A thousand thanks to Hanarobi for the beta of this monster. It's a much better story thanks to her input. And you know any missing commas are because I ignored her advice.

This is an alternate universe story, and I'm taking liberties with the hobbit ages. I've made the four hobbits closer in age, so that Sam, Merry and Pippin are in their late 20's. I suppose that seems like the movies, but this is really book-canon based, though I've changed the timeline a little.

Finally, apologies to Lerner & Loewe, who are rolling in their graves. I can't do justice to the beauty of their story, but that's (obviously) where this idea started.

 

The Twentieth Day
by Laura Mason

Halimath, 1418

The troop, led by Gandalf, rides into a small town of weathered wooden buildings. Faramir is finding the lands of the north uncivilized -- as he'd expected. Of course, the elf-haven of Imladris is very beautiful, and he delighted in the libraries there. But rooms built around trees and open to the forest are not comfortable to a man of Gondor, and the elves are alien. He misses his own people and his white city.

They ride through a rustic marketplace, and Faramir sees this is a land of plenty. Children play, young women look at cloth, vegetables and fowl are sold while elderly men doze in the afternoon sunlight.

"Estel!" Faramir is startled from his thoughts by the sharp call.

"Halbarad!" Aragorn, the man he has been told is heir to the throne of Gondor, dismounts and embraces a dirty, unshaven man clothed much like him. They continue speaking quietly together while the others ride on to the inn. Once there, they wearily climb down and unbuckle their packs. Today's journey has been long.

A child comes out of the Inn to gather the horses -- not, this is no child. The bare feet are hairy, the face mature despite his diminutive size. This is a halfling.

"Thank you, my friend," Gandalf says to the little creature who leads his stallion away. "Yes, Faramir, halflings live in these villages. Bree-land is the only place in Middle Earth where men and hobbits dwell together." The wizard's smile reassures him. It has been many years since Faramir spent time with Mithrandir, but he has not changed. He still has the ability to cheer and reassure him.

And Faramir needs reassurance after fighting his father and his brother to make this journey, then spending far too many anxious days on an uncertain road. It was the right thing to do, if only to attend Lord Elrond's council and learn how the other races are joined in Gondor's fight against the Dark Lord. For the words of the dream he and his brother shared, the dream that sent him north so many months ago, are coming true.

Doom is at hand, yet so are great deeds. Never before has Faramir heard of cooperation between men, elves and dwarves -- yet such is their troop. And they will be joined by a halfling soon, for they have come west to fetch Bilbo Baggins.

Gandalf seems pleased Faramir made the journey, and that Elrond chose him to accompany him. The Steward of Gondor would never agree that such a strategic errand is of more value than keeping order on their borders, but Faramir believes this trip is crucial if they hope to defeat the Enemy. His father values strength of arms, but Faramir trusts Gandalf and the wisdom of the elves. They are able to see beyond Gondor's needs and work for the good of all Middle Earth.

"What do you think of Bree?" Gandalf asks with a smile. The wizard has always encouraged his curiosity and studious nature.

"That the people of Bree are used to seeing dwarves and men, but not elves."

Gandalf laughs as he replies, "Quite true, the fair folk do not usually come here. What else?"

"I am amazed at how free these people remain of the shadow of the Dark Land. They seem carefree compared to my people, though somewhat awed by our armor and swords."

Aragorn rejoins their group."My people, the Rangers of the North, guard these lands and have done so for many years to keep them free of the threat from the East." Faramir notes that Aragorn's companion has vanished without drawing any attention to himself. "Gandalf, riders have come to Bree asking for the Shire."

"Let us wait until we are someplace private to speak of this," Gandalf advises, and he leads the group inside. The inn is simple and clean, and the innkeeper evidently quite happy to have their business. He escorts them through the common room, where the only patron is an ill-favored man who seems very drunk.

"Aye, who's here now Butterbur? Stick-at-naught Strider and more draggletail foreigners?"

"You've had enough ale today, Ferny. Go home now," the innkeeper replies as he brings them to a private dining room with a small, cheery fire. "Your rooms will be made up immediately, all on the second floor." He bows and leaves, returning in a few minutes with another servant to place ale, bread and cheese on the table. Gandalf waits until they are gone and the door is closed behind them before nodding at Aragorn to continue the conversation.

"Halbarad reports that riders clothed in black came here last week. They terrified the townsfolk who saw them, and were asking for the Shire. They also gave the name Baggins."

"Do you suppose they learned anything?" Legolas asks. "No one from these parts has seen the Shire in at least twenty years."

"True, but I do not think that would turn these riders aside."

"You believe these are servants of the enemy who know of our errand?" Faramir asks as he cuts into the bread and passes chunks around the table.

Legolas replies to him while the others fill their plates. "I told you at the Council that the Gollum creature's escape from our custody was no accident. He was aided."

"Aye, so you said, but it makes no sense to exchange captivity with the elves for the same in Sauron's dungeons," Gimli states, punctuating his remark by emptying his mug of ale while the elf rolls his eyes.

"He is single-minded, not wise," Aragorn replies before Legolas and Gimli argue.

"The taint of what he once carried would call him to Mordor, now that the Dark power is growing." Gandalf rises and begins to pace beside the fire. "Thank heavens the Shire has been safely hidden until now."

"You believe He knows that the One has been found?" Legolas again, his fair face full of concern, and Faramir remembers that Sauron once dwelt in the south of the forest the elf calls his home. Here is a comrade who truly understands the threat they face.

Faramir deliberately tries to remain as hard-headed and untrusting as his father would wish. "We do not even know this to be fact ourselves, not until you perform your test, Gandalf. We are only guessing."

"The dwarves have a saying, young Faramir. If it smells like orc dung," Gimli begins, but Legolas again rolls his eyes, distracting the dwarf, who stops speaking and is evidently gathering his wits to rebuke the elf. Before he can take a deep breath, Gandalf interrupts him.

"Gollum told me enough that I feel certain of what we will discover tomorrow. How quickly would he reveal all that, and more, under the torments of Mordor? The arts of the Dark Tower are persuasive."

"From the description, it would seem that these Riders come from Mordor," Aragorn adds.

"Servants of the Dark Lord known to us all, I fear, though they have not been seen abroad in many years," Gandalf replies. "My heart tells me the Nine have left Minas Morgul."

"Are the hobbits safe?" Gimli asks, his quarrel with the elf instantly forgotten. "Can we remain here tonight, or should we ride on immediately?"

"If the Nine are abroad, we must be with Bilbo as soon as possible," Legolas adds. "We can still ride tonight." Faramir sees Aragorn hide a smile as the elf and dwarf drop their animosity, united in concern for a halfling neither of them have met. Faramir is once again very pleased to be part of the group protecting Bilbo.

He tries to imagine his brother on this errand, away from the battle front, and fails. Boromir would not want to follow Gandalf's lead or accept Aragorn's claims. Faramir wonders again why he is so different. Neither his father nor his brother would be willing to perform the Steward's final duty of returning Gondor to the rightful King. Yet the idea of Isildur's heir returning to rule -- and displacing his father -- does not anger him. Rather, he thinks it could grant a freedom he has never known.

"Yes, let's be off immediately," Gimli says stoutly. Dwarves don't ride, they walk. Only the urgency of their errand propelled Gimli atop his mount, and it is clear that only the clever elf-horse Lord Elrond loaned him could manage to safely carry such an inexpert rider. Yet Gimli is willing to keep riding despite their weariness.

"I believe we should rest now and take a full meal later. Then we can sleep for a few hours, and be at the Brandywine river by sunrise."

"At least we know these dark riders are about," Aragorn remarks. "And Bree folk are staying in their homes, so our arrival won't be widely discussed."

"True. Come, everyone take some rest now."

***

The land they ride to in the pale dawn light is fair and fruitful, though a thick mist begins at the riverbank and hides what lies beyond. Only two hours' ride from Bree, the area seems more distant. As the sun rises behind them, Faramir finds he is holding his breath.

A bird calls, heralding the new day, and the mist swirls and lessens, evaporating as if it had never been there. The river seems to come alive, loud and melodic as it flows under a bridge which has just reappeared. Gandalf urges his mount forward and they follow, and all their faces reflect some of the wonder Faramir feels as soft green turf becomes visible ahead of them, and a winding road flanked by trees in splendid autumn colors.

As they ride, Faramir notes dwellings cut into the hills around them, and as the sun climbs smoke begins to rise from chimneys half hidden in the grass. The voices of hobbits, birds and animals seem to rise up in a music to greet the day. The Shire has woken, and it is even more charming than Gandalf's stories of these halflings made it seem.

After several hours they approach a grand home on the outskirts of a village. Gandalf slows, signaling them to pull up. But before any of them can dismount, the round green door opens and a halfling races out toward the wizard, followed by another. The halfling is laughing as he calls, his face alight with pleasure at seeing the wizard. And what a beautiful face it is, bright eyes and pale skin framed by dark curls.

But the physical beauty, striking though marred by bruises, is not Faramir's overriding impression. Rather, he feels that he recognizes the spirit shining through the form. Though he is a halfling, small and furry-footed, Faramir feels akin to him. This is no stranger. Faramir has been waiting for him his entire life.

Faramir drops from his horse ungracefully, his eyes wide. His mouth hangs open awkwardly as he watches the halfling greet Gandalf affectionately.

He thought he'd outgrown romantic nonsense. He told himself he'd never feel the jolt that poets describe. He was wrong.

He tries to compose himself and fails. He does not believe in love at first sight. Rather, he didn't believe until this moment.

***

Earlier

The morning is clear though it has rained overnight. Frodo dresses quickly and goes to the kitchen to start a fire and make tea for his guests. After a quick breakfast they will all go visit Bilbo, and bring the healer to see him too. They agreed to the plan last night, though Pippin and Merry had argued that Frodo should wait a few days. But Bilbo needs to see Doc Burrows right away. Frodo won't agree to any delay.

He is arranging scones on a plate, waiting for the kettle to near boiling, when he hears Sam's cheerful whistle approaching the door.

"Come have some tea, Sam, and help me rouse my lazy cousins," he calls. Sam comes in the kitchen door, but his smile fades when he sees Frodo's face.

"Let me get that, Mr. Frodo. You sit and rest."

"I'm fine, Sam." Frodo spoons tea leaves into the pot determinedly. "You can cut some cake if you'd like."

Sam moves unhappily to the table and begins slicing cheese to go with the bowl of apples.

"I'm not sure my Gaffer approves of cold breakfasts, but it does seem right on such a warm day."

Frodo laughs as he pours from the kettle into Bilbo's teapot. "Cold breakfast is better than burned porridge, Sam. Bachelors like Bilbo and me stick to simple foods in the summer."

He's just set the pot to steep when they both hear a noise. It isn't from the hallway; it almost sounds like carts on the Hill.

"What could that be?" Frodo muses.

"I'll go take a look-see," Sam offers, but Frodo beats him to the door and sees a troop of horses, led by--

"Gandalf!" Frodo runs toward the wizard, who quickly reaches down to scoop up the armful of enthusiastic hobbit leaping at him. "Oh, you've returned -- and so soon! Bilbo will be so relieved. When you left so quickly we thought you were angry!"

"No, I was simply in a hurry. A wizard's work is never done." Then he breaks off with a gasp and pulls back from their hug, a frown forming on his face. "Frodo? What's happened to you?" Frodo's face and neck are blue with bruises, and there is a nasty cut on his left cheekbone.

Instead of answering, Frodo slips down, out of Gandalf's arms and off the tall horse, landing with a little hop to stay on his feet. Frodo bows to the rest of the troop who have dismounted.

"Frodo Baggins at your service," he says to the dwarf beside his stout horse.

"Gimli son of Gloin at yours and your family's."

"Elen sila lumenn' omentielvo," Frodo offers to the tall elf, who replies in the Common Tongue.

"Thank you for your courtesy, Frodo Baggins. I am Legolas of Mirkwood." More bows, and Frodo turns to the two tall men.

"I do not know the courteous way to greet men, but I wish to assure you that you are most welcome at Bag End," Frodo continues.

"I am Aragorn, a Ranger of the north. This is Faramir, from Gondor in the south." The blonde man merely nods and stares -- then blushes when Frodo smiles up at him. Frodo's smile widens, for that flush is matched on his own face.

