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Sacrament

by CRB and Ladyhawk Baggins

3 November 1419sr

Frodo started awake, unsure of where he was. He could see the first hints of dawn approaching through a window, but inside the smial it was still mostly dark.

A smial... I am in the Shire. It is our -- third day back? This is -- he looked around -- the Cottonsí smial. I must have dozed, he thought. How long?

He heard hushed voices coming from the kitchen. Sam appeared, as if by magic or simple intuition, in the round framed entrance to the greatroom where Frodo had fallen asleep. Sam was fully dressed, fully awake, and already falling into the old familiar patterns. Frodo found it comforting.

"Good morning, Master Frodo," he said in his best cheerful morning voice; but Frodo heard the underlying strain there.

"Good morning, Sam. Will you please tell me what day it is, and the time? I canít seem to catch up to where I am."

"Itís the third of November, a Friday, of course, and almost 7 oíclock in the morning, sir. You got back in just a bit late last night. You told me donít wait up, so I didnít, but when I woke up a few hours back and you still werenít here -- I did start to wonder, like. Are you all right, Mr. Frodo? And, did you lose your Elf-cloak, sir?"

Frodo sat up straight in the chair. He remembered what was going to take place today. A cold dread seized him, but he stood up and smiled at Sam. What happened today would happen.

"The cloak? The cloak -- oh, yes, itís just next door. Iíll see about getting it back another time..."

"Thatís Will Burrowsí hole -- er, house! You were right next door all night then!"

"You know them?"

"Yes, Mr. Frodo, I know them a bit, from way back."

"Thatís right," Frodo remembered aloud. He was now fully awake. "She said she knew you, and Rose, a little..." He would have to ask Sam more about her later...

Sam wore a puzzled expression. Frodoís tired, he thought.

"Come on into the bathing room, Master. Hot waterís all ready for you in the tub, and Iíll bring in the hot tea. First breakfast as soon as you like..."

It was almost as good as being at Bag End, Frodo smiled to himself; and he grinned at Sam. Then he remembered the rumors that Bag End was wrecked, and his grin vanished. But there was nothing to be gained by being morose today. The hobbits of Bywater and Hobbiton would need leaders. He didnít feel like one or want to be one, but he found himself placed in this position; he would simply have to do his best. There hadnít been a battle fought in all the Shire since the Greenfields, in 1147. Frodo knew that much. No one had been killed in the Shire for centuries.

For Samís sake Frodo tried to shake off the gloom that settled over him.

"Well, Sam, thank you, that sounds wonderful." He yawned and stretched. "A bath! It seems strange to take a bath before a battle, but I want one anyway."

Sam showed him to the bathing room. The bath water actually still had a slight haze of steam rising from it. Frodo entered the room and immediately took off his coat. Before he could take anything else off, Sam stepped forward to help.

"Thatís all right, Sam, thanks; Iíll take care of myself this morning. Go and spend time with your Rosie. This may be our last day on earth. Donít waste it."

He continued to get out of his travel clothes, made new in Rivendell on the trip home. Sam had already laid out a new set of travel clothes on the side table near the water basin and the towel.

Sam at first felt a little taken aback by his masterís blunt words. But Frodo was changed since the Quest, and spoke a little different, too. More direct like, as if he didnít want to beat around the bush.

"Sam?"

Heís daydreaming, Frodo thought. Probably about Rose. "Iím sorry, Sam, that was a bit harsh. But I do think we should use our time as wisely as we may this morning. So go and have first breakfast with Rosie. Iíll be along very soon." He stepped into the still-hot water. It felt wonderful, especially after the chill and rain of the past week, and the cold of last nightís air...

"But --" Sam was still rooted to the spot. A manservant wasnít supposed to eat breakfast before his master. Frodo read Samís face, and chuckled.

"Go ahead, Sam; itís all right, really. Just pretend weíre still on the Quest! Weíve got to catch meals when we can! Iíll call if I need you. The whole place was awake before me, I take it?" he smiled.

"Yes, Mr. Frodo." Sam brightened. "We were just waiting for you to join us."

"Theyíre waiting? Give me ten minutes and Iíll be out, I promise."

Sam nodded finally and left, shutting the door behind him.

Frodo laid his head back wearily and closed his eyes, but he was far away from sleep now. Every nerve within him felt drawn up tight, and he felt a strange mix of anticipation and dread.

The only real battle in which he had taken part was in Moria -- he had wounded at least a few orcs, and possibly killed some, Sam had told him. Nearly every memory of his desperate battle with the cave troll was gone, lost when he was thrown hard against the stone wall behind him. He could easily recall his terror at its relentless pursuit -- then a few stabs with Sting which had postponed the inevitable for a few seconds -- then the jarring impact of his head on the stone; then nothing. They had told him of the spear that bruised his chest, the one that would have killed him instantly were it not for Bilboís gift of the mithril-coat...

That was enough. He didnít want to think about one more moment of that day. He sat up and began his bath.

He realized some sort of history would be made today; something that would be spoken of in tales and written down, if only as a footnote. He was tired of making history, and wished to make no more.

They had expected to return to a Shire as whole and as beautiful as the one they left. In the past two days that expectation had been dashed, and there was more evil to come. He pushed aside his fears about Bag End. There would be grief enough today, grief over loved ones; the wounded would fall, and some would never rise again.

Now, despite his aversion to it, Frodo wished to go into the fighting, toward it, so it could be over. If they were blessed, there would be only a few deaths. And please, he prayed, not Sam, nor his dear cousins. He wondered what had become of Fatty Bolger, and hoped he was safe somewhere...

