by Ariel (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Beta read by Nilmandra (to whom I am very grateful)
Disclaimer: The characters are Tolkien's and are only used here with the utmost reverence and respect for his work. I gain no profit but my own pleasure from using his characters in this tale.
It began after midnight.
Frodo woke in a cold sweat to an unnamable fear that chilled him to the bone. He could see the familiar shapes of his furniture against the rich paneling, but in the dim light of his banked fire they seemed suddenly dark and looming. He shivered uncontrollably. It felt as if he were back in the dark tower held helpless and impotent by foul bestial orcs; not, as his bloodshot eyes suggested, safe in his bedroom at Bag End. No orcs patrolled his bedchamber. All was quiet and peace lay upon his home. Yet there was no comfort in waking. Terrors still lurked in the deep recesses of his mind and the images that had awoken him were seared into his memory.
Down the hall, in the second best bedroom, Frodo could hear the faint sounds of snoring. Sam and his very pregnant wife Rosie were there, deeply asleep. No, he assured his racing heart, there could be no orc lurking in the shadows with Sam nearby. There were among his relations those who had been scandalized that Frodo had allowed the `help' such license as to actually move into his elegant home, but they had no idea how much Sam had given for the privilege - and how much Frodo needed him here. Sam deserved such a reward - more than Frodo felt he himself did most of the time - and he and Rosie took excellent care of him.
There were times, like tonight, when Frodo didn't know whether to feel comforted by his companion's nearness or dismayed. Sam didn't have nightmares. He had settled back into his life joyfully almost as if the terrors of their quest had never happened. He'd found love, a family and purpose in restoring the Shire and it filled Frodo with delight to see him so happy. But if there were any blemish to Sam's joy, Frodo knew he himself was the cause of it. He had tried to hide his growing melancholy - he didn't want to inflict his demons on the sweet, simple hobbit who had suffered so much for him - but Sam knew. Although Frodo was vigilant, with both of them living in the same hole it was impossible to fully conceal his despair . He only hoped his efforts at least kept his friend from knowing the true depth of it.
He slid his feet from beneath the covers and reached for his dressing gown. His tormented mind was too full of dark thoughts for him to settle back into sleep. He winced as he stood. His neck. He could almost feel the dark poison from the spider's sting coursing once again through his blood, robbing him of strength, robbing him of breath, robbing him of life... He gritted his teeth and steadied himself. He would not let the memories take him down that dark path again. The last time he had felt this kind of chilling pain was when the wound in his shoulder had reawakened. He had endured the torment until his body could no longer bear it. Sam found him collapsed in his study, cold and unmoving and almost as close to death as he had been in those first days in Rivendell. Frodo wanted to let go, to fall into the depths of deserved forgetfulness that lay easily before him, but through the mists of tattered consciousness he had seen Sam's dear face looking upon him with terrified concern. That had been enough to make him fight to come back. He couldn't hurt Sam. As much as he desired an end to his torments, he could not take the gift of life that Sam had almost forsaken his own for and throw it away. He hadn't become that desperate yet.
He stumbled into the hall, leaning heavily against the paneling. He had to get outside where no one would hear him if he cried out in his torment. Rose, laden and uncomfortable in her last stages of pregnancy, was having enough trouble sleeping as it was. He managed to reach the kitchen door and then the front hall without making too much noise - though if Sam had been awake, Frodo knew his fumbling footfalls would have brought the other hobbit running. It was good thing his friend was so preoccupied these days. It made things...easier. At the door, Frodo struggled into his cloak. The light, elven fabric seemed to burn against his neck as if the purity of the weave rebelled against the unclean flesh around his old wound. He did not remove the garment, accepting the pain as he had accepted his burden, and stepped into the chilly March night. He latched the door behind him and leaned against the freshly painted surface, sighing. There was no one about in the early spring darkness; no one to witness his struggles. He was safe.
Safe. The thought was a mockery. Through all the terrors and torments of his quest he had held on to the idea that protecting the Shire was worth whatever his suffering cost him. His homeland would remain a sheltered, safe place for hobbits to live peacefully and untouched by the outside world; a firm foothold of wholesomeness even if his feet could not stand there. And then they had returned to find the evils `Sharkey' had wrought.... It was a cruel, bitter blow; the realization that even his last refuge could be compromised, and it smote him to the very heart. Even his beloved Shire was not safe. There was no place that was, no place in all of middle earth where he could be free of the memories. The evil he had carried had burned itself into him and wherever he went, it would be there too.
