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Another Moment of your Time  by Larner

For Lindelea for her birthday--and most auspicious for the beginning of this collection, as it was one of her tales that inspired my first fanfiction story!  An excellent writer, exceptional mother and teacher, and good friend.  May her muse never fail her, even if real life gets in the way!  A most happy birthday to you! And thanks so to RiverOtter for the beta! 

A Time for Truth

            Yawning hugely, Pippin shuffled his way into the kitchen of Bag End, and was gladdened to see a young Hobbit leaning over a mixing bowl with a bottle of beer in hand.  “And what are you up to this fine morning, Frodo?” he managed to say around the yawn.

            “Fixing your breakfast,” the younger Hobbit said, looking up at him from the focus of his attention.  “It seems the Thain put in his request for my da’s beer-batter griddle cakes this morning, so I am seeing to it.”

            “And why isn’t your da seeing to it himself?”

            Frodo Gamgee-Gardner’s expression became more neutral.  “He’s in the study--has been most of the night from what I can tell.  He wasn’t in the best of moods when you lot returned from the meeting of the Family Heads last evening.”  He poured in a bit more beer, stirred, and nodded, satisfied with his work.  “There, that’s the right mix, I’m thinking.”  He set down the bottle and looked up to meet the eyes of the Thain.  “I know I could have gone to the meeting myself and so wouldn’t have to ask, but what foolishness was said last night to make my Sam-dad so upset?”

            Pippin rubbed at his eyes and tried to cover another yawn at the same time.  “Oh, nothing much, really.  Just the usual jibes at your name-father’s expense, is all.”

            The younger Hobbit’s face grew dark with displeasure as he dipped a finger in the water jug and dashed a drop at the top of the iron griddle.  “Not quite hot enough,” he grunted to himself as it sizzled into steam.    He returned his gaze to meet that of his nominal uncle.  “Who was it this time?  One of the Bracegirdles again?”

            Pippin shook his head as he reached for an apple from the fruit bowl.  “No, not the Bracegirdles this time.  No--Trosco Chubb from the Northfarthing, who’s head of the family up that-a-way.  Doesn’t seem to think that the request to hold a vote to ratify the ennoblement of Frodo Baggins as the Lord Iorhael has anything to do with normal Shire business, and therefore has no place at the Free Fair this summer.  After all, he reminds us, the last time Frodo’s name came up for a vote at the Free Fair he’d made it plain he wanted nothing to do with the running of the Shire.”

            Frodo turned fully to face Pippin.  “What?” he shouted.  “Doesn’t he realize how the quest hurt Uncle Frodo?  The Shire was most lucky to have him as deputy Mayor as long as he held the job, and that’s a fact--and you know it!  I’ve seen his writing in the Red Book--he was lucky some days, I’d think, to find the strength to get out of his bed, much less ride to Michel Delving and back!”

            Pippin sighed as he took a bite of his apple, and took his time chewing and swallowing before replying.  At last he said, “He was staying in Michel Delving with the Whitfoots while he was working, Frodo, and riding each way but once in the week.  Your da saw to that.”  He gave a wry smile in answer to the younger Hobbit’s frown.  “You need to understand, Frodo-lad, that in some ways the manner in which the Shire deals with thoughts of Frodo Baggins is his own fault.  He was, after all, the epitome of the stubborn Baggins.  And I’m not saying that to be disrespectful, either.  Frodo was the first to admit that he was sometimes his own worst enemy!”

            He leaned closer to look directly into the younger Hobbit’s eyes, emphasizing what he had to say.  “Know this:  Frodo didn’t want the Shire to know what he’d been through.  He hated to think of most Hobbits beginning to understand what such evil as we faced was like.  And he hated it worse when people gossiped about him, so he refused to answer most folks when they demanded to know where he’d gone and why.  Would just give them the Look, you know, and stop them right where they stood if they even appeared about to ask.  Plus, he didn’t want the whole Shire treating us the way it had treated Bilbo.  He figured it was better to let them blame him rather than Merry or me or your da.  Nor would he allow us to tell about it to anyone other than family--told us that it was pointless to try to explain, and especially when hardly anyone within the Shire could begin to appreciate what we were trying to tell them.

            “You’ve grown up knowing there’s a King again, and seeing the letters come and go between here and Minas Tirith or Annúminas.  You’ve heard us describing what it was like when I was serving as Strider’s guard in the Citadel of the White City, and when Frodo was there to serve as his most favored Councilor--besides Gandalf, of course.  But until we came back, when a Hobbit of the Shire wanted to emphasize that something was not going to happen, or would be most unlikely to occur at all he said, ‘when the King returns.’  We had a wraith’s own time trying to convince the likes of old Odo Proudfoot that the King had returned after all, much less that we were close personal friends with him!  Not many saw the Black Riders when they passed through the Shire, and fewer heard their cries or felt the sheer evil of them!  For most, Mordor was just a name from the borders of stories told to children.  The idea of most Hobbits, and particularly the children, beginning to appreciate that there really was a Mordor and that its dread Lord and Sharkey had intended to turn our beautiful land into a copy of it--he couldn’t bear it!  He wanted the Shire to remain untouched by that evil.  He had borne the Ring--he knew that he could survive such evil, but he didn’t want the rest of the people of the Shire to realize just how close it came to being destroyed.  A good part of what he loved best about the Shire was the innocence we Hobbits have always known, you realize.”

            Frodo shrugged.  He turned back to the griddle, dipped his finger again into the jug and shook a droplet off against its top.  As it skated across the surface of the hot iron he smiled briefly in triumph.  “Hot enough now!”  He poured a measure of batter onto it, then looked back to Pippin.  “It may be as you say; but since Uncle Frodo’s gone it’s time to let folks know just what he did do for them, don’t you think?”

            Pippin also shrugged as he swallowed another bite of apple.  “We’ve tried to tell them over the years, lad.  But you’ll find that most Hobbits don’t really want to know or understand.  As your Uncle Frodo also appreciated, if most Hobbits appear innocent of the evils of the world, a good part of it is due to their own stubborn intentions of pretending the rest of the world doesn’t really exist.”  He smiled.  “You’d do well to come with us for the last of the conference this morning.  Besides--the folk from the Ivy Bush will be bringing the elevenses, and nobody does pheasant pasties as well as they do.  Frodo used to love the pasties from there, which is partly why your father insisted we have them do the cooking!”

            So saying, he wandered down the passage to the door to the study.  Sam was inside, but rather than sitting at the desk he was seated on the small sofa, staring fixedly somewhere beyond the blade of the sword he’d carried through so much of Middle Earth, hanging now above the fireplace where once Bilbo had hung Sting.

            “You’re going to regret the sleep you skipped, Sam Gamgee,” he greeted his friend.

            The Mayor of the Shire just grunted in response.

            Pippin tried again.  “The griddle cakes are beginning to cook.  But are they going to be as good as yours, Sam?”

            At last Sam turned his own eyes to meet Pippin’s.  “The lad’s his mum’s son and mine.  He’ll live up to what’s expected of him.”

            Pippin could see the pain and frustration in Sam’s expression.  “Sam, you know Frodo never wished for anyone to protect his reputation, and felt it was a waste of time to try.  Don’t let the likes of Trosco Chubb disturb you.  He never knew Frodo that well to begin with, and his opinion isn’t worth a spoiled fig.”

            Sam sighed, stood, and stretched.  “Oh,” he said, “I know that.  But it still hurts at times to hear him called cracked and selfish.  There wasn’t a selfish bone in his body, you know.”

            Pippin couldn’t stop a small smile.  “Not unless mushrooms were involved, that is.”

            Sam couldn’t help but give at least a snort of laughter.  “That is true!  Now, you member how on Yule he got?  You know, there on the quest, when he opened the package as old Mr. Bilbo’d slipped into his things for a present and found as it was full of dried mushrooms?”

            Pippin found himself remembering the scene.  “Oh, but do I!  Because it was Yule he felt honorbound to share them, so he gave most of them to you to add to our dinner that night.  And when Boromir found them in his stew he was picking them out and started to throw them on the ground----”

            Sam was now grinning openly.  “And my Master--him was so upset!  To see perfectly good mushrooms wasted like that!  And then you----”

            Yes, Pippin did remember.  “And I was grabbing them from his fingers and eating them--and Frodo was growing more and more stiff at the same time he was trying hard not to laugh at Boromir’s expression.  But just the thought someone would think to throw mushrooms away drove him mad with frustration and shock!  He didn’t speak to Boromir for three days after that!”

            “And seems t’me as he had you doin’ lots of things like cleanin’ Bill’s hooves and shovelin’ away his droppings and all.”

            “And I got to wash dishes every night for the next week, as I remember it.  And it seems to me that it was about then that Boromir found he couldn’t keep a lace for his boots whole!”

            The two of them were now smiling openly at one another.  “Ought to of given them to Strider,” Sam noted.  “Now, there’s a Man as loves a good mushroom as much as any Hobbit.”  His expression softened.  “Too bad as Mr. Trosco Chubb never saw that scene.  Too bad as the whole Shire didn’t see him on the quest.”

            At that moment Frodo-lad called from the kitchen, “Dad--you want Elanor to take the scones out of the oven now?”

            “It seems as if I’m needed after all,” Sam said.  “I’ll have t’fetch the jam in for the scones--have it out in the workshop t’keep the little’uns out of it.” 

            He’d started for the door when Pippin noticed the stack of paper Sam had left on the floor by where he’d been sitting.  “What’s this?” he asked, leaning over to scoop the pages up.

            Sam paused, flushing deeply.  “It’s nothin’, not really.  Was--well, was thinkin’ of a song, and started to write it out.  But it’s not anythin’ worth notin’.”

            Pippin nodded, scanning the pages quickly, then pulling them away when Sam tried to take them from him.  “No, Sam--I’ve started reading it anyway, so you may as well leave the song with me.  Go on and get the jam--Elanor will be waiting to spread it on the scones.”  He gave the gardener his best, Thainish look, and saw Sam’s flush deepen as he hurried down the passage toward the kitchen and the back door. 

            Pippin took the pages with him back to his room, setting them on the bed while he dressed rapidly, then holding them with one hand as he brushed at his hair with the other, reading the whole song over again, finding a tune, one that sounded to him like Sam, running through his mind to match the rhymes and meter.  And when they left the hole at last to return to the village grange hall for the final morning meeting for the Family Heads he carried the pages with him again.  If any song was true to Sam’s memory of Frodo Baggins, this would be it, he thought.  And while the representative of the North-Tooks droned on and on about the produce of their fields, the bales of woolens and linen in their storehouses, and the amount of ice harvested during the winter and stored in layers of straw and sawdust in their specially delved storage hole, he found himself pulling out his thin stick of graphite and penciling in a few more verses or making corrections here and there.

            Elvenses were rather more substantial than the offering for such a meal would ordinarily be, considering the cooking prowess of the folk at the Ivy Bush; and as all paused to appreciate the pheasant and mushroom pasties on offer along with a goodly mug of beer or cider, the various family heads relaxed and began to speak after the stupor engendered by the lists of stores and far less frequent reports of need throughout the Shire made earlier.

            “This is more like it!” sighed Largo Longbottom expansively.  Bolo Bracegirdle, present alongside his now aging father Benlo, had to nod his agreement, his mouth too full to speak.

            “What have you been scribbling about all morning?” Merry Brandybuck asked his cousin.  Because of the number of family members who’d come with him from Brandy Hall and who would be going on to the Great Smial afterwards, he’d chosen to stay at the Green Dragon rather than accepting the hospitality of Bag End.

            “Oh, it appears our Sam has been composing poetry again.  Was at it all night rather than sleeping beside his fair wife.”

            “And why are you scribbling all over Sam’s poem, then?”

            “I’ll have you know I’m merely offering my services as editor and critic.”

            “And you didn’t just pick it up and take off with it to satisfy your own curiosity and innate need to poke around at something that’s none of your business and was doing quite well on its own again as you so often do?”

            “My beloved cousin, you wound me!”

            Merry gave him a jaded sidelong glance.  “I’ll have you remember I used to change your nappies, and had to get you out of more scrapes than I can count.”

            “And after you yourself got me into a fair number of them,” Pippin countered, to which Merry grinned.

            Isumbard Took, who was attending as Pippin’s aide, commented, “I remember these pasties from the reading of Frodo’s will.  They are exceptional, aren’t they?”

            “And speaking of Frodo Baggins,” began Trosco Chubb again, and Pippin could see Sam, sitting with his oldest son by his side across the table from Sancho Proudfoot, who sat by his intended son-in-love Fosco Baggins, beginning to go stiff in anticipation of what the pompous fool might say next.  Trosco began to cough, and had to take a drink to wash down the bite of pasty he’d not managed to swallow properly.  “As I was saying,” he finally managed, “I still don’t begin to understand why you want this noblement or whatever it is put before the Shire for a vote.  It’s not as if Frodo Baggins gave a hang about us Hobbits of the Shire.  I mean--leaving the Shire on an adventure, and leading younger Hobbits reportedly into terrible dangers Outside as he did, and then basically telling us all to go stuff ourselves to go off into the blue with a group of Elves.  When he cared so little about the Shire, why are we to care whether or not the King, may his ale be always cool and refreshing, wants to name him a noble?  And after all, why does the King even care?  It’s not as if he were going to ever see Frodo Baggins again, either.”

            Sam’s face was dark with anger, and it was at that point that Peregrin Took, the Took as well as Thain of the Shire, a Captain of the Guard of the Citadel, one of the King’s Companions and advisors from the north, and cousin and friend to Frodo Baggins of Bag End, stood up, slapping his mug down on the table before him and drawing all attention to himself.

            “You know not of what you speak, Trosco Chubb,” he said with a level of intensity that somehow managed to pierce the Northfarthing Chubb’s self-importance.  “First of all, Frodo did not drag anyone out of the Shire--Merry and I forced ourselves upon him over his many objections, and threatened to follow after when the Lord of Rivendell wanted to send us home--and particularly me--as being too young and innocent and, to be frank, too careless to accompany Frodo any further on his quest.  I told them straight out that if they wanted me to go back to the Shire they’d have to stuff me into a sack and tie it over the back of a pony to get me there, and even then I’d escape as I could to follow after.  And at the end Frodo left us behind, hoping we’d remain safe as he took the greater danger away with him, just as he’d intended to do when he left the Shire.”

            He felt Merry stand up beside him, and knew without looking that the Master of Buckland and Brandy Hall was standing with his arms crossed, supporting everything he said with his expression.  And Sam was also rising, his chin raised, from where he’d been sitting eating his own meal.

            “Sam did go with him, but certainly not because Frodo wanted him to do so.  No, he went because Gandalf said it was important Frodo not go alone, and he felt that Sam would take the care for his Master’s safety Frodo himself would ignore.  And do you have any idea--any idea at all--of what would have happened if those two had not done so, Frodo and Sam?  You think the Time of Troubles was bad--it’s nothing to what we would have endured had Frodo not realized that Gandalf’s warnings were true ones and had he tried hunkering down in Bag End to continue hiding the Ring there!”

            “What ring?” demanded a Tunnely from the far Westfarthing.

            “What Ring?” asked Pippin.  “You ask what Ring?  Oh, again, you can have no idea.”  His anger had fled, leaving him feeling tired and with his feelings of loss once more renewed.  “Bilbo so grieved when he realized just what he’d left in Frodo’s hands, when he began to see how the Ring was eating at his beloved son of his heart even worse than it had eaten at himself!  And had Frodo still been here in Hobbiton when the Wraiths came----”  He found himself shuddering, and the room went so silent as the surprised company focused on him that a drop of rain rang on the window at the far side of the room.

            At last he composed himself enough to speak again.  “You cannot begin to appreciate what evil would have come here, here to the Shire he loved so very well, had Frodo Baggins not left here when and how he did.  You cannot begin to know what it cost him to lose so much of himself along the way, his very heart scoured as it was by the Ring’s evil and the will of Sauron himself constantly beating at his defenses!  You cannot know how Sauron would have sent armies of orcs--goblins--here to slay or enslave us all and destroy all that we know and love about the land we live in.  What Saruman--Sharkey did--it’s but a pittance of what Sauron himself intended for us!”

            He looked down, and found himself focused on Sam’s song, and at that he looked up and about at all who were there.

            Griffo Boffin asked, “This Ring--it’s what you lot have told the children of the Shire about at the Free Fair and whenever you’re telling stories to them, isn’t it?”

            “Yes,” Merry said from Pippin’s side.  “The magic Ring that Bilbo told about that nobody ever believed in, the one he used to wear to make himself invisible and hide from the Sackville-Bagginses.  The one he used on his own adventure to get away from the spiders.  The one he found in Gollum’s cave.  He gave it to Frodo as he left the Shire.  And it was years before we learned just what Ring it was.

“Three Rings for the Elven Kings, under the sky,

Seven for the Dwarf lords, in their halls of stone.

Nine for mortal Men, doomed to die;

One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne.”

            “Those were the Rings of Power,” Pippin added in a soft voice, “the rings given to the lords of the ancient races to help them order the world.  But it was the One, Sauron’s own Ring, that Gollum had found and kept and that Bilbo found, and that he gave in the end to Frodo.  And once It awakened, It would have done unspeakable things to us as the people of the individual who held It away from Its Master.  Just as Its Master would have done to us, had he gotten It back.”

            He reached down and picked up Sam’s song, and began to sing:

  “Shall I sing to you of Frodo of the Nine Fingers?

Of the freedom we’d’ve lost had he yet ten?

Shall I shout aloud the glory of our Lord Iorhael?

Shall I whisper of the pain that he knew then?”

            And they listened.  As he sang, Pippin realized that many were beginning to appreciate what it was Frodo had given--for them!  He focused on Griffo Boffin, on Isumbard, on Largo Longbottom, on Sancho Proudfoot and the Westfarthing Grubb family head, on the faces of Benlo and Bolo Bracegirdle, of Embilard of the North-Tooks and Fred Oldbuck from Kingsbridge.  There were some who realized this was not something he was doing simply due to his whims as a flighty Took, although he suspected the only reason some weren’t trying to interrupt was because he was the Thain.

            It was a long song, with many verses that spoke to the hearts of the Hobbits for whom it had been written.  There was no sublime harmony or fanciful use of language--merely the telling forth of Frodo’s life and choices, down to the choice to leave the Shire and Middle Earth itself to find the peace denied him here.  Sam hadn’t had the time to cast this in careful language--it was as brutally honest as his love for his former Master and brother of the heart.

            At last he finished and went silent.  “I’m not here to tell you what to do,” he finally said.  “But it’s been years since Frodo left the Shire, and he’s no longer here to tell us to keep silent--because he never wanted you to have to imagine what he went through to keep you safe!  He never wanted for Hobbit imaginations to be strained to think of what might have happened had he not agreed to take the Ring to Its destruction.  And it’s not the King who first named Frodo Baggins and his companion Lords of all the Free Peoples and Princes of the West, you see.  Our Lord King Aragorn Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar only wishes to see the Shire itself recognize what all the rest of the West has already accepted--that without the actions and choices of Frodo Baggins there would be no Shire for us to dwell in!

            “But he didn’t want to be Mayor in his own right----” began the family head to the Gravellies.

            Frodo Gamgee-Gardener stood up then beside his dad.  “It wasn’t he didn’t want to be Mayor--it’s that he couldn’t do it any more.  It almost killed him, taking the Ring to Mordor, all the way to the Mountain itself!  Don’t you realize what the Thain is saying?  It scoured him out--right to the bottom of his heart!  He almost lost himself, and was losing more every day.  He was living with nightmares the likes of which the rest of us will never know!  His shoulder ached almost constantly at times, and he knew terrible headaches.  It was hard to eat, and harder to find rest.  He had to go, or he’d have just crept into the furthest, darkest storeroom in Bag End and have died.

            “Don’t you understand?  He didn’t leave the Shire for himself--he left it for you--for all of us!  And when the Shire treated him like he’d done nothing at all and as if he were an embarrassing freak of nature, he finally left Middle Earth for good--and I say it was the right thing to do!”

            The rest of the family heads and their heirs and aides looked at one another as the young Hobbit sat down audibly on his chair, still glaring across the room at the Gravelly.  “You’re mighty young to be talking so to your elders and betters,” commented the Smallburrow family head.

            Will Whitfoot, somewhat frail but still hale enough, rose stiffly from where he sat, and leaned heavily on his stick.  “It’s only the truth, though.  You just don’t realize what Frodo managed to do as deputy Mayor.  You still think about the only thing as the Mayor does is to officiate at banquets and weddings.  But Lotho and Sharkey and their Big Men--they’d left the entire Shire in an awful way.  If we hadn’t had Frodo there to take over and set everything in order so as we could figure out how it had been done and all, we’d still be fighting to get things put right!  All four of the Travelers helped us put the Shire back together--Captains Merry and Pippin cleaned out the ruffians, Sam Gamgee saw the Shire made green again and our homes rebuilt, and Frodo Baggins saw the secrets brought out and the real villains exposed, and our laws and possessions restored to those they belonged to.

            “And you didn’t see Frodo working when he really ought to have been in a dark room with a cloth soaked in cold lavender water across his eyes.  You didn’t see the pain he’d hide when his shoulder was aching where he’d been wounded.  You didn’t see the scars he hid....”  He shook his head, and let himself drop back into his seat.

            Benlo Bracegirdle now stood up.  “I say that if the King wants us here in the Shire to agree with the rest of the folk about that Frodo Baggins is indeed a Lord of all the Free Peoples, then let’s do it.”

