Rosie cleared off the place afore him as I fetched the book and gave it into his hands. Again he thanked me, and he set it down, then opened it to a marked place. And then he began to read, read about the battle on Amon Hen and the chase through Rohan, and the meeting with the Ents. He read about Pippin realizing he could partially free hisself and the ruse of the loops, and the sacrifice of the brooch from Lorien. He read about Pippin picking up the ball of stone thrown out of the tower of Orthanc, and his looking into it. He read about Pippin telling what he’d seen there, and the decision by Gandalf to take him to Minas Tirith. He read about Pippin swearing fealty to Gondor, of his seeing the madness growing in the Lord Denethor, and his saving the life of Captain Faramir. He read of his choosing to stand in the front row at the battle before the Black Gate, and what he’d thought was his dying thought that the coming of the Eagles was from a different story altogether.
Then he backed up a bit, read about Merry being wounded and being healed orc fashion, Merry telling Treebeard about the need for aid for Rohan, about him being left behind by Gandalf, then by Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas, and of his respect for King Theoden. He read about Merry presenting his sword to the King of Rohan, of his shame at being left behind once more, of his being taken to the battle by Dernhelm, of his stabbing the Ringwraith, of his being found near death, of his being healed by Aragorn in the Houses of Healing. At last he ended and closed the book, then closed his eyes.
We all was quiet for some time. At last he raised his face and looked again at the Thain, whose face was as pale as his own.
“Do you still think your son is a coward, Uncle? He is no longer a child, you know. He gave up being a child when he accepted the responsibility of an adult, to make a vow and stand by it, to do whatever he could to aid others, to face death quickly when he could have run away or hidden behind others, and to seek to spend himself in protecting others as he could.
“Do you think that black tabard is only a costume he puts on to make himself appear important and mysterious? I assure you it is not. His oath was received by the Lord Denethor while he was still sane, and was confirmed by the King Elessar himself. He is a member of the Guard of the Citadel of Gondor and Arnor, and my first glimpse of him on my own awakening was of him serving the King. When he is on duty he stands guard before the throne of the King itself, or stands before his chambers. He is even charged with instructing younger recruits in how to handle their swords, as the King and Boromir once schooled him.
“Why are you angry with him--that he left without warning or waiting for permission to go? He felt strongly he was meant to go with me, to aid me however he could. And as long as he could he did so, and when Sam and I left to continue the journey to Mordor alone, his courage and quickness of wit saved countless lives, starting with that of Merry.
“You are the Thain of the Shire, the one who by tradition represents the Shire to the King and the will of the King to the people of the Shire. Do you not see that your son will be the most appropriate Thain we have had in the history of the Shire, once his time comes? That his dual position as your son and heir as well as being a member of the court of Gondor fits him to advise both sides, allows him to communicate more clearly with both King and our people?
“It is of little importance that Pippin has not yet come of age, Uncle--he is seen to be an equal to the Men of Gondor, the Elves of the Woodland Realm, and the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain. And when the King comes north, as he will, Pippin will be called out of the Shire to fulfill his duties to the Lord and Lady of Gondor and Arnor in their palace at Lake Evendim.
“Your son has nightmares, Uncle, terrible nightmares, for he has looked into the heart of the Enemy himself. He bears scars upon his body, and they are, at least, honorable ones. Worse are the scars that cannot be seen or felt, the scars upon his spirit--yet he remains joyful and true in spite of all that. Be grateful that he was not burned out by his experience, Uncle, as I have been.” For several minutes the two of them just looked at one another.
Finally Frodo looked down and sighed. “I don’t like talking about what we went through, but I have to try to bring peace between the two of you, both of whom I love. He saw the madness of the Lord Denethor almost kill his son. Do not repeat that error, sir.”
At last his Aunt Esmeralda spoke again. “I don’t fully understand what the whole thing was about, Frodo.”
