1. October Reckoning
“But there are days when not all the simple joys of a lifetime can erase the one moment. The truth--or lie--of that moment.
“I was not strong enough, good enough. I did not resist enough. It claimed me, in the end.
“In the end, I... failed.”
* * * * * *
The earthenware bowl in Rosie’s arms was filled to the brim with eggs; for moments it seemed that she’d drop it in consternation. However she merely shifted her grip upon it and half-turned from the cellar door with a puzzled frown. Sam intercepted her next comment by going over and putting his arms about her.
Well used to ‘mister Frodo’s oddities’ or not, it plainly didn’t sit well with her. Rosie took Sam’s own watchfulness of Frodo forward with a practiced art that was incredible to behold; now she looked directly at the master of Bag-End with unwavering penetration. What she saw didn’t please her; the blue eyes slid away and wouldn’t meet hers, his shirt & breeks just hung on him--he was still too thin for any hobbit eating her meals, and the flush that pinked his cheekbones under her gaze didn’t disguise the wanness beneath. “He’s only just got up several days back,” she protested.
Sam, however, was too busily playing male’s games with his master behind her back. She saw the wink he gave Frodo. So what if she had a Hobbiton-bred dislike of anything beneath her broad toes that wasn’t solid? It wasn’t just the swimming itself--she knew Frodo had gone off several times before to the river on his own and that he swam like a fish--or a Brandybuck. Then she saw the slight amusement in Frodo’s downturned gaze--still he wouldn’t look at her--as Sam leaned forward and bussed her on the cheek. She shrugged it off with a disgusted snort.
“I’ll be careful,” Frodo promised, finally raising his eyes to meet hers.
“You’ve only just got up,” she voiced again with real concern. “Maybe you don’t remember how sick you were, but I do.”
His face closed. “I’m fine.”
“The sun’ll do him good, Rose.”
Conspiracy again. There was something wrong, here, couldn’t Sam see it? She shot a glance at her husband, then at Frodo, then started to speak further.
“Mum! Mum, please fis’?”
Elanor came bouncing into the kitchen, breaking the slight tension with a winsome, gap-toothed smile, waving a brilliant blue hair ribbon. Rosie set the eggs on the counter and lifted her daughter upwards; Sam drew a stool nigh and placed it under Elanor’s rump with the ease of long practice. Rosie’s strong, brown fingers combed through the yearling girl’s curly, tow- colored mop, twining the ribbon about it.
“Where y’goin’, Mist’ Frodo?” Elanor lisped with an ease that not many her age had. Frodo had once accused Sam of putting some of Galadriel’s garden-dust under the mattress; his firstborn was that well grown and precocious.
“To the lake,” he told the girl-child with a fleeting smile.
Rosie finished tying up Elanor’s hair, set her back on the floor and lovingly swatted her little posterior. “Off with you, then! Outside ‘til teatime!”
“’Kay! Bye, bye!” And she was off in a tangle of blue and white fabric.
Rosie watched Frodo as his eyes followed Elanor out, then went to the board next to the sink. “I’ll be fixing your tea in the hamper, then.”
“...have to, I know. Don’t I, then?” She unwrapped a loaf, uncovered a small wheel of cheese. “For I don’t want you making a mess in my clean kitchen, and you’re not going without a bite and that’s that.”
The brief softness that Elanor’s presence had settled onto his features still remained and Frodo gave in with more-normal, bemused tolerance. “Well, then. I guess I’m not.”
Moments later, Rose was handing Frodo a well-filled carry-sack with enough snacks to satisfy two hobbits who had missed the noon meal. He looked ready to protest the amount, then smiled, shrugged, and carefully angled it over his shoulders, trying to hide from them that he was favouring the left one still. Rosie started to speak, but Sam’s hand stayed her.
“Will you be back for supper?”
Frodo flicked an odd, almost furtive glance to herself, then Sam, then looked down. “Yes.” So soft, the utterance, she wasn’t sure she’d heard him right at first.
“We’ll eat before the sun sets, if that’s all right. Oh, and there’s a cloth for you in the hamper.”
“Yes.” It was wooden.
Sam frowned, stepped forward. “Frodo?”
“I’m fine!” he snapped, then shook his dark head and glanced up at the two standing there, his face contrite. “I’m sorry. I’m just...” he trailed off and took a quick breath, looking away again as if loath to meet their concerned gazes. He turned to walk out the door then halted again, looked back at Sam. For moments it seemed as if he wasn’t sure of what to say, then simply said, “Goodbye.”
Sam nodded, smoothing the furrow from his brow with an effort. “Have a good swim, then.”
Husband and wife followed their friend to the door and watched him go down the walkway and out the gate, turning southward down the lane.
“He’s a damned poor liar, Sam Gamgee,” Rose said softly, crossing her arms and leaning back against her husband’s solid chest. She felt the unsteadiness of his breathing and realized suddenly that Sam hadn’t, after all, been fooled.
“I’m not blind, Rose.” His arms wrapped tightly about her. “But what are we supposed to do? Tie him?”
“It’s a thought.” She sighed, reached one hand up to tug at his hair gently. “I worry after him, is all. It’s not like him to be so...”
“It’s almost like he’s angry, somehow.” Rose cuddled closer to Sam. “He’s not mad at me for something, is he?”
“Whyever would he be? More like he’s just not feeling well. You’ve not seen it a lot, but he’s a temper when he gets pressed to it.”
She grinned. “Oh, I’ve seen it. He just doesn’t often go to the trouble.” They sat there for long moments, then Rose shifted from his embrace. “Time’s wasting, Samwise. You’re to bring me in the veg for supper before you get your tea, mind.”
“Yes, m’lady,” he teased.
“Don’t you ‘lady’ me. Where’s Elanor now?”