He wondered, too, why it had to be this way. Why had Mordor not been enough? Why hadnít all the efforts of all the members of the Fellowship -- Boromir included -- been enough to keep the Shire whole?

It did not bother him that the Travelers had not received a heroís welcome upon their return. He was glad, at least for himself, that there had been no processions, no ceremonies. But to be treated like criminals? The bath water was rapidly cooling in the chill air, but Frodo did not feel it, and had stopped his bath, staring at the far wall.

The land had been ill-treated and the hobbits ill-treated as well. To take away their leaf, their ale, and the best of the crops and livestock was almost the worst thing this Sharkey -- whoever he was -- could have inflicted upon the Shire. The very worst was the destruction of the trees. The ugly new mill, and sheds, could be torn down, but the trees... he bowed his head for a moment and closed his eyes, trying to understand it.

Frodo knew Sharkey was at the top of the corruption here, and far more responsible for the misery than was Lotho. Lotho was not blameless, but he was weak and greedy, and had let events control him. He was not capable of this degree of evil.

Frodo heard voices in the hallway. It took him a moment to identify Roseís voice, but as soon as he did, he wished he hadnít; she was weeping with fear for Sam and for the battle to come. He sighed heavily as he heard her footsteps patter down the hall and away, and fervently thanked Ilķvatar that Rose had not known what Sam faced in the past year; she might well have died of a broken heart had she known the full truth.

Lilyís warm words of care and concern for him from the night before -- what a strange and beautiful night! -- returned to his mind without warning, and surprised him so much that he sat up and washed himself hastily. He was holding up first breakfast.

---------

It was close on to 10 oíclock when Merry came riding up to Frodo and Cotton and the others on the Bywater Road. He had been out all night. Merryís report was not good: a gang of ruffians was only four miles away, at least a hundred strong, coming from Waymeet. And they were spoiling for a fight.

Farmer Cotton spoke up. "Ah! This lot wonít stay to talk; theyíll kill if they can. If Tooks donít come sooner, weíd best get behind cover and shoot without arguing. Thereís got to be some fighting before this is settled, Mr. Frodo."

Frodo said nothing, but nodded.

He and Merry heard the shouts and the rumble of hoof beats before anyone else. It was Pippin, with a good strong contingent of hobbits from Tuckborough and the Green Hills. Frodo breathed an audible sigh of relief as Merry hastened to Pippin and began to lay plans. They had to be quick about it; but the two were completely capable of handling what was now for them only a small sortie. The only sad difference, Frodo thought, was that this would be hobbits fighting Men, not the Free Peoples of Middle-earth fighting orcs and Uruk-hai.

On the day before, just after Pippin had sped off to his home country for reinforcements, Frodo made it clear to Merry that no ruffians were to be killed unless it were absolutely necessary, to save the lives of hobbits. Merry deferred to Frodo in everything, but had warned him that the chances of no one being killed were small at best. Frodo had resigned himself to it.

Merry and Pippin began to gather up the hobbits and organize an ambush, their best defense against Men. Frodo left them to it. He had no heart for it, and anyway his young cousins were seasoned in battle, hard as it was to believe. A little more than a year ago, these same two hobbitsí most dangerous ventures were stealing crops from Farmer Maggot, like errant children.

He looked up at the sun. Her light was weak today, filtered as it was through a thick cover of clouds, just as it had been the day before. He hoped Lily was keeping well inside.

Old farm-carts were being lined up as a barricade. The ruffians would be coming along here from the East Road, and the trap was nearly set. Frodo heard Merry and Pippin shouting orders, riding this way and that, Merry cutting a dashing figure as he gathered hobbits from both Bywater and Hobbiton. He was encouraging them, cajoling them. There was some laughter. Frodo smiled at that. Merry was so changed now, a true leader, but still he was Meriadoc and could make even the dourest hobbit laugh when he set his mind to it.

Pippin was making the rounds of the bluffs that reached up to frame both sides of the Bywater Road, looking up and talking quietly to the hobbits hiding behind the thick hedges, and giving them final instructions. His demeanor, too, had changed greatly since the Quest. Frodo took note of his calm. He would still laugh and jest when the occasion was right; that was true -- but he was grown now, changed and grown in the space of one year in such a way that it may as well have been ten. Frodo felt suddenly old, as though he too should have changed for the better in some way but had not. He had surely changed, but for the worse.

He dismissed the thought. He would be needed at some point in this battle, and he already had a feeling for when it might be. The wounded would need help, clearly; Frodo had a sturdy young hobbit named Toby Bolger standing by with a pony-cart to help move the wounded out of the fray. Frodo pushed aside his foreboding about the morning turning ugly. If he could, he would prevent further bloodshed.

It was brisk, and the air was damp. The early morning fog had barely burned off, only to be replaced with a light cold mist. Frodo felt grateful for the deep green velvet coat the Rivendell artisans created for him; it was plenty of protection against the chill. He decided to wear a sword in order to back up any orders that might have to be given; no one need know he had no intention of using it. Sam had Sting in his keeping now. Frodo was pleased with that.

He was wearing his mithril-coat, and could not say exactly why. He had looked at it when dressing that morning, there in his travel kit, and finally decided to put it on. Lily had asked him to take care. He had told her he would.

And he could do without his Elven-cloak, left last night at Lilyís brotherís house. Perhaps it would help keep Lily warm in the cold days of winter. He could not afford thoughts of Lily now. He must avoid her until he could ask Gandalf whether his own soul-sickness might harm her irrevocably...

His mind returned to Sam, and he wondered where his friend was. He swallowed hard as reality dawned: Sam might die this morning.

