I’m so glad!”

As Merry hurried off to rejoice in holding Pippin’s hand and sharing the news the Wizard moved the stool to the foot of the beds, allowing Aragorn to kneel between them and hold the hands of each in his own, watching with joy in his heart. It appeared Frodo would live indeed!

Some time later he made his way to the tent where Pippin lay on a low cot padded again by one of the sheepskins. Merry lay sleeping on the second cot that had been set there by his younger cousin’s, one hand lying open with Pippin’s near one lying on it, as if Merry had been holding it as he drifted off. Gandalf smiled with gentle pleasure as he lifted Merry’s blanket and carefully covered the sleeping Hobbit.

As he straightened, he heard a weak voice whisper, “Gandalf?” Pippin’s eyes were cracked open in his face, which was bruised from his helmet having been pressed into it as the troll had fallen of him. “Gandalf?” This time the whisper was perhaps a bit stronger. “Am I...?” He blinked, then continued. “No--suppose not. I hurt--hurt too much.”

“You hurt too much for what?”

“To be--dead.” The whisper sounded utterly reasonable.

The Wizard had to suppress a laugh. “I must suspect you’re right.”

“It’s over?”

“The battle? Yes--it’s over.”

“Not dead--we won?”

Gandalf’s smile returned and grew wider. “Yes, Frodo and Sam--they made it!”

“The Ring--It’s gone?”

“Yes! The quest was accomplished.”

“Safe?”

“Safe? Who? Frodo and Sam? Oh, yes, my dear Took--they are safe now.”

“Merry?”

“He’s right here--here beside you. He fell asleep waiting for you to awaken. He’ll be most disappointed.”

“Don’t--don’t tell him. When he--when he wakens, I’ll--I’ll wake up then. Let him--let him think--the first time.”

“If you wish.” Gandalf brushed the hair from Pippin’s brow fondly.

At last the Took asked, “Gollum?”

“Dead. He died, taking It into the Fire.”

Pippin gave a slight nod, then grimaced with the pain the movement, slight as it was, cost him. “I see.” Then, after a moment he added, “Poor creature.”

Gandalf was touched that the Hobbit was concerned. “Yes, poor Sméagol. But now you should rest.” He picked up an invalid’s cup filled with water that lay nearby and held it to Pippin’s lips; the Took drank gladly, but seemed as glad to close his eyes and relax, smiling slightly as Gandalf guided Pippin’s hand back to touch Merry’s once more.

“My Merry,” Pippin whispered, and slipped back into sleep.

*******


Frodo lay back, filled with conflicting emotions. He was alive--and Sam was alive, and beside him. How had that happened?

He’d known from the time he’d held the Ring up for the members of the Council of Elrond to see It that he could not bear to let It out of his possession, a realization that had been confirmed later when Bilbo had asked to see It and he’d seen his beloved older cousin as a slavering, wretched creature hungering for It. It had been mostly as a result of that realization that he’d offered to take the Ring to Mordor. Hadn’t Gandalf himself commented on how Frodo was already sufficiently ensorcelled by It that he’d not been able to throw It into the parlor fire in Bag End?

He’d been warned by both Gandalf and Aragorn that the Ring would draw evil creatures to Itself, and hadn’t that been true? The Black Riders had hounded them from Hobbiton to the Fords of the Bruinen; and there’d been the Wargs in Hollin, the inexplicable wrath of Caradhras that had almost destroyed them during the abortive attempt on the pass, the assault by the Watcher within the water before Moria, the attack by the orcs and cave troll while they’d gathered about the tomb of Balin, the coming of the Balrog culminating with that confrontation between it and Gandalf and Gandalf’s fall. And over the past few nights they’d been aware of the renewed hunt along the route of the River, and Sam and Aragorn had both admitted to seeing Gollum following their boats, propelling his log with his own hands and feet to keep up with the Elven crafts.