Pain assailed him, suddenly sharp and overwhelming, and he gasped. His legs could no longer hold him. He slid down the door to crouch in an agony-ridden knot on the threshold. It was happening again. He fought the urge to scream but a whimper did escape him before he stuffed his hand brutally into his mouth. No screams, they would hear! He rolled onto his hands and knees and began crawling down the garden path. He wouldn't be able to go far, but he had to get at least a little way from the hole. He had to find a place where he could hide from caring and uncaring eyes while his world became a haze of pain. It would pass, it always did, if only he could wait it out and endure it.
Sam wouldn't understand his need for solitude. He would want to comfort his master, hold him close until the pains went away, but as soothing as that touch might be, Frodo did not want his troubles to burden Sam. His friend had given him so much already... Sam had his own concerns now. He had Rose to think about and was soon to be a father. He had worked hard to restore the Shire. He had a future here, a life; something Frodo had begun to realize he would never have. He crawled on into the dark alone, impelled only by his will. He would not allow his sorrows to jeopardize the happiness Sam so richly deserved. The burden had already taken one of them; it would not claim them both.
He'd almost envied the easy way Sam had returned to his life in the Shire. Sam didn't have demons, but Frodo knew why and did not begrudge him. Sam had not failed. The simple gardener had done exactly what he had set out to do; take care of Mr. Frodo. He had succeeded and had brought Frodo home alive. Frodo wished he could feel the same sense of accomplishment from his own acts. True, the ring was destroyed, and at first he accepted praise from the people of Minas Tirith gratefully, but as time went on and the events in Mordor came back from amid the ragged shards of his memory, the nagging thought that he had had little to do with its destruction had grown. He had not succeeded, not truly - success had occurred almost despite him. The ring would never have gone into the fire without Smeagol, or without Sam. They were the ones who really deserved the accolades, not he. Frodo got his feet under him and stood unsteadily. There was a sheltered seat at the back of the garden where he liked to go to rest and write. In it he would be out of sight of the road and any of Bag End's many windows. He made for it, weaving drunkenly on the wet grass.
He had not thought of Smeagol for a long time. He remembered how he had felt, seeing the poor creature on the barren rocks of the Emyn Muil, how pity had moved his heart and horror too, when he realized how well he understood the wretch. Was it pride that had convinced him that he could never become what Smeagol was? A bitter smile tugged at one side of his mouth. It was an unwarranted pride then, for in the end he had become just like Smeagol - a tormented, evil thing capable and even guilty of murder, for he considered himself as much to blame for the creature's death as the ring was. He should never have tempted Smeagol in the first place. He knew the power of the ring's call and how affected him, and yet he still used Smeagol's hunger for it to control the poor wretch. Despite the great need, Frodo felt he had used Smeagol cruelly and it disgusted him. Was it that disgust that had prevented him from reaching out to save the creature or was it pity? Had he killed Smeagol because he knew then that only death would free either of them? Questions whirled in his fevered brain as he touched the seat and settled heavily onto the cool wood. The darkness was nearly complete in this alcove. Black tangles of naked vine wove exuberantly through the trellis that surrounded it. Soon, in the fullness of spring, they would waken and new green would fill in every crack that still let light through. Here he could hide and ride out his pains.
No, Sam would not understand his turmoil. He had stood by his master since coming back to the Shire, defending his actions against any who would gainsay him. In Sam's eyes, Frodo was eternally brave, selfless and wise, incapable of any wrong. Sweet, dear Sam. Frodo didn't think he was any of those things, but when Sam looked at him with pride and love, he could almost believe them. So far, Sam's devotion was the only thing that kept his despair at bay, but what would the simple hobbit think if he knew what demons Frodo fought? Sam's peace of mind was too important to Frodo for him to risk finding out. Cold seeped into his limbs. The Lorien cloak was warm but he had come from the smial with naught but his nightshirt and dressing gown under it. He would not be able to stay out for long. Another wave of pain assailed him and he gasped. He would not let it beat him, he could not!
Trembling he pulled his knees tight to his chest and forced himself to breathe through the spasm. Tears squeezed from his tightly closed lids as the pain got the better of him. He could not hold them back. Memories of the dark pass assailed him. He hadn't known what attacked him then. It was only a lashing strike, burning like fire, and when he brought his hand away from his neck there was green, faintly luminous slime covering it. That was when he realized to his horror that his limbs were failing and he could not hold his grip on Sting. He recalled looking about wildly but seeing nothing in the half-light except the distorted image of his sword falling slowly from nerveless fingers. Then there was the cold grip of fear as his lungs had seized, his knees had buckled and his heart had slowed. He felt like he was dying, but his fading consciousness was still trapped within his body. Perhaps it had been merciful that he had not lingered that way long, falling instead into dark dreams of terror from which he had never fully wakened.
