1. If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn
The study was dark, shadows reaching out from the open windows to engulf Frodo's books and parchment sheaves. Sam opened the door silently, holding up a candle to look for his master. Frodo was not sitting at the writing desk, but his inked pen lay dripping on the tabletop. His lamp stood unlit by the door.
Calling Frodo's name softly, Sam crossed the threshold. By the flickering light he saw that Frodo lay on the floor, a spilt cup of tea rolling away from his long, still fingertips. His eyes were closed, and his face looked very, very pale.
"Frodo," Sam breathed, kneeling beside his master, taking the cold resistless body into his arms. He could feel Frodo's eyelashes fluttering against his hands like a tiny heartbeat. "Frodo, I've got you. You're safe now."
Head pillowed in Sam's lap, Frodo began to stir, at last opening bright eyes and looking up into Sam's worried face. "Sam," Frodo sighed. "I am sorry. I just feel so very tired. I couldn't keep my feet. I'm sorry - I've failed, as I always seem to fail." His voice was dark, twisting, tenebrous.
A torrent of pained love for him welled up in Sam's heart, and he clasped Frodo to himself more tightly. "There now, my dear," he said gently, "you've done nothing wrong. Just you let your Sam get you to your bed, and then you can rest a bit."
He lifted Frodo up, and very nearly carried him to the master bedroom, supporting Frodo as he shuffled and swayed wearily. Sam wrapped the goosedown comforter closely around the small cold body - still too thin for a hobbit - and then for a moment took the liberty of resting a caressing hand in Frodo's fine dark curls. Frodo leaned trustingly into the touch, silent and cold but at least safe, and fell asleep.
Sam crept away, choking back his tears to keep from waking his master. He made it as far as the Bag End kitchen before the sobs broke free, and then he nearly drowned in them. Clinging against the countertop, he wept until he was nearly bent double with the pain of it. "Oh Frodo," he gasped out to the darkness, moved beyond silence in his distress, "Frodo, I don't know how to save you."
He dug his fingers into the scarred, wear-polished wood, taking comfort from the solidity and age of it. Old Mr. Bilbo's father had laid in the boards, long ago, before the Fell Winter. Before any other hobbit yet living could recall. It warmed beneath his hands, and he mastered himself somewhat. It had never been his way to give in to sorrow for long; work had always to be done, whatever might befall.
As his grief quieted, Sam stepped to the kitchen door, letting the cool night air dry his tear-streaked face. The stars were out, shining brightly with no cloud to mask them. They glimmered above his garden like a net of jewels. Looking up at them, Samwise murmured, "I don't know what it is that I'm to do, don't know how to help him. I could carry him through the dark land, and I could give him my water when there wasn't enough. But how'm I to free him from such sorrows as he carries in his poor tired heart? And I'm afeard they'll kill him yet, though all the orcs in Mordor could not."
He sighed, trying to blow away his troubles, and went on to himself in an undertone, "There's naught I can do for him, no way for me to mend him. He's done what no man could and now he's near to dying, as I know well enough, and I can't do nothing about it."
Sam's eyes overflowed again, but now he wept more quietly, shedding tears of resignation rather than anger. In heartache and worry, he found himself seeking out the Evenstar, Eärendil's star as the elves called it, away up in the heavens. It had kept them safe, once, in their long crawl to the end of all things. "I would do anything," he swore to that star, "give anything, were it to be of help to him. I would carry his pain and his sorrow, if I could, as I carried him before. Anything." With tears still heavy in his eyes he went to his own bed, and to restless, dreamless sleep.
The next morning dawned all pink and gold, warm for early spring, and Sam slipped noiselessly down the hall to pull back the heavy curtains and let the daylight in to Frodo's room. Frodo looked flushed, almost healthy in the new light, and Sam's heart gladdened at the sight. He busied himself about the room, putting things to rights, and then glanced back to the bed only to see Frodo awake, sitting up and blinking and smiling at him.
"Good morning, Sam," he said.
Sam went to him, pressing a hand against Frodo's brow, the sides of his neck, and then taking up one of his hands. "How are you feeling, sir?" he asked. "Only, you were poorly last night, and seemed near worn through."
"I remember," Frodo told him, his eyes going distant. "I was cold, and then - was that you? It must have been. Dear, good Sam. But I feel quite restored now, and as well as I ever do. In fact," he added, smiling again, "I find that I'm rather hungry."
And as the day wore on and the light shifted, Frodo's face never lost that healthful glow. He was strong enough to walk with Sam down to the market towards midday, where he seemed to slip out of the isolated melancholy that had kept him separated from everyone and everything since their return. Indeed, Sam saw that his master was quite cheerful, greeting neighbors and examining the wares for sale with a bright interest.
All around them, in truth, the Shire was recovering - they had worked hard all through the winter to undo Saruman's devastation. Renewal seemed promised; things were nearly back as they should be, tranquil and sunny and unchanging, and children ran riot through the spring-warm grass while their mums and das gossiped and haggled and complained of small cares.
And if Sam took care to not look at the maimed hand, he almost could have mistaken Frodo for the hobbit he had once been, before sorrow and war had taken hold. The happy, inquisitive master he'd served, admired, loved, as a lad.
As for Sam himself, he felt weary, and the noisy din of the outside world rang in his ears. The aftershocks of care, he told himself - it had been a bad night, and old fears had ridden him. He was bound to be a bit tired after such a thing. At any rate, the joy that he felt at Frodo's newfound vitality made up more than completely for any such.
Together they headed back to the smial, and then Sam made their tea while Frodo retired to his reading. Sam quickly became absorbed in his current project - he was engaged in training a roguish wisteria to a fine whitewashed arbor he'd built in the cold months spent restoring Bag End, for all that the vine kept throwing off new shoots in the most wild directions, and early spring was the best time to head it off - and scarcely noticed the gathering twilight.
When at last he did so, he hurried indoors to see after his master. It had grown very late, and he'd left Frodo alone for many hours.
Frodo sat beside the dying fire, eating a honeycake and leafing idly through the book that lay open in his lap. His eyes were very bright.
"Mr. Frodo?" Sam asked quietly. "Do you need anything at all, sir?"
Frodo stretched like a cat. "No, Sam, I think I am quite ready to turn in," he replied, and then looked at Sam sharply. "You look tired out, Samwise. Have I kept you from your bed? I'm sorry. I -"
"No, sir, that's all right," Sam said, cutting short Frodo's inevitable string of apologies. "Just a bit sleepy, is all. Nothing for you to concern yourself with."
Frodo stood, knitting his brows. "I am not so sure of that," he said, piercing eyes still turned full on Sam. "but I shall say no more tonight, for you are tired, and you should sleep. I'll see myself off, Sam, and say goodnight to you now."
The days passed. The earth was thawing, and soon the crocuses would bloom, and Sam found that he had a great deal to do. It wore away at him - a perpetual sensation of tasks unaccomplished and of strength insufficient. In the nights his sleep was strange and oft-interrupted, and in the days odd pains crept up on him - aches in his hands, pressure building at the back of his neck, sharp chills down his ribs that jarred him something fierce.
Sam felt Frodo's eyes on him frequently, but he said nothing to him of his discomfort, because Frodo really and truly seemed to be feeling better, to be coming back to himself again after so long spent wandering in shadowed places. He was writing a great deal, but it put smiles on his features more often than sorrows, and when Sam brought in his tea he was always vivid, almost babbling, full to bursting of his work and the pleasure he took in it.
Watching Frodo, Sam remembered how youthful his master was still, and so swallowed down his own troubles. He couldn't bear to be the one responsible for taking the light away from Frodo's face again, and he was determined to keep him hale and hearty for as long as ever he could.
Frodo wrote and wrote, and took his tea with honey, and went rummaging about the hole for extra bottles of dark, dark ink, and then one evening the rhythmic beats of hooves and drifting snatches of jolly song drifted up along the Hill. Merry and Pippin were tying their ponies at the end of the lane by the time Sam saw them, and Frodo was already on his feet and waving to them.
"Hullo, Frodo," said Pippin, tripping over the threshold and into the Bag End hall. "I say, have you seen that star hanging over The Water? Magnificent!"
Sam gathered together his tools and brushed the clinging earth off of his palms as the cousins retreated to the parlor. Frodo cast a brief look back at him, but then followed Merry and Pippin, laughing and speaking cheerfully. Sam made himself scarce, and made a note to himself to run down to the wine cellar before supper. Chances were the gentlehobbits would not be averse to a vintage.
Merry and Pippin both stayed the night, and the sound of their merriment followed Sam about as he worked through his end-of-day tasks, washing down the tile in the pantry, closing up the round windows, dropping smoldering coals into the warming pan for the master bed. He was shaking out the crumbs from the breadbox when Merry Brandybuck scared the life out of him, speaking up suddenly from where he stood leaning against the doorframe.
"Sam," he said, "I don't know what you've been doing with him, but you deserve a medal."
"How's that?" Sam asked, abstracted, trying to remember if there was still enough raspberry preserve in the jam pot for tomorrow's breakfast. He feared they might run short.
"We know that he's not been well," Merry said softly, and Sam looked up to see his face dark in the firelight. "At first, in the White City, I had hoped - but he's been so pale and tired, ever since Rivendell. That damned Sharkey struck him a cruel blow, too, when he was too faint of heart to take it."
The silence crept in from the shadows, and Sam felt as though all hope had gone from the world - felt dead tired, drained and old. "But he was better tonight," said Merry at last, "almost the way he used to be, when we were lads. I didn't realize how long it had been since I'd seen him smile."
Sam sighed. "If he is better, sir, then there's none gladder of it than I am. I'd love of all things to see him restored. Perhaps it was yourselves as lifted his spirits? For sure he's been lonely, and though I've done all I can to ease him, it hasn't been enough."
Merry's replying smile was wan. "And perhaps things are truly changing, Sam. After all, wounds do heal."
Sam returned the smile, but his heart was not in it. He felt tired, and his limbs ached and trembled in the dark.
In the morning, before Sam could get to the morning work, or slip in to wake his Master, Frodo leaned into Sam's little room, and told him that he was riding out to Buckland, to visit Merry at Crickhollow while Pip was away on family business, and that he would likely not return until late the next night.
Sam scrambled up out of his warm bed, blinking in the light. "Shall I go with you, sir?" he asked, and Frodo shook his head decisively, saying that he should like a ride with his cousins, like the ones he used to take when he'd first moved to Hobbiton, galloping to and fro from Buckland through the twilight.
"Stay with your Gaffer, tonight, Sam, if you'd like," he said. "You spend such time caring for my home that you scarcely have any time to spend in your own." Sam smiled and nodded and thought of his Gaffer, gnarled and care-bent, gruff and taciturn, and was suddenly and overwhelmingly homesick for the plain life he'd lived as a boy, obedient and work-anchored and simple. Yes, he thought to himself, he'd go down to Bagshot Row after Mr. Frodo left, and perhaps even go so far as to pirate away the bread that lay ready for cooking in the Bag End kitchen for their supper.
Standing at the restored green door of Bag End, Samwise watched as Frodo rode off into the greening hills, and tried desperately to blink the grey shadows away from his bewildered eyes.
2. It begins with your family, but soon it comes round to your soul
Frodo rode the distance twixt Bag End and Crickhollow in silence, singing no songs and chanting no rhymes, though Merry and Pippin chattered like magpies, and Pippin's keen voice was lifted more than once in song. Frodo was, in fact, buried several fathoms deep in thought, though his ideas were formless and unsure.
Pippin was on his way back to the Great Smials, having been so ordered by his father, who'd put the full weight of the Thainship behind his command. "Nothing less would have bound me," Pippin said airily. "It's quite remarkable how easy it is to ignore one's parents, after dealing with great leaders and captains of Men."
Frodo laughed at him. "Get home with you, Cousin, and mind that you don't take that line with your sisters. Paladin may pale in the shadow of the Steward, but I don't imagine that Pervinca will let you get away with much."
"But 'Vinca at least can be trusted to pay attention to the things that really matter! She has promised me roasted chestnuts with honey, if I'm back in time for afters, and you know how fond I am of 'thirty white horses on a red hill.'"
