“This is...disgusting. In Isengard, maybe. But in our own Shire?” began Pippin, staring at the devastation that was Bag End. “That Lotho! I can’t say I’m sorry Wormtongue ate him.”
“Hush!” said Frodo. “You don’t know what Saruman and the Ruffians might have done to Lotho and the others, or what they might have threatened.”
“That’s right, Master Baggins,” put in the Gaffer. “Those Ruffians were hard, and wouldn’t spare to flog a hobbit who disobeyed ‘em – or worse.”
“I saw worse,” said Farmer Cotton. “What they did to young Sancho Proudfoot, for one. I’d never have believed it hadn’t I seen the whole thing.” Frodo’s eyes widened and he blanched. “And it’ll always be a shame to me, but ‘though I came this close,” Cotton held his right thumb and middle finger so they nearly touched, “to taking an axe to the vile Ruffian, I didn’t. I was too afraid.”
“Oh, they had us cowed and good. We didn’t know what to do,” added Mr. Granger, one of Cotton’s neighbors. “That is, until you came back, Mr. Merry!”
Merry bowed, grinning broadly. “Glad to be of service! But, you know, it’s not just us,” he swept his arm in an imaginary circle encompassing Pippin and Sam and Frodo. “It’s true that we’ve been to war, so perhaps we know some things you don’t. But we couldn’t have done this without you,” he nodded to the others, “and everyone else in the Shire. This victory is all of ours.”
“As is the hope that we’ll never need another like it,” added Frodo.
The Gaffer nodded, “I’ll drink to that!”
“So what do we do now?” asked Pippin.
“Well, first things first. It’s near sunset, and this ain’t any place for decent folk,” began Farmer Cotton. “I’ve got plenty of room (though not near as grand as Bag End was) at my hole, so you’re welcome to come stay with me, as Sam’s dad here is already doing.”
The four Travellers (for so they had become known among the townsfolk) bowed low. “Thank you,” they said in turn. “We’d be most happy to take up your offer!”
“And if they become too much for you, Cotton, they can always stay with me at Whitby,” added Mr. Granger. “Since Clover married off, the old hole has become rather large.”
So that was set.
The next day they began restoring Bagshot Row, which Sharkey’s men had made into a huge sand-pit. So they levelled it and, with the help of some other neighborly hobbits, bored new holes back into The Hill, lining them with brick from the shiriff-houses.
When they had restored the Gaffer to Number Three, Merry and Pippin and Sam and Frodo set to helping others of their neighbors and townsfolk recover from the Ruffians’ depredations. They were everywhere, helping to rebuild the mill, and to haul grain and meal, and raze the useless shiriff-houses, and set streams back to their original courses, and stack wood, and lay bricks, and plant trees, and with countless other tasks that made the Shire more like always it had been and less like Sharkey and his Ruffians had wanted it to be. The work was hard, and they returned home dead-tired each evening, but the thankfulness in their neighbors’ eyes was all the payment they wanted.
“Mighty odd they are, dressed up all martial and carrying themselves like lords, but their hearts – well, they couldn’t be better,” said the townsfolk of the Travellers.
After some weeks the repairs were well in hand and they had more time for their own concerns. Sun-return dawned clear and cold, the landscape thickly blanketed in snow. Frodo woke early. It was very quiet. He lay awhile, listening to the faint hiss of the coals in the fireplace, and the wind’s soft fluting over the chimney and thrumming against the window (Farmer Cotton had given him the best room), and his own heartbeat, warm and round and steady. He watched the sun creep down the bookcases in the room’s northwest corner, touching first and most redly the crystals upon the top shelf, then with a golden light Frodo’s lore-books (fetched specially by Pippin from Crickhollow) on the next shelves, then with full day’s clear white the Cottons’ letters and genealogies lower down.
He rose and walked to the window. As at Bag End, a big maple stood outside, its branches casting stark shadows upon the snow at its base and wavering against the pale-blue sky. Down a gentle slope ice covered a stream. The bare forests beyond marched into the distance, punctuated by an occasional splash of green that showed up a copse of pine, or spruce, or fir.
There was a soft knock. “Would you be wanting some company?” asked Merry.
“Yes, yes. Come in.”
Merry padded up to the window and took Frodo’s hand. They gazed together for a long time. The quiet filled their minds, and it was enough simply to look without judging.
Finally Frodo broke the silence. “It’s a bright, beautiful day. It’d be a shame to stay inside. What do you say we go for a bit of a hike?” he suggested.
“Hmm, an excellent idea! And if we go soon, we’ll get out all by ourselves. I daresay that sluggard Pippin won’t awaken for some time yet, and even Sam was still sleeping when last I checked.”
“Then let’s go!” Frodo felt relieved, somehow, at going without Sam.
Outside was bracingly cold, but they were well dressed, and, as they climbed out of the valley and into the Tookland’s hills, they began to feel very warm indeed. A light wind blew little sprays of snow from the branches, the crystals glittering in the sun before gently brushing their faces. After about an hour they crested a hill, rocky and treeless, and turned to look back. The snow covered the land in a smooth, comforting sameness. Only the stream and the woods stood out.
“Welcome back,” said Merry, a smile in his voice.
Frodo put an arm about his friend’s shoulders. “I am back, at long last,” he said quietly.
They returned late, stopping to thank the Sun as she began to sink beyond the western hills. Spreading their arms to embrace Her, they sang in harmony:
Return now, for we do not forget thee:
Our light, our warmth,
Our faithful Lady of the Sun.
