Nine days afore the Birthday I awoke afore dawn, hearing talking in the passage. I got up to see what the problem was and shut the door behind me. In the kitchen at the stove I found Mr. Frodo in a dressing gown over his nightshirt warming some of his tea in a shallow pan, and Mr. Pippin, his Elven cloak about him, with no sword nor mail to be seen, sitting at the table.
“I was heating some of the tea you fix for me for Pippin, Sam. I trust that it will do him no harm?”
“Oh, no, sir,” I answered. “What seems to be wrong? Is he hurting?”
“Oh, only my pride,” Pippin said, and sighed, running his hands through his hair.
At that moment I heard little Elanor waking at the odd noises, and hurried to get her and hurry her into the kitchen so as she didn’t waken her mum. Mr. Frodo’s face lit as it always did to see her, and he gave her his Elvish greeting as he poured the now hot tea into a mug and gave it to his cousin. Pippin accepted it and sniffed at it, then looked up at me. “You put athelas in this?” he asked. I felt my face go warm as I nodded. He looked up at Frodo and said, “I think the King was giving him lessons. At least I know he’s doing his utmost to keep you as well as he can.”
Mr. Frodo gave me one of his smiles, although there were a hint of sadness to it. “I know, Pippin. I know. And I am so grateful. Well, you drink that up--I know it always bucks me up when he feeds it to me, and I’ll swear he recites a healing invocation over it as he brews it.” I know I must have gone redder at that. So much for caring for him quiet like--he knew as much about me, I think, as I did about him. “Once you finish that, off you go back to Crickhollow. I’ll do what I can to sort out the Thain.”
“You heard me, Pippin. He won’t listen to you and he won’t listen to Merry, but hopefully the little I told him when I was there last got through to him, and he’ll now listen to the rest of it from me. I think I’ll probably be the only one he’ll believe it from at this point.”
Shortly after, Mr. Pippin was out the door and back to his pony as the King had given him, which was waiting in the lane. I let him out and watched as he headed down the lane and turned northeast back to Buckland, and went back into the kitchen where Frodo was trying to feed Elanor some root biscuits soaked in milk, only she were intent on trying to catch hold of his hand instead. Both of them was splashed with milk, and Elanor looked right happy and he were smiling in spite of his worries.
Finally he looked up at me. “Sam, I’m going to invite Uncle Paladin and Aunt Eglantine to join us when Uncle Saradoc and Aunt Esmeralda come to dine with me in three days. Do you think you and Rosie can fix up a fine meal and be ready to assist me in entertaining them?”
“Me and Rosie, eat with the Thain and the Master and their ladies, and entertain them?” I asked, amazed.
“Yes, you and Rosie.”
“What were Mr. Pippin doing here so early this morning?”
He gave a sad laugh. “Running away, really.”
“Running away?” Now, there were a time when he were about eleven when young Pippin’d run away from the Great Smials right regular, usually ending up either with his Cousin Merry or here at Bag End. But he would be of age soon. “But he don’t even live in the Great Smials now--he’s been living in Crickhollow with Mr. Merry!”
“Yes, but he agreed to spend a week with his family, and it has been a disaster. He had one of his nightmares last night and apparently woke half the household, and his father had words about responsibility and putting childish things behind him....”
“Oh, dear,” I said, feeling angry for young Pippin. “As if he didn’t have the right to have as many nightmares as he’d care to entertain! It’s not like he’s asked for them, after all.”
“I know, Sam. And as I have the worst of all, and you certainly have your share as well, I think maybe you and I will be able to get him to realize he’s not treating his son properly. After watching Lord Denethor and Captain Faramir, Pippin does not need a repeat here at home.”