He rode off down the lane toward Tuckborough, raucously chanting: "First they'll champ, then they'll stamp, and then they will stand still!" Merry cut his eyes at Frodo, brows raised, but Frodo was grinning, and the world around him felt warm and cheerful.
They reached Buckland long before dark, when the heath was still bright-touched by pale spring sunlight. Merry slid down off his pony and hurried inside, calling back something indistinguishable about tea. Frodo saw to tying the ponies, and to filling their trough with sweet oats.
He'd not seen much of his cousin over the winter, for Merry had been much needed in Brandy Hall, and Frodo himself had been more than busy overseeing work in the Shire as deputy Mayor. Perhaps it was that interval of separation that caused him to blink in surprise at the tall, shrewd, lordly gentlehobbit his young friend had become - although he was wearing simple hobbit-fashion clothes in dark green, and not the Rohirric livery he sometimes sported - when Merry popped up unexpectedly at his elbow, and Frodo quite started out of his own skin.
"One would expect," Frodo said plaintively, "to become accustomed to one's cousins being quite gigantic."
"But you never do," Merry answered him with a laugh, "I can see it in your face. Come inside, my good hobbit, and have some tea - you must be quite chilled after that ride."
Merry took Frodo's cloak himself, and led him to the small kitchen. Frodo felt his mouth twist down when Merry sat him gently down on a chair, put a china teacup into his hand, and asked him solicitously if he wasn't really too cold. Bitterness flooded through him. "Meriadoc," he snapped, "for heaven's sake, you needn't treat me like glass! I can ride gently for an afternoon without breaking, as a point of fact."
Merry stood stock still, and a dull red blush crept up his throat. "Frodo," he said, "I'm sorry, I -"
Frodo sighed, quickly regretting the sharpness of his tone. He'd never been wont to speak to Merry in that way, not even when his cousin had been a foolish fauntling grabbing at his heels. "Oh, Merry," he said, "I'm sorry, dear heart. I'm only a crotchety old hobbit who ought to learn gratitude. I can sometimes forget," he added, looking upwards into Merry's warm brown eyes, "when I see how tall and strong you've grown, that none of us yet possesses all wisdom."
"I've missed you," Merry told him, and Frodo sighed with relief that all was forgiven, silently giving thanks for Merry's generous heart. "There's been so much to do, these last months," Merry went on, "and my father has kept a near grip on me." He smiled wryly. "I do not think that he approves entirely of my rash and sudden way of leaving the Shire, and without his permission to boot."
"Those sound to my ears like his words, not yours. I suppose he's over the moon with contentment that you've been staying here, and not moved back into the Hall?"
Merry snorted boyishly, dropping for a moment his new dignity. "Oh, he's spitting nails. And I shan't even mention Mum's views on the matter. But I don't care. I am a hobbit grown, and I intend to manage my affairs as best I see fit." His lower lip jutted mulishly, in a gesture that Frodo remembered well from his boyhood.
"Your poor, poor parents," he sighed. "How I've repaid them for their long kindnesses to me!" A deep feeling of culpability arose in his heart, and he looked in dismay at the changes he'd wrought in the once-peaceful family of his long-ago benefactors.
"They'll be all right, once they get used to it," Merry retorted. "At any rate, Frodo, you're not to go getting any ideas that this is somehow all your fault. You did your best, cousin, to hide your troubles from us all, and to keep us safe. You're certainly not to blame for our travels! I'm not sorry, you know," he added gently. "It was very much for the best that we went with you. Don't carry sorrow about with you for a failing that was all to the good."
Frodo put down his teacup; the tea tasted over-strong on his tongue, intense and bitter. "And yet how can I not?" he asked, looking at his tall-grown cousin. "How can I not see traces of the hurts you've suffered, and Pippin, and my Samwise, and not be reminded that I was the cause of it all?"
Merry looked at him sideways. "Perhaps in the same way you're entirely too intent on pretending like your own aches and scars don't exist?" he said. "My dear Frodo, you cannot expect to wrack yourself with guilt over our war wounds and yet have your own - which are far, far worse, I might add - remain unnoticed. Or did you think we didn't know how unwell you feel, and how often?"
Frodo sagged in his chair, heavy, boneless. The setting sun painted everything over all crimson. He might have been sitting in a dream for how real the world around him felt. "Sam knows, of course, for how could I keep anything from him? And of course he anticipates me always. He was there beside me through it all, and saw the worst with his own eyes. But Merry, I don't want you to know those things about me!" he very nearly wailed. "I would give anything for things to be as they were before, to not feel the weight of your eyes on me at odd moments, to not have to carry with myself for all time the memory of that torment and my - " He stopped himself just short of saying failure.
"You forget, Frodo, that I saw you at Cormallen, where the Eagles brought you down. Do you truly think that I could ever forget? You've been holding apart from the world, Frodo dear, burying yourself in with that book, and I shan't have it."
Worry welled up like a poisoned spring in Frodo's thoughts. "Merry, you would tell me, wouldn't you, if there were anything amiss with you, or with Pip?"
"Of course, cousin. You're the one who likes to keep secrets. For that matter, have you ever known Pip to take a hurt of any kind and not immediately send out a post bulletin? Poor Pippin - the Tooks have set their talons into him firmly, and I sometimes wonder if he will be let to leave the Great Smials before he comes of age."
"Now, then, Merry," Frodo admonished, clinging tightly to the less agonizing direction of conversation, "you can scarcely expect Paladin to let his son gallivant about with you forever! You young hobbits have a great deal of settling down to do, a fact of which I'm sure your elders will frequently remind you. And after all, it's not like you haven't carried their prized heir off to live in an out-of-the-way house in Buckland!"
Merry's eye twinkled, and the sight of it salved Frodo's heart. "It's no trick, really," Merry said, "once you realize that no one, not even the Thain, can stand up against Pippin's pleading looks. I know I cannot. But bless the lad, he doesn't take too much advantage, and he only mentions his great prowess in slaying trolls three or four times a week."
Frodo laughed, and Merry took away his full teacup and pulled the cork from a bottle in its stead. "Mind," he said offhandedly as he fished out a plate of cheese and flatbread to go with the wine, "that you don't push Samwise away from yourself because of all this. I know that you don't like having been seen by anyone in your time of trouble, but you need his help and his understanding. There are scars on you that I cannot understand or heal. Nowadays it's Sam that knows you best, as it used to be me. Trust him - he has hobbitsense to spare, and a deal of love for you."
Frodo stared at him open-mouthed, not knowing what to say or to do, but Merry peremptorily dismissed his anxieties by sitting down to table with nothing more shocking to say than the latest Buckland gossip, and Frodo allowed himself to relax into the comforting flow of engagements, snubs, and various other small scandals.
He and Merry went walking the Marish the next day, and Frodo decidedly enjoyed the strong green smells of the woods and fields, the feel of spring sunlight on his back, and the comfortable, simple friendship of his cousin. His find of half-a-dozen early mushrooms did nothing to dampen his mood. And when he said farewell to Crickhollow, riding home alone and leaving Merry to prepare the larder against Peregrin's imminent arrival, he was almost overwhelmed by the hopeful joy that swept through him. It was spring in the Shire, and all the hurts of the land were disappearing behind a lace of sticky buds and early snowdrops.
He was blessedly free from pain, and though old ghosts still threatened from the back corners of his mind, he felt for the first time, perhaps, since they'd left Ithilien nearly a year before, that there was some chance of his story ending well after all. But he held in his thoughts Merry's warning - he had been hiding himself from Sam somewhat, trying to efface himself and let Sam get on unhindered with his task of replanting and replenishing, and if he told true he missed his gardener nearly as much as he'd missed his cousins.
Frodo urged his pony into an out gallop, feeling the wind rushing against his face and pulling at his clothes as he rode home through the sweet green-scented air.
3. They were waiting for me when I thought that I just couldn't go on
Number Three Bagshot Row was shut up tight, with no light nor noise emanating from within, when he rode by in the gloaming. Frodo frowned - he'd meant to collect Sam on his way up the Hill, but clearly neither Sam nor his Gaffer nor any of his sisters were in. Which did not seem entirely right, for a Hevensday evening. But he trotted on up the path, meaning at least to change his travel-worn clothes before setting out in search of his errant gardener.
He need not have thought of searching, as he soon found to considerable dismay.
Bag End was ablaze with lamps, and when Frodo tested the latch the unlocked door swung open. There was no one visible in the hall, and he could hear no voices in the front parlor, but it was clear that someone was present in his hole despite this. He left his grey cloak hanging on a peg and walked back into the smial, towards his rooms and Sam's, to see if he could discover the commotion.
He heard a moan from Sam's room, and then a sound of low voices, and then Frodo stood aghast in Sam's doorway. Sam was prone on the bed, bare to the waist, and an ugly wound to his neck slowly bled onto white linen. May Gamgee bent over him, holding a bowl of steaming, pungent water, and she started up with a cry when she saw Frodo. The Gaffer, who had been nodding at the small table, awoke at the noise.
"Oh, Mr. Frodo!" May gasped. "Oh, thank all stars you've got home! We weren't sure if we ought to send for you, but Sam wouldn't let us, though if he'd worsened any the more I'd have sent for all that."
Frodo wavered, shocked, dizzy, and clutched at the doorpost. "May?" he said faintly, "what -"
"Here, May," Gaffer Gamgee said, rising to his feet. "Do be letting the Master come in and set hisself down. Here, then, Mr. Baggins." he said, taking Frodo by the arm and leading him to the seat beside Sam's bedstead. Sam did not move, but lay perfectly still on the counterpane, insensible. His skin was pale beneath his tan, and his bright hair straggled with sweat.
The Gaffer resumed his own chair. "Sam were took ill early this morning, sir," he said, "and as he was already here going about the place I didn't think it good to move him. Fell badly, when the fit first took him, and wasn't nowise in his right mind when I found him - I'd come up with him to take sight of the gardens, and I heard him call out. Was cold and still as the grave, and quiet, sir, but for some Elvish-sounding business that I didn't hear at any way clear. And then there was that ghastly hurt to his neck!"
Frodo gently pulled back the bandaging that surrounded the wound, noting rather distantly as he did so that the torn flesh surrounding the puncture was fever-hot. Sam twitched and moaned beneath his touch, and the sound of his friend's pain was so terribly familiar to Frodo that it sent him reeling back into dark memories - suffering, fear, fever, long hours of dust and emptiness and fire. Unthinking, he pulled his hand back from Sam's sickened body and clutched at Arwen's jewel, where it hung about his neck.
"We did go for the Widow Rumble," May was saying, "and she did all that she could for him yestereve. But she hadn't much to do, or so she told me, but to keep him clean and to give him what doses she could for the pain. We've been nursing him all this day, sir, and not seen much improvement noways."
"Has he been awake?" Frodo asked.
May shook her curly head. "No, not as I would say, though he does mumble on time to time. Nought to my understanding, sir, and nothing as would tell us how he came by such a hurt."
Frodo leaned forward again over Sam's prone form, and looked once more at the wound. He felt as though a terrible knowledge were waiting at the back of his mind, waiting to tear through him and out. "It's 13 Rethe today," he said abstractedly, and May nodded.
Darkness and foul dreams, he thought, and seemed to hear from a great distance Sam's voice, broken through with tears, begging him not to go. A feeling as of being consumed from the inside out, and a torment of loss mixed strangely with a childlike peace. "Torech Ungol," he muttered, still more than half lost in recognition, and then as if the words had torn aside an obscuring veil he saw everything clearly - Sam was bleeding from the exact spot where, on Frodo's body a year before, Shelob's sting had pierced and poisoned.
"How," he gasped, breathless with the shock of it. "It isn't - no sense -" But it did make an awful sort of sense, as Frodo thought back over the last days, remembered Sam's tiredness, and the extra layers of clothes he'd worn to ward off chills, and more than anything else the dampening sorrow and depression that had clung about the usually ebullient hobbit. "Oh, Samwise," he said, letting himself curl around Sam's pillow, burying his face in the tousled tawny curls, "how on earth did you do it? And why? My poor dear Sam., I would have given anything for you to be spared this, but the way has not been kind to us yet, and I suppose I should not be so surprised."