"Again, welcome. This is Samwise Gamgee, my friend, and the two sleepyheads at the door are my cousins, Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took."

While Frodo is making these introductions -- quite formal for a hobbit -- Gandalf dismounts and nods to Sam. "How are you, Sam?"

"I'm well, thank you, and it is right good to see you back so soon, Mr. Gandalf sir. Things ain't right, and that's a fact."

"Can you see to the horses, Sam, then come back and explain what's going on here?" Sam nods as he takes the reins, then moves to the other horses. Merry and Pippin come to help him as Frodo continues speaking to his guests.

"Please come inside and be comfortable." He leads the way through the low door and sets about finding comfortable seats for all the guests, making good use of the many cushions and pillows in Bag End. There is only one man-sized chair. Gandalf is a frequent visitor to Bag End, but he hasn't brought other guests since that long ago day when Thorin and company took Bilbo on his adventure.

Sam and the others carry in food from the kitchen, and soon they are all settled around Bilbo's front hall, sipping tea or juice and watching the four hobbits tuck into their breakfast with various degrees of amusement and wonder.

Faramir seems particularly stunned by the hobbits, Gandalf notes. He is staring at Frodo quite rudely, not eating or drinking. Thankfully, Frodo doesn't appear offended. He smiles at Faramir between mouthfuls.

Gandalf is more pleased with the others' behavior. Aragorn, of course, knows enough of hobbit lore not to be surprised by the quantity of food being consumed, and Gimli is smiling and gazing around the room as if recalling his father's tales about Bag End. Legolas looks as curious as the elves always do over a new phenomenon. Gandalf fills his pipe, giving them all time to settle, before questioning Frodo.

"Thank you for such a hospitable welcome, Frodo. But where is dear Bilbo?" Frodo's bruised face pales and he takes a swallow of tea before answering the question.

"He's at Michel Delving, Gandalf. In the old Lockholes there. He was jailed yesterday." Frodo looks defiantly at the stunned faces around him. "Has this illustrious company come to Bag End to see Bilbo? He cannot accompany you anywhere at present."

"Actually, Frodo, I do need to speak to Bilbo," Gandalf stammers, unsettled by the news. "My companions were sent with me by Elrond Halfelven. In his wisdom he foresaw I might need their assistance. These are dangerous times."

Frodo nods without speaking. He has stopped eating, and Gandalf realizes he is very distressed as well.

"Why would a respectable hobbit like Bilbo be jailed, Frodo? What has happened?"

"To tell that we need to answer your first question, sir," Sam pipes up, ignoring Frodo's startled look, which quickly becomes beseeching. "Outside, earlier, you asked what happened to Mr. Frodo. Well, Mr. Bilbo, he's been acting strangely for at least a week, sir."

"Perhaps longer than that," Merry adds. "Pip and I arrived two weeks ago, and Bilbo seemed odd even then."

"He is ill," Frodo exclaims. "He'd never have done it unless he was sick, or hurt." Gandalf's jaw drops, and his companions look dismayed.

"Do you mean to say Bilbo caused these bruises, Frodo?"

"He tried to kill Frodo," Pippin says in a small voice, looking young and frightened. "We were together reading when Bilbo came in. He spoke about leaving the Shire, leaving right away. Then he argued with himself. He said he couldn't leave until Frodo came of age, so he can inherit Bag End. Frodo tried to talk to him. He said he didn't care about his inheritance, and if Bilbo wanted to travel he'd help him to pack and plan the journey. Bilbo said no, then yes -- it was like he was two different people. Then he just rushed at Frodo knocked him over, and I heard his head hit the hearthstone."

Pippin is crying by the time he finishes his tale, and so is Frodo. Sam and Merry look close to tears themselves as they try to comfort them. Faramir shifts uncomfortably on his cushion, leaning toward the hobbits.

"He said I was holding him here, and he should never have adopted me," Frodo stammers. "When I fell, I blacked out."

"Pip screamed and I came running inside. Bilbo was -- hitting Frodo." Merry sounds outraged. "Then he put his hands on Frodo's neck..." Merry starts shaking as he recounts the memory. "I tried to pull him off. Frodo was limp. Pip helped me, but we couldn't stop him."

"Mr. Merry hollered for me and I came in. Between the three of us we got Mr. Bilbo locked in the hall closet. They took care of Frodo while I ran for help."

"Neighbors came here," Frodo chokes out, controlling himself long enough to finish the tale. "They cleaned the room, swept up the broken things, and took care of me. But Bilbo just kept screaming and beating on the closet door. Finally a group of them brought Bilbo out, tied him and set off for the Lockholes..." Frodo wipes at his eyes, then looks around the room into anxious faces. "He's sick. He's not himself, and there's something wrong. That's why we're going to see him today, and take the doctor to check him."

The other hobbits don't look very happy about this statement, and neither do Gandalf's companions.

"It seems to me that you yourself should be seeing the doctor, young hobbit," Gimli begins, only to be cut off by Legolas.

"Perhaps I can ease some of your discomfort, Frodo. I have some knowledge of healing, as does Aragorn."

"Oh, I'm fine. But if either of you could help Bilbo--"

"Frodo, you're still in pain, don't deny it." Merry glares at his cousin. "You have a headache right now. I can see it in your eyes."

"There's time to see to the needs of you both, Frodo," Gandalf says softly. "We won't neglect Bilbo if we take time to care for you." His words bring a small light back into Frodo's eyes, and the hobbit tries to smile with good grace as he is led out of the room by the wizard. Aragorn and Legolas follow them.

Faramir shakes his head, feeling as if a spell has broken now that Frodo is gone. He notes the now-cold tea in his hand, and blushes when he sees Sam is watching him. Sam merely nods and then politely turns to Gimli, asking about changes in the dwarf realm since the time of Bilbo's adventures.

Gandalf returns shortly and Gimli stops his tales of Dale and the Lonely Mountain.

"Frodo is correct. There is something wrong with Bilbo, though no hobbit doctor can help him." There is great weariness and sorrow in Gandalf's face.

"What shall we do?" Merry asks.

"It will break Mr. Frodo's heart if we can't heal Mr. Bilbo," Sam adds.

"Now, now, my dear hobbits, I shall visit Bilbo and see if I can find a way to set things right."

"I still can't believe he attacked Frodo." Gimli again, but the three hobbits nod in agreement. "That's not the Bilbo Baggins I've heard so much about."

"No, sir, he hasn't been himself," Sam states stoutly. "He loves Mr. Frodo; there's never been a harsh word between them before the last few weeks."

"How could anyone not love him?" Faramir is surprised at his own words, but everyone in the room merely nods in agreement.

"Frodo is correct; Billbo would not have harmed him were he in his right mind." Gandalf begins, only to be interrupted by a voice from the doorway.

"An evil influence has been working every day of these twenty years, Gandalf." They all jump a little at Aragorn's quiet entrance. Faramir wonders if it is his years in the Wild that have given him the ability to move so quietly, and enter without being observed.

Gandalf nods at him. "Indeed." He looks around the room, and sighs at the curious faces of the three hobbits. "First I must see Bilbo. At luncheon today, I will explain." He rises slowly and walks to the window. "I think it will cause enough gossip if I visit Bilbo. Such a variety of non- hobbits would bring far too much attention. Aragorn, may I speak with you in private for a moment?"

***

In the end, Frodo and Gandalf ride together to Michel Delving on the grand elf-stallion, causing stares from hobbits they pass on the road, while Sam goes to work in the garden, and Merry and Pippin agree to show Legolas and Gimli through Bag End. Aragorn and Faramir have an assignment from Gandalf, and they gallop ahead on their errand.

Though Frodo says he is feeling better, they ride in silence for several miles. At last Gandalf asks, "Frodo, would you allow me to speak privately with Bilbo? He must be feeling guilty already for what he did to you, and I'm afraid the bruises on your face will only make it worse." Although Legolas and Aragorn were able to help with the pain of the blow to Frodo's head, he still appears pale and his bruises are livid.

"As you wish, Gandalf." Frodo remains uncharacteristically silent for the rest of the ride. When they arrive, as Gandalf helps him off the saddle, Frodo speaks at last. "But I must see Bilbo before we leave. I want him to know that I'm not angry."

Gandalf nods. Frodo leads the way inside the jail, and gives permission for Gandalf to speak with Bilbo. He introduces the wizard to the newly-appointed jailer, Matt Thornyfield.

"Mr. Baggins has been quiet since we locked him up, but just to be safe you'll be locked in with him, sir." Gandalf agrees to this plan and is led down a hallway to the one jail cell in Hobbiton.

Bilbo looks normal and quite comfortable. Hobbits are not cruel, and the furnishings of this cell include a real bed with a thick comforter and a rocking chair. There is no window, but there is a torch in the hall for light. Gandalf can see Bilbo where he sits rocking, but Bilbo -- who has always greeted Gandalf with smiles and hugs -- sits bent over, oblivious to the wizard's presence. Even when Gandalf enters the cell and moves toward him, Bilbo's eyes remain blank.

Gandalf sits at the foot of the bed, looking at his old friend.

"How are you, Bilbo?" There is no answer, and Bilbo doesn't look at him. "Frodo is fine. He brought me here to see you. I owe you an apology, my friend. What happened yesterday is my fault."

Silence.

"On my last visit you gave me a bit of a fright, Bilbo. I tried to allay my fears without inconveniencing you, but I didn't fully comprehend the power of the dark forces in Middle Earth. I am truly very sorry for what you've been through."

Still no reply.

"Bilbo, I fear your Ring has influenced your actions."

"It's gone."

"What is gone, Bilbo?"

"Gone and we're lost. Lost in the dark." Bilbo bends forward and rubs his hands together, sobbing unhappily. "Gone, the Precious is gone!"

"Bilbo." Gandalf stands and moves to him, pulling the hobbit to his feet. "What is gone?" But then he notices that Bilbo's watch is missing, and his tobacco pouch is not in his pocket either. Have the jailers-- "Bilbo, where is your Ring?"

"Gone. They took it from us." Bilbo falls to the floor, weeping, and Gandalf is calling for the jailer even as he tries to comfort the old hobbit groveling at his feet. Bilbo reminds him vividly of another small, broken creature who still mourns the loss of the Ring.

"Mister Gandalf?" The bewildered jailer is at the bars, looking in.

"Where is Bilbo's ring?" He is too distressed to hide his object in a list of belongings with his usual caution, but the hobbit answers readily.

"We took all his belongings, sir, and locked them up safe so's he couldn't hurt himself."

"Where are they?" Gandalf thunders, and he frightens the poor hobbit speechless. "Please, Mr. Thornyfield," he manages to say in a calmer tone.

"I.. I gave them to Mr. Frodo just now, sir. He's Mr. Baggins' kin, isn't he?"

"Let me out of here at once!"

Gandalf storms down the hall and outside to find Frodo sitting on the ground, leaning against a tree, a soft smile on his face as he stares at the branches waving above him. He jumps to his feet when he sees Gandalf.

"Are you done so soon? How is he?"

"Frodo..." Gandalf pauses and stares into his eyes. Frodo seems perfectly normal, if a little confused by the wizard's piercing gaze and his tight hold on Frodo's shoulders. Gandalf examines him and sees that Bilbo's watch hangs at his waist, and there's a pipe-shaped bulge in his pocket. "Did the jailer give you all of Bilbo's things?"

"Yes. What's wrong -- isn't he any better today?"

"What about his ring?"

"Here," Frodo says impatiently, pulling the smooth gold out of his shirt pocket calmly, holding it out to Gandalf on his open palm. "Does Bilbo want it? Oh, perhaps not -- unless you think a mysterious jailbreak is in order." He laughs, but the wizard remains grim as he backs away from Frodo and temptation. "Perhaps he shouldn't have it, then -- but can we at least we give him his pipe? Matt told me they took it so Bilbo couldn't try to burn down the jail. But..."

Gandalf looks at the open young face in front of him. Frodo has already suffered because of this Ring, but it seems Fate is not finished with him yet. Bilbo is broken, and the burden has been passed on. Frodo is an extraordinary hobbit -- and now he is their only hope. Gandalf tries to smile at the young hobbit.

