Disclaimer: Since Tolkien himself made no fortune off his works, I would be horrified to accept any money for this. Thank you, Gabby! The speediest beta-reader on the block.
Too Many Friends
Sam urged him to leave Frodo be, but Merry was bored and of no mind to listen in any case. So he asked the kitchen staff, then the library, and then combed half the palace in Minas Tirith, until his search lead him, at last, to where he stood on this long, spiraling stair.
The stone was cool under his feet, pleasant after the humid Gondor summer, and each turning was broken by deep blue slits in the walls, open to the sky. Peering over a ledge, he spied a rolling lush green in every shade, trees mere scattered dots beneath. A land like this recovered quickly from war. Gulls whirled and cried lazily about the rooftops below him, stirred by the fresh breeze that blew in from the south. It made the tower a fair wind tunnel, causing Merry to pause and blink as it ruffled his hair. The torches, in ornate brackets, were unlit, though it was hard to say if they had started the morning that way, or if this wind had snuffed them, one by one.
At the top stair his long climb was rewarded by the sight of bandaged feet on a small figure, tipped back on an uncomfortable looking stool. An over-sized book rested in his lap. Frodo looked up in surprise.
"Oh, hello, Merry. Am I expected somewhere? I've quite lost track of time." He shut his book and made a motion to rise.
"No." Merry teased him, "But you led me on a lively chase. Is this where you've been hiding?"
"I am hiding, aren't I?" Frodo laughed. He replaced the book on a shelf. Merry guessed the dusty room to be some sort of library. It wasn't in fact, but Frodo had squirreled away so many books it began to rather look like one.
"Well," Frodo said, "I admit, all this celebrating has been a bit more than I imagined. Or I can stand! Some days I just wish I had some corner or hole of my own to crawl into for some peace. But I hate to spoil anyone's fun." Merry took the hint, and after some polite talk, let Frodo be.
But he also took word to Pippin, who then queried Sam about Frodo's mood, and in the manner of friends, soon everyone knew of Frodo's 'hiding place', and were popping in and out to check on him. It bid fair to drive Frodo mad with distraction.
When the third set of footsteps in one morning rang up the tower stairs, Frodo sighed and began to contemplate how long it would take Merry to find a second hiding place, and if it was worth the attempt to move. But these footsteps were unfamiliar, booted, and certainly no hobbit's, and he watched the stairs with curiosity. A new face, and quite familiar, rounded the tower steps this time.
"Aragorn!" Frodo rose in surprise, but the king forestalled him with a gesture.
"Please, Frodo, sit down. If I cannot keep you from climbing such long flights of stairs, at least I can keep you off your bandages for the moment," he smiled warmly, "crown or no crown, the Herbmaster commands me in such matters."
He wore no ornament of his rank, and was clad in a rich, but simple tunic. He seemed now not so different from the ranger Frodo had met in Bree. Indeed, he had changed very little, save in appearance. Aragorn moved a chair and straddled it. He slowly took in the rather dismal room, which to Frodo looked suddenly quite dreary indeed. He felt oddly defensive. The king spoke softly as to himself. "So, this is how we repay the Ringbearer for all his troubles on our behalf...
"Well," he looked up at Frodo with a wry face, "I understand you tire of celebration. No-" he interrupted Frodo's startled sound, "don't deny it. I've spoken with the all-knowing Sam, who greatly fears he will be in trouble for 'spilling the beans.' But he dare not disobey a command from his King. I've spoken with a good many others as well. You have too many friends to keep secrets for long."
"Dear Sam," Frodo shook his head, "I hope he's not too worried."
"He is. But so is everyone else." The king's eyes were bright with concern. He leaned his chin on his fist as he waited, skillfully drawing out the pause, patient for Frodo's answer. He wanted the truth, not hobbit lightness. The room was silent a long moment, pages on an open book fluttered as the breeze shifted. Frodo simply stared at the floor. At last, he drew a breath.
"I'm not tired of the celebrations. The people here, Minas Tirith, Gondor, they deserve to celebrate. They have suffered longer and more than any of us in the Shire from the darkness.." He gestured east, to the fallen stronghold of Mordor. "I won't, I cannot, take that away from them.
"It's just.. I don't have the heart for it. Not now, at least not yet. I did at first, but," he glanced at the floor and again out the window to the east, "too much has been lost. Merry and Pippin don't understand. I'm not even sure Sam does. But that is probably for the best that they don't."
"No. They do not. But I do." Aragon said gently. In that moment the long years of toil that had earned him his throne were revealed in his face. His eyes looked tired beyond measure. And Frodo saw he spoke the truth. Then the moment passed, and a spark of humor returned, erasing even the memory of that vision.
"But while you seem to prefer this place," he gestured to the dusty chamber, his eyes glinting with amusement, "to celebration, I am in no mood to grant it. You have not caught me unprepared."
Thus it came to pass that a pony trap carrying Frodo and Sam, attended by Merry and Pippin for the journey, trundled up the main road from Minas Tirith to Lossarnath, turning aside down a narrow cart track. It was a half-day's journey to the village of Parath Nuil, at the outskirts of which lay the small cottage Aragorn had given them. Merry and Pippin had promised to help them settle in.
The Herbmaster had been in no way pleased Frodo and Sam were out of his care before their feet were properly healed, and promised them certain dire consequences. But once Frodo had somewhere to 'run', as Pippin put it, his mind was quite made up to leave at once: he promised he would see to it he and Sam applied their medicine without fail. Unappeased, the Herbmaster gave in to the inevitable. Tending unconscious hobbits, or hobbits in ordinary pain was one thing. Tending their sensitive feet, which wriggled out of his grasp at the least touch was quite another. He had given up and handed them the salve, though he was oblivious to Frodo and Sam's embarrassment when he suggested they apply it for each other.
They arrived near nightfall, nearly passing the cottage in the dark; they stumbled up an unfamiliar walk. Light flickered as Merry kindled a fire in the kitchen fireplace.
So Sam and Frodo spent the first night in their new home with a pleasant late dinner, laughing and talking until far too late into the night.
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