MEMORY OF HURT
On the twelfth of March Frodo prepared himself for bed. Whilst the company of the Cotton family was genial enough, he found himself nodding not long after sunset; struggling to keep his eyes open. Making his goodnights, Frodo took to his bed early. He settled down comfortably, pausing only to close the curtains over the small round window above his borrowed bed. A feeling of dread had been closing in since the beginning of the month. An important anniversary was drawing close. On the twenty-fifth it would be one year since the One had been torn...bitten from his grasp. His last thought, upon falling into sleep, was that one year ago today he and Sam had been lost in the deep dark of Shelob's lair. Upon their exit, Frodo had been stung and captured. He pushed away the memory.
In the early hours Frodo awoke with a start, a sharp pain in his neck sending him groping at the fine chain about his neck. He bit back a wail when his fingers encountered, not a ring, but a small white gem. To his nightmare addled brain it was small consolation for a loss of the other, but an image of the fair visage of Arwen Undomiel, was sufficient to allow him to sink into sleep once more.
The thirteenth of March dawned wet and windy. Tom Cotton entered the farm's great kitchen, pausing to dabble his muddy feet in the tray of water provided and wipe them on the mat. His wife turned from the huge kitchen range. "Is all done, then?" It was a question she had asked every morning for the forty years of their married life.
Tom responded with the same answer he had given for the same number of years. "Aye, Lilly love. The cows are milked and the pigs are fed." He leaned in to give her a peck on one dimpled cheek. "I hope that's second breakfast you and Rose is cookin'. I'm fair starved. The lads are just lettin' the last cows into the field, then they'll be in too."
"You'd best wash your hands, then." Lilly pointed to the sink, where a bowl of hot water waited, along with soap and towel.
"Shall I call Mister Frodo, Ma?" Rose asked as she placed a big tray of bacon into the oven to keep warm.
"Is he not up yet?" Tom asked, wiping his hands. Behind him Jolly, Nick and Nibs entered, chuckling over some unheard joke, and made for the hot water. There was the usual good natured jostling for the soap and, outside in the yard, labourers were washing in other basins.
Rose shook her head as she set two platters of fresh sliced bread on the table, along with a large butter crock. "No, Da. And tis not like him. I know he don't always come to first breakfast. No doubt he's not used to a farm's early hours. But he's usually here to help lay the table for second. But we've not heard sign of him today. Should I go knock?"
Her father passed the towel off to one of his sons. "Nay, lass. You've enough to do here. The lads will be in and clamorin' for their food in a minute. Besides, he may not be fit to be seen by a lass."
Rose scoffed. "I've seen my brothers in the altogether, many a time."
Tom wagged a finger. "That's your family." He paused to fix his full grown sons with a stern gaze. "And I hope to hear that any 'altogetherin' has not been seen recent."
Rose's brothers did not know whether to shake their heads or nod, settling upon a look of wide eyed panic instead. Tom bit back a grin as he returned to his daughter. "Anyhow, Mister Baggins is not your brother. He's a gentlehobbit, and deputy mayor at present. So we'll show him the respect due. I'll go fetch him." So saying, he strode off down a hallway that ran the length of the tidy farmhouse.
South Pasture farmhouse had started out as a smial, cut into a low hill, but over the years it had grown and was now built partly above ground, with a low extension of rounded field stone and flint. It was in this newer part that Mister Baggins had been allocated a small room and Tom knocked upon the arched door. "Mister Baggins, sir? Are you up and about? Second breakfast is on the table." He grinned. "Only there's about to be a pile of hungry lads come through our door, and they'll scoff the lot if you don't come stake your claim."
He waited, smile fading as he laid his ear to the wood. "Mister Baggins? Are you awake?"
Still there was no reply, or sound of movement, although he thought he may have heard a low moan. "Mister Baggins? Are you sick, sir?" When there was still no reply Tom opened the door, slowly. "I'm a bit worried sir, so if you'll forgive me, I'm comin' in."