He was losing this battle. Ever since the pains had begun, he'd known it. They would never go away, he would never heal. Tears of sorrow mixed with those of pain, but he did not try to hold them back now. He was alone, no sounds filtered to him from the road and nothing stirred in the smial. No comforting circle of arms would try and chase these dark thoughts away. He could let the self-pity he had not previously allowed himself to feel rise up in his throat. He never would really heal. It would be this way for the rest of his life, however long that would be. He remembered the words of Saruman, "Sharkey", ...do not expect me to wish you health and long life. You shall have neither...* The voice still echoed in his mind, as did the image of the old wizard's shriveled, blackened skull. Were they prophecy, or a last cruel trick to rob Frodo of any sweetness he might have found in life? Whatever the case, he had taken those words to heart as if he had already known the truth of them.
The pain eased a bit and he let out a long sigh of relief. He looked up at the patch of sky that opened above his garden. There was no moon, but hundreds of bright stars twinkled amid the tatters of midnight clouds. Their light dimly reflected in the wash of tears on Frodo's face. He had held them back long, ashamed that he would feel pity for himself, but now that he had the space to let them fall, it seemed they would not stop. It was beautiful here. This smial was dear to him, almost as dear as the old hobbit who had once taken him into it. The Shire was dear to him too. It had suffered as he had, but at least it was recovering. His race would continue to thrive in this wonderful place. Merry, Pippin and Sam would be happy, grow old and have many children to comfort them. Their names and deeds would live on in the tales their children's children told by the fireside on cold winter evenings. But such was not to be his fate. He had no time left to give to anyone, least of all a wife and family. No, there would never again be a bright eyed, adventurous Baggins scandalizing the folk of Hobbiton, wandering the hills and fields and dreaming of far lands; no youthful reflection of his features to remember him to the future in the long years to come.
Once, in the fair house of Elrond, he dreamed he held a lovely, blonde haired babe in his arms. Not his child, but it knew him and gurgled its delight with cheery eyes and a shiny bubble of drool in its rosebud mouth. Now he realized that it had been Sam's child. There would be many more, and Frodo was glad of it. Sam would be a wonderful father and his children would grow happily in Frodo's large home. Bag End deserved the joyful sound of children's laughter echoing through its tunnels even if Frodo would never provide them. His legacy, already largely ignored by his own people, would have to live only in his writings. In darker moments, like this one, his bitterness would imagine even those gathering dust on some shabby shelf. He sighed. Perhaps that was for the best. The Shire was safe, and as long as his people remembered the threat and that they rose up to save it, did it truly matter if they recalled his role? The Shire had its heroes in Merry, Pip and Sam. Frodo didn't need acclaim; he had done nothing particularly noble. Fate had appointed him his task; but his companions... yes, they were really the heroes. They had come with him because of their great love and into a danger they could not have understood when others might have served better. They had traveled by long, circuitous paths to valor and victory. They had suffered and overcome, and returned home strong and wise.
Frodo's thoughts swirled as he envisioned the years stretching out far into the future. His doom had denied him any children of his own; first by suppressing his desire and then by ravaging his body. But Sam would remember him. He would recall Frodo at his finest, before the ring, and maybe, in the long years of retelling, Sam's memory of the tale would paint him in a far better light than Frodo's self-criticism did. He could almost see the long line of Sam's descendants sitting at firesides into the distant future. Each eye fixed on the storyteller as she wove her magic of words in the smoky dim. The tale would go on; Sam and his heirs would make certain of it, and the story he struggled to put to parchment would be part of it. There might never again be a Baggins in Bag End, but Sam would take the good that had come of their quest and see it was remembered for as long as there were hobbits in the Shire.
...I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know. ...*
Bilbo's song struck him with sudden poignancy and grief welled in his heart. It was almost like a physical blow that made his head light and his breath catch in his throat. He drooped against the lattice, feeling dizzy and a bit sick. He could not breathe, just like before... in that dark pass. The cold stole along his limbs, settled in his mind, and chilled his belly like a knot of fear... but he was not afraid. Not anymore. It was too peaceful in his garden for him to feel fear. His deeds were done and he was weary. He could rest here. Sam, coming out to work on some early chore, would find him in the morning. His body would be too cold and still for him to be merely asleep.
