Frodo Baggins had a secret. O naught so momentous as a Ring of Power, that was behind him, well behind him now, in a place far away and long ago, a place remote as the world of waking seems to one deep in dream. All that was left was an aching void, a burnt-out place, blackened beams standing in a wintry landscape, stark reminder of a strong structure consumed by fire. He'd seen a stables once, flame-devoured and fallen in upon the ponies and hobbits trapped there, a bare outline standing bleak against the sunset landscape, smelling faintly of smoke and terrible loss. Such was Frodo, deep inside, though he turned a smiling face to those who loved him and lied through his teeth when asked how he'd been keeping.
He'd taken to having his meals in the secluded garden; when Samwise would have trimmed the hedges down he'd protested, and now he secreted himself within the high green walls, safe from the eyes of casual passers-by or even those who came to Bag End to seek the master. 'Not at home,' he'd say to Rosie on his way out the door to his refuge, and though he knew it pained her to tell a lie, still the love that Sam and Rosie bore him made the lie fall easily from her lips as she turned callers away.
Sam's company he did not mind; he'd sit quietly on his bench, smoking and thinking, whilst Sam tended the beds and coaxed the plants into ever-burgeoning splendour. No words were needed between the two, not after the paths they'd walked together. They took comfort, each in the presence of the other, as the summer mornings wore slowly away. In the afternoon, strengthened and refreshed by the beauty of the garden, Frodo would retire to the study and write. He felt an increasing sense of urgency to finish the Story. His time grew short.
He had a friend, closer than a brother, who shared his secret, who understood instinctively how the sands in Frodo's glass were running steadily out, with no turning possible, no way to start anew. He had a friend, closer than a brother, who crept into the garden while Frodo took his solitary breakfast, and again at second breakfast, and elevenses and noontide, all times that Frodo was alone in the garden. He had finally persuaded Samwise to take his meals with Rosie, and once he began to clear his plate on a regular basis, Sam stopped fussing about Mr Frodo's eating alone, such an unhobbity thing, but how could the faithful gardener gainsay anything his master asked?
A friend in need is a friend, indeed. He had a friend, 'twas true, and Frodo was a friend in return, for the two of them were in need of each other. It was time for elevenses, and Samwise had taken himself off down the Hill, whistling, to fetch something for Rosie. The bees were droning dreamily in the blossoms, and the heat of the day promised to settle heavily. It would be a good afternoon to shut himself up in the cool study. For the moment Frodo was content to slouch on the bench, pipe gone out and sitting on the bench beside him, hat over his eyes and sunshine blessing him whilst the breeze tickled at his collar.
'Mr Frodo?' came Rosie's soft voice, and the fshhhhh of tea pouring into a cup, the rattle of stirring and clink of spoon laid to rest upon a saucer. 'I have your elevenses here.'
'Thank you, Rose,' Frodo said from under his hat. 'Just leave it upon the table; I'll get to it as soon as I finish thinking this thought.'
'Yes, sir,' came the answer, warmed by Rose's smile, a smile he could hear and feel even with his eyes covered by the floppy, battered old hat that Bilbo had always worn in the garden. A treasure she was, and Frodo was glad that Sam had returned out of fire and doom to such a reward.
When Rose had gone back into Bag End, Frodo sighed and straightened, pushing the hat back to see what she'd brought him this time. The tray was always well-filled with good, wholesome food prepared with loving hands and arranged to tempt the eye and appetite. Elevenses this day were no exception. He smiled at the sandwiches cut into triangles and arranged as butterflies flitting above a garden of greens and edible flowers, the hard-cooked eggs cut into thirds and stuffed with colourful fillings, the delicate little cakes piled on a plate of their own and dusted with icing sugar. All delicious, he was sure, even as his stomach rebelled at the sight.
A friend in need... 'Ah there you are,' he said, his eyes lighting as a small wiry dog wormed its way into the garden through a gap in the hedge. The soft brown eyes lighted in return, the mouth laughed silently, the stub of a tail wagged furiously as the small winsome creature jumped to its feet before him to dance in happy greeting before taking its place at table, sitting up, placing a feather-light paw upon his knee.
'Look at the feast we have for elevenses!' Frodo said, stroking the furry head. 'Are you sure you can manage, after that incredible second breakfast?' The tail wagged even more vigorously, if possible, and the mouth formed a silent bark, for this little one was voiceless, not whole, maimed like the master he had adopted. 'Very well,' Frodo said. 'Let us begin. What? ...do you think? A stuffed egg, for starters?' He picked up one of these and the dog moved back, quivering with excitement. A toss in the air, a neat catch, and Frodo chuckled. 'You never miss,' he said proudly.
Bit by bit, egg and sandwich and little cake were dispatched with enthusiasm on the part of both participants, the provider and the consumer. Finally the plate was empty of all save the salad, the furry head rested upon Frodo's knee, not seeming to mind that the stroking hand was lacking a finger.