Behind him, Gaffer Gamgee coughed, and Frodo recalled with a start that the world did not in fact contain only himself and Samwise. Disentangling himself from Sam, he rose to fairly steady feet. "I know what the matter is with him," Frodo said to the Gaffer, but then hesitated, not wanting entirely for what was after all his private business to be noised abroad. "An ailment left over from our journey," he said at last, telling no lies but hiding the entire truth.
The Gaffer looked up at him with damp eyes. "Do ye know ought to do for it, Master Baggins?"
"It should pass by morning," Frodo said, trying to puzzle through what seemed to be one of his anniversary illnesses from the outside in - he hadn't remembered much of the dark spell he'd had in October, being then himself consumed with pain and recollection. "But if not … Sam brought some athelas back with us from Rivendell, unless I'm much mistaken, and I would be very surprised indeed if that did not give him some ease. I will go and look."
May wordlessly slid into the place beside the sickbed Frodo had vacated, and at her gentle touch Sam made a small, low sound of pain. In a quick, instinctual response, too quick for notice or conscious thought, Frodo slipped the white jewel over his head and pressed in into Sam's limp hand, and then hurried away, for the moment unable to bear the sight of the torn, fevered body that had carried him through so much.
The purse of athelas was tucked away at the top of the spice rack, asëa aranion jumbled with tarragon and rosemary and ginger. Frodo smiled at the sight of it and then felt very near to tears - it was so like Sam to keep it there with all the other mundane trappings of their everyday lives. He got water heated despite the trembling in his hands, and bore the resultant infusion back to the sickroom.
The Gaffer sighed deeply as the scented steam drifted into the air and May's face brightened and relaxed. Frodo did not feel his spirits lift, but watched Sam's lax face closely as May took the bowl from him and bathed the wound. "Bind the leaves to it when you've finished, May," he said. "The virtue should continue to work in him that way."
They ceded to him the nearest seat, and after May finished wrapping her brother's neck in clean linen bandages, she bobbed her head to him politely and took the Gaffer's hand, leading him away.
"Feel free to stay as long as you'd like, May, Hamfast," Frodo said. "There are accommodations open on the south corridor, I believe."
"That's all right, Mr. Frodo," May said quietly. "I think it best Da rests for a night in 'is own home, though it's sure as sunrise some one of the family will be back in the morning. You don't mind doing the nursey work? As I could send Daisy up, were you to want a rest yourself, sir."
Frodo shook his head, stroking down along Sam's broad shoulders, tracing the bone curve of the shoulder blade. "He'll be better soon," he said, "and your family needn't be in a hurry tomorrow, either. I can care for him well enough myself." May bobbed her head again and left, helping the Gaffer along down the hall.
Left alone, Frodo slipped into strange half-dreams, waking only to puzzle through stranger labyrinthine thoughts. Sam lay in his bed, the scent of athelas still clinging to him, and Frodo was comforted by the radiant warmth of Sam's body, the rhythmic rise and fall of his breath.
Sometimes Sam was stirred by anxious fever dreams, crying out Elvish invocations, calling for Frodo in long lamenting wails, and more frighteningly muttering at times beneath his breath of dark things he should not know, ancient nightmares and terrible echoes of the Ringspell that Frodo himself remembered so terribly well. Frodo found himself turning Sam's resistless body, cradling Sam's head in his lap, repeating over and over to him words that had been spoken before, telling Sam that he was not dreaming, that all was not lost. Frodo felt utterly adrift in time and place, was not at all sure of where or when or who he was. In the long hours of the night, everything took on a strangely indeterminate quality, and it only added to his confusion that his own dream-memories so often bled into Sam's delirium, but backwards.
Frodo had been so happy, these last days. The veil of pain and weakness that hadcovered over his world had lifted, and he'd felt strong and cheerful, able to join the waking world. Able to enjoy Merry and Pippin's company, as he used to. Able to care for Samwise, as Samwise had so often cared for him. But he realized, as he looked down at Sam's twisted body amid the bedclothes, that he had become more of a burden to his friend than ever before, and that the price that Sam had paid for his joy was in Sam's own sweat and tears and blood.
It wasn't until the early hours of the morning, when the wan light was beginning to be enough to see by, that Sam clearly spoke.
Frodo saw the light reflecting off of Sam's eyes as they fluttered open, and he leaned in to clasp Sam's hand in his own. "Good morning, Sam-lad," he said, brushing Sam's hair back from his brow. The fever-heat was gone from Sam's skin, and he peered up sensibly.
"Mr. Frodo? I didn't expect you back from Buckland so soon, or I'd - oh!" he broke off with a cry, having tried unwisely to spring up from the bed, and feeling the pain and exhaustion of the previous day fully. "Have I been ill?" he asked, hazel eyes as wide as saucers.
Hot tears sprang unbidden to Frodo's eyes, and he felt lightheaded and shaky. "Oh Sam," he said, pressing Sam's hand against his cheek. "My Samwise. I don't know what it is you've done, but I swear to you that I'll put all to rights."
A crease appeared between Sam's brows. "Sir, please, if you'd just be telling me what's come to pass? I seem to've lost a fair bit of time, and I'm right moithered at present."
Frodo said nothing, but guided Sam's hand round to the bandaged wound. Sam's fingers felt round the edges, and then his open, cheerful face went blank. "There's a puncture at the back of your neck," Frodo told him, "too large to have been made by any beast in these parts. Your Gaffer found you yesterday morning, and you were already quite insensate with the poison of it. Sam, it's mid-Rethe, a year now since you fought off the great spider in Torech Ungol."
Frodo looked at Sam steadily, trying to conceal his wince at how pale and drawn his gardener's broad, cheerful face had become. "Sam, do you recollect aught of how you came by such a wound? For I more than suspect that I've known these symptoms of illness before."
Sam's brow furrowed anxiously. "For all truth, Mr. Frodo, it's beyond my kenning. And … sir, I take your meaning plain enough as to the illness, which I'll admit are right enough the twin of that awful sting you suffered yourself, away at the edge of the Black Land. But I don't know what any of it means, sir, and that's a fact."
Frodo examined Sam's well-known face closely, poring over each beloved, familiar, pain-stained feature. He knew that Sam could no more tell him a sober untruth than he could fly off to the moon, but a prickle of intuition, perhaps of the hobbitsense that he'd begun to despair of in himself, warned him that nothing about this matter was simple.
But before he could press him further, Sam spoke up of his own volition. "The only thing I've thought of," he said slowly, "and the thought has been rather running through my mind, sir - and you mustn't think me foolish for it, but - well, sir, nigh on a week ago now I made a wish, and I wonder if it hasn't come near to coming true."
The blood drained from Frodo's face in a rush; he had a horrible presentiment as to the nature of Sam's wish, though he could not find words for what he felt. "Tell me," he said.
The words did not come easily to Sam's lips, and in the long moment of his silence a spring frog struck up a repetitive, peeping note outside the open window. At last Sam's honest face twisted round itself, the curve of his mouth harsh with tension. "Frodo," he said, low, guttural, "I've eyes well enough, and I've seen for a long time now that you're not well. You've tried to hide it from me, aye, but how could you think to blind me to your suffering when you're all the sights in the world I've any liking to see? And it only seems to get worse, sir, when by rights things ought to be mending up." He broke off with what sounded a great deal like a stifled sob. But quickly he mastered himself, and went on, "I remembered, sir, that in that black place all I could do was to help you carry the weight of it. And - oh, Frodo, I wished that there were some way I could do that work for you again."
"You wished to take my pain upon yourself," Frodo whispered, aghast. "Oh, but Sam, why?"
Tears stood bright in Sam's eyes, and his voice was tight with sorrow. "I don't regret naught of it, Mr. Frodo, not now that I've some feeling of what it's been like for you. I did know of the nightmares, and of the pain at your shoulder, but I'd no idea … every moment of every day, you feel it still? And you didn't tell me? I'd rather suffer so myself, sir, than see you borne down with it. You've been happy these few days, I've seen it plain as speaking in your face. Like it used to be, sir, before, and it's given me such happiness to see it."
"You know that I can't let you do this, Sam."
"I know no such thing, sir, and what's more I don't see as how you'll be undoing this, considering how's we don't know how t'was done."
Frodo felt like weeping, felt mocked by the bright happiness of the Hobbiton morning around them, felt utter revulsion and disgust at the health and comfort and strength of his own body - borrowed, as he now knew, at Sam's expense. It could never be repaid. The debt weighed heavy on his heart.
"I will mend this; you have my oath on it," he said. "In the meanwhile, let's turn towards getting you back on your feet again, Sam-lad."
Sam smiled at him softly, and Frodo wondered how much of his own mind Sam could read, even as ill and drained of vitality as he was.
All through that day Sam continued to grow steadily stronger, life returning to his face and steadiness to his limbs. But it was a strange sort of reversal, and Frodo felt that Sam must feel it as keenly as did he himself. Such familiar circumstances they'd become in the last month, now happening backwards, wrong sides out. Frodo quickly found that shared experience of pain was no match for Sam's long habituation to care, attention, and nurturance. He felt awkward and unsure, and was more than relieved when Daisy and May came tromping up the Hill toward midday.
Daisy, who'd always regarded herself in the light of Sam's mother, blustered in with chatter and inquiries and swift busy hands. Sam was quiet, but smiled at his sisters, and Frodo grasped at the chance to slip away from the sickroom to the sanctuary of the parlor.
It had been terribly unnerving, to see Sam so frail. Always Samwise had been as Frodo's own strength, his sturdy staff, his anchor through storm and wind. Faithful Sam, never faltering. Sam's strength had lasted them through torment and hunger and endless miles of hostile land, and the very idea of it wavering shook Frodo deeply. He depended so completely on Sam - was there food for the day in the larder? Would the delicate new shoots in the garden die, now that they'd gone days without water? In truth, Frodo had only the vaguest of ideas as to how one went about watering a garden.
"Pull yourself together, silly Baggins," he said to himself aloud. "If you cannot manage your own smial, being in strong health, then you are either brainless or spineless, if not both at once. See to the food stores, and ask Sam about the garden, or perhaps the Gaffer can tend to it, and then … well, you can think about then when you get there."
It turned out that May had already considerately taken care of her brother's green and growing things, but Frodo found that numerous accounts had accumulated during his absence in Buckland which had completely slipped his mind due to the events since, and furthermore there were several legal matters which required his attention as Acting Mayor. He spent the rest of the afternoon cloistered away in his study, letting the quiet methodical work steal his mind away from its worries.
The book lying open at the workdesk mocked him with its recollection of pain, but he shut it up and cleared the table of all his notes. Never the less, it preyed on his mind. At long last, Frodo gave up on pretense and let his head fall forward into his hands. His mind shied away from notice of the empty space where the fourth finger should have pressed against his temple, recoiling desperately from yet further dark recollections. Was he truly as weak, as deeply ill, as all that? To so quickly reduce a hobbit of Sam's strength and constitution to such a pass? He felt a deep revulsion at his maimed body, too thin and marked with scars, crowned by that terrible, ugly wreck of a hand. He had not realized, until he saw his own fragility writ large on his gardener's body, just how pathetic and lifeless he'd become.
Taking up his pen again, he began a letter to Merry and Pippin. He didn't think he was strong enough to mend this tangle on his own.
4. When you're not feeling holy your loneliness says that you've sinned
Sam slept like the dead all that night. He'd sent Daisy and May off home to the Gaffer well in time for supper, for he found that he couldn't manage to keep his eyes open enough to get any good out of their company. He was unused to being ill, having never been one for taking sick even in his childhood, and it discomfited him mightily having even Mr. Frodo offering to do small things for him, as if he were not capable of doing them himself.
Now it was late morning, and he'd seen hide nor hair of anyone at all. He lay back against the soft cotton sheets, feeling the strength of the bolster at his back, and listened for any sound at all about the place.
It had been worse than he'd imagined. Not so much the pain of the sting-scar; he knew well enough the biting sharpness of wounds. It was the seeping exhaustion that had affrighted him, the feeling of weariness down to the bone, hopeless and helpless, without clear cause nor anything to be done. And Frodo felt this all the time? No wonder, then. So many things had become clear to him, and that was all to the good, for Sam knew well enough that when Frodo Baggins set his mind to keeping something hidden he was as stubborn as any weed about it, and he had no doubt that Frodo had meant to keep his pain and his illness secret from everyone, himself included sure enough in that number. He'd never have known, only mayhap guessed, just how bleak the world looked through his master's eyes - and that even without Frodo's way of worrying himself about might-have-beens and maybes.