"Bilbo can do without his possessions. The Ring is yours now, Frodo. Put it away and keep it safe until we're back at Bag End." He places a hand on Frodo's shoulder and tries to lead him back toward the waiting horse, who is nibbling contentedly at the grass where they left him. "I gave Bilbo your messages, Frodo, but I don't think you should visit him right now."

"But..."

"Bilbo's mind is... it's still disordered, Frodo. I don't know what he'll do if he sees you."

"I don't believe you!" Frodo is a youngster in Shire years, and it shows on his stubborn face at this moment. "Bilbo loves me. He's probably been worried sick, locked up in there."

"Frodo, trust me. You should not see him."

"No!" Frodo runs back to the jail, but Gandalf doesn't follow. After a few moments Bilbo's screams begin; as Gandalf expected, seeing Frodo with the Ring brings his madness to the fore. Thornyfield won't open the cell while Bilbo sounds violent, so Frodo is safe from injury -- save heartbreak -- as Bilbo names him a thief and demands that he "give it back." Then Bilbo's voice changes and is full of malice as he hurls insults and abuse at Frodo.

Gandalf waits by his horse until a red-eyed Frodo walks out into the bright sunshine, squares his shoulders and comes to him.

"You know what has caused this horrible change. What must I do to help Bilbo, Gandalf?"

"I will answer all your questions when we're safely back at Bag End, Frodo."

Frodo nods listlessly, but when Gandalf tries to get him to mount he refuses.

"I need to be alone for a time, Gandalf. I'll walk back."

"You must not be alone right now. It is far too dangerous."

"We're in the heart of the Shire, not wandering in the Wilderness."

"But danger can come into the Shire, Frodo. Your sheriffs cannot keep out the great evils we face today."

Frodo is starting to look frustrated. "Gandalf, such things do not come here."

"I do not wish to argue this subject in the road, Frodo, but evil is being drawn here. Look what has already happened. Before this day, you believed yourself safe with Bilbo. Now you know that is no longer true."

Frodo stamps his foot impatiently despite the pain in his eyes. "Either tell me everything right now, or leave me to walk home in peace. All these hints and evasions are very annoying."

Gandalf smiles fondly. Frodo is behaving quite normally for a willful, inquisitive gentlehobbit. And how can he act any differently until he understands what is happening on this unique day?

"Forgive me, my friend, for not being completely honest earlier." Gandalf whistles sharply and they hear the horses before Faramir and Aragorn appear, one from either side of the road. "I thought you needn't know how serious our errand is, but I find you have been placed in Bilbo's stead today."

"I thought you sent them on an errand."

"Their errand was to guard us on this little journey within the heart of the Shire. Frodo, do you understand how very grave the danger is when I am unsure of my own ability to protect you?"

Frodo nods reluctantly as Aragorn and Faramir dismount gracefully. Aragorn comes closer to kneel before him.

"I know of those who seek for the Shire. They are fierce and terrible enemies, and they know the name of Baggins."

"If strangers come to Hobbiton today, asking for Bilbo, they will be sent directly to Bag End without question," Gandalf adds.

"You are making me afraid to go home."

"We are merely speaking the truth, Frodo Baggins. I hope you never know as much as we do about such evil." Aragorn's eyes are kind though his words are harsh. "Faramir and I have been fighting to protect all of Middle Earth during our lifetimes, and Gandalf has been doing the same for much longer."

Frodo looks ashamed of his ill-temper now. "I'll do whatever you say. But if Bag End is in danger, don't we need to warn the others?"

"They are being guarded," Gandalf assures him. "Though we must go back, I do not think we shall remain there any longer than necessary." He scans the area, noting Aragorn and Faramir doing the same. "We can walk for a time if you wish. But we must remain together."

Frodo's eyes meet Gandalf's for several moments. The rebelliousness has faded from his face and he simply looks tired as he nods agreement.

Gandalf and the men lead their horses as they walk with Frodo down the road. They are silent, trying to give Frodo privacy for his thoughts, so the hobbit is the first to speak.

"Shall we cut through the May Wood, Gandalf? It's a pleasant shortcut on such a warm day, if the horses can manage it."

"Is the terrain rough?" Aragorn asks.

"Not rocky, but it is hilly and the brush is thick."

"I believe we'll manage fine," Gandalf replies, and they leave the road. The shade is pleasant, and the earth is softer for Frodo's feet than the packed dirt of the road.

Faramir stumbles when they reach a sunny meadow, and again a few minutes later.

"Are you tired?" Gandalf asks, looking concerned until he sees the dark blush on Faramir's face. Then he smiles and adds "Perhaps you should ride ahead and take some rest."

"No, I'm well," Faramir insists, breathing deeply and resolving to be more alert. He's been staring at Frodo again, distracted by the way the sunlight breaks through the trees to highlight his hair and make his eyes glow. He should be watching for danger, and is thankful the others are here to guard against his inattention.

It's just that the halfling, even injured, seems to glow with health and beauty. Faramir has always been attracted to men, not women -- though he has never acted on such feelings. It would be yet another thing for his father to despise about him. Instead he has remained celibate -- and been scorned for that.

And if Denethor despises his son for not bedding every serving wench in Minas Tirith, and if the Steward would be horrified by his son courting a strong and handsome lad of Gondor -- what on earth would he do if he knew his youngest son is now fiercely attracted to a short, furry-footed creature? A halfling, more concerned with making tea than doing battle... It is unimaginable. He would be disowned, or his father would simply strike him dead where he stood for admitting to such feelings.

Faramir almost walks into a tree, lost in his thoughts, and Frodo actually laughs. It's a sweet sound.

"You're as bad as I am. Gandalf, I didn't know big people daydreamed." The halfling takes his hand and Faramir stops breathing for a moment. "Come on, I'll make sure you don't fall."

They continue walking, Faramir very aware of the smile on Gandalf's face. Frodo has not released his hand, and Faramir honestly doesn't wish to make him do so. He wonders what it might have been like to come to this magical land, this place that appeared out of the mist like a dream, during a time of peace. What could happen were he walking with this kindly, beautiful hobbit without fear and the shadow of the East looming over them.

As if his thoughts bring danger, Aragorn holds up a hand and they all stop while he listens intently. Then he sighs and straightens up.

"Go ahead. For a moment I thought I heard hoofbeats."

"Surely no one will look for us here," Faramir protests. "How could they find us this far off the road?"

And Frodo laughs again, a sound like clean running water. "How? Very easily -- you men are terribly noisy, as are the horses. Anyone could follow you!"

Gandalf smiles at them but speaks seriously. "The servants of the Enemy will be drawn to Frodo now."

Faramir sees the question in Aragorn's eyes even as he looks to the wizard in surprise. Frodo is now bearing the Ring? But the hobbit merely snorts in derision.

"More hints and teasing. You seem determined to make me wild with curiosity, Gandalf, or paralyzed with fear. But your plot will not succeed -- I am resolved to be terribly patient and stupendously brave!"

Gandalf chuckles and Faramir, who was stunned by Frodo's tone, relaxes. No where else in Middle Earth is Gandalf addressed in such a familiar manner. All the wizard's tales of the halflings couldn't fully prepare Faramir for the reality of the Shire. It is a paradise, though the odd creatures who inhabit it are a mass of contradictions. They seem strong and full of common sense, yet soft and too concerned with the comforts of life.

And Frodo may be the most contradictory of them all. Gandalf has assured him that Frodo is not a typical hobbit, being unusually curious, tolerant, and learned, thanks to his adoption by Bilbo. Frodo's attempts at levity despite the bruises on his face and the danger of their situation convince Faramir that "courageous" needs to be added to the list. Frodo looked devastated outside the jail, angry and full of sorrow. His attempt to behave cheerfully now is touching.

Aragorn halts suddenly once again, and this time Faramir hears it, too. There is the clip-clop of a horse or pony on the road.

"Hobbits do use ponies -- and this is a busy road," Gandalf whispers softly, and Frodo nods.

But the noise stops, and so do the sounds of the forest around them. No birds, no wind rustling the leaves. The sun seems to dim and the forest is no longer dappled with shadows, it is simply dark. Faramir feels a familiar dread and the sensation of helplessness which is all too common in Gondor. Though he has never faced them before, he has walked in the shadows of the Morgul Valley many times and recognizes that the Enemy's servants are here. He grasps his sword hilt, ready as a mortal can be to face the wraiths.

But he looks down first, just to reassure Frodo, and finds the hobbit engaged in a strange struggle. His face reflects shock and fear, only to be expected in one so sheltered from such dangers. But his right hand clasps -- clutches -- at his breast, holding onto something in his pocket. The Ring, of course. And his left hand tears at the right, seeming to fight it. Faramir sees he has actually bloodied himself, clawing at his own hand.

"Frodo!" Faramir drops to his knees and holds off the left hand. Frodo struggles but seems relieved at the same time. Gandalf joins them, putting his hands on Frodo's shoulders.

"Your instincts are good. Keep fighting, my lad."

"Faramir, take the horses and keep them near. They may try to run." Aragorn draws his sword as he speaks, handing off his reins. The ringing call of the newly reforged Flame of the West is answered by a scream that rips through the silent forest. Frodo falls to his knees, and Faramir feels his own blood go cold. The Enemy has grown in power, and his servant's fell voice reflects his might.

Faramir moves the reins of the struggling horses into one hand and draws his own blade. They stand guard over Frodo as the Nazgul -- a lone Nazgul, thankfully -- dismounts and approaches.

There will be no other help. The noise of this creature has doubtless driven every hobbit in the Shire back inside his home on this sunny market day. Faramir lifts his chin and steels his will for battle.

***

Legolas shakes his head, amazed at the words coming out of Merry's mouth. This hobbit is sharp as well as loyal.

"You were expecting our visit?" Gimli grumbles.

"We couldn't know that we would be receiving such an illustrious company," Merry smiles, nodding at Legolas as well. "But we were not surprised to see dwarves and elves with Gandalf. Bilbo's adventure involved both races."

"And the men of Lake Town," Sam adds.

"So the five of you riding up today -- well, it just seemed right," Pippin adds.

"Bilbo's strange behavior -- that isn't any illness that's been seen in the Shire, though we couldn't convince Frodo. We knew it had to be a result of his travel -- or something he brought back from afar."

"You are wise beyond your years, Master Meriadoc, and I foresee that you will understand Gandalf's tale more quickly than many among the Wise in Rivendell."

"Indeed. We knew of Bilbo's many talents, but it seems to me that you three also are gifted with perception and quick intelligence." Legolas smiles at Sam, who is furiously blushing at his words.

"So we understand each other. We accept your protection -- we know you are here to guard Bag End. There doesn't need to be any further pretense." They nod agreement with Merry. "And while we wait for the others to return, is there anything useful we can do? Some way to fortify Bag End against the danger?"

"I doubt that is possible -- none of us wish to bring battle to the Shire. I believe instead we will be setting off quickly. Perhaps you can prepare for that? Make ready food and supplies for Bilbo, so he can set off with us immediately."

"We can do that," Sam replies.

"And perhaps we can extend a little more of Bilbo's hospitality," Pippin offers. "You've both been traveling for days. Can you rest, now that you know we are aware of the danger?"

"Yes," Merry adds. "There are guest rooms, or we can draw a bath -- whatever would be a comfort to you."

"You are princes among hobbits." Gimli rises. "I'll have a nap while Legolas keeps first watch. Wake me in an hour."

"I'll show you the guest room," Sam says, motioning toward the back hall as he turns to speak to Merry. "And I'll start packing Mr. Bilbo's clothes, if you and Mr. Pippin don't mind going over the food for him to take."

Merry and Pippin agree and head to Bag End's kitchen while Legolas goes out the front door. Once Gimli is settled Sam goes to Bilbo's room, where he starts tucking warm clothes into the weathered knapsack Bilbo uses for his rambles in the Shire. Sam often talks to himself as he works, and today is no exception.

"Leaving immediately. It's not right, Sam, and what should you do? Even if Mr. Gandalf can fix up Mr. Bilbo, there's no way Frodo will let him go off alone. He'll be going, too, into who knows what dangers. Elves and dwarves and warrior men, and it's so bad they won't even tell us..."

