Thicker than Blood – Chapter 7
Resolve – Where Gandalf and Bilbo finally have a chance to clear the air between them. Gandalf sees the strength of an adoptive parent’s love and Bilbo at last comprehends the evil of the ring he has bequeathed his heir….
Late afternoon, October the 21st, Bilbo had written in his diary but he was truly afraid to write anything further. The morning had shaken him badly. Frodo had been so… still. Even as ill as he had ever seen him, the boy had never been so listless, so motionless – it was as if the life-force were truly being drained from him into the dark well of his wound. Bilbo tried to put forth a brave front but his terror was an icy knot in his stomach. They were going to lose him. Gandalf thought so, though he had not said it. The wizard had gotten very close and in his later years, but he had always seemed in possession of some secret knowledge, some security that gave him confidence in every situation. He showed no such confidence this time, and that fact more than any other filled the old hobbit with cold dread. Bilbo felt as if events were spinning him headlong towards a precipice and nothing he could do or say would stop him from plummeting over the edge.
He hobbled along the corridor lit dimly by the afternoon light. Slanting rays of the sun rarely entered here. The high walls of the valley cut them off before they could fill these rooms with light, but there were usually torches to see by, blazing merrily in the intricately carved sconces. They would be lit soon, Bilbo suspected. He found the room where Frodo was being cared for and hesitated. He could hear murmuring, a long missed but lovingly familiar voice weakly raised. Bilbo’s heart leapt and he opened the great door quickly.
Gandalf was there, sitting on the bed, his back towards the door when Bilbo entered. He held Frodo’s right hand and was gently wiping the hobbit’s brow. The bed was a shambles. Frodo had thrown the coverlet back and the sheets lay twisted in ropes and knots about him. His bare feet kicked and he arched his back but neither motion had much strength in it. His limbs, so pale before, were mottled with the blotchy redness of fever, all but the left arm, which still lay pale and unmoving by his side. Frodo called out, but the words were garbled, slurred. It was as if his lips would not cooperate. Bilbo crept forward and Gandalf spared a swift look back to him, but continued mopping Frodo’s face.
“He has a fever.” The wizard explained with as much tenderness as he could muster. “To be expected, I suppose, after all he has been through.”
Bilbo came forward and took the damp cloth from Gandalf’s hand. The two looked at one another for a brief second. All the pain of the world seemed mirrored in the old wizard’s eyes and Bilbo knew his own must look very like it. He gripped the cloth tightly as the surge of grief filled him. Not yet. He would not give up while this beloved child still lived. He must find enough hope from somewhere to keep going. His jaw set grimly and he touched Frodo’s cheek with the cool cloth.
“Shhhhhhh…” He whispered leaning close to the younger hobbit’s fevered face. “It’s your old Bilbo, my lad, come to see his bright one. Be easy. I’ll not leave you now.”
Frodo’s eyes rolled beneath half closed lids, but he stilled as if to listen to Bilbo’s voice. A sigh escaped his lips and the arch left his back as he settled limply onto the pillow. Bilbo smiled through his tears.
“That’s right! You know your old Bilbo, don’t you lad? Ah, my sweet boy…” His voice shook till he could say no more but still he stood beside the bed tenderly stroking the fevered face. Gandalf held forth a bowl fresh mint water and Bilbo dipped the cloth into it, ringing it out and wiping it ever so gently across Frodo’s brow, cheek and neck. It cooled him and eased his frantic tossing till, finally, his breathing steadied and he slept. Bilbo straightened, his back ached and his old knees felt stiff as old tree trunks.
“There is something to be said for a loving touch.” Gandalf took back the cloth and laid it and the bowl aside. “Thank you, Bilbo.”
The older hobbit stepped back and settled wearily into Sam’s chair. “If only that is all it would take to bring him back to us.” He looked up at the wizard. “Whatever am I going to do, Gandalf? I can’t lose him. He’s all I have.” His voice sounded small and pitiful and Gandalf wished fervently that he had more comfort to give. They sat in silence for a long time, each studying Frodo’s now peaceful face. At last Bilbo spoke again. “You know, I’d never wanted children.” He said. “But the older I got, the more I began to realize how much I needed to feel some sense of continuation – that someone would be there after me…” He sighed. “I guess it finally sunk into my thick head that I wasn’t going to live forever. I took him on as my heir because I was fond of him, and thought he deserved more than the hand he had been dealt…” His lip quivered and he looked again on the brink of tears. “But I never realized how much I would come to love him.”
“You chose very wisely, my friend,” Gandalf answered kindly. “He has talked in his fever, and I have delved somewhat deeper into his memory. He loves you too. More than I think he realizes.” At that, Bilbo did smile, though it did not stem his tears. “And of all the forces of this world,” Gandalf continued softly. “Love is probably the most powerful and unpredictable. I would not discount its effects even when all seems lost.”