“In the tree, I should think.”
“Well, and it’s a pretty place, but hobbits don’t belong in trees any more than they do water. Ah, well. When you’re done in the garden, will you bring her on in for tea as well?”
“I’ll do that.” But Sam wasn’t looking at her, or towards the leaves of the oak haven that their daughter often frequented. His eyes were fixed on the slight, dark-haired figure disappearing over the rise. And he was frowning.
Rosie returned to her kitchen. Moments later, Sam shook his head and retreated to the garden. Neither one saw the tiny figure shinny down from Bag-End’s largest tree. Elanor’s sharp, grey eyes had missed neither the retreating figure nor her father’s mein as he’d turned from it.
She brushed the tree bark from her hair, dislodging the blue ribbon her mother had placed not moments before, brushed daintily at her frock and followed Frodo.
* * * * * *
The sun was warm; blessedly, brilliantly so. It baked through the thin muslin of his shirt, warmed his hair, kissed his cheeks. Even the saltgrass beneath his toes was warm. One of the unforeseen yet not impossible rarities of October--summer heat and sun and blue sky. He shivered, his skin prickling under the somnulence of the sun’s rays. Perhaps he should just lay on a rock like some lizard. Perhaps the sun would bake his bones and thaw the icy chill that still throbbed in his left armpit...
No. It was a perfect day for a swim.
He’d long since left the roadside--and Sam’s insistent, worried eyes--behind. His destination spread out before him, cut across a small finger of the largest lake feed from the Brandywine. Normally chill from mountain ice melt, this shallowed portion had long ago been formed by the bar of saltgrass and sand which nearly sequestered it from the rest of the lake. An ideal swimming hole even in cooler weather; now, with two weeks worth of delicious sunshine to warm it, the water should prove as pleasant as bathwater.
And it was. Frodo didn’t stop at the edge until the water lapped at his ankles. Pupils narrowed to mere pinpoints, squinting against the sun’s reflection against the mirrored lake, he crossed his arms and gave forth a sigh.
“It was worth it,” he murmured softly, insistently. “It was.”
His shoulder cramped; untangling his arms with a grimace he backed from the water and lowered his pack from said shoulder to the ground. He rolled his left arm in its socket, willing the throb down to a steady, omnipresent ache.
Ah, better. That was normal. That he could tolerate. That at least told him he was still here, still functioning.
Exercise would help.
Exactly thirty heartbeats later Frodo was stripped to skin and leaping chest-first into the water. Despite its warmth it was a shock to sun-heated flesh; he surfaced noisily and gasped for air. Slicking the wet hair back from his face, he grubbed his toes in the sandy bottom and stood, wondering if he could convince Rosie that yes, there was solid ground in a pond, too. The water teased at his hipbones; he trailed his hands along the surface, his outstretched fingers leaving nine jeweled, rippling wakes.
She meant well. They both did. He felt a twinge of guilt worm its way up his belly for how short he’d been with them before leaving home. But there were days he felt as if he would strangle from their concern. And right now he couldn’t look either of them in the eye without remembering...
Lying helpless, unable to draw breath, his eyes so filled with blood he could scarce see, his ears stoppered. He was deaf, blinded, his only sense left was feeling and all he felt was pain...
He scrubbed the palms of his hands over his eye sockets. He couldn’t stop the remembering. Once the whole sordid mess was over, after they’d returned from the Black Lands and to the Shire, he’d thought to return to normal. He should have known better. The memories were past for Sam, for Merry and Pippin, but they weren’t for him. He’d thought to have suborned them, tamed them. Then the sickness had come, bringing with it the pain that had laid him low with its rawness of yesterdays. It wasn’t just hard to forget--he was unable to forget. Memories ate away at him every time he raised his left arm.
No hobbit should have this curse of remembrance, this sense of past walking alongside him, day and night. No hobbit had, other than himself, had this curse of remembrance. Perhaps he was no longer a hobbit. He was something more, or something less. He couldn’t decide. He did know that there had been a time when he’d lived day by blissful day, when he’d been normal and blessed with the ‘now’ of hobbit-kind. But that existence seemed like so long ago.
It seemed like it had never been.
And now Sam and Rosie, cushioning him with their care, shuttering away what small freedoms he still had, setting soft chains about him and twining him in the memories by their very love and concern.
Actually, one set of memories were taken from him--ones that he did sorely miss. He could no longer totally comprehend how to react to their affection.
He sank down into the water slowly, then submerged and kicked forward over the bottom. The water was not silty, but surprisingly clear; it wasn’t too difficult to see underwater. And beneath the surface there was nothing but the hum and hiss of air bubbles, the thrum and splash as his arms, legs and feet propelled him, the throb within eardrums and temples of his own heartbeat.
Lying helpless, unable to draw breath, his eyes so filled with blood he could scarce see, his ears stoppered, deaf, and blinded, the only sense left was feeling and all he felt was pain...
The water cradled him, a muted, silken cocoon wrapping him with gentle grace. Of the few sensations he sometimes felt he had left, this one was overwhelming--a delicious delirium of intensity. Just to inch along like some bottom-dweller fish, letting out air sparingly, so sparingly until his lungs ached and his oxygen-starved body trembled and he had to surface, taking in air with a great gasp then going under again. The sense of escape, of mindlessness, was intoxicating.
Sam had once--only the once--mentioned this feeling, this peace; the oddity of knowing that you were drowning, the almost desperate need to take in the gulp that would fill your lungs with water. Pain? he’d said. No, no pain. Only peace.
And Frodo’s own parents, Primula and Drogo, dead so long ago in a river tributary not too far from this one. Part of his own talent and liking for swimming had been both his own idea and the Brandybucks’ insistence that he learn how. Not for Primula’s son the drowning caused by Drogo Baggin’s Hobbiton inability to stay afloat. In fact, it had been Merry who’d taught him, the younger lad unabashedly tutoring his elder cousin in the fine art of floating...