He was still, then answered, “Gandalf learned the Ring that Bilbo found in Gollum’s cavern was the one the Enemy lost three thousand years ago, that Isildur cut from Sauron’s hand when he was defeated before. Gollum was one of the River Folk, a Stoor, apparently. He was related to us, Aunt. His cousin Déagol fell into the River Anduin and found it, found Sauron’s Ring lying on the bottom of the river, and Gollum killed him to take it. And he left his people and hid in dark places while the Ring destroyed and transformed him. And when the Ring wakened enough to realize it was being sought by its Master, it abandoned him, probably expecting to be picked up by a goblin and taken further east and south to Mordor. But instead Bilbo found it and stuck it in his pocket. He used it to become invisible, and kept it until Gandalf realized it was beginning to take him as it took Gollum, and he convinced him to leave it to me.
“Once we knew what it was, would you have had me keep it here to destroy the entire Shire? We were almost too late leaving, and the Ringwraiths pursued us from Hobbiton all the way to Rivendell.
“The Council met to decide what to do with it. It corrupted all who touched it, and some who did not. It was decided the only way to defeat the Enemy was to send it to be destroyed. And I, Frodo Baggins of the Shire, volunteered to take it to Mount Doom in Mordor to destroy it. And I took it, Aunt, all the way to the Mountain, all the way to Sauron’s own Place. And it took me, in the end.
“I have no memory of much that happened, Aunt--Sam has had to tell me what I did, and what was done to me. I wrote it all down, what each said and did and accomplished.
“But I remember what I felt, the terrible weight of it, the vision of it as a Wheel of Fire, of its constant eating at my will, its constant blandishments, its constant threats. I remember the lies it told me, the beauty of it that was itself a corruption. And I carried it, knowing I would go mad if anyone were to try to take it from me. I’d been warned by Gandalf and Lord Elrond this was true, and when my possession of it was threatened, I felt the truth of the warnings. Boromir tried to take it from me, and Gollum more than once, and the Enemy was always seeking for it--I felt his Eye upon me--” He was again shaking pitifully. “Sam thought I was dead at one point--he took it to complete the quest. Then he learned I wasn’t dead after all, and he came to rescue me. And I grabbed it from him, saw him as an orc showing it to me as a torture. I cursed at him, at my best friend, my dearer than brother! And I thought I could just let it go once I reached the Cracks of Doom?”
Suddenly he laughed. “And the Ring in the end destroyed itself. One more time Gollum tried to take it from me, and I, holding it in my hand, cursed him--if he touched me again, the Ring would force him to fall into the Fire himself. And I went on. Oh, I was going to finish the quest, even though I knew by then I could not give it up! I was driven mad by the Ring after all, and didn’t need to have it threatened any more.
“And Gollum followed after me, struck down Sam and almost killed him--and he did it--touched me one last time. He took the Ring from me, and the curse I’d spoken took him. He fell into the Cracks of Doom with the Ring in his hand. Both were destroyed.” He hid his face in his hands. He whispered, “I never struck the one I killed--he died of my curse.”
No one said any more for some time. Finally Frodo asked me for a glass of wine, and I got up and poured some for him. He drank it slowly and deliberately. Then Elanor started to babble to let her mum and me know she needed changing. She’d been sitting in the high chair that Frodo had gifted her with, playing with root biscuits and looking across the table at Frodo. Rosie moved to her and swept her out and away to clean her and change her nappie. Frodo looked out after her, smiling again softly.
“That is a beautiful old chair,” said his Aunt Eglantine. “Tell me, Sam, wherever did you find it?”
“It was mine,” Frodo said. “Bilbo gave it to my parents for me. I think Uncle Bungo may have first purchased it for him, in fact. Now it is Elanor’s, and it will be the chair for each of her brothers and sisters in turn. When they sold the hole in Whitfurrow, Uncle Rory and Uncle Bilbo kept much of the furniture for they hoped one day I would pass it on to my own children.”
