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The Time of Probing
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Sam was pressed into carrying the tray on which reposed the Ring back to the room where Frodo slept. He set it on a small chest near the hearth, and saw that in the brief time they'd been out of the room a low table had been brought in and covered with a meal for the four Hobbits who were wakeful. While he, Mr. Bilbo, Merry, and Pippin ate, the four of them were made to recount to Gandalf and Elrond their personal experiences with the influence of the Ring.

Bilbo at first denied that he'd noticed anything special about the Ring, but had to admit that since he'd left it behind at Bag End many of his worst urges no longer plagued him. "I no longer grow impatient if things don't instantly go in accordance with my wishes," he said. "And I no longer imagined doing horrible things to people like Lobelia, Otho, and Lotho as I'd begun doing on my return from my adventures. And I didn't have those terrible dreams about being hunted by that Gollum and worse things anymore." Sam had a feeling that the old fellow could have said more about his time with the Ring, but no one pressed him further on the subject.

Merry, Sam, and Pippin could tell nothing about any assaults by the Ring. "I don't think that Frodo has allowed the Ring to speak to others if he can stop It," Merry said. "I doubt that he even realizes he's been keeping the thing from affecting others, though. But I'm certain It affects him. Before he came of age he would--admire--the lasses the way all gentlehobbits do. Since then, though, if he starts to watch a lass with admiration in his eyes, his face will suddenly change if he has--that--in his pocket. Just for the tiniest bit his look will get----" He seemed to be searching for the right word, one Hobbits rarely if ever needed to use whereas Men were all too often all too familiar with it. At last he started over again. "Well, his look will suddenly be ugly, but only for an instant, mind you. Then he takes himself to task for thinking in a vulgar manner. If he doesn't have It with him the admiring look will last just a bit longer, but then he'll appear regretful, and he'll still school it away anyway.

"He used to leave--It--at home much of the time, locked in his desk drawer, and he'd be more lighthearted when he was out with other people or visiting somewhere. But after a few years he started becoming restless--worried--if he'd left It home, usually after five or six days at first, and then sooner as time passed. I'm not certain whether he just didn't feel right if he didn't have It with him, there in his pocket, or if it was more that he was worried what It might get up to with other people about with him not there to keep It in line. The Sackville-Bagginses used to come round almost as much when he was gone from Bag End as when he was home, after all, and who knows what the—what It--might make one of them do if he wasn't there to stop It!"

Pippin’s eyes were round with surprise and delight. “You saw all that? And you think it was the Ring making him think things that aren’t quite proper? Now I understand why he wouldn’t agree to come visit if Cousin Jasmine was going to be there from Whitfurrow. Jasmine is about the prettiest lass in the whole of the Shire,” he confided to Elrond. “She married one of the Goodbodies and they settled in Whitfurrow in the East-farthing. But even though she’s married now, when Jasmine Took Goodbody enters a room all the gentlehobbits can’t help but watch her pass, even Frodo Baggins! All they can do is follow after her with their eyes, swallow, and work at their collars with their fingers! Why, she’s so very pretty that that they’ll even forget to eat!”

Gandalf laughed aloud, his eyes twinkling. “Now, she must be especially pretty to cause that reaction!”

“She is,” Merry assured him. “You’re right, Pip,” he added to his younger cousin. “Frodo’s avoided Jasmine for several years, now that I think on it.”

Pippin continued, “Frodo hasn’t seemed to notice most lasses as lasses, if you understand what I mean, for some time—that I’ve noticed, although I had no idea as to why until fairly lately, of course. It’s only been the last few months that I was officially part of the Conspiracy, you see.”

“Conspiracy?” asked Elrond.

“Oh, yes, we formed a Conspiracy, first Merry, Sam, and Fatty—our Cousin Fredegar Bolger, that is, and then me, too. They’d been spying on Frodo, sure that one day he’d try to sneak away after Bilbo, so I began spying on them, for I refused to stay behind if they left after Frodo! Merry was angry that I’d found them out, for he thought I ought to stay at home. But Fatty—Freddy, that is—well, he didn’t really want to come, too, so I insisted I should come instead! And come I did. I’ve known that something’s not been quite right with Frodo for some time, but I didn’t know quite what. Once I joined the Conspiracy Merry explained about the Ring, so then I realized what’s been making it harder for Frodo.”

“Hard for Frodo?” asked Gandalf. “Hard in what way?”

Pippin’s brow furrowed as he tried to think how to explain. “Well, before, when Bilbo was still there at Bag End, Frodo was just about the most patient person I ever knew. Now, you can use up his patience, but it’s not all that bad most of the time. But if you are particularly dull or downright stupid or mean in what you’ve done, you get the Look.”