He surfaced again, took a rasping, almost unwilling breath and resubmerged.
Had his parents been afraid? Had they struggled? Had they clung to each other with desperation, the instincts for survival bludgeoning them into fighting the fate of an overturned boat? Or had they felt this fine, tensile thread of euphoria before the end? Before air had lost battle with water and the body slipped into the vastness of the drowning sleep?
No, no pain. Only peace.
Peace. No sights, no sounds, no eyes watching, no suffocating care and concern. Nothing but floating belly down, arms and legs spread as if asking absolution from the element supporting him. Nothing but the release, of letting the small eddies of the pool take him and support him. Nothing but the sun on the back of his head and the water enclosing his face, and the sudden, intense quickening of his heart as it realized the end could be near. Here was something to look forward to... something to dwell in other than the past and the memories. Here was now, the raw immediacy of the thread stretching thinner... thinner...
Always before had the instinct for survival held him back; the body’s need had betrayed the mind’s will. Always before there had been the failure to give in.
He would not fail this time. He hung there, somewhere between then and now, between the desire to take in water as if it were air and the failure to comply with desire. His mind hummed the canto: Do it. Breathe. Just breathe, damn it!
The hum thinned out, sharpened, climbed upward. It became, slowly, a sharp, tearing sound that slowly penetrated his senses, a thin wail keening into his buffered hearing...
He exploded out of the water, slinging the wet hair from his eyes, lungs working like a bellows and fists clenching readily. It had been several years since he and Sam had returned to the Shire, several turns of the wheel of seasons which had nevertheless not dulled his reactions or his readiness for either fight or flight.
A tiny figure stood on the sandy shoreline not a stone’s throw from him, still wailing. Chubby legs bounced her up and down; tiny, furry feet danced in place, churning the sand. Clearly she wanted to come forward; just as clearly, she was unsure whether she could. Elanor, like her parents, could not swim.
“El...anor!” Slowly, ever so slowly Frodo unclenched his fists, attempted to slow his breathing, set stern control upon the hammering of his heart. He wanted to move but for several panicked seconds couldn’t. The instincts, once surrendered to, were too strong and overwhelming.
“Mist... Fru... Fru...” the child stammered, halting, raising her hand to her mouth. It was trembling.
The sight broke his own inertia. Frodo lurched forward somewhat awkwardly through the water, gained the shoreline and gathered up the frightened girl-child, cradling her against his shoulder. “It’s all right. Shh. I’m all right.”
“Bu... But you... you... und’ water...” This protest punctuated by sobs and hampered somewhat by the two comforting fingers inserted into her mouth, Elanor wrapped her free arm about his neck and both legs about his torso so tightly that he grunted. The picture of what she must had seen from the shore came abruptly to him; indeed, to anyone with wit and eyes he would have looked drowned. Had she been moments later instead of earlier...
She would have found him.
Or found what was left of him
His legs buckled and he fell to his knees. Elanor gave a small cry and clutched tighter; he scrabbled to stay upright and somehow succeeded. He felt as if he was choking, his ribs still heaving, his brain spinning from lack of oxygen. He tried to gain his feet, failed and rocked back on his heels, still holding to Elanor. She, in turn, did not release him either, her small frame heaving and shaking against his. The silent violence of her emotion nearly felled him again; he laid his cheek against hers and squeezed his eyes tightly shut.
For long moments they just crouched there. Slowly Frodo’s head stopped spinning, his breath steadied, his vision cleared somewhat. When he tried once again to regain his feet he was, this time, able to. Eleanor still clung to him; almost absently he rocked her from side to side.
“I was... just swimming,” he murmured, nearly choking on the words. With trembling fingers he stroked through her hair, fine and fair as flax. “I’m all right, little one, I promise.”
“Promise?” She cut her eyes upwards; they still merely threatened to spill over into actual tears. An odd child; she was more self-possessed than many hobbits. She was more like an elf.
She was more like himself. Something within him rebelled at the thought. He wanted her to be a hobbit, not something in-between. Not another mad prisoner of fate. Not another sad, inept, singular entity with nothing in his belly but hollow numbness.
“You won’t leave? You won’t?”
“Now, now,” he remonstrated and tried to pry her limbs from about his waist. No luck-- he was still wet, slick as a otter while her grip would have thwarted someone thrice his strength and size. “Who said anything about leaving?” He wondered if the words sounded as high and false to her as to himself.
She gave no answer, but ducked her chin sharply into his collarbone. Frodo winced. “Come on, then,” he told her, hefting her up a bit higher and taking her over to his pack. “Sit here...”
Elanor still wouldn’t let go. “Ellie,” he used his pet name for her, shaking her slightly, “I’m getting you all wet. Sit here now, while I dry off. All right? I’m not going anywhere.”
Slowly she allowed him to peel her arm from about his neck and uncrank her calves from their death grip about his waist. He settled her down next to the pack, grabbed the ground cloth Elanor’s mother had furnished him and toweled off, then wrapped it about his hips and plumped down on the sand beside her. “Now,” he rested his arms on his crossed legs and leaned towards her, gaze level into hers, “what are you doing out here?”
“D’no.” She stared evenly back, still suckling her second and third fingers. Gently Frodo reached out and pulled them away with a tiny ‘pop’.
“Your mum’ll growl at you for that, you know. Do you want to end up with hands like mine?” He wiggled the remaining fingers of his left hand; the old ruse--one he’d purposefully made into a joke for her--made the child’s round face break into a smile. Her teary eyes crinkled as she giggled.
“No!” Then abruptly she grabbed the maimed hand and kissed it.