Frodo was angry then, angry at the thought that Sam could die today in a brief instant, after having survived all the long torture they had faced; after the tremendous sacrifice he had made. The harsh unfairness of it struck at him, and the low despairing voice began to whisper at the outer edges of his thought, as he felt the pain of the old familiar evil rising inside himself. The only defense his heart could take against that voice, the only comfort and respite he could find, was in prayer. Sam simply cannot die, he prayed. Take me. I will not live long here in the Shire anyway. Sam has Rose; she needs him. Take me. Lily is too young to know her own heart; protect her. Let her be happy...

"Master Frodo?"

Frodo turned at the sound.

"Sam!" Frodo embraced him and suddenly felt better. Sam was here now. Perhaps things wouldnít go so badly. Perhaps the ruffians would surrender without a fight.

They would soon see, for at that moment the expected gang of ruffians turned off the East Road and were approaching at a fast clip, straight for them. Sam made to go.

"Mr. Frodo, weíll meet up again. Merryís got me posted down yonder at the far hedge. Be careful -- watch yourself."

Sam could not voice all his thoughts, but Frodo could read him very easily, and he knew what it was Sam could not say. Then Sam was off, running to take up his post.

Frodo turned to his left and stroked the pony which would be carting the wounded. The animal was tense and nervous.

"Youíve never been in a battle before, Iíll wager," Frodo said softly to him. He continued to stroke the ponyís neck. It was bringing him a sense of calm as well. Frodo looked just over the ponyís back to Toby, the young hobbit who would be assisting him.

"Whatís his name?"

"Oh, this hereís Andy, sir," said Toby, smiling, but he too was nervous now. The ruffians were closing fast.

"All right, Andy," Frodo said to the pony, "I donít think these Men are going to be taking any aim at you. I donít think theyíve fallen that low yet. If you get captured today, and taken off, try to break free. Toby here will miss you, otherwise."

Andy snorted and gave Frodo a look which he couldnít read. He had learned something about ponies -- much about them, actually -- on the Quest, and if he could read the pony at all, he was telling Frodo to be quiet...! Frodo laughed nervously. All this talk had only been to make the time pass faster, and he knew it. There was no more waiting now.

The ruffians, not more than fifty yards away, were stopped by the barricade of old upturned farm-carts.

They looked around them and realized hobbits were in the hedges above their heads, everywhere. Now some sturdy hobbits pushed waggons up behind the group from a field off the road, and the ruffiansí way out was blocked.

Merry spoke from above. Frodo heard no fear in his voice.

"Well, you have walked into a trap," he said. "Your fellows from Hobbiton did the same, and one is dead and the rest are prisoners. Lay down your weapons! Then go back twenty paces and sit down. Any who try to break out will be shot."

Here was the moment, Frodo thought.

A few of the ruffians obeyed Merryís order, but were immediately attacked by their fellows. Frodo thought suddenly of the bickering and infighting of all the orcs he had ever seen. A score of the men started to break back, charging the waggons. They brandished their clubs and knives. Six of the score were shot, but the remainder broke free, attacking two hobbits as they went. Frodo shouted to Toby and the two of them left the pony at his post, running to the injured hobbits. The dozen or so ruffians escaped past the waggons, but Merry called a note on his horn. They would be hunted down.

Frodo and Toby reached the first hobbit. Frodo thought he was too young to die, only out of his tweens; but he was dead. They made their way to the next hobbit as the battle began to rage at the far end of the barricade, hobbits raining down arrows on the Men, some hewing at the invaders with axes.

This hobbit was alive. "Toby, go back and get the cart," Frodo said quickly, and Toby ran.

He was older, perhaps 85 years old, Frodo thought. Not really old yet, for a hobbit.

He was bleeding profusely from at least two knife wounds to his left side. Frodo fought with his coat buttons, tearing the last one, finally getting the coat off and rolling it into a compact wedge. He knelt at the hobbitís left side and pressed the coat against the wounds, not so hard as to hinder his breathing, but hard enough, he hoped, to staunch the bleeding. Frodo was dismayed, for the hobbit was pale already, his breathing somewhat labored.

"Lie still. Weíre going to take you to safety. Weíll bind up this wound and youíll be fine."

Frodo felt he was lying, but wasnít sure. What if he lived?

The hobbit struggled a little, then seemed to realize struggle was unwise; or he was simply weakening. Frodo thought it was the latter. He fought to keep his voice calm.

"Thatís good. Just lie still."

But the hobbit could not keep completely still. He looked searchingly at Frodo, and started to speak. His voice was not loud enough to be heard over the battleís din. Frodo leaned closer and turned his head to hear. Blood was coming right through the coat, soaking it. He was going to bleed to death, it seemed, and Frodo trembled as he listened; whatever the hobbit said now would be important.

"Lily. My daughter, I -- worry -- worry about her."

Frodo was alarmed at the name but fought back his panic. Lily was a common name in the Shire.

"Yes, I understand. You are worried for her," he repeated.

The hobbitís left hand lay across his chest. He raised it as if to emphasize a point, and Frodo grasped it firmly with his own. He kept his right hand pressed hard against the soaked velvet material.

The hobbit seemed to take comfort in the touch of his hand.

He was having more trouble speaking, keeping his eyes closed as if willing himself to continue breathing.

"She is strong, good -- fragile." He coughed, and small flecks of blood appeared at the corners of his mouth.

"Yes. I can hear you."

"She holds her heart -- keeps her heart -- for someone... She needs to marry. No more dr- dreaming."

His breathing was more labored, and he gripped Frodoís hand more tightly. Frodo was surprised at his strength.