She whispered, “But you never married.”
He shook his head, not looking at her. “No, I didn’t. Once I received the Ring, it destroyed my interest in anyone else as a lover or wife. I could no longer see the charms of a lass or lady. I could no longer share my interests in anything that might become its rival. Elanor is now the closest I’ll ever be to having my own child.”
“You aren’t too old to marry now, Frodo.”
He just shook his head. “I am burnt out, Aunt. I have nothing left to offer a wife.”
“You are a beautiful gentlehobbit, Frodo. You are intelligent and gentle and kind. You have breeding and honor. It could still happen.” He merely smiled sadly and shook his head.
“You said, Frodo,” his Uncle Saradoc said at last, “that you have other scars, beside the one on your shoulder. What are they like?”
Frodo looked off into the distance, sighed. “The one around my neck from the chain on which the Ring hung from Rivendell on. The chain dug deep into my flesh ere I was rid of it. On my back where I was repeatedly whipped while orcs sought to learn why I was seeking to enter Mordor. On the back of my neck where the great spider bit and poisoned me. The back of my legs where I was beaten by an Orc who thought Sam and I were deserters from the army of Mordor, and he lashed us there constantly, almost every other step, to punish us for thinking of deserting. My chest, where a spear caught me and drove rings from my dwarf mail into my flesh.” He rubbed his chin, then looked down at the place where a finger was missing. “And this, of course.”
“How did you get that?”
He laughed softly, sadly. “It’s from when Gollum took the Ring from me. I put it on, you know, when I claimed it--or, when it claimed me at the last. I put it on, and he had seen where I stood and leapt on me. He found my hand, brought it to his mouth, bit off the finger bearing the Ring....” He looked at it, and sighed. “I am sorry, very sorry, but if I don’t go lie down, I fear I will embarrass myself. Please forgive me, I beg of you.” He rose, almost fell. His Uncle Saradoc caught him and supported him into his bedroom.
The others looked at me and at each other. And at last Mr. Paladin said, “I think we’d better go, my love. Frodo looks very tired.”
But his wife looked at me, asked me her last question. “This story is so horrible. Did he write all that down in that book, too? Why?”
“Long ago Mr. Bilbo taught him to write down the things as was bothering him or worrying at him, Mistress Took. He said he had to get it out of him somehow, or it would eat the heart out of him. Those were his exact words, Mistress. But, also, so things won’t get forgot. The One Ring is gone, and the Nine as was given to Men--they’re gone, too, the Ringwraiths are destroyed at last. The Seven Dwarf Rings was destroyed or taken long ago, and the last went in the fall of the Tower of Barad-dur. And now the Three the Elves kept for themselves--they don’t work no more, or won’t continue working long, if you take my meaning. The Elves are going away, and in a few generations there won’t be no Elves in Middle Earth--or at least none of the High Elves. Their wisdom and their beauty will be gone, over the Sea to Eldemar.”
And Missus Esmeralda looked at me and nodded, as if she understood something at last. Her face was pale now, too, and she looked full of grief and compassion. “I see, Sam. Thank you, Mr. Gamgee, for your courtesy and your honesty, and for the love you bear my young cousin. He has been very lucky to have you as his friend.”
“I’ve been Mr. Frodo’s man, Mistress Brandybuck, since I first saw him in the garden out there when I was but the gardener’s lad and he come here as the young Master.”
“And you went with him, the whole way.”
“I followed where I could, Missus Esmeralda.” I tried to find the right words. “Mr. Frodo Baggins is one of the ones who is born in the world, I think, to teach us beauty. And almost everyone who knows him loves him. But I’ve seen that there’s all too often a terrible cost for us to have such among us, and he’s chose to pay it hisself.