The visitors arrived three days later, the Tooks soon after luncheon and the Brandybucks an hour later. Mr. Frodo was in his Master of Bag End clothing, the watch chain across his chest, his hair, which now had threads of silver in it, neatly brushed on head and feet. He were a bit pale and I’d made him sit down in a chair afore the fire with a rug across his lap and a mug of his tea aside him. The Thain and his lady were watching him with caution from the settle he had from his own folks, each with a glass of wine. Now the Master and Missus Esmeralda joined them, they shared their greetings, and accepted wine in their turn. Tweren’t the Old Winyards as old Mr. Bilbo’d serve, but it were from Gondor, sent up as a gift at Midsummer by the King and his Lady. Rosie’d been working at preparing the meal, assisted by my sister Marigold, and now she came in carrying Elanor who immediately reached out for her beloved Uncle Frodo. He held her in his lap after sharing a kiss with her, then turned to look at his guests.
“I still can’t understand, Frodo, what needed to be said that couldn’t have been said next week when we gather for your birthday,” the Thain said, continuing on what he’d been working on afore the new arrivals.
“I won’t be here for my birthday,” Frodo said as if it were no big thing.
The effect was immediate. “What, no party this year?” asked his Uncle Saradoc.
“I will be celebrating it with Bilbo,” he told them.
The Thain snorted. “How do you know he is still alive?”
“I had a letter from him yesterday, telling me how pleased he will be to see me on our birthday.”
“So, you are going off on another adventure, then?”
“I wouldn’t call it that, Uncle. More like a state visit, I fear. He’s looked forward to this birthday for so long--he’s been intent on passing the Old Took for years, you know.”
“I am still not sure how it is that he’s still alive,” Missus Esmeralda said.
Frodo smiled. “When you live with the greatest healer in Middle Earth, it’s perhaps a bit easier, Aunt.”
“The greatest healer?” the Thain snorted.
“Certainly,” Frodo answered.
“And what makes you think that, Frodo Baggins?”
Twere the first time I’d seen Frodo give someone that look
since afore we left on our adventure. Mr. Paladin was getting the full force, too, and looked taken right aback. For several moments no one said nothing, and then finally Mr. Frodo spoke.
“I think that, Uncle, because I know that. Several people saved my life along the way while we were gone, including Sam here, the King himself, and Lord Elrond of Rivendell. The King Elessar is a great healer in his own right, but he could not stop the wraithing process once it was begun. Only Lord Elrond had the skill, knowledge, and power to bring me back from the brink of the shadow world at that time.”
“Wraithing process?” The Thain was trying his best to remain skeptical.
Frodo was almost white, and he reached up and unbuttoned his vest and the placket of his shirt deliberately. “Come here, Uncle Paladin,” he said, a command. Reluctantly his uncle stood up and went to him, and looked as the Ringbearer bared his shoulder. “Look at this scar, Uncle. Do you see it? It was caused by a Morgul blade, intended to not kill me, but to plunge me into the shadow world as a wraith under the domination of the Dark Lord. The Witch King of Angmar himself stabbed it into my shoulder, almost three years ago now, three years minus only a few weeks. I bore that splinter for over two weeks, and when it was finally removed it was only the breadth of one of little Elanor here’s fingers from my heart. I came that close, that time, Uncle, to not returning, or returning only as a torment to the Shire. Do you see the scar, Uncle, how it is still red and inflamed looking? Oh, it doesn’t always look like this, but when I am tired or ill it reddens and causes me great pain.
“Lord Elrond of Rivendell removed that splinter, and then he and the Elves of his household did their best to heal me, as well as they could. I would not be alive today--not properly alive, at least, if it had not been for Lord Elrond. Do you understand?”
He straightened his shirt, buttoned it again and the waistcoat.
The Thain retreated to his settle, aside his wife. He shivered, picked up his glass, drained it. I refilled it, and Rosie and me sat on the chest as stood aside Mr. Frodo’s chair. We watched the relatives as they watched their nephew.
“The other scar, the one on your neck...”
“Oh, that. Not that that’s the only other one I bear, Uncle. I have several, you know.”
“What caused that one, Frodo?”