Gandalf and Elrond had both warned him that the Ring would call to others within the Fellowship and would seek to corrupt them. Certainly he’d recognized that as true there within Lórien, and he’d not truly been surprised by Boromir’s attempt to wrest It from him at Amon Hen. The idea that the rest of the Fellowship were also under Its assault had finally hit home, however, as a result of that struggle. How could he remain with them when he knew It was working to twist the reasoning and hearts of all of them? Isildur hadn’t been able to destroy It so long ago, and he was by report one of the greatest of Kings; Men were apparently particularly susceptible to Its siren call. The idea that Aragorn might fall victim to the same influence terrified him, and for the most part due to his own realization that while he had no qualms against defying Boromir or question of his own ability to escape the warrior the same was not true in the case of Aragorn. Aragorn had a deeper mind and a stronger will than did the son of the Steward of Gondor, and a far better appreciation for what others might be moved to do. Frodo had no illusions that he might be able to either withstand Aragorn’s reasoning or his strength of body or will or to evade him for any length of time even if he were to put on the Ring and use It to disappear. As to what he might be able to do should Legolas or Gimli be caught by Its lure he had no idea.

The final reason he had broken from the others on that fateful day they’d rested at Parth Galen, however, had been due to the decision that he would not take anyone else to certain death. From the moment he’d realized someone must carry the Ring to Mordor to Its destruction he’d known it was most likely whoever did that would not return; his surety that this mission would cost the lives of all who took the last steps up the mountain had simply grown all along the way. By the time they’d left Lothlórien he’d been certain this was true, and his greatest dread had been having to separate from the others, knowing all would fight his decision--except perhaps Aragorn. Merry, Pippin, and Sam would have been the worst, and they were, of course, the ones he wished most to see live to return home. But how was he to slip away, or find his way to, much less into Mordor? The only way into that land he’d ever heard of was through the Black Gate--and how he was to enter there in secret he could not imagine. But that gate must open to allow troupes of soldiers to pass through it. Perhaps he could watch it long enough to see how it was manned, and perhaps find a way to get weapons and armor or clothing sufficiently similar to that of a group that appeared to come and go regularly that he could perhaps follow one such line through the gate.

He’d not been comfortable if the Ring weren’t in his pocket for some years, and to assure himself that it would stay there he’d sewn loops into the pockets of his trousers and waistcoats, and had had one of his Bolger cousins who did some work in the making of jewelry make a fine chain of soldered rings and the sturdiest clasp available to thread through both loops and Ring. Even so, there had been a couple evenings when he’d been at the Green Dragon when he’d found the Ring hanging by Its chain from the pocket as he prepared to leave, and had sensed growing anger and frustration from some outside source when he’d pushed It hastily back where It belonged. He'd had the impression that Ted Sandyman might have tried to relieve him of the contents of his trousers pocket on one of those occasions; but the second time he was certain no one had been anywhere near that side of him or his waistcoat to have caused the Ring to become dislodged. He himself had felt particularly distressed that second time, feeling abnormally terrified just by the thought of It being lost to him. He’d told no one--he’d not even mentioned the events to Gandalf, suddenly convinced that if the Wizard were to learn of them he’d find reason to remove the Ring from him, naming him an untrustworthy as well as an unworthy steward for the wonder of It.

Now he realized that the Ring had merely been seeking to see to Its own priorities, binding him to It by cultivating his obsession with It, and seeking to place Itself where It might be picked up by other bearers It sensed would be less wary and more likely to enter situations where It could move to still others and then more others until It could return to the hand of the one It considered Its rightful Master. And there was no question he’d not been able to seek to do It any possible harm the time he’d tried to follow Gandalf’s directions to toss it into the flames of the parlor fire. He could have sworn he’d done just that--and found his hand was instead deep into his pocket, automatically preparing to clasp the chain closed to keep It safe instead. And when Gandalf had suddenly seized It from his hand and flung It into the fire himself Frodo remembered the almost overwhelming power of his rage at the Wizard and his terror for Its safety. Certainly the relief at holding It again in his hand had far outweighed his surprise to find that Gandalf was right--that It was indeed cool as he closed his fingers about It once more.