Frodo felt his own eyes sting and his breath thump painfully in his chest. Elanor clambered to her feet, still hanging onto his hand, swinging it from side to side. In her tiny, reedy voice she began to sing an incomprehensible song the tune of which he remembered faintly from his own childhood. He peered at her, once again amazed--and darkly envious--of her ability to flit from one moment to the next, like some gold-and-peach butterfly.
“Does Mum know you’re here, then?” he asked firmly. She stopped singing, considered the question gravely, then:
“I begin to think that’s your favorite answer,” he muttered. Elanor looked carefully at him, decided that he wasn’t serious and climbed back into his lap.
“Fro?” It was her turn to use a nickname, the one she’d used before her baby’s mouth could frame hard consonants.
“Because...” he hesitated. “Because I like to.”
Her brow furrowed. “Really?”
“Mumma says wata’s f’washin’,” she retorted.
“Well,” he said with a shrug, “I was washing, then.”
“No clo’es.” Her gaze was narrowed, trying to catch him out. Of what, he had no clue.
“So I was washing me.”
She scowled. “Ellie don‘ like baths.”
“Of that,” Frodo said dryly, “I’m well aware. ‘Twould be easier to wrestle an oliphaunt than get you into the tub.”
Her fingers inched toward her mouth again; he frowned at her meaningfully and she put them behind her back. Her eyes lowered penitently then suddenly focused on something near to his bare collarbone and widened. His gaze followed hers and he barely stopped his hand from covering up what she was staring at. She must have seen his involuntary motion, however, for her brows quirked and she inclined back ever so slightly. Then she reached out, put her fingers to the thin, ropy scar upward of his heart. It took every ounce of control he had to not recoil at the touch, as if somehow the evil seed that he could still sense embedded there could somehow transmigrate into the little girl. He knew he would never have a child of his body--the Ring had burnt that out of him as well--but Elanor was the closest and fairest thing his heart could lay claim to.
Slowly, as if there was no concern or alarm within him, Frodo enfolded the tiny fingers in his own and guided them away from the mark of the Morgul blade that had taken him. It had taken him, soul if not body. From that point on, the memories had begun. And run through his brain. And replayed, over and over, a reckoning of days that would never, never heal.
Elanor looked at the scar, then into his eyes. There was too much wisdom in her gaze; he hoped that he was imagining what he saw there. Her next words proved that, unfortunately, he wasn’t.
“Yes?” he asked gently.
“Bad. ‘Tis bad. Da said.”
Frodo’s brows quirked. He knew there was no chance that Sam or Rosie would have discussed this with her; like his hand, the situation which had surrounded it was unfit for any child’s ears. No doubt that later she would hear the stories, true; for now, silence was best.
Memory niggled at him, took over. He let out a slow breath, remembering a scarce fortnight before...
Lying helpless, unable to draw breath, his eyes so filled with blood he could scarce see, his ears stoppered. He was deaf, blinded, his only sense left was feeling and all he felt was pain...
The Morgul blade, stabbing into his chest anew. He was no longer safe in his bed in the Shire but back on Weathertop, beneath the Watchtower, surrounded by Ringwraiths. They had advanced on him inexorably, terrified him, cornered him against the ruins, called him to relenquish his prize. He had defied them, regained control of his shaking, Ring-fettered hand and the pale, unholy face of the Witch King had twisted in fury and he had struck, sending all his rage at a halfling’s unconsidered rebellion into the stroke. Aragorn had beaten them back but too late, too late... then Sam had been there, touching his face, trying to break through the incredible agony--so much pain, he didn’t think it was possible to still be alive and feel this much pain--he could hardly feel Sam’s hands gripping tightly to his own...
Then the vision had morphed again; he was in his bed at Bag-End taken with fever, his chest filled and throbbing so he’d thought his heart would burst from it. Sam was still at his side, a warm, capable lifeline thrown over the cliff. Rosie, her presence like a soft, down pillow, her touch cool and matter-of-factly soothing.
And suddenly in the darkness, beyond the grey haze that had comprised his vision for the long, torment-wracked day, had appeared Elanor’s eyes, staring over the end of the bed at him. He’d been dragged from fever dream to fix gazes with the baby for stunned, long moments, until Rosie had traced his bewilderment and stepped over to her daughter, swooping her up into an embrace.
“’Tis bad this time, Rose.” Sam’s voice had echoed in his ears as if he were underwater.
“Aye,” Rosie had answered stoutly, “but he’ll be all right. Hear that? He’ll be all right, Elanor.”
Sam had turned in concern to witness his child. And the child’s eyes had kept their lock on Frodo’s own blood-laced ones, like a beacon flashing light through darkness...
Frodo drew his mind back to the present with a shudder. “Sometimes it’s bad. Not always,” he managed, not knowing what else to say. He couldn’t lie. Particularly not with the memory of what he’d until now thought her too little to comprehend.
He started to shake his head, then realized that she hadn’t voiced a query, but a statement. And it did hurt, abominably so. Her tiny, sharp chin and the exertions of the past moments had taken their toll and fatigued muscles cramped all the way into his armpit and down his left arm.
“Is that why?” Elanor asked him gravely.
He waited for her to elaborate; when she didn’t he prompted, “Why what, Ellie?”
Her fingers twitched in his and she looked down. For long moments the child was mute, her curly bang hiding her features, her hand shaking in his the only sign of her emotion. Frodo’s brows drew together; thoroughly confused, he repeated the query and, putting a finger to her chin, tilted her face up.
The grey eyes were huge, swimming with silent tears. They brimmed over, running down her cheeks. A sob shook her chest and Elanor blurted, “Is’t why you wanna leave?” It rose to a tiny wail. “’Cause it hurts? ‘Cause Ellie can’t help’t?”
