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Turnabout  by Ariel

Chapter 4 -

"Drink this up, Merry-lad," said a familiar voice.  Merry complied out of habit and let the sustaining arm lift his head to drink a cup of warm, salty broth.  It was delicious and Merry sought to drink deeply.  "Easy, old fellow!  You'll get it all over yourself!  Drink slowly."  The speaker laughed, and the relief and delight in his tone made the sound as sweet as music.  When Merry had drained the cup, he was laid gently back.  "They've got a few other dainties here to tempt you, cousin.  If you’ll wake for me, perhaps I'll leave you some?"

The words came as through a muffled blanket but they made Merry smile.  He was very weak and as tired as if he had been on a forced march, but he would wake himself for Pippin. 

"Blasted Took…" he muttered and dragged his eyes open to the sight of his beaming, cocky friend. 

"Nice to see you could join me this evening, Merry!  The meal is delicious, but much better for the company.  What can I get you?"

"Um… well," the Bucklander mumbled, feeling the first stirrings of both appetite and another need.  "Perhaps a healer first.  They've been feeding me a rather lot of drink you see…."

Pippin grinned but did not laugh and called for the attendants.

When Merry was resettled and as comfortable as he could be, under the circumstances, his cousin returned with a tray of food and set it on a large table he had brought close for the purpose.  The meal was still mostly liquid: soups, shrubs, water and beef tea, but there were also a pair of delicious looking beef liver sandwiches and a large bowl of apple and raisin compote.  Not heavy fare, but hearty and nourishing and, to Merry, most welcome.

"My, you'd think I hadn't eaten in weeks!" he said, trying to lean forward and finding himself almost too weak and stiff to reach the table.  Pippin judiciously pulled it closer to him.  "I am trembling like a newborn kitten.  And bruised!  Dear me!  I feel as if I have been beaten by orcs!"

"Small wonder, Merry," Pippin answered, his voice growing just a bit harder.  "From what I heard, it is lucky you are here at all!  What were you thinking?  The story as I heard it tells that you wouldn't get into the shelter Frodo found.  Who ever heard of a hobbit who wouldn't go into a hole?  Or a Brandybuck hesitating to go where a Baggins would?"

Merry, fully awake now, looked up at his cousin seriously.  "That's not quite the way it happened," he said.

Pippin helped himself to some tea and poured another cup for Merry.  "I thought not," he nodded.  "Care to enlighten me?"  He handed it over and steadied Merry's hand until he had a firm grip. 

Merry took a drink, set the cup between his hands and rested hands, cup and all on his belly thoughtfully. 

"He wouldn't move till I did," he said reluctantly.  "He kept telling me to go first, like I was a child in need of protection."  Merry looked down into his tea.  "Even inside the house, he insisted that I get into the chimney before him."  Merry shook his head.  "Pip - that space was so small - if I'd got in there, there'd have been no room for him.  He knew it, but urged me forward anyway."  Merry sighed and paused, but pressed on.  "He's always been that way - looking to our need before his own - but this time….  Perhaps it simply was habit, but it scared me, Pip.  I've been frightened for all of us at some point or other on this adventure, but in that moment I saw, clearly, something I think I first saw in Cormallen, but only recognized then for what it was."

"What?"

"He's different, Pip.  Changed." 

"He'd have been hard pressed not to be, considering all he's been through.  But he seems the same old Frodo I always knew, or near enough.  I dare say we've probably changed a bit too, so maybe you're seeing him with new eyes as well?"

Merry frowned and fell silent.  Pippin cut one of the sandwiches and gave him a piece, helping himself to the other half.  Merry was too deep in thought to notice, but absently took a bite of his portion.

"No," he said decidedly after he'd chewed and swallowed a few more bites.  "It's Frodo, he's different now, only not in a way you can see, but only feel."  He looked up and his blue eyes were very earnest.  "It's as if he's drifting away.  It used to be I could walk with him over every hill in the Shire and he was still right there with me.  I could reach out and touch him if I wished, because all of him was right there.  Ever since Cormallen, I've felt like he isn’t."

Pippin finished his sandwich.  "I don't know, I've always thought our cousin had his head in the stars as often as not."  He grinned and licked his fingers.

"But what's happened now isn't the same as that," insisted Merry.  "Even when he was dreaming of faraway lands, he was still always here, always solid enough so that you knew he would always be somewhere in the world.  Even after he'd planned to leave the Shire, he was still himself inside.  Now…"  Merry dropped the sandwich unfinished on the bed and Pippin helped him put the teacup back on the table. 