They stood until her last rays had vanished, then bowed deeply in her direction. It was an old custom (received, perhaps, from the Elves) and not much-practiced in those days. But, though Frodo (and Merry) flouted many traditions, there were still some that they loved, and this was one.
In the violet-blue afterglow they trudged back to Cotton’s hole. The wind had fallen and everything was very quiet; the crunching of the snow under their feet and the rustle of their clothes were all they heard. Nearing the hilltop, they saw the windows glowing with a friendly light. Merry knocked. After a moment the door opened. Sam and Rosie stood there, hands linked. Frodo’s heart clenched, and – though he tried – he couldn’t keep the color in his face. He felt old and broken.
“So that’s where you’ve been! We’ve been wonderin’ all day!” exclaimed Sam.
“That is, when we haven’t been eating,” said Pippin, coming up the hallway with a corn muffin in his hand. “There’s something left – I think. Well, besides this muffin, that is.”
“Oh piffle. There’s plenty left,” rejoined Rosie. “Just take your time, and Sam and I will make sure you both have enough to eat.”
“I should hope so,” said Merry. But Frodo was silent. As soon as it was polite, he made off for his bed-room, an expression of barely-suppressed sadness upon his face.
“What’s wrong with Frodo?” asked Pippin as Merry dug into a mushroom pie.
“Oh, he’s just not hungry,” Merry replied, half his mind guessing and the other half fibbing when it found the guess unconvincing.
“Not hungry? Frodo?” asked Pippin incredulously.
“I suppose not. But why ask me?”
“Because you’re here and he’s not, and you’re more fun to ask, anyway. For one thing, you don’t frown like this.” Pippin put on such an exaggerated scowl that Merry couldn’t help but laugh.
“Oh, Pippin!” he chuckled, then paused, his smile fading. “But you know, he’s been through a lot more than we have. Give him some time.”
“Alright, cousin,” replied Pippin, earnestly. “I can see he’s changed. He’s sad now, like he’s lost something important.”
After a moment’s contemplation Pippin began, “Do you know what –” but Merry frowned ferociously. Pippin was taken aback for an instant, then understood the joke. He grinned, and Merry winked slyly.
“That’s right. You just let him be, Pip, at least on that subject. He’ll talk when he’s good and ready.”
That winter passed in a blur of activity. Sam and Rosie courted each other, and Merry and Pippin threw parties, and Farmer Cotton and Mr. Granger and the Gaffer went for the hunting, and the local children came to sled and to walk about on the frozen stream, and beyond them all the sun rose earlier and swung higher each day. But gradually Frodo withdrew from their doings, and spent his time alone, writing or hiking about the countryside, and he kept with him always the white gem that Arwen had given him.
“Mr. Frodo, what’s wrong?” asked Sam one day after they had restored Bag End and Frodo had moved back in .
“I’m hurt, Sam,” said Frodo, staring at his feet. Then, raising sad eyes, he continued, “It will never really heal.”
“But Master! There’s –”
“Don’t call me that, Sam,” Frodo interrupted. “You’re my equal – or my better. I’d never have gotten to the – chasm without you. Indeed, without you, Sam, none of us might be here at all.”
“That’s just not so, M – Frodo. It was you who carried It, who had to carry It. I didn’t know what to do. And had I, I hadn’t have been able to do it. It just weren’t in me, if you take my meaning.”
“I do,” Frodo took Sam’s hand. “And it wasn’t in me, either. But now, Sam, I want you to promise me something.”
“I want you to take very good care of Rosie, and of the children who will come. And I want you to tell them about what we did: you and I, and Strider, and Gandalf, and Merry and Pippin, and all the rest. They’ll need to remember, for a time will come – I can’t say when, but it will – when the Shire again will be in peril. They must learn that we are strong when we remember our strength, and that we are not alone in the world. Will you tell them that?”
“I will, Mr. Frodo. But – you’re talking like, like you won’t be here to tell them yourself.”
Very tenderly Frodo took Sam’s hand between his own. “I might not be.”
Tears sprang to Sam’s eyes. “But why?”
“Sam, it’s just the way of the world. I did what had to be done, but it’s taken all I had to give. Sam! In here,” he put his right hand to his chest, then slowly drew it away again, opening it fully. “It’s empty. I’m empty. I can’t feel like I did. I know that I ought to be happy, but I’m not. I can’t be – anymore .”
Sam embraced him, wrapping his strong arms about his slender frame. “Mr. F-Frodo,” he sobbed, “there has to be a way! There’s so much to live for!”
“Sam, I – I’ll try,” said Frodo softly. “I’ll try. But –”
That summer was, as elsewhere is recounted in The Red Book, one of extraordinary abundance. And it seemed to those who looked from the outside that it brought, also, an abundance of healing to Frodo. He laughed and smiled and joked like before the Quest. He ate well, and his health was good. But inside he was still a stranger to himself, and his emptiness was not filled, and his wounds were bound but unclosed.
Thus summer passed on to autumn, and once again the thought of travel came upon him. He took a lore-book from his shelves, and read of Aldarion of Númenor and voyages upon the Sea, and his wife Erendis and her earthbound loneliness. A strange feeling gripped him, as if the space around him suddenly had expanded and become filled with echoes. He felt once more a need to see the wild lands: the mountains and the rivers and the plains that only beasts called home. As sleep overcame him, his last thoughts were of primeval forests: deep and dark and boundless, untrodden by any who spoke.
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