            One of the Broadbelts commented, “It’s not as if it really means anything, after all.  And if the King’s for it, and the Master and the Mayor and the Thain....”

 *******

            As they walked back to Bag End together, each tucked securely under his umbrella, Peregrin Took handed Samwise Gamgee the pages on which the Mayor had written the song.  “There, Sam.  And I’m not the least ashamed of having taken it, you know.”

            Frodo-lad shook his head.  “But even though most of them will vote for it and even convince their families to vote for it, still most of them think Uncle Frodo only went out of the Shire for a lark.  They don’t really believe.”

            Sam looked down on his son with a wry smile.  “No, them don’t, and that’s a fact.  But a few does--and that few is what’s important.  Now--what, do you suppose, as your mother’s fixed for luncheon?  I think as I could eat an entire oliphaunt on my own, and that’s sayin’ a lot!”

            Yes, that was saying a great deal indeed!

  --~o0o~--

And now, particularly for Dreamflower, the following:

Beer Batter Pancakes

Ingredients

·        1/2-1 Cup Beer (Lager, Pilsner) or use stout for darker appearing, denser pancakes and of course a richer flavour

·        1/2-1 Cup Milk (Soy is nice too)

·        1-2 Egg slightly beaten

·        1-2 Cup Flour (White, Whole Wheat or mixture-depending upon consistency)

·        1 tsp Baking Powder (or Soda)

·        2 tbsp Oil

·        Pre Heated Frying Pan (350-400 degrees)-drops of water bounce or sizzle-cast iron is traditional-electric griddle is very nice

Directions

Beat egg(s) slightly in large bowl (eggs make the batter denser) use whites only for ultra light mixture

Add 1/2-1 Cup Beer (depending upon thickness you desire)

Add 1/2-1 Cup Milk (again, consistency and thickness)

Separately sift flour and Baking Powder

Slowly add flour mixture to liquid until slightly runny-don't over-mix-leave lumpy

Wipe hot frying pan with oil after each batch (use a lint free cloth that is wet with oil)-if brown 'skin' of pancake remains, scrape it off

Spoon or Pour Mixture into pan. Ideally, with enough space around each pancake to allow for expansion and flipping-use a measuring cup if you are adamant about symmetry

Fry pancakes until mixture bubbles in centre and is slightly brown on edge--try not to overcook as this is the chance to keep the pancake light and fluffy

Stack them up, put a pat of butter on top and drizzle maple syrup or home made topping of diced pear or apple with skin on browned in butter and brown sugar with water to make a syrup (adults use pear or apple vodka to enhance the fruit)-go crazy with a little whipped cream for the kids-everyone will love these!


From GroupRecipes.com

-~*~-

Author's notes:  The song referred to in this story finishes my first collection of Frodo-centric stories, and can be read at:  http://www.storiesofarda.com/chapterview.asp?sid=3966&cid=27926

For Lily the Hobbit and NancyLea, for their birthdays.  Beta by RiverOtter.

Grief Comforted

            “He didn’t tell you he was leaving?”

            Merry turned his head to look at his father’s brother, and Merimac could see that his nephew was considering what--and if--he should respond.  At last the younger Hobbit shook his head.  “No, he didn’t.  No--he wanted only to slip away one final time, and let us remember him the way we last saw him, I suppose.”

            “Did he at least say goodbye once you got there?”

            Again Merry shook his head, turning his eyes back westward.  “No.  He didn’t speak at all.  Sam said he’d barely spoken since they joined with the Elves. Nor did any of the Elves say anything to us--at least, not the ones who were leaving with Frodo and Bilbo.  They sang--a hymn about the Sea, or so Sam told us afterwards.  He’s very knowledgeable, our Samwise.  Far more so than we ever realized.  Not even Lord Elrond spoke to us, and we knew him, Mac!  Only Gandalf spoke to us, or wished us farewell.”

            He took a deep breath, and shook his head.  “How could we miss it, Mac--him preparing to slip away again?  We could see it last time, before we left with him and the Ring.  That’s how we knew to be ready to go with him as well.  But this time the last looks he took weren’t as desperate as the last time, and we didn’t recognize them for what they were.  Oh, we knew that he wouldn’t--couldn’t--remain long; but we thought--hoped--believed--that this time he would allow us to talk about it with him, at least!  But he didn’t!  He didn’t even tell Sam where he was going!  Sam thought it was just to Rivendell!  That he was going away--all the way away--Sam never even dreamed....”

            Mac laid his hand on the younger Hobbit’s shoulder, and Merry turned into his embrace.  He wept soundlessly for a time.  “How will I ever do it?” Merry finally choked against his uncle’s hair.  “How will I ever be Master of Buckland and the Hall without him here?  How will I ever get up the courage to speak to Estella?  I’d dreamed of him being there by my side when I did, and since he was deputy Mayor I’d thought perhaps of having him and Dad together marrying us!  But now----”

            Mac just held him close until Merry stopped weeping and just leaned against him.  At last Merry said, “I’m sorry, Mac.  Please forgive me.”  He started to pull away.

            “I know how close the two of you were, Meriadoc Brandybuck,” Mac sighed, letting him go and looking up to meet his eyes.  “I know how hard it is for you--that it’s been for all of us, watching him get thinner and more distant.  Your parents are as torn in two as you are, although your mum is holding up better than I’d expected.  She seems more hopeful, somehow, knowing he went with the Elves, as if she’s certain he will recover.”

            “I hope so, Mac.  You didn’t hold him as we did, though, at the Havens.  He was so thin--so very thin.  A wisp of wind could have carried him away, I fear.  And it would have, had he stayed.”

            Again Merry took a deep breath and straightened, sensing Merimac's own grief, and sought to comfort the both of them.  “Gandalf, Lord Elrond, and the Lady were all with him, and I saw how close to him they stood.  They’ll protect him, and help him find his way.  They’ll do all they can to see him recover, body and heart.  He needs his heart filled again, Mac.”

            He turned his eyes westward again, as if straining to see Frodo as he’d last seen him, on the deck of a ship that Mac could barely imagine.  “He didn’t speak to us, Mac, not with words.  I don’t know that he could at that point.  But he did hold us each one last time, and kissed our foreheads.  It’s the closest he’s ever come in my lifetime to saying goodbye.”

            He looked back, and smiled ruefully to see Merimac wiping away his own tears.  “They’ll take care of him, Mac, Gandalf and the Elves.  They love Frodo Baggins, I think, as much as we do.  They’ll cherish him for us.”

            Mac nodded, unable to speak past the lump in his throat.  He only prayed that Merry was right.  If not, he vowed to himself, he would swim that Sea himself and demand satisfaction!

For Cookiefleck for her birthday, with love.  With thanks so to RiverOtter for the beta.

Realization

            “Mornin’, Sam-love!” Rosie greeted him as he entered the kitchen of Bag End.  A gurgling from the settle in the corner indicated that his daughter was sharing his wife’s greetings.

            Sam smiled as he settled his braces strap over his right shoulder.  “Mornin’, lasses,” he returned.  He peered out the kitchen window as if to assure himself he was right about the time, and his smile went rather wry.  “Can’t believe as I slept so late,” he noted.

            Rosie wrinkled her nose as she flipped a griddlecake.  “It’s only to be expected,” she said, “seein’ as you got home so late last night.  Don’t know as why you felt you had t’make it all the way home—should of stopped at an inn, I’m thinkin’, comin’ as you was all the way from Tighfield.”  She inclined her cheek to accept a kiss.  “Not,” she added, “as I was unhappy t’see you last night, mind.”

            “Well, Halfred and I got some business done.  He’s goin’ to see the orchards near Waymeet where Sharkey’s folks cut down so many pear trees replanted, bless him.  We didn’t have nowhere as many pear tree saplings as we needed when we started last spring.  He’s been doin’ a fair amount of graftin’, and he ought to have enough t’finish the job come October.”  He nodded at the griddlecake she was slipping onto a plate.  “Those look good, lass.  And how’s my Master been?”

            Rosie’s face grew more solemn as she set the plate to keep warm and lifted the pitcher to pour out another cake upon the griddle.  “Him’s been mighty quiet since he got back from Buckland.  Last few nights he’s had the curtains closed in his bedroom—am guessin’ as him’s been havin’ headaches again.”

            She sighed as she set the pitcher down upon the worktable, turning to look in the general direction of the study.  “Him was up early, too.  Let me give him some tea and some toast, but that was all as he wanted.”

            Sam nodded his understanding as he turned his attention to Elanor, scooping her up from the settle and settling her tightly wrapped form against his shoulder.

            Rosie continued, “Him’s been goin’ through things again while you was gone.  I think as he’s plannin’ on followin’ old Mr. Bilbo.”

            Again Sam nodded, feeling his throat tighten.  “I know,” he said stiffly.  “Don’t think as he’s plannin’ to stay here past his birthday.  Him’s gettin’ restless, and no mistake.  Been seein’ way too much of that Brandybuck lawyer of his, not to mention his bankers of discretion.”

            She turned the griddlecake and then peered at him, her eyes filled with compassion and concern.   “And you’re just goin’ t’let him go away with the Elves, just like that?”

            He could feel the tears gathering behind his eyes, and he blinked to hold them in.  “And what am I to do, Rosie?  Forbid him?  He’s a Hobbit grown, and nobody knows his own mind quite so well as a stubborn Baggins, after all.  And----”  He shook his head, turned his face away and leaned his cheek against that of his daughter.  At last he continued, “And just maybe he needs to be with the Elves right about now.  He can’t go on the way he’s been doin’, you know.”

            She thought on that as she removed the cake from the griddle and poured out another, then checked the eggs she was coddling.  “Do you think as he’ll come back to the Shire, once Mr. Bilbo’s gone, I mean?” she asked quietly.

            “I doubt it,” Sam said just as softly, and their eyes met.

            He turned his attention to setting the table one-handed, refusing to return Elanor to the settle or to place her in her cradle.  Rosie set the small pitcher of brambleberry syrup on the table beside the butter crock, commenting, “I suppose as you should go call him.  Not what he’ll want that much to eat, I’ll wager.”

            Again he nodded, going down the passageway.  He knocked softly, but there was no answer.  He opened the door with concern, then smiled at what he saw.  He hurried back to the kitchen to call his wife.  “Come and see,” he said in little better than a whisper.

            She followed him back to the study door, and he invited her to look in.  Apparently Master Frodo’s headache had continued, for he’d closed the shutters, leaving the room darkened, and he’d settled on the small sofa with that overlarge shawl of his pulled over him.  Right now, however, his brow wasn’t furrowed as he slept—no, it was smooth, and there was such a peaceful look to him as he lay there on his side, and there was no question he was glowing somewhat as he dozed.

            She and Sam peered at him for a few more moments before he drew her back and closed the door soundlessly to allow Frodo Baggins to continue to sleep.  “I suppose as that’s why I have to let him go to the Elves,” he said quietly as they returned to the kitchen once more.  “I’ve seen that glow in him more’n once, and I suspect as the Elves is the only ones as can help it grow stronger, strong enough to stay with him.  He’s holdin’ on to the Queen’s jewel right now.  Maybe there in Rivendell he won’t need it so much—find himself knowin’ peace more and more.”

            “And you think as with the Elves him will be able to be healed?”

            “I can only hope so, Rosie.  I can only hope so.”

            She nodded, and wiped away her tears with the corner of her apron.  “I’ve saved some batter,” she said.  “When he’s awake again, I’ll fix him a good second breakfast.”  So saying she took Elanor from him and set her in her cradle with an arrowroot biscuit to gnaw on, then drew him down beside her.  “Now, Samwise Gamgee, it’s time for you t’eat.  Won’t do him no good if’n you sicken from goin’ without on his account.”

            He knuckled away his own tears, and reached for the stack of griddlecakes, somehow reassured by that glimpse of his Master’s Light.

A drabble written to the first prompt given our team in the Back-to-Middle-Earth Month challenges.  For Iorhael for her birthday.  With thanks to RiverOtter for the beta. 

Regrets Thought at the Party

            Today I’m thirty-three, and an adult according to society.  I can vote in the elections for Mayor.  I can handle my own money, and own property; I can make legal agreements and marry without having to seek permission.  I can found a family and father children and love a wife.  I can be a landlord.  I can head my family of name and keep its book.

            I’m thirty-three, and have come into my inheritance, as Bilbo has just proclaimed----

            ----just before he disappeared with a flash and a bang!

            Why do I find myself wishing I were still thirty-two?

Written for the LOTR Community "Mad as a March Hare" challenge.  For Aiwendiel.  Beta by RiverOtter.

No Help for It

            “He’s been pacin’ about the smial like a mad thing!” murmured Rosie to her husband.

            “It’s the weather, and the smoke from that fire what took the field just west of the village.  Too hot and dry, and the smell of smoke.  Enough to make anyone go mad, considerin’ what him’s been through.”

            “You think so?”

            “I know so, Rosie my love.  Makin’ him think as he’s back in Mordor, or so it strikes me.  Been too hot for much of anything the last week or so, and those headaches are enough to drive anyone wild.”

            She nodded thoughtfully.  “Been havin’ nightmares, too.  Even when he’s not shoutin’ out loud, they’re there.  You can see it in his eyes when him gets up in the mornin’.  Wish as there was somethin’ as we could do to make it better for him.”

            Frodo was out in the garden, visible easily from the windows in the dining room.  He was leaning on his stick, glaring uncharacteristically down at a weed at his feet as if it were some urchin who’d sought to steal his wallet—or as if it were an orc offering threat to the smial.  Suddenly he raised his stick and brought it down sharply, then ground his heel heavily against the hapless plant, his expression particularly savage.

            “Sun and moon!” Rosie whispered, crowding closer to Sam’s side.  “I’ve never seen him do that before!”

            Sam nodded, himself unsure.  Rarely did Frodo lose his temper, and usually he had pity even for weeds.

            The gardener lifted his eyes, and peered west.  Were those clouds, that distant line of grey, barely wide enough to be seen?  If so, maybe a few days would bring relief to the heat, and relief to his beloved Master as well.  It seemed that it was to the west they looked so often for any blessing toward Frodo Baggins, no matter how small.  Otherwise, he felt helpless, for he and Rosie were doing all they could to give his Master comfort and reassurance.

            Frodo stood there a moment longer, his eyes now closed, his jaw clenched, his body stiff, before he finally relaxed, opening his eyes to look down at the damage he’d done, and nodded tiredly, then turned toward the back door to the smial. 

           Sam hurried to open the door for him.  “Had a turn about the garden, then, did you?” he asked, sensing the inanity of the observation even as he uttered it.

          Frodo shrugged as he gave the walking stick to Sam.  “For as much good as it did me,” he said.  “There was a fight going on out there—a simple beetle seeking to have a meal of dandelion, and a spider assaulting it.  I crushed her, though.  And for a moment I felt like you, seeking to bring down that monster there when we came out of the tunnel.  I don’t know that I could have done then what you did.”

           “You cut off her claw, and did for her eye.  If it had been me she’d gone after, you’d of done the same as me.”

           “Perhaps,” Frodo said.  He gave a thin smile, but one that was honest enough.  “Never thought of you as a warrior before we left the Shire, but you’ve proved yourself well enough.”

           He turned toward the privy, then looked back over his shoulder.  “The yellow beetle—at least I saved it.”  So saying, he went out of the room, leaving Sam feeling some relief of his own.

           

A most blessed Easter and ending to Pesach and season of renewal to all!  Beta by RiverOtter. 

A Hymn of Delight

I was born a child of the Shire.
I will die a child of the West.
I live as a child of Iluvatar;
in the light of stars I'll find rest.

Oh, Daddy, yet how I remember
your hand on my arm as I learned how to write,
your hands on your tools as you crafted a chest,
you dancing beside me in greatest delight.

E'er the white tree, it shades me;
green waves of the sea wash me clean.
The light of Eärendil sustains me.
My pleasure in life remains green.

But Mummy, in mem'ry I see you,
the joy in your eyes, the delight in your smile.
And who would think death would so take you,
yet your love gave me strength through my trial.

I lift up my voice at the dawning;
Ithil's light blesses my sleep.
Sparkles from water delight me;
Light of Life in me I keep.

Oh, Bilbo, to live life you taught me,
to laugh and to see and to learn!
I remember to Bag End you brought me,
and guided each step and each turn.

The songs of the Elves, how they fill me.
The songs of birds give me delight.
The song of the Sea, it inspires me,
assuring that all is aright.

Oh, my tall brother, come to me
that I might enfold you anew,
and delight in your presence unburdened;
ever your guidance was true.

Sweet flowers, they bloom by my window,
blessing my health and my joy.
Green leaves pave the way as I walk through the day,
reminding me I'm now Eru's boy.

Sweet Lady, the gift that you gave me
at last how it granted me ease.
No longer regret, does it fill me;
I know joy of life without cease.

Here there grow mallorn and kingsfoil
sweet elanor, lilies, and more;
Their scent provides feast for the senses
their colors give life to this shore.

I see the ship grow 'cross the water
as it approaches the quey.
I feel my heart quiver within me;
the dawn brings my brother to me!

My Sam, oh I can't wait to show you
each site of delight and of peace
where Life renewed once again found me.
My songs of thanksgiving shan't cease!

Sweet Eru--so soon we shall join thee
and I find I regret not a day!
Even my pain, it was
blessèd.
My grief has all fallen away.

To sing in the morning brings pleasure;
to dance 'neath the Sun brings delight;
to stand 'neath the Moon, how it fills me;
the light of stars leads me aright.

Oh, Sam, do my eyes tell me truly
as the Stars, they do dance and they wheel?
Come, let us dance there among them
and the blessings of life let them seal!

Oh sweet Child, how much joy thou hast brought us
how thy courage inspires, how thy pain made things true.
All those thou lovest hold thy peace in their hearts
till the Creator this world shall renew.

Go forth now; may ever Joy take thee!
Thy Light and now his shine so free.
Thy mem'ry we'll hold till the Stars fall away
and once more we're united with thee.


For Cuinwen for her birthday.  With thanks to RiverOtter for the beta.  A drabble.

Mutters in the Camp

            “Bloody root in my back—no proper pillow nor mattress!” grumbled Sam Gamgee as he sought to find a comfortable position on the rocky ground, their first campsite out of Rivendell.  He had but the vaguest idea as to which direction they were going and what they would encounter along the way.

            “Will be wantin’ home and my own bed and blankets often enough afore we’re through,” he muttered—before abruptly falling asleep.

            Frodo, lying nearby, listening to the gardener’s complaints, smiled sadly.  “I, too, wish you were home, safe and sound with your Rosie, Sam,” he whispered.

For RabidSamFan and Diana Marich for their birthdays, and for GamgeeFest, whose recent essay inspired me to finish this.  Joy to all of you!  Beta by RiverOtter.

Explaining

 

            The coming of Lord Panthael was an event Livwen almost dreaded, although she saw that her friend grew more eager for it by the day.

            “Why does he wish to leave us?” she one day demanded of Olórin, when the Maia had come to visit her mother’s orchard not long after her sister Lordeth married.

            He smiled at her.  “It is his right to lay down his life when the time is right for it, Livwen.  He knows fully well his spirit is safe, and that he is awaited there with great eagerness and love.  His body continues to grow more insubstantial by the day, and as was true with Bilbo he is mostly willing himself to continue here, determined that Sam not be disappointed to find he’s gone on before him.

            “It is not so much he wishes to leave you as that he knows he can go on, and he is beginning to know that greater yearning of which the Sea Longing he knew before was only an echo.  He will hold off on reaching for that next adventure, much as Legolas does within Middle Earth for as long as his great friend Aragorn remains, until Sam comes--if he can.  But he knows his own rest and renewal await him, and he is growing increasingly eager to accept them.  Remember, child--he is mortal.”

            She sighed, feeling the grief of that future loss gently caressing her fëa, accepting that she’d come to love him, wishing he were merely an ellon so that she could tell him so, and how she wished their fëar and hröar could know the full entwinement known by her sister and her husband, or her parents with one another....

            She’d seen many pictures her friend had created, many of them portraits of this one or that.  Most he’d shared with her, describing the person and how he’d been tied to that one.  Many that he had shared had been of his friend Sam, his so-wise yet simple brother.  She ought to be able, she thought, to recognize Samwise Gamgee in any mood or guise.

            Yet, when the ship arrived she almost didn’t recognize him at all.

            First of all, he was so small--shorter even than Iorhael.

            Second, he was old!  And in realizing that this Hobbit was old, she realized that the same was true for her Iorhael as well. 

            Then there was his Light of Being, which she could easily discern--it was so distinctly different from that of he who’d been Frodo Baggins--a warm golden color compared to the mithril purity of his friend’s Light.

            But the eagerness and joy with which Iorhael greeted him, and the easy laughter and delight that lay between them was unmistakable.

            Sam had brought a great pack filled with letters--letters, portraits, and small locks of hair tied with ribbons; and much of their time, particularly in the first weeks, was spent going over these.  And finally she learned of Narcissa--Narcissa Boffin, a relative and first cousin to the oft-mentioned Folco Boffin who’d been as a lesser brother to Frodo Baggins.  And although she realized that in a way Frodo had come to accept he might have loved this Hobbitess, he was truly glad she’d found happiness with a Brandybuck cousin he’d also loved as a near-brother.

            It was hard to realize, as she did, that the Hobbit she’d been tempted to hate she was coming to love as much as she did Iorhael, although the quality of that love was very different.

            She found the summerhouse empty one day, and soon located Panthael working in the nearby garden, carefully cutting off the spent blooms from a rosebush he seemed to particularly favor.  “Iorhael isn’t with you?” she asked.