The curtains were still drawn, so the room was dim, but Farmer Cotton could easily see that Mister Baggins was still abed. He approached quietly, intending to shake his guest gently to awaken him. It came as some surprise, therefore, when he saw that Mister Baggins was lying upon his back, his maimed hand clutching something on a fine silver chain about his neck, and his eyes wide open.
"Are you awake, sir?" Tolman had sat with many others, in the evenings, listening to Sam Gamgee tell wild stories of their journey South. They had been travelling with an elf of a time and Sam had told of how elves could sleep with their eyes open. Perhaps Mister Frodo had taken up the habit, although Tom could not guess why. It seemed entirely unnatural to do so. A person was either awake or he was asleep, and closing the eyes let everyone else know precisely which was which. He was rather relieved therefore, when the gentlehobbit's blue eyes rolled to his, however unfocussed.
Tom had to lean close to hear the whispered, "It is gone for ever, and now all is dark and empty."
The hand relaxed a little, just for a moment, and even in the semi darkness, the small gem in Mr Baggin's clasp seemed to glow faintly. Tom knew that it was normally kept tucked away, out of sight, beneath a shirt. Sam Gamgee had hinted that it could heal. Tolman frowned. It didn't seem to be doing much healing at present, for his guest was very obviously sick. This was a task for Lilly or Rose. Tom could doctor a cow well enough but was at a loss when it came to people.
Lilly Cotton tucked the covers about Mister Baggins shoulders and stood, folding her arms as she considered.
"What is it, do you think?" her husband asked. "You don't think he's gone and caught some foreign sickness and brought it here?"
Lilly shook her head slowly. "Nay. He would have taken sick long afore this if he had. He's a mite too cold, but I can't see no other signs of sickness."
Tolman frowned. "No other signs? Did you see all them scars on his body? I don't think I've seen anyone with so many, since Delbin Chubb fell into his own forge. He's got marks from head to toe, as well as half a finger missin'. If that aint signs of sickness I don't know what is."
Lilly stood. "Them's old hurts and long healed...although that strange one on the back of his neck feels colder than the rest. Did you see that one on his side? That's a whip mark. There's a few in the Shire sportin' them nowadays. Sam Gamgee ain't told the whole of their tale yet, I'm thinkin'." She looked down upon the vaguely muttering Frodo. "I'm thinkin' this sickness is more of the mind than the body. You've heard of the dreams folks who were in the lockholes are sufferin'. I think this is somethin' of the like."
"What can we do?" Tom asked, with some frustration. "I can help set a bone but I don't know how to deal with a sickness like that."
"There's not much we can do. I think love and care is all we can give. Doctor Brockhouse has been tendin' the folk from the lockholes, and he said just to give them the space to work through it on their own."
Tom laid a hand upon his wife's shoulder and joined her in looking down upon their charge. "One thing's for sure. Whatever the folks suffered in them lockholes, from the look of things, he's suffered much worse."
Rose Cotton entered on silent feet, a heavy basket in her hands. "I've brought fresh warmin' stones, Ma."
Lilly looked up from her knitting. "Well done, lass. Help me set them about him."
The two were a practised team by now, sliding cooled stones from beneath the covers, and replacing them with warm ones, wrapped thickly in flannel. Rose gathered the cooled ones into her basket. "Is there any sign of him gettin' better?"
Lilly shook her head. "Nay. I've managed to get a little broth into him but I don't think he knows I'm here, or even that he's here, if you take my meanin'." She settled back in her chair and took up her needles again. "How are you managing in the kitchen?" Feeding the family, plus all the farm labourers, was usually a two person job. Those with families ate in their own homes, aside from second breakfast and lunch, but it was usual for the master to feed any single workers at all meals.
Rose grinned. "Nibs complained that the tea had gone cold so Da told him that, in future, making the tea was his job. The rest are takin' what they're given well enough. I think Nibs feels a bit guilty now, so Da's allowin' him to help me with supper instead of doin' the milkin'."
Lilly nodded her approval. "Just make sure that help includes washin' the pots after, or you'll be there till midnight."
Mister Baggins let out a low moan. "Gone."