"It's as if he's trying to give us the slip again, Pip.  I can't put my finger on it, but when I look at our cousin, I keep thinking 'he's gone beyond any of us', and I don't understand.  He's still our Frodo all right.  You can touch him, hold him, and yet something's lifted him up to someplace I can't reach."  The cheerful blue of Merry's eyes glimmered with exhaustion and the beginnings of tears.  "The only part of him that's left is like a memory of what was, and yet I am so terrified of losing even that little bit that I couldn't duck into the hearth before him."  He looked up again.  "I didn't know if he’d have followed me." 

Merry's voice was beginning to tremble too, so Pippin took the tray away, made him drink the medicinal draught the healers had left for his comfort and laid him back down, covering him warmly.

"You're speaking nonsense, old fellow," he said softly.  "Frodo wouldn't hurt us that way.  He'd not be so thoughtless - you must know that!  He's just been through a lot.  We're all a little older and wiser, but just maybe he's a bit older and wiser than the rest and so it seems he's leaving us behind?"  Weakness was making Merry's limbs tremble and the draught made him drowsy.  He struggled half-heartedly against both until Pippin kissed his forehead.  "Rest now," said the Took, his voice quavering with the worry he had yet kept hid for Merry's sake.  "Life won't seem nearly as hopeless after you've got your strength back.  I promise."

Whether the words comforted him or he was simply too tired to resist, Merry relented; his body relaxed, he sighed softly and slept.  Pippin stayed by him till nightfall and, in the darkened room, all that could be seen was his face, seeming at once young and old, lit red by the intermittent glow of his pipe.

 

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"I can't sit here another minute."

Frodo struggled to his feet, his supper barely eaten, and pushed the chair away.

"Frodo?" inquired Gandalf, his voice gentle.  Sam made to get up to assist his master, but the wizard checked him.

Frodo sighed, feeling a little embarrassed at his outburst.  "Even after the athelas bath, I can not get comfortable.  I'm sorry, Sam, Gandalf.  This chair is like torment.  Every place it touches me is bruised.  Please, don't let me disturb your meal."  He looked up apologetically.  "I'll get something, but am afraid I cannot join you at table."

Gandalf's black, depthless eyes studied him, as if seeking for some deeper meaning in the hobbit's words, but Frodo returned the gaze without flinching.  In a moment of dark reflection, he had confessed a secret to the wizard and since that time Gandalf had been watchful.  Frodo had thought his worries foolish, but had not wanted his kin and friends to know that he now felt as if he was different and imagined the Ring had worked some evil change upon him.  He had hoped the wizard would dismiss his concerns out of hand and put his heart at ease, but instead Gandalf had looked at him very sadly and explained how, sometimes, those whose lives had been touched by great and terrible events, took that evil into themselves and believed their lives tainted by it. 

His grave and gentle manner had disturbed Frodo more than any words of warning could have, and it had been Frodo who had scoffed and firmly dismissed the notion.  The Ring was destroyed and a bright future and life lay ahead of him.  It was not in his nature, nor in the nature of any hobbit, to dwell on darkness.  But though Gandalf had smiled, nodded and agreed, he still remained oddly attentive, as if Frodo's fanciful admission had been the first sign of something the wizard had looked for with foreboding.

This night, however, the cause of Frodo's distress was nothing more than what he'd said it was and he returned the wizard's probing gaze with a frank and open one of his own.  Sam looked from one to the other of them in confusion, as if sensing there was more to the mood between them than met his simple eye, and shook his head.

"Well," the gardener said, breaking the strange tableau, "that's no trouble, master!  There's a set of fine, padded chairs in the sitting room.  If you like, I can sit you down there by the fire to finish your supper.  Old Mr. Bilbo might not approve, but I'll not say anything to him just so long as you don't get gravy on the cushions."

Frodo blinked.  Sam's warm and familiar humour took him aback after the wizard's piercing scrutiny.  Like the grip of a well-known hand, it comforted him and he laughed out loud.  Gandalf, too, seemed to let go his concern and broke into a jolly and carefree smile.

"Oh, my Samwise!  Trust a hobbit to keep his wits in the face of dragons.  You are quite right.  To the sitting room then.  We shall all have a merry supper and talk by the fireside."  The wizard rose and took a round loaf under his arm and his and Frodo's plates in hand.  Sam, blushing at the praise, followed with his own plate and their mugs of ale. 