The hobbit looked at Frodo. "Will Lily be -- all right?"

"Yes, yes, she will be fine. I will see to it. Take comfort."

He seemed to rest a little, then opened his eyes again, trying to focus on Frodo.

"The Shire? Is it -- safe?"

"Yes, safe." Just as he spoke the words, Frodo knew it to be true. "The battle has been swift, it is nearly over; the hobbits have won. The Shire is safe."

Frodo smiled down at him, but his own voice was breaking, and he was having his own trouble with breathing now. Tears started in his eyes.

"Tell my children -- I love them." His grip on Frodoís hand was weakening now. He closed his eyes again.

"Yes. Yes. Tell me their names. I will tell them you love them."

"Lily. Daisy -- Will."

It was true. This was her father.

Frodoís tears spilled over onto his cheeks, falling fast.

"I will tell them. Rest. Be at peace. Go with Ilķvatar."

The hobbit stopped breathing, and Frodo laid his hand gently on his breast, then slumped down next to him on the dirt road. He released his hold on the blood-soaked coat and gently touched the hobbitís eyelids, closing his eyes. He wept bitterly, heedless of anything or anyone around him. He wept not only for Lilyís father but for his own.

Toby approached, afraid to speak.

"Mr. Frodo?" Toby ventured. He wanted to say the pony-cart had been taken for use with other wounded hobbits.

"Frodo!" That was Samís voice...

Frodo looked up, tears streaming down his face.

"Sam..."

Sam took in the scene at once. He knew of Frodoís plans and hopes to help those wounded in todayís battle.

"Iím sorry, Master." Then Sam recognized the dead hobbit. "Oh, no, thatís -- Roper Burrows... heís -- heís Willís gaffer, Will who lives next to my Rosie."

"Sam, please go fetch Lily for me -- wait, is it safe?" Frodo took only a cursory glance around him.

Sam wondered when Frodo had met Lily Burrows; theyíd only been in Bywater for a day -- maybe last night? -- but he had far more urgent business with his master at the moment.

"Well, yes, Master, itís safe, but some of the hobbitsíre wanting to kill the ruffians who surrendered. Itís ugly, sir."

Will Burrows appeared. He had heard the news. He crouched down low to his fatherís body, touching his hand, then his brow. Tears started in his eyes. A bloody wound on his upper right arm was bound with a strip of cloth.

"What did he say?" Will asked. "Were you with him?"

"Yes. He said to tell you he loves you. You, and Daisy, and Lily..."

"Thank you."

"I tried to stop the bleeding. His wounds were too deep. Iím sorry, Iím so sorry..."

"Thank you -- for trying."

"Master Frodo?" That was Sam again, trying to get his attention.

"Yes."

"Sir, I think they might be needing you over here pretty bad, and quick."

Frodo got up.

"Sam, stay with Will and do whatever he asks you, please."

Frodo turned and walked toward an angry scene at the far end of the opposite barricade. Everywhere he looked, Frodo saw dead Men, and dead hobbits. His heart sank.

A dozen or so of the ruffians remained, cowed and surrounded by at least a score of angry hobbits. Pippin was across the road and shouted when he saw Frodo.

"Frodo, stop them! They want to kill the prisoners!"

Frodo stepped between the angry hobbits and the Men, placing his right hand on his sword hilt. The hobbits saw a disheveled, defiant Frodo Baggins staring them down, and sure enough he really did only have four fingers on his sword hilt, not five. They knew who he was; everyone in Hobbiton and Bywater recognized him. He looked much thinner than he ever had, and had a strange look in his eye. He was crazy, they knew. It ran in his blood. They hesitated.

Frodoís eyes swept over the small crowd, his face drawn. His voice rang clear on the air.

"Put down your weapons now. This battle is done. It is over. These Men have surrendered. They are prisoners. If you intend to slay them, you will have to take my life first. Thereís been enough killing for one day..." His voice grew weary, but his eyes still held them. "...enough blood spilt."

They began to put their weapons down, one by one.

Frodo stood fast on the spot until Merry was able to bring an armed escort for the prisoners.

"Thank you, Frodo. Weíll take care of it now. Theyíll be taken to one of their own lockhouses."

Frodo turned to face the Men.

"You will be imprisoned for a week. Merry, see to it that they are treated properly and fed well. I want no mistreatment of these Men."

"Yes, Frodo. All right."

He addressed the Men again. "After a week in prison you may decide whether or not to stay there. If you decide to return to your homes and live in peace, not setting foot again in the Shire, I will take you at your word. If you cannot promise this, you will remain in prison. Is this understood?"

The Men mumbled gratefully.

"I need a clearer answer than that."

One Man spoke up. "Yes, we understand."

"Very well. Merry, take them now."

Frodo turned back to the angry hobbits, but they were gone. He had been prepared to argue with them at length, possibly even to fight them. They were gone.

"Master Frodo?" Samís voice cut through the fog in Frodoís mind.

"Yes, what is it, Sam?"

"You sent me to fetch Miss Lily, to see her gaffer. Sheís asking for you, Frodo." There was a tone of concern beyond even that which Sam usually voiced.

"Thank you, Sam, Iíll come."

He walked slowly now, having to think about putting one foot before the other, distraught as he was, and exhausted. He had not raised a sword, but was exhausted nonetheless. The voice whispered its lies to him as he walked, undermining his thoughts, confusing him...

"Sam, stop. Look at me for a moment, will you?"

This was an odd request, but Sam would have done anything Frodo asked, on any day, at any time. He looked at Frodo.