            He looked up, appearing surprised to find he wasn’t alone with his memories.  “Frodo?  No, he’s off that ways somewhere,” he said, waving toward the garden of the White Tree.  “May be a-cleanin’ old Mr. Bilbo’s grave.  Said somethin’ about setting it all in order, he did.”

            She watched him gently cutting off the last few dead blossoms, and saw how gently he laid them in the basket he had with him.  “You truly love doing this, don’t you?” she asked him.

            He gave her a quick glance, then looked back into the basket as he placed his scissors in it as well.  “Yes, that I do, Miss Livwen.  It’s like this, see--with a garden, even when the flowers die back, it’s only to make room for the new ones to come.  You cut back on what’s spent so as the new buds will form and open.  And the flowers love to be loved.

            “Nothin’s wasted in a garden, neither.  The petals fall, and make the earth lovely where they lie; then they go into the earth itself and make it richer.  And most often the seeds won’t form until the flower’s dead completely.  Then what you cut away lies in the compost pile or becomes mulch--helps feed and protect what’s there and is still wick.  Plant grows and has leaves; then it buds and flowers; then the bloom’s spent and it all dies away; the plant goes back to the earth, and all’s the richer for it havin’ come and gone, all along the way.”

            He stopped and gently touched one of the pale coral blossoms on the bush he’d been working on.  “This bush--somehow it reminds me of my own Rose.  Somehow this is the color of her love, if’n you take my meanin’.  Not hot and burnin’, nor pale and insipid; just steady and more’n enough to please ’bout everyone.  When she was gone I felt as if all was empty, much as I felt long ago when I--when I let him come away.  But then I realized as he wasn’t truly gone--just waitin’ here for me to come join him, his roots healed and him able to bloom fully again.  It so scoured him out, that thing did, leavin’ him near dead and his blossoms sweet but sparse; and to see as how happy he’s been able to be again--it made the long time away from him worthwhile, don’t you see.  And I know as it’s the same with my Rosie--she’s not gone from me.  Couldn’t hear her speakin’ in my heart as long as I focused only on the absence from my side; but now I know as she’s a-waitin’ too, waitin’ for him’n me both to come to join her.”

            He looked back to her, and his brown eyes were sparkling, she realized, with anticipation.  “Can’t have no seeds if’n the bloom don’t give over; can’t have more extra bulbs to share out the glory of the lily if’n the stem’n leaves don’t die back.  It’s the way with gardens, don’t you know?  And the Creator--Him is the greatest gardener of’em all.  World’s been better ’cause my Mr. Frodo’n me’ve been in it, and now it’s time to let the stems go to the compost pile.  And that’ll mean more beautiful blooms in the future.”  He smiled, and headed off to where spent blooms were left.

            She heard Frodo singing before she came upon him, indeed kneeling over the place where the body of Bilbo Baggins had been laid.  The larger basket by him contained a number of carefully uprooted plants that he’d removed as he’d weeded out this small plot, and a second contained seedpods and spent stems.  He looked up and saw her as his song ended, and he smiled at her.  Hello, Livwen.  It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?

            She shrugged as she came to kneel by him.  “It’s lovely enough.  I’m finding everyone gardening today, it seems--you, Lord Panthael, and Naneth.  My mother was thinning blossoms on one of her peach trees, for she says that if she doesn’t most of the peaches will be too crowded and will not mature properly.”

            He nodded.  Yes, so Sam’s father told me years ago when he was doing the same in the orchard on the far side of the Hill--or when he was thinning the irises in the garden at Bag End.  I learned to prefer Sam’s way of doing it--he’d cut some clusters of blossoms away and use them to decorate the rooms in Bag End and the homes of those who lived about the Hill, and he’d transplant the extra bulbs instead of just disposing of them.  He’s always loved to see beauty continued, my Sam.  He considered the seedpods in his one basket.  I know that the plants I have weeded from Bilbo’s grave will be replanted, but will you find a place that needs some beauty and scatter the poppy seeds there, please?  Sam used to scatter them all about the sides and top of the Hill for my sake; and I’ve tried to do the same as I’ve rambled about the island.  But my rambles are almost done.

            “Do you truly wish to go, Iorhael?”

            He looked into her eyes and examined her face.  At last he told her, It’s time, Livwen.  Sam would explain it to you in terms of flowers and seeds and bulbs and stems and such, while Bilbo spoke of characters coming and going within stories.  But for you to understand----  He sat back on his heels and looked thoughtfully at her.  For Elves, he finally began, slowly, your lives are like voyages.  You set out upon your birth and sail until you reach the far harbor at the End of Days, unless your ship is lost at sea due to sailing through a particularly harsh storm, or strikes an obstacle and sinks.  At her nod of understanding, he continued, For those of us who are mortal, we are the--the little crabs that are swept ashore when the tide is high and are left behind.  While the tide is out we clamber over rocks to explore, or hide beneath them until we have grown big enough to return to the depths.  At her resulting smile, he smiled back.  Then the tide returns, and we might hang on where we are, or we may be swept back to sea.  His expression grew more solemn.  Untimely tides swept back over me several times, and left me badly battered upon the rocks.  I was neither high enough to escape them, nor hidden and anchored well enough underneath to survive them.  I had to--had to be placed within a sheltered tide pool, or perhaps a lagoon, in order to survive to reach my proper size.  But the proper tide for me is coming, and now I’m ready to go back, back to the depths of the sea where I was spawned and swam freely.

            He lifted the weeding tools he’d been using from where they lay upon the ground and set them in the basket, then picked up a poppy pod and shook it, holding it close to his ear to hear the seeds’ soft rattling about inside.  I might seemed dried out now, and rattling, but it is now that there is so much more potential of beauty, now my own bloom is over.  The seeds are here.

            “I don’t want to lose you!”

            His smile was gentle.  You will find I’ll always be there, just as my parents and Bilbo have been there for me.  He set the poppy pod back in the basket and sat back again on his heels.  They’ve been by me, all the time, more than when they were with me in the body, even.  Once I came here I could hear them clearly.  His smile widened.  And I will be there for you, and Merry and Pippin and Aragorn.  Freddy and Folco are gone on, but those are still there for me to tease!  And from now on, you will know I am there every time you look upon poppies blooming upon the hillside, or sail upon the sea, or watch the small crabs along the shore.  You will know Sam is there when you watch your mother pruning her trees or your father pulling a net filled with fish from the water, then sorting through the catch to return spawning mothers and fry to the sea.  You will hear our voices singing in the wind, and see us dancing when you look up to the stars.

            His expression grew more solemn and yet joyful.  It is our time, and we are so glad we can go on, and so grateful for all we have been given to do while we were here.  Yes, I am even glad now for the time I spent with the Ring!  After all, I would most likely never have met you had I never had It by me.  The Creator has given me so much reason to rejoice!

            He reached out to caress her cheek, his face so filled with light she felt that the presence of Arien overhead was unnecessary.  He held out the basket of seedpods, and turned toward the summerhouse where he’d dwelt all these so-short years; and as he left her she could hear him singing in anticipation.

            And for the first time she envied him.

Written for the LOTR Community "Tying Up Loose Ends" challenge, and for AWallen for her birthday.  With much thanks to RiverOtter for her beta.

Much of the dialogue at Bag End is taken directly from "The Scouring of the Shire."

The One Left Out of the Conspiracy

            The pounding at the door woke him, and almost immediately Folco Boffin found himself alert, his heart pounding to match that at the entrance to the hands’ hole in which he and his mother now dwelt.  He rose as carefully as he could, not wishing to waken his mother, as she’d been kept awake much of the night by the myriad of aches and pains from which she suffered.  She would be so much more comfortable in her own bed at home, he thought once more as he carefully lifted the cudgel he kept by him in the small bedroom they shared and slipped out to the main room to peer out the window by the door.

            This time there was no great hulking shape indicating still another call from Lotho’s Big Men, but instead a Hobbit lad Folco judged to be in his early to mid-teens.  “Cousin Folco!  Cousin Folco!  They’re back—Cousin Frodo and the rest—they’ve returned!”  It was the voice of Pando Proudfoot, Sancho’s nephew that he and his wife had fostered since the death of the lad’s parents some years earlier.

            Folco fumbled at the bar to the door, an addition his father had installed for former hands who’d come from Buckland, and who’d once lived in this hole.  He’d never understood why anyone would want such a thing until it seemed that the ruffians who’d come at Lotho’s call had taken over the running of the Shire.  After a moment the door was squeaking open, and the lad was rushing in, the excitement clear on his face.  “Da sent me—said as you’d probably want to hurry to Bywater.  I’m to stay with your mum and see to her.  But Frodo and Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took and Sam Gamgee—they arrived in Hobbiton late yesterday afternoon on the finest ponies imaginable—except for Sam Gamgee’s—his is rather common, really, but the saddle is magnificent!  But you have to see them to believe it!  They are back, and they intend to chase the ruffians out!  They’ve already sent one group running, and if it wasn’t a sight!  Pippin Took’s gone off to Tuckborough to fetch Took archers from the Thain, and they intend to run the Big Men off once and for all!”

            “Folco, who is it who’s at the door?” demanded his mother from the bedroom.  Obviously there was enough noise for it to have roused her in spite of his precautions.  He suspected she’d not been sleeping all that deeply anyway.

            “Pando Proudfoot, Mum,” he called back, realizing as he did so he’d need to open the door to the bedroom and repeat it for her to actually understand him.  He turned back to his visitor.  “You say that they’ve all returned?  You’re certain?”

            Pando appeared affronted by the question.  “Of course I’m certain!  You think I’d not recognize them when they came home, with me living but two doors from Sam and down the Hill from Frodo all my life?”

            There was that, Folco realized….

            In minutes he was dressed, having given his mother the scanty information he had so far and informed her that Pando would be by her while he was gone until Missus Sweetwater should arrive later in the morning.  “But I’m heading for Bywater,” he stated baldly.  “If we’re finally getting rid of the ruffians, then I want to be part of it!  And I want to see Frodo for myself!”  He leaned over her and gave her a kiss on the forehead, made a quick run to the hearth where Pando had stoked the fire and had the kettle already singing to rush down a quick mug of tea and to stow a bruised but still edible apple and a heel of bread in his pocket before taking Pando’s pony to ride back to Hobbiton and Bywater.

            By the time he arrived in Hobbiton it was to learn that the Battle of Bywater, by which name it came to be known, was already over, and the Big Men on the run.  More of the menfolk from the village intended to go to Bag End, where it was rumored that Frodo and his companions were headed to confront Lotho.  “Not what anyone’s seen hide ner hair o’ Lotho fer weeks,” commented old Noakes as he stood by Folco’s side.  Daisy Boffin had been in the square, a large shawl pulled over her thick nightdress, watching after her husband Griffo as he joined the crowd intent on seeing the meeting between the current Master of Bag End and his predecessor.  “Since that Sharkey come, no one’s seen ner heard aught o’ the wastrel.  Suspect as he’s found as this Sharkey’s too sharp fer him.  Ah—here we go, then!  ’Bout time, I’d say!”  And with that the crowd started toward the Hill.

            Nothing had prepared him for his first sight of Frodo Baggins, though.  “He’s lost weight!” he murmured in surprise to old Noakes as the party from Hobbiton came in sight of the group approaching the Hill from the south, across the bridge from Bywater.

            “That he has,” the farmer agreed in a soft grunt.  “And him’s more’n a mite more serious’n what I member.”

            Folco had to acknowledge that as true, and he found himself searching Frodo’s face avidly.  He had a marked crease in his brow now, one that had been seen but rarely before he’d left but that now appeared deeply etched.  Frodo’s eyes were wary and, he thought, filled with pain.  “What happened to you out there, Cousin?” Folco asked under his breath.  Whatever it was, it had changed Frodo considerably.  He was dressed in proper Hobbit fashion, but those garments had obviously not come from any tailor within the Shire, the fabrics richer than was available anywhere near Hobbiton; and the cloaks and brooches worn by all of them were definitely of foreign origin.  And was he carrying a water bottle over his shoulder?

            Peregrin Took and Meriadoc Brandybuck went first up the steps toward Bag End’s door, drawn swords lifted protectively.  Frodo followed them, and Samwise Gamgee followed immediately in his wake, the expressions of each of the four of them deathly serious.  Behind them followed more tentatively Griffo Boffin and a few other elders from Hobbiton, and Folco slipped through the crowd to go with them up the steps and through the wicket gate into the front garden.  Folco found himself by his cousin Ned Boffin, who was standing on tiptoe, trying to see more clearly.  Ned’s attention was fixed on Pippin, and he looked amazed.  “He’s tall!” he whispered to Folco.  “Pippin Took—he must be the tallest Hobbit I’ve ever seen!  What happened?  How could he have grown so much in but a year’s time?”

            Folco for the first time examined Pippin, and had to admit that Ned’s observation was true.  “But Merry Brandybuck is at least just as tall,” he murmured back after a comparing look at the Master’s son.  He felt the hair on his feet and the back of his neck standing up as his skin prickled.  “Frodo and Sam are the same height as they were before, though,” he added.  As Frodo stepped up on the stoop, his head still came even with that slightly protruding brick from the facing for the door that had always seemed to Folco to have a hint of a goblin face to it.

            Merry and Pippin pushed by Frodo, however, entering Bag End first through the sagging door, its green paint sullied and dulled by unworthy hands and ill usage.  When Frodo turned his head to say something quietly to Sam Gamgee, it could be seen his face was almost totally devoid of color, even his lips blanched unnaturally and his eyes almost feverish in their expression.  Then he was turning back toward the door, and they could all see Frodo squaring his shoulders and taking a deep breath before he, too, put his hand against the wood and entered the once fine hole, visibly steeling himself against whatever horrors he might find within.

            Folco himself had entered his cousin’s old home but once since Lotho Sackville-Baggins and his objectionable mother had moved into the place.  It had been a contentious visit, with Lotho insisting that Folco somehow was duty bound to return to his possession any volumes from the Boffin library that Folco had copied for Bilbo during the year he’d served as old Bilbo’s copyist, back when Folco was still a tween.  “My partner wants them!” was the only explanation given.  It had been difficult to stand in the study and see Otho’s heavy desk sitting in the middle of the room with Lotho behind it as if Folco had just been brought up before him as the Mayor on charges of theft.  The shelves had been filled with heavy ledgers and figures of sheep, as Folco remembered it, and over the study mantel had been hung a great map of the Shire with many sections marked off in red.  Folco remembered that the window had not let in as much light as it had in Bilbo and Frodo’s days in the smial, as a shed had just been erected outside it so that one no longer saw the view of the Shire Bilbo had loved so, but instead a rough-hewn wall. 

Now it seemed no garden had been left, for the flowerbeds laid in by Bungo and Belladonna Baggins and so long cared for by Hamfast and Samwise Gamgee had been covered over by a multitude of such sheds, each more awful than the last.  Reginard Took stepped forward to see better.  He had a quiver half filled with arrows on his shoulder, and carried a strung bow in his hands.

            “Did you really fight Lotho’s Big Men?” Folco asked him quietly.

            Reggie paused, his lips going thin, and nodded as if he hated admitting to it.  “Yes, we did,” he answered in a gruff voice.  “Never had to kill anyone before, but I did this morning—they were headed right for Old Tom Cotton, and we had to stop them.  And Pippin and Merry—they apparently know how to use those swords they are carrying.  Never saw aught like it before, and I truly hope I never do again!”

            The thought that a Hobbit such as Reginard would have had to kill anyone, even one of Lotho’s bullyboys, made Folco’s stomach clench.

            Sam’s face was white with distress at the state of the place as he followed Frodo inside.  Folco watched as he turned just inside the door, apparently taken with shock at the state of the place, and he could be heard offering Frodo words of encouragement that the old hole wouldn’t stay in such shape for long, not if he had anything to say about it.  Then he turned into the parlor and was lost to sight.

            Other Took archers were coming up the steps and joining Reggie, a few stopping with surprise to realize that what had always been the showplace of the Shire was now bedraggled and defaced.  “So many sheds!” remarked one young Took, his gaze drawn to the horrid structures.  “What would anyone want with so many sheds, do you think?”

            Reggie had no answer to give him, and merely shook his head, his own attention fixed, as Folco’s was, on the sagging open door to the smial.  It was some time before the four who’d gone into Bag End appeared just within the doorway, and all of them appeared saddened.  “Like I said, it’s Mordor all over again…” Sam was saying.

            “It is Mordor, Sam,” Frodo agreed.  “…And Saruman was doing its work all the time, even when he thought he was working for himself.  And the same with those Saruman tricked, like Lotho.”

            “Glad he never got the Ring,” murmured Merry as he stepped out.  His face was definitely set.  As for Pippin—he was uncharacteristically solemn as he followed Frodo out the door.  He sheathed his sword with what Folco realized was a practiced air.

            No one saw Sharkey come out of wherever he’d been, but suddenly he was there before them all, confronting Frodo, who stood still on the stoop to the smial.  As the Man spoke, again Folco felt an uncertain prickle run through him.  Somehow he sensed that this Man was accustomed to wielding power, and his voice----

            ----How could anyone describe that voice? he wondered.  It was mellifluous, as if each word were being sung or solemnly chanted rather than merely spoken.  It was filled with authority….

            But Frodo was not visibly moved by that voice, and by looking at the recognition and the grief in his cousin’s eyes, Folco realized that the power in Sharkey’s voice was nowhere as complete as he’d first thought, and that there was a strong sense of self-satisfaction to it.  He’d heard just that tone before, in the voice of Lotho Sackville-Baggins when he’d apparently won an argument about whether or not an item he’d “found” should be returned to its rightful owner, just before Frodo fixed him with that infamous Look of his, at which Lotho had suddenly remembered an engagement he must hurry for.  One of the Shiriffs had then accompanied Frodo to Sackville Place to speak with Otho, and the item had appeared on its rightful master’s doorstep the following day as Folco remembered the incident.  Not even Lotho’s father could easily ignore that expression on Frodo’s face, as young as Frodo had been when he became Master of Bag End and the Hill as well as the Baggins.

            Now Frodo ordered Sharkey gone, and the tall figure called out, “Worm!  Worm!”

            Another Man, one hunched and broken looking, had followed Sharkey from his hiding place among the Big Men’s sheds and stood crookedly some distance behind his master.  Folco briefly noted him before turning his attention back to Sharkey himself.  There was a glint of steel to be seen as he spoke derisively to the hunched Man who followed him.  “To the road again, Worm.  These fine fellows and lordlings are turning us adrift again.  Come along!”

            The lunge at Frodo was completely unexpected, and Folco heard the bowstrings of the three archers to his side sigh as Sharkey sought to stab Frodo.  Folco’s attention was caught by the shocked expression on the Man’s face as he looked at the now broken blade of his knife, just before Sam, his sword drawn, leapt forward to throw him to the ground, others following the gardener to stand over the foul creature.  But all halted at the authority of Frodo’s voice.  “No, Sam!  Do not kill him even now.  For he has not hurt me.  And in any case I do not wish for him to be slain in this evil mood….”

            Sharkey was rising shakily to his feet and staring with first awe and then hatred in his eyes as Frodo spoke.  How, Folco wondered, could he feel such hatred, considering the open compassion in Frodo’s voice?

            The tone of Sharkey’s voice had changed, become crass and rough in response to Frodo’s expression as he spoke his curse.  “But do not expect me to wish you health and long life.  You will have neither.  But that is not my doing.  I merely foretell. … But did I hear someone ask where poor Lotho is hiding? … Worm killed your Chief. … Stabbed him in his sleep, I believe….”

            Folco felt the horror of that pronouncement overwhelm him.  Hobbits didn’t kill other Hobbits, and the thought of this Sharkey having ordered this craven figure to have killed even such a one as Lotho Sackville-Baggins made Folco cringe in revulsion.

            Frodo’s face as Folco could see it had again blanched completely, and there was grief the depths of which Folco had never seen before reflected is his widened eyes.  Frodo’s lips formed a silent No! as he gazed on Sharkey.  The Man’s fellow was groveling now as if he were indeed the worm Sharkey named him.  “You do what Sharkey says always, don’t you, Worm?  Well, now he says: follow!”  And with a vicious kick to the creature’s face he turned abruptly away, and all drew clear to let him go down the steps and out the broken gate.

            But this time Sharkey had gone too far, for Worm suddenly leapt to his feet and drew his own knife too suddenly to be followed, stabbing his master viciously before leaping over the already falling body toward the steps----

            The three bows sang, and Worm tumbled face down, his head cracking audibly against one of the steps as he went still.  Folco had just enough presence of mind to note that Reggie’s face was as white as Frodo’s own as he looked at the arrow protruding from the Man’s neck.

            And then there was that terrible moment as the dark smoky figure had arisen from the body of Sharkey—just before a west wind blew it apart.  Folco felt faint, and realized he’d been holding his breath since Worm’s last voluntary movement.

            All was silent as they looked down on the shriveled form that lay where Sharkey had been killed.  “I think I’m goin’ t’be sick!” someone finally murmured, and Folco unconsciously nodded his appreciation of the sentiment.

            Having covered over the skull-like face of the fallen villain, Frodo clutched at the jewel he wore at his neck and murmured, “Sam—I need to leave.  Please—get me back to the Cottons’!”

            And all were moving.  Sam was gesturing Young Tom forward, and Tom and Merry were now each offering Frodo a shoulder.  When Folco started to follow down the stairs after him, Pippin interposed himself, shaking his head.  “Let him be, Folco.  He’s been through too much today.”

            “But, Pippin----”  He looked up into the young Took’s eyes, but what he saw there confirmed the words spoken.