"I know, lad." She reached out to stroke his brow with a warm hand and he leaned into her touch. "You come back to us, now, Frodo. You're safe in the Shire and the world is comin' to rights."
Rose's eyes widened. "Does Pa know you're callin' Mister Baggins by his given name?"
Lilly raised brows as she continued to stroke her charge's brow. "Sometimes it's kinder to use a first name. And it don't seem right to be usin' Mister, when I'm doin' somethin' so personal as cleanin' him up. Speakin' of which, have you washed them sheets?"
Rose winced. "I didn't have time. But Buttercup Grub says she's happy to do all the laundry for a few days, and Jolly is goin' to put up them shelves she wanted, in payment."
Frodo's moans had subsided so Lilly took up her knitting again. "Tell Butter, thankyou, for me. When Mister Frodo is a bit better you and me will bake her a cake as well. She don't have money for such fripperies as cakes and we've plenty of eggs and butter."
Rose set down her basket and leaned closer, stroking a curious finger along the fine silver chain about Frodo's neck. "Have you seen the jewel?" She asked, for Frodo still held his fist tightly about it.
Lilly nodded. "I caught a glimpse when I was takin' off his nightshirt. He nearly went mad when I tried to open his hand so we could get his arm out the sleeve. In the end Tom had to rip the linen to take it off, so we could clean him up."
"What's the stone like? Is it very beautiful?" Rose snatched her hand away when Frodo began to toss.
"Tis a fine white stone. Not a clear one, like Mr Bilbo used to say that elven king was so fond of. This is sort of like starlight on new snow. Sometimes it seems to glow, too." Lilly shrugged. "But that could just be my fancy. Either way, I've never seen the like before."
"Do you think it really is magic?" Rose picked up her basket once more.
"I aint never seen magic so I couldn't rightly say. It seems to give him a bit of comfort, so it don't really matter one way or the other." Lilly glanced at the light sneaking beneath the hem of the window curtain. "You'd best get moving on supper. I'm certain sure that aint' goin' to make itself by magic, and I'd not say no to a cup of tea when Nibs has a minute."
Frodo came to himself slowly. For a long time he simply floated, aware that he had been in a dark place but that light now lay just beyond his awareness. Gradually, soft voices seemed to drift to him from a long distance, and at first he thought they were elven ladies. When he concentrated however, he recognised the comfortable cadence of the Shire.
"You can take these as well, Rosie, lass. He's warm enough now not to need the stones. I think he may wake up soon so you can tell Butter these will likely be the last sheets for washin'."
"Yes, Ma. Shall I start puttin' a bit of food together for him?"
"Aye. He's had naught but broth these past few days. He was never a round one, our Mister Baggins, but he's skin and bone now. 'Tis well Sam Gamgee ain't back yet. He'd be cross as a gaggle of geese if he knew we hadn't sent word of his master's sickness."
"Sam's got enough on his plate, and there weren't nothin' he could do that we couldn't."
Frodo heard a door close. For a little longer he lay, trying to make sense of the conversation. Somewhere, he heard the sweet pipe of birdsong, and in the distance a cow lowed contentedly. Closer, he could hear a rhythmic tic, tic, tic that he could not place.
Something stroked his brow and he recognised it as a warm, slightly calloused hand. "Sam?"
"Ahhh. You're back with us at last. No. Tis not Sam. Tis Lilly Cotton. How are you feelin' lad?" This was one of the gentle voices he had heard earlier and he tried to open his eyes, feeling a moment of panic when they seemed glued shut. "Can't see!"
"Nay lad. Tis alright. You've just been asleep a long time. Let me wipe your eyes for you. Just a minute now." A cool, damp cloth swiped gently across his eyelids.
Frodo tried again, blinking against a light that stabbed sharply. At once, there was the sound of a curtain being drawn and the light dimmed a little.
"Just give it time. Your eyes have got lazy while you've been sleepin'."
Lilly was right. A few more blinks and Frodo dragged his surroundings into focus. "Have I overslept?" The sound of his own voice startled him, for it was little more than a husky whisper.