For seconds Frodo could only stare at her, feeling as if he’d been kicked in the solar plexus. Then the real pain set in. He thought he’d known pain. He thought he was as well acquainted with it as the sound of his own heartbeat. But suddenly he understood that he’d never known agony such as this. This was not the insidious, compulsive, crawling touch of addiction to evil. This was bright as a lance of sunrise, edged as the blue-spun steel of the king’s own hallowed sword. It sliced cleanly, a bloodless letting of venom and bile, stinging through his soul.
Her eyes, searching his face, widened in horror. “Oh, Fro! Don’ cry! Don’...!”
And she flung herself into his arms and burrowed tightly against him. Distractedly Frodo put his arms about her, still poleaxed with shock, belately realized what she was talking about. He could taste salt on his lips, could feel his eyes stinging with warmth. He’d grown so used to distancing himself from pain and shutting out sensation that he hadn’t even known what was happening to him. His chest spasmed and he suddenly gripped her as tightly as she was holding him.
It didn’t matter what was happening to him. What mattered was that whatever happened to him was affecting her. What mattered was what he had almost let be done, not to himself but to this beautiful child.
“It’s all right,” he crooned softly against her hair. “It’s all right. Don’t ever be afraid to cry, Ellie. Don’t ever be that afraid.”
She pulled back from him with a sudden lurch that took his breath away. For moments Frodo thought he’d inadvertantly hurt her again, but she was peering at him, considering him with a mercurial change of attitude, a gravity that was unnerving. He sucked in a wavering breath, wiping at his tear-streaked cheeks, staring back almost uneasily. The sun beat upon them remorselessly, heating his dark head, tingling his bare shoulders and making a coronet of gold from the tangled locks of her hair.
Slowly, inexorably Elanor reached out one tiny hand to the scar on his chest and placed her soft palm against it. Baffled, Frodo allowed the motion, knowing that he was suddenly cold and quivering despite the warmth. They sat thus for long moments, the girl-child strangely intent and her guardian shaking like a birch in winter gusts. Frodo drew a halting breath to speak, to voice something, anything, then the storm-tossed grey eyes so like to Sam’s turned to him, gentling him as surely as her touch. She seemed to find what she was looking for in his face, because she smiled--a wan, teary-eyed echo of her normal sunny expression, but nevertheless a smile.
“Yes, dearest?” His voice was remarkably steady.
“’Tis better so?”
His shoulder still ached. All things considered, however, it was not the sharp agony he’d once thought it. He cupped her right cheek, ran one finger over the tear-stained cheekbone.
“’Tis better so,” he answered softly.
She smiled broader. “’Kay, then. Fro?”
She hesitated, then, as if the query had been pent up for too long, blurted, “Ellie wan’ to swim, too.”
He blinked. Elanor peered at him then, obviously annoyed with his obtuseness, repeated, “Ellie wan’ to swim, Fro!”
Then she grabbed his cheekbones in her tiny hands, reached forward and gave him a tiny, butterfly’s kiss.
He blinked again, brows quirking and a slow smile gaining ground as the child wriggled out of his arms and standing, attempted to pull her one-piece shift over her head. Frodo did grin this time and gained his feet, with one hand deftly plucking the dress from where it had gotten stuck over her face.
“All right, then. But you only go swimming if I’m here. With me. Got it?”
She nodded, dancing in her excitement.
* * * * * *
He’d taken the vegetables for the evening meal in to Rose, and he’d spent a bit of time repairing one of the staves in the gate. Still twenty minutes until teatime, but he decided to not wait. Uneasiness blossomed in the pit of his stomach; a sensation that over the past years Sam had learned not to ignore. His gut knew things his mind was slow to.
Frodo. It had to do with Frodo. Something wasn’t right, hadn’t been right for a long time, but today in particular his stomach was churning bile like he’d eaten a piece of bad fruit.
He’d find Elanor, send her in to help Rose--not that she was much help at her age, but at least she’d be safe. Safe? He didn’t quite understand his mind’s choice of words--what could posibly hurt his little elf-child?-- and shook his head, walking about the hillock that comprised Bag-End’s roof and calling her name. “Elanor!”
The oak tree was empty. Sam frowned, one corner of his mouth settling firmly. “Ellie, where are you, girl?”
Walking the circumference of the roofside, he scanned the back hill then strode back down to the front walkway. He pushed open the gate and stepped out of the perimeter of his yard; surely she hadn’t gone out the gate, he’d been there most of the past fifteen minutes. But he’d also been out back in the garden just after he’d watched Frodo leave...
Sam nearly stepped on the blue hair ribbon before he spied it and picked it up, fingering it. What was Elanor’s ribbon doing lying here, just a meter or two from the gate, along the road? Along the road leading southward, the same one Frodo had taken after his odd, strained goodbye not an hour before. Grey eyes narrowing, locking to the small bit of cobalt fabric, he let his breath whistle out from between his teeth. The doubt and uncertainty that had been doing its uneasy working within him started to spiral upward, to provide answers to questions he wasn’t yet sure he had. And one memory, one question in particular...
“What was it like to nearly drown, Sam? Do you remember?”
Frodo had asked that question twice. Once on the road to Mordor, where Sam had refused to answer. Another time, a bare month ago, when Sam had answered:
“It was passing strange, that. Pain? No, no pain. Only peace...”
Before he knew what he was doing, his feet were going. Fast walk, then trot, then run. Ribbon clutched in one strong fist, Sam tore down the road as if a Nazgul were on his heels once again.
And foremost in his mind was not Frodo, but his daughter. His daughter who loved her adoptive uncle with all the strength of her being. His daughter who wouldn’t understand what Sam somehow, finally did.
That perhaps Frodo hadn’t meant to come back from his swim, after all.