He stops and moves to another drawer, where Bilbo keeps mementos from his adventure. Sam pulls out the mail shirt and Sting, Bilbo's sword from his long-ago adventures, and ponders them for a moment. The shirt is lightweight. He folds it and tucks it into the pack, then ties Sting's scabbard on as well. He picks up the pack and moves on to Frodo's room. There he pulls another knapsack from atop the wardrobe and begins going through Frodo's clothes.

"And him still hurt, too. Who'll look after him while he tries to take care of Mr. Bilbo?" Sam stuffs another warm wool shirt into Frodo's pack and closes it. The exciting adventures Bilbo described aren't done with yet, it seems.

"It's plain what you must do, Sam Gamgee. And quickly, too." He carries the packs down the hall, leaving them in the sitting room before ducking into Bilbo's study. Then Sam carefully climbs out the window and runs toward Bagshot Row.

***

Frodo's terror has overcome the urge to put on Bilbo's ring. The shadow approaching is cloaked in black, but he can feel that there is no man-like form under the billowing robe. Although unseen, the figure is terrifying. Even a warrior like Faramir fears it, though Frodo knows the man will fight despite his fear. Frodo could not, even if he had a weapon. He only wants to run.

Gandalf's calm is reassuring. The wizard has dealt with wolves, orcs, and war. But as the creature cries out again, a horrible gloating wail of victory, Frodo cringes and doubts. Bilbo's stories must have been exaggerated, for what can Gandalf, kindly old Gandalf, do against this evil?

The shadow creature lunges forward, limbs extended toward him. Frodo cries out and throws himself back.

"Aragorn, now!" Gandalf cries as he raises his staff, and the man rushes to block the dark rider and protect Frodo. Gandalf shouts words Frodo does not recognize as he drags the hobbit toward the bucking horses. At Gandalf's command, fire erupts around them. The trees shatter into showers of sparks, surrounding them and not allowing the black figure to come closer.

Then Frodo is lifted and placed on the saddle in front of Faramir. The man is somehow controlling his mount, using both hands and all his strength.

"Go quickly. We will follow."

"Hold on, Frodo, for I cannot help you," Faramir orders. Then Frodo hears Aragorn's sword strike against another and cries out.

"We cannot leave him!"

"Frodo, you are the danger. Go!" Gandalf has taken the reins for the other horses and he waves at them to flee. Faramir spurs his horse and it gladly runs as it has wanted to do since the Black Rider appeared.

Then the creature screams again, the horror of the sound increased when a second voice answers the call, full of wordless hatred and lust.

"Another!" Faramir hisses, and Frodo closes his eyes and clings harder to the horse's mane. No Shire pony moves like this elf-horse, and Frodo is relieved at their swiftness though the movement makes his head ache. Then he realizes there are hoofbeats behind them.

"Is it Gandalf?" he asks. "Or..."

"Both, I fear." Faramir deftly maneuvers through the trees, slowing only a little. Frodo cracks open his eyes to see leaves and dirt being kicked up by the animal's swift hooves as they plunge downhill. Faramir's arms strain and he guides them around trees still clinging sideways to the hill, avoiding the fallen ones below that are already merging with the forest floor.

After an eternity of bumping and swaying, Faramir pulls up and they stop, half-hidden by an outcropping of rock and low-hanging branches. Frodo gulps in relief, then whispers, "I've never had a ride like that before."

"If Lord Elrond had not given us his finest, I do not know that we could have escaped." Faramir strokes the horse's neck, and Frodo risks loosening his grip long enough to manage a small pat as well.

"Are we safe, then?"

"Not wholly. Even if we have confounded that one Rider, the others will be coming soon. They are being led here."

"No escape," Frodo sighs. "But why? What do they want?"

"Gandalf will explain," Faramir begins, but Frodo interrupts him impatiently.

"Yes, if we survive to see that long-promised time!"

Faramir laughs in surprise, but sobers immediately when they hear hooves approaching. He draws his sword, placing an arm around Frodo protectively, but their horse whinnies recognition. They both heave sighs of relief as Gandalf pulls up alongside them, followed by Aragorn. Frodo is relieved to see the man is not injured, though he looks somewhat shaken by his encounter with the Rider.

"Even in mortal danger you are impatient, Frodo Baggins," Gandalf says. "We seem to have eluded them for the moment. Let's rest briefly and get our bearings." Frodo looks around as the horses catch their breath.

"We moved so quickly I'm not really sure where we are..." Frodo starts, then turns back to Gandalf. "Are we going to Bag End?"

"Yes."

"But we must avoid the road," Aragorn adds. "There could be more riders waiting."

"We need to find the creek and follow it toward The Water. We'll come out near the potato fields to the west of Hobbiton."

Gandalf nods agreement with Frodo, then adds, "I believe we've come out of our way to the south. If we cut north we should find familiar territory. And we may throw off our pursuers, if they think we are headed toward Gondor."

They proceed at a walk so Frodo can keep an eye out for landmarks. He and Sam have fished in Lamb Creek all their lives, and followed it further than this in their youthful adventures. But the danger around them today makes even familiar places seem strange.

They remain silent until Frodo finally speaks, telling them to turn. All are listening for hoofs or another cry. But the land remains peaceful, birds singing and insects humming reassuringly.

***

"Save us!" Sam cowers against the wall, his pack forgotten at his feet. The cry, though far off, freezes his blood.

Legolas comes around the corner, a long knife in his hand. He sees Sam and notes the knapsack, then sheathes his weapon.

"Go inside, Master Samwise."

"What on earth was that screech?" Another cry, just as far off but even the presence of the fearless elf doesn't dilute the terror of the wail. Sam looks up at the elf, his hands shaking as he tries to lift his pack.

"A servant of the Enemy -- do you need to know more? If you intend to use that knapsack, you will be facing such dangers."

"And if I don't, Mr. Bilbo and Frodo will face them alone -- like now."

"Not alone. We are all pledged to accompany him."

Sam's chin goes out and his fear seems forgotten.

"I don't know any of you, save Mr. Gandalf. Begging your pardon, but while you may be exactly what you claim, I'll still be easier keeping my eye on Mr. Frodo."

Merry calls for them, and a moment later he comes around the corner with Pippin and a wide-awake Gimli. The other hobbits look as pale and shaken as Sam does, but when they see the pack in his hand they quickly forget the horror of the screams.

"Not without us, Sam," Merry says, while Pippin indignantly asks, "Were you intending to sneak off?"

"I'm not letting Mr. Frodo go off with Mr. Bilbo alone, that's all."

"Then we're all packing. C'mon, Merry!" But Pippin's cheerful voice is cut off by a third cry, and the even more horrifying response that echoes as they cower in the suddenly thin sunshine.

"There's more than one of those things?" Sam asks as they finally raise their heads once the sounds die away.

"There are nine," Legolas replies.

"Pack, my good hobbits. Pack light, since you'll need to carry your own food." Gimli adds, and Legolas looks at him in surprise. When the three hobbits obey and reenter Bilbo's home, they are chattering easily and making plans.

"They seem to recover very quickly, don't they?" Legolas asks. "Remarkable."

"They won't be safe here." Gimli replies to the unspoken question, and Legolas nods his agreement. "We can at least take them to a safer place in this Shire before nightfall."

"Do you think--" Legolas begins, then stops. "It is said one should not meddle in the affairs of wizards. But I am wondering if Gandalf intends to leave his spell on this land, to keep the other hobbits protected."

"I would wish that it could be done, for their sakes, but we have seen the spell was not enough to keep Bilbo safe from evil influences." Gimli shakes his head. "The hobbits are part of Middle Earth. They cannot be kept locked away."

Legolas looks to the southwest, where the others headed -- and where the Nazgul cries were heard. "The Enemy is here. Even Gandalf cannot put the Nine to sleep."

He feels somehow comforted when the dwarf moves closer and stands beside him, axe in hand, also keeping watch.

***

They are finally in sight of Bag End, and have arrived without seeing another living being. The halflings are indoors, hiding, just as Faramir expected. No one is tending the potato fields as they carefully ride through.

He feels Frodo relax and lean against him, and Faramir's heart breaks for him. Frodo is home, but he is not safe. They cannot remain here, and if they try they will bring death and destruction to the simple people of this land. Frodo has somehow come into possession of the evil that destroyed Bilbo, and his life will never be the same.

Faramir does not envy Gandalf the task of relating all this to Frodo.

And indeed, Gandalf turns to look at them both for a moment, pain in his eyes. Gandalf's love for the halflings has brought them here, but surely he knows that he is not to blame. He did not knowingly involve Frodo. Faramir tries to convey this with his eyes, and Gandalf smiles wryly in response.

"There are many powers at work in Middle Earth, Faramir."

"And you are very wise, Mithrandir."

Frodo perks up at their exchange. "Am I finally going to be told the whole story?"

"That would take many years, Frodo, for this tale begins long ages ago. And who can say where it will end?"

"More riddles!" Frodo huffs, a tiny sparkle in his eyes. Aragorn smiles at Faramir, while Gandalf shakes his head and laughs.

"I will only manage my tale if all the inquisitive hobbits are together, and if you can keep Peregrin from interrupting me every two minutes."

"I will," Frodo vows as they approach the smial at last. "The horses shouldn't be far away. You must bring them inside the garden, and tie them by the door."

"Sam will not approve," Gandalf smiles.

"But you're right, of course," Aragorn adds as he dismounts. Legolas and Gimli walk toward them from their positions guarding the smial.

"You didn't tire the horses on your journey back," Gimli huffs, sounding annoyed but looking worried. Legolas, too, seems relieved they have returned safely. The three hobbits have come running out the door as well and break into smiles upon seeing them. Gandalf climbs down and helps Frodo off the saddle.

"We aimed for secrecy, not speed," Aragorn responds. "Samwise, can you and Legolas bring the other horses here."

"Aye," Sam answers and walks away without a single moan about his garden being abused. Frodo looks after him with a little frown, until Pippin gathers his courage.

"Where's Bilbo?" Though the others didn't ask, they all listen for the response as Frodo blanches and stutters.

"He's ... he's still not well..."

"Isn't it close to luncheon time?" Gandalf asks. "Let's have some food while I answer all your questions."

"We should not travel after dark, Gandalf," Aragorn warns.

"No, I don't suppose we should. Our time here is limited, but I know enough not to converse with hungry hobbits. We can reach Bree before nightfall if we leave in an hour."

"It may be a hard ride, but we'll manage." Aragorn looks confident again; he is fully recovered from facing the Nazgul.

Faramir listens to them as he ties his steed, looking at Frodo's small figure. He, too, seems himself again. The terror of the wraiths has not destroyed his spirit. Gandalf's faith in a halfling's ability to bear the Ring may be justified, though he knows Denethor would never entrust such a vital task to this small, pacifist creature.

Frodo once again plays the host and settles the travelers in the sitting room, though when Legolas rejoins them he insists on standing by the window to keep watch. Frodo leaves them there and heads to the kitchen, where he can hear Sam working with Merry and Pippin to set out food for them all. But when he enters the room, the first thing Frodo sees are five knapsacks full of food piled up at the doorway.

"What's this?" There is no response. "Sam?" But Merry answers for him.

"We knew you'd be leaving quickly after you returned. We've packed for you and Bilbo."

"Bilbo won't be traveling," Frodo says, sorrow in his voice. "But this is far too much for two hobbits to carry. It looks like you've cleared out the storeroom."

"Well, we knew you wouldn't be letting Mr. Bilbo go off alone," Sam begins.

"And Sam couldn't let you go off alone," Pippin adds.

"In other words, cousin Frodo, we're all going with you, wherever you go."

"But..." Frodo looks at the determined, loving faces around him and wants to smile, wants to thank them. But then he remembers the terror in the woods and he begins to shake instead. "You cannot understand -- I don't even know why myself -- but there are horrible, evil creatures looking for--"

"We heard them," Sam says quietly. "The whole Shire heard them, I think. It's good Mr. Gandalf brought those men along to help guard him."

"They weren't seeking Gandalf, Sam. That's what I'm trying to tell you all. They want Bilbo, but now they are after me."

"But why?" Pippin wails, reflecting the dismay on all their faces.