            “You can help more here, Mr. Folco,” Sam noted.  “Can you help move that one to the lane?  Get him off the steps, at least?”

            And so Folco helped lift the limp body of Worm down the steps to the roadway, where he was laid out on his side as if he were asleep.  Pippin knelt to systematically break off the arrows, his face distant as he worked, as if he’d had to do such things before….

 *******

            “Well?” demanded Wisteria Boffin as Folco returned to the hole that night.  “Is it true?  Frodo’s truly returned, and that Sharkey’s gone, and Lotho’s Big Men have been sent packing?”

            Missus Sweetwater, who’d been sitting with his mum when Folco returned, rose to leave, but Wisteria grabbed her hand to make her stay.  Folco nodded appreciation for her presence before turning his attention back to his mother.  “Yes, Mum, Frodo is back.  And he sought to send that Sharkey away, but the one with him killed him.  He was a vicious thing, Sharkey was—just terribly vicious.  And he was angry that Frodo treated him with pity.  Took ill to being treated with pity, he did!”

            “Someone killed him?” Wisteria asked, shocked to hear of such things there in their beloved Shire.

            “Yes, the Man who followed him did it.  But he’d been provoked, I’d say.”

            “Where did they go, Frodo and the others?” his mother asked.

            “They didn’t say; but they’ve all changed, all four of them.  That Sharkey tried to kill Frodo, but when he said, No! they all held their hands and made no further move toward the Man at all.  So he kicked his fellow, who jumped up and killed him.  There were Tooks there with their bows, and three of them just let loose—and the poor Worm-creature died, too.  Even Frodo was shocked.  And, yes, the Big Men all seem to be gone.  There was quite the fight in the early hours, apparently, and many of them are prisoners now and will be shown to the borders and sent away.  They say Frodo wouldn’t let them treat those who gave up the fight badly.”

            “Well, did you speak with him?”

            “No.  They took Frodo away, back to the Cottons’ farm, apparently.  I’ll see him tomorrow, I hope.”

            “And Pando got back to Hobbiton all right?”

            “Yes—I saw him just before we left Bag End.  You’d never believe what they did to the place, though!  It’s horrible!  Flowers all beaten down; sheds all over the place….”

            But the next day there was no time to meet with Frodo, who’d apparently ridden off to Michel Delving early in the day to check on the rumors of the Lockholes, or so Lily Cotton told him when he arrived at the farm to try to see his cousins.  And the next day when he arrived it was to learn that once more Frodo was gone, back to Michel Delving, summoned by Will Whitfoot.  Fredegar Bolger was there, though, and in moments Folco was standing by Freddy’s bedside.

            “What did they do to you?” he asked, staring in grief at the spare form that seemed to barely make a bulge in the covers.

            “They tried to starve me to death,” Freddy answered in a hoarse whisper.  “They failed, though.”  His smile was more a grimace than anything else.  “I’m too weak to do much yet.”  He accepted a sip of water from the cup held by Rosie Cotton, and nodded his thanks.  “I’ll be all right—or mostly so, so they tell me,” he added to Folco.

            “You saw Frodo?”

            Freddy nodded.  “Not for long—he was pretty tired last night, and Will sent word he wanted to see him today as soon as he could get there to Michel Delving again.  They brought me back here with them yesterday—my folks were thrown out of Budge Hall, you know.”

            “Our place was dug out by the Big Men, on Lotho’s orders, apparently,” Folco responded.  “Seems he was hard on those who were close to Frodo.”

            “I know.”

            They were silent for a few moments.  Lily Cotton carried in a tray with some sauce of apples on it and a glass of soft cider, as well as a small piece of bread, setting the tray on Freddy’s lap.  The now painfully thin Hobbit smiled gratefully at her before telling his cousin, “I have to eat small bits at a time, or they tell me I’d probably just lose it all again.  But at least it’s food!  I’ve seen so little food for so very long!”

            It was hard to imagine how Freddy had been treated, there in the Lockholes.  He helped Freddy eat his meager meal, sat by him a few more minutes, and left him to rest, knowing he was getting good care from the Cottons.

 *******

            A week later Folco rode to Michel Delving himself, intent on speaking to Frodo this time.  He found Frodo in the Mayor’s office, sitting at a table, surrounded by Took lawyers, the attention of all focused on a contact from which Frodo was reading. 

            “And a well shall be dug upon the south side of the property,” Frodo read aloud, then looked up to meet the eyes of one of those standing by him.  “Now, I know that property—there’s a stream bounding it on the south side.  Can’t you see how it was that Lotho tricked old Mistress Marjoram out of the deed, writing such a provision into the contact?  When it could be shown that the well she had dug was placed on the west side of the hole instead, of course he could then charge her with breach of contract, and there was nothing she could do about it!”

            There were indignant murmurs from the various Tooks as they looked from one to another.  Hildigard Took took up the contract from the table and leafed rapidly through its pages, then glared at a stack of similar documents piled up on another table nearby.  “I’ll wager we’ll find similar problems in them all,” he predicted darkly.

            “Who wrote that one?” asked Isumbard Took, reaching to take it from Hilly’s hands.

            Frodo looked up, noticing Folco standing just inside the door.  “Well, the lot of you are due back to speak with the Thain in another couple of hours—best take that with you and show it to him.  I’ll go through another one or two before I head back to Bywater.”  He waved them off, and they all turned to take up cloaks and satchels before filing out the door past Folco.  Only when they were all gone did Frodo take a sip from the mug sitting in front of him, then acknowledged his cousin.  “Hello, Folco.  You are looking well, at least.  And how is Aunt Wisteria?”

            “Suffering from cramps and various miseries,” Folco told him.  “But she’s better off than many others, I suppose.  We did go to the farm after our smial was dug up, and the hands’ holes there are much snugger than most places folks were moved to once Lotho decided to see them displaced.”

            “Did you take a loan from him?” Frodo asked.

            Folco shook his head.  “No—just one day a group of Big Men showed up saying that the Shire needed the dirt and stone from our ridge for paving roads, much as they did when they dug out Bagshot Row, turning the whole Row into a gravel quarry.  Lotho’s just lucky that the whole of the Hill didn’t collapse beneath him, from what I could tell when I went by there the day he summoned me to see him.”

            Frodo appeared alarmed.  “He summoned you—as if he were the Thain or your family head?”

            “He’d named himself Chief Shiriff, and seemed to think that gave him authority to order everybody around as he pleased.  It was a week before a mob of Big Men came to order us out of our home, telling us to get what we could into the wagon before they started digging.  We were lucky, I suppose, that Mum and I had already gotten our most valuable possessions and the books out to the farm and put in the hidden storage holes and pits there.  He wanted any books that Bilbo might have had me copy—for his partner, he said.”

            “His partner?”  At first Frodo seemed puzzled, and then he grew pale.  “Oh—I see.  Yes, Saruman could well have wanted copies Bilbo might have made of any of Elrond’s journals.  I’m so glad I had all mine taken to Buckland even before I left Bag End.”  He nodded and drank deeply from his mug, then sat holding the vessel between his hands, looking into its emptiness.  At last he looked up to meet Folco’s eyes.  “I’m glad you were safe here, though—at least, safer than we were.”

            Folco gave a wry smile.  “Well, at least I didn’t lose half my weight as you did—much less as much as old Fatty.”

            Frodo nodded, looking off into the distance, his expression now sad.  He reached for the jewel he wore at his throat.  “He didn’t want to go with us—was afraid.  He’d perhaps have been better off had he done so.  Or,” he added after a moment, “maybe not.  After all, we all almost died out there.  We gave Aragorn quite a good deal of practice seeing us all healed, I understand.”

            Again he looked up to search Folco’s face.  “They didn’t tell you anything about the conspiracy?”

            “Not until you were gone, Frodo.  After those strange Big Folk apparently attacked the Crickhollow house and at last the Brandybucks gave up asking him about where you lot had gone and why, Fatty came to our place.  Aunt Rosamunda was very upset, and he didn’t want to deal with her, not that I blame him.  He told me then that there had been a conspiracy, but that because of Mum’s health they wouldn’t involve me.  They knew she needed me, after all.

            “I was furious when I realized you’d left the Shire and didn’t tell me!  Felt that you hadn’t trusted me!  It took a while for Fatty to assure me that, no, it wasn’t that nobody trusted me, but that you hadn’t told anyone but Sam Gamgee.”

            Frodo snorted.  “I told Sam nothing—it was Gandalf who decided he’d go with me.  And Gandalf let me know that I had no say in the matter, either.  I’d not intended to take anyone with me, much less let anyone know I was leaving.  After all, there was the strong chance I’d never come back.”

            Folco saw the bleakness in Frodo’s expression, the haunted look to his gaze, and his heart seemed to twist in sympathy.  “It was that bad?”

            Frodo looked down at the mug again.  “It almost killed me.  It almost killed us all.”  He let go of the jewel and rubbed at his left shoulder as if it ached.

            They were quiet for a moment.  Folco at last pulled an abandoned chair opposite his cousin and sat down where he could look more clearly at Frodo’s face.  He realized that for the first time in his memory, Frodo Baggins looked every one of his years.  The crease between Frodo’s brows wasn’t the only one etched there.  At last he noted, “It aged you, at least.”

            Frodo looked up, as if surprised.  “Aged me?  Oh, I agree that it did do that.”

            He shoved the mug aside.  “I must return to Bywater.  Want to ride with me?”  At Folco’s nod he added, “I’ll be ready in about half an hour.”

            It was not until they were riding home together, mostly quietly, that Folco noted that Frodo’s right hand was missing its ring finger.  He didn’t dare ask about it.

            Frodo did tell him that the King had returned, and that he was the finest Man that had ever lived.  He described some of the lands he’d visited—fleetingly, Folco realized. 

            “And did you find Bilbo?” he asked at last.

            Frodo nodded, his gaze fixed on something Folco realized was beyond the eastern horizon.  “Oh, yes, I did.  He’s in Rivendell.  He’s aged, too, since the Ring was destroyed.”  His voice was very soft.  “I don’t know how much time he might have left.”  And in a softer murmur he added, not as much under his breath as he’d intended, “Or how much time I have left, either.”

            “What ring?” asked Folco.

            But Frodo merely shook his head.

            Sam Gamgee was there when they rode into the Cotton place and as Frodo swung himself, uncharacteristically heavily, out of his pony’s saddle.  Folco was invited inside, his pony taken to the barn along with Frodo’s Strider, and stayed to a finer dinner than he’d known in some time.  It was late when, armed with a lantern, he headed for Overhill and the farm at last.

            Yes, Frodo was returned safely, but just how sound he might be Folco wasn’t certain.

*******

            Work began on building a new home for Wisteria and Folco Boffin within a few weeks, and Hobbits from all over the region came to help in the construction of it.  Frodo came to see it during his stays on the Cottons’ farm, and he, too, was helping as he could, bringing water for the masons and helping to steady support beams.  Fatty rode with him on his second visit, and knelt among those who were tiling the floors, although Frodo made certain he did not tire himself.

            Once the place was finished and Wisteria restored to her rightful place as dowager mistress, Frodo would visit now and then.  He was happy to describe Gondor and the King’s wedding and the work the King and Queen did within the Houses of Healing and a few of the audiences he’d observed.  He spoke of the beauty of Elrond’s home, and Folco felt he could see the graceful edifice within the deep but wide valley of Rivendell more clearly from Frodo’s descriptions.  Frodo put on some weight at last, and looked more as Folco remembered, although he was far more reserved and quiet than he’d ever been.

            And many of the possessions taken by the Gatherers and Sharers were restored as Lotho’s many holdings were searched, barns were opened, sheds emptied, Shiriff Houses dismantled, and the Lockholes cleared.  Some Frodo brought himself; others were brought by a whistling Sancho Proudfoot or another of the Shire’s carters.

            Folco hosted Freddy and his sister Estella for a week in February.  Estella had been sent to the Tooklands during the Time of Troubles, disguised as a boy, to keep her safe from the Big Men, some of whom had been less than well behaved toward pretty Hobbitesses of good family.  She’d come back nowhere as flighty as she’d been, much quieter and gentler than Folco had ever seen her.

            “I’m amazed at how quickly things are being restored,” she commented.  “This house—it’s hard to realize it is a house now, and not the smial I remember.  Frodo drew up the plans for it himself, you realize, with the help of Ergo Banks.  He wanted for you and Aunt Wisteria to feel right at home in it.  And it just feels right, if you understand me.”

            “How about Budge Hall?” asked Folco.

            Freddy shook his head.  “We aren’t certain when it will all be done.  One of the back rooms was more badly damaged than we’d thought—they say it might collapse if there’s not more shoring done.  But the Mayor’s office authorized payment to see it finished.  My father was surprised—was certain we’d have to pay for it ourselves.  But Frodo said no, that there was already a fund to help those whose homes were destroyed.”  He sighed.  “I suspect he’s funding much it himself, actually.  Seems to think himself personally responsible to see the Shire rebuilt.”

            “He doesn’t have that much money—” Folco began, but Freddy again shook his head, a twisted smile on his face.

            “Don’t be so certain, Cousin,” he said.  “The King has settled quite an income on him, or so Merry tells me.  For services rendered unto the realm, it seems.”

            Folco and Estella exchanged surprised looks.

 *******

            “Frodo’s running for Mayor,” Folco commented to Freddy as he settled in the chair in his cousin’s new home in Budgeford that he shared with Budgie Smallfoot and his wife Viola.

            Freddy snorted.  He looked much better than Folco had ever seen him.  He was far slenderer than he’d been as a child, but definitely more substantial than he’d been that first time Folco had seen him after Frodo’s return, lying in one of the Cottons’ extra rooms, emaciated and sickly looking.  “It’s all Will Whitfoot’s doing,” he said with some authority.  “Frodo’s not certain what to think about it all, actually.  He’s not sure he wants to keep the job.”

            “But he’s so good at it!” objected Folco.

            “No question of that.  Everybody is surprised at how quickly things have been set to right, you know, and the winter would have been a lot sparer for most of the Shire if Frodo hadn’t been in charge of seeing to it that all the foodstuffs found were equitably shared around the land.  Without him and Sam Gamgee taking over and seeing to it homes and the Quick Post were restored and the carters organized to get food and supplies where they’re needed most and the Family Heads cooperating together with the heads of villages, I don’t know where we’d have been.

            “But Frodo is feeling—tired.”

            “He’s much too young to just retire,” Folco pointed out.

            Freddy shrugged.  “That may be true, but I get the feeling he feels he’s been far too responsible for far too long.  After all, he spent months on his journeys outside the Shire, helping to fight the Enemy.  If anyone deserves a time of peace, I think it’s Frodo Baggins.”

            Thinking to the last glimpse he’d had of Frodo, sitting in the common room in the inn at Michel Delving, his hand clutching the jewel he’d worn about his neck since his return from his wanderings, Folco had a feeling that Freddy was all too accurate in his assessment.

 *******

            Folco reread the letter he’d had from Frodo—the last letter he’d ever have from his beloved cousin, he realized.  He stood and walked over to the door to the passageway, and doubling his fist he struck the support post.  “No!” he cried to the empty house, his mother having finally left this life peacefully but three months earlier.  “He can’t have left again!”

            He barely noted the rapid beat of ponies’ hooves until they stopped; he turned at the sound of voices outside the house, recognizing that Freddy must be out there.  He hurried to the door.

            Freddy was leaning on the shoulder of Budgie Smallfoot, and both appeared as stricken as he was himself.  He searched his Bolger cousin’s eyes.  “Then you know he’s gone again,” he said.

            Freddy limped closer.  “I just found out.  He wrote me a letter, but Rosie didn’t send it when he entrusted it to her.  He’d told her I was coming to Bag End, you see, so she thought it would keep until I got there.”

            Folco escorted the two of them inside and saw Freddy settled in his favorite chair, one of the items Frodo had found in one of Lotho’s hoards and seen returned home again.  Folco went to the kitchen and poured his cousin a cup of strong tea, and on second thought added in a dollop of brandy from the bottle that Merry had sent him at Yule, doing the same for the mugs he prepared for Budgie and himself.

            Once the three of them had each taken a good swallow from his cup, Folco fixed Freddy with his most serious stare.  “I think, my beloved Fredegar Bolger, that it is time to tell me all.  I need to understand.”

            Freddy searched his eyes.  “He told you nothing?”

            Folco shook his head.  “Next to nothing, at least.  But I got the feeling you know far more than I do.”

            Freddy looked down into the tea in his cup, nodding slowly.  “Perhaps it was because I was there at the Cottons’ place with him, after they rescued me from the Lockholes.  He told me more than most, I think.  And I insisted he let me edit his book.”

            He sighed and looked up to face Folco squarely.  “Yes, it is time—past time—that you were properly brought into the conspiracy.”

            “Is he dying?”

            “I sincerely hope not!” Freddy said emphatically.  “No, but he won’t be able to come back—those who go to the Undying Lands can’t, you understand.”

            A thrill of hope rose in Folco’s soul, for he remembered some of what he’d read as he’d copied those books for old Bilbo….

           

For Starlight and KayleeLupin for their birthdays.  And thanks to RiverOtter for the beta.

The Tell-Tale

            Frodo arrived at the farm at Whitwell to be greeted by an obviously distracted Eglantine Took.  “Ah, here you are, my lad!  I am so grateful you have arrived—all is at sixes and sevens the past few weeks, and perhaps you can help the other children to sort it all out.  Bilbo’s gone on to the Great Smial?”

            “Yes.  He rather thought that after last year’s meeting of the Family Heads there it might be better that I not go with him this time.”

            “I should say so—Lalia is still certain that you must have had a hand in seeing her glued to her own chair.”

            “I promise, Aunt Lanti, that it was not I who did that.”

            She shook her head.  “At this point, even if the one who truly did it were to confess before the entire assembly of Family Heads and produce witnesses, still no one would begin to believe it was anyone but you.”

            At that point Pimpernel came up behind her mother and pulled on her skirts to get her attention.  “Mummy, Pearl wants to know if she can come out of her room now, now that Frodo’s come.”

            Lanti’s eyes closed in frustration.  “You can tell your sister she can simply stay put for now.  And is Pippin staying in his room?”

            “Yes, although he’s in a right dither, wanting to be out here to tell his side of the story to Frodo!”

            The young Baggins gave his nominal aunt an inquiring look.  “And what sort of story does he wish to tell me his side of?” he asked.

            Eglantine threw up her hands.  “He’s got to the stage when he is tattling on everyone, and he’s managed to anger even his Cousin Merry, who usually will stand by him no matter what.”

            “I see.  So, he’s the self-appointed conscience for all, is he?”

            “You have it right there, Frodo.  And today he managed to tell about Pearl hiding out in the barn when she was supposed to be helping me with carding wool—she hates carding wool, as you know, Frodo.  So then we caught her trying to get her own back, having enlisted her cousin Linden to help her catch Pippin unawares so as to paint his hair red.”

            Frodo laughed merrily.

            “It’s not so funny,” Lanti said darkly, “when you have to deal with this, day in and day out.”

            Frodo controlled his laughter with difficulty, but his eyes were still sparkling as he asked, “So, Linden is here.  How about Bard?”

            “He’s here, too.  Not too happily, mind you.”

            Frodo sighed.  “Not knowing I was coming, I suppose.”  He smiled wryly.  “I promise to be good, Aunt Lanti.”

            “He’s promised the same.  But their parents had to head off for the Southfarthing for a wedding, and they would not leave Linden at the Great Smial to the untender mercies of Lalia.”

            The cheer left Frodo’s face.  “Almost anything is better for her than being left in the keeping of Lalia the Fat,” he muttered sternly.

            “Frodo Baggins!  Being unkind is not like you!”

            Frodo merely sniffed.  “I suppose I should go see Merry.  Is he with Pippin, then?”

            “Actually, he’s in the parlor with Linden, Pervinca, and Isumbard, as Pippin has actually managed to tattle on him, too.”

            Frodo gave a single bright laugh, and said, “Then I shall go there.”  He leaned forward to kiss her cheek, and swinging his pack off his shoulders he headed for the room where the other younger Hobbits were gathered.

            “You brighten wherever you go, Frodo Baggins,” she said softly as she watched him leave her.  He did not hear her, for he was singing cheerfully to himself as he headed out of the kitchen, closely followed by Pimpernel.

 *******

            “Pippin just can’t seem to stop tattling on everybody,” Pimpernel explained as Frodo settled himself before the hearth beside Merry and accepted a biscuit handed him by Linden.  “He told Isumbard that Merry had shortsheeted his bed, and Linden that Pervinca planned to sneak into her room to sleep with her as a surprise.  He told Da that Merry had ridden Ginger even though he was told not to as she is in foal, so Merry was in disgrace for two days last week.”

            “And the reason Cousin Lanti didn’t go to the meeting of the Family Heads was because at Yule Pippin told Aunt Lalia that his mother had deliberately poured grape juice on the dress Lalia gave her so she wouldn’t have to wear it,” added Linden.  “At least we could come here and wouldn’t have to stay there at the Great Smial as her guests while our parents are gone!”

            Isumbard said, rather reluctantly, “I doubt Cousin Paladin would have gone either, were he not the Heir to Ferumbras.”

            The other children all indicated their agreement.  Pervinca was wrinkling her nose.  “He tells on me, too, all of the time,” she said.

            Linden nodded.  “That he does.  And all the lads near his age at the Great Smials are all angry with him.  They had gotten together to steal sweets from the great larder, and of course it was Pippin who got caught.  And when he was asked who else was part of the plan he told all their names, so they were all punished.”