He felt stronger now, more himself, but the memory of weakness hung like a pall over his heart.
He was glad that he knew, he thought to himself fiercely. And yet he had found himself near desperate to escape the grinding agony of the wound, the frailty that he couldn't seem to shake. His dependence frightened him badly, and for all that he'd wished for it, he found himself near to spooking, like a skittish foal at the sound of thunder. Sam wanted more than anything for Mr. Frodo to save him, mend him, set him straight, just as Frodo had when he'd been nought but a boy with scraped toes puzzling over his letters and all.
But then, Samwise Gamgee, he found himself thinking, you'll only be forcing it back on to him. And wasn't that the thing you said as you couldn't abide? He shouldn't carry something this terrible, not after It, not with him being of the quality and too fine for dray-work and aches and pains. You can bear it. He oughtn't to have had to.
The smell of toast tickled at his nose, followed by a scent of apple blossoms. Frodo pushed the door open with one foot, balancing a tray and a flower-bedecked ewer. "So you're awake at last," he said with a smile, and Sam felt himself sink down into the comforting gentleness of Frodo's well-loved voice. "I thought," Frodo said, "that you might be able to manage some dry toast, and also that you might be glad for a bit of a wash. I know that I always feel less than living before I get clean, after … one of these fits."
Sam caught on to his hesitation and held on to it tight. "One of these? Sir, if you don't mind my being a bit blunt, how often do you feel this unwell?"
Frodo blushed, pinkness flaring out along his cheekbones. "Never this bad, Sam, at least not since last October, when we left Rivendell. But … I often find myself tired, and sometimes my dreams are very evil, and creep into my waking hours, and I find myself ensnared by recollection." He set the tray down beside the bed, but Sam had lost all interest in it.
"And you do all you can to hide it from me," Sam said with a frown. "I ought to have known anyway, but I've had so much to do, these last months, and my Gaffer and the tree-planting and all. Though that's no excuse." His heart burned with guilt and sorrow, and he found himself haunted by the image of Frodo, alone, unwell, doing his best to care for himself without help or company.
Frodo was frowning down at him. "Sam," he said sternly, heavily, and then he gave a great sigh and softened. "Sam, I don't want you to feel, of all things, that you've somehow failed these last weeks. It's quite the opposite, you know; you've worked marvels, both here in Bag End and across the Shire at large, and I could not be any prouder of you. I would not wish you shut up here caring for a weak old hobbit, when you are needed in the green world outside." He looked distant, distant and sad, to Sam's eyes, and his heart was wrung with pity.
"Master," he said, taking the liberty of grasping Frodo's hand and gently stroking over the gap where the lost finger had been, "You know that's not what it is, nor how I feel, don't you? That I would never choose to be from your side, if it were up to me?"
He watched as Frodo closed his eyes, relaxing trustingly into the touch, accepting the comfort, and Sam breathed out a sigh of relief that his gesture had been so accepted. But then Frodo straightened, and withdrew his hand, and Sam could not prevent himself from crying out softly at the loss.
"Are you all right?" Frodo asked him anxiously. "I'm so sorry, Samwise, to be speaking of my own troubles when you're so unwell, and for such a reason. Forgive me? I meant to just look in on you for a moment, and then to go and research all that I could into what's happened to you. I mean to put this back to rights as soon as possible, you know. It isn't right that you should still be suffering so much on account of me."
"I'd rather have your company, sir, if I may make so bold. And … well, master, things may well be better this way. Let your Sam do this for you, sir."
"No, Sam, I'll not have it," Frodo retorted, at that moment every inch The Baggins of Bag End. "This, too, is my burden to carry, and mine alone. You have to understand, Sam, that this is required of me, just as the other was."
"No, sir, I don't understand that. I don't see as how all those high people away back in the east would have said such either, nor left you alone in pain if you'd let anyone know what it felt like. Strider, now, I'll warrant he'd not like the thought of you carrying any more burdens. And I don't like it either, sir, and I'll do everything I can to aid you, whether you like it or no." His master was stubborn, Sam knew that well enough, but he himself had more than a slight reputation for persistence, and he would press Frodo's will on this, though it wasn't exactly proper for him to do so. Frodo mattered too much for Sam to give in without a proper fight.
"Then I will just have to make sure," Frodo said, voice full of weary iron, "that you cannot aid me."
"And that would be right foolish, sir," Sam argued back, "when it's clear to all that you can't go on without aid. I may be only half-wise, but I have eyes enough to see you with, and to see how you've been like a tree too long without water, and haven't sprung back to greening nearly as fast as you ought."
"As fast?" Frodo said, harsh and bitter and all twisted. "Say 'at all,' and you shall be nearer to the mark. You ask me to spring back, from that? How can I? How could anyone? Sometimes trees die, Samwise, and all the tending you can give to them is no more than wasted care."
Tears sprang to Sam's eyes at the grim cast of his master's face and body, but he held them back as best he might. "Frodo, you know I can't help but try, whether you will it or not."
"Very well, then," said Frodo, the brooding tension of his voice lessening not one bit. "If you mean to oppose me, there's nothing I can do to stop you - but I do not agree with this, and I will not let it stand and be idle. Call out if you are in need of anything, and I will hear you; I shall leave the study door open. But I have a deal of work to do."
His silence as he closed the door was as final as a grave, and Sam very nearly did weep in vexation and worry, for he was not used to being at odds with his master, and it pained him dearly.
Sam lay still all that afternoon, alone and quiet. He buried himself deep in thought, perhaps deeper in thought than he had ever been. He knew that he wasn't one for thinking, and wished with all his heart that the task of understanding the terrible knots that bound them had been given to someone else, someone more suited for such subtle work. But there was no one else: Merry and Pippin were kept busy in their own homes, and Frodo, who would have been best able, was unwilling. Which left only Samwise Gamgee, alone in his bed, looking out at his mostly-fallow garden in the weak early spring light.
In all truth, Sam knew that he did not want to keep his master's pain. The illness frightened him, and he lacked the patience to endure such weakness for months, years. But at the same time, he was bone-deep certain that Frodo would not be able to go on for long as he had been, keeping so much misery locked up tight and isolated in his heart. Sam's master had begun to withdraw from Hobbiton society, becoming more and more reclusive. He was uncomfortable with any display of admiration, and downplayed his own heroics something terrible. But it wasn't just the lack of honor he received that bothered Sam. Frodo spoke to no one at any length. He rarely left Bag End, save in the company of Merry and Pippin, and something about his manner forbade conversation.
I find myself ensnared by recollection, Frodo had said. And that was something that Sam couldn't bide by. No matter what incantations Frodo found to restore Sam's health - Sam had no doubt that Frodo would do it, having set his will entirely to its doing - Sam would have to find his own way through to cutting the cords that bound his master, to free him from his snare of dark thoughts and painful memories.
Wonderingly, he fingered the star-gem on its silver chain about his neck. It was so small, and so lovely, fine and perfect. He did not know if it comforted him because it was Frodo's, or because of some inherent virute of its own. He only knew that his mind was more tranquil when it rested in his grasp.
As the day crept on toward dusk, Samwise set his will to the sticking point. He wasn't going to let Frodo seal himself away, nor would he lose his master to remembered pain. He had borne Frodo through far too much to bear such a loss now, when all the troubles were supposed to be past them.
But he would have to be both careful and clever about it, because Frodo would try to resist help if he could, Sam knew.
He almost didn't hear Frodo's knock when it came, so many fathoms deep in thought was he. When Frodo entered, Sam quickly took in his pale face, stained fingers, red eyes, the traces of flour on his hands and the smell of basil and salt clinging to him. "Are you hungry?" his master asked him. "I've made up some stew with the last of that beef stock, which should be mild enough to rest easy with you."
Sam pulled himself up away from the tick, swinging his feet down to the cool smooth floor. His head spun for a moment, but then leveled, and after it had he felt better for the change. But Frodo gave a little worried cry when he swayed, and faster than blinking had knelt down beside the bedstead, baring his shoulder for Sam's use.
"Sam! Are you all right? Be careful; you mustn't overdo things. You've been so dreadfully ill, my poor dear, I don't think you really realize. Here there, lad, you lean on me if you feel you simply must get up."
"Thankee, master, I will, though I'm more steady now. It's none so bad as that." He made to stand, making use of Frodo's support, but hesitated at the low, vulnerable cast of Frodo's neck and shoulder. "Sir?"
"I wanted to apologize to you," Frodo said, not looking up. "I've been horrid, and it's all the worse for all you've done. I only … I fear that I won't be able to repay all of your gifts in kind. I lack your heart and your knowledge, and your hope. But I will do my best, I swear to you."
Sam looked down at his master's bared throat, unsure and anxious. He was again assailed by a feeling of absolute wrongness, like looking at one of Mr. Bilbo's books reflected in a looking glass and trying to make out the mirrored letters. This was not the way that things ought to be. "Mr. Frodo," he murmured at last, "that bite of supper does sound good, if you'd be so kind as to help me along a bit. I'd not mind a change of scenery, neither."
"Of course, Sam," said Frodo, standing slowly and pulling Sam up with him. Sam marveled at the comfort he found in his master's physical support, the feeling he had of being held up, cared for as he hadn't been since childhood. "Come sit in the kitchen by the fire, where it's warm, and I'll get you some cider to go with."
In the following days they fell into an uneasy truce, with many words remaining unspoken between them. Sam felt well enough to go out the next morning, and soon resumed his work about the place, though he continued to be bothered by the ghosts of old pains, and was periodically assailed by a drowning weakness that forced him to spend a deal more time resting than he would have preferred. Frodo said nothing more to him of any attempt to put back that which Sam had changed, but Sam was no more fooled by that. He knew well enough that his master would not allow himself to be thwarted in such a matter; Frodo could no more leave another suffering in his stead than he could turn into an eagle and fly away over the Blue Mountains.
Instead, Frodo very nearly hovered about him, watchful as a cat with a newborn kitten. Whenever he felt faint, or worn, or found himself lost in confusion, Frodo was somehow instantly there beside him, speaking soft words of encouragement and protection. Sam spent no more nights away from the smial, neither with his gaffer nor out at some farmstead where extra labor had been needed, but always slept within his master's earshot.
He regretted being so burdensome to Frodo, and worried that he might be doing a wrong to the master he loved, but at the same time it felt so good to soak up Frodo's care, to have his aches soothed away and his tiredness leavened with stories and songs and mulled teas. And so it was that near a week and a half slipped by, and Rethe drew near to its close.
5. Well I've been where you're hanging, I think I can see how you're pinned
Some silent, subconscious part of Frodo's mind must have anticipated what was to come, because the sharp increase in Sam's attacks toward the end of the month did not entirely surprise him - though if he knew the precise history that lay behind them, he at least did not allow that knowledge to rise to the forefront of his mind.
Meriadoc had written to him some days before, in reply to the desperate missive he'd sent off on the thirteenth. He'd said that it was clear that his old cousin needed closer looking-after, and had intimated that either he himself or Pippin could be looked for at any moment.
And so Frodo was not more than slightly surprised when his two tall cousins smiled down at him from his doorway on the afternoon of the twenty-third. But their smiles did not entirely reach their eyes, and as soon as Pippin had been placated with lemonade and they'd found their accustomed chairs in the parlor, Merry raised a questioning eyebrow.
"So, Cousin Frodo. You've been up to your old tricks again, keeping deep dark secrets. Will you tell us this one straight out, or do we need to convince Sam to go behind your back?"
"Speaking of," Pippin piped up, "where is Sam? We looked for him in the gardens as we came up The Hill, but we didn't catch sight of him."
Frodo drew in a long breath, looking for strength. He'd always meant to tell them, but now that it came to it he felt crushed under the weight of knowledge and secrecy. Sam had been very poorly the day before, the pain nearly as bad as it had ever been, and his nerves were still frayed by long nursing and care. The delirium had let up in the early hours of the night, and Sam had smiled at him again in the morning, but then had fallen again so terribly quickly into sleep. He let his head fall down into his hands.
