They were met by the Gaffer as they approached Bag End in the early evening hours. His wrinkled face and bright eyes grave with worry “It’s glad I am ta see ye Mr. Bilbo” Gaffer said as he helped Sam down from the back of the cart, ” ’tis
Prody Sir, he’s taken a turn.” Bilbo jumped down from the the seat and came to the back of the cart to help the Gaffer as he guided Frodo gently from the edge of the wagon. “Take the pony Ham” Bilbo said as he tucked his arm about Frodo’s waist to help him up the path to the door.
“I’ll see to the pony Da, you go and help Mr. Bilbo.” Sam said as he took the reins from the Gaffer and tilted his head towards the stumbling figures of Bilbo and Frodo. The Gaffer nodded ” ’tis best Samwise, I’m thinking Mr. Bilbo’ll be needing me help, thanks lad” he said clapping his youngest upon the back before setting off for the smial. He hurried to open the door for a struggling Bilbo and readied the sofa in the front parlor for the exhausted and ailing hobbit. Bilbo settled Frodo to the cushions and looked worriedly from his nephew to the hall leading back to the guest rooms. “I’ll be fine Uncle, please go to him…you’re all he has now…I’ll have Sam go to the village for Zinnia Pettigrew to help tending Prody, now please go” Frodo begged, eyes bright with unshed tears. Bilbo nodded and with a last pat of Frodo’s dark curls was down the hallway in a moment and knocking carefully upon the guest room door.
A weak voice called “come in”. Bilbo opened the door and felt a chill run down his spine as he stared through the dimly lit room to his friend. Prody’s face was pale, his lips tinged with blue, dull and sunken eyes staring at him, Bilbo knew he would say ‘farewell’ to his friend this night. He approached the bed and found a cold, frail hand reach to his. He carefully folded his warm wrinkled hand around it “can I bring you anything my friend?” he asked sadly. Prody slowly shook his head “all I await is news of Gandalf, if ye can’t tell me of the wizard then there’s not a whit ye can do” he replied hoarsely. Bilbo nodded slowly and looking towards the door said “Frodo’s sent Sam for Zinnia Pettigrew, if she can do anything to ease you she will.” Bilbo said. Prody looked tiredly at his long time friend “I’ll be needing no more tending Bilbo, ye’ll be needin’ her yet ta help with your lad…so ’tis good ye’ve sent fer her.” He paused and drew in a shuddering breath before continuing “I’ll have me ease soon enough…now tell me of today, how did matters go?” He asked rather irritably. Bilbo recounted the days’ events, leaving out Ted’s comments about Chrys and describing Frodo’s handling of the the testimony and sentencing with great detail.
The dying healer was quiet and lay with eyes closed as Bilbo finished his tale, so quiet that for a moment Bilbo feared the mantle of death had come to cover his friend. Prody opened his eyes again “we’ve got two special ones Bilbo Baggins, I only wish they’d a had more time together….aye, they’d be the making of the Shire they would” he said wistfully. He turned his head slightly to look Bilbo fully in the eye “I feel in me heart she’s gone from me Bilbo….take care of your lad, I’d a loved him as my own given a chance” the healer whispered as he tried to keep his voice steady. Bilbo could only nod, his full heart and aching throat not allowing him to keep his voice steady enough to speak. He gently held Prody’s hand. As the silence in the room grew Bilbo could almost feel the presence of death as it waited to take his dear friend. As the moments slowly lengthened, Bilbo began to feel a slowing of the pulse beneath his fingers.
A faint noise behind him startled Bilbo and as he turned, in the shadows he saw Gandalf. The wizard, weary from days of travel, walked to Bilbo’s side and placed a comforting hand upon the Hobbit’s shoulder. “It is nearly time” he said sadly and he moved to the other side of the bed, placing a hand on Prody’s head and one on the healer’s heart said “find your peace my friend.” Prody’s eyes opened for one last instant, he saw the wizard shake his head slightly as he mouthed “farewell”. Prody with a sorrowful look in reply filled his lungs one last time and was still.
Bilbo sat a moment, Prody’s faint warmth gradually fading as he squeezed the hand one last time and kissed the pale forehead “farewell my friend” he said softly. “He has found his peace Bilbo” the wizard said quietly, “now we must talk.” Bilbo gestured for the Wizard to follow him, he could not bear to hear of Gandalf’s news in a room so recently filled with sadness, and he guided the old looking wizard to the garden.