He’d thought on that incident, about his feelings when he showed the Ring to all at the meeting of the Council, and how Bilbo had appeared to him there in Rivendell often during the journey down the river. He’d offered the Ring to the Lady Galadriel. How he’d come to that pass he wasn’t certain; nor had he the slightest idea of what he would have done had she actually accepted the foul thing! He’d been warned that to have the Ring taken from him would possibly break his mind. Was that true? Well, he rather suspected that was possibly understating the situation. He was somewhat amazed that he’d not reacted even more strongly when Boromir tried to take It from him than he had. That he’d felt such dismay to learn that the Man had truly fallen to the power of the Ring (at least for the moment) rather than fury at the warrior’s effrontery at trying to claim It was less than he’d expected to experience.

Nay, it was the image he’d had in the orc’s tower of Sam as an orc pawing at the precious thing---- He shuddered as he realized how he’d thought of It--the precious thing! It was precious to Isildur; Gollum had addressed It as the Precious; Bilbo had even described It as precious! As for himself....

“He both loves It and he hates It, as he loves and hates himself,” Gandalf had explained. Well, certainly Frodo could now understand the sentiment, although he wasn’t certain he truly loved himself at the moment. In fact he rather thought he hadn’t loved himself much for quite some time.

His thoughts were getting muddled. He tried again to make sense of it all. He’d not been so much angry as terribly dismayed and frightened when Boromir had tried to take the Ring, and more frightened at what the Ring would do to Boromir should he find It in his possession than at what he’d feel should he lose possession of It. He’d felt frightened when he realized how close the Enemy was to finding him as he sat in the Seat of Seeing on Amon Hen, and more frightened as he finally stood on the bank in those last moments before he slid the boat into the water to cross the lake above the falls of Rauros, knowing he was going to his death--alone, for he knew by then that he couldn’t just drop It or throw It away. At that time he knew that the only way in which he could be certain of the destruction of the Ring would be to throw himself into the Fire and take It with him. How could he otherwise make certain that It was destroyed? How many times as they made their way down the River had he contemplated simply slipping that cursed chain with the Ring threaded upon it over his head--dropping It once more into the waters of the Anduin--seeing It lost for at least another Age of Middle Earth? Save he--he alone--had vowed to do no such thing--not to throw It away or see It in any way left once more where It could possibly be found by the Enemy’s people and come back to him. Not, of course, that he’d found himself able to do more than contemplate the idea as he looked at the surface of the river.

When he’d discovered he no longer wore It when he awoke in the orc’s tower he’d been driven to distraction, certain as he was It had been discovered and was already on Its way back to Sauron himself. But it wasn’t until he’d seen It in Sam’s hands and he’d then seen Sam--his Sam--as an orc himself, gloating over It, that he’d truly felt his own integrity was indeed shivering away under Its assault. Had he slapped Sam then? He wasn’t certain--some memories of the quest after they broke from the others were so muddled--or were simply missing--or seemed as if they’d occurred to someone else completely.

Why had he agreed to take Sam with him when he’d broken away? Sam shouldn’t have come with him at all--he should never have left the Shire, in fact! His breath began to hitch as he thought on that. Merry and Pippin--they should have remained safely in the Hall and at the Great Smial, not come so far to face the evils of the world as they had. Sam should have married his Rosie by now, not gone gallivanting off into the wild as he had on a hopeless quest.

Now, it certainly didn’t prove itself quite so hopeless, did it?

He deserved better! He deserved a better master--one who wouldn’t disturb his heart with histories of lands and people that had nothing to do with him.

Nothing to do with him? The Shire might be rather isolated, but does it not exist in the world alongside lands of Elves, Dwarves, and Men? And do not the actions of other peoples affect it in the end? Have wolves and orcs not entered the Shire? Do Elves, Dwarves, and Men not pass through it? Where were you when you first met representatives of each of those races? Where were you when you first became aware that Evil sought to enslave all lands and peoples, and determined quietly in your heart you would oppose that Evil if you could?


Frodo paused at that thought. He’d been what--perhaps thirteen?--the first time he’d heard Bilbo, totally serious, discussing the further ramifications of his own quest with Uncle Rory, Uncle Sara, Merimac, and Paladin Took.