Sam. Frodo remembered his friends face hovering above his, his brown eyes wide and brimmed with tears, his face contorted in an expression of anguish the like of which Frodo had never wanted to see there again. A choked sob struggled from deep within him and he remembered why he fought. No. He could not die here. Someday, someday soon perhaps, one of these spells would seize him and he would not be able to claw his way back, but not yet. For the sake of those who loved him, he could not take this easy road. He fought the despair and struggled to pull in as deep a breath as he could manage. The cold slowed him, deceived him, and sapped the little strength that still remained in his body. Icy knives stabbed at his arms and feet as oxygen-starved limbs protested their fate. Frodo was so far gone, so aching with cold and dark he could not even tremble. His mind clouded and began to fall away, scattering the thoughts he had pulled together into a cloud of grey forgetfulness. What was it he had been so desperate to do? It had been important, terribly so. If only he could draw in one breath he could remember...
It was very difficult but the breath was won, though he had hardly anything left in him to demand another. His hand twitched but even that was a monumental effort. There was a moment of sudden clarity as the meager oxygen of his last breath spurred his mind and panic gripped him. This was it. He was dying. This time he had fallen too far into the well of his despair. The darkness in his heart was too immense to combat, to all encompassing to be denied. He struggled to open his eyes but that was beyond him now. He was too weak. Sam would find him here, dead, despite his efforts. His desire not to hurt his friends was not enough to overcome this gloom. Sam, Merry and Pippin would be so disappointed in him.
He struggled and captured another unwilling breath. The cool night air chilled his lungs. Faces danced in his fading consciousness. Pippin, his green eyes rimmed red with tears; Merry, his lips quivering, holding his cousin and struggling not to cry himself; Sam... Oh, Sam! Frodo gasped in another inhalation; it was almost a sob. He did not want them to cry over losing him but even more desperately, he did not want to lose them himself. How dear they were to him! There would come a point, and it would be soon, when he would have to go, but that made the little time he had left even more precious. How could he miss seeing that sweet babe in his arms? How could he throw away the chance of toasting Pippin's coming of age, or of struggling to draw breath through another of Merry's bear hugs? His fading consciousness latched on to a sudden understanding; the desire to spare his friends from sorrow was not a kindness but a sullen denial of their love. It was borne of his own self-pity not some noble sense of self-sacrifice. He would never find in it the strength to hold on. But, in his own great love for them and his fierce if equally selfish desire to savor every ounce of their love in return, there was. He cherished them and at that moment desired nothing more than to love them fiercely and for as long as he still had leave to do it. Despite the pain, the melancholy and the dreams, his life was still sweet while he loved.
Somehow he reached out his icy hand and grasped the lattice. He loved. That was a reason to live. He filled his lungs fully and the darkness and confusion grudgingly melted way. The cool quiet of the garden re-emerged as he fought his way back to consciousness. The pain was receding too, as if his realization had finally broken the iron grip despair had on his heart. He loved. Tears, this time, of gratitude and not self-pity brimmed his eyes and he opened them. The stars winked in the cold, crystal sky. It was beautiful and he loved it. He breathed deeply again. This time his mind soothed with a peace that had nothing to do with escape or forgetfulness, but with resolve and certainty. The despair was still there, as was the ache and the quiet taint that lingered on him despite the ring's destruction, but they were no longer strong enough to rule him. Even his failing life was too precious for him to cast it away. He would go, but not until he had tasted all the sweetness he could from the space he had left. He would go, but by the sea and at the time of his own choosing as the elves did. Arwen's gift of passage to Elvenhome was a treasure he could not forsake either. At last he understood her choice with a blaze of clarity. It was better to live and stay with those he loved for as long as he was able. Even had he but one day left to him, it was worth the living.
Elrond would be leaving for the Havens when the leaves fell that very year. Frodo smiled amid his tears. He would go with them but even then he would not leave all he loved behind for Bilbo would be going too. Sam would miss him, but with his Rosie by his side he would be all right. More than all right. Frodo smiled, feeling again the surge of warmth as when, sitting in his sunny kitchen, he had first decided to follow Bilbo on his quest. He would follow him again, and perhaps they would both find peace at last. The rightness of the decision filled him, the despair faded and strength crept back into his heart. Even if he and Bilbo never lived to see Elvenhome and he was never to be healed of his pains, together they would find peace. He would have lived his life to the fullest and for as long as he could.