Under the light of the fading moon Gandalf told of his journey, of Elrond’s hopes and of the strength of Chrysanthamum. As the cover of darkness began to fade Gandalf told of the undying strength of the hobbit lasses love, of the burden that two hobbits shared and the eternal hope of spirits entwined. The softness of day was freshly upon them as Gandalf finished his sad tale, and a tearful Bilbo said ” I want to be the one to tell him Gandalf”. “he is not yet ready for the full tale my friend, he will only understand that she is gone from him” The wizard frowned and said sadly “perhaps it would be best if I told him.”
“Told me what Gandalf” a shaken and ghostly pale Frodo said from behind them “tell me that she’s gone? That my heart told me long ago” he said, the pain raw in his words “or tell me that she is but the latest sacrifice I shall make to prove myself worthy….is that what you must tell me?” He asked with growing anger ” You needn’t trouble yourself my ‘guide’ ” he sneered “for I shall make it my life’s work to find my own way…until my path leads me once more to hers” his voice waivered in his sadness and he swayed in his body’s response to his despair, until once more his anger buoyed him, strengthened him ” I shall find this path with only my heart and the memory of her love to guide me.” The harsh coldness and raw hatred of Frodo’s tone stung Bilbo and he felt tears come once more to his eyes as he reached to try and comfort this hardened visage before him…”Frodo, my lad….” he said as he slowly rose from the garden bench.
Frodo stepped back and clenched his fists “do not comfort me Uncle” he hissed “and shed no tears for Prody…he at least has left this world, while I am left once more by those I love.” Frodo closed his eyes, lines of unending pain and unyeilding sadness etched deeply into a face resigned to forever carry its heart’s guilty burden. Bilbo found himself frozen, unable to move, as if rooted to the gound beneath his feet as he watched the frail and forlorn hobbit turn and walk away.
The image of the pale and broken lad squaring his shoulders and hardening his countenance in the midst of his torment brought both sorrow and pride to the aged wizard. He knew that this was indeed the last test of the Valar. He knew they watched, through him, to see if this ultimate loss would crush the spirit of the the hobbit, or strengthen his resolve. Gandalf looked to the shaken elderly hobbit at his side, watched him as the tears fell seemingly without end and he knew that the sensitive nature of most hobbits would not last this test. He realized that in the pain of Frodo’s childhood a will and a spirit had been forged, the likes of which would not be seen again in Middle Earth. As Frodo’s forlorn and angry figure retreated from view, he knew that this too would be a test that the young hobbit would pass. He shook his head, for he also knew that a part of the spirit that was Frodo, the portion of his soul that enabled him to love with his entirety, was forever lost.
“I should go after him” Bilbo sniffed, his words breaking the Wizard’s thoughts. “He’s not well yet and I’m afraid for my lad Gandalf.” Bilbo whispered brokenly. Gandalf nodded but placed a restraining hand upon the hobbit’s shoulder. “Let him go Bilbo, let him go to find his own way through this my friend….he needs time to reconcile himself to this latest loss.”
Bilbo nodded sadly and then stared suspiciously at the wizard. “You knew of this pain before any of us, before Frodo didn’t you?” Gandalf weighed in his mind how much to share with his old friend, he was silent a moment and finally nodded slowly. Bilbo frowned “what else did you know of? Have you been an instrument of all the pain the lad has experienced? What is to be served by such torment Gandalf? I’ll have some answers or I will remove Frodo from the Shire and request that you cease to be near him..” Bilbo finished with growing anger reflected in his voice. “I’ll not stand by to see him slowly crushed by his sadness to serve the purpose of any being Gandalf….be they of this world or any other.” Gandalf smiled at the older Hobbit’s spirit and display of love and loyality. “This is the last trial the lad shall endure Bilbo, of his future I can not say….but his recovery from this will be the making of the lad.” Gandalf whispered after a moment “you must know dear friend, that I would not willingly bring young Frodo pain, for in the ways that I am able, I too love the lad.” Bilbo’s anger left him and he seemed suddenly tired and old. “I know Gandalf, I know….we all love him” he said his heart stretched beyond endurance, he sat heavily down upon the garden bench once more. “If only I could bear some of the pain, take a bit of his sadness from him…it isn’t natural for a hobbit to carry such burdens. “No” said Gandalf looking to the distant field where he’d last seen Frodo “but as I have said, this lad is no ordinary hobbit. He will find his way Bilbo, now he needs time and our trust…he will find his way in time.”