“The weight of the Ring, Uncle.” Frodo turned his face away, deliberately looking at the fire. Again for a few moments he was quiet, and no one else would break the silence. “I don’t like to speak of it, for the memory has been a torment for me, for all of us, Uncle. But,” he said, turning back to his uncle Paladin, “I will make an exception in this case.
“Do you or Uncle Saradoc realize what I brought with me in my pocket, each time I visited you after Bilbo left the Shire? Do you realize what he brought into your homes, the thing we casually fingered and played with as we sat by your fires and endured the inane conversations of our least relatives? Do you understand that we carried Isildur’s Bane into the Great Smial and Brandy Hall, the great Weapon of the Enemy, as if it were a mere trinket? Do you realize the power of those who sought this thing that we bore as if it were nothing more than a simple band of gold? Great lords and wizards have fallen over it, and even greater refused to even touch it, for fear it would corrupt them utterly!” He covered his face with his maimed hand. “And I carried it in my pocket, like a pen knife or a key or a length of twine.” He shivered, and I got up and fetched the blanket from the back of one of the settles, laid it about his shoulders. I put the mug into his hand and gave him my own look. He glanced up, and drank it. I took the mug and fetched the pot from beneath its cozy, poured him some more. Again he looked at me and gave me a small smile, a tired smile, and accepted it, wrapped his hand about it to warm it.
Finally he spoke again. “Have you seen Pippin undressed, Uncle Paladin? I doubt it, for he does not like to show his scars any more than I do. He has scars on his back, dealt by the orcs who dragged him across Rohan, intent on delivering him to the traitor Saruman. He has others on his wrists--you may have seen those, from when they bound him so tight it cut into the flesh. Or the ones on his ankles. I’m sure,” he added, turning to his other set of relatives, “you’ve seen those on Merry, for his were deeper than Pippin’s, and he has the scar on his forehead as well. More dashing than the one Sam here has from his first encounter with an orc in Moria.” They all turned to look at me, and I felt my face grow warm. Rosie looked at them, proud and defiant, and lifted up my hair to show my scar.
“Have you run your hand across his chest, Uncle? You will feel knobs under the skin, where his ribs were broken when the great troll fell on him. Gimli was certain he was dead when he was found. Aragorn barely called him back--barely called all of us back.”
“The King Elessar. He was born Aragorn son of Arathorn, the Dúnedan, Man of the West, heir to the chieftainship of the Dúnedain of the North, heir to Isildur and Elendil, high Kings of Gondor and Arnor. I’ve tried counting all the names and titles he’s borne, and rather lost count at about twenty, I think. Back to Pippin--his leg was pulled out of its socket, and Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn needed the aid of two more healers to ease it back into place, which is why he has a mild limp when the weather is damp and cold. You may have noted the scars on the back of his sword hand and arm and chest--Pippin learned to wield that sword he bears, you know.”
Again all were silent for a time. Frodo looked at Rosie. “Is the meal prepared, Rosie? Good. Shall we all go in to the dining room?” I took Elanor and handed her to Rosie, then took the blanket and rug from Mr. Frodo and set them on the chest. He swallowed a sip of his tea and handed the cup to me, saying, “Thank you, Sam,” and led the way down the passage.
After the Standing Silence, we sat down, and Rosie passed the dishes to the Thain’s Lady to start the service of the meal. As the plates and dishes were passed, Mr. Paladin asked, “Why do you do that at the beginning of a meal--stand like that and look off? You do it, and Merry and Pippin do it.”
“Oh, a habit we all adopted in Gondor, Uncle. It is a mark of respect to the Valar. Sam and I were first introduced to it by Captain Faramir in Henneth Annun; but after we were reunited with the rest we became accustomed to it. Pippin had been seeing it at each meal for weeks by then, of course. And I suppose that, as a member of the Guard of the Citadel, it would be expected to be a part of his daily routine.”
“What did you mean,” his Aunt Eglantine asked, a while later, “when you said Pippin had learned to wield his sword?”