"I can only guess, I do not know."

"But I do," Gandalf says from the doorway. "Though I did not know there were hobbits who preferred speech to food."

"I'm sorry," Frodo says with a blush. "Call the others in, we're ready."

The tall men don't look very comfortable around the kitchen table, but they tuck into the fresh food very happily. Gimli, Frodo thinks, eats much like a hobbit, though perhaps more slowly. His eyes drift back to Faramir's fair face, but he turns quickly back to his plate when he realizes the man is looking at him as well.

Frodo has heard tales of Bard the Bowman for most of his life. Aragorn seems much like that, a lofty hero from afar. But Faramir, with his daydreams and his big, warm arms -- Faramir seems more approachable, somehow. Frodo wants to hear about his land, and his journey here. Frodo wants to know what it is that he dreams of while he walks under the Hawthorne trees, and how long he has known Gandalf and the others. Frodo knows Gondor is far away to the south, and he wonders if the trees there are different, or if the sun is always hot and the land dry. Gondor is close to Mordor, isn't it?

He looks at Faramir again, seeing the weapons he carries, the muscles in his arms, and the emblem on his tunic. While his clothes are stained with travel, they are worked with fine embroidery and made of rich fabrics. He is a nobleman, just like Aragorn. They both must think the hobbits weak and silly. He was probably staring in disgust over the quantity of food Frodo eats.

Frodo turns back to his plate but his appetite is gone. He has nothing in common with this warrior man. And how could he even care about such a thing with Bilbo sick and in danger, too? Gandalf breaks into his misery and Frodo is grateful.

"Frodo, you've grown up with Bilbo, but I think everyone here has heard the tale of his adventure with Thorin and the dwarves." The other hobbits nod and he continues, "But I wonder how much of the story you've heard."

"Are you asking about Gollum? He told me the whole story once I was old enough, including finding the magic ring." And Frodo pulls the Ring from his pocket casually, holding it out before him. "I don't think he's told anyone else in the Shire about that, though."

"No, he hasn't. But some of us knew about his ability to vanish," Merry says. "He put that on right in front of me once, though he didn't know I was there. After that, I kept my eyes open."

"I see. You'd best put that Ring back in your pocket, Frodo." Gandalf quickly relates the tale and when he finishes, he looks around the table and sees everyone is done with their meal. "May I light my pipe, Frodo? The rest of this tale will go better with some pipeweed." In no time at all they are all puffing around the table, even Aragorn. Only Legolas and Faramir seem dismayed by the smokers.

"Frodo, would you do me a favor? Stir up the fire a bit." The small cooking fire Sam started for their lunch is mostly glowing embers now, but with a quick stir it flames up again. "Very nice. Now, please put Bilbo's ring in the fire."

"What?" Frodo looks at him, his hand protectively over his pocket, but finally nods and removes it. He stands, holding it in his hand, for long minutes, unaware of the confused hobbits watching him and the knowing looks between the others. Finally his arm goes out over the fire, his hand opens -- and he snatches it back to his chest with a little sob. "Gandalf?"

"Here." The wizard stands and picks up a frypan, then joins Frodo. "Put it here, my lad." When Frodo drops the Ring, the wizard quickly tips the pan so it falls into the flames. Frodo cries out, but Gandalf is there to hold him. "Just wait."

After a few minutes the wizard carefully fishes out the Ring with the tongs. Frodo grabs for it without a thought, and Sam cries out a warning, fearing he will burn himself.

"It's cool," Frodo says, as surprised as the rest of them.

"What do you see? Can you see anything?" There is a pause while Frodo examines the Ring, and then he gasps.

"There are letters, elvish letters. But I cannot read what they say."

Gandalf sighs, then begins speaking softly. Frodo and the other hobbits stare in horror as he unfolds the story of the One Ring and how Gollum has led the enemy to the Shire.

Faramir has heard the tale, so he watches Frodo instead. His eyes are big, and he still clutches the Ring close to him. But he seems calm, almost as if he already knew the truth. Thinking back to the encounter with the Nazgul, Faramir believes his clever hobbit may have already guessed at the power behind Bilbo's trinket.

Gandalf continues with his story.

"You must understand I suspected Bilbo's ring to be dangerous, though he seemed to take no ill effects from it. Yet he was unchanged -- and only the rings of power confer such agelessness." Gandalf sighs and continues. "When I last visited Bag Eng, Bilbo spoke of leaving the Shire and traveling."

"He wants to see the dwarves again," Frodo says. "But he won't leave now -- he wants to wait for me to come of age."

"I know, Frodo. But I had to find out the truth about his Ring, and I didn't want Bilbo to vanish into the Wild alone while I was searching for Gollum." Gandalf rises and walks to the window, unable to face them. "Bilbo wouldn't promise to wait for my return. He intended to leave as soon as possible."

"But it hasn't been even a month, Gandalf. How did you find Gollum so quickly?"

"And what's happened to Mr. Bilbo?" Sam adds.

"Frodo, Samwise -- my very dear hobbits, I must tell you what I've done. It was wrong; Elrond told me so and now I understand how very misguided it was. I've injured Bilbo, though I intended to protect him." The wizard stands very straight, looking directly at Frodo. "I last visited Bag End twenty years ago."

"Twenty.. years?" Frodo looks skeptical, as do the other hobbits.

"When Bilbo would not give me a promise to wait, I rode to the Three Farthing Stone. There I crafted a spell to safekeep the Shire, and Bilbo's ring, until my return. Each night when you retire, a mist rises to hide the Shire from all eyes, whether friendly or no. While you sleep what seems a night, a year passes in the outside world."

Frodo looks to the others, who nod confirmation with serious faces. His eyes remain on Faramir, who blushes but speaks.

"I've seen this myself, Frodo, when we arrived at dawn today."

"I crafted the spell carefully, trying to assure that you would remain unaware of any change, and making sure your crops and gardens sleep with you. The nature of hobbits made it very unlikely that anyone would be caught outside the boundaries of the Shire at night. Even Bilbo wouldn't leave on a trip with only a few days to prepare."

The wizard pauses for breath and smiles fondly at Frodo.

"Hobbits don't run out the door without their pocket handkerchief unless they're provoked, you know.

"I told no one what I'd done except Aragorn, who helped me hunt Gollum and made sure his people kept watch over the Shire."

"I don't think I understand this at all," Pippin says, and Sam nods agreement. "You did all this -- to everyone -- just to keep Bilbo here?"

"Yes. But the Ring has not slept. It worked on Bilbo's mind, destroying his will and warping his feelings of duty to Frodo."

Frodo looks up, clearly appalled. "That's why he... Oh, Gandalf."

"I'm very sorry. I did not see clearly. Bilbo has held the Ring for many years. It must have constantly worn at him, every night -- a night that was truly a year long -- trying to make him leave the Shire and escape my spell."

"But he didn't leave," Merry says. "He just hurt Frodo."

"Because his love and concern for Frodo were keeping him here. The Ring saw Frodo as the obstacle, and it forced Bilbo to attack him."

"But now I have this Ring. Why is Bilbo still ill, Gandalf? What more can we do to heal him?"

"I hope that if the Ring is destroyed, as it should have been an age ago... Well, I hope that Bilbo will find peace and healing for the rest of his days. But I do not know, Frodo, if that is true."

Sam coughs, then speaks up. "So the question is how do we destroy this evil thing? We've got plenty of sturdy enough folk here."

"There is only one way to defeat the Ring, and Sauron himself," Aragorn's rich voice comes from the end of the table. "A way my ancestor refused. The Ring must be cast into the fire where it was created."

"And where is that, exactly?" Merry asks.

"The fire of Mount Doom in Mordor."

"Mordor," Frodo repeats softly, looking at the Ring in his hand. Such a small thing, and so beautiful despite being dangerous. Now these powerful warriors will go to the Dark Land to destroy it. Frodo looks around, wondering who will take the Ring. It came to Bilbo and so to Frodo, but it is not his.

"That is why this company has been sent to the Shire, Frodo. To find a way to take the Ring to Mordor and see it destroyed at last," Gandalf says.

"You said the Ring belonged to Isildur," Frodo begins. "And you, Aragorn, are his heir?"

Legolas adds, "And heir to the throne of Gondor."

"But the Ring serves only the Dark Lord, Frodo, no matter who may bear it," Gandalf replies.

"But who, rightfully, should be carrying it now? My Lord Aragorn?"

"No, Frodo. My race has failed at this task. I dare not take it, lest I prove as weak as my sires."

Frodo looks around the room, but no one meets his eye save Faramir. "Then who?" He sees that Faramir's eyes darken with pity, and then even he looks away. "But..." They cannot mean that he should do this thing.

"The Ring came to you, Frodo. Against all odds, Bilbo found it in Gollum's cave. Bilbo, not an orc or some other creature who would have quickly done evil with it. No, Bilbo found it -- by chance, he said, but I believe he was meant to find it, though not by the will of the Ring -- nor its Maker."

"Bilbo was meant to have it?"

"And now it has come to you. You, too, are meant to be part of this mission, Frodo."

Frodo's mouth drops open and he blanches. Merry reaches to hold him, no doubt thinking him faint.

"To Mordor?" But the voice asking is Pippin's, not Frodo's, and he is just as pale and shaken. No one answers him or meets his eyes. Frodo stares again at his hand clutching the Ring, thinking, wishing he knew what he should do. When he finally looks up, determination and fear are battling in his eyes.

"Now see here," Sam says, and Faramir sighs with relief. Someone will try to keep Frodo from being part of this dangerous, mad task.

"Mr. Frodo doesn't want this Ring -- it's not his, and it's not our business, either, what happens away down south..." Sam seems to have worked himself up to quite a long speech, but Frodo's quiet voice interrupts him.

"Sam. I couldn't even put the Ring into the fire when Gandalf bid me. Whether I wish it or not, I am the one who carries the Ring now."

"But surely there is someone else who can take it," Merry cries. "Why doesn't Gandalf take it?"

"I cannot."

"You can't go journeying off into danger -- you don't even know where to go!" Pippin adds.

"I will help Frodo bear his burden, and teach him what he needs to know for the task," Gandalf says calmly.

Gimli speaks gruffly, "We will all stay with you, and protect you." Legolas moves to stand beside him.

"Indeed, we are here to help you with axe and bow."

"With our swords and our lives, if need be," Aragorn adds, moving to kneel before Frodo. Faramir does the same.

Frodo looks at each of them, his face full of gratitude. "I'm overwhelmed. I don't know what to say." There is a pause, and he adds "I don't see how I can do this, but I suppose I must."

Gandalf clears his throat and rises. "Now, my friends, we must leave Hobbiton. Bag End is not safe."

***

There is much bustling as the four hobbits load their packs onto Gimli's horse. The dwarf talks to the beast, politely asking his help with the extra burdens since his fellows will each carry two riders. Legolas smiles as he secures the packs, listening to him.

Frodo stands at the door a moment, looking at the hall of Bag End. Then he touches his breast pocket, feeling the Ring, and gently closes and locks the door. Gandalf lifts him into the saddle, then gracefully climbs up behind him.

Aragorn leads the troop and Faramir rides behind. They are quiet, subdued by fear of the Riders -- and for Frodo, at least, full of worries about the future. If the Shire is not safe, what dangers will they face as they travel in the Wild?

"Gandalf," he says quietly as they ride. "You'll remove the spell now?"

"That is my plan."

"Can't you--" Frodo's face is full of pleading as he twists to speak to him. "These will be dark and dangerous days ahead. If we fail..."

"Frodo, are you asking me to leave the Shire as it has been?"

"Yes. Oh, Gandalf, if I knew everyone here was safe -- as safe as possible, at least -- that would be such a comfort."

Gandalf looks across the sunny meadow, down the road toward Frogmorton. There are still no hobbits to be seen, no children playing, no adults working.

"I do not know if that would be the right thing to do, Frodo. Elrond was very angry with me. He called living under this spell being "half alive." And it did not keep evil away from you or Bilbo."

"The evil is leaving with me, Gandalf. You have said I will draw the Enemy's riders after me." Frodo gazes off at his homeland. "Please."

"I shall do as you wish, Frodo, with this exception. As we leave, I shall change the spell. When you next set foot in the Shire, the land shall come back to normal time."