“Your sons, and Mr. Fredegar, and Mr. Folco, they have been Mr. Frodo’s men, too. They saw the light shining in him, too, and give themselves to it as they could. And they’ve helped keep it shining. And the King sees it shining--he recognizes it because the same light shines in him, too. You’ll see when he comes north. He had to hide that light for years, for the Dark Lord didn’t want any with such light anywhere in Middle Earth, ready to tear the shadows in which he hid hisself away, and show him as he was, a pathetic but powerful bully. But the months we traveled together, he begun stripping away the disguises, Strider did, letting his light out to shine aside Mr. Frodo’s. I didn’t see it at first, but I learned to.”
“Who’s paid for him to have his light here?” asked Mr. Paladin.
“He’s paid some, and his dad afore him, and his wife, the Lady Arwen Undomiel and her dad--they are paying the price of it now, and her dad will until Arda ends. And his kin and all who follow him--they all pay, and gladly. And your son has given hisself to him, now, as well.”
“I see.” He looked down, then to his wife, and they exchanged words as wasn’t said aloud. “We will need to leave now, I think. I thank you for your hospitality, Master Gamgee, yours and that of your wife.” Rosie came in at that moment with Elanor all clean and smiling in her arms. Elanor looked around for her Uncle Frodo, but when she didn’t see him, she reached out for me, and I took her in my arms. “The meal was superb, Mistress Rose, and I thank you for it. And, as my sister just indicated, we all thank you for the care you lavish on our young cousin Frodo.”
“Thank you, Mr. Took,” she answered him. “But it’s no bother caring for such as Mr. Frodo, you know. When he smiles, it lights the world, and it’s worth anything to bring that smile about. If only he could stay with us forever, but that’s another story.”
“I’ll see you out the door, then,” I said, and led the way down the passage. They gathered their cloaks. “Give my respects to Mr. Pippin then, please, when you see him,” I said.
“Does he know that Frodo is not having any celebration here, Sam?”
“He knows Frodo is not going to have a party this year, and that he wants to be away from others. He doesn’t know he’s going away, I don’t think. Mr. Frodo’s doing his best to hide it, don’t want no one to pay but hisself, you know. He’s always been that way, the whole time I’ve known him.”
“Then I won’t discuss that with him.”
“I don’t know what you’ll be able to get Mr. Pippin to tell you, Mr. Paladin. Twere a hard, bitter time for all of us in so many ways. But, at the same time, it were a shining time, too. But he’s not a lad any more. He’s a soldier of Gondor, and the King’s man now. And the training he got from Strider and Boromir and the trainers of the Guard helped prepare him to save the Shire, you know.”
“Yes, we know. Thank you again.” And they went down the lane toward Hobbiton and the stables.
When I got back to the dining room, Rosie was bringing in a great cake as she’d baked. “I’m sorry they didn’t stay for it, but I can see why they wished to leave now.”
Mr. Saradoc came back in and sat down where he’d been. He run his fingers through his hair--did all of those in Mr. Frodo’s family do that, and not just him and his Uncle Bilbo?--and looked up at me. “I got him into a night shirt and lying down. And I saw that place on the back of his neck where he was bitten. It is horrible! Does he know how bad it looks?”
“I’m not sure, sir. I haven’t held mirrors to show him, but he’s seen my face when I’ve cleansed it, and he can feel it, and he knows it’s not pretty.”
He shivered. “And the scars where he was beaten.... It makes me livid! That dear lad, going through that!”
“Believe me, sir, I was not the least unhappy when that nasty beast fell over the ladder head and fell down through the opening and broke its neck.” I took a deep breath. “I’d been searching for him for hours. Had no idea how to get into the tower, at first. I tried one way, but got there just as they slammed the doors and barred them--and then I had to find another way. I finally found it, but there was statue things that was yet alive somehow, and they closed the way until I lifted the Lady’s Starglass and the light made them quail and drop their guard. Then I could get through.
“There was orc bodies all over. The two leaders was fighting over the mithril shirt, and the fight spread to all their folk, and they almost all killed one another.”