Frodo sat for a long time in the bright cold, gazing at the stars. His heart was full of love and remembrance and his mind planned. There was much he had to do before the end. He had always intended to leave Bag End to Sam, but there were papers to prepare and legalities that needed to be resolved. He had put it off in favor of finishing his book, but time was catching him up. This would be his last summer; he knew it for certain this time. He thought of the season two years before when he had wandered the fields of the Shire, whispering his selfish regrets to the hills. Yes, he would miss them, but such longing thoughts served no purpose now. It was time he put aside his troubles, his pain and his regrets and thought instead of those who would live after him. The Shire was saved; he had done what he could to see to that, and now it was time to do for those he loved. Yes, tomorrow he would begin the process, write up his will and see that everything was settled. He would say nothing to Sam as yet. His friend might suspect Frodo's true purpose and try and convince him not to leave. Frodo smiled again to himself imagining it. He was not sure he could have said no to Sam. Yes, his plans were best kept secret.
He sighed, weary but calmed. The resolve he found dulled the pain, but it was ever present, ever gnawing at him, as it always would be. Perhaps there would be healing in the West for him. Perhaps the dark touch of the ring that Frodo still felt would ease and his sorrow would fade, but that was not why he would go. His time was ending and he had long ago accepted that fact. Even his new found desire to live his remaining life to its fullest would not change that eventuality. If he did not leave, his death would be soon and lingering and would cause great pain to Sam, Merry and Pippin but if they knew he had traveled into the west, they would trust the magic of the elves and believe he had found healing there. No matter what fate truly awaited him, he would live in their hearts till the end of their days, eternally youthful, strong, and honored by the Eldar. He pulled his cloak tighter about him and realized his neck no longer burned from the soft fabric's touch. A blush of color was creeping into the eastern sky. Dawn was approaching. He had sat in the cold garden battling his demons far longer than he had imagined, but the painful night was past and it seemed the morning would be a brighter one than he had seen in a long time. His friends would be all right and so would he; he had a purpose and a goal again, something to look forward to... and perhaps, at the end of the long road he was to travel there might be something of a life, even for him.
He chuckled to himself at that thought. It was best not to hope for things that no one could promise. If he and Bilbo never lived to see the West, it would still be worth the journey. It would be a deserved peace for them both. Frodo stretched and winced as the stiffness in his joints protested. He had sat in the cold for too long. It would be ironic if he caught his death from pneumonia now that all his plans were laid. He rubbed his arms to bring feeling back into them and stomped his feet on the grass. Blood was returning to his limbs, but slowly. He needed to get back inside, now that the pains were under control, and climb into his soft bed by a blazing fire. His strategies could at least wait until he'd had a proper sleep. He stood until he was sure his legs would hold him and began to walk carefully up the path.
Once inside, he paused at the entry to the room that Sam and Rosie shared. Their door was open, for the benefit of Rosie (or so Sam had claimed) because she was up and about so often at night, but Frodo knew it was more likely so that they could hear him. They had only begun the practice after Sam found him collapsed in his study. He smiled tenderly. Predawn light was just beginning to filter into the room and Frodo could pick out Sam's curly head and Rosie's rounded shape nestled against him. You will do well, my dear friend, he thought. You have done so much for me. You have shared my burdens and my trials but I don't want you to share my sorrows... They are mine and I must swallow them alone. You and I destroyed a great evil but it left its foul mark on me. I am stained with that taint of evil and I cannot wash it away. I am afraid while I remain here, neither the Shire nor I can be completely cleansed of it. I must leave but you must stay. I go to find healing in the West... or perhaps death. I cannot say which will find me, but I will finally be free of this burden. I will have found peace at last.
Sam stirred in his dreaming and sighed. His arm groped sleepily over his wife's belly and came to rest over the swell that was his child. Frodo stood for a long moment watching them, his heart full of the love he bore this tiny, indomitable family. Live for me, my friend, he thought as more tears fell. Live and be happy as you were meant to. Love your sweet Rose, and all the children she shall bear you. Be well and whole and remember me. In the years to come, when your life is full of joy and richness, and the Shire is laden with the fruits of your labors, remember me. Gaze upon all your treasures and be joyous. I will be there, and perhaps I will see them through your eyes.
* 'ed references are direct quotes from the text of LOTR.