The seats in the firelit and comfortable room were sized for Men, but with the aid of a footstool, even a stiff and aging halfling could climb into one.  Frodo settled himself into the chair nearest the fire, sitting back tentatively at first, but then sighing happily as he found its soft contours did give him respite.  Gandalf laid his plate in his lap and Sam tendered his cup, and Frodo was able to finish his meal in comfort.  When, at last, he pushed both away, Sam got him a throw and laid it over him, and handed him his pipe and pouch, though Frodo put them down after a half-hearted attempt to fill the bowl.

"I've not had a taste for pipe-weed lately," he sighed when the gardener returned from taking their dishes away.  From the other padded chair opposite him, Gandalf blew a smoke ring and raised an eyebrow. 

"I will put mine out if you wish," Gandalf offered, but Frodo shook his head. 

"No," he smiled.  "I like the smell, even if I've no desire to smoke myself."  The image of a much beloved face, more lined with age than he liked to remember it, came back to him.  "It reminds me of Bilbo," he said softly, his tone sad, but touched with heartfelt tenderness.

Gandalf looked at him in silence for a long moment.  As he watched, a strange glimmer, like that of sudden understanding, lit his dark eyes and a thoughtful smile grew on his face.  At last he spoke.

"Each time I think I have learned all there is to know about your kind, you surprise me anew."  He blew a writhing trail of smoke that curled around his head like a cone.  "Bilbo never spoke of how much he missed you while in Rivendell, though I would guess you knew him well enough to know that he did."  He pointed at the hobbits with the stem of his pipe.  "He said something to me once that I have only just been reminded of and I think it will comfort you to hear it too."  He paused, as if collecting his thoughts.  "I rarely stayed at the Homely House during the years that Bilbo resided there," he began, "but on one morning that I was there, he came to me with a glowing smile and buoyant step and bowed very graciously before me.  I was curious and asked what had inspired such an honourable greeting from an old friend, and he looked at me, puzzled, as if surprised that I didn't know. 

"He then revealed to me that he had had a dream that night.  One in which he had seen you, sitting, in a chair much too big for you, by a roaring fire, in a great, dark house of Men.  He said that in his dream, you smiled so fondly that he was filled with joy and that you spoke with such tenderness that it brought tears to his eyes even as he slept."  Gandalf paused meaningfully and added, "I believe the sight he saw of you was in some way the one I have just beheld in this room and the words he heard were the ones you have just now spoken." 

The wizard smiled at the surprised look on Frodo's face and the puzzled one on Sam's and pressed on.  

"He was convinced I had done some wizardly trick to bring him a vision and would not be persuaded otherwise.  I let him believe what he wished, for I could see no evil in the vision and it gave him comfort, though now, as I sit here and his words come back to me, I begin to think the dear old hobbit saw true.  He saw you as you sit here now."

Frodo leaned forward, interested, and pondered the wizard's words.  Sam, who had climbed up on the couch to relax in gastronomic contentment, rolled over to watch, curiosity rousing him from his after-supper stupor.

"My folk aren't given to such gifts, though, of Bilbo, many would have believed it."  The older hobbit laughed.  "Very curious!  I believe you might be right, Gandalf.  In the house of Elrond, where the powers of the Half-elven run deep, perhaps my uncle did see what was to become of me?"

"You mean like Elven magic, Mr. Frodo!" Sam gasped, sitting upright.  "That was like the Lady's mirror - you remember!  I saw…"  He blushed red and stammered.  "Well, I spied something in her ladyship's mirror that...” he seemed to struggle with the memory, “well, sir, that I saw again later!"

"Yes, Sam," Frodo laughed.  "Very like that, and not only for you and Bilbo.  I've seen things too."  He looked at Gandalf.  "Do you remember what I told you at the Council?  In a dream in the house of Tom Bombadil, I saw you pacing back and forth upon a tower of stone?  And there have been other things as well.  Why just today I saw…"  And there Frodo stopped, his eyes flicking up to Sam's open and curious face.  He hesitated, looking uncomfortable.

"What did you see?" asked the wizard gently.  "Come, there can be no harm in telling us."

Frodo shook his head.  "As Bilbo's seeing was empowered by the magic of Elrond's house, so I had come to believe my visions were a token of the Ring and would cease when it was destroyed.  I was," he paused, "…startled to see what I saw this afternoon."  He fell silent and his eyes flicked towards Sam again.  Though the vision had been a sweet one, he had not wanted his companion to know of it.  It might have made Sam think, as it did him, that he was somehow still burdened by the Ring's evil.  And that would worry him.  Frodo had given Sam more than enough worries already.