“Yes, Master. The dwarf mail shirt Mr. Bilbo brought back from his adventure, the one as hung for so long in Michel Delving.”
“But that disappeared years ago!”
“Mr. Bilbo got it back, afore he went off the second time. Took it with him, he did, and gave it to Mr. Frodo when we was waiting for word it were safe to go on while we was in Rivendell. We didn’t know he was wearing it, but it saved his life in Moria when that thing tried to run a spear through him. Strider explained the mithril shirt deflected the spear and it ran down his side instead of going through his chest. But it fair knocked the wind out of him, and he fell, and we was all sure he were dead. When he spoke up, Strider almost fell over with shock, let me tell you. And when he saw the shirt at last and understood at last how the trick was played, he were right glad. And Gimli, he were tickled pink his folk’s work saved the Ringbearer.”
“Yes, that’s Mr. Frodo’s title in the outer world, sir.” I got up. “If you’ll pardon me just a moment, I want to get some herbs brewing for him, to ease the sadness, like.”
“The kettle ought to be boiling now, Love,” my fair wife told me. I kissed her and handed the baby to her as I sidled out of the room, but Mr. Saradoc, he followed me.
“I’d like to see,” he said.
He watched as I poured the boiling water into the basin Rosie’d made ready for me, and as I got some of the leaves as I’d culled earlier in the day, bruised them as I’d seen Strider do, and put them in the water with that Elvish prayer. Then I saw Missus Esmeralda had followed, too.
“But that poem is at the front of Menegilda’s herbal,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “I member when Mr. Frodo copied it out for his uncle years ago, to send it over to Brandy Hall. I read the poem and liked it and learned it off by heart. But I learned on my travels it is a prayer to the Valar. Mr. Strider’d sing it over Frodo’s shoulder after he was stabbed, and he’d sing it over him when he was so sick along the road, when my Master was asleep. And again when he was cleaning the place where the spear hit him and left that awful bruise, and over my forehead as he cleaned it, too. And Lord Elrond sang it, too, when he was working over Mr. Frodo when they was trying to get that splinter out of his side. And I think the King sang it over us when we was asleep after the Ring was destroyed, too. I seem to member it, I do.”
I looked down at the basin, picked it up, and carried it down the hall to Frodo’s room. He lay in his bed, a white figure sleeping surrounded by white sheets. And I set it aside his bed on the chest there, and gave my thoughts to the star as had shone on us in Mordor, and the one on the Lady Galadriel’s hand. And I saw the Starglass was lying on the chest, and the star gem on his breast, and his hand was resting on it, gently. And I smiled on him and brushed his forehead, and he turned his face to the scent of athelas, stealing through the room.
They’d followed, watched from the doorway. Then I led them back to the dining room, and we sat down, all looking to one another.
“Merry tried to tell us about it all,” Mr. Saradoc said at last, “but it was so hard to take in or understand.” I nodded. Finally he continued, “He’s not as well as he was when you got back.”
“No. But he’s getting on. Some days he’s better, and some he’s worse.”
“And you care for him.”
“As I can, sir.”
“He’d have been dead without you, he says.”
“We’d both have been dead hadn’t Gandalf and the Eagles found us, and if Strider hadn’t been able to call us back. Almost didn’t convince Frodo to come back after all, I guess. But he did.”
“What do you mean, come back?”
I gave Rosie a look, for I’d not said a lot to her about all this. I took a deep breath. “We was at the point of death, Mr. Saradoc. I mean, that close to being dead, right dead all through. And it were worse for him, you see, for he’d been carrying that thing almost the whole time, like. We didn’t have much in the way of water--I had to use water from cisterns along the orc roads, and it were foul, dirty from their hands and slimy with green, about the only green in all Mordor. I’d not been able to find more for two days, and we was getting by with only sips at a time, and I was giving most of it to him.