Frodo needed an anchor of sanity, something to ground his thoughts, to calm him. To stop that voice. He took deep breaths, and looked at Sam once more. It was better now. He needed to be strong for Lily.

"Thank you, Sam. Is your family safe? And the Cottons, are they safe?"

"Yes, Mr. Frodo, all safe." Sam finally understood why it was Frodo needed simply to look at him. He was adept at recognizing the darkness when it gnawed at Frodo. He had seen it in his master more than anyone.

"Good, thatís good..." Frodo continued on to where Lily was, seated on the ground next to her fatherís body, and crying over it, Will on the other side.

Frodo hardly knew what to say. He had to speak. He needed to say something. She turned to look up at him.

"He loved you very much, Lily. He asked me to tell you."

Lily stood and went to him, weeping openly. He stepped toward her and then took her into his arms. It was permissible to hold her now; he was allowed to comfort a grieving hobbit-lass. Will looked on, but Frodo did not see him.

She wept on him without reservation, holding nothing back. Her mother had died less than a year ago, Frodo remembered; she was crying for more than just her father. Perhaps she was weeping also for the hobbit she held her heart for -- the one her father said she should stop dreaming about. It didnít really matter. He only knew she was in pain, which caused him pain as well.

She had not moved at all in his embrace, her face lying against his breast, sobbing, her tears mingling with the blood on his shirt. He did not remember doing so, but he had put one arm around her back; with his other hand he held her head gently against him.

"Iím so sorry, Lily." He had never seen her in daylight, overcast though the day was. Even in tears she was beautiful. Her hair felt soft under his hand, and she was warm. He couldnít recall the last time he had held a lass like this, even in grief... he had comforted relatives before... Perhaps never, like this. He continued to hold her, but could say no more. His voice would betray him if he spoke now, and he would weep again. She needed calm.

He wondered if the hobbit she was holding her heart for was a calm sort. Frodo wanted happiness for her, at the very least. But it seemed a door had been shut on his heart. He couldnít believe he ever entertained a notion that she might have some interest in him. It occurred to him that the Ring had truly damaged his ability to think clearly and reasonably. He wondered what else he would be a poor judge of, or if he would even be aware of it. He had certainly not understood Lilyís thoughts; and yet he was sure he had. He sighed. She was calming down in his arms. It was good simply to be close to someone, good to be able to feel something again, even if it had not been what he imagined. The Quest had numbed him to everything, like a plant frozen solid in winter. Would he ever be the same again?

Lily settled against him. With her head there on his breast, she could feel his heart beating, as well as his warmth. She had wanted to be near him, but not -- not like this! Not for her father!

She wept again, a fresh wave of grief taking hold of her, and stayed where she was.

Will got up.

"If you could please stay with her for a few moments, Mr. Baggins, Iíll -- I need to get his body moved."

"Of course. Will, stay for just a moment. Sam here will help you. Sam?"

As Frodo uttered the words, he wondered suddenly if his dear friend were still near.

"Yes, Mr. Frodo?"

The furrow in Frodoís brow softened as he realized Sam would not leave without telling him first. He became more aware of his surroundings again, even with Lily here in his arms. The sound of weeping seemed to come from everywhere. From where he stood he could see wives and children, cousins, grandmothers, all streaming from their hobbit-holes to search for loved ones in the road, to help the wounded, and to grieve.

"Sam... you know Will here?"

My masterís not thinking clearly, Sam thought. Heís tired...

"Yes, sir... and Will and I have been talking while you were gone over to help with the ruffians."

"Of course." He really was not thinking well. He tried to clear his mind; it was impossible.

"Please have Pippin come to me here as soon as he can. Thank you, Sam."

"Yes, Mr. Frodo."

Frodo addressed Will. "Pippin can help you with this. Weíll get some folk together, and it will be easier that way. Please, Will, donít call me Mr. Baggins. Frodo will do."

Lily was still there. She could stay as long as she liked, as far as he was concerned. She had calmed again, and seemed almost to be asleep, but that wasnít possible... she must be merely resting.

"All right," Will replied. "Iíll have to get word to Daisy -- our sister -- and her husband about this. Theyíre all the way over in Deephallow. I donít think I can get them all the way back here in time for the burial. Weíll have to have a burial by the morning..."

"If you need a fast pony, use mine. Heís at the stables here. Strider is his name. Tell the liveryman there I said it was all right. He knows me well enough. Striderís a good mount, and good with strangers. If you left soon, you could be back in time. Iím sure Rose Cotton could keep Lily company while you are away. Itís only for one night. We can ask Sam to find out for us. Lily, would that be all right with you? You wonít be wanting to travel."

Frodo was speaking to her but was not sure she heard him.

"Will," he began, but Pippin rode up and dismounted next to them as he spoke.

"Frodo, Sam said you wanted me."

"Yes, Pip -- can you assign a group to get the -- bodies of the dead over to the hill in the Bywater Garden? Weíre going to have to have a burial by morning. But the loved ones will need time to be with the dead."

"Iím only ahead of you a bit, cousin. Weíve got it started already. Word is going round about the burial in the morning. Weíll set it for ten. Thereís nothing else for it." He became thoughtful, his voice becoming soft. "Frodo, this has never happened. Weíve never had to do this before. Hobbits only die one at a time here in the Shire. Itís hard..."

"I know. I -- what about the Men? Has anyone been assigned to bury the Men?"

"Yes, first weíre moving the hobbits -- the bodies -- and then afterward the Men. Someone here said theyíll give part of their field up. Well, it used to be some farmland. Itís a gravel pit now. But yes, weíre attending to that. There wonít be any tears shed over them."