“The Look?” asked Elrond.

“Yes, the Look—the Old Took’s Look. Cousin Ferumbras used to say that Frodo must have got it from the Old Took himself, not that that many people alive today have had the chance to see Great-great Grandda give it, of course.” Seeing the confusion in Elrond’s face, he added, “But you must have seen it if Bilbo lives here—he’s quite good at it, too. No, wait—I suppose you might not have seen it, as you’re all Elves here, and I doubt that he’d use it on an Elf.”

Sam saw that Gandalf was stifling a grin. Old Mr. Bilbo, however, was obviously getting exasperated. “Peregrin Took!” he snapped. “I must suppose there is a point to all of this discussion as to how severe Frodo, my grandfather, and I can appear? There is? Then get to it already!”

Pippin gave the old Hobbit a wary sidelong glance, then paused and positively beamed. “See? There it is now! I told you that Bilbo is good at it, too!”

Gandalf was reduced to a choking guffaw while Bilbo spluttered with indignation. Pippin continued, “Well, when they are really angry, both Bilbo and Frodo add in what Aunt Dora used to call a Few Well Chosen Words. Except that with Bilbo it tends to be more than a few, usually, turning into a full lecture as often as not and then being followed by bitter muttering.”

“I do not mutter!” grumbled Bilbo. Elrond cast him a now amused glance.

“But with Frodo it is indeed a Few Well Chosen Words, and they can truly bite, they’re usually that sharp. I’ve found I can tell when he has the Ring on his person when those Few Well Chosen Words are particularly nasty and hurtful. Otherwise they tend to be sharp but no more than is needful for correction, those times when he has It locked up in his desk or the box in his bedroom. But when he doesn’t have It on him he tends to be nervous and even a bit fretful, just the way Merry described him.”

“But why should he seek to set aside the Ring, even momentarily?” asked Elrond, looking between the Hobbits and the Wizard.

It was Bilbo who answered him, surprisingly. “Because carrying It always is wearying,” the old Hobbit said, his expression solemn. “I found that, like Gollum, I couldn’t keep It on me all the time, so I’d leave It locked in the desk or, sometimes, lying in a bowl of water in my room.”

Both the Wizard and the Peredhel straightened at that. “In a bowl of water?” Gandalf asked, intrigued.

“Well, Gollum apparently habitually left It on that little island of his in the midst of his lake,” Bilbo pointed out. “I found I felt freest if the Ring was safe in a bowl of water. I didn’t realize consciously that it was the Ring I was reacting to, of course, or that It was seeking to manipulate me. I always thought it was just my sometimes absurd imagination that was getting the better of me.”

Gandalf and Elrond gazed thoughtfully at one another. “Water is antithetical to Its nature, after all,” Elrond murmured.

The Wizard turned to fix a stare on Bilbo Baggins. “And did It seek to raise lust in your breast also, my friend?” he asked.

The elderly Hobbit first paled and then colored furiously. “That,” he said tersely, “is far too personal a question!” With that he turned decidedly back to look down on his younger kinsman, whose pale face was nearly the same color as the pillow slip against which he lay. “After all,” he commented more softly, “I never married, did I?”

“And neither did he,” Gandalf pointed out. “I saw how the Ring could affect his emotions when he saw a comely lady, you realize. But he was far too decent to allow such thoughts to consume him or corrupt his behavior.” His lips pursed briefly before he added, “As I believe is true of you as well, Bilbo.”

Bilbo looked up briefly to meet the Wizard’s eyes from beneath his brows, then turned his attention back to Frodo’s sleeping face. He gave the merest ghost of a shrug.

Elrond turned his gaze to the gardener. “And you, Master Gamgee—what have you noted of the effects of the Ring on Master Frodo here?”

Sam shrugged uncomfortably. “I’d wondered from time to time if’n there wasn’t somethin’ as made him restless as he’d sometimes be. He’d of spent a good mornin’ on his translations or his copyin’ work, and suddenly have to leave it all off for a time, and he’d take to pacin’ through the gardens or would hurry off t’the marketplace for a measure of pipeweed when he had plenty in the jar on the mantel. It could take several hours afore him could settle back to work again. Once Mister Merry here told me of the Ring and what he suspected of Its nature, I begun noticin’ as him’d be rollin’ somethin’ in his pockets between his fingers, like, every time such restlessness would take him. And if’n him should come face to face with one of the S-B’s at such a time it was certain t’lead to a nasty quarrel.”

“Not that almost any meeting with either Lobelia or Lotho didn’t end with such a quarrel,” added Merry.