“If you think that what’s going on in the outer world has no effect on us here in the Shire you are very wrong, Rory my beloved cousin and friend! Look at that new plow you bought last year--who made it?”

Rory had shrugged. “I bought it out in Bree. I’d not seen a design like that before, you know, and there’s no question it’s more effective than the one we used to use most of the time--not to mention the old one’s about worn out. My grandda must have bought it a good hundred fifty years back, after all.”

Bilbo had nodded. “The metal was most likely mined by Dwarves, perhaps in the Iron Hills east of the Misty Mountains. They probably also did the smelting and initial tempering of the metal, then traded it to the Men of the upper Anduin valley. From what I saw, the design is one commonly used amongst the Beornings. They probably actually crafted the plow, and purchased the wood used in the tree for it from the Elves of Mirkwood, and the leather for the traces from the Men of northern Eriador. The Elves of Rivendell patrol the northern pass over the Misty Mountains to keep it open for those folk who pass back and forth through it. The Beornings most likely sold the completed plow and others like it to traders from Dale or Eriador; they carried them through the mountains and the lands of the northern Men of Eriador to Bree; you went out to Bree and saw it at the fair there and purchased it to use here in Buckland. You showed it to Adalgrim, who did drawings of it and showed those drawings to the craftsmen of the Tooklands. Now that plow is being reproduced here within the Shire, and its like are probably being similarly crafted and used from Dead Man’s Dike to Tharbad and perhaps beyond.

“It’s only because Dwarves, Men, Elves, and Hobbits all wish for the same thing--that all may be fed without breaking the heart and sinews of those who till the earth--that this new plow was made available to all. So it’s ever been--an artisan of one race creates a new tool that is then passed to all other peoples, and somehow all races contribute to its making.

“So it is with evil as well. According to the Elves, goblins were twisted to their current shapes first by Morgoth and then by Sauron; and the Necromancer of Dol Guldur certainly made use of them--of goblins and the great wolves known as wargs, of trolls and the great spiders and other evil creatures. And some of these have invaded the Shire in the past--goblins in the Battle of the Green Fields--the white wolves during the Fell Winter. I’ve now faced goblins and wargs and trolls and spiders in my own journeys. If you think that we would be spared if the Dark Lord were to rise again, you’re foolish. He would send them again--and again and again until the Shire is laid waste and its people slain or enslaved as he did against the lands of Men, Elves, and Dwarves in the Dark Years of the Second Age.”


That statement had made a deep impression on Frodo when he was young, and he had indeed vowed privately to himself that he would do all he could to oppose evil when he came across it. Not, of course, that he’d found much in the way of evil within the Shire....

You think not, Iorhael? queried the voice. How many bullies have you and your friend Samwise deterred from lording it over children and others who were ill prepared to protect themselves effectively? How often have you forced your cousin Lotho and the one who follows him so closely to pay for or return items you caught them pocketing in the Hobbiton market or elsewhere? How often have you realized someone was being cheated or coerced and you have intervened on that person’s behalf? How often have you spoken up to remind your fellows that it is wrong to ignore the suffering of those who, through no fault of their own, find themselves unable to provide for themselves and their families? Evil is evil no matter the scale on which it is practiced, and not only have you fought it personally, but your example has inspired others to follow your lead.

But Sam and the others would have done better to remain at home....

Would they truly? They might have been somewhat more comfortable had they remained in the Shire; but no Child of Iluvatar is guaranteed comfort. And you do not yet know what each has been able to accomplish for the safety of Middle Earth and its inhabitants. You do not yet fully appreciate what your own actions have accomplished, in fact. Nor do you know for certain that those who did remain in the Shire have remained untroubled. Think on the visions granted you in Lothlórien and on Amon Hen.


He found himself shuddering, remembering the images of great armies of evil creatures approaching villages and cities, the eaves of forest kingdoms and the foothills of the mountain fastnesses. Then he remembered Elrond suggesting that it might be best to send the two younger Hobbits back to the Shire as he was certain evil threatened it, and Sam dashing tears from his eyes as he turned from Galadriel’s Mirror, having seen his old dad wheeling what he could of his possessions away from Number Three in a barrow, declaring that as much as he worried for the Gaffer and the rest of his family and friends he’d go home by the long way or not at all.