Lilly Cotton smiled at him from her chair at the bedside, a bundle of knitting discarded, mid row, in her lap. "You could say so. You've been lost to the world for near on four days. How are you feelin'?"
Frodo felt horrified. "I am so sorry to have imposed, Mrs Cotton. I..."
Lilly waved him into silence. Leaning in, instead, to trickle a teaspoon of water between his lips. "You've not imposed. You can't help bein' sick. Tis not somethin' anyone chooses. Now tell me if ought is painin' you. We've been turnin' you regular but tis a long time to lie abed."
He tried to move a little, feeling muscles and joints protest. "A bit stiff. But I don't think anything is sore."
"Good. We can work on the stiffness with a bit of exercise tomorrow. Could you eat somethin', do you think? I've been givin' you sips of broth but that's not near enough to keep a hobbit happy. Our Rosie is puttin' together a tray for you if you can manage it."
A loud gurgling noise from the area below Frodo's ribs drew a grin from Mrs Cotton. "I'll take that as a 'yes'. Afore I fetch that tray, do you need anythin'? There's a bottle here if you want to piss."
The heat in Frodo's face did not come from a fever. "Er. Now that you mention it. Perhaps if you could help me up? I think I could manage if you wouldn't mind asking Sam to help."
Lilly's smile was kindly. "I'm afraid Sam ain't back yet. Come on. I've raised four lads. You've nothin' I've not seen afore. And who do you think's been tendin' you these past days."
When she folded back the covers Frodo realised for the first time that he was completely naked, and that, folded beneath his bottom, was a thick pad of towels. Lilly slipped the bottle into place and pointedly looked in the other direction. "Would you like me to whistle?"
Frodo had been holding back by force of will, but his body took over as soon as the receptacle was positioned. "I don't think that will be necessary."
Once he was finished Lilly tucked the covers back warmly and, bottle in hand, departed with a cheery, "Be back soon."
Frodo lay quietly, listening to the homely sounds beyond the curtained window above his bed. Hens muttered and clucked in the yard, somewhere nearby a pig squealed and sparrows cheeped and chirped. He had loved the sound of waterfalls in Rivendell, the whisper of a million leaves in Lothlorien, but these homely sounds brought tears to his eyes. This, this was what the journey had all been about.
He turned his head as the door opened once more to admit Mrs Cotton, bearing a large tray, which she set upon a trunk by the bed. "There now. You're lookin' a bit better already. Let's open these curtains so you can get some fresh air and sunshine. Good food and fresh air is the best cure for most ailments." She did just that, and Frodo discovered that it was a perfect early spring day, with blue skies and the smell of damp earth. Within minutes he was propped up in bed and the tray was set in his lap.
Hoping to tempt their invalid, without overwhelming his still sluggish system, Lilly and Rose had created a display of little dishes and cups. Lilly pointed to each in turn. "I don't expect you to eat all of this, but there should be one or two things that appeal. Let me see. There's a cup of hot chocolate, warm milk, cold apple juice and a cup of tea. This dish is warm stewed apple with a little cinnamon and brown sugar. There's thin porridge with cream, scrambled egg, onion soup, a slice of toast, with butter and strawberry jam. Our Rosie makes a lovely strawberry jam. Over here there's a bit of mashed tater and carrot. We've added milk and butter to that and it's so smooth you'll hardly know you've swallowed it. This is a bit of minced lamb, with fresh mint and gravy, and last of all, there's a spot of warm rice pudding, with cream, nutmeg, and raisins soaked in meed.
She shook out a napkin, spreading it across Frodo's chest. "You're a mite unsteady yet so I'll give you a hand this time. Where would you like to start. I expect you're parched. What about somethin' to drink first?"
Frodo surveyed the bounty with tear clouded eyes. "You have gone to such a lot of trouble. I feel rather guilty to have imposed upon you so."
Lilly sighed. "Now see here, Frodo Baggins. As I understand it, we wouldn't be sittin' here like civilised hobbits, if you hadn't nearly gone and got yourself killed for us. Then you came back here with your friends and got rid of that Sharkey fella. Seems to me that this is the least we can do to say, thankyou. Now, buck up and tell me what you'd like to start with. And think on...the sooner you get your strength back, the sooner you can stop imposin', if that's really how you see it."