* * * * * *
When Sam arrived, puffing and blowing like a bellows, his heart in his throat and his face red with choler, they were still in the water. Elanor was shrieking and splashing and paddling about Frodo like a puppy.
He slid to an unsteady halt, knees buckling at all the emotions coursing suddenly through his nervous system. Many of them were so foreign as to be unnameable. Most were violent.
“Da!” Elanor shrieked and exploded from the water, running across the sand to launch her little brown body at his knees. In his distracted state it almost knocked him over; he wobbled then dropped to his knees, gathering her suddenly, fiercely close and kissing the top of her damp curls.
“Ellie!” he whispered harshly, with effort biting back a sob of pure relief. She was okay. She wasn’t harmed, or hurt, or traumatized by...
Only then did he raise his eyes to look at Frodo.
He was still in the pond, standing with the water level to his navel, sodden hair falling onto his collarbones, hands limp at his sides. Frodo visibly started as Sam’s glare hit him full stop; his eyes, already wide at the scene before him, grew even more immense. Sam could see that he’d been crying. And, when he pushed his daughter back to assure himself that she was indeed all right, he could see that her eyes also bore traces of tears.
He wanted to set her aside, rush over and bodily drag Frodo from the water by the hair of his hard, self-absorbed head, demanding answers. The sudden wish to spend his wrath on the one being he’d held past all things for so long frightened him almost as much as the sight of Elanor’s tears.
Almost as much.
He stood, his eyes still on Frodo. Frodo hadn’t moved. It reminded Sam of a deer who’d leapt into a circle of fire and stood quivering, blinded and trapped. It almost broke him.
Instead he turned to his daughter, gave her a warm, generous smile. “And where are your clothes, lovey?”
She ran over to the pack and grabbed up the blue-and-white frock, handing it to him. With incredible patience--he truly wanted to get her home now, before he totally lost what semblance of control he still had, Sam pulled the dress over her head and fastened it in the back.
“You’ve my rib’n, Da.”
His eyes fell to the scrap of fabric crumpled in his hand. With fingers that shook somewhat, Sam quickly skinned the mass of hair back from her forehead and tied it in back with the ribbon. He eyed it a bit ruefully. Well, it didn’t look too much worse than it usually did when she’d come in from playing. He didn’t want to worry Rose... “Now, then. You go on back to home, Ellie.”
“But... Fro...” she angled sideways, looked over his shoulder at Frodo where he still stood, motionless in the water.
“I’ll take care of him. ‘En’t I been doing that since before you were born?”
Elanor frowned, not sure of the timbre lining her father’s soft voice. Her fingers went to her mouth.
“None o’ that, girlie!” he scolded mildly.
“But we’ve not had tea, Fro ‘n me!”
“Your Mum’s looking for you to help with the tea,” he insisted, still quiet and friendly, as if nothing was wrong. “You scat on home, now! Tell Mum we’ll be back in time to eat. Fly!”
Reassured by the promise of gainful employment at her mother’s side in the kitchen, Elanor grinned. And flew.
Her head bobbled gold above the saltgrass; Sam watched after her. His mouth working, he stayed there watching until she’d passed from his sight, until he was sure she was well on her way home. From behind Sam heard the sound of water sloshing, then silence, then the rustling of sand and leather and cloth. Then he heard a soft, hesitant voice.
He clenched his fists and took a slow, shaky breath. Blowing the hair from his sweated forehead he turned.
Frodo had dressed remarkably quickly, though his braces still hung at his hips and his shirt was buttoned somewhat askew. His face was thin, pale, his mein still that of some prey animal poised for flight. Normally any of these signs would soften him but now it merely made Sam focus all the harder upon the sensations churning in the pit of his stomach..
“What have you done?” Sam demanded. “What did you try to do?”
“Don’t say it. Don’t you dare to say it!”
The rainwater eyes went even huger, if possible. For long moments Frodo looked as if he’d been struck and had in consequence swallowed his tongue whole.
“You ‘en’t sorry!”
Frodo retreated a step. Sam followed him
“You ‘en’t sorry enough if you made my baby cry. Did you almost get there, was that it? You’ve been hangin’ after it, chasin’ it for so long... did y’ find it? Or did she find you first?”
The slight frame shook as if fever still held it in sway. The fists clenched. The wide eyes darted away as if looking for escape. But Sam was too overcome to hesitate or relent, too darkened by pain and rage and terror like he’d never felt before.
He could have lost them both. Here. Now. They could both be gone...
Sam stalked over to Frodo. “You had no right. You have no right. I’ve toed every line, stepped across every mark you’ve made, but this one... Nay. You’ve no right, I say. I love you. I’ve followed you into hell and back. But you’re no right to draw this line and expect me to step over it.”
Frodo hunched over, further, shame flushing his cheeks. “I didn’t...”
“You didn’t what? You didn’t think!”
“I... You don’t understand... I didn’t mean for it to...”
“You didn’t mean it? How can that be? You meant it to happen. You meant to come here, and...” Sam drew in a shaky breath, for seconds unable to form words in the vastness of what had almost happened. He couldn’t even voice it.
“You meant it! You meant to do it, didn’t you?” He was right atop his companion, so close he could have reached out and slapped the downturned, scarlet face. His fists clenched, denying the impulse. “You meant to be... gone. You wanted to... to leave us!”
“Sam, no. It wasn’t like...”
“’Twasn’t like what? Tell me now, what wasn’t it like?”
“Sam, don’t... please...” Frodo’s voice wavered raggedly, dipped upwards. But Sam was driven past the ability to halt any of it or stop it from bubbling to the surface. It had all been held inside too long, this fear for his dearest friend’s life and sanity; now the terror for his child gave it voice and action. He reached out again, grabbed Frodo’s half-fastened shirt.