            Frodo’s eyebrows rose as he exchanged looks with Merry.  It was a point of honor at Brandy Hall that no one told on anyone else who was in on a prank or bout of scrumping, and it would be expected a similar code should be practiced at the Great Smial as well.  Isumbard confirmed this: “They shan’t be including him again anytime soon, I’d think.”

            “Mummy’s not certain what to do,” Pimmie sighed.  “She’s glad he tells the truth, no matter what; but to keep telling on others all the time—even she hates to have that happen.”

            “Can you fix it, Frodo?” Merry asked.

            Frodo gave his beloved younger cousin a sad look.  “One doesn’t fix a tattling child quite the same way one does a broken stick,” he advised the lad.  “It will take more than smaller sticks and glue and paper, you understand.”

            “But he might listen to you where he won’t to the rest of us,” Merry said, his expression pleading.

            Frodo appeared thoughtful.  “I shall think on it,” he said.  “But I can’t promise anything, you understand.”

            Merry smiled, apparently convinced that Frodo’s prodigious brain should be able to figure out the answer to any problem, even one such as this.

 *******

            Pippin and Pearl’s punishments were over at dinnertime, when they were let out of their rooms to join with the other children.  Pippin appeared to have spent much of his time peering through the crack at the bottom of his door, if the smudges on his cheek and the elbow of his shirt and the way his hair was flattened on that side had anything to tell.

            Pearl had taken advantage of her enforced confinement to her room to experiment with her hair, putting it up to make herself look older and wiser.  She pointedly avoided looking at her little brother all through the meal, mostly casting what she obviously hoped were knowing glances at Frodo, who sat down at the far end of the table, and sharing whispered exchanges with Linden beside her.  Even Pimpernel was growing obviously embarrassed with her by the end of the meal, and Eglantine made certain that Pearl was the one who did the washing up all by herself.  “Time to rid yourself of airs, young lady,” Lanti advised her.

            Pearl glared, but obediently stayed in the kitchen as the others were shooed off to the parlor, and most especially Frodo.  Only Isumbard, who fancied Pearl himself, seemed happy at this.

            Lanti brought in some warm spiced cider and a platter of decorated biscuits for the youngsters to share, and sat down with a basket of mending.  The lasses each had her own sewing or knitting bag by her seat, and Merry had some harness he was to punch new holes for to work on.  Isumbard, who was now old enough to smoke, fiddled with his pipe while Frodo settled himself on the floor with some strips of dyed leather he was braiding together to make a lanyard.   Pippin, a slate pencil and scrap of old cloth to hand, had been advised to practice his letters, and sat leaning against Frodo, diligently drawing each letter on his small slate and then wiping it off as Bard described how his father had gifted him with this pipe on his last birthday.

            “I was so pleased,” he concluded.  “After all, this was once my grandda’s pipe.”

            Merry was looking at it with obvious envy in his eyes as Frodo looked up from his braiding with a nod of understanding.  “I understand my Grandfather Folco never took up smoking,” he commented.  “I suppose one day Bilbo will give me my dad’s pipes.  You are lucky to have that to remember your grandda by.”

            Bard gave an abbreviated nod, not liking to admit that his rival had given him a compliment.  But his frown returned when Pearl hurried in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron, checking first to see where it was that Frodo was sitting.  Finding that Frodo was seated in a place where she couldn’t easily sit by him she grimaced, then sat in her usual place at the end of the small sofa to take out the bodice she was working upon, self-righteously shaking her head when Pimmie offered her the plate of biscuits.

            The room fell silent for a time as each concentrated on what was being worked upon, until at last Pippin looked up at Frodo and asked, “Will you tell us a story, Frodo?”

            Frodo looked down at his smallest cousin present thoughtfully, then finally smiled.  “Oh, but I think I shall, if your mother allows it.  It appears that you haven’t exactly been in favor today.”

            “But Mum has always told us we must tell the truth—“ Pippin began, before Frodo held up a hand to forestall him.

            “Telling the truth is one thing; but sometimes even the truth can be dangerous to share.”  So saying, he set down his lanyard and lifted the smaller lad onto his lap, and took a deep breath to prepare himself to tell his tale.

 *******

            Once, long ago, when your dad’s dad’s dad’s dad was a lad, or perhaps before, a small Hobbit named Toto lived with his family in a snug smial in the Eastfarthing, not far from the Road, or so I was told by Uncle Rory when I myself was small.  He was a nice enough child, but had taken to heart a bit too strongly the idea that one must always tell the truth, no matter what.

            One day he and the other lads slipped onto a nearby farm to do some scrumping, and only he was caught, his hands filled with carrots.

            “Who was with you?” demanded the farmer.

            Toto told him the names of the other lads, and the farmer went to all their homes, and all of them were forbidden to go on his land ever again.  Now none of Toto’s friends would speak to him, and he didn’t feel that was right.  He’d only told the truth, right?

            His oldest sister was being courted by a neighbor lad a bit older than she, and Toto’s parents weren’t certain that she was quite old enough to court at all.  Toto told them that he’d seen his sister kissing the lad, both of them behind the corn crib, and now the lad was told off not to come again and the lass was forbidden to see him any more.  His sister cried and cried and cried.  When it was learned that the lad had begun to court another lass, she cried some more.  She never married, for her heart was of the sort to be stirred but once, and her parents were sad that they had thought it only a childish fascination and not realized it was true love, and knew they’d done wrong by her.  But it was too late by then, and Toto couldn’t understand why he was blamed.  After all, he’d but told the truth!

            When his mum spent more money than intended on fabric for a new dress, Toto told his dad at once, and then was surprised to find them quarreling.  When his dad bought a new pig at a time they needed more lamp oil, Toto told his mother, and again his parents quarreled.  “If you’d only not interfered,” his mum explained afterwards, “your dad would have found his own way to explain, and it would have been better.”  But Toto was certain that he’d but told the truth, so it couldn’t be his fault!

            Then one night a ruffian of a Big Folk came along the Road, looking for someplace to hide.  He’d done something bad between the Shire and Bree, it is said, and the Rangers were after him!

 *

            “What are the Rangers?” asked Pippin.

            “They are Big Folk who live outside the Shire, although sometimes they ride along the Road; and it is said in Buckland that they keep an eye out for bad folk of any sort and drive them away, out into the Wild.”

            Pippin nodded his understanding, and went quiet for Frodo to continue his tale.

 *

            The ruffian was apparently sufficiently desperate that when he saw the door to the smial, there on the hillside, he went to it and tried it.  Finding it unlocked, he entered the hole, even though it was the middle of the night.

            It was dark inside the smial, and he knocked over a table, awakening Toto, who came out of his room to see what was making the noise.

            “Who’s there?” demanded the ruffian.

            “It’s me, Toto Broadbelt,” Toto answered.

            As his eyes became used to the darkness, the ruffian saw before him only a little tiny lad, and he grew more bold and self-assured.  “Can you light a candle?” he demanded.

            “Yes.”

            “Then do so.”  So Toto did, and he saw the Man with all his ugliness, and was sorry he’d made it easier for both of them to see.

            “And do you have any riches?” the ruffian asked.

            Toto wasn’t precisely certain what riches might be, but he answered, “Mum and Dad have some coin put by, there in the sugar bowl.”

            The ruffian looked into the sugar bowl and found the coins, and took them all, putting them into his pocket.

            “Do you have any food?” he demanded next.

            “In the larder.”

            “And where’s that?”

            So Toto showed the ruffian the larder, and the Man opened the door, and saw they had lots put by.  Seeing a blanket over the back of the sofa, he took it and made a bag of it, and he took all of the food from the larder and put it into the bag he’d made, and twisted it to drag it out of the smial, beckoning for Toto to go with him.

            “Have you a horse?”

            “No,” Toto answered reluctantly, “we don’t.  But we do have a pony.”

            So the Man made him show him the stable, and he took their pony and put the bag made of the blanket over its back, and took it all away.

            Toto was weeping when his parents awoke, and he told them all the ruffian had taken.

            “But how did he know where the coin was hidden?” asked his mother.  “It wasn’t obvious!”

            “I told him,” admitted the little Hobbit.  “He asked, so I told him the truth.”

            “And how did he find out where the larder was?” asked his father.

            “He asked, so I told him,” Toto explained.

            “And that’s how he knew we had a pony to take, too?” asked his sister.

            Toto had to admit she was right.

            They were all outside, looking at the empty stable, when the Ranger came by, looking for the ruffian.  Toto’s father told him that the Man had been there, and what he’d taken, and that he’d only known what to take because Toto had told him about it and where it was.  The Ranger sighed, and asked which way the ruffian had gone.  This time they were all glad of Toto’s penchant for telling the truth, for he was able to point out the path the ruffian had taken with the pony, and they described the pony so the Ranger would be able to recognize it.

            Late in the day the Ranger returned.  He was walking now, leading his horse, on which the ruffian was riding, his hands tied behind him and his feet lashed to the horse’s barrel.  The ruffian looked most upset at this turn of affairs, and especially as the Ranger stopped to return to the family their coins retrieved from the Man’s pocket, the pony, and the bag made from their blanket filled with the food from their larder.

            The Ranger knelt down to talk to Toto.  “I am glad that your parents have raised a son who appreciates the value of honesty,” he said.  “But I hope you have now learned that it is not good to answer every question asked of you, or to tell everything you know, and particularly when it may well lead to you losing what you care for most.  Your family can ill afford the loss of so much coin, or all the food from your larder, much less your pony.  You are fortunate that this ruffian was being sought by me, for you are not the only one to lose all of value to him.  And had he had more time he would have possibly have stolen your life and the lives of your other family members as well as the pony and the food and the coin.  Think well before you speak from now on.”

            And the child took his words to heart, and from that day he knew when it was important to hold his tongue and did so.  So it was that he no longer had everyone angry with him for speaking out of turn.

 *******

            All were silent for a time once the tale was through.  Pippin sat still for a moment or two before twisting to look up into Frodo’s face.  “So,” he said in a small voice, “It’s not always a good thing to tell everything?”

            “What do you think?” Frodo answered in a gentle voice.

            “So I shouldn’t tell you that Pearl----”  But something in Frodo’s suddenly stern countenance stopped him, and Pippin took a deep breath instead.  “Oh, I see,” he said.

            But what it was he’d been about to say about his sister he never told anyone, undoubtedly to Pearl’s great relief.

Written for the Tolkien Weekly Luncheon challenge.  For Budgielover for her birthday.  Beta by RiverOtter.

A Light Luncheon

            Sam looked down on the small luncheon tray he’d prepared for his Master.  “It ain’t natural!” he muttered, “just a cup of soup, a slice of toast, and a mug of cider.  He ought to be eatin’ well, like any proper Hobbit.”

            But since their return from the Southlands Frodo Baggins had been able to eat less and less at a time.

            “At this rate,” he continued, “he’ll be not much better’n a wraith in no time at all.”

            And then he shuddered, remembering how very close that had come to happening in truth.  At least his Master still lived.

For Dreamflower for her birthday, with much love and many thanks.  Thanks as ever to RiverOtter for the beta. 

In the Light of Familiar Stars

            “Well, so this is where you are!”

            Frodo twisted his head slightly to smile up at Bilbo as the older Hobbit reached the crown of the Hill.  He lay on his back in the grass near the rooftree, his hands laced behind his head.  “It was so busy and noisy at the Free Fair it was hard to enjoy the stars.  I’m glad to be home again, is all.”  So saying, he returned his attention to the glory overhead.

            Bilbo had come with a rug in hand that he rolled out upon the ground before settling himself to lie beside his ward with a series of wordless grunts.  “I suppose that Menegilda would accuse me of having taught you bad habits,” he commented, once he was comfortable.

            Frodo shrugged a shoulder.  “I spent my share of nights atop Brandy Hall when I was a younger lad,” he said.  “She didn’t approve, but couldn’t find a good reason to object most of the time, and especially on hot nights during the summer.”

            Bilbo nodded his understanding.  They were quiet for a time.  At last he murmured, “There are few places where the stars seem as fair, not as far as I’ve been across Middle Earth.  Oh, perhaps they might have seemed brighter in Rivendell, not that I spent much time outside at night.    And I must say that during our return to the Shire, mine and Gandalf’s, they seemed especially close when we camped in the mountain passes.  But for sheer comfort, they are best viewed from right here, I think.”

            “I suppose you are right,” Frodo said softly, his eyes reflecting the sparkle of the river of glory overhead.  After a time he added, “They make me think of the Elves.”

            “They do?  I suppose that’s only to be expected.  After all, the Elves awoke under the light of stars, there by the Waters of Beginning.”

            Frodo smiled his acknowledgment, returning his attention to the skies once more.  “I would have loved to have seen that awakening,” he whispered.  “And to awaken to so much beauty!”

            “Indeed.”  Another silence.  And then:  “Lad, if you could ever see the stars from any place you have ever heard of, where would it be?”

            Frodo turned his head to share a glance, then looked up again, clearly pondering.  “I’m not certain,” he answered at last.  “Well, if it could be anywhere at all, I’d truly love to see them from the Elven Lands, perhaps Elvenhome itself!  To stand upon the hill of Tirion and see them from there—they must be spectacular there!”

            “My heavens, but you did choose quite the spot!  Not that any Hobbit will ever see them from Aman itself!”

            Frodo laughed easily.  “Well, you didn’t stipulate the viewing must be from here in Middle Earth, after all.”

            “No, that I didn’t.  I’m only sorry I can’t promise you that you’ll ever reach your ambition.”

            He could see that his lad was smiling.  Frodo responded, “I don’t mind that.  For now, I’m contented to see them from here, here in the center of our beloved Shire, atop the Hill itself, with the breeze rustling the leaves of midsummer and the sound of the Water below us and the creak of the Mill’s wheel.  That’s pleasure enough for now.”

            Pleasure enough for now.  Yes, it would be that for his dear boy.  He’d been contemplating begging the lad to come with him when he left the Shire, but now he knew that Frodo’s heart belonged here—at least for the time being.  He’s still in love with the ways and fields and the beauty of our own land, Bilbo thought.  He’s not ready yet to walk outside its borders.  And when at last he does, it will not be as it was with me, going out of misplaced pride, but due to the love he holds for the very folk he so often grows impatient with for their unwillingness to see beyond themselves and their current concerns.  He’s fiercely loyal to his own, our Frodo.

            With that he reached out, allowing his hand to rest against the lad’s shoulder.  The need to get away and to see the wide world at least once more before the end was growing strong within him, but he felt better, knowing that Frodo Baggins would remain behind to guard the integrity of the Hill and the Shire itself.

           

Written for the LOTR Community Short and Sweet challenge.  For Mews for her birthday.  Beta by RiverOtter.  373 words.

A State of Dress for a Meeting of State

            “Sam, is this really necessary?”

            “You heard Lord Strider, Master.”

            Frodo sighed.  He closed his eyes and took deep breaths, finally opened them again, a fatalistic expression on his face, and gave a brief nod.

            Pippin helped remove the shirt Frodo had been wearing.  Once the quilted silk garment designed to be worn under Frodo’s mithril corslet was slipped over his head, Pippin left Sam to tie the laces at the neck while he brought a shirt of dark blue embroidered about the placket, cuffs, and hem with white stars.  This they helped Frodo to don, and then the corslet itself.  The crystals of the corslet shone in splendor against the blue of the placket and long sleeves.  Then there was the overtunic, which was embroidered with stylized renditions of the Two Trees, Telperion on the right and Laurelin to the left.  Now the glittering belt that matched the corslet was carefully fastened about Frodo’s now slender waist, and to it was fixed Sting’s sheath.

            Sam saw to it that Frodo’s hair was carefully brushed both upon Frodo’s head and his feet while Pippin fetched the Circlet of Honor that Frodo was to wear.  The older Hobbit eyed it with distaste, ready once more to balk.  “No, Pippin—not that as well!”

            Pippin gave a wry smile.  “I fear that you are left with no choice in the matter, my beloved cousin.  Our Lord Strider insists that if he must dress up to meet these new envoys, so must you.  After all, I suspect they want to see you as much as they do the new Lord King Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar.”

            “It’s rank silliness, all this mess and bebotherment,” Frodo grumbled as the mithril coronet was settled upon his brows.

            “There!” Pippin said, admiring the effect of the mithril against Frodo’s dark curls.  “And if you don’t indeed look the right Prince of the West they called you at Cormallen!”

            “I’d rather stay here and work on my notes for Bilbo,” Frodo objected.

            But his younger cousin and Sam were shaking their heads.  “You won’t be getting out of this ceremony, Frodo Baggins!” Pippin warned.

            “My only consolation now is that Sam must dress up, too!” Frodo announced.

            Sam groaned, and Pippin laughed.

Written for the Tolkien Weekly "Brother" challenge.  For GamgeeFest for her birthday.  Beta by RiverOtter.

Brothers Born and Chosen

            “Oh, yes, Sam has two brothers as well as his three sisters.  Hamson and Halfred are closer to my age, so they’re off doing their apprenticeships, up in the Northfarthing.  Hamson is a journeyman roper, and a  very good one by report; and Half is learning to run a nursery.  He’s sent us some lovely trees for Bag End’s orchard in the past few years.”

            Sam smiled as he heard his Master’s praise for his brothers.  Of course, he dreamed of having three brothers rather than just two, and it was Frodo Baggins who he thought of as the third.

Written for the LOTR Community "Two Sides" prompt, to the question: Is it proper to invite one's servant to a social occasion?  For Celeritas for her writing birthday.  Beta by RiverOtter.

Proper Propriety

            Dora Baggins examined the front door of Bag End with satisfaction.  Obviously it had just been freshly repainted, and the brass of the doorknob had been brightly polished, as had the fob at the end of the bell pull.  “Excellent!” she said to herself.  “Bilbo is obviously making certain that the place is ready for whatever guests might make their way into the hole during the party.  Only right and proper, seeing that our Frodo is coming of age on that day!”  She almost hated to touch the bell pull, knowing she might possibly mar its smudge-free state.  Then she chided herself for being a silly, at which she gripped it firmly and gave an authoritative pull.  She could hear the bell inside tinkle cheerfully, and a moment later the door was opened by the gardener’s lad, that Samwise Gamgee.

            Sam’s wary expression melted swiftly once he was certain who it was at the door.  “Miss Dora!” he said, drawing the door open fully and stepping aside.  “Do come in.  Although I must tell you as old Mr. Bilbo ain’t here—gone off to Michel Delving on business, you understand.  My Mr. Frodo, now he’s here.  He’s in the dinin’ room, seein’ to the silver.”

            “And you are helping to prepare for the party Thursday next?”

            “As I can, of course, ma’am.  But today I’m only helpin’ out in the kitchen some, what with all the things as there is t’do twixt now and then.  Need t’get back out in the garden, though.  The last time as that Missus Lobelia was here, if she didn’t trample the lilies outside the study window, tryin’ t’peer inside and make certain if’n Mr. Bilbo weren’t hidin’ there on her.  Shall I see you through to the dinin’ room, Miss Dora?”

            “If you will, Master Gamgee.”

            He flushed at that, closing the door after her and throwing the bolt.  “In case them awful Sackville-Bagginses drop by again—they haven’t been givin’ the Masters a bit of peace, what with all their tryin’ to find out if’n the rumors of Mr. Bilbo writin’ them out of his will is true,” he explained as he wiped his hands on the toweling he had girt about his waist as an apron.  “If you’ll come this way?”  So saying, he led the way past the second parlor and study door to the dining room.

            Dora Baggins had to admit young Samwise was turning out very well.  He was already beginning to fill out, and had a sturdier physique than had his rather wiry father.  His face was pleasant, his expression responsible, and when he smiled others had to smile in response.  And there was no question that he was devoted to her nephew’s welfare.  One had only to see him accompanying Frodo about the village on errands, or to hear him standing up to whatever snide comments that terrible Ted Sandyman might fling Frodo’s way, to know that he was Frodo’s man, plain and simple.  And he was even more gifted with flowers than his father, which was saying a lot!  She simply could not imagine a better one to serve the needs of their beloved Frodo!

            He knocked at the door to the dining room, which was open.  “Mr. Frodo, sir—it’s Miss Dora come to see you.”

            Frodo turned.  He was neatly dressed in a dark green shirt under a tapestried waistcoat in greens and maroons with a few golden flowers here and there.  What a difference, she thought, from how she’d first seen him on his arrival from Buckland, then in sturdy but relatively plain Hall cloth.  Over his good clothes he wore one of Bilbo’s aprons for protection, and he had a polishing cloth in one hand and a silver ladle in the other.  “Aunt Dora?  How wonderful!  Do come in!  Oh, but Sam, are you able to go into the village for me and fetch five more fresh hens from the poulterer?  It appears that we will need more to feed the Dwarves when they arrive.  I paid them already this morning when I went in to give them the order, so don’t allow old Sourloam to convince you it’s to be paid again.  Speak to his daughter if you can—Jonquil has a better memory for things like that than does old Marcho.”

            “Certainly, Master,” Sam said, knuckling his forehead.  “As soon as I’ve seen to them lilies as Missus Lobelia stepped on this mornin’, sir.  And is there aught else as I should see to about the pavilions for the Party?”

            “I don’t think so at the moment.  Bilbo has most of it well in hand, it appears, so I’ve decided to leave the pavilions to him for the moment.  He should be home in a few hours at any rate.  And have you heard whether Hamson and Halfred will be coming?  Where will they be staying?”

            “Hamson’s brood’s to stay with the Cottons, and Half will be at Number 3 with the Gaffer and us.  Half will be bringin’ a number of bushes and trees in tubs to set up here and there around the Party Field, and Moro Burrows has promised some fine green ribbon to make bows about them.  Should be right festive, if’n you take my meanin’.”