Bilbo nodded, wiping at his eyes and straightening his back. “Well, it certainly crept up upon me unwary, but I’d not change that.” The two then sat silently again for a long moment. At last Bilbo collected himself and stretched. “I’ve had my think,” he said quietly. “Though you probably know it was more of a nap than a think, but I’ve worked some things out, I believe.”
“Oh? ” Gandalf asked.
Bilbo pulled at his waistcoat and fingered a brass button idly. “Yes, it’s about this ring. I thought you might be interested in what I’ve decided.”
“Yes, indeed, I am.”
Bilbo looked uncomfortable, but his eyes then came to rest on Frodo’s still face and that seemed to give him some resolve. “You know, I always thought of my ring as a trinket, a plaything,” he began with note of wonder in his voice. “I guess some part of me knew it must be important, but I never saw it as a burden. I suppose that was why I couldn’t understand why you insisted I pass it on. At the time, I didn’t realize the great responsibility that lay with keeping it. But there it is, I suppose. Though I did it almost without thinking, I took on that responsibility when I picked it up in Gollum’s cave.” He paused again, gathering his thoughts. “And when I made Frodo my heir, I gave him not only a home and a fortune, but responsibility too. Responsibility to bear my ring, even though it lead to this…” his voice trailed off again sadly. “That is what it means to be an heir, I suppose. You get the good and the bad baggage when the old can no longer take it, and, well,…I guess I am coming to my point.” He eyed Gandalf thoughtfully. “It’s not been an easy thing for me to admit, but I am finally really feeling my age – both my body and mind. I forget things, little things mostly, but that troubles me and I’ve a much harder time getting up in the morning than I used to. I can’t even imagine how I’d be now after a night camped out on the ground! They’d probably have to dig a hole beside me next morning and roll me into it!” He grinned at the little joke, and after a second, so did Gandalf. “Yes, I am too old and feeble to have gone on the journey my boy has and I know that. It is the responsible part of me that says, the ring has to belong to Frodo now – I’m too old to bear the burden any more – for I know now it is just that… a burden and responsibility. I bore it, and now he must bear it… but I must ask one favor of you Gandalf?”
The old wizard had been listening with respectful silence and he looked up at Bilbo then with a warmth and pride in his eyes that Bilbo was heartened to see. “If I can grant it. What is it you wish?”
“Don’t let him bear this burden any longer than he must!” Bilbo said fervently. “If you’ll not take it, give it to some great warrior or elf lord to carry! This thing is too great and terrible for any humble hobbit – and it is too much for my Frodo! Please find someone else to bear it, Gandalf, you must!”
Gandalf frowned sadly. “You are right, Bilbo. The ring is a far greater burden than anyone should be made to bear. But how could we choose another bearer? Fate is impartial and cannot be swayed by lust of the thing – and fate chose you, and thereby your heir, Frodo. It was a good choice, in my opinion. You kept it safe and hidden for 60 years, as did Frodo after you. You call yourselves humble, but perhaps your humility was what allowed you, of all people, to hold it and not be corrupted utterly? I cannot say, but I trust that fate will continue to guide us. Frodo was chosen, and Frodo should remain the bearer until such time as he can no longer bear the thing.”
Until he can no longer bear it… Bilbo felt the chill those words portended and shuddered. “You sound like an elf, Gandalf.” he said disapprovingly. “You answer my request by saying both no and yes.” He sighed. “If you may not promise to take the ring away, can you at least promise that Frodo will not bear this burden alone? Can you not stay with him and protect him as you had promised me you would?”
The words were meant to sting and the old wizard did allow a flash of hurt to cross his face. “That I will do,” he said solemnly. “As long as I am able to do it. I can promise that.”
Bilbo at last felt satisfied and settled back in the comfortable chair. He sighed and his eyes drifted over the still form of his nephew lying peacefully asleep on his bed. All this discussion and thinking had filled his head and taxed him. He was glad to have it out in the open, discussed and at least somewhat resolved at last. He relaxed and let the stillness of the room and the calming presence of the wizard settle in his limbs. He began to feel sleepy and unguarded.
“Gandalf?” he asked drowsily. “Do you know where the ring is? I know you say Frodo is still the bearer, but I looked for it before and didn’t find it on him. Perhaps the elves have already taken it away?”
The stiffness and sorrow in Gandalf’s reply was lost on the drowsy hobbit. Bilbo was not speaking from his own thoughts, but those of the ring obsession that still had some hold on him even so many years after he had relinquished the thing. Comfortable and on the brink of sleep, he had not noticed how odd his request sounded in light of the previous conversation.
“No Bilbo,” Gandalf said truthfully. “I do not know where the ring is held. Only that it is kept safe and those who do know where it is also know they keep that knowledge in stewardship and that the ring remains Frodo’s.”
“Ah, just as well then,” Bilbo mumbled and his head fell forward onto his breast and he slept.
TBC in Eavesdropping – Where Elrond makes some cold choices concerning the Ringbearer. He must perform the surgery soon – for it is more important that the shard be removed from his body while he still lives than it is for Frodo to survive the operation.