Feeling suitably chastised, and yet loved at the same time, Frodo made his selection. "I think I'd like some of that lovely hot chocolate, please."
Lilly held the cup as Frodo sipped the rich and soothing drink. "Can I ask you a question, Mister Baggins?"
Frodo offered a wry smile. "Of course. And please call me Frodo. Under the circumstances it seems a bit formal to call me Mister Baggins. You quite rightly pointed out that you've seen all there is to see of me."
Lilly replied with a smile of her own and a little spoonful of the moistened lamb. "If you don't mind, then, I'll follow Sam Gamgee's lead and call you Mr Frodo. But you can call me Lilly, if you've a mind."
"Thank you, Lilly. And Mr Frodo will do, if you don't wish to drop the title. What did you want to ask me?"
"That pretty little bauble about your neck. Where did you get it? Is it really magic? You held on to it all the while you were sickly, as though it was all as could hold you to this earth."
Arwen's gem was hidden now beneath napkin and blankets, but he reached up to stroke the fine chain. "It was given to me by a very wise and beautiful lady. The Lady Arwen is the much loved daughter of an elven lord, and now she sits beside the new High King. I was honoured to attend their wedding."
"An elf lady, you say. My, my. So, is it magic?"
Frodo considered as he accepted a sip of apple juice. "I honestly don't know. She gave it to me with her blessing, saying that when memory of fear and darkness troubled me, she hoped it would bring me aid."
"What kind of aid?" Lilly asked, slightly awed.
"She did not say. Although, as I stumbled through the dark nightmares of these past days it seemed to me that I held a small light in my hand. Such a tiny glimmer it seemed at times, but it gave me hope."
Lilly offered a little of the rice pudding. "I'll not ask of your nightmares. I've heard enough of your story to guess at them, and I reckon there's some in the Shire who have a few of their own. It makes me more grateful that me and mine were spared the worst of that."
Frodo chewed thoughtfully. "We had hoped, Sam, Merry, Pippin and I, that our journey would protect the Shire from such unpleasantness. But there, I suppose we have learned that it is not wise to ignore troubles beyond our borders, because those troubles have a tendency to find you in the end."
"Well, now, I'm not so sure hobbits would be much use in a big fancy battle, such as you and your friends saw. Then and all, we didn't think we could stand up to that Sharkey and his ruffians, but we saw them off in the end. I hope we don't have to do anythin' like that again, though. I lost two cousins in the Battle of Bywater and I'm only grateful to have lost no more."
Frodo swallowed a lump that was not a result of Lilly Cotton's cooking. "I wish I could have spared you that. I am so sorry."
Lilly drew back. "Why, bless you, Mr Frodo! That weren't none of your doin'. If you and Sam and your friends hadn't come along when you did there would have been even more dead. Master Took and Master Brandybuck showed us that hobbits can be strong when we have to be. They made us realise that if we want to live a quiet life, sometimes we got to fight for it. No sir. Your comin' home was a blessin' and don't you go thinkin' no other. Seems to me you've carried enough on your shoulders. Don't you go settin' down one burden, just to go grabbin' up another. Tis not your place to go fixin' the whole world. You're only a hobbit after all."
Frodo found that he was capable of laughter. "Thank you, Lilly Cotton. In future I shall try to remember my place." He was suddenly overtaken by a yawn. "I am so sorry. It is not the company, I assure you."
"You're tired is all. Why don't you take a nap and I'll bring you somethin' else to eat later." Lilly lifted away the tray and helped Frodo snuggle down once more. As she was leaving Frodo spoke up.
"Lilly. May I ask you a favour? Please don't tell Sam of my illness. He has had enough worries in these past months."
Lilly considered. "I'll not tell a lie, but if he don't ask, I won't tell. How does that suit you?"
Frodo smiled, sleepily. "That suits very well. Thank you."
"Sleep well, Mr Frodo."