"Frodo?" Pippin said, voice rising. "Are you all right? Whatever's the matter?"
Merry stood, and crossed over to share his cousin's settee. "Frodo," he demanded, "Tell us."
"Sam is ill," Frodo said dully. "Very ill; he's done something, and I don't know how, though I've read everything I can find on the subject. But somehow none of the various scrolls of poetry or history or herblore I've accumulated have anything to say about taking on another's pain, or about reversing such a condition should one occur."
"Taking another's pain?" Merry repeated, penetrating straight to the core of things. "Do you mean - is that what's wrong with Samwise?" He pulled Frodo down to rest against his green-clad shoulder, offering strength and support and encouragement, and it took all Frodo had not to close his eyes and forget everything but the safe cradle of familial love. "Frodo?" Merry prompted him again.
"Merry," he said, "you know I've not been well since … everything …. But Samwise made a wish, of all things - a wish! - past three weeks ago now, and I've felt so much stronger, so much lighter. The darkness has not pressed me quite so terribly."
"I do know," Merry said gently. "And it's given me such joy to see it, Frodo."
Drawing up his will within himself, Frodo straightened. "But this is not mine to keep. I am not healed, only pardoned for a while of my wounds. Sam has given me that, at considerable cost to himself - or rather, unacceptable cost."
Merry's mouth set into a hard line. "So Sam suffers now from the same illness that has grasped you in the past year. And while you have new strength and vitality, he endures your wounds. Is that it?"
He had laid out all the secrets, and to Frodo they looked uniquely horrible for being so revealed. "It began with that dreadful sting I received at the edge of Mordor, which reappeared exactly a year later on Sam's body."
"How in the world is that possible?" Pippin asked, looking somewhat thunderstruck. "How can he do that? I don't question that he'd want to, that he would, but this all does seem rather impossible!"
Frodo sighed. "Oh, Pip, I have no idea how. If I knew, then I could perhaps set things to rights, but - he's resting now. That wound is healed - but he is still unwell, weak and burdened and easily tired. I have been looking after him as well as I know how, but - it is difficult for him, I think, to need help from others rather than giving aid himself. And I am sometimes troubled so by my own thoughts and memories that it can at times be difficult for me to care for him as he deserves."
"So you wrote to us for help," said Merry. "It was well done, Frodo, for you know that we both consider any trouble of yours to belong to us equally, and we owe Sam a great deal for bringing you back to us from the Black Land. What is to be done?"
"Now? Nothing more than watching and waiting, I'm afraid. I wrote to Gandalf the same day I sent off to you, but somehow I do not think we shall hear from him. It strikes me that he has done with doing, as it might be said. And as of yet, there is not much that needs doing - only the care of Sam's garden, and the work of keeping the smial - but my heart forebodes disaster, though I cannot see it, and I fear that I shall be very glad to have my cousins beside me when the storm breaks."
"It may never come, you know," said Pippin, looking at him seriously. "Sam may turn the corner in time, and perhaps you both shall be healed. Things must not always end badly."
Frodo was quiet for a long minute. Pippin's words fell against his mind like false hope, bright and tempting but essentially impossible. "Things must not always end well, either," he said heavily, "and in the case of this entire business, the Quest, the … fortune has not seemed to be on our side, Pippin. I will not trust Sam's body nor his heart to fickle hope."
It was as if he'd thrown a thick, black, muffling cloth over the room; both his young cousins sat silent, with their eyes downcast, and Frodo felt his fears climbing up from his heart, up his throat to choke and smother him, when Merry stood, and crossed to the round window that looked out the south side of the smial, down gentle terraces toward the water. "Can you tell me," he said, bright as a new copper coin, "what needs doing in the garden, Cousin Frodo? Or ought I to discover that for myself? I know enough of herblore to tell a wanted plant from a weed, at any rate, and I'm sure Sam will be able to give me further direction when he awakes. Pippin? Can I trust you to scrape together an edible tea, or shall Frodo regret letting you within reach of his kettle and crockery?"
"I fear what calamity may befall, Merry, should I be expected to produce anything edible. I believe you recall the dire fate of the lemon pies last Afterlithe? But perhaps if Frodo wouldn't mind accompanying me, I might be useful without putting anyone's tea at risk."
"And so I shall, you useless scamp," said Frodo, remembering how Sam had stared at the lemony-smelling, egg-bespattered, liberally floured kitchen with round, amazed eyes, and how he'd said nothing of the yolk all over Frodo's weskit for quite some two hours in revenge for the mess. "You can chop vegetables for a soup, at least, so long as I give you the duller knife. I have a basket of early mushrooms put away, and I thought I might put on a cream stock for supper, and make do with a light tea until then."
Merry left his good coat and waistcoat hanging on a peg at the door, and with his shirtsleeves rolled up above the elbows he stated his intention to tackle the berry bushes first, and then perhaps start some lettuces to seed. Frodo could hear him whistling cheerfully but rather tunelessly as he mixed together his broth. First flour and butter for thickness, and fresh heavy cream, and herbs and a bit of salt. He'd add in vegetables once Pippin was done with the lot of them; he didn't want to get too close while the heir of the Tooks was still in possession of any sort of sharp implement.
It was just afternoon, to judge by the angle of the light, when Sam wandered into the kitchen with his braces hanging loose and his shirt askew. "My goodness, Master Pippin!" he exclaimed, still blinking sleepily. "Mr. Frodo, if I'd've known you had guests -"
"Nonsense, Sam," Pippin said. "Merry and I scarcely count as guests. Now you have a cup of tea - don't worry, I can promise you that I've had nothing to do with its brewing!"
Sam sat heavily at the table, and slowly drank from the proffered cup. Though he'd clearly just woken, he looked tired, and Frodo put down his ladle to go and pull up a chair close to his gardener's, so that their knees touched together. "Sam," he said, "how are you faring, my lad? You still look worn."
"No, sir, I'm all right," Sam said, clearly trying for a reassuring tone, and missing it by quite a bit. "I just … well, I can't seem to get warm, sir, and either it's later in the day than it ought to be, or my eyes are having trouble coming awake, for the room seems to blur every now and again. But this cup'll help more than a bit - thankee, Master Pippin."
Frodo's own jacket hung on the back of a chair, and he grabbed it up to drape around Sam's shoulders. "Do you need to lie back down?" he asked. "I can set you up in the parlor, if you want a change of view. But you were very ill yestereve, Sam, and I don't want you over-exerting yourself. There's no need." He pressed his hand against Sam's brow, looking for extremes of any kind, for he'd learned that bad spells could be harbinged by either feverish warmth or deadly chill. But Sam was only as warm as a hobbit should be, and he leaned against Frodo's palm with a happy sigh.
"I'd like to stay here, master, if you don't mind, and take in a sight and a smell of the waking world, as it were. I've been getting so tangled up with dreams and waking."
"Stay, then, but if I don't attend to my cooking, we shall have a cold supper tonight!" Frodo said, heartened by Sam's cheerful manner and at the same time troubled by his report. But then Merry came in with twigs in his hair, and between his engrossed talk of planting with Sam and Pippin's chatter all the time, the kitchen was quite a cheering prospect.
The meal was at last enjoined, with candles lit along the table to ward of the swift fall of early spring nighttime. The soup was lovely, all sweet cream and savory salt with the rich mushrooms floating at the top, and Sam took a second bowl, which lit Frodo's hopes up like a taper. They talked of things within the Shire and outside of its borders, and pulled out old and merry memories for new examination - profitable for several parties, for Merry and Pippin had not heard several of the more ridiculous recountings to which Sam was party, and he did not know many of theirs.
But after the dishes had been cleared away to the sideboard, and the quiet of the sleeping world was beginning to steal over the smial, Sam spoke less and less, and his smiles seemed faded and old. And then, with a choked-off little cry, he seemed to lose all his strength in a moment, and wavered and clung to his chair. Frodo slipped quickly to his side, kneeling beside the table and offering his arm as a better support than wood and wicker. Sam's transferred grip was tight enough to bruise, and the gardener's eyes were shut tight against something Frodo could not see.
"Sam-lad? There, dear heart, lean on me a bit and you'll feel steadier."
"Frodo?" Sam whimpered, and the sound of it cut Frodo like a shard of ice, like a knife-blade.
"I'm here, here with you. We're in Bag End, and Merry, and Pippin, and everyone is safe. The journey's ended, dear, and there's nothing left to fear for or to worry about. You've done everything you meant to do, and triumphed over all adversity, and now there are no enemies left."
Sam opened his eyes a bit, and peered blearily into Frodo's face. "It is you, sir? Only it wasn't, not for ever so long, and I couldn't find you wherever it was you'd gone."
"I've never left you," Frodo said, reassuring, puzzled.
"Not in body," Sam said in a pained whisper. "But after a while, that wasn't you walking beside me, sir, and I wanted you so in that terrible place."
Understanding at last, Frodo found himself quite overcome, and with a tearful "Oh, Sam," he buried his face in Sam's tawny curls.
Recovering himself, he said "Can you stand? You need to be abed, and though you've not been eating nearly enough, I still don't think I can carry you entirely."
"I can try," Sam said gamely, and Frodo's chest tightened at the braveness of him. He'd not been so strong himself under the onslaught of this same suffering, but had broken down like a reed, like a thing rotten at its core. He'd been reduced to a weak, solitary invalid, incapable of enjoying the new life rising all around him, or rejoicing in the victory they'd won. Why could he not have been made of sterner stuff, such as Samwise? What deep thing was wrong in him, that he could not seem to manage any sort of success?
He had quite forgotten the presence of anyone else in the room, until Merry recalled him with a tactful cough. "Merry," Frodo said, realizing himself to not be alone, "will you help me get Sam to his room? I can manage well enough after that. I'm afraid," he added, turning to look at Pippin, "that I am going to have to be a dreadful host to you two, but you know well enough where the bed-fixings are kept, I think?"
"We'll be fine, Frodo," Pippin reassured him, and Merry nodded his agreement, and stepped round the table to help. With Sam leaning heavily against Frodo, and with Merry giving a strong arm on his other side, they got cleanly away to Sam's bed-room, and Merry pulled back the coverlet so that Frodo could ease Sam down. Sam's face was hot against Frodo's neck, but his broad hands were grown chilled and clammy.
"I'll fill the basin," Merry said softly, and Frodo nodded his assent.
"Sam?" he said, but there was no response; Sam had slipped into sleep or unconsciousness, and gave no sign of hearing. He was flushed hectically, and his mouth was set even in his swoon.
That night, when Sam spoke he spoke of the Ring, of visions Frodo knew he could never have seen, images from his own nightmares: binding circles of fire, evil might-have-beens, and woven through every word was the desperate, sick longing that Frodo remembered so well. He sat by Sam's bedside, washing the beloved face with a clean cloth soaked in hot water and steeped athelas, and heard each word with a miserable heart.
Sam did not lie quietly until dawn, and long after morning had turned to noon, he still had not awoken.
"It's never been like this," Frodo fretted, pacing up and down the length of his study. Merry had dragged him away from Sam for a bite and a sup and a change of clothes, and was now plying him with tea, but Frodo could not rest. Not while Sam lay so still, so pale, so silent. Not while he feared that such a sleep, no matter how frightening, might actually be better for poor Samwise than waking awareness. Not while he knew with every footstep, every heartbeat, that it was all on his account.
"Frodo, for heaven's sake, I fail to see how you wearing a hole in the carpeting will do Sam one single bit of good! Now sit down, and have a bite of seed-cake before you faint yourself."
Taking no notice of his cousin, Frodo continued to mutter distractedly to himself. "The twenty-fourth of Rethe this morning - on the twenty-fourth we were - the last gasp, he called it then, and there was no water left, and the Mountain was the only thing I could see, when I could see at all and was not locked up in my own pathetic head."
Merry asked thoughtfully, "You think that's why? That Sam's illness is tied to the events of last Rethe?"
Frodo looked at him, somewhat wild. "How could it not be? The sting-wound on the thirteenth … and last Winterfilth, when we were leaving Rivendell, I felt ill with an echo of the Morgul-blade."
"I didn't know that. You never told me."
"Gandalf knew," Frodo said tonelessly, "and he seemed to think then that it was like enough to reoccur. He told me that I might very well never be healed, and might bear with me all my days the remnants of past pain."