'I see now why you've developed such a good appetite,' Rose said quietly from the gate. Frodo started, his little friend jerked back but then put his head back on the hobbit's knee, rolling an eye at the interloper. 'And why you so often leave the salad.'
'We're not much for vegetables, I'm afraid,' Frodo answered, his hand resuming its caresses.
Rose crossed to stand before Frodo, hands on hips. 'Now Mr Frodo, whatever am I to be telling Sam? He was worried about you not eating, and since you started taking your meals in the garden he's felt better to know you've been clearing your plate—but it's not you clearing your plate at all!'
'You should have seen him when he first crept into the garden,' Frodo said absently. His fingers had found the spot behind the ear, and the dog leaned into the hand with a blissful expression that made Rose laugh in spite of her concern. 'Skin and bones, that's all he was, and frightened of his own shadow.'
'Skin and bones,' Rosie echoed, looking at Sam's beloved master. He might have been describing himself.
'I was in despair that day,' Frodo said, his eyes on the furry head. He did not want to look up to see pity in Rose's eyes. He'd been so often in despair since he'd realised that he would never be free of it, that terrible longing that could never be satisfied, not even by the white gem hanging at his throat. He smiled, seeking to turn the thought into a joke, something to laugh away the pain. 'Despair, I tell you—you had brought me a tray positively groaning with rich food and told me I must eat all or Sam would come and badger me until the food was gone.'
Rose nodded. She remembered that day, the day Sam had put his foot down and declared that they would badger Mr Frodo to eat, if he continued with so little appetite. How pleased he'd been when Rose had returned from the garden with half the plate cleared, "and no badgering needed! He said he'd try his best to eat, and sorry for grieving you, Sam-love."
'I called out to Elbereth, in truth I did, and asked her to deliver me of my misery, and then I felt something on my foot. Imagine my astonishment to look down and see a furry head resting there, eyes pleading.'
'You fed him half the contents of your plate,' Rose said softly.
'He couldn't manage any more than that,' Frodo answered. He moved his hand to the other ear and recommenced rubbing. 'Poor fellow, I don't know how long it had been since he'd eaten. I was afraid to feed him too much for fear he'd be sick and lose it all again.'
'He wasn't there when I fetched the tray,' Rose said. 'I've never seen him at all.'
'O he has a great sense of timing,' Frodo smiled. 'Perhaps he watches the door; he's here without fail with every tray you bring, and gone before you come to clear away. He's a very faithful friend, and so much help. Think of how he's set Samwise's mind at rest these past weeks.'
Rose fell to her knees, her hand going out to Frodo. 'You've got to eat, Mr Frodo,' she said softly. 'You won't last if you don't.'
'I try, Rosie, really I do,' he said earnestly, taking her hand between his. The little dog looked from the one to the other, eyes bright with intelligence. 'I have to eat at teatime, the way you stand over me in the study until all is gone.'
'And half the time you lose it again,' she whispered. Frodo's hands tightened on hers.
'Yes,' he said gently. 'I'm afraid so, my dear. A terrible waste, but I cannot seem to help myself.'
'But—' Rose protested, her eyes filling with tears. It was as she had feared. Samwise might deny the truth, but she knew now with awful certainty what her intuition had been telling her. Mr Frodo was slipping away from them, and there was no calling him back.
'My heart fails within me,' Frodo said quietly. 'I doubt I'll last beyond harvest time.'
'O Mr Frodo,' Rose breathed. His hands tightened on hers again.
'You will have to be Sam's treasure when I'm gone,' he said gently. 'His solace and his comfort. He cannot always be torn in two, Rosie.'
'No,' she whispered.
'Just one more thing,' Frodo said. 'One more thing that you can do for me, Rose.'
'Yes, Mr Frodo?' she said, determined to do anything she could for him.
'When I'm gone, would you take care of him?' Frodo said, taking one hand away to lay it upon the trusting head on his knee. 'Make sure he gets his meals "regular", just as you've done for me?'
Her throat too tight for words, Rosie nodded.
Rosie Gamgee has a secret, as the Summer days wane and the first promise of Autumn touches the Shire. Each day at every mealtime, she takes a well-laden tray of beautifully arranged food prepared with loving hands out to the secluded garden, pours out tea, stops long enough to pat a furry head, and hurries back to the kitchen to take the meal with Sam before little Ellie wakens to nurse. When Ellie is full of good mother's milk and nestled in her father's arms for a game of peek-boo or a song, Rose returns to the garden to fetch back the empty tray.
'My, he's eating with good appetite these days,' she says to Sam upon her return. 'He's eaten all but the vegetables.'
'Mr Frodo never did care much for vegetables,' Sam says, his eyes on Ellie's as the two play pat-a-cake. 'Nor salad, for that matter.' He smiles at his little daughter as Rose turns hastily to the wash-stand to wipe water from the dishes and tears from her eyes.