"But--" Frodo pauses, and Gandalf waits patiently while he thinks it through. There is no coming back unless his task is fulfilled, not without endangering all he loves. But if Frodo fails and never returns, the Shire will remain under the spell. Protected, just a little, from what will happen to Middle Earth when it is ruled by Sauron.

"Thank you." They continue their ride in silence.

***

Faramir knew there would be a fight when they reached the bridge marking the border of the Shire, for he carries Meriadoc with him. Frodo's cousin is determined to accompany him beyond this land, to whatever place Frodo will take the Ring.

Frodo, of course, is just as obviously determined to leave his friend Sam and his cousins safely in the Shire. Legolas, with his elf senses, overheard Frodo's request to Gandalf and repeats it now to Gimli and Faramir as they stand and watch the hobbits arguing.

Well, Frodo and Merry argue. Sam merely stands with a set face, his pack tightly clasped in one hand and the other holding the bridle of Legolas' horse. And Pippin stays beside Merry, nodding vigorous agreement with everything Merry says, and frowning and shaking his head "no" whenever Frodo speaks.

It might be entertaining to watch, if the sun was not rapidly disappearing behind them. The hills of the Shire are tinted rose now, and there are miles to go to reach Bree and its Inn. While the Nazgul have not been heard again, Faramir is anxious to be on the road.

"Gandalf, we cannot linger here," Legolas says, as if hearing Faramir's thoughts.

"Indeed. Frodo my lad, it's time to leave."

"But they cannot come with me!"

"It seems rather that we cannot stop them," Aragorn says. "They know the danger we all face. If they choose of their own free will to share your hardships--"

"We do and that's that," Sam speaks at last. "Now put me back up on this nice big horse of yours, Prince Legolas, and let's get going."

Only Frodo doesn't smile at Sam's words. Faramir again takes Merry before him, wishing he could ride with Frodo again, holding him close.

As they cross the river, Faramir looks back one last time to the fair green land that will soon be lost in the mist for a year. As long as he lives, he will never forget this land and what this day brought him. For Faramir, the magic of the Shire isn't its beauty or Gandalf's spell -- the enchantment is Frodo.

Frodo's existence, just the knowledge that he has a soulmate, has changed Faramir forever. He will accompany Frodo to Imladris and beyond, protecting the hobbit with his life. The chance to be with him is a precious gift, despite the peril of their errand, and it does not matter if his love is unsuitable or remains unrequited.

And that love means that those who are important to Frodo will also have his aid and protection. He turns his attention to the hobbit riding with him. "Merry, would you be interested in training with me as we travel? I can teach you how to defend yourself with a short sword."

They ride for long minutes before Merry answers in a soft, serious tone. "Yes, I think we all should learn that, if you are willing. I'm only now understanding that we're all here to protect Frodo, and make sure he is able to continue. Even you--"

"Yes, that was my charge from Lord Elrond -- to safely bring the Ring under his protection."

"But only for a brief time, for it must go on. South."

"Yes."

Merry twists in the saddle and smiles brightly at Faramir. "We will all be happy to learn whatever skills you can show us, Faramir."

Faramir smiles back at him, but there is confusion in the look, too. Why has Merry become so lighthearted after speaking of such dark matters? Merry catches the unspoken question and laughs softly.

"It should be more fun than studying maps and whatever else Gandalf has planned for us," the hobbit twinkles, and Faramir laughs. He does not merely love them for Frodo's sake, after all. It is simply very easy to love these halflings.

***

Four Days Later

They are being pursued. Their departure from Bree was marked, noted by ill-favored men who could be spies of Saruman or the Enemy.

In response Aragorn has led them into the brush, slowing their progress but hopefully keeping their pursuers confused. Only Gimli seems relieved at the change from riding to walking. Well, perhaps the hobbits, too, are more comfortable on foot. But Sam looks concerned about their dwindling food supplies whenever they stop for a meal -- which is not as often as the hobbits would normally wish.

Still, they are all doing their best and Faramir is appreciating how tough and resilient the hobbits are. If he still thinks Frodo is unusually intelligent and beautiful, well, he is besotted and knows it. A smile from Frodo in the morning can make this dangerous journey seem like a summer picnic in Ithilien.

"Some of the Nine may still be guarding the Shire," Gandalf is saying to Aragorn as they walk ahead.

"If that's true, it won't be so for long. They will be called here."

"Aragorn, what hill is that ahead?" Frodo asks, his voice cheery as if he hadn't overheard their grim discussion. Faramir smiles at him.

"That is the ancient watch tower of Amon Sul," Aragorn replies. The hobbits all begin to fire questions at him, which he patiently answers. Aragorn was just as patient weeks ago when Faramir was the one asking questions. He'd read about the North Kingdom, of course, but never been so close to their works.

Faramir watches Aragorn speaking with the hobbits, still scanning around them for danger of all kinds. He will make a very special king, able to understand the simple folk he rules, yet wise enough to lead them.

"You admire him," Legolas says softly, but Faramir still starts. "I'm very pleased to see that. I was not sure if others would appreciate how very unique Aragorn is."

"I have only known him a short time, but I cannot help honoring him as our leader."

"It is very easy to love him," Legolas says. "Though I believe you're thinking of another just at the mention of that word." The elf smiles and walks ahead while Faramir blushes. He cannot even stammer out a reply.

"Faramir, are you daydreaming again?" Frodo asks with a laugh. "We are asking about your land, Gondor. Do you live in dwellings built of stone as this race of men did?"

"Yes, we do, for we are of the same race as those who built Amon Sul. Though that was ages ago, and the wise say our people have diminished."

Aragorn smiles at Faramir over Merry's head. "Not all, Faramir. In some houses the blood of Numenor runs true. I see it before me here."

Frodo is wide-eyed at this compliment. The other hobbits do not understand, but Frodo clearly does. Faramir looks to Aragorn, who actually grins and winks at him. Faramir blushes again and inwardly curses his fair skin.

"We shall camp at the base of the hill tonight," Gandalf announces, a welcome distraction. "Rangers keep stores there, and in a low place we may have a fire that cannot be seen from the road."

Aragorn walks ahead, leading his horse, and the others follow. The terrain is rougher, more stones -- a welcome change from the marshlands they have crossed. Still, they are slowed and it is full dark before they reach the place Aragorn intends to camp. Despite their weariness, they are all too uneasy to have the promised fire. Pippin grumbles just a bit, but even the hobbits feel danger is close. Frodo is jumpy and restless.

They take a cold, cheerless meal and settle in to rest.

"Aragorn, can you tell us a tale?" Merry asks. "Just to get our minds off this chilly night?"

"Or something about this watchtower?" Sam adds. "Who used to live here?"

"Those tales would best be kept for another time," Gandalf replies. "I can tell you about Bilbo's journey along this same..."

Gandalf's voice is cut off by a shriek that pierces the night. They all tense for just a moment, but Aragorn quickly recovers and jumps to his feet.

"Gandalf, we need a fire." The wizard moves to the stores of wood they've ignored until now. Aragorn looks to Faramir, who has already drawn his sword and stands with the hobbits. "Legolas, Gimli -- they cannot be defeated with our weapons alone."

Gandalf speaks a word of command and the branch in his hand bursts into blue flame. "Everyone take a piece of wood. Fire is our best defense."

But Frodo does not move to obey Gandalf, and Faramir sees he is struggling, just as he did in the woods that first day they met. Faramir drops to his knees and holds Frodo's two hands in his own. The hobbit shakes and sweats as he struggles to master himself.

"Sam!" Faramir needs to be free to defend Frodo, but Sam can keep him truly safe. "Hold both his hands -- no, give me the wood. I will not let you be harmed. Just -- do not let him go."

"The Ring--"

"They want him to put it on, Sam."

"Sam... Faramir..." Frodo stutters, then writhes as if in agony. "Help me!"

"I'm here, Mr. Frodo," Sam assures him with a look at Faramir, who wrenches himself away and stands ready, sword and still-flaming branch in his hands.

The wraiths are upon them and there is no time to think. Faramir counts five approaching before Merry and Pippin cry out defiantly and rush at them, only to be tossed aside easily. Gimli, too, is dashed into the rocks, though Legolas manages to stand his ground. Aragorn is using sword and torch, and Faramir tries to copy his actions. Gandalf is using his sword to good effect, and his staff glows with a light that is even more effective than the fire to keep the Nazgul at bay.

Gimli is back on his feet soon and fighting with them, back to back with Legolas. Faramir is tiring already, feeling the sweat on his body despite the cold night as he struggles to press the wraiths back and away from Frodo. Is Sam controlling Frodo? Faramir cannot look away from his opponents to see. He relies on Sam's loyalty, knowing Sam would die for Frodo.

It seems an eternity that they struggle, and Faramir is dangerously slowing, barely able to keep moving his arms, when Gandalf cries out words Faramir does not understand. The wraiths' attack falters at last. There is a blinding flash of light and with horrible screams they are gone.

Silence takes the place of bedlam. Faramir can hear his own deep breaths, painful to heave, and those of the others. Gimli is beside Legolas, almost bent over as he takes deep breaths, still clutching the torch he wielded as the elf used his knives. Aragorn leans on his sword and stares behind Faramir. At...

He whirls around to see all four hobbits huddled together. Sam is still clutching Frodo's hands, and Merry sits over his legs. Pippin has his scarf over Frodo's mouth. And Frodo is still struggling madly against them.

"Frodo--" Faramir moves to him, but Gandalf is there first.

"Pippin, let him speak," the wizard orders, and the young hobbit removes the gag.

"I can't... It hurts! It wants me to put it on -- oh, Gandalf!" Frodo writhes but Sam and Merry still hold him securely. Gandalf stoops and takes Frodo's right hand. He seems to calm a little as the wizard moves Frodo's arm and wraps his fingers around the hilt of the sword he is wearing, Bilbo's sword Sting, which Sam produced in Bree and insisted that Frodo carry. Touching it seems to calm Frodo.

"Does that help, Frodo?" the wizard asks.

"Yes," he sighs. "It's still calling to me, but it doesn't hurt so much to refuse." Faramir saw that the blade was of elven make, but he didn't realize that it had such power.

"Good. Samwise, Meriadoc, you may release him now." The hobbits do and back off slowly, watching Frodo's face. Faramir watches too, and sees his mouth set and his jaw stiffen as he breathes deeply. Gandalf stands back and continues, "The wraiths have left us, if only for a time. We were able to resist thanks to all your efforts. But Frodo, they will return. Possibly in their full number. If all nine come we shall be hard pressed indeed. You must steel your will and be ready to resist the Ring, for it will try to make you reveal it to them."

Frodo nods without speaking, but his eyes are full of fear and determination. Faramir feels his heart break a little. Already his hobbit is changed forever by the horrible burden of the Ring.

"Gandalf, do you believe we'll be safe here tonight?" Aragorn asks, but the wizard turns to Legolas.

"Do you sense any evil near to us?"

"No, Gandalf. I fear they have moved on to ambush us on the road ahead. We are still many days from Rivendell on foot."

Gandalf nods agreement. "Let us rest now. We are all exhausted from the battle. I will take the first watch." They divide the night and settle into their blankets, but sleep is difficult to find.

***

Two Weeks Later

Frodo watches Faramir leave the area in search of firewood. Aragorn is speaking softly with Gandalf and Legolas while Merry and Pippin tease Gimli. Their louder voices are easier to overhear, but Frodo concentrates as he helps Sam slice potatoes for their meal, and he can pick out occasional words from the more serious group.

".. Rivendell in the next day, two at most... "

"Cross the ... ambush at the ..."

"Shave my beard! Young hobbit..."

"After we eat ... plan ..."

They will strategize tonight, then. Faramir will be part of that meeting, or perhaps they will all be informed of the dangers ahead. Frodo has been happy to simply follow and let those who know this road lead them all, but he will not be able to do so much longer.

Once they reach Rivendell, he will need to study maps and learn his route, for he may not be able to rely on the others. He does not know who will accompany him. Frodo looks again in the direction Faramir walked. Surely he will be going home to his own war-torn country with Aragorn.