Merry crossed to stand quite close to him. "Frodo," he said, "why did you never tell me of this?"
"There was nothing you could've done about it," Frodo said with a sigh. "And I didn't want to be any bother. It does get tiring, being the one always holding everyone else back."
"Frodo," Merry began, exasperation evident in his tone, but before he could begin any remonstrance Pippin poked his curly head in at the doorframe.
"Any change in Sam?" he asked, and Merry shook his head in reply.
"He's neither moved nor spoken, Pip," Frodo said. "And I begin to wonder if he shall wake at all these next days. It was a dark time, very dark, and if -"
Pippin's face grew pale. "Shall we send for a healer?"
"There would be no help in it. This is in spirit, not in body. And even Gandalf said it was beyond his help, before. There's nothing for it but to do the best we can, and hope as much as we may. I'm going back to him, now, Merry, and I don't care what you say to stop me. I can take my tea there as well as here, and he ought not to be alone in the darkness."
Merry nodded. "We'll take care of things about the place. You needn't think on them."
"Thank you," Frodo said, and walked slowly back to the bright room where all his hope could soon go dark.
6. Yes, you who must leave everything that you cannot control
All that long day was an agony. Sam still did not wake, but he spoke louder now in fever-dreams, shouting, screaming, crying out Frodo's name with one breath and with the next hissing orcish obscenities, and then dropping down into a horrible sobbing begging that was worse than any of the more voluble cries.
"Sam," Frodo called till his voice grew hoarse. "Sam, I'm here! Please, Sam." But Sam did not turn to him, or quiet underneath his desperate caresses.
When Merry came into the sickroom, long past full nightfall, Sam's cries had lessened to moans, though he still whispered pleas below his breath. Frodo had at last found a way to settle him somewhat - by climbing into the bed himself, and wrapping himself around Sam so that the other hobbit's head rested against the sound of Frodo's heartbeat, and so that Frodo might pet through the sandy curls when Sam's visions drew in for the kill.
He felt delirious himself, cocooned in a world of mingled love and horror: the sweet close warmth of Sam's body, the softness of Sam's hair combed round his fingers, the sick pain evoked by Sam's murmured words, the ache in Frodo's heart when he looked down and saw Sam's pale twisted face written over with lines of suffering and fear.
"Frodo, no!" Sam called, voice cracking, and Frodo hurried to quiet him, rocking him in his arms.
"My Sam, my dear, hush now, rest. Let the dark thoughts pass, and come back to me. Hush."
"Frodo?" Merry said. It took Frodo a long moment to pull himself away from Sam, to bring his mind back to some semblance of waking order, and when he did so he saw Merry standing in the doorway, brow knit with worry. "Frodo," he said again, "I want you to come with me. No, don't argue. You can leave Sam for a moment - Pippin will sit with him, and tell you if there's any change. Don't fight me, dear fellow, for you shan't win, and at any rate if I let another half hour by you'll be asleep, and then I can do as I like with you."
Wordlessly, Frodo untangled himself from Sam's limp frame, pressing a kiss against his temple as he slipped away. Sam did not stir, and Frodo did not know if he felt pleased or bereft. He passed Pippin by as he left the room, but his cousin seemed ghostly and insubstantial, and Frodo did not speak to him.
Merry led him straight to his own room, and unceremoniously stripped him and handed him a cloth and a basin full of steaming water. "Wash first," he said, "and then you are to eat, at least. I don't ask that you sleep, for I know you'll not heed me, but I will not have you filthy and faint, Frodo, no matter how ill Sam is."
"But I should be," Frodo murmured, still not free of an odd feeling of dream-tangledness.
"It is my burden to bear."
He looked up, and then wished that he had not, for Merry's dark eyes were full of fire. "Frodo Baggins," he said, low, almost dangerous, "give me one reason why you ought to suffer - if you can."
"Sam, at least, should not," he fired back, finding in himself some last reserve of outraged energy. "He did everything - everything and more! He went where he never should have gone, and loved me long after he should have given me up in disgust, and even found it in his heart to speak to me kindly, even after - what he saw."
"And so we come to it," said Merry grimly. "Since that day when you first woke in Gondor, I have known that there was some secret left untold, and since then I see that it has poisoned you. Out with it! It cannot be so terrible that you cannot even tell me."
"Very well, Meriadoc," Frodo said, and his voice was terrible. "If you really want to know, I shall tell you. After weeks of hard travel, after enduring and forcing Sam to endure beside me every imaginable hardship and privation, when we came to that fiery place I failed utterly."
He sat down, feeling as if every bone in his body could go to jelly. But it was not enough. Merry said, very gently, "What do you mean by that, cousin?"
"I claimed the Ring," Frodo said, weary, exhausted. "I slid that accursed trinket onto my finger and claimed for myself dominion over the world. I must thank Gollum for this," and here he held up the maimed hand, with the strange empty space between the small and the middle fingers, "for if he had not attacked me I should either have been destroyed by Sauron Himself, or become something else, something unthinkably horrible."
"But my dear old hobbit, you say that as if you think I ought to be surprised! I knew, Frodo - if not the exact details, then at least the gist."
Horror rose like a tidal wave to swamp Frodo's mind. "But how can you have known?" he grated out.
"Oh, Frodo. How could I not? I watched that evil thing sink its fangs into you, watched it eat your happiness and your youth. I saw what the loss of it had done to Cousin Bilbo, in Rivendell. I never thought that you would be able to just toss it into the Fiery Mountain without a backwards look."
"You've known what I am for a long time, then," Frodo said, numb with misery. "Why would you ask me why I deserve any suffering I have?"
"Because you are nothing more than your own dear self, Frodo. No one else could have carried the Ring even so far as you did. All the Wise refused to even touch the damned thing - and I wish sometimes that you had not done so either." He sat down on Frodo's bed, holding out an entreating hand. "Frodo, you did nothing wrong! You took and held It, and withstood it, and in the end you did destroy it! Who else could have done more?"
Frodo looked back into the smial, to where Sam lay fevered in his sickbed. "Samwise fulfilled his quest, Merry. He was with me until the end. But mine would have ended in ashes and dust but for the malicious intervention of a twisted, selfish being. Sauron was defeated only by chance!"
"Not by chance," Merry insisted. "You told us of this before - how Gollum saved us all because of your kindness and pity for him. You, Frodo, were the only one to understand how necessary he'd become, and for that you must take some credit."
"But don't you see," said Frodo in a pained whisper, "how much worse it is than that? Merry, I still want It back! I can hear it calling for me, pulling at my waking mind, and in dreams it's even worse. I did not give It up. It was taken from me. And so I am not free of It, shall never be free. I will love It and wish for It and suffer for It until the day I die. And every yearning moment forces me to despise myself all the more, for who could want such a terrible thing?"
Merry paused. "You are bound and determined to believe badly of yourself," he said at last, "and you have an answer for every point I can make. But answer me this: if you are indeed such a loathsome failure, why do the best and greatest men that I know give you such honor? Why did Aragorn ask you to bring his crown? Why did Gandalf ride beside you? Do you say that they are wrong?"
"No," Frodo answered, "only that they do not understand. Aragorn does not know what I did, not in full, and so he gives praise to the hobbit he thinks I am, unaware that I am but the sign and semblance of my honor. As for Gandalf - I have not told him aught of this, but I am sure he knows more than what's been said - he pities me, and forgives me out of that pity. But that does not make me worthy of his forgiveness, no more than my pity wiped away Gollum's evil deeds."
"You have this miserable net pretty well sewn up," Merry said, "but I was not speaking only of them. You say they do not know? Very well. Samwise does know, for he saw it all with his own two eyes, and he loves you yet well enough to suffer that you might be spared. He loves you with all his heart. Are you saying that he is a fool, that he has given his love unworthily?"
Frodo had no answer for that. He felt very tired, and rather dizzy, and he swayed a bit where he stood at the dark window. Merry stood, and placed a steadying hand at his elbow. "You need to eat," he said, and guided Frodo to a seat beside his small table. "I have fresh bread and some of that soup here for you, cousin, if you'll take it, though I will make anything else for you that you'd like."
"No, that's all right," he said to Merry, and picked up the small silver spoon. "You needn't worry about me, Merry-lad. I'm just worn through with worrying." But somehow he felt that some bitter weight had been lifted from him, and as he ate he felt new determination coursing through him.
"Help me," he said, finishing off the soup. "I need to get back to Sam."
Pippin was sitting beside the bedside when Merry helped Frodo into the room, and Sam lay very still in his bed, the candlelight throwing strange gentle shadows across his lax face. Pippin made to give Frodo his seat, but Frodo instead sat on the edge of the bed, taking Sam's hands in his own, and then caressing his face. "My Sam," he breathed. "You do love me, all the same."
Never taking his eyes away from Sam's face, Frodo spoke quietly. "I have hated myself for a year now," he said, "for failing at the last to do what was needed. And though others may not agree, I still say that I failed."
He heard Pippin move to say something, and Merry shush him. Sam's face was turned towards his own, and the sight of it was very dear - the freckles that dusted across Sam's nose and cheekbones, the generous turn of his mouth, the beginnings of laugh lines at the corners of the closed eyes. "And yet, Sam still loves me, all the same." Frodo laughed quietly, joylessly, but without pain. He turned to look up at his cousins. "It was his bravery, and not mine, that saved us all," he said, "but how can I mourn that, when it means that he survived?
"Sam," he said, urgent, "if you leave me like this, what will there be left? How can I take joy in your victory if you are not there beside me? For I should rather have you at my side and well than anything: more than I want to have destroyed It myself, more even than I desire possession of It again."
He was weeping now, quietly and uncaring, and he lay down again beside his gardener, needing to feel the living warmth of Sam's body, the sturdy reality of him. "I think I know now how you've felt," he whispered in Sam's ear, "worrying that I was going to leave you. It's the worst feeling in the world."
Crossing the little room, Merry pulled back the curtains from the window, and Frodo could see from the bed the beginnings of dawn streaking greyly across the horizon. "It's the twenty-fifth," Merry said softly. "Frodo?"
"Everything shall be at an end soon, for good or for ill. 'The end of all things,' I said it was once, and so may be again. We will know soon, I think." He peered anxiously into Sam's face, looking for any change, but it did not come. Sam raved no longer, but nor did he wake. And Frodo did not know it when he dropped off into an exhausted sleep, lying curled at Sam's side and clutching his hand to his heart, but he must have slept for several hours. When he woke, it was late morning, and he could hear the whistle of the tea-kettle from the other end of the smial.
7. Oh, I hope you run into them, you who've been traveling so long
Sam blinked his eyes open, finding it a harder task than he'd rightly expected. He was in his room at Bag End, and wasn't that a pleasant confounding of his expectations? He'd thought to have waked in some wild place free from help, hungry and thirsty and tired but with many more miles to go. Or perhaps to not have waked at all. Hungry he was, well enough, and thirsty too, but his attention was stolen from those wants by the warm weight pressed up against his right side. He turned in the bed to look, and there was Frodo asleep beside him, looking pale and drawn in his sleep.
The master was pressed so close by him that they were very nearly embracing, and he could feel Frodo's hand resting against his shoulder, as if Frodo had held on to him in sleep. Dark, bruised circles ringed his closed eyes, and his lashes were long and ink-black against the pallor of his skin.
Sam raised a wondering hand to cup the back of Frodo's neck, noticing as he did so the trembling weakness that assailed him. He pulled himself up on one shockingly weak elbow, still looking down at his sleeping master. "Have I been ill?" he wondered to himself, voice coming out dry and croaking and over-used - almost, he thought fleetingly, as if he'd been screaming. Then memory came flooding back: Frodo, the Quest, the illnesses, his wish. The pain and the misery he'd taken from Frodo, the way it'd felt as if nothing should ever be cheerful again, the darkness that had covered his eyes and mind and heart.
"Frodo," he murmured, "what's happened to me? I don't remember the last few days at all."