If only I’d remained in the Shire, perhaps I could have protected the Gaffer....

And who, then, would have carried the Ring out of It? Did you not do so in great part to protect those you love from Its destructive power? Could you have done both at the same time--protected the Shire by remaining within It and by leaving it? Since you could not do both, it was needful to allow those who remained within the Shire to see to their own protection. And know this--there were those who were sufficiently forewarned to help stave off much of the worst that might have happened.

Then evil
did touch the Shire?

Do not seek to take upon yourself responsibility for all, child. You are not one of the Valar, and even they are neither all-powerful nor all-knowing.


For a time Frodo’s mind gnawed only at the shadows of uncertainties, seeking something he might rightfully take blame for. At last he thought, I ought to have been able to stop Gollum from taking It from me!

He could feel the great sigh the voice gave. Stubborn one! Would you deny him his responsibility for his own choices and doings? You forgave him the manner by which he took It from you, there upon the mountainside, recognizing that without his actions the quest would have failed. Do you seek to take back that forgiveness now?

No, but I ought to have thrown myself into the Fire with It--he’d be as free of It as I am now!

And just how free of Its taint are you?


That question stopped Frodo’s train of thought cold, and an even deeper shivering went through him.

Nor would he have survived Its destruction--nothing you could have done would have extended his life further. He carried It far, far longer than you did, and already his life had been extended many times what it ought to have been for his kind. Only because his life was already bound to the continued existence of the Ring was he able to survive the loss of It to Bilbo’s keeping and then yours. Would you have had him die to no purpose, simply for the glory of you being the one to die to see It destroyed? And then, what of the life of the one who lies by you?

Frodo turned his head to look at Sam, seeing the beloved form by him, too slender but not unhealthily so as had been true within Mordor--he remembered grieving at how much weight Sam had lost as he held him that last time, there when he was certain both of them would be dead within moments.

Ah--how close it had come to both of them being dead. He was not particularly glad that he himself had survived; but at least Sam had done so--Sam who had his Rosie awaiting his return, his Sam who had so much to live for, who would be the lover, husband, father he, Frodo, would never now be. He had a sudden vision of Sam, as richly dressed as ever Bilbo had been, sitting at the Mayor’s desk in Michel Delving, a mug of ale by him, a young Hobbit lawyer presenting documents to be registered and filed, the lawyer’s attitude most respectful and indicating he was glad to be standing before one who had once been thought merely a gardener.

Merely a gardener--as if there had ever been anything “merely” about Sam Gamgee!

The voice agreed, Indeed, Iorhael. Far more worthy than he’d ever considered himself he has proven. We are well pleased with him, as we have been of the one who did pass through the Fire.

It was with that thought in mind that Frodo slipped into sleep; and it was so Aragorn found him, with a gentle smile on his lips, when he came at the news that the Ringbearer had awakened. So it was that, although he’d so wished to tell Frodo how glad he was that the Hobbit had both survived and awakened, he gently confirmed the doze Frodo knew as he carefully unwrapped the injured hand one last time, knowing it would be best that Frodo be able to see the loss had been limited to the one finger and no more. He then gently brushed Sam’s forehead, and knew that the sturdy gardener would waken soon also. Good! He’d given the orders for the feast today, and he planned to see Merry and Pippin properly dressed to impress Frodo and Sam with the honor given them ere they saw the two of them. They’d been honored yesterday as full knights of Rohan and Gondor, and had been acclaimed by the full host. Today would be the day to do so for these two, the Ringbearers. Gently he kissed the forehead of each Hobbit before he left to dress himself in the best garb available. He would give full honor to them himself!