            “It sounds delightful.  And, remember—you will be eating in the family pavilion with us, so be certain you wear your new waistcoat.”

            “Yessir, Mr. Frodo.  I won’t disappoint you, you can count on that.  If’n you’ll excuse me, Master, Miss Dora.”  Again he knuckled his forehead and gave a brief inclination of his head.  “I’ll be about what needs doin’, then.”  And with that he was gone off toward the kitchen, removing the towel as he walked.  Within a minute they heard the back door to the smial close behind him as he went out.

            “Samwise Gamgee is to eat in the family pavilion?” asked Dora Baggins, feeling alarmed.  “Is it right to invite one’s servant to a social occasion?  And, after all, he is not related!”

            Frodo appeared surprised.  “What’s the harm, Aunt Dora?  The Gamgees are all but family to Bilbo and me, after all.  I mean, they are up here every day for one reason or another.  And Sam isn’t exactly a servant—he’s the gardener’s lad and as such is a craftsman in his own right, and does at least as much if not more to see to the upkeep of the place as does his father.”

            “But he’s been in seeing to the kitchen----”

            “He volunteered to do that because he knew I was busy with polishing the silver and that I must meet with Ponto and Iris just after tea.  His sisters Daisy and May are both about the place, too—we hired them for the day to help prepare the guest rooms for the Dwarves, after all.  But they aren’t servants—just the ones we usually hire to help with what we can’t see to ourselves when it’s needed.”

            “Will they be in the family pavilion for supper, too?”

            “What?  And why?  They aren’t family, and have no interest in being about when family business is seen to.  But Sam has agreed to help make certain that all is properly served to those who attend the family meal, so deserves to be allowed to eat with us, don’t you think?  How will he be able to keep an eye on things to direct the servers if he’s made to eat elsewhere?  And I’ll wager he has a better idea of what various members of the family are up to than even you do.  He’s very observant, and quite the quick study, you’ll find.”

            “But—a servant—all right, an employee, if you will—is not on the same level as a member of the family!  After all, he is a working Hobbit.”

            Frodo’s face had gone pale, and his cheeks were growing quite pink.  “I will remind you that Bilbo and I both serve as copyists, and that Cousin Porto is trained as a lawyer, as are a number of our Took and Bracegirdle relations.  Are we to exclude them or the Goodbodies, who are our bankers of discretion, from the family meal when they are indeed relatives simply because we utilize their services?  And most of the apples for the pies to be served that are beyond what can be offered by our own orchard are coming from that of our cousin Griffo Boffin—does that make him a mere tradesman to be paid off and not invited at all?”

            He set the ladle down on the table, and laid the cloth over the pot of silver polish.  “This is a party to which we’ve invited at least half the Shire, after all.  Most of those who will attend practice a trade or profession of one kind or another, and most are folk whose services we utilize on a regular basis.  Many are farmers in whose farms we hold farmshares, and others have businesses in which Bilbo or I have invested—and the greater part of those are related to us.  Face it, Aunt Dora—we Bagginses are well connected throughout the Shire, from Greenholm to Buckland, and from the northern marches to the Brandywine to the south; and our relations cover every level of society.  Are we not to invite the Bunces, who have many who hire themselves out to work as servants, when they are related to us through the Goolds?  Are we to exclude the Burrowses just because they help excavate and build most of the homes within the Shire?”

            Dora could feel herself flushing.  “It’s only, my dear lad, that we are Bagginses, after all.  What will people think when they see the gardener’s lad at the family supper?”

            “That we are taking good care of the steward for our property,” Frodo responded rather stiffly.  “Bilbo had asked Master Hamfast to serve as steward that night and direct the serving, but he refused—said he’s too old for keeping track of servers.  And I assure you that as Cousin Mello Boffin’s family has been hired to serve us at table in the family tent, it is not as if they are truly servants, either; and it will be at their table that Sam will be sitting.  It’s not as if we were settling him at the Baggins table as if he were my brother, after all—although I might consider that for the future!”

 *******

            By the time Dora left Bag End, she had a good deal to think on.  Samwise Gamgee—steward for the Bagginses of Bag End?  But, on consideration, that did help her accept that he would be attending the family dinner, now that Frodo had put it that way.  To be the steward for a family of such importance in the history of the Shire as the Bagginses?  It brought to mind the stories that she used to read secretly at night when she couldn’t sleep in the days she’d spent a good deal of time at Bag End with Uncle Bungo and Aunt Belladonna.

            “The old Kings—they had Stewards, didn’t they?” she murmured to herself as she walked home again.  “And they were even considered lords of the realm, if I recall correctly.”  And it was with a song Aunt Belladonna used to sing about the Faithful Steward of Gondor on her lips that Dora Baggins returned to her own hole.  Not, of course, that there really was a Gondor, after all—that was just a story.  Just a story, but one she’d always loved, not that she’d admit it to Bilbo.

            With that thought, she closed the door behind her and went in search of a good cup of tea, and maybe a seed cake or two.

Written for the Tolkien Weekly "Children" challenge.  For Tracey Claybon and TheArc5 for their birthdays.  Beta by RiverOtter.

Shared Parenthood

            My one regret, Frodo shared with his friend as they stood upon a headland looking back toward Middle Earth and their shared memories there, was that I left no children in the Shire.

            Sam merely shook his head.  “Left no children?  Now, Frodo, don’t be a ninny-hammer.  Why, there was thirteen as was born right there in Bag End—well, to be strictly true, twelve and one born in Minas Tirith—as I think as are as much yours as mine, if’n you take my meaning.  And Pippin and Merry feel the same about those born to them.”

Written for the A_L_E_C "Freedom" prompt.  For Dreamflower for her birthday--a belated offering, I know.  Beta by RiverOtter.

Finding Freedom

            She sat upon the pile of rags provided her as a bed, her back against the limestone wall, her umbrella clutched in her hands, listening intently.  There were murmurs from a few of the other cells, those whose doors were close to one another or the very few where more than one Hobbit had been placed together.  But no one dared call out loudly—that was an activity that had always brought violent retaliation from the Big Men who were in charge of the Lockholes.

            Not that they had heard even the harsh voices of the worst of those for quite some time.  It had been many, many hours since the prisoners had heard the Big Men shouting to one another, then the guttural murmuring of them in consultation, there in the bend of the downward tunnel where they seemed to like to gather, before one had begun issuing orders that had led to them all heading for the exit together.  There had been the slamming of the big heavy doors that they had fitted to the mouth of the old storage tunnels, and then the telltale sounds of locks being fitted to staples.

            No one had fed the prisoners at all since the first rumors of intruders into the Shire, quite some time ago now.  “How long?” she whispered to herself.  “A day?  Two?”

            She had no way of knowing, really.  Their guards had filled in those shafts to outside that had allowed in light—that had been whispered to her by the one in the closest cell, an old storage chamber that had once held apples, apparently.  “The smell of apples—I’m surrounded by the smell of apples, but there’s not a single one to eat!” the voice had grieved, shortly after the horrid Men had finished nailing planks and beams across the mouth of the area where Lobelia was housed.  She had learned that her current neighbor was a Brownly from near Whitfurrow, who’d had the temerity to refuse to allow a crew of Gatherers and Sharers to enter his farmhouse.  “They filled in the light shafts early on.  They’ve not tried to fill the ventilation shafts, though.  At least they proved wise enough not to do that,” he’d whispered.  But she’d not heard his voice in some days.  He’d been asking her if there was anyone in the next area beyond her when one of the most violent of the Big Men had chanced by, heard his whisper, and had pulled his cell open to beat him soundly.

            She’d heard his whimpers of pain for a time after the beating, after which the Hobbit had gone silent.  They’d still brought water and food to the cell, so she supposed he was still alive.  Or perhaps he’d died of the beating, but their guards had been too incurious to check his condition and too steeped in habit to withhold the food and water.

            Her own cell had a number of odors to it—oil and barley, mostly.  She knew the scent of barley well enough, as her grandfather had raised it, and she’d smelled it enough when she’d spent time on the family farm as a little lass.  She’d loved it once, but had come to hate it over time as it became associated with her father, who’d always bought shares in farms where it was raised and who never seemed to gain any profit from his investments.

            “It’s a curse!” her mother had railed on being told that yet another farm in which her husband had held an interest in had failed.  “Your father has only to look at a farm that raises barley for it to suffer some calamity or another!”

            She could hear that plaint ringing in her ears even now.  She was that much the more grateful that Otho had chosen other criteria on which to base his investments, investments that almost always brought a good return on his money.  She’d never wanted for much as Otho’s wife.

            “We were well to do, at least,” she whispered to herself.  “Otho never denied me money for a dress, or even most of the fripperies I ever asked for.”

            Not that she’d ever held a good deal of interest in ribbons or furbelows.  She’d inherited in full the Bracegirdle disdain for unnecessary decoration, and as a result most of her clothing had been well made, but mostly void of lace or pointless embroidery.  Her one weakness was hats—she had a collection of such things, each decorated with strawflowers or waxed fruit, frothy veiling and often more than enough ribbon to make up for the lack of such stuff in her often severe clothing.  Although she had a few dresses in her wardrobe that were anything but severe, ones she loved almost guiltily and in secret.  They were hidden away, and she’d never even worn most of them—or at least not in public.

            Suddenly she straightened in alarm.  “Have they found them, those Big Men with their ham-handed fists?”  The very idea of Sharkey’s folk handling the few garments she treasured most made her feel faint.   And if they were investigating her wardrobe, what would her Lotho be likely to be doing?  He wouldn’t allow such goings on in his own hole, she knew.  For Bag End was his now, after all.  That Frodo had sold it to him, free and clear!

            But without the full authority of the title of Master of the Hill, she remembered.  He’d withheld that title along with the titles to the holes of those who dwelt along Bagshot Row, as well as the role of Family Head for the Bagginses that she and Otho had hoped for all those years they’d thought of themselves as Bilbo’s proper heirs.  Bilbo had snatched that prize from them when he’d taken on that orphan Frodo as his personal ward.  Oh, they’d known, in their heart of hearts, that once Frodo was there within Bag End the chance that Otho and later their Lotho would follow Bilbo as the Baggins as Otho had been the Sackville was extraordinarily small, but still they’d held strongly to their chests the hope that he wouldn’t flout tradition that far, ignoring the fact that ever since his horrid adventure he’d done little but flout Hobbit traditions, left, right, and sideways!

            Now, however, she had to admit to herself that he’d been right to do as he’d done.  “At least,” she whispered to herself, “when Frodo was Master of the Hill the trees grew along the lane and beside the Water, and Sam Gamgee kept the gardens of Bag End blooming and beautiful!  At least folk wished us good day even if they didn’t particularly like us, and treated us with respect.  At least all were cheerful, and one could enjoy a glass of wine or ale at the end of the day, and watch one’s son going about with pride in him, instead of fear for his safety!  At least Hobbiton was beautiful and prosperous when Frodo was Master of the Hill, and we could hear the children running through the fields and playing in the lanes!  And we could see them bringing handfuls of bright flowers to their mums as they came back home for tea….”

            Seldom, though, had Lotho done such a thing, although Frodo had sent her bouquets from Bag End’s gardens each year on both his and her own birthdays, even as he had all of his other female relatives near enough to receive them unwilted.  Perhaps they were not as—cheerful—as those he’d sent to Ponto’s wife or his cousin Angelica, or his cousin Daisy who’d married Griffo Boffin; but they’d been lovely nonetheless and had not proclaimed by sparcity that they’d been merely sent for duty’s sake.

            Sad, that I should find myself remembering the flowers sent me by Frodo Baggins more than those given me by my own son, she thought dolefully, rolling the umbrella in her hand.  And even that had come originally from Bag End.  True, Bilbo had given it to her without a good deal of pleasure, although there was no question it was both well made and had to have been very expensive originally.  Neither Bilbo nor Frodo had been particularly niggardly in their selection of gifts for her or Otho or Lotho, in spite of the obvious distaste they’d showed when they must deal with them in person or the intended bite of the unspoken message many of said gifts embodied.

            “Even those spoons were of excellent make,” she admitted aloud.

            She thought of the last gift she’d been given by Lotho, admittedly a fine linen handkerchief, beautifully embroidered with small pink flowers--and the initials PH.  He’d not even bought it for her, but had apparently pinched it from his cousin Phlox Hornblower!  “I deserved better than that from my own son!” she told herself in a muffled exclamation.  Why, she and Otho had always bought the items they’d given Lotho as gifts, as Otho had held that they ought to hold to the standards practiced by Bilbo when dealing with their son—no need to stint with their lad; no need for Lotho to deal with hand-me-downs or second-hand goods!  Why couldn’t the child have responded in kind?

            “But he’s not a child now,” she suddenly chided herself.  “He’s been of age more than twenty years, after all.”  He was fifty-seven now, her Lotho.  So, why did he treat her with less respect than one should show to one’s beloved mother?

            A drop of moisture landed on the back of her right hand, and she suddenly realized she was crying.  Crying?  Her?  Lobelia Bracegirdle Sackville-Baggins, crying?  She was shocked to realize she was doing this!  “But I have good reason,” she admitted to herself after thinking on this for a moment.  “I’m imprisoned here, in the dark, in an old storage room that used to hold barley or oil, nailed into the room the way one nails chickens being sent to the market into a crate!  And why?  Because I went after those Big Men who intended to further desecrate Bag End’s gardens!”

            Yes, she’d gone after them—gone after them for their admitted loyalty not to her son as Master of Bag End, but to that awful Sharkey!  Gone after them because they were intent on further destroying the lovely gardens she’d coveted so ever since she first saw them, years before she’d married Otho Sackville-Baggins.  Raised by the oh, so practical Bracegirdles of Hardbottle, Lobelia had never admitted—until now—that she had a deep and abiding hunger for sheer beauty for beauty’s own sake.  This was why she’d so wanted Bag End for her own—because of its placement, the beauty of its rooms, the generous gentility and comfort of its construction and the glorious view from its windows and its grounds, and the sheer delight of its gardens.  But they’d destroyed all that, the Big Men.  They’d been incapable of appreciating the place as she had, and had begun raising those horrid sheds from the first!

            She’d wanted his bedroom—the one that had been inhabited by Frodo Baggins; she’d not even wanted the large master bedroom that had been Bilbo’s for the years since his mother’s death.  She’d wanted that view, the delicate scent of the Elven lilies that grew beneath his windowsill, the gentle sway of his curtains, the comfort of his beautifully carved bed.  Instead, she’d been relegated to the security of what had been intended to be the nursery—suitably redecorated for her, as mistress of the place, on the orders of her solicitous son.  She’d not even gotten his bedstead, as Frodo had refused to sell it with the hole, insisting on taking its familiar comfort with him to his new home in Buckland.

            “Not that he’d actually slept in it there,” she muttered, remembering the tale as it was now told of the flight of Frodo and his companions through the High Hay into the Old Forest, apparently almost immediately upon his arrival at Crickhollow.  At least that was what that Fatty Bolger was supposed to have told folks on his return to the Shire proper.

            Where was he—Fatty, that is?  He’d not moved into the old storage hole to which the Bolgers had been driven after Otho’s folk had taken possession of Budge Hall.  He’d instead been joined by a number of younger Hobbits intent on defying the new order.  She’d been affronted at the news that Odovacar Bolger’s son had declared himself the enemy of her son’s policies, and that he was raiding the stores Lotho was so carefully putting by for the folk of the Shire should troubles befall it.

            She remembered sitting across the breakfast table from Lotho, spreading jam on her buttered toast.  “They have no reason to be upset,” she’d assured him.  “After all, you are doing this all for them—for the best interests of all the folk of the Shire!”

            And so she’d truly believed.  The idea that Lotho was capable of such far vision as to realize there might come a bad year during which the populace of the Shire would need the excess produced now, thrilled her.  And the idea that the very Hobbits who’d oh, so politely expressed their dismay that they would not be able to accept her invitation to tea Mersday next would then have to bring their petitions to her for their share of enough flour to see them through the next week had pleased her greatly.

            That her son’s foresight would be generally referred to as theft and illegal appropriation by her neighbors had surprised her.  Why, she’d insisted, it was merely a matter of shrewd business….

            “Face it, Lobelia,” she admitted to herself, “it wasn’t a matter of business at all, but was instead satisfaction that they’d be forced to face you on a regular basis; be forced to grovel at your feet just to get by.”

            It was a thought to give one pause.

            Was he here, Fatty Bolger?  Was he, too, locked somewhere in the tunnels and former storage rooms of the warren of the Deep Delvings?  Did he, too, dread the silence from the Big Men and the darkness of their prison?  Did he, too, wonder if they would get food or fresh water soon?  Did he, too, have to deal with the indignity of a rusted old pail rather than being able to use a proper privy?  Did he, too, wish for a lid for the thing to smother its foul odor?  Was he, too, sleeping on a pile of rags and having to wrap up in his own jacket or cloak, having it grow filthier by the day?  Lotho had never told her of the orders he’d given for the disposition of the Hobbit once he’d been smoked out of the old bores near Scary.

            What was that?  There was no further whispering within the tunnels, and she could almost hear the ears of her fellow prisoners twitching as all focused on the distant banging and scraping noises from the directions of the doors.  Lobelia rose to her feet, her fists tight about her umbrella, tensely listening with every fiber of her being. 

            Clank!  Clank!  Clank!  Scrape!  Clank!  Clunk!

            Why don’t they just open the doors? she wondered.  But, if the Big Men had indeed locked them as they’d left….

            Bang!!!

            Bang!!!

            Bang!!!

            Bang!!!

            That was followed by a muffled thud and another noise that sounded like distorted voices.

            “They’re coming back!” she heard herself whimper.  From about her she heard other stifled cries of alarm.

            There was a distant glimmer of light, almost like a shadow of a light, if you would, from somewhere up the tunnel as the scraping resumed.

            At last they heard the voices clearly.  They were coming back—the Big Men—she was certain of it!

            No—wait!  Not the Men’s voices after all!  No, these were the higher, clearer voices of other Hobbits!

            “We’re saved!” someone else said, and Lobelia realized she was crying again in sheer relief.

            He’s coming to save us, Lotho is! she thought to herself.  He’s realized the error of his ways!  He’s sent all the Big Men away, and has thrown that Sharkey off the Hill, and he’s coming to let us all out and to rescue me, his mother!

            But even as she imagined that, she saw, in her minds eye, another, far more serious face coming down the tunnels.  No, it wouldn’t be Lotho—that she knew in the deepest recesses of her heart.  Even if he insisted on seeing her freed from her imprisonment, Lotho wouldn’t be the one to come get her.  No, he’d send some of the Big Men, perhaps accompanied by one of the Hobbits who were most closely involved with the Gathering and Sharing, perhaps that Marcos Smallburrow or Timono Bracegirdle, to fetch her out.  Lotho Sackville-Baggins, actually go out and do his errand work for himself?  Not since long before he’d declared himself Chief Shiriff!

            “It’s Frodo Baggins who will see us freed!” she whispered, and at that she collapsed back onto her pile of rags.  Now it was a mere matter of waiting….

            Nails screeched as boards were pried away; locks creaked and hinges groaned; wood thudded and splintered as hammers and mallets, hatchets and axes were put to use.  Voices called and answered, exclaimed and reassured.  The rustle of the rescuers surged and receded, but ever drew nearer.

 *******

            And the Light came ever closer as the rescuers worked their way deeper and deeper into the tunnels.

            That was how she thought of it—Light!—capitalized, bright and to be blessed.  The first Light wasn’t the golden of candle flames or the red of torches.  It was simply white, cool rather than fiery, pure rather than burning. 

            ”Mayhaps ye should allow us t’go first with some lanterns like, sir,” suggested the first voice whose words she could rightly make out.

            “No, the torches will be too bright and frightening.  Best let me go ahead of you,” answered a second voice she actually recognized.

            “Lotho!” she tried to tell herself, even as she knew it wasn’t.  No, it was the voice of Frodo Baggins she heard.  She’d been right.  She wiped her eyes with the back of her wrist, not that the tears stopped even now.

            At last she heard them prying away boards from the next cell, and that clear light that shone in through the chinks in the beams and boards that closed off her own grew dimmer as the rescuers entered it.

            “Is him dead?”

            “No, he’s yet alive, but barely.  You—Robin—go tell Sam to send down another litter, and have a healer ready.  This one is unconscious.”

            Closer to the door of her own cell she heard at least two others, murmuring softly between themselves.  “How’s him makin’ the light?”

            “Got something as he says come from the Elves.  Easier on the eyes than torches or lanterns, at least.”

            “Mr. Frodo’s doin’ his best t’find all as can be rescued himself.”

            “Yes, and bless him for it.”

            Bless him for it.  Bless him for it, in spite of the fact he had no reason to be particularly considerate of her or her family.

            There was a rustle and stir, soft words and grunts, then shuffling and a slight scraping as the bearers apparently carried Mr. Brownly out of his cell and up the passage.

            “This another one?” asked a voice—Robin Smallburrow, if she’d recognized it aright.

            “Looks like it,” Frodo was saying.  “How’s Fredegar doing?”

            “Well enough, Mr. Frodo, sir.  Mr. Merry’s stayin’ by him, and the healers have allowed him some broth to drink.”

            “And he thought he’d be safe by staying!” she heard Frodo say, worry in his voice.  Then he called out, “Here, bring those bars to me.  We’ve found another cell here.”

            The boards creaked and groaned as the rescuers attacked the wood used to seal off her chamber.