He nearly started out of his skin when Mr. Pippin spoke up from beside the bed, "That's because you've been unconscious for the better part of two of them, Sam. I'm glad to see you awake at last!" Pippin's voice was, indeed, brimming with suppressed jubilation, but his tone was little more than a whisper. "I imagine you're thirsty," he said, "and I'll be off in a jiffy for some herb-tea for you, but I don't want to wake Frodo yet. He's sat by you, and taken no rest for himself at all, and he's got pretty run down. You'll likely sleep again soon, which is all for the best." And with a forcibly sunny smile he popped up from his chair and was off.
"Two days, master?" he said. "It must've got bad, for you to be worked up in such a state. But bless me! I feel stronger this morning, for all that I'm a bit shaky and tired, than I have for weeks! Or mayhap not stronger, but better, somehow."
He smelled the tea before Mr. Pippin ever cleared the doorway. It was a blend of his own devising: peppermint and rue, with a bit of lemon peel thrown in for bite. It smelled like heaven, and Pippin scarcely had time to hand him the mug before he was drinking it greedily down.
"Slowly, slowly!" said a new voice, and Sam peeked up above the mug's rim to see Mr. Merry smiling broadly at him, though his voice was cautioning. "Too much at once and you'll be sick, Sam. Take it slow, and then you can lie back down for another sleep. You look as though you needed it."
"Thankee, Mr. Merry," he said, and was relieved to hear his own voice sounding less like a death-rattle and more like a proper hobbit's tones. "Save for thirst, I think I might have been asleep again already."
"Sleep, then," said Pippin. "Everything can wait until you're rested."
Sam very nearly resigned himself to sleep, pulling up at the last moment. "Merry!" he said, short and harsh. "Merry! The star-jewel. I still have it. He -"
Merry pulled the little white gem up from where it had been resting against Sam's breast. "He'll need it again, won't he? Don't worry, Sam, I'll see to it." Sam felt a stab of sorrow, piercing and somehow sweet, as the jewel left his grasp, and he watched it glimmer at the end of its silver chain as Merry bore it off.
When Sam woke again, Frodo was gone, and he was alone.
He could feel renewed vigor and strength rushing through him, beating powerfully through his veins. The strength to carry on, to hope against hope, to set his shoulder to the wheel and never stint until the long task was done, was his again, and he gloried in it even as he lay still and quiet. The green and gold and pink of a Shire noon very nearly overwhelmed him with the sheer intensity of their sensation, and he marveled at how colorless his world must had become, that a simple day could cause his breath to come quicker.
Following swiftly on that thought's heels was the more sobering one that for Frodo, once again the world must be leeched of color. Nothing was mended. Instead, they were right back where they'd started, and soon he'd see Frodo grown thin and solemn again, lost in his pain and misery.
But it was worse than that even, for as Sam lay still he realized that he had not known, had never truly known, the depth of his master's suffering. He had known that Frodo was occasionally unwell, of course, and known too that he was often melancholy, but he'd had no idea that it was so all-encompassing a hurt as all that. It had been bad beyond his imagining.
Frodo must have hidden it from him, and must have taken some care to do so.
That was where they stood - not where they'd been before, which had been bad enough, but somewhere else all together. Sam had thought, before, that it wasn't so bad, or that it might be getting better. He knew now that neither of those things were true, for he'd felt them himself.
But it would not be the same with Frodo as it had been with himself. For one thing, there was the vast difference in temperament - and for another, the difference in history, for Sam was accustomed to exhaustion and discomfort, and Frodo had old sorrows buried away at the back of his heart to torment himself with. Frodo was no simple, cheery, bluff working lad such as he'd lived with all his life, such as he'd been himself, but a high-spirited, delicate soul, seeing further than most but needing more care as well. Not that Frodo lacked strength - he'd a formidable will, which once set was stronger than iron or steel, and as Sam knew well Frodo would pursue his task through suffering and past death. But sorrows struck in deep with his heart, buried themselves and put down roots that were both tough and tangled.
No, Sam was certain that things must have been very bad for his master, and were like to become so again. And a chill crept down his spine at the thought of what might lie ahead for them. Neither health nor long life, that Saruman had said. Sam was terrified that his words might prove a true foretelling after all.
There was a noise in the hall, breaking against his troubled thoughts, and then Daisy came bustling in, with Merry in tow, laden down with panaceas. "There you are, Sam," she said. "I was wondering when you'd wake. We've been fair worried about 'ee, but the master said as you was but ill. Da would be here himself to see you up, but he's had a bad bout of rheumatism, and I told him not to bother coming out, for I'd see to you myself."
Surrendering to the busy ministrations of his sister, whose will had always been the law in sickrooms, particularly since she'd been his dear mother's nurse at the end of things, Sam nevertheless tried to catch Merry's eye, wanting to know the place and condition of his master. Merry sat beside him while Daisy added her liniments and potions of the hot water he'd carried in, and nodded, as if pleased by something. "Frodo's all right," he said in an undertone, "only resting, but he does not seem any more ill now than you do, for all that things seem to be the right way around again."
"Don't trust to that, Mr. Merry, for he'll hide -"
"The master's kinsfolk don't need you to tell them their business, Samwise," Daisy said, cutting him off by putting a well-aimed lozenge on his tongue. "And at any rate, it's you who has been ill, not him. Silly lad. You never have been any good at minding yourself." She was sharp, in her own way, but she also smoothed down the coverlet around him as she'd done when he was but a child, and Sam knew that her sharpness concealed an affectionate, if exasperated, fondness, for he'd always been her pet.
Merry did not stay long, and Sam dearly hoped that he'd gone to Frodo instead, for he was afraid of what resumption of his heavy burden would do to his master. He was absorbed for a time in telling Daisy the tales of the kingdom away to the south that she'd asked for, but remembrances of old terrors had a tendency to lurk underneath such things, and his mind was not entirely quiet.
He did not see Frodo until tea-time was past and supper-time was passing, not until Daisy made her excuses and went down to get the Gaffer a bite and a sup, not until he pulled himself out of bed on legs that only shook beneath him a very little bit and ventured out into the smial.
Sam found Pippin first, mainly by the racket that the young Took was making by way of washing up in the kitchen. "In his study, where else?" Pippin answered his enquiry as to Frodo's whereabouts, and then added, "Merry was with him for a while, but then he said he wanted to work, and we thought it best to give him some time to himself."
"Best?" Sam said. "Aye, best if you want him lost in his own head! But I suppose he near ordered you outright, for he must be feeling a need for solitude about now, as he always does when he's troubled about something."
"We can only do so much with him, you know, Sam."
"I know it all too well, Mr. Pippin. But if you'll pardon me, I mean to go drag him out, if I can."
"Better you than me," Pippin said with a laugh, and then asked, "Are you hungry at all, Sam? For I'm sure there's something left from tea."
"No thank you, sir," Sam said, inwardly feeling very nearly angry that Pippin could still be laughing, after everything that had happened, and might yet come to pass. But then he shook himself - it was good that Mr. Peregrin's spirits had not been dimmed, and others hurting would not ease Frodo's suffering one bit. But it was with a galled heart that he knocked at the door of Frodo's sanctum, and with a fearful mind that he waited for the door to open, unsure as to what he would find.
The scene that met him inside was so prosaic and commonplace as to be anticlimactic: Frodo was sitting at the great desk, working - though the book was open to one side - on what looked to be correspondence. A cup of tea sat half-full and, Sam suspected, quite cold at his elbow, and there was an ink smudge at his left temple where he habitually reached up to push back his hair from his brow. His pen rested against his little finger, brushing against the gap of the one that had been lost.
He was pale enough, to be sure, but so he always was, and even before the quest he'd never had the same ruddiness of complexion that so many hobbits possessed. Tired, certainly, but not so badly - only tired as if he'd sat up nights, not tired as if he was being drained dry of life by eldritch powers or remembered scars.
As soon as he caught a clear sight of Sam, Frodo was on his feet and hurrying toward him. Sam was glad to see him steady on his legs, standing strong.
8. And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.
"Sam!" Frodo exclaimed, smiling and frowning and wrinkling his brow anxiously all at once. "My dear hobbit, how long have you been up? Ought you to be out of bed? Here, sit down at once. I'd give you tea, but I fear it's gone quite cold."
"I'm all right, sir," he said, "though I will take that seat, begging your pardon."
Awkward silence covered over the room.
"It's changed back, hasn't it?" Sam asked at last, looking closely at his master's face for signs of unwellness.
Frodo sighed. "Yes, Sam, I think it has," he said, "and that is very much for the best. I could not have borne many more such days as have passed of late."
"And yet you still think I can," Sam said gently. "Oh, Frodo, can't you see that you're asking me to do that very thing? To stand by and let you hurt, alone and helpless?"
"It isn't so bad as all that," Frodo said, voice falsely bright.
Sam would have none of that. "It is so, sir," he said, daring greatly to stand firm in his new-found understanding. "It can't be hid from me any longer sir, not now that I've felt it for myself."
"No, I suppose I can't," Frodo answered. "But I scarcely care about that, Sam; I'm so desperately glad to see you well and strong again."
"No, don't you go changing the subject on me," Sam said with a scowl. "This is important. I know, sir. I know everything. And I want you to swear to me, on all that we've ever held dear, that you'll not -" his voice broke raggedly, and he forced himself to swallow down a bitterness that threatened to become a sob, "that you'll not leave me on account of old hurts that are passed and gone by. I couldn't bear it, sir - it would rip my heart right out of my body, and then I'd die too for sure and all!"
Frodo turned his head, as if to gaze out the darkened window, but Sam could see that his eyes were unfocused, as if he were looking many thousands of miles off, or as if his eyes were turned inward rather than outward and he was bent on examining the workings of his own heart. "These have been such strange days," he said softly, mayhap meaning his words only for himself. "Such strange days."
Sam felt his chest draw tight, and his throat kindled with coals. So distant Frodo's voice was, so pale and grey, like mist before sunrise, burnt away in moments. His master had not answered his question, nor seemed aware of the deep desperation with which Sam had spoken. For all the passion Frodo showed regarding his own life, it might have been some old legend out of a song.
"Frodo," he said, letting his voice, his spine, become straight cold steel, "you owe it to me to give me an answer. Promise me that you won't try to leave."
Frodo blinked, as if awaking from a dream. "What do you know?" he asked, eyes gone flinty-sharp.
"I know how bleak it looks to you," Sam answered back, steadfast and near afire with fervor. "I know how terribly your wounds pain you, and I know how dead the world looks to you sometimes, as if nothing would ever grow or be fruitful ever again. And I know, sir, from my own experiences, what you must be thinking. Of how release must tempt you."
"Release? How so?"
Once again, as he had done in his delirium but now sane and self-possessed, Sam recalled those dreadful moments of anguish in Torech Ungol - the way that Sting's radiance had flashed upon Frodo's death-pale face, the easy seductive beauty of its mercifully sharp point.
"When you were - when I thought that you'd died, sir, and left me, back in that terrible dark place, I wanted nothing more than to fall down on your sword and die beside you," he confessed at last, not allowing himself to hold anything back in secret, forcing the most naked description of the true way of things into the heavy air between them. He heard Frodo draw in a short, sharp breath, but he dared not look at his master until all his truths were spilled. "It was only the duty that stopped me," he said. "But if I'd followed my heart, I'd have ended then and there. It's a good thing I didn't, as there'd have been no help for you then, in that tower full of orcs. But I wanted to so badly, Frodo, so badly - it hurt too much to be endured, and I only wanted it to stop."
He could feel the tears stinging at the corners of his eyes, but he twisted them back; here was no time for crying. There was too much at stake. When he'd controlled himself, he met his master's eyes.
Frodo's face was buried in his hands, and his shoulders were hitching. "I'm so sorry, Sam," he choked out at last, voice muffled by the nine fingers clamped over his mouth. "So sorry that I took you into that place of evil and despair. I ought not to have done it! For now I've darkened your life too, and you deserve nothing more than endless strings of sunlit days."
Sam went to him then, and gently clasped Frodo's hands, pressing them to his own heart. "You still can't see that you do too?" he asked. "That this is wrong for us both? That I would rather stand by your side in suffering for a hundred years than have you suffer alone?"
When Frodo looked back up, his eyes had gone distant and emotionless, and when he spoke his voice was flat. "I suppose," he said heavily, "that I shall have to tell you everything, if I am to be let out of this bargain without grieving you beyond my ability to do so. Very well: I have intended for some time to leave, Sam, only not in the manner that you suspect." He held up a four-fingered hand to forestall the objections that sprang to Sam's lips, and Sam obeyed the implicit command, not knowing what else to do.