"Sam, can I do anything else?" The sun is very low behind them, and Frodo imagines it turning the fields of the Shire to gold. But no, those fields are shrouded in a magical night now.

"No sir, I've got our food under control. Go have a wash up if you like, or rest until it's ready."

"Thank you." He rises and brushes off his trousers, then wanders off. There's no way he can actually track Faramir, and he knows it, but Frodo sometimes feels that they are connected. And now he feels his time is short. He walks through a stand of gnarled trees and down a short incline. There are more trees here, sheltered from the wind, and many fallen branches.

Faramir is there, his arms full, but he turns just as Frodo stops and smiles at him.

"Frodo, you shouldn't have come so far from the others."

"I... " But he has no ready words, though there is a reason he followed the man out here, away from the others. "May I speak with you?"

Faramir nods and sets down the cloth he is using to gather wood, then sits beneath a tree. Frodo looks so serious, so desperate to speak, and he wants to make it more comfortable by being at the hobbit's height. But Frodo walks over and sits right beside him, very close. Faramir wonders if the hobbit is cold, and places an arm over Frodo's back. He sighs happily and moves closer.

"You are almost as good at cuddling as a hobbit." Faramir laughs before he can stop himself. Frodo frowns and continues, "Seriously. I didn't know I could feel so comfortable around a man. The men of Gondor must be more like hobbits than I knew."

"I doubt you would find my father or brother akin to you, Frodo." Faramir shakes his head and smiles, thinking of their reaction to hobbits.

"Then it's just you?" Frodo doesn't seem disturbed by the idea.

"Gandalf has explained many things about your race, Frodo. He told me hobbits are open and affectionate, and I have tried to be a worthy companion."

"Oh." Frodo's voice is less cheerful now, and his eyebrows come together in thought. "You were only being companionable, then."

"I am very fond of you ... All of you," Faramir stammers, knowing he is blushing and blessing the darkening skies and deep shadows among the trees for helping to hide it.

"It's true that hobbits hug each other frequently," Frodo continues, sounding thoughtful. "But we are not affectionate with strangers, only those we love and care for." He looks up at Faramir, his eyes pleading, and Faramir wonders if he is understanding Frodo correctly.

"I do not gather your meaning, Frodo."

"I hug Gandalf, of course. He is a dear friend and I've known him many years. I love him as a friend, as I do Sam. And I love Merry and Pippin very much."

"I see," Faramir replies stupidly, though he really doesn't. Or perhaps he does. No, he is allowing his own wishes to interpret Frodo's words. Frodo doesn't speak, but his arm tightens around Faramir's waist and he actually seems to rub against him. "Am I your friend, then, Frodo?" Faramir blurts.

"You are my friend, but I hope -- That is to say, I'd like for you to be more than my friend." And Frodo Baggins, not at all shy, rises to stand in Faramir's embrace. The warmth of his body must be what causes Faramir to moan as Frodo's arms rise to circle his neck. Frodo presses even closer and kisses him sweetly on the mouth. Then he pulls back and looks at Faramir, whose stunned silence is no doubt difficult to interpret. But it is not displeasure, no indeed.

Faramir gives the only response possible to those dear, expressive eyes that seem to be asking if he enjoyed the kiss. He pulls Frodo close and kisses him in return. Firewood, their companions, and the Dark Lord himself are all forgotten as they stay pressed close, learning each other's mouths.

Frodo is stronger than Faramir realized, his hands moving from waist to neck and through his hair, always pulling Faramir closer. His mouth is sweet and warm, his tongue playful. All the love Faramir has felt these weeks is poured into their kissing, and he feels it joyfully returned by Frodo.

"I love you," he admits in a gasp as he pulls away, desperate to get the words out. "I've loved you since I first saw you in the Shire."

"Oh," Frodo breathes, a much happier syllable now. His smile is radiant. "I've never been so drawn to someone, but I wasn't sure how you felt. I, too, have loved you since we met."

"Oh, Frodo." Faramir hugs him close again. "You are brave as well as beautiful, for I certainly did not have the courage to speak to you."

Frodo laughs merrily. "I didn't win you with my eloquence, my lord!"

Faramir has to kiss him again, hearing that much-loved giggle. Long minutes later they again pull apart for deep breaths, and Frodo sits again -- on Faramir's lap now, not beside him.

"I had to try to speak, before we reach Rivendell and are separated by our duties. I hoped you cared for me a little, but I know so little of men..."

"And I know so little of hobbits," Faramir interrupts with a caress to Frodo's dear face, so changed by happiness.

"I feared I was misunderstanding you. But I feared never telling you more."

"I believe you have discovered a foolproof method for communication between our races, Frodo," Faramir says, reaching again for Frodo's mouth. Frodo pulls back and avoids him.

"You just warned me not to generalize about men, Faramir. I believe I cannot trust my method until I have kissed many more men."

"Then it shall never be proven, for I will keep your lips too occupied." He captures the soft lips and sinks into their own private haven again. They could kiss like this forever and he would be content in the wilderness.

A shriek filled with hate and malice rips through them and they separate with gasps of fear, not passion.

"Back to the camp -- quickly!" Frodo cries, tugging at his hand. Faramir obeys, quickly picking up the wood he gathered, remembering that fire is a weapon against the wraiths. They run together through the trees, up the hill and back toward the others. But as they approach Faramir can hear swords ringing -- they have already engaged.

Frodo's face is set and he is breathing very heavily as he clutches at Sting with both hands.

"Frodo, I must get us back and help the others..."

"I'm all right," he gasps. "Keep going!"

"Stay close." Faramir sets down the wood and draws his sword, but he keeps one hand on Frodo's arm. They move through the trees slowly now, and Frodo's deep breaths sound like sobs. When they reach the edge of the trees they can see the camp at last.

Nine black-robed figures are there, being staved off by their friends. The hobbits hold flaming torches and tend the fire, while the others struggle with flame and steel against the wraiths. As they creep closer, the Nazgul step back and turn, one by one, focusing on Frodo like flowers seeking the sun. They know what they seek is before them now.

Frodo falls to his knees with a moan and a weak cry of "No!"

Without hesitation Faramir picks up Frodo, slings him over his back, and rushes toward the wraiths with his sword sweeping before him. Legolas and Aragorn are there immediately, clearly seeing what must be done and helping to keep the enemy away.

Faramir drops Frodo into Sam's arms as he turns back to face their enemies, but immediately Sam cries "Frodo, no!"

Faramir must look back, and he sees what he feared most -- Frodo has vanished. He has put on the Ring. Sam seems to be grappling with thin air, and Merry and Pippin rush to help him.

He turns back to the battle and finds that the Nazgul are ignoring all of them, intent on reaching Frodo. Aragorn sets their robes alight and drives them back, Gandalf sets a ring of fire around their camp, Legolas' knives shine in the light of Gimli's torch, moving faster than Faramir can clearly see. But still they come.

"Aragorn!" Merry cries, and Faramir turns and sees Sam flung aside by one wraith who has broken through their line. His evil sword is raised to strike -- it is clear that he can see Frodo though they cannot. Faramir throws himself under the blade.

There is pain and coldness, then faint cries from voices he should know, but Faramir is now far from them.

***

"Faramir!" Frodo pulls off the Ring in a panic, trying to get to the bleeding man. As he does the ghostly king strikes at him with a cry, but his blade turns on the mithril vest. The force of the blow still knocks Frodo on his back and he cries out.

For some reason, the wraith stops advancing and lets himself be driven back by Gandalf and Aragorn, until with another horrible cry he draws off the others. They all flee and vanish into the darkness surrounding the camp.

As soon as he catches his breath, Frodo jumps up and runs back to Faramir. He is pale in the firelight and seems unconscious.

"Oh, please--" As Frodo wraps his arms around Faramir, his eyes flutter.

"Fro--"

"Yes, I'm fine. Lie still and we'll bandage your wound. Aragorn!" Sam is beside him now, and Merry and Pippin stand nearby looking frightened. "The bleeding has already stopped, you'll be fine soon."

But the small wound is affecting Faramir strongly. The others join them, all exhausted from their battle. No one will meet Frodo's eyes except Gandalf, and his face seems full of reproach, making Frodo turn from him in guilt.

Aragorn examines Faramir for long, silent minutes. "Did anyone see the blade that wounded him?"

"It was the king's sword," Frodo says. "He was striking at me, but Faramir came between us."

"The king?"

"I could see he was their leader. He wore a crown."

Now Aragorn looks grim, though Gandalf seems puzzled. Legolas has moved next to Faramir and is speaking low words to him in elvish, calling him back.

"We must move on immediately, for Faramir needs elven healing if this wound is not to prove fatal." Frodo sways at Aragorn's words, but moves with the others to pack up the camp. No one speaks to him, not even Sam. He cannot stop tears from falling as he rolls up his blankets.

"Frodo?" Gandalf has seen his distress and is kind, even though he, too, knows Frodo has done this to Faramir with his weakness.

"He did it to save me. I failed..."

"I'm not sure anyone could have resisted the Ring's command with the Nine here, Frodo. We know you did not mean to endanger the others." But the words only cause him more pain. He does not deserve excuses or the comfort of tears. Gandalf pats his shoulder and leaves him alone.

They build a travois with blankets and wood to bear Faramir out of the wilderness. Once they reach the Road, Aragorn puts Faramir onto Legolas' horse, and the elf mounts behind him. He rides off swiftly.

"Are they going to Rivendell?" Sam asks.

"Yes. Amarte can bear the two of them that far."

"Will they be safe?" Pippin asks softly.

"The Nine will not follow him. What they want is here, with Frodo," Gandalf answers. "What I do not understand is why they halted their attack. They allowed us to drive them away." His eyes move to Frodo, still puzzled and seeking answers.

Frodo tries to pull himself from thoughts of Faramir's pale, anguished face.

"You're saying they left -- we didn't drive them away?" Merry asks.

"No, we do not have the power to stop them. It may be that no one in Middle Earth does."

Frodo is still trying to piece together his jumbled impressions of the attack and what occurred. "Gandalf, I saw them more clearly when I was wearing the Ring. Could they see me? Would I have been easier to find when it was on?"

"I believe so. You were half in their shadow world while you wore it."

"He struck at me with his sword, but I was no longer wearing it. Then he left."

"He wounded you?" Aragorn asks with alarm.

"No, I am fine, thanks to Sam." He opens his shirt and shows them Bilbo's vest, glittering beneath his clothes.

"Mithril?" Gimli exclaims. "Then it's true Bilbo had such a gift from Thorin? I never believed the story. Dwarves value it so highly."

"As do elves," Gandalf said. "That vest could buy the Shire."

"Sam very wisely packed it for me, along with Sting," Frodo says softly. "He made me wear it." Sam blusters a bit but still won't meet his eyes, and Frodo's small smile fades. Sam is right to despise him. Faramir could die because of his actions. Bilbo is suffering, and all of Middle Earth is depending on someone too weak to control himself, even when he knew what needed to be done.

"We must move on now, and get to safety before they realize their mistake and return," Aragorn says, and they obediently pack up the horses and move back into the wilderness beside the road, following Legolas' path on foot.

By dawn they cross a swift, clean river and Frodo sees both Gandalf and Aragorn relax a fraction. They are in safer lands at last, under Elrond's protection. The sun is high when a fair rider approaches from the direction of the Last Homely House.

"Greetings, travelers."

"Glorfindel. Mae govannen!" The elf must be from Elrond's household, and seems well-known to Aragorn and Gandalf.

"How is Faramir?" Frodo asks, rudely interrupting their polite greetings.

"Lord Elrond himself is attending the Steward's son, Frodo Baggins," Glorfindel replies. "Such wounds are not easily healed, despite all his skill."

"Do you..." Frodo starts to speak, but he cannot continue. Glorfindel's wise eyes seem to know his question, but there is no answer.

His weakness caused this. Faramir will never forgive him. Frodo will never forgive himself.

***

Frodo's knock at Faramir's door is answered by Elrond himself.

"May I see him?"

"He is still unconscious, Frodo, though I expect he will awake in the next few days." But Frodo does not turn away, merely waits until Elrond steps aside with a quirk of his eyebrow.

Frodo moves to the bed and takes Faramir's right hand, still cold to the touch. It has been a week since they finally removed the fragment of the morgul blade that was in his shoulder.