“The air in Mordor’s bad anyway, and it were even worse then for the Enemy’d been forcing the Mountain to make great clouds of ash to darken the sky to make it comfortable for his armies of orcs to move. We couldn’t hardly breathe. The sky was dark and filthy, and so was the land. Boromir’d warned us afore that the air itself in Mordor’s a poison, and perhaps if we’d been as tall as a Man it’d have killed us. But, short as we are, we was able to stay down low, beneath a lot of it.”
“There were several days that spring you were gone when the sky was dark, especially to the south of us,” Missus Esmeralda said.
“It were brown over us, Mistress. All brown and dark and drear. We could hardly see to tell if it were safe to step, as there might be a chasm in the ground and we wouldn’t see till we fell into it. I don’t know how we made it at all.
“Frodo was drug down by the weight of the Ring, drug to the earth. Got to the point he couldn’t stand any more, and he’d crawl. Some of the time I were that tired and sick, too, as I’d crawl right along side of him. But once we got onto the mountain, we was able to climb above the murk, and then finally the air was a bit better, and I could stand again. And I carried him up that mountain on my back. He was sick and weak and dying, plain dying, and I knew it. Only food we’d had for days was Lembas, Elvish waybread. It were right good, until that was all we had to live on for all the other food was gone. And we was rationing it, trying to make it last, so we’d only eat bites at a time. Both of us were totally dry, both of us weak, both near starving.
“And then the Ring took him. It took him. He looked at me, and it wasn’t his eyes, and said, ‘I don’t choose to do what I came to do. The Ring is mine.’ And his eyes suddenly was his own, and I saw terror and a call for me to come stop his hands as I’d done on the mountainside when the Eye was almost on us, and the Ring was insistent he put It on, put It on and reveal hisself, reveal hisself and It to Sauron. He looked out of his own eyes for a second, then the Ring looked at me again. It had him and It were right pleased, right pleased to finally have him for Itself at last. No one had ever stood up to It for so long afore, ever. It took him and he put It on his finger--”
I couldn’t go on for so long. “But then I got hit, and fell. I member looking up, and it were the strangest sight anyone could see, Gollum wrapped about a body as I couldn’t see, swaying over the Cracks of Doom. And then he bit something, bit hard. His teeth was sharp--he bit me twice, and it bit right through my shirt, it did, cut it right up. He bit Mr. Frodo’s finger right off him, and there he was, holding his hand which was bleeding, crying out in agony. And then that creature fell, fell into the Cracks of Doom hisself.” I was whispering. “Gollum fell, and took It with him.” I think I was shaking.
“And at last I could rise, and I picked him up--he hardly weighed nothing at that point, and carried him out through the door, and we stood on a high place on Sauron’s road as he’d carved on the mountainside. And I had to lay him down, almost fell myself. And he spoke, and he was my Master again. And I talked him into trying to get away some more, and he finally agreed to do so. It were hard to see where we was going, for blood from the new wound on my forehead was in my eyes, and there was ash and smoke and cinders and clinkers and fire and clouds all round us. But we found ourselves on a little pile of ash and stone near the foot of the mountain, and then there was no place else to go. The lava’d come by then, and cut us off, was making fair to wash that hillock away. And finally we fell, out of awareness. The poison of the air took us.
“Frodo had realized he would have to die to destroy the Ring, thought as he’d probably have to jump in hisself with it, I think. He don’t tell me what he was thinking then, won’t share that horror. He was expecting to die, though; and then he wanted to die. He were
so weak, so sick, so shamed.
“Strider didn’t say much to me what it was like to call us back. He has that strength, that power, to go right to the doors of death after you, and call you to come back. He’s of the line of Elros, after all. Guess it’s the bit of Elvish as he has in him. But he wept over Frodo as we was parting, for he didn’t think he’d ever see him again, and he were grieved as he couldn’t heal him completely. He’d have given crown and glory and all for Frodo to be happy. He loves Frodo, too, you see.”
“The King wept for Frodo?” I nodded. “Bless us.”