"I was told," Frodo went on, "that my wounds might be too grave for healing. So it has proved to be. And I was also told that if I so chose, I might cross the Sea with the Elves, and find what peace I might Beyond. So I mean to do." His voice as he spoke these words was terrible, flat and lifeless, dry and dispassionate. Not murky, but horribly precise, weighted down with understood significance.
"But that's no different!" Sam burst out, his heart and mind crying out as one against the dead certainty in his master's voice. "No different at all! You might as well fall on your sword and get it over with, if you're so keen to be rid of me. I shall feel the same."
Frodo blanched pale. "I cannot stay here," he said. "The pain is too great, and it will come again and again."
"If you'll forgive my saying so, I know exactly how great. And I know this too: when things were all dark for me, and it burned and froze at me, I still felt joy in my heart at knowing you were near me, and I still took comfort at the touch of your hand. I've not done by you as I ought, sir, and I've left you alone with your hurts. But I won't again, and it will be easier with me by your side. We've come through the worst and lived to tell the tale. We'll beat back the echoes yet."
Frodo turned his face away, sighing deeply. "I shall never be well, Sam. I cannot continue to burden you, knowing that as I do."
"Your loss would be the burden to break me, Master, not your need. But you're thinking only of the darkness, sir, and you oughtn't. I know it's right awful, sometimes, but sometimes isn't always, as you might say. There are good days enough." Sam paused, drew in a deep breath. "It's not really fair for me to say such things, though, not when I'm not the one that would be hurting. I'll only say, Frodo, that if you were to leave me, I'd mourn you all the days of my life. And for all that Elves are wondrous folk, sir, I can't see that they can do anything to care for you that I can't! Not a one of them loves you so dear as I do, nor knows you so well."
He drew Frodo to him, clasping his master to his breast. Bending over him, he whispered harshly against his temple, "Don't leave me, sir."
"I don't deserve you," Frodo said brokenly, turning away. "Not after -"
"After what?" Sam very nearly wailed into the long quiet gulf of Frodo's words. "After what, sir, for I've no idea what you could have done that would be so bad! After suffering, and choosing to suffer more, and doing all that was asked of you though they asked for far too much, and all coming back alive even so? Tell me."
Frodo's eyes dropped like stones in a river, and he said nothing. "Frodo," Sam choked out, "if I'm to lose you to this secret, at least tell me what it is. Please."
Frodo sighed, and was suddenly abstracted once more. Gone was the tense-strung intimacy between them, and in its place were the cold comforts of philosophy, learning, distance.
"Well, then, my dear Sam, it's just this: I did not do all that was asked of me. And in not doing so, I ceased to be deserving of anything at all."
Samwise felt himself very near laughing with the sick irony of it all, and hastily swallowed down his hysteria. "And you thought that was a secret from me? That I'd somehow managed to forget your face and your voice when you laid your claim to that awful thing? Never, Mr. Frodo. Not if I live to be a hundred and fifty."
It was no more than the truth. Frodo had been terrifyingly beautiful, standing there at the edge of the Fire like a lord out of a tale, holding his prize aloft in the red light with its gold gleaming reflected in his mad, unseeing eyes.
"But you've always been stronger than me, sir," Samwise went on. "Since I was just a lad, and you were the one to go for answers to the most tangled knots. And it's only proof of your strength that you could stand at all with It strung about your neck. I could tell well enough when I carried it that in a few months it would've eaten everything in me, left naught but a husk, just as it did to that Gollum. You, now - you carried it for years, sir, into all that fire and darkness where it only grew stronger. Even without It on my finger, I could feel the crushing weight of It once we reached the mountain. And you stood there like a king, or a wizard, and I knew watching you that you could've bent the world to your will easily enough."
"As if I'd ever want such a thing," Frodo muttered bitterly.
"Well, no, sir. Of course you wouldn't. But when I held It, It offered me all sorts of things that I'd never want for in my right mind, but there in the Black Land they were dreadfully tempting. And I think I could only give It up, in the end, because I couldn't bear to do you harm."
"And you think I could bear it?"
"No. I think that temptation comes according to strength, and that's a fact. If It tempted me sorely, as It did, and me as unable to wield It as would be any bird or beast, then how could It not have pressed you all the harder?"
Frodo made as if to speak, his face terribly pale and set, eyes burning with suppressed intensity, but Sam pressed his advantage, and refused to allow his master to cut him short. "You must have known," he said insistently, "that they weren't dreams It was offering you, but real enough chances. I'm saying that your burden was heavier than mine, sir, and that it was dreadful hard for even me to carry. But it was only heavier around your neck because, down at the core of you, you're stronger than the oldest oak, or the finest steel."
Sam did not know what else to do, besides talk. He cursed fortune, away at the back of his mind, for leaving such important speech-making to one as awkward-tongued as he, but there was nothing else for it. Frodo yet looked downcast, distant, troubled. The thought of the Grey Havens, of the white ships and far-off Elvenhome, stabbed at him sharply.
"Frodo," he said with a deeply-indrawn breath, "I truly don't believe that anyone could've done what you did. Not Strider, and not the Lady, and for sure not me. I saw everything, and what's more I understood it all. I've never once thought less of you for aught you may've done, sir, and that's a fact. Nor does anyone else. And if you … leave … me now because of something you never did do wrong, it'll break my heart and will, and I hope that if such a day comes I can lay down beside you and die, for it'll mean my failure more than yours. It was my task to keep you safe and whole and sane and living, and I'll have failed as completely as ever a hobbit could. I know I'm naught but a simple fool, but sir, I didn't think I'd done as badly as all that. Have I?"
He found that he was weeping, fat tears rolling down his cheeks, and he held tight to Frodo's maimed hand, pressing loving touches again and again to the scarred wound.
And then Frodo was turning in his arms, pressing back against Sam with equal fervor, weeping openly and noisily. It was as if Frodo were grieving for the self that had died at the Fiery Mountain, for he was right to think that things could never go back to being the way they had once been. Frodo was changed indelibly, grown more solemn and sad, something in him broken forever and something in him changed irrevocably from earth and blood to pure light. He could never be the same; but Sam loved him all the more for those changes.
"Will you stay?" he asked, and in answer Frodo nodded wearily against his now-damp weskit. "It will be all right, Frodo," he said, rocking his master in his arms as if he were no more than a faunt. "It will be all right. I'll never leave you in the darkness, sir, and I'll always be at your side, whenever you're in need of me. And things will start to grow again all over the Shire, and Bag End will look more itself with the gardens restored, just you wait and see. And then, maybe, someday it might not pain you so deeply. No hobbit could deserve more than you, my dear."
At last, Frodo pulled back from the embrace, and to Sam's eyes he looked somehow washed clean, for all that his face was tearstained. "Keep telling me, Samwise," he said softly. "Somehow, I believe you when you tell me that I do. My hope unquenchable."
"Speaking of quenching, sir," said Sam, winning a laugh from Frodo at his sudden change of tone, "there's Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin in the kitchen - or at least, they were the last I saw of them - and Mr. Pippin was in the way of making up a fresh kettle of tea. You said yours was cold, and for sure if it wasn't then it will be now."
Smiling, Frodo rolled the teacup in his hands. "That's most likely so, but judging by how quickly the light seems to be going, I suspect a clear wine might be more to the right of it. Come on, Sam, time for another gasp!"
"Only if you're gasping at how good the wine is, sir. Only if."
Frodo's eyes were dark and serious, and when he clasped Sam's hands in his own it felt almost ceremonial, as if he were about to swear a great oath. "So it shall be, Samwise," he said, and then turned and headed out the dim passageway towards the bright-hot kitchen. Sam followed him.
Epilogue: You can read their address by the moon
The leaves above his head were knit into a fabulous net of gold filament and red flash, and Bilbo was once again struck by the wonder of the transformation which autumn worked in the woods of the Shire, for he'd swear he stood under the fabled leaves of Laurelindorenan - or at the very least, some equally elegant garden back in Rivendell.
He was unsure as to whether the hoofbeats were imagined or real until he heard hearty laughter, and then he knew. No Elf laughed like that - these were hobbit riders, and their spirits were joyful. His lips curled into a smile.
Round the next bend he saw them, riding four abreast. The two tall ones - Meriadoc and Peregrin, he was sure - kept the flank guarded, and they wore shining mail, and - yes, Peregrin for certain - it was the leftmost who'd been laughing so high and clear.
Samwise was easy enough to pick out, being the fairest-haired of the four, and the setting sun turned his curls to gold. Good - Bilbo hoped that it was an augury of fortune for the lad. He more than deserved all the gold in the Four Farthings.
Which meant that the fourth rider must be Frodo, and Bilbo found himself leaning forward in his saddle, squinting to make the lad out as best he could. It was difficult; Frodo was wrapped in a grey cloak such as Elves often wore, and it hid him amidst the shadows of the trees. But at the same time, he seemed faintly luminous, radiating a gentle pale light that made Bilbo's sleepy old heart swell with mingled grief and tenderness. He smiled at the grey-clad form, and then Frodo looked up and met his eyes. "Bilbo!" he called, clear and happy and sweet.
"Hullo, Frodo," he said gruffly, reaching to clasp Frodo's outstretched hand as his boy drew near. Frodo sat straight as an arrow in his seat, swaying with the pony's gait in an easy grace. Bilbo blinked; for a moment, Frodo had looked more like a small Elf than a hobbit. And no wonder - had not the lad been eating? Thin as a willow switch, for all that his grip was strong and his seat was sure. But Bilbo did not quite know what to say, pinned by that solemn gaze. "Well, I have passed the Old Took today! So that's settled. And now I think I am quite ready to go on another journey. Are you coming?"
Frodo smiled at him, and the light flared from his lips and eyes. "No, Bilbo," he said. "It's not time yet, not for me. I have too much yet to do. But someday."
It wasn't the answer Bilbo had expected, and he made an effort to rouse himself, to examine the lad closely and carefully. Elrond had thought - it had been a cruel adventure for Frodo, filled with many unspeakable pains. Too cruel, he'd feared. But the countenance that met his investigation was peaceful, if somewhat worn. No longer young, but not crippled by age. Thin, yet hale, with an air of indefinable power. Certainly the merry tween of yesteryear no longer rode at his side, but neither did the wasted, twisted, tormented remnant he'd feared to find. Instead, Frodo had grown into a grave hobbit, wisdom and a maturity beyond his years evident in his face and bearing. And Bilbo did not miss the tender, joyful connection stretched between Frodo and the Gamgee lad. So. That was it, he thought to himself. The gardener. He was the answer.
At long last, he said, "I will miss you, Frodo. But, as you say, someday I shall see you again. And until that day, your hands and your wits will be needed everywhere. I expect you to read things out of our Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone, and not let the Shire grow too complacent in their safety from the great Dangers of the world. Will you do that?"
"I will," Frodo said. "You have my oath on it. And Sam will help me."
It was growing dark around them, and the Elves gleamed like ghosts in the gathering twilight. Bilbo was aware of Elrond behind him like a silent, ancient tree, but he was properly startled when the Lady of Lorien, Galadriel herself, addressed Frodo and his gardener. "Well done," she said to them, and smiled.
They sang together all along the way to the havens, and Frodo laughed as much as any of them, and it gladdened Bilbo's heart to hear it. And then Gandalf was there to meet them, and without a word the extraordinary wizard pulled Frodo down from his pony and into a close embrace.
The ship sat moored in the harbor. Bilbo had never seen anything so lovely, like a song built of timber and canvas, with all her lanterns hanging about her like sparks.
He turned to Frodo, whose eyes were shining. "You're sure you won't come?" he said. Frodo smiled, and looked back to where Sam stood beside Merry and Pippin, and then shook his head.
"I don't suppose there's any chance of you keeping a diary?" he asked, and Bilbo couldn't help but chuckle and ruffle the boy's hair.
"You'll be all right," he said, pressing a kiss into the dark curls, and then releasing Frodo's disfigured hand from his own he turned, and climbed the gangplank, and felt the sea at last moving restlessly beneath him.
From the shore, four small figures waved to him, and one glittered starlike through the night.