Frodo looked at her with surprise. “I meant what I said, Aunt. He has learned to use that sword. Of course, for a Man Troll’s Bane would be but a long knife; but it is an extremely serviceable blade for a Hobbit.”
“But how did he learn?”
“He was taught, of course. Boromir began teaching all of us as we started south from Rivendell, and often Aragorn worked with us as well. Pippin was very impatient at learning at first, but he stayed with it and was doing fairly well by the time we left Lothlorien. Merry was better at the time, though.”
“And who is Boromir?” asked the Thain.
Frodo’s face clouded. He looked at me, then turned back to his uncle again. “One of our companions, the son of the Steward of Gondor, older brother to Captain Faramir, who is now the Steward as the Lord Denethor died during the battle before Minas Tirith.”
“Do titles pass to younger sons in Gondor?”
I spoke up, as I knew this caused my Master grief to recall. “Boromir died fighting Saruman’s Uruk-hai after we left the Fellowship to head to Mordor. Captain Faramir saw his brother’s funeral boat on the Great River and told us of it.”
All were quiet again. “They put bodies in boats on the river in Gondor?” asked his Aunt Esmeralda.
“No, Aunt, not usually,” said Frodo. “But Aragorn and Gimli and Legolas had no time to bury him properly, nor did they have proper tools. They needed to follow after the Uruk-hai, hoping to rescue Merry and Pippin.” Frodo looked down at the food remaining on his plate, took another bite, then put down his fork. “I am sorry, Rosie,” he said to her, “that I cannot do justice to your meal.” And his face let it be known as this was true.
“Are you ill, Frodo?” asked his Uncle Saradoc.
Mr. Frodo shrugged. “I suppose I’m as well as I was as a child, Uncle. Sometimes I can eat a normal amount, but often I can’t. But I’m well enough. It’s only that I have a tendency to grow tired easily, and cold.” His relatives all exchanged uneasy glances.
His Aunt Eglantine returned to the former subject. “You say you were all taught to use swords along the way. You also, Frodo?”
He shrugged again. “Well, they tried to teach me. Sam here actually managed to kill an orc or two, but I think I was an abject failure.”
I laughed. “Your score was rather bad, I must say--you stabbed that troll’s foot in Moria, and killed a cloak.”
They looked startled. Frodo laughed out loud. “Ah, yes, the cloak on Weathertop! How embarrassing! Although you must not forget I managed to hew off part of Shelob’s claw. That and the barrow wight were the closest I came to actually defending myself or others, I fear.”
“I forgot about the wight, Mr. Frodo--but then I wasn’t awake to see it.”
“I’ll never forget Tom Bombadil stomping on the thing’s hand, once he got the barrow opened up to sunlight, Sam.” He shuddered again.
“There was one other time you saved me, Mr. Frodo--when you held Sting’s point to Gollum’s throat as he were trying to choke me.”
His face shadowed again, and he looked away. “Not exactly swordsmanship, though,” he finally said. “He was so intent on throttling you he’d almost forgotten about me at all.” His relatives all looked horrified. He looked at them all with compassion. “We have to laugh at it, Aunt Eglantine, or the horror of the memories would just destroy us. The cloak I ‘killed’ was worn by the Ringwraith that stabbed me with the Morgul knife. I struck out at it, but caught only its cloak. Aragorn had to chase it away with torches. Another time I came close to killing myself and everyone else with my stupidity.” He started to tremble.
“When you stabbed the troll’s foot, Strider thought that was well done, sir.”
He gave a weak laugh. “How could I miss, Sam--he had the thing’s foot caught in the door!” I saw he was still trembling, so I got up and went out and fetched the blanket and settled it on his shoulders again. He looked up and smiled. “Thank you, Sam,” he murmured, clasping my hand for a moment. Finally he looked directly at the Thane’s Lady. “Aunt Eglantine, Pippin became a fine swordsman. He has earned his place in the Guard of the Citadel many times over. Once his offer of service to Gondor was accepted, he had to practice at least an hour a day, which training continued until he was granted leave to return home with me--as part of my guard, actually, according to what his record reads at this time.”