"I know that too. But they had loved ones as well. They were not born bad. They became bad."

"Your heart is too kind, Frodo. These Men have done terrible things today, and have been plaguing the Shire for almost a year." Pippin sounded amazed rather than angry. Will was listening intently to their exchange.

"I know. They are partly to blame. But Gandalf said we must not be too quick to deal out death and judgment. We cannot see all ends, and we cannot return life once it has been taken away. If we donít show pity, how can we ever expect it for ourselves?"

Lily was still there, feeling a little heavier. Frodo believed she was asleep on her feet now. He held her closely.

"Pity from who, Frodo? Who are you talking about?" Pippin asked.

"From Ilķvatar. From hobbits. From King Elessar, from the Men of Bree -- from anyone."

"Who is Ilķvatar?" asked Will.

Pippin answered for Frodo. "Itís a long story -- maybe we can share a pint soon... but, another day. I am Peregrin Took -- Pippin -- a cousin to Frodo."

He was about to extend his hand to shake Willís, but the tall hobbit was staring down, distracted, at the body of the hobbit nearest him.

Pippin turned to Frodo, and spoke more softly. "We were going to see Bag End this afternoon. Is that still your plan, Frodo?"

"Yes." He closed his eyes, just for a moment. I want to be away from here, he thought. I donít want to see Bag End. And Lily is so warm here...

Will came out of his own reverie. "Bag Endís not looking too good, Frodo," he cautioned, as if to rub salt in the wound, though Frodo knew that was not his intent.

"So I have heard. I suppose weíll be going this afternoon. Weíll have to deal with Lotho and with this Sharkey..."

Pippin nodded. "Let me get back to my work then, Frodo. Iíll go with you to Hobbiton, and Merry should be back by then as well."

He turned when he heard the pony-cart rattle up, and saw Toby at the reins, with Sam alongside. Sam jumped down.

"Hereís Sam now -- Sam, can you give me a hand? Weíre going to help Will with -- "

"Itís his gaffer, Pip," Sam said.

Frodo saw Pippinís expression change. He had assumed it was a neighbor, perhaps, but a father --

Stricken, he offered, "Iím sorry, Will. If youíre ready, we can move him now."

They got the body gently up into the cart, and Will rode along up front with Toby Bolger. Will called back to Frodo.

"Stay with her? Iíll be back soon."

"Yes," Frodo called back to him.

Pippin looked at Lily curiously. "Who is this lass, Frodo? -- and, she looks to be asleep..."

"I think she is. Sheís breathing."

"Well of course sheís breathing, Frodo!" Pippin stopped when Frodo did not smile or laugh.

"Itís Willís sister. Her name is Lily," Sam said quietly.

"She was awake all last night," Frodo added. "Sheís tired, and in grief." And the darkness I exposed her to was no help at all, Frodo thought to himself.

"Oh, I see... she seems familiar to me. I canít place her. Wouldnít you like to get her to a place where she can lie down, though?"

When Frodo answered he did not look at Pippin. He looked instead down at Lily as she lay there against him, peacefully sleeping. His voice held a tone that neither Pippin nor Sam had ever heard before.

"Yes, Pippin, I should. Although she is lovely: and if I had nowhere to go and nothing to do, and this morning had not happened, I might have stood here all day and let her sleep. She looks comfortable enough."

Pippin almost dropped his jaw, but caught himself in time. He stared in disbelief. Frodo simply did not talk like this.

Pippin looked to Sam, but Sam was smiling to himself, happy for his master. He knew now Frodo had spent the whole night before talking with Lily. Itís as plain as day he cares for her, thought Sam. He felt humbled in some way he could not explain, standing here seeing this moment.

Pippin shook his head in wonder, then remounted his pony. Since he knew Frodo wouldnít hear him, he promised Sam heíd return as soon as he could. Sam called after him.

"Pip, 2 oíclock at the Cottonsí!"

He was almost out of earshot already, but Sam heard his repeated promise to get back in time. He had already caught up to the pony-cart with Will and Toby, almost at the turn to the East Road.

Frodo became aware of his friend once more.

"Sam, dear Sam." Frodo was smiling and nearly crying at once. He was confused, torn; happy she was here, but sad it was for this reason. He did not want to move. He laid his head down on hers, barely, not wishing to wake her, but wishing to be closer to her. He wouldnít see her very much after the burial, if ever, not if she managed to find the one she had been dreaming about. He felt sorrow for her for the days and weeks ahead. They would not be easy ones.

He felt sure he was not taking advantage of her by laying his cheek down on her hair. I wish I were the one she has been dreaming of, he thought; the thought was a feeling, and was so strong that he lifted his head from hers to look up, all the way up through the clouds, at the weak sun, anything to keep the tears back. He had so much more to face today, and pining for this beautiful lass would break him if he continued on like this. He would have to find some way to be cured of these feelings. Cured was a good word. Not cured of an illness, but cured of -- what? Hope? want? -- need? Maybe Gandalf could cure him with a spell. He is a Maiar, after all... But he could not cure the darkness, the voice insinuated.

Frodo closed his eyes and filled his mind with thoughts of Lily; the voice receded. He wondered at how easy it was to accomplish. Itís because she is here, he thought.

Frodo looked at Sam, and Sam could see his master had tears in his eyes.

"Iím sorry, Mr. Frodo. Iím sorry youíre sad. Is there anything I can do for you -- for you and Miss Lily?"

He could not hide the concern in his voice, and Frodo heard it. He looked at Sam and sighed a little, still careful not to wake her just yet. He smiled, wistful.

"Iím glad youíre with me, Sam. There is something you can help me with. I wanted someone with me when I woke her..."