“Was it like you didn’t care? That you didn’t care what you were doing to yourself, or to me? Didn’t it matter that we kept each other alive the entire way to Mordor? I didn’t see us all the way there and back again just so you could... so you could...!”
“Sam, don’t...!” Frodo twisted and dove backwards. Fabric gave with a sharp tear.
“You didn’t care, did you? I didn’t let you have your own sorry way so you could hurt my baby, I’ll tell you!”
The blue eyes met his, smouldering suddenly with a pitfall of emotions, most of them as violent and terrified as his own. Cornered. Trapped.
How dare he feel trapped in this? Sam reached out, grabbed Frodo’s shoulders and shook. Hard. “Dammit, how could you do this after all we’ve seen and done? How could you not care so much that you would do this to me? To Rosie? To Elanor?!”
“That’s not true!” The cry ripped itself from Frodo’s throat and he literally exploded in Sam’s grasp, flying at him. The sheer unexpectedness of the attack bowled them both over backwards. Sam hit the ground with a hard grunt, Frodo’s hands tangled themselves in his woolsey shirt with furious, surprising strength, Sam’s own sturdy arms angled upward --for defense, or for balance?
He would never know. There was, suddenly, no need for defense. Frodo had exploited the remains of whatever energy he had left and was collapsed atop him, sobbing like a child.
Fury drained as if some giant plug had been pulled within a large tank, seeping from Sam and into the sand about them. He simply lay there for long moments, not believing what he’d just been party to, what he’d done, what he’d said. Or Frodo’s reaction.
Frodo who still lay across his chest, passion spent as surely as his own, crying with great, tearing, ragged gasps. Frodo who he hadn’t seen cry like this since...
Since before he’d lost the Ring and the ring-finger upon his left hand.
“Here, now,” Sam ventured softly.
There was no response. Sam wasn’t sure Frodo had heard him, curled about the paroxyms of a grief too wide to be borne alone.
“Frodo?” This time he sat up slightly, took his left hand and placed it on the dark, damp curls. “Frodo.”
The touch pierced the morass of sorrow; in response the other hobbit flinched and shrank back, stopped mid-gesture then, still spasmed with sobs, looked him in the eye. Some tiny, triumphant part of Sam rejoiced at that slight show of spirit--that indomitable, incomprehensible, willing compulsion to take whatever punishment came Frodo’s way.
But Sam no longer wished to mete out any punishment, deserved or otherwise. He felt sick, shaky and woozy with reaction. The rage was done, over with and good riddance. Now they had to deal with what was here, now. What was left.
Frodo’s eyes narrowed as Sam stayed put, his head cocked and his brows drew together, speaking his puzzlement to Sam more than any words could have. Then understanding and a strange longing replaced the bewilderment and he shivered as if cold. His hand started to go to his chest, halted mid-gesture. “Oh, Sam,” he sighed finally.
“I never...” Frodo trailed off, tried again, “I... I never thought...” Again, he fell silent.
There was a long silence. Then Frodo began once more. “You’re right. I had no right to do this. I had no idea what I was contemplating. What it would do to you. To Rose. To Elanor...” the last given through gritted teeth. He visibly took hold of himself.
Sam still waited
“It wasn’t that I didn’t care.” Frodo drew another ragged breath. “Sam, I couldn’t care. It wasn’t possible. Sometimes the pain would be so bad. I had to shut it away, somehow. I didn’t want to burden you with it; you’ve borne enough for me. And when I shut that away... it all went. Can you understand? It all went.
“I tried. I tried so hard to hide it from you...”
“You’d no right to do that, either,” Sam’s fingers gripped tightly into Frodo’s hair; shaking, gently chiding, then releasing.
“Yes, I did.” Frodo’s gaze met his unwaveringly for the first in a long time; obviously now there was to be no hiding, no covering of sins be they real or imagined. “You deserve to have a life. To have some sort of peace like I will never have again. It wasn’t you who dragged me to Mordor--’twas I who dragged you to almost certain death. I knew, I knew it, Sam. I knew I wasn’t coming back. I thought it was that death would claim me on those foul slopes. What I didn’t think about was that I realized somehow--even then--that it would never be the same again. That I couldn’t really ever come home again after what’s happened to me.”
Sam opened his mouth to speak; Frodo laid his fingers gently over the parted lips and the burgeoning words. “You can’t deny this. Even more than I can deny that I failed. I failed to do what I set out to do.”
Sam jerked back from the restraining hand. “No, Frodo...”
“The morgul knife didn’t take me, as I’ve always thought. It merely laid me open to the final blow. And since then, every October...
“I used to love the autumn so. The first time I came to Bag End, it was autumn. Remember, Sam?--when your Gaffer used to rake the leaves for Bilbo, and we’d wait ‘til he was off for home, leap in them and scatter them everywhere?”
Sam gave the ghost of a smile, still too caught up in what was happening now to give full attention to pleasant memories.
“It was always my favorite time of year. And now--it’s forever autumn and I hate it. The scar rises and seeds every October, like some perverted springtime. Every twinge, every ache reminds me that I’m... empty. That when the Ring took me over, it ripped out my soul.”
“If I hadn’t had you, if indeed Gollum hadn’t been there...”
“Gollum!” Sam growled. “Sod that stinker!”
“No, Sam. Truly, if it hadn’t been for him, and even moreso, you...” Frodo trailed off and looked down, unable to clearly outline the bitterness. “I don’t know what would have happened. And past all expectation, I did return home. I let myself think it would all come right somehow. I wanted to walk my beloved Shire again, to find what peace I could. But the memories wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t live here. I couldn’t live now. I could only feel the pain, and the past, and what might have been had the Ring never come to me. And then I lay so ill, and all of you, you and Rose and even poor little Elanor, so drawn into my pain and my penance and it wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, Sam! None of you were supposed to be so drawn up into what happened to me! I wanted to spare you all from at least that...”