            “This one’s cleaner,” noted the thin faced Hobbit who thrust his head into the first gap they opened.  “Not been used long, I’d say.”

            “There’s a lady in this one!” he added over his shoulder, having caught a glimpse of Lobelia where she sat against the wall on her pile of rags.

            “A lady?”  Frodo’s voice was hopeful.  “Alive?”

            “I’d say yes.  I can see her eyes blinkin’ in the light!  Been weepin’, too, looks like.”

            Embarrassed, Lobelia dashed at her eyes.  It wouldn’t do to be caught weeping by the likes of Frodo Baggins!

            The wood groaned and nails shrieked as the rescuers attacked the beams anew.

            She blinked, putting her hand forward to shade her eyes from the pure light that, gentle as it was, still managed to overwhelm her vision.  “Too bright!” she objected.

            Someone was now beside her, helping to lift her to her feet.  “Here—we have you.   Lean on me, now, and I’ll help you out of here.  Do you think you need that?”  There was a gentle tug at her umbrella, which she pulled the more tightly to her.

            “No, leave it be—it’s mine.  Was given to me years ago.”

            “I know.  No, I’ll leave it be.  Now, come—let me lead you forth.”

            And on the arm of Frodo Baggins she was led, slowly but more assuredly with every step, up the tunnel.  He held what appeared to be a shining crystalline star over their heads to light their way, and she shuffled forward, often pausing to lean on her umbrella to rest as they walked.

            That one, that Sharkey, had stood here a few days back, gloating down at her as she lay within her cell.  Before that she’d seen him last in the dining room at Bag End, browbeating her Lotho.  “You are the Chief here, but allow your people to ignore your dictates?  How will they respect you if they do not depend upon you for the very breaths they take?”

            “But the soil will be poisoned by the filth released by the Mill.  Then what will we all eat?”

            And Sharkey’s pale follower had come along the passage and found her peering in through the door and licked his pallid lips.  “Now, Mistress Lobelia,” he’d said in his oily voice, “don’t you belong in your own room?”

            And she’d retreated to it as quickly as she could to avoid his touch.

            “He was yelling at my lad,” she said, and her voice sounded particularly creaky and disused in her own ears.

            “So Sharkey let us know,” Frodo responded, his voice solemn.

            “I don’t want to see him again,” she said, suddenly planting her feet.  “I’m afraid of that Sharkey.”

            He sighed.  “There is no reason now.  He is gone.”

            “Dead?” she demanded.

            He reluctantly nodded.

            “Did Lotho kill him finally?”

            He shook his head.

            “Did you?”

            “No.  Although I might as well have done so.  No, his follower killed him—Gríma, known as Wormtongue.”

            She was shocked.  “That pale creature—he killed his master?”

            He nodded again, but said no more.  Instead he again offered his arm.  She’d taken his arm for support only one other time—after Otho’s burial.  Lotho had come late, apparently drunk, and had left as soon as he’d thrown in his own handful of dirt.    Frodo had watched after him, shocked at his lack of propriety, and had come forward himself to offer his arm, seeing her home and into the keeping of her niece who’d come from Hardbottle that she not be alone in her home after Otho’s death.  He’d sent the healer to see her, and, she’d learned afterwards, paid for that visit himself.  He’d sent food from Bag End, even—not that he’d have done less for anyone else suffering from bereavement, of course.  She’d told herself at the time that there was nothing more to it than that, a most proper Baggins doing what was expected of him as the Baggins to care for another who had become part of his family of name by marrying Bilbo’s first cousin.  Nothing more than that….

            Except he’d been gentle, not stiff as she’d anticipated.  And he’d sent the healer and paid for him out of his own pocket.  And he’d sent a letter that was truly commiserative afterwards, offering whatever help he could give her now that death had robbed her of her beloved husband.

            She’d been a good deal less harsh in her talk of him in the years since, and hadn’t stolen anything from him or Bag End in her few visits there.  Not that she’d stolen much from anyone in the past few years.  She’d realized, after Otho died, that she really didn’t want for much, if anything at all.  She’d even managed to see a few trifles she’d had in her keeping returned back to their original owners, mostly things that Lotho had given her that she knew had been mourned.  It hadn’t always been easy.  She’d dropped a necklace that had been the possession of Dora Baggins through a bedroom window where it would fall behind a dresser.  Three days later Daisy Baggins Boffin, who’d inherited the hole from her aunt, discovered it as she’d cleaned the room, and had exulted that it had been found at last!  But Lobelia had almost been caught at it by Griffo, who most certainly would have assumed she was pilfering had he recognized her as the one whom he’d seen lurking in the flowerbed outside the hole.  She’d barely gotten away!

            She and Frodo finally neared the door, and at last she shrugged off his arm.  “No—let me walk out on my own,” she muttered, and he gave a brief nod and let her go on alone, following behind her as she hobbled out, using her umbrella for support.  How glad she was now that the gift Bilbo had given her was so well made!

            “It’s Missus Lobelia!” she heard.  “Lobelia Sackville-Baggins!”

            “Did you hear how she went for those Big Men of Lotho’s with naught more than her umbrella?”

            “Is it true, that it’s Lobelia Sackville-Baggins?”

            “You showed them, lass!  You showed them Big Men!”

            And those standing there outside the Lockholes were applauding her, clapping and even some cheering and whistling shrilly in appreciation.  And there she stood, peering about with shock and surprise, for the first time in her life the recipient of true respect and appreciation from her fellow Hobbits!

            Now Frodo came forward again and put a shielding arm about her, helping her to the door of the Council Hole, taking her to the banquet hall where she was allowed to sit down and tea—real tea with real honey in it—was brought to her in a pretty mug.  Mistress Whitfoot herself set a small plate with a thin slice of ham between two slices of bread in front of her, and a healer was leaning over her asking if she had any injuries that needed tending.  Someone wrapped her in a soft blanket, and a second cup of tea was left by the first.  In time she was escorted across the square to the inn, whose doors had been pried open, and led to the bathing room.  Here the old boiler was filled and lit, and soon she was able to bathe with the aid of the Whitfoot’s niece and another Hobbitess of Michel Delving.  Someone provided her with fresh clothing, promising her that once her dress was cleaned and pressed they’d send it to her.

            In time she returned to the banquet hall, and Frodo and a few others asked her what she wished to do.

            “You will not wish to return to Bag End,” Frodo said, an edge of grief to his voice, “for they’ve all but caved it in about their ears.”

            “My Lotho—where is he?”  And when Frodo hesitated, she knew.  “They killed him?”

            “Yes, he was murdered.”  The baldness of the statement convinced her that it was no lie.  “Saruman—Sharkey—he had his follower kill Lotho, apparently not long after they dragged you away from Hobbiton.  Sharkey bragged of it yesterday, until he’d goaded Gríma to kill him as well.”

            “Is Lotho buried there in Bywater?”

            But Frodo was shaking his head.  “We have no idea where his body is.  Gríma was apparently instructed to get rid of it somehow.  No one knew he was dead until yesterday.”

            He held her while she wept—not long, thanks to the stars.  Then she straightened and clutched at her umbrella.  “I don’t want to go back to Bag End,” she said with as much dignity as she could muster.  “Nor to the old hole in Hobbiton, either.  It would be t-too—too painful.”

            A coach was fetched—the Bolger coach, she realized.  She was carefully helped into it, and soon she was being driven back to Hardbottle, there to her niece’s home, where she’d be well treated, she knew.

  *******

            Slightly over a week later a trunk arrived from Hobbiton, and her niece brought it into the room that had been given to Lobelia’s use.  With it came a letter from Frodo.

            I know you had nothing of your own with you.  Sancho Proudfoot went into Bag End for me to fetch out all of your things that they could find.  Most are being prepared to be shipped to you, but those things that he felt you would wish to have most he put into the trunk he found in your room and brought to me in Bywater at the Cottons’ farm.  I now forward them on to you.  I am so sorry that my decision to sell Bag End to you and Lotho has brought you so much loss and grief in the end.  Please accept my condolences for Lotho’s death and for all that was stolen from you by Sharkey and his folk.  And if there is anything at all I can do for your comfort….

            A final knot of resentment loosened from beneath her breastbone, for she recognized that what Frodo had said was not merely duty, but was meant from the heart.  He, too, had lost almost all, she realized.  Oh, he still owned the house he’d bought in Buckland, and he still had most of his possessions that had been removed there on his sale of Bag End to her and Lotho; but she’d noted how—scoured—he appeared as a result of whatever had happened to him during his time away from the Shire.

            “I’m free!” she suddenly said.

            “Oh, yes, Aunt Lobelia—you’ve been free for well over a week,” her niece assured her.

            But Lobelia Sackville-Baggins knew that the freedom she knew from envy was far more important a freedom than she’d ever known before, certainly more so than what she’d known when the door had been forced open to her cell in the Lockholes.  She turned to open the trunk, and found it filled with a few of her most commonly worn dresses—and under them----

            “Oh, my, Auntie!” breathed her niece, lifting out a confection of lilac linen with white lace and ribbons.  “What a beautiful dress!  I never dreamt you owned such a lovely thing!”

            And Lobelia realized she was now free to wear lovely things at long last.  “Shall we see if he’s sent the bonnet that goes with this?” she suggested, delving again into the trunk.

Written for the LOTR Community "School Days" challenge.  For SpeedyHobbit for her birthday.  Beta by RiverOtter.

To Be Fruitful and Multiply

            As Frodo entered the kitchen at Bag End, he noticed that there was a cup on the table from which someone had been drinking cambric tea.  He sighed.  “Pippin!” he murmured under his breath.  “He’s run away from the Great Smial again!”  And sure enough, he found the door to the cool room not fully closed, the bottom of the kettle had been allowed to hang too low over the fire and was charred black, and the milk jug sat upon the kitchen dresser, the square of linen cloth usually kept over it to screen out foreign tastes and possible dust lying crumpled upon the floor where it had been dropped, an easily seen circle of hardening white showing the former level of the liquid within the dark brown pottery, while a strand of light auburn hair floated upon the surface of the milk left in the pitcher.

            Frodo frowned down into the jug, torn between Bagginsish thrift (just remove the hair, put a fresh cover over the jug, and return it to the cool room so the remaining milk doesn’t go completely to waste—it will still do well in griddle cakes!) and Brandybuck revulsion (ew—there’s a hair in it!).  Today the Brandybuck won out.  He poured the milk into a dish and set it out to the side of the pavement by the back door where the hedgehog that dwelt under the lilacs or a visiting cat might enjoy it, washed the jug, and set it on the dresser.  He’d have his young miscreant cousin go into the market to bring back a new tin of milk from the dairyhobbit, he decided.  After stirring up the fire he checked the teapot and shook his head, cleaning it also; then wiped up a scattering of tea leaves and recapped the tea tin.  He noted the lid had been replaced on the biscuit jar, if slightly at a tilt; the jar itself was nearly empty.  I just filled it yesterday! he thought to himself, just as the bell by the front door tinkled cheerfully.

            “A letter for you,” said the post Hobbit, touching the brim of his blue cap respectfully as he presented the thick envelope.  Frodo smiled his thanks and slipped him a couple of brasses before he closed the door and examined the missive he’d just been given.

            “From Paladin,” he decided, noting the hand in which the address had been written.  He took the letter back to the kitchen.  He scoured the bottom of the kettle and rinsed it under the pump before refilling it and setting it to heat.  Once he fetched some eggs and a few rashers of bacon to cook for himself and his uninvited guest, he sat upon the corner settle to read the note.

 

            I suspect that you already have Pippin with you, it advised.  He and Lalia had quite the confrontation yesterday.  It appears that he and a few of the other lads found her chair in a hallway where young Hazel, who is attending upon her aunt at the moment, unwisely left it while Lalia was discussing housekeeping in the back storage rooms.  You know Lalia—she refuses to meet with others while seated in her chair—must sit at the table and all, and appear as if she walked there herself.

            Anyway, the lads were amusing themselves by wheeling one another about in it, and Pippin had just begun his own turn being seated in it when Ferumbras happened upon them.  The other lads had scattered before Pippin could scramble out of the contraption, so it was Pippin who was hauled along by his ear to face Lalia, and he was the one who had to apologize for all of them, although he wouldn’t tell her who else was involved, much to his credit.  He’s been much better about that since that last visit you made to the farm before Bilbo left the Shire.

            Frodo nodded his head at that.  Pippin had been going through a phase of tattling for a time.

            Would you mind him staying with you for four days?  We will be returning to Whitwell then.  And perhaps you can somehow help the lad with his questions about multiplication.  He’s been driving our Cousin Turkigard quite mad with his questions about the process, and we don’t begin to appreciate just what the problem is as he appeared to be memorizing the tables quite well until his last visit with Merry a month ago.

            Frodo considered this last as he refolded the missive and replaced it in its envelope.  But then he heard a stirring from the tunnel leading toward the bedrooms.  Tucking the envelope behind the soup tureen on the dresser, he set the skillet on the fire and prepared to start the bacon cooking.

*

            While Pippin was off to the village square to fetch the milk, accompanied by Samwise Gamgee to see to it the lad set off back home in a reasonable time so that the milk would not begin to sour, Frodo delved into a closet in one of the guest rooms where Bilbo and he had stored some of the materials Bilbo had made back in the day the older Hobbit gave lessons to other Bagginses and to Samwise Gamgee to help make some learning more understandable.  There had been a time when Sam had found multiplication incomprehensible, he remembered, until Bilbo had brought out a great box of small ceramic cubes done in many colors.  By presenting Sam with four sets of cubes, each containing five cubes of a particular color, he was finally able to get Sam to appreciate that multiplication was merely a quick way of counting by a particular multiple, and at last the lad had begun to learn the tables so he could himself multiply swiftly and with creditable accuracy.  Although, as Frodo remembered it, it was Frodo’s own suggestion that Sam use his growing skills to figure out how many daisy plants his father had planted in a particular bed that appeared to confirm in the small Gamgee’s mind how useful multiplication could be.  Once Sam realized that nine rows containing eight plants per row should indicate his father had planted seventy-two plants and then confirmed this by carefully counting each and every plant, Sam had finally been satisfied that this was a process that was useful to a gardener to know, and he’d set himself to remembering his multiplication tables well.

            They ought to serve well enough, he thought as he dusted off the box with a hastily fetched rag, to teach a young Took his tables, too.

            When Pippin returned, he took the lad into the study where he’d set out the box and a few slates, slate pencils, and the like, and began the lesson he’d planned.

            “Your father indicated you appear to have been developing some questions about multiplication,” Frodo began.

            “Yes.  I’d learned it one way, but then it doesn’t appear to work that way with Hobbits, too,” Pippin responded.

            Frodo blinked, not certain what the lad meant.  “Well,” he began slowly, “perhaps this will help.”  He set out two red cubes side by side with two blue ones,  “Here are two sets of two cubes each.  How many red ones do we have?”

            “Two.”

            “How many blue ones?”

            “Two.”

            “How many in all?”

            “Four.”

            “We say this as two times two equals…?”

            “Two times two equals four.  I know that.”

            Frodo was surprised at the impatient tone his younger cousin took.  “All right,” he said slightly cautiously, “let’s try two times three.”

            Pippin reached into the box and brought out another blue cube and a red one, setting each with the others of its color.  “Two sets of three,” he said.  “Two times three equals six.”

            Frodo nodded.  “How high can you go?” he asked.

            “I know through my sevens.”

            “Show me seven times six, then.”

            Pippin soon had seven sets of six cubes, each set a different color.  “Seven times six is forty-two,” he said, laying his hand on each set and counting, “Six, twelve, eighteen, twenty-four, thirty, thirty-six, forty-two.”

            Frodo was perplexed.  He asked, “Can you write me your seven times?” and handed Pippin a slate and slate pencil.

            In a matter of minutes Pippin had the whole list written in his swift and barely legible scrawl, and handed the slate to Frodo.  Frodo had to have the lad tell him what two of the numbers were intended to be, and then made him erase them and write them again more clearly.  Satisfied that Pippin knew his seven times table, he had him do the same with sixes, then fives, and then fours, threes, and twos in succession.  At last he sat back and looked at the young Took with consideration.  “I don’t begin to understand what the problem is.  Would you like to learn your eights and nines, then?”

            Before the mantel clock on the distant parlor had chimed the next hour Pippin could easily recite both his eights and nine times tables, and Frodo was impressed as the lad quickly used the cubes to set up each one and could count by the appropriate numbers through the tables.

            “Now for the tens…” Frodo began.

            But Pippin interrupted, “I know them already.  Ten, twenty, thirty….”

            There was no question he knew his tens, and Pippin easily guessed that to do his elevenses he’d count eleven, twenty-two, thirty-three, forty-four….

            “I don’t begin to understand what the difficulty is, then,” Frodo finally said.  “You know all your tables from ones to elevenses….”

            But Pippin was shaking his head.  “I can’t do ones, not any more,” he said.

            “Why not?”

            “Because it doesn’t seem to work for Hobbits the way it does for everything else does,” Pippin explained again.

            “Multiplication works the same for everything,” Frodo objected.

            “Does not,” Pippin said.

            “I don’t understand,” Frodo responded.  “How is it different for Hobbits?”

            “Well,” Pippin began, busying himself by putting the cubes back into the box, “I know that with these little blocks or with apples one goes, one times one equals one.”  He dumped the remaining cubes into the box, then reached in and brought one out, setting it on the low table on which he and Frodo had been working.  “One set with one block.  One.”  He brought out another cube and set it by the first.  “One set with two blocks.  Two.”  He brought out another cube and set it with the others.  “One set of three—three.  One set of four—four.” 

            He went through up to twelve.  “With the blocks, it’s one set of any number equals that number, right?”

            Frodo nodded.  “You are doing it correctly, Pippin.”

            “And it’s the same switched around,” Pippin continued.  “Two sets of one—two.  Seven sets of one—seven.  A hundred sets of one—a hundred.”

            “Yes.”

            “So why isn’t it the same with Hobbits?”

            “How is it different with Hobbits?”

            Pippin sighed as if he were at a loss to explain himself.  Finally he began, “Well, with my mum and dad, one times one equals four—or six, depending how you count it.  And with Great-great Granda Gerontius and Great-great Grandmum Adamanta it was one times one equals twelve—or is it fourteen?  Now, with you or Merry it almost works out to the same as with the blocks—one times one equaled one in those cases—if it isn’t three.  It makes me muddled trying to understand why it’s all different numbers with different families.  With Da’s family it was one times one equals six, if it isn’t eight.  And with Great Uncle Rory and Great Aunt Gilda it was—“

            Frodo’s head was whirling, but he thought he was beginning to understand the pattern.  “Wait—that’s not quite the same.  If you look at some families there aren’t any children at all,” he hazarded.

            Pippin nodded his agreement.

            “But having babies isn’t the same as multiplying….”

            But again Pippin interrupted, shaking his head.  “It is multiplying, so it should work the same as with apples or blocks,” he insisted,

            “Why do you think it’s multiplying?” Frodo demanded.

            “Because it says so in a book Merry was reading me.”

            “Not all stories are exactly correct,” Frodo suggested.

            “But it’s a book Bilbo copied out for the Brandybucks and that Merry read to me—a book Merry said Bilbo copied from the Elves.  And the Elves wouldn’t be wrong, would they?  After all, you said that they live long enough to learn when they were wrong before and get it right.”

            Frodo nodded, feeling rather muddled himself.  He was certain that if anyone would be precise in what they said and how they said it, Elves would do so.  “Do you know what book it was?” he asked.  Then he added, “For if Bilbo copied it for the Brandybucks chances are he did a copy for himself first, and we should have it here in this room.”

            “It was called Tales of the Beginning Times,” Pippin said.

            Frodo smiled.  “Yes, although I don’t remember there being anything at all in there about arithmetic or multiplication.”  He had already turned to the proper shelf, and quickly found the volume in question—a collection of stories written about the time the Elves first awoke by the Water of Beginning.

            The story in question turned out to be the second one, in which Oromë the Hunter first met with the Elves who’d awakened by the shores of Cuiviénen.  Frodo quickly scanned the tale and could not find any reference to arithmetic of any sort.  “I don’t see how this convinced you that multiplying works differently with Hobbits,” he murmured as he turned back to the beginning of the chapter and began a second scan of the story.  “Hobbits don’t appear in it at all.  It’s about the earliest days of the Elves, and they were the only speaking creatures living at the time as I understand it.”

            “But Merry said it was the same with Elves as it is with Hobbits, how they multiply,” Pippin said, pushing his head under Frodo’s arm to examine the story himself.  He shook his head.  “Bilbo’s writing is hard to read,” he noted.

            Frodo shrugged.  “Perhaps it might seem that way to you, but I have no difficulties with it.”

            “But you’re used to Bilbo’s writing!”

            But just then, as Frodo turned the page, the little Hobbit gave a grunt of recognition.  “There—there it is!”

            Frodo gave his little cousin a startled glance, then turned his attention back to the page.   Yes, the word multiplied appeared there.  He went back to the beginning of the sentence.  “And the Vala of the Hunt and of the Wild saw that those who had awakened here had multiplied their numbers, and were as numerous as the leaves of the forest that grew beyond their settlement.”  And a few lines further on he saw, “Yea, you shall be fruitful and multiply across the lands of Middle Earth, and fill them with your progeny.”  As he read the two sentences aloud, he felt Pippin nodding vigorously.

            “Yes, and Merry said that that was how people have babies, by multiplying.  That when a mummy and a daddy come together they begin multiplying.  But one times one should only make one if it worked the same for Hobbits as it does for apples and blocks.”