"Hello, Faramir," he says softly.

"Frodo," Elrond says loudly. "If you don't mind I'll leave you alone for a time. I need to attend to other duties." Frodo nods as Elrond departs, leaving him alone with Faramir for the first time since his wounding.

He raises the chilled hand to his mouth for a kiss. "I'm sorry this happened to you, Faramir. I know it was my fault and I don't expect you to forgive me. Please, believe that I would rather have taken this wound myself than cause you injury." Tears start as he speaks but Frodo brushes them away impatiently. He has no right to cry.

"Aragorn will defend your city -- I promise you that. I won't allow him to remain with me. I'll send him to Gondor in your place." Frodo climbs onto the bed and finds he is finally able to gaze at Faramir, who looks peaceful at last. There must still be pain, and his suffering has carved new creases in his face, matching the silver sprung up at his temples.

Frodo gently touches Faramir's cheek, then leans over to kiss his lips softly.

"I've come to say goodbye, my love. I will have to leave soon, even if you don't wake." He knows he should climb down now, before Elrond returns or someone else arrives to nurse Faramir. But he cannot stop staring and trying to imprint the noble face in his memory.

"I don't see how I can succeed at this task I've accepted, but I shall try. I vow to you, Faramir, that I shall die attempting to destroy this evil that has harmed you. I will not be weak again, nor turn back."

As Frodo once again clutches Faramir's hand, sobs shaking his body, Sam waits outside the door and Elrond paces two rooms away.

"Gandalf, I am most concerned about Frodo."

"You believe he accepted the Quest out of guilt." Gandalf re-lights his pipe and watches the elf move restlessly around his room.

"Yes, because he wishes to atone for this wounding. The hobbit is in love with the man, if you can believe such a thing."

"I do, for Faramir returns that love. I saw it the day they met." Gandalf rises and places an arm around Elrond, guiding him to the terrace. "You are correct that he feels responsible. But Frodo saw that first day, back in the Shire, where his road led. The other hobbits may not have understood -- though I believe Samwise knew even then."

"You believe Frodo knew, even then, what would be asked of him?"

"Yes. That's why he pleaded with me to leave the Shire protected. He fears he will fail and Darkness will come."

"We all fear we will not pass the test, my friend."

"Yes."

"Yet you still believe Frodo can accomplish his task and destroy the Ring?"

"I do not know if it is possible to destroy the evil thing, but hobbits seem to have a resistance to its influence. They are our only hope."

"Frodo knows it will be a long and perilous journey. He seems unafraid, making me fear that he seeks death. He has asked me to send the other hobbits back to their homes."

"Frodo is trying to protect those he loves. But I do not think he is despairing. Not while Faramir lives."

"He lives, but his wound will never fully heal. Even if Frodo succeeds and all our hopes come to pass, Faramir will be changed."

Gandalf nods as he replies, "As will Frodo, and all of us. Succeed or fail, a new age is coming."

"The age of men," Elrond says, his eyes far away.

"Will Faramir wake soon? We cannot postpone the journey much longer."

"I know you must set out as soon as possible. But I hoped Frodo could speak to him before you go, to renew his hope."

"We have not been wasting our time here. Frodo has been preparing and studying, and there is still more he can learn." Gandalf pauses to draw on his pipe. "I agree with you -- seeing Faramir awake once more will give him a reason to keep fighting, and someone to come back to claim."

"Gandalf, I think you have become romantic after all these years in Middle Earth," Elrond says with a teasing smile.

"If you'd seen them together, you would understand."

"No, our loves are different. Wider and deeper, but not so intense."

"Frodo's love extends to all Middle Earth. Faramir's love was deep enough to give his life for Frodo," Gandalf chides. "And you forget how well I know you, Elrond Halfelven, and the history of your family. Not so intense, indeed!" he snorts.

Elrond's laughter, not often heard in this Third Age, makes elves pause throughout Rivendell.

***

One year later

Faramir settles in his chair, which faces the open wall to the south. He sits here every day, thinking of his country, his brother and father -- and his love. When Elrond and Arwen left for Gondor, he remained here. He no longer has a place in Minas Tirith, since he is no longer a warrior. Aragorn is King, Boromir is Steward, at least for a time.

Faramir is nothing.

The months since March have been the most difficult. Dozens of times Faramir has thought to leave this place and been unable to go. Against all reason, he waits, expecting Frodo to return.

Yet why should he? Imladris is miles out of his path from Gondor to the Shire. With each day that passes, Faramir's hope fades. Yet his foolish brain finds excuses for the delay.

Boromir wrote at last, his letter full of his courtship of Eowyn of Rohan. She will be that country's first Queen, and it suits Boromir to be her consort, rebuilding her country and fathering kings. Boromir finds such duties far more fitting than those of the Stewardship.

The letter was carried north by minstrel elves also bearing songs of Frodo's quest. Of course it took months for Frodo to heal. The tales and songs say he was dreadfully injured, and Faramir knows enough of Mordor to imagine his suffering. Faramir listens to the songs over and over, his only news of Frodo, and weeps that he was not there to assist the hobbit. Perhaps he could have prevented a wound, or spared Frodo some of his pain.

The same songs tell of the King's coronation and the feasts in honor of the Ringbearers. Frodo could not leave while he was being honored in Minas Tirith. And Arwen's wedding to Aragorn did not take place until mid-year's day. The elves told him that it would be so, and surely the hobbits wished to remain and witness the festival.

Noises in the courtyard distract Faramir from his weary thoughts and he rises. When he leans out, he hears horses and many voices. It seems Lord Elrond has returned at last, as the elves have been expecting for many days.

He sinks back into his chair. The hobbits will have returned to their own homes. He's a fool to hope.

"Faramir?" A soft voice pulls his attention back into this room.

"Frodo!" He knows he is smiling foolishly as the hobbit rushes to him, pauses for a moment, then gives Faramir a long hug, careful not to jar his arm. "You've returned at last. I thought you might go to the Shire."

"Oh, I shall. But we traveled with Gandalf and Elrond." Faramir stares at him, drinking in the glow of Frodo's spirit, which he has missed horribly. He feels whole again with Frodo in his arms. But he pulls back, aware that he cannot depend on such happiness continuing.

"Where are the others, then?"

"They are resting, or talking with the elves. I wanted to see you," Frodo smiles, but there is sorrow in his eyes. No pity, at least. Faramir is grateful for that small mercy.

Frodo is thinner but has otherwise changed little. Faramir flushes as the hobbit examines the changes in him. There is grey in his hair now, and his face is marked from near-constant pain. His body, once so proud, is wasted. He cannot endure the scrutiny any longer.

"How are you, Frodo?"

"Much like you, I suppose." Frodo sounds almost shy, but he is climbing into Faramir's lap as he speaks. "There is pain, for I have been wounded with lash, sting, and tooth. There is sorrow, for my will failed me again at Mount Doom, and I could not destroy the Ring despite everything."

Faramir nods but doesn't ask for details. He sees the missing finger and has heard the ballads of Frodo and Sam's deeds. He merely holds Frodo close, to comfort him. Frodo gently touches Faramir's shoulder, then his hand moves down the arm to hover over the wound.

"Your arm is still cold."

"Lord Elrond healed me, but no one can cure the wound."

"I thought you might come to Gondor, to be with your people and see King Elessar. He has great healing powers."

Faramir rises and gently lowers Frodo to stand on his feet, marveling at how thin the hobbit remains all these months later.

"I was not there protecting my people during the War. I cannot return now, useless, unable to wield a sword, and ask Gondor to succor me."

"But--" Frodo looks shocked, but anger quickly replaces the surprise, flushing his face with false health. "You think you did nothing for your people, when you were part of the quest to destroy the Ring? Saving my life, taking a wound meant for me, that is nothing?"

"I wanted to stay with you and protect you."

"But -- if a strong man like you took so much harm from the morgul blade that wraith carried -- the wound might have killed me. Who then would have carried the Ring, if the Dark Lord did not recover it immediately?" This scolding Frodo looks more like the young hobbit Faramir remembers in his dreams. He is still beautiful. "How can you call what you did nothing? Is my life meaningless to you?"

"Of course not. But I was raised to be a warrior -- that is what Gondor requires of its men. As you see, I can no longer defend myself, or anyone else. I am helpless."

"I doubt that," Frodo says, scorn in his eyes. "Do you mean to say the elves told you to sit here, mooning out the window? They didn't teach you to use your left hand to feed and dress yourself? They didn't show you how to hold a sword with your left hand?"

"They tried -- but it is not the same."

Frodo stares at him thoughtfully for a moment, then walks to the balcony and straight to the edge of the terrace. His face has changed and seems almost alien, his eyes full of horrors Faramir can only guess at. He follows the hobbit, suddenly uneasy.

"Very little is the same, my lord," Frodo says in a strange, distant voice. Then he steps off the edge.

With a cry Faramir lunges to catch him and pull him back.

"You still have fine reflexes," Frodo says shakily, his eyes still angry and bright as Faramir clutches him close, kneeling beside him. "But there's no need to exercise them on my account. The fate of Middle Earth no longer rests on me."

"No, that's true. Merely the fate of my own foolish heart." Faramir stops clutching Frodo and turns him in his arms, then bends, intending to kiss his brow. Frodo throws his arms around Faramir's neck and latches on to his pursed lips with his own sweet mouth.

It is many minutes before Faramir can stop tasting, stop reveling in the wonder of the kiss. When they finally separate, he feels light-headed.

"So Arwen was right."

"Arwen?" The name is almost meaningless as he stares at Frodo's reddened mouth.

"She saw my disappointment when you did not come to Minas Tirith with those from Rivendell. I thought you were more ill than we'd been told. But she said your only remaining illness was the same as mine -- pining for the one you love." Frodo smiles so beautifully as he confesses that Faramir must kiss him, and embrace him again.

They exchange a gentle rain of soft kisses, vows made to each other without another word being spoken.

***

Faramir's health has improved more in the month Frodo has spent at Rivendell than it did in almost a year. He is able to ride comfortably with Frodo tucked before him, his right arm around his hobbit as his left controls the reins.

Of course, it is Frodo holding onto him more than him being able to hold Frodo -- but it is a mutually satisfying and successful mode of travel. Faramir smiles as he adjusts his tunic, then glances around his room one final time. All their belongings are packed and ready to be carried to the supply horse.

Today they will set out for the Shire, for it is time for Frodo to break Gandalf's spell at last. Sam will reclaim his Rosie, Merry and Pippin will move into the positions of authority they were born to fill. And Frodo will visit Bilbo, and see if the old hobbit prefers to stay at Bag End for the rest of his days, or come with them to Bree-land.

They will live in Bree, where men and hobbits can both feel at home, so Faramir can fulfil his duties. When news of Faramir's improved health reached Gondor, the King recalled him to duty. Faramir is to serve as Gondor's ambassador to the north.

"Frodo, it's time." Merry knocks once before opening the door. "Oh, good morning, Faramir." Merry, too, is dressed in his best waistcoat and is all smiles. "Where is Frodo?"

Faramir points to the terrace, then listens as their voices drift back into the room.

"Frodo, you aren't even finished dressing! It's time to go downstairs. Everyone is gathered."

With a last smile Faramir leaves the room and heads to the garden to wait for his daydreaming love. He finds Sam at the door, waiting, a white rose in his hand.

"There you are. The two of you, can't you stop mooning long enough to do this right?" Sam scolds. "Kneel down now, I need to pin this on." He fastens the rose with a sparkling silver brooch to Faramir's left shoulder.

"Is this a hobbit custom, Sam?" he asks, fingering the blossom.

"Yes sir, that it is. You look proper for a wedding now." He lets Sam lead him to the arbor where their friends are gathered and Elrond stands, waiting to preside over their handfasting. The elves are singing joyous songs that bring tears to his eyes, and he sees that even Pippin looks solemn as they wait.

Merry appears at the door, pulling Frodo with him, resplendent in the beautiful new clothes made for this day by the elves. He, too, wears a white rose. When he sees Faramir beside Sam, waiting for him, Frodo's smile lights up the shady garden, and the joy in Faramir's heart drowns out the music around them.

 

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