“True,” agreed Sam. “But them would always be more likely t’be nasty if’n they thought as him was particularly restless. It was as if the Ring was affectin’ them, too.”

Gandalf rubbed at his chin consideringly. “It is possible,” he admitted. “They would be particularly responsive to the Ring’s influence, as selfish and self-centered and self-serving as they tend to be.”

“And there’s the fact as there’s hardly no Bagginses of the name left in all of the Shire,” pointed out Sam. “Once Mr. Bilbo come back from his adventures, the numbers of bairns born alive to the Bagginses dropped off alarmingly. Mr. Bilbo’d always said as that Gollum cursed the Bagginses, and I wonder if’n the Ring didn’t take that curse literally.”

It was definitely something to ponder.

The Elf woman with the pins in her sleeve came back with a tray on which rested an invalid’s cup, and she gave it into Master Elrond’s hands. Merry and Pippin were prevailed upon to go bathe and then retire to the rooms provided for them, but although Sam agreed to bathe, once he was attired in a clean nightshirt and a dressing gown perhaps just a trace too large for him, he returned to Frodo’s room and insisted that he’d not sleep elsewhere lest Frodo should want for attention during the night.

At last a pallet bed was set up for him near the wall and a tray of fruit, cheese, and crackers was left on a low table for his refreshment. Still he spent much of the night sitting sideways on the side of the bed where he’d hold Frodo’s cold left hand and seek to massage some life back into it.

Near midnight Master Elrond carried a snoozing Bilbo away to his own chambers, and the woman came in and sat nearby, sewing while she watched over Frodo’s sleep. Frodo had been made to drink a series of brews over the course of the last few hours, although he’d never been awakened by any of the ministrations offered to him, and twice she paused in her work to offer Frodo more sips of something from the invalid's cup, carefully sitting him up against her shoulder and murmuring softly in Elvish as she urged him to swallow, then laying him back again before returning to her chair and her sewing.

At last Sam asked, “What are you making?”

She smiled at him, and his heart turned a cartwheel inside his breast. “Clothing for him to wear when he awakens. What he had when he arrived cannot be properly repaired, I fear.”

“He has a few more outfits in his pack—we brought extra clothes, all of us.”

Her smile grew deeper. “I am certain that you sought to be as prepared as possible, but will he not be glad of something new to wear that is not now too large for him? For I can see that he has lost much weight since he first donned the garb in which he arrived.”

He couldn’t help but smile in return. “Of course, but you’re right about him losin’ weight, my lady. We’ve all lost some, I’m sure. But since they stabbed him at Weathertop he’s been barely able to eat.”

“Then we shall see him dressed in accordance with his station. Do you think he will like this shade of green, Master Samwise?”

Sam found himself smiling in spite of his worries. “Oh, I’d say as he’d like it fine, my lady,” he said. “He’s mighty fond of greens, is my Mr. Frodo! Wears’em by preference, he does. But him looks good in most any color there is.”

In minutes they were chatting as if they’d known one another for years, or at least Sam was chatting that way, and she was listening so attentively. He told her of the hole in which he’d been born on Bagshot Row, and his two older brothers and his sisters, and his old dad, the Gaffer, and Rosie Cotton….

“And you didn’t ask her to marry you ere you left home, in case you didn’t return?” she asked gently.

He dropped his gaze to Frodo’s hand, which he was holding between his own. “How could I do otherwise, my lady?” he asked softly. “Wouldn’t of been honorable, to bind her to myself if’n there was a chance as I wouldn’t be able to come back.” He looked back up at her more boldly. “But I’ll not be waitin’ too long once we’re back in the Shire to ask her,” he assured her. “Once I’m certain as my Master here is taken care of, I’ll be lookin’ t’take her as my bride, if’n she’ll have me, of course.”

She searched his eyes for a moment, and her gaze grew distant momentarily. Then she smiled as she again looked directly into his eyes. “You need not fear for that, Master Samwise. Any woman who loves you will be as constant as you have proved yourself to be. She will rejoice to cleave to you—of that you may be certain.”

“That’s supposin’ as I can come home whole again,” he said.

Again she smiled in that way that made his heart turn within his chest. “I suspect that she would have you even if you were to come home missing a leg or arm. Do not doubt that she will honor you the more for those scars you might bear that you have come by honorably. She already knows your worth, and will rejoice that you have risked yourself for the safety of all.” So saying, she sat back in her chair and, still smiling, focused her attention again on her sewing. Sam realized he was smiling as he looked down into his Master’s pale face, and was glad that she’d been able to distract him from his fears for Frodo’s safety.


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