*******


He sat at the Feast between his father and mother, leaning forward over steaming bowls of mashed potatoes and fried, sliced turnips and platters of lamb and ham to speak with Aragorn, who’d been placed directly opposite him, when there was a pause in the chatter and all turned to the entrance to the Garden where the Feast was kept. Two Maiar had appeared, leading a group of others those sitting about the great Table did not recognize at first. They were Hobbits, and most likely primarily Stoors in heritage considering how dark their hair was and the fact that one of the two younger ones sported the hint of a beard on his chin.

But it was the other one who’d caught Frodo’s attention, the one whose father and mother flanked him, the one leading the shy young Hobbitess by the hand, smiling to see her eyes light with delight and anticipation as she prepared to join the rest of the Company. This young Hobbit was not dressed precisely as did the Hobbits of the Shire, although the trousers he wore were no longer than was common amongst the Hobbits Frodo had ever known. It was the rope belt that led Frodo to recognize him, the same rope belt with a fish hook thrust through it he’d seen daily for several weeks’ journey between the Emyn Muil and the Pass of Cirith Ungol, the last thing his attention had fixed upon as he’d lain in agony on the stone of the Sammath Naur, that pale bone fish hook reflecting back the light of the molten stone pool below them. His gaze rose to the eyes, and saw the same healing yet haunted gaze that had looked back into his own when he’d looked into a mirror within Minas Tirith and the Shire after his return.

He who’d been Frodo Baggins of the Shire rose so swiftly his chair fell over behind him. He ignored Sam’s look of concern that there might be a meeting that would somehow mar the joy of the Feast; he ignored the fact that one of the two Maiar who flanked the newcomers was Olórin. His attention was fixed solely on the tall young Hobbit with the longer, straighter hair, as dark as his own, the finer features he sported, the eyes now clear and dark brown, twinkling to indicate this one had been as filled with curiosity and determination as had ever been the Baggins before him.

Compelled, this one stepped forward half-warily, pulling himself up to his full height, only slightly shorter than Frodo himself, to face the Baggins, examining him much as the Shire Hobbit was doing.

“So,” Frodo said softly at the last. “At last you arrive to join us.”

“Yes, Master. You haven’t changed.”

Frodo saw the look given his right hand, and held it up. There were yet but three fingers and one thumb there, the third finger not reclaimed by him, for he’d come to acknowledge he accepted himself as he was, and the missing finger had become the symbol that he was loved, flaws and all, by all who knew him and the Creator Himself. The newcomer gently reached out and took that hand, felt it all over, ran his finger from outstretched thumb to tip of little finger and back with a sense of wonder as he ran it across what ought to have been merely a stump, for the finger that could not be seen could be felt and traced. He raised his eyes the color of a conker to meet those of the blue of the summer skies, and his face broke out in delight. “You’re healed, Master!”

“As are you, Sméagol! Oh how long I’ve wanted to thank you!”

“Thank me? Thank me for what?” Sméagol’s expression was startled and almost dismayed.

“For saving me from that! Oh, what I nearly became!”

Sméagol could see no irony in the eyes of Frodo Baggins, only true gratefulness. His mouth began to stretch into a wide grin. “And I’m grateful, too, to you and Bilbo Baggins--for reminding me I was meant to be a Hobbit, too. Your acceptance of me--it helped me find myself once It was gone.”

At one and the same time they were throwing their arms about one another, their Lights shining fully as they embraced one another in joyful fervor. My special brother! It was impossible to say which one’s thought declared that first. And then Frodo was dragging his companion to the table where a new chair had appeared alongside his own and Sam was already beginning to fill a new plate with wonderful delicacies, and Frodo was seeking to introduce his fellow to his parents as Sméagol was doing the same for Déagol and his family.

Olórin looked on with joy and felt that familiar Presence at his shoulder.

These lost ones are restored fully to their heritage now.

Indeed,
the Maia’s thought replied as music began to sound and Frodo began dragging others, including Sméagol, out to dance first the Husbandman’s Dance and then the Bounder’s Jig. With a thought Gandalf made a golden rain of shining sparks that fell about Iorhael and those he loved most and those who loved him most in return, just as coppers, brasses, and a few silvers had been tossed about those who’d danced alongside Frodo Baggins when he’d performed the second dance within the Shire.

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