“You call this...” Sam gestured to the water, “sparing us?”
Frodo answered hesitantly, “I... I’m not sure I understand it, either. It seemed the only answer. The only peace I could find was the possibility of my own death. The only thing I could feel was it’s call.” He met Sam’s gaze again, almost desperately. “It was the only thing left, you see? The only thing that made me feel like I had some say over my life at all!”
They were both silent, the words lying between them like a sword, neither sure of their strength to grasp the length of them.
“You were right, Sam.” When Frodo finally spoke again, his words were so soft as to be barely heard. “There was no pain. For the first time in so long, there was absolutely no pain. And it was so... peaceful.” His voice dropped even further, almost hypnotic, his pupils dilating, turned inwardly. “Just the breath... and it would have been... done...”
Sam’s hand shot out and grabbed Frodo’s arm, wrenching a gasp from both of them. Frodo’s eyes cleared and he gave a shudder, grasping Sam’s arm in return, the gesture both somehow thankful and regretful.
“Then I heard her from underwater. Elanor. She thought...” Sam heard Frodo’s teeth grit together, “she did think I was in trouble. And when I pulled myself back from whatever hell is waiting for cowards, she was scared. I didn’t mean to...” One clenched fist came forward, rested on Sam’s chest, beat a small, ineffectual tattoo there. “If she’d come two minutes later...”
Sam swallowed hard and suddenly couldn’t look at him. “Aye. I’ve thought of naught else. It’s all I could think of on my way here. Because you’d asked me, see? You’d asked me about the river, when I almost...” he began to tremble and it was Frodo’s sudden turn to soothe the emotion of the memory, brought forward anew with an alien strength. He grabbed Sam’s face in both his hands.
“I caught you, Sam. I caught you.”
Grey eyes met blue.
“And your little Ellie caught me, this time. Caught me for you.”
Sam grabbed Frodo’s wrists, stared at him with bleary eyes.
“This won’t be the way I go, Sam. I swear that to you any way I must. But...” Frodo hesitated. “I can’t stay here much longer. In my pain I’ve been like some wounded animal, striking out even at the ones whom I least meant to. At the ones I most love.” He closed his eyes, then opened them and looked imploringly at his friend. “I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am. And how I hope you’ll forgive me.”
“No...” Sam felt his heart leap into his throat. “Frodo, no.”
“It won’t be now.” The blue eyes still bored into him. “Or even in a month. But it’s coming, Sam. I will have to go.”
Tears welled up in Sam’s eyes and he turned away, unable to make any sort of answer.
Because he knew his dear friend spoke the truth. And that this time it was a path which Sam himself would not be able to follow for a long time.
* * * * * *
It was late. Supper had long since been served and cleared away, the table quiet but strangely peaceful. Rosie knew something had happened; she also knew better than to pry right away. Frodo actually had more than four words to say at the same time, and little Elanor had been singing like a lark as they cleared the table and washed and wiped clean the dishes. Sam had made his token offer to help; Frodo had long since given into the realization that Rosie’s sense of propriety wasn’t about to let him do a lick of work in the kitchen and actually smiled at her with something akin to his old good-natured teasing of herself and Sam. Things had changed, for the better it seemed; she had known when her daughter had returned, damp and disheveled, that something was not right, but had been patient and proven well in her patience. It had all, the uncertainty and the unknown, come out the other side somehow--and her husband and his dearest friend had returned, arm in arm.
Rose also knew that soon enough, most likely after they’d lain Elanor down, seen the house shuttered and retreated to their own rooms, Sam would unburden himself of the day’s cares. She would fluff the pillows on their wide, soft bed and prop herself against the headboard; he would angle his head upon her breast and stretch out, she would run her fingers through his wheat-colored hair and he’d begin to talk in the slow, measured way he had that had become a vital part of her heart and life.
And if there was occasionally something that he couldn’t share--well, that was all right, too. Some things were better left unsaid.
Like the worried words that came to her lips when, after Rose had gotten the child to bed and the three adults had sat for some time in companionable silence before the fire, Frodo got up from his rocker without a word. Instead of his usual nightly outside prowl, he turned and went deeper into Bag-End’s interior--and not towards his own set of rooms. Sam, sitting in his favorite chair and wreathed in pipe smoke, shook his head at her and commenced staring into the fire. Rosie raised her eyebrows and said nothing, watching after the silent figure as he crept towards the room where Elanor was sleeping.
* * * * * *
Starlight crawled through the overhead skylight in the little round room, softly lighting the figure in the tiny bed.
Holding his breath, he tiptoed to stand over the crib. Leaning against the bars lifted so the baby wouldn’t inadvertantly fall from her nest, he leaned one cheek against his hand and stared at the child.
She was beautiful. Such incredible abandon in her sleep, cheeks flushed and lips pressed against the pillow, suckling the inevitable two fingers. A smile softening his face, Frodo reached over and gently pulled the hand from her mouth. She fussed in her sleep, a fleeting grimace and frown, then settled back again. He laid his maimed hand upon her ribcage, marvelling at the sheer poetry of her breathing, at the hush of peace she cast over him.
It felt oddly euphoric, to once again be caught up in such simple sweetness. To once again thrill, even the least bit, to the simple rhythm of life.
Her warmth stole over his palm and fingers, sweetly burning up his arm and loosening the chill there.
“Thank you,” he voiced softly, simply.
And under his hand, Elanor slept peacefully.
* * * * * *
“The heart can find ease in simple pleasures: the gift of a glance, the sun in one’s hair... a child’s innocent touch. And there are days when the simple joys can overtake the moment.
“I still was not strong enough. But I did resist. It did not claim me, today.
“Today I failed.
“Failure can be a good thing...”
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.