His Uncle Paladin was looking at him. “Who was this Strider?” he asked.
“Another of Aragorn’s many names, Uncle. It was how we were introduced to him in Bree. The Dúnedain who protect the bounds of the weaker lands do not usually tell people who and what they are. They are simply referred to as Rangers, and the peoples among whom they move give them names that they feel describe them. Aragorn is very tall and lean, with dark hair and eyes grey as the sea. He can walk very quickly, so the people of Bree called him Strider.”
“But if he’s King of Gondor--”
“He’d not been crowned yet, Uncle. He was still the Chieftain of the Dúnedain then, but not more in the eyes of the world. He had to prove not only his claim, but also his right to take the throne. And he did, many times over. Many years ago he fought for Rohan and Gondor, known then as Thorongil, the Eagle of the Star. But he would not advance his claim to the throne until he was certain the people of Gondor would accept him.”
“The letter I received from him--you know of it?”
“Certainly, as I helped to draft it, sir. He asked me to aid him as he knew I knew the ways of the Shire and its leadership as he did not.”
“And what he says is accurate in that letter?”
It got quiet once again.
“I doubt this King Elessar has nightmares to disturb his castle.”
“Do not be so certain, Uncle.” He looked straight into Mr. Paladin’s eyes. “He, too, has known fear and horror and grief as well as joy. His father died when he was a young child, and he has heard of the terror of that time. His beloved cousin Halbarad came south to aid him in the war, and died by his side in the battle of the Pelennor. He looked into the Palantir of Orthanc, and wrested it from the control of Sauron to his own purposes, and that wrenching was terrible. Gimli told me he looked years older when he came down to them again. He went through the Paths of the Dead to come to the battle in time.
“Are you so certain that only cowards have nightmares? Why? What do you think courage is--the inability to feel fear? That is not courage--it is a terrible weakness. Boromir of Gondor was one of the bravest people I ever met, and he was brave because he fought his fear, faced it and went on. And, if you want to know who is the bravest individual I have ever met, he sits there,” and he indicated me. I know I must have flushed, for my face felt downright hot. “You cannot believe what Sam faced to aid me, much less what I put him through. I tell you in full truth that I would not be alive today if it were not for his courage and perseverance. He held my hope for me when I was too weak to carry it for myself. And when I sought only to lie down and die, he made me get up and move on, take the next step and the next, and in the end brought us both to where others could find us when we both thought we were dead.
“He has nightmares, Uncle, terrible ones. And I have worse. For I failed in the end, and was saved only because another died in my place. And he died by my curse, Uncle, by my curse made on that cursed thing I bore. The one death I was truly responsible for, and I killed not in defense of anyone, but through a curse.” He was trembling once more, and I stood and moved behind him, put my hands on his shoulders, willed as my strength should fill him.
“Marigold,” I said to my sister, “put his mug of tea by his hand, please.” And she did. “Drink it, Mr. Frodo,” I said. He reached for it, but it trembled in his hand. I reached down and took it, raised it to his lips. He sipped gratefully, then took it and drained it.
“What is in that drink?” his aunt Esmeralda asked.
“Willowbark and an herb shown him by the King, Aunt Esmie,” he answered. “And chamomile, I think. It has eased me often during the last two years.”
“The King taught you how to make this?”
“No, not really. But I figured it out from watching him, him and the Lord Elrond, Mistress. And Gandalf as good as said that it were the right thing to do.”
Mr. Frodo laughed. “Ah! Poet, jester, defeater of spiders, hope indomitable, and now apothecary!” As I sat again, I saw a tear sparkling on his face, but he were looking at me with pride behind the tears. He closed his eyes for a moment, then as he gathered hisself he looked to me.
“Sam, will you bring me the Red Book, please? I left it on the desk in the study. I think my aunts and uncles need to know precisely what their sons have been through.”