The watchfulness came to Gandalf's eyes again.  "I do not believe such visions are a legacy of the Ring," he assured him, clearly understanding Frodo's reluctance.  "It can empower nothing now.  Whatever you may have seen today, unless it is a product of your fancy, came to you through your own gifts.  Though you say hobbits are not known for such, I would not so readily credit the airs of Rivendell, or the agency of the Ring for what you and yours have seen.  Even in those with little magic about them, such as hobbits, love can draw the mind across any distance, even time and even death.  You see those who love you, Frodo, when their thoughts are upon you.  As did Bilbo.  Were you not just thinking of him?"

Frodo studied the wizard and, after a moment, nodded.  Then turning his eyes to the fire, "I was," he said thoughtfully, and fell silent. 

Frodo had changed in more ways than he had confessed, though, since what he had already said had caused Gandalf to view him with such watchful unease, he was reluctant to tell the rest.  He had thought it by agency of the Ring, but it now seemed to Frodo as if he had stepped back from the world to view it from a greater distance.  Patterns of light and darkness were laid out before him and suddenly he knew the truth of what Gandalf had said.  This change was one his trial had wrought on him but it was not evil.  He had simply grown. 

"My old gaffer," said Sam, sitting up and breaking the solemn quiet, "he is a gruff old fellow, but he has wisdom of a sort you'd never find in no books.  Mr. Bilbo saw that, I reckon, for he was ever so kind and respectful to him, even when some others weren't."  He turned to Gandalf.  "He told me once that if I should ever miss my mum, then I was just to think of her and she would see me, no matter that she was dead and gone.  I remember how he used to say that nobody was really alive unless somebody knew their name, and so nobody could really be dead until not one body left behind remembered them."  Sam looked down.  "I was right young when I lost her, Mr. Gandalf, and that thought was always a comfort to me."  He took out his kerchief and wiped his nose.

The old wizard bowed his head respectfully.  "You are right, Samwise.  Your gaffer is very wise, and if it would comfort you further, I believe that he spoke true.  Love is a force to be reckoned with.  It has reached across the boundary of life and death before.  It called Beren back from the halls of Mandos, if you recall the legend.  It seems a little thing to expect it to reach across the gap of Time as well, at least in this small way." 

The words hung in the air of the darkened room.  Frodo could sense the truth of them too.  Neither was the connection love had created a thing of evil.  It bound him to his kin and those of the Fellowship, even to the one of that Company who now lay in the shadow of death.  It was blinding in its power and Frodo wondered that he had never before realized how much strength he drew from it.  Without looking up from the fire, he spoke very carefully.

"You asked me what I saw today," he said, sounding weary but composed.  "While I held Merry, I saw him as if he stood in a field of ripening corn.  He was older, his face lined and tanned by the sun, but he looked very contented."  Frodo smiled and settled deeper into the chair.  "I believe it was as you say, Gandalf, that I saw him as he would be someday, not as he is now.  I took hope from the vision.  It was as if I had proof he would live and so I knew my fight to free him would not fail."

He fell silent once more.  Gandalf nodded, approving and pulled a new draught on his pipe.  Sam eased himself back again, his arm under his head, and studied the ceiling as if deep in thought. 

Frodo kept the thought of Merry's sad, reminiscent smile to himself, though.  Even before Sam and Gandalf confirmed it, he had had an inkling of what that part of his vision meant.  He had known Merry all his life and could read his familiar face as easily as if it were a book laid open before him.  Merry had been thinking of him while standing in that golden field and his remembrance had been touched with loss.  Irretrievable loss.  The kind you would only feel for one who was gone beyond any hope of meeting again.  The kind you felt for those who were dearly loved but who had long since died. 

If he had seen true, by the time Merry was a middle-aged hobbit, Frodo would be but a cherished memory.  He had perhaps a score more of years, at best. 

It was a strange thing to have surety of the time of one's own end and he would have none who loved him know of it.  Though, as he rolled the oddly unhobbity notion over in his mind, it did not dishearten him.  Seventy years.  It was hardly venerable, but his own father had been such an age at the time of his death.  Three score and ten.  Frodo had not expected even to survive his journey, let alone return to live out his days peacefully in the Shire.  It would be enough time for a good life.  He could do much with it. 

With the fire hissing comfortingly in the hearth, two he held dear within arm's reach, and feeling warm and sated from good food and drink, Frodo closed his eyes and he slept.

 

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TBC





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