Sam was surprised once again when without warning Frodoís voice took on an anguished tone.

"Oh, Sam, what shall I do? I only met her last night, and already I care for her! Iím lost. I donít know what to do. And this morning her father told me before he died her heart is already set on another... Sam, look at her! My heart is full... I can never tell her how I feel now. I cannot have her. And even if I might be allowed to -- to love her, still I cannot; the evil that still lives within me harms her in some way..."

His voice trailed off, and he laid his cheek back down on her hair, feeling her steady breathing, and suddenly he was fully aware of what he felt for her. It was so strong as to be almost frightening.

Sam was at something of a loss. On his best days, shrewd as he was, he still had trouble finding the words that would say what he really meant, and this was not one of his best days. "Iíll do anything I can to help you, Frodo. I can see youíre in a fix. Miss Lily is a decent fine lass, and you could do a lot worse in this life than having her for your own. But from what you say it sounds like itís complicated. Maybe Gandalf could find out why the old evil hurts her. I canít say as Iíd know what to do about that other hobbit sheís thinking of. Maybe her father was wrong? Even grown children donít tell their old gaffers everything. Maybe you could ask her if thatís still true. The worst she can say is yes, but if itís not true anymore, youíll be that much further ahead, if you take my meaning. Donít give up yet, Frodo, thatís my advice, and now Iíll keep quiet."

Frodo smiled broadly at Sam. "You really do know how to give me hope, Sam. Thank you -- more than you know. Iím not sure when Iíll have the courage to ask her, but I wonít give up yet."

He looked down at Lily once more, reluctant to be parted from her. "I think itís time to wake her and get her back to Willís house."

She woke just enough to murmur a few words of thanks, then fell silent. Frodo put one arm around her, and Sam accompanied them back to Willís house. Sam fetched Rose to keep watch over her and spend the night with her. Frodo would see her again at the burial in the morning.

Lily seemed to understand when they told her Will had gone to fetch Daisy and her husband, and Rose would be there soon. When Rose came to watch her, Lily fell asleep almost instantly. Frodo was relieved. If she were resting comfortably he would have more strength to go and deal with whatever was to come at Bag End this afternoon. It was 1 oíclock now, and he and Sam went to the Cottonsí to clean up and rest.

---------

The Travelers gathered for a late midday meal at the Cottonsí. Frodo ate at Samís behest, but he had no appetite. Sam then took meals over to Rose and Lily. Rose ate, but Lily still slept.

Farmer Cotton got an escort of two dozen hobbits together for the short ride to Hobbiton. Frodo borrowed a pony, Strider having been loaned to Will.

They were crushed by what they saw. All along the Bywater Road, the trees had been felled. The damage got progressively worse as they neared Hobbiton, the new ugly mill built over the stream belching out steam and filth, polluting the water. It was just as Sam and Frodo had seen in Galadrielís Mirror, but far worse. This was real.

The sky darkened in the afternoon. It seemed to be sad for them. The wind picked up, and blew much colder than before.

Now, as they crossed the bridge and looked at the Hill, Sam cried out. It was worse even than what he had seen in the Mirror. The Old Grange had been knocked down. Every chestnut tree was gone... there were ugly tarred sheds everywhere, not the beautiful homes they had left behind. Huts cluttered the landscape, and Bagshot Row was now a gravel and sand quarry. Bag End could not yet be seen.

They were staggered by what they saw, each sight worse than before. Merry and Pippin felt for Sam and Frodo; this was after all their real home. Crickhollow, Brandy Hall, and Tuckborough had been spared, left completely alone, compared with this devastation.

"The Party Tree!" cried Sam. "Theyíve cut it down! Theyíve cut down our Party Tree!" The tree was still there, but dead, on its side. The hobbits in Farmer Cottonís escort were all quiet. None of them had had the courage to tell Frodo or Sam about how bad things really were.

They heard Ted Sandyman first, then saw him. He mocked Sam and the rest of them, making threats about the Boss; Sam exchanged angry words with him until Frodo could stand it no longer.

"Donít waste any more words on the fool, Sam! I hope there are not many more hobbits that have become like this. It would be a worse trouble than all the damage the Men have done."

Merry blew his silver horn after telling Sandyman the Men had all been dealt with and the Boss was next. Hobbits came pouring out of the holes and sheds and shabby houses of Hobbiton, cheering and falling in behind the Travelers and their escort, following them up the road to Bag End. Sandyman was left behind to gape at them in surprise.

At the top of the lane the company halted, and Frodo and his friends went on; and they came at last to the once-beloved place.

"This is worse than Mordor!" said Sam.

Pippin and Merry were silent as they looked on. They had heard about Mordor, but had not been there.

"Yes, this is Mordor," said Frodo.

---------

Several hours after the battle, the bodies of the nineteen who had died were laid out at the far north end of the Pool, on the gentle green slope of the hill at the Bywater Gardens, according to Frodoís instructions. Loved ones brought blankets to cover them, and grieved as they could; time was short. It was traditional for burial to take place before one full day passed.

The coffins were brought in from Bywater and Hobbiton. Carpenters and those who could help labored all through the afternoon to make the simple boxes. No store of them was kept anywhere in the Shire, as deaths tended to happen singly, most always from old age.

Closer to nightfall, by the efforts of many able-bodied hobbits, the graves were dug. Most of those working were farmers, and many had themselves been in the battle. The ground was hard and cold but not frozen yet; that time was still a month or more away.

The bodies were laid into the coffins, then lowered into the earth, after nightfall. Merry had overseen these last stages of the burials after the Travelers returned from Bag End.

