King Uther surveyed the advisors gathered before him. Arthur waited, just behind his chair, one hand resting on the side to seem casual. Secretly, though, he was ill at ease. Gaius has just received what he said to be news of great importance... which could mean nearly anything.
"Gaius," said the King suddenly. "What news do you have that calls us here?"
"Forgive me, sire," said the physician with a bow. He stepped forward and held out an envelope. "I have just received word." He hesitated. "From Middle-Earth."
A shadow crossed Uther's face. "We have not had dealings with them in many years."
Ever since he discovered that the people there still accepted magic.
"Yes, your majesty, but this is different." He pulled out a slip of paper. "My friend in that land gave me news. It would appear that the Ring of Power was discovered again."
Chattering broke out over the assembly. Arthur's fist clenched on the back of the chair. The Ring of Power - so many people in Uther's realm believed it to be another myth, one of the many foolish stories that came out of Middle-Earth. It was certainly the oddest of the five kingdoms - with men half as high as usual and trees that could walk, or so the other myths said. But unlike those foolish tales, the legend of the One Ring was one that was feared, whispered of, recorded fully only in volumes long since locked away.
"So it is true," Uther murmured.
"It has been found, my liege, but the Ring has also been destroyed."
All the talk ceased. Ten pairs of shocked eyes locked onto Gaius' face.
"By two halflings," he continued. "Who are now in Minas Tirith, healing."
"You know this?" asked Uther. "How?"
"Their guardian has come, seeking my counsel."
The king's face twisted, and the shadow across it deepened. "I ordered," he said softly and dangerously, "that the people of this land do not deal with those of... Middle-Earth."
"Father, they've done no wrong to us," Arthur protested, lifting a hand. "If they hadn't destroyed the Ring, that darkness could have spread here -"
"They practice magic!" Uther shouted, and swiped a hand through the air. His fist hit his wine glass, splashing the red liquid across the floor like blood. A moment later, it was followed by a clang as the goblet landed in the already widening pool.
The air was still and nervous for a moment; then Uther sat down. "Forgive me," he said. "I let my emotions get the best of me."
Again, thought everyone in the room.
The king cleared his throat and then waved a hand. "Gaius, I wish to speak with you alone. You there, boy..."
He pointed to the corner. Arthur followed his finger and was almost surprised to see that Merlin was standing there, half-hidden behind a pillar, like a shadow. That's right, Arthur remembered. As his servant, Merlin always attended the meetings, for Arthur's convenience. Yet he rarely ever made his presence known.
"Come clean this up," said the king, pointing to the wine. With that, he got up and retreated with Gaius into a corner.
Frodo buried his face in his hands. Another long day had finally drawn to a close. Another long day of celebrations and feasts and...
...endless, insufferable pain that never seemed to leave him.
He sighed and flopped backwards onto his soft white bed. Aragorn was King, he and Sam and Merry and Pippin were the heroes of Gondor. He even heard that messages were being spread to the other four kingdoms, headed by Gandalf. There were endless banquets to honor them, and endless formalities so Aragorn could assume his role. And Frodo was happy for him, but...
"You're tired, aren't you?"
Frodo opened one eye and looked over at the doorway, where Sam stood. He sat up and waved his companion and best friend over to his side. "I'm exhausted, Sam," he said. "I am happy for Strider, but these cursed feasts get tiring easily. I wish I could disappear and not go to them!"
"Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin are happy, though," Sam said. "Plenty o' food. Why, they can even reach the table with them big folk of Gondor! It's a plain miracle how tall they've gotten."
"Mmm," Frodo murmured, only half aware of what he was agreeing to. Sam sat down next to him, and Frodo rested against his shoulder. Sam wrapped an arm around him, and they were silent for a long moment. At the end of this, his friend spoke up.
"It's not just tired, is it?" he asked softly. "You're hurtin', too. I can tell you are."
"I am," Frodo confessed. "I can still... well, I can still feel the chain around my neck, Sam dear, and I wonder sometimes if it will ever really be gone. It's not as heavy as It was when real... but I can still feel the Ring's pull. It's still such a weight." He closed his eyes, but he could still feel Sam looking at him sadly. "Don't pity me, Sam," he said. "I may deserve better than what I got in Mordor, but I don't deserve that. Not from you."
"I don't pity you. I'm proud of you."
"I don't deserve that either."
Sam kissed his forehead and said no more.