At the same time the hobbits were being buried, Pippin had overseen the burial of the Men, a mile or so to the west, at the donated sand-pit; but no coffins were constructed. Pippin restrained the hobbits working under him from simply throwing the bodies into the pit, as was their wont. They had to lower the bodies into the ground with makeshift cloth slings; it was slow work, there being sixty-eight Men to bury. But as it was a common grave, they too finished very soon after nightfall. No markers were erected. The place was afterward called the Battle Pit.

---------

Late into the night, lying in the grass in the tiny patch of garden the Cottons could still call their own, Frodo lay with eyes opened wide to the stars. He had tried to sleep, in a bed, indoors, but knew before he tried it was pointless. He had checked on Lily just before they all retired for the night, with Sam and Rose as go-betweens. She had taken a bite and gone back to sleep. It was the only shred of comfort he had had all day, beside the joy of having her in his arms for that brief time. But Lily was not his, and would never be his. Her heart belonged to someone else.

All his life was over, now. But Sam was still here. That was good. Merry and Pippin were still here. That was good, too. He looked for Ešrendil and found the star easily, for the sky had completely cleared, black night sky and white shining stars, stars everywhere, more than anyone would ever be able to count. Ešrendil gave him some comfort; some.

Bilbo was alive and well; that was good. The grass underneath him was not truly frozen but was so cold it may as well have been. He did not feel the cold. He felt empty, empty.

He continued to search the stars, not knowing what he sought. Perhaps Ilķvatar -- yes, perhaps. He felt a little far from prayer, far from the ability to pray. He was too angry, but more hurt than angry, and more bereaved than hurt. The home he loved had been killed, laid waste and ransacked and then murdered, or so it felt, for Bag End had been alive to him, so well had he loved it. Lotho had been murdered within the walls, Saruman himself killed before his very eyes today... and Wormtongue, as well. In a twist he least expected, the pity and forgiveness he offered to Sarumanís slave had turned the wretch against the once-great wizard, and he had killed Saruman on the spot. This pity, this mercy is a hard business, Frodo thought, addressing the Creator. I am not sure I can go on this way. It is very, very hard.

What does it matter? said the other voice within him. You will never live much longer here anyway. The darkness will break down first your soul, and then your body, and you will die anyway. You only lack the knowledge of when it will take place; of how long it will take for you to die. The voice spoke with great confidence.

Frodo sat up and shook his head. It sounded like Saruman speaking to him, and Saruman was supposed to be dead now. Was he speaking to him still, beyond whatever strange grave he had been blown to, a mist on the wind? I will surely lose my mind if I cannot fight this voice, Frodo thought sadly. He tried to pray, but again he failed. No words would come.

Surely Lobelia will allow me to purchase Bag End back from her, he thought, but what would be the point of it? I can never live there again, unless Gandalf can bless it somehow. It is corrupted; unclean. I wonít be able to set foot in it, much less be able to sleep there. Oh Ilķvatar, why? Why could my home not have been spared? I had no one of my own here, no one to call my own, but my home. Bilbo is far away, and will not live forever, and Sam will marry Rose. I cannot depend on Sam forever for my happiness. My cousins and friends cannot give me happiness. The rest of the hobbits hate me, or seem to hate me. They hardly speak to me, which feels like hatred. What have I done to them? He bowed his head, desolation overtaking him. Oh Ilķvatar, why? Why? What have I done? Is it because I could not throw the Ring into the fire? Is this my punishment?

Lily saved your life earlier today, said another voice, one he was not as sure of. It sounded like his own, but wiser and calmer. Was it his father? -- no. How he wished it were!

Was it Gandalf? Again, no... It seemed like his own voice, but different from the other, with which he was so familiar. He realized it held hope, which surprised him greatly. He wondered where it came from.

How was it she saved my life? he thought.

She asked you to take care of yourself. You put the mithril-coat on. Sarumanís blade could not enter you.

Frodo looked up again at the sky. He was on his knees on the bone-chilling ground, but felt no cold. Who was speaking?

"Who is speaking to me?" he said aloud.

You have prayed, and I have answered, said the new voice.

"Who are you?"

The one you have prayed to.

Frodo stood up, shaken, shaken again to his soul at the end of a very long day, a day of battle, and death; at the end of a week of devastating news about the Shire, stretching back to their arrival at Bree; at the end of a year of horror and deprivation.

Despite this, he was grateful, for he no longer felt alone. There was indeed someone listening to him. Someone who answered. He felt real hope.

Gandalf will be able to cleanse your home of all evil. You must trust to this. Otherwise you will find no peace.

Yes. I believe You. I am listening. He was kneeling again but could not recall having done so.

Lily saved your life, the voice repeated.

She did, Frodo thought.

Perhaps this means you were meant to go on living? said the voice, not unkindly.

Sleep now, the kind voice went on. Much work awaits you in the Shire, and you are looked to for strength by many, although you do not know it.

I will sleep.

He tried to give thanks, but it was too late. He had slipped onto the cold ground and was asleep.

---------

Sam found him outside at the 3 oíclock hour, after waking from a dream. He dreamt Frodo was outside, a very odd dream it was. He had not expected it to be true.

"Master Frodo! You will catch your death of cold out here! Wake up, Frodo!"

Frodo awakened but was confused, and seemed unable to move.

Heís too cold to move, Sam thought.

Sam picked him up and took him inside. He lay him in the bed he had been sleeping in, covered him with four blankets, and then sat in a chair next to the bed, watching Frodo sleep. When he was sure his master was breathing evenly, he fell fast asleep himself, and did not dream again that night.