            Frodo shivered as he closed the book and looked down to consider the young face looking up at him so expectantly.  It wasn’t just a matter of arithmetic, he realized, that he needed to explain.  How does one explain to a Hobbit as young as Peregrin Took the use of euphemisms?

 

Written for Periantari for the LOTR Community's Remix challenge.  Beta by RiverOtter.  Some dialogue taken directly from "Flight to the Ford" in FotR, but much is augmented by my own imagination.

To read the original on which this is based, read here:  At the Bruinen Ford by Periantari;  http://www.storiesofarda.com/chapterview.asp?sid=3205&cid=12328

The Witch-king’s Battle of the Ford

            They come, the thief who holds the Master’s Ring and his companions—and another.  The Elf, the Elf who fell slaying a Balrog, or so it has been said.  Ai!  Why does he trouble us now?  He should be sitting at his ease there, in the addlement of the Shining Ones, not interfering with the Master’s business here in Middle Earth!  He has no fear of me, which is vexing.  Although I did not notice him standing against me on the field before Fornost.  Nay, he sat his horse well back from me then, I noted!

            Nay, brothers—do not move forward too swiftly!  The others await us there beyond the trees, and we will catch the thief between the two parties—catch him and bring him across the wastes to the Master’s throne!  Let the Master have him and his prize, let the Master take It from the foul little creature and deride him for the fool he is, seeking to hold It away from the hand where It belongs!  He will not be able to resist us, now with the shard of the Morgul knife within him and so close to taking him completely.  I do not understand how it is that the thing has been so slowed in its work, but he cannot hold onto himself much longer.  I feel the disturbance of the world about us as he comes closer, and know he is almost fully within our realm, even if he does not wear the Master’s weapon upon his hand! 

            Foolish mortal, thinking to withhold what is not his and what he cannot dream to control!  We will have It—It and him!  Such a small distance the shard needs to move to take him!  Why does he continue to fight?  He cannot hold out against it forever!

            “Fly!  Fly!  The enemy is upon us!” 

            They know we are here, and they think to outrun us?  And they on foot?  Fools!

            Wait—they have him mounted, and on the Balrog Slayer’s steed!  They are swift, the horses of the Eldar.  But our steeds are swift, also, and will take them.  Ride, brothers!  Ride and capture the horse and its rider!  We must have him!  Feel his fear, and ride!  We can see him, the Light at the core of his being, already almost obliterated by the grey cold of the Morgul blade’s shard!  Stop, fool!  Stop!  Do not think that you can outrun us!

            “Noro lîm, Asfaloth!  Noro lîm!”

            Ha!  Do you truly think that your steed can outrun us, and with our brothers already racing from their place to cut him---

            Wait!  It twisted so, the cursèd creature, and it has allowed its rider to evade us!  Do not let him reach the ford, brothers!  The Ring, slave!  Put on the Ring!  But a little more and you will be in our world completely, and we shall have you!  The Ring!  Put It on and join us completely!

            His hand reaches for his hip!  That is where he carries It, then!  But then he pulls his hand away!  No, slave—take It out and hold It in your hand!  Cannot you feel how It burns the cloth in which you hold It captured?  Can you not hear It calling to you to hold It free to the touch of the air?  It wishes to be free of you!  Bring It out so It can follow the Master’s will!

            But the white horse—it twists yet again and he clutches at its mane instead!  Ai!  No, fool!  The Ring!  The Ring!  We shall have It and you!  To Mordor we will take you!  To the Master we will bring you!  He shall have his treasure, his precious Ring, again, and he shall have you as well!  The grey shadow moves a bit more, presses against the shining core of his Light!  But a touch more, and that dread Light shall be extinguished!  Take him!  Take him!

            No, brothers—stop him!  He is almost to the water!  But we can almost take him now, so close the shard has drawn to his heart!

            Splash!

            Fools!  How did you let him reach the river and get across the ford untouched?  But he cannot hold against us now.  Come together, brothers, and bend your thought upon him, for he cannot withstand the will of all nine of us, should we focus upon him together!

            Halt!

            See—we have done it—he has indeed halted in his tracks, his own will halting the white horse he rides.  We almost have him, brothers.  Join me in the command to return!

            Turn and face us, halfling!

            And again he does.  His face—I can see it, the sheen of sweat on a face grey, almost blue with cold as the shard seeks to break down the last of his resistance.  His hand is on the hilt of his weapon.

            “Go back to Mordor and follow me no more!

            The Ring—the Ring!  Give us the Ring!  We shall take It and you to Mordor, bring you before the Master!  The Ring!  To Mordor we shall take you both!

            “By Elbereth and Luthien the Fair, you shall have neither the Ring nor me!”

            What is this?  He, that pathetic, weak, mortal being, seeks to draw a blade—and upon us?  That is twice, slave!  No, you shall not do so again.  Now, brothers:

            Shatter, steel!

            And it—it shatters, the steel of his blade, small and insignificant as it is.  But it has resisted us, also, and the Light it contained—it was almost too great to look upon!  What kind of spell was upon it, that it should cry out with Light at its destruction?

            And his face—he is almost as an Elf lord in his glory, even as the shard seeks to move that last small distance to enter his heart.  The pathetic grey wraith he will be once it makes that last shift----

            We ride forward, into the water, for he begins to crumple at the last as the smoldering hilts of his blade fall from his hand.

            The Ring!  To Mordor we shall take you!

            But the others—we have forgotten the others!  They are come, and the Elf—he shines as does Varda in all her wrath!  And the Man—why did we not see the Elven Light within him before?  Not as great as in the Balrog slayer, but still it shines as brightly as does the great flaming torch he carries in his hand!

            And the one small one who shines as if Arien herself pours all her Light through him!  He runs before the rest, his own torch in hand.  Nor do the others hold back, all three of the remaining halflings running forward to snap at the heels of our horses, like the terrier dogs my people once kept….

            And the river itself is risen against us, and amongst the roaring spumes of foam and water bearing down upon us are great grinding boulders and a shining White Rider lifting up a flaming sword, again and again, the One sent to oppose us all, unveiled to us in this moment!  The wind strikes us and sends our robes streaming away from us, and wails through the trees!

            Our own steeds, terrified by the fire at their tails and the water racing toward their flanks, sidestep and stumble further into the current, and Khamul’s steed seeks to flee downstream!

            But the water will likely sweep the Halfling with us, fallen as he is at the bank of the river!  It will be worth it should we be able to capture him as the water sweeps him by us.  I spur my horse toward him, seeking to catch him by his cloak or arm—how clearly I can now see him!  It is taking him, taking him at the last!  If he is within our realm------

            A boulder rolls upon me and fells my horse, and the last sight I have is of a shining hoof striking at my crown….  My robes and armor are torn from me, and I lose my shape….

            It is so cold, here in the Void where I have been driven by Water, Earth, Fire, and Air.  And he is not here with us, neither the halfling nor the Ring.

            The Master—he shall be wroth!  Aiiiiiiiiii!

Written for the Tolkien Weekly "Six Years Later" challenge.  For Claudia and Kitty for their birthdays.  Beta by RiverOtter.

November 3, 1425 S.R.

            Merry and Sam found Pippin standing before the memorial stone in the Battle Garden, reading the inscribed names of those who had fallen there.  He looked particularly solemn.  He didn’t look around as they stopped on either side, just behind him, but said, “Six years ago this morning.  Six Tooks, a Brownly, two Chubbs….  Frodo wept for each and every one of them.”

            “And for the ruffians as well,” Sam said.  “Even grieved for that odd one as killed that Sharkey.”

            “But he grieved most for the Wizard,” Merry noted.  “Said he fell so far from how he began. ”

To all of you for Thanksgiving, and particularly to Dreamflower, Cathleen, LindaHoyland, and Lindelea for your special friendship.  Beta by RiverOtter.

Thoughts of Thanksgiving

            “I thank the Creator or the Powers or whoever might be responsible every day for the presence of my lad there in my life,” Bilbo murmured to Gandalf.  The two of them watched Frodo head down to the Party Field with a load of napkins to set on the tables where the family dinner was to take place, followed by Sam with a basket filled with metal tankards.  “He’s been the one bright light in the past few years in which I’ve felt increasingly stretched and thinned out day by day.  Fine mind; loyal to a fault; artistic and graceful; in love with beauty, and capable of capturing it and showing it forth to others; and utterly devoted to making this the best world it can be.  And his friends are all as fiercely loyal to him as he is to them.”

            He sighed as he knocked his pipe out against the bench on which the two of them sat.  “I love the Shire, but was tiring desperately of it.  Those my own age are all but gone, and the few who are left care little enough for anything but their own affairs.  Very few throughout the Shire believe my stories, and fewer appreciate my poetry—or not to my face, at least.  Certainly hear them singing my songs when they don’t think I’m listening, though.”

            Gandalf chuckled softly.  “Well, you’ve given them all plenty by which to remember you,” he murmured.  “Half the Shire has benefited from your generosity since you returned sixty years ago, and those who will attend the Party tomorrow will never forget it.”

            Bilbo gave a snort.  “I don’t intend anyone to forget it, and certainly don’t intend to forget it myself, either.  It’s my thanks to all of them, I suppose, for the years of entertainment they’ve given me.  Yes—even Otho and Lobelia have managed to give me a chuckle or two as well as the years of browbeating and pilfering I’ve known from them.

            “But without my beloved boy—I don’t begin to know how I would have made it, Gandalf.  He’s kept me grounded, reminding me how wonderful a place this is—how peaceful in comparison with the wild lands outside it.  Before you came and interrupted me smoking upon my doorstep I thought I was happy here, mostly because I’d never known anything else.  He’s allowed me to see again the quiet beauty of the sunsets and the odd corners.  He’s helped me rejoice again at the age of the Binbole Woods and the might of the Brandywine.  Oh, it may not be as awe inspiring as the Great River there we crossed at the Carrock, but it’s enough of a river for little folk such as we Hobbits are.  He still finds wonder everywhere, in spite of the fact he’ll be accepted by all as a Hobbit grown as of tomorrow.  He still loves the Shire so, he’s made me fall in love with it all over again.”

            Gandalf fixed his friend with a thoughtful stare.  “Then why don’t you stay on?”

            But Bilbo was shaking his head.  “It’s his turn to shine, Gandalf—Frodo’s.  It’s his turn to be the Master of Bag End and the Hill, his turn to be the Baggins family head, his turn to be appreciated for his sagacity and his leadership.  It’s the least I can do to thank him for all he’s done to brighten what ought to have been the fading years of an old Hobbit’s life.  He’s kept me from turning into an irascible old complainer, you know.  By now I ought to be in my dotage I suppose, although it appears I’m still as able to get by now as I ever did.  But now that he’s unquestionably an adult, I mean for the Shire to come to respect Frodo as he deserves in his own right.  And I pray to any power that might possibly be moved to hear me that every Hobbit in the land realizes just what a treasure Drogo and Primula left to the Shire and that I’ve been allowed to cherish all these years.”

            Gandalf’s face went solemn as he watched Frodo, followed by Sam Gamgee, disappear into the pavilion with their napkins and cups.  “Oh,” he said gently, “a treasure he is, and an even greater one he’ll prove.  And I foresee----”

            But he paused, as for a moment he seemed to see Frodo being led before a multitude, all singing and shouting praises to the Hobbit.  “He will be loved by more than you dream, Bilbo.  All will be grateful for him one day.”

            Bilbo looked up at him, startled by what the Wizard said.  “Really?  Not, of course, that Ferumbras or Lalia, much less the Sackville-Bagginses or their ilk, will ever truly appreciate him.  There will always be those, I suppose, who will see him tainted by the years of my companionship, who will think him odd simply because they’re certain I’ve been cracked all these years.  But those who count—they should be able to see him as he is.”

            The Hobbit straightened and laughed.  “Well,” he continued, “I intend just to give thanks for what I have known all these years.  I will fill myself as I can tonight with his cheerful nature and his laughter.  And just maybe one day you’ll lead him back to me once more, before I finally leave Middle Earth myself.”

            “If I can, I certainly will, Bilbo; and I’ll be proud to do so, thankful to have been honored to know the both of you and this delightful land that gave birth to you two and your beloved grandfather.”

            The Hobbit looked up to search the Wizard’s eyes.  “And I’ll hold you to that, Gandalf, my old friend.  Now—what do you say we finish up that bottle of Old Winyards I opened on your arrival?  I told Frodo to leave it for the two of us.”

            “I tender my thanks in anticipation, my dear Bilbo.  Shall we go in, then?”

            But as he followed Bilbo through the green door of Bag End, Gandalf paused and glanced back at the entrance to the pavilion below.  He thought again on the vision of Frodo being led out before a multitude, and wondered what the Hobbit might accomplish one day that would win him such thanks from what was plainly a gathering of predominately Men.

Written for the Tolkien Weekly Gifts: A Merry Heart challenge.

Spirits Lifted

            Frodo looked at the rest of the Fellowship.  Even Merry appeared grim as they headed for the hollow Aragorn had chosen for their day’s rest.  “It’s First Yule,” he whispered to himself.  “I cannot imagine condemning us all to so dreary a holiday!”

            But Pippin had other ideas, suddenly breaking out in one of his most hilarious parodies of a Yuletide carol.  Soon Gimli was joining in on the chorus, and even Legolas smiled at the foolery.  When Gandalf turned their small cooking fire green and red, and Boromir and Sam laughed aloud together, Frodo’s heart grew merry once more.

For Becky on her birthday.  Beta by RiverOtter.

Griefs Faced and Hearts Lightened

            As he approached the ramp to the Seventh Level of Minas Tirith, Faramir found himself behind what at first he took for a young boy, until the figure with its dark brown curls turned his head to see who walked behind him, and Faramir saw he followed Master Frodo Baggins, the Ringbearer.

            The Hobbit paused, smiling in recognition.  “Captain Faramir?  And how are you this day?”

            “Well, thank you.  My shoulder appears to be nearly recovered, and I was actually able to finish my forms today while at weapons practice.  And you, small master?”

            “Well enough, I suppose.  I was planning to take this to my Cousin Merry, who I understand stands guard before the Kings’ tomb in the burial grounds here, where lies the body of King Théoden of Rohan.”  He held out a basket he carried that appeared to hold a fair amount of food.  “The Lady Éowyn bade me bring it to him, that he not grow faint before his duty is finished.  I am told the door is not far from the entrance to the grounds for the Houses of Healing, but I am uncertain as to which gate it might be.”

            “Shall I go with you, then?” the Man asked.

            Frodo looked uncertain.  “It will not bother you?  I mean, it is where—where your father lost his life, is it not?”

            Faramir knew his own expression had to be quite solemn.  “So I have learned.  But I assure you I can bear it.”

            The Hobbit gave an abbreviated nod.  “If you are certain, then.  I would not cause you any discomfort.”

            Faramir moved to walk alongside Frodo Baggins, and shortened his stride that he not tax his companion unduly.  “My lady displays her thoughtfulness for her shield brother,” he commented.

            Frodo’s expression relaxed some.  “That she does.  Merry will be sorry when she must leave in a few days to return to Rohan to help her brother establish his rule.”  Then, with a sidelong glance upward he added slyly, “As must you be.”

            Faramir felt himself smile, and was grateful to the Hobbit for his ability to change the subject.  “Oh, indeed I shall feel bereft, not to be able to spend time each day with her as I have become accustomed.  Although it shall be but a short time before she returns and we might look to our marriage.  I am thankful that her brother has agreed that we might be handfasted following the burial feast for Théoden.  So short a time have I known her as a woman grown, and how dear she has become to me already.”

            “Had you known her in the past?”

            “I saw her some years ago, during a trip we made to Edoras, before Gríma Wormtongue gave his full allegiance to Curunír and began to speak the poison of despair to the King there.  She was a gangling girl then, with more interest in the sword I bore than for the likes of a young Man but recently accepted as Captain of the Rangers of Ithilien.  As I remember it, when she realized I was more an archer than a swordsman she lost interest in me completely, choosing to sit at her brother’s feet as he and Prince Théodred coaxed stories of my brother’s exploits from Boromir.  Éomer gave me more attention, for he sought to master all weapons, not just a sword.  He gave me a demonstration of archery from the back of a horse, which is a far more challenging skill to acquire than the use of longbow from cover in the woods of Ithilien.”

            “And you never thought that perhaps one day you might be moved to love her?”

            Faramir shook his head.  “No, certainly not.  Although even then I admired her ease around the horses and her seat as she rode.  A most graceful rider she proved.  But she was yet a young girl, too young to look on in that way, you understand.”

            Frodo nodded, and for a time they walked in silence.  Faramir indicated the way between the Houses of Healing and the Sixth Gate, beyond which lay a cutting that led at a downward slant to the door to the Silent Street, and Frodo straightened, as if he’d barely noticed the gap before.  Now he allowed Faramir to go slightly before himself.  Glancing back, the Man noticed he was examining his surroundings closely as they went.  “It is a narrow way,” Frodo commented.

            The Man was surprised, for it was quite wide enough for five Men to easily walk abreast.  “You see it as close?” he asked.

            The Hobbit’s cheeks became colored.  “I suppose I should not see it as that, as small as I am compared to your people, but we Hobbits are not accustomed to ways bordered on both sides with stone walls that loom far over our heads.  And our burial grounds are bounded by low hedges or simple rail fences, if there is anything at all about them.  Indeed, the lane leading into the burial grounds in Bywater where those from the region of the Hill are laid to rest must be far narrower than this, but this feels to be closer, if you understand me.”

            Faramir found himself imagining this.  “The city here must feel very strange to you,” he commented.

            Again there was that slight nod of acknowledgment and agreement, and then they were approaching the lodge for the porter.

            “My lords?  You would enter the Rath Dínen?”

            Faramir smiled at the Man, newly come to his office, he knew.  “Indeed, Gildorin, for we have an errand to one of those who stands to honor Théoden King.”

            Gildorin gave a glance at Faramir’s companion and his basket, and nodded as if he weren’t certain that such relief to one who was standing honor guard was perhaps quite proper.  “For the Pherian, then.  Then let me not keep you.”  And with a bow he unlocked the door and allowed them to enter the necropolis.

            In spite of his assurances to Frodo Baggins, Faramir found himself stiffening somewhat as the two of them entered the Silent Street.  He wasn’t certain that the Hobbit noticed, as Frodo himself was examining the surrounding edifices with a level of curiosity.  “Who dwells in these buildings?” Frodo asked, peering up at him sideways.

            “These are the tombs in which our most honored dead lie,” Faramir explained.  “This first is set aside for those who have served with distinction in the Guard for the Citadel.  On that side is the tomb for those lords of the land who die within the City while in active service to the King or Ruling Steward, those who choose to lie here, that is.”

            He noticed a look of revulsion on the Hobbit’s face as he paused, examining the great tomb to the right of the way more closely.  “You do not bury them in good, clean earth?” asked Frodo.

            Faramir shook his head.  “I fear not, not those who choose to be interred here.  In each tomb are many tables, and most, after they have been embalmed, are laid upon one of the tables and covered over with a sheer veil of silk.”

            The Hobbit’s expression of discomfort grew stronger.  “But, don’t they—don’t they soon begin to stink and decay?”

            The Man felt himself smiling some.  “That is the purpose for the elmbalming, you see—to guarantee the integrity of the body for some time after death.  In some cases the body might be placed in a stone sarcophagus, particularly if the deceased died from a wasting condition or a disease known to be contagious, or was killed in such a way that the body was not intact at the time of death—such as happens when a person falls from the walls or has died of fire or a crushing accident.  In such cases an effigy of the deceased is then usually sculpted to lie upon the tomb cover, that those who come to offer them honor might remember how they looked in life.”

            The revulsion faded as compassion took its place on the Ringbearer’s face.  “I see.  And will this be done, then, for your father?”

            Faramir nodded, again feeling quite solemn.  “Indeed, as there is little left, I am told, that remains of his body.  They have gathered his ashes and what little was identifiable of him into a stone coffer, and I will, when I have the time to choose what sculptor is to complete the commission, have a suitable effigy or perhaps a seated statue created and place the coffer below it.  And I will have a figure made of Boromir as well, to stand at guard nearby, as we have no body to lie here.”

            Frodo gave another nod, and started forward once more.  Soon they came to the House of Kings, in front of which stood two in the garb of Riders of Rohan, one of them Meriadoc Brandybuck, both standing with the tips of their swords grounded before them before the closed door to the building that held the bodies of former Kings of Gondor.

            Frodo set the basket before Merry.  “The Lady Éowyn sends this with her compliments, bidding you be refreshed that you not faint at your duty, Merry,” he said quietly.  Merry gave a brief inclination of his head in acknowledgment, but remained at attention in keeping with his duty.  Frodo bowed in respect toward the building’s door, and he and Faramir turned away back toward the street between the rows of great tombs.

            Beyond the House of the Kings stood a building that was under construction.  About it stood scaffolding, and there were stacks of great stones awaiting use by the masons who were seeing to the further raising of the walls, which already stood well over Faramir’s height.

            “There is need for a new tomb, then?” Frodo asked, examining it with a degree of curiosity.  “But, no—those steps have to have been here for quite some time!”

            Faramir felt a tightness in his throat.  “It was the House of the Stewards.  My father apparently had them bring wood and lay it upon the embalmers’ table, then laid me upon it, and himself beside me.  The heat of the fire was enough to cause the dome to crack and much of the walls to fall.  You will note the back portions are finished—those are the oldest portions of the tomb, where the first of the Stewards lie.  But the front part of the place needs to be constructed anew, and a new embalmers’ table will need to be crafted.  My grandfather and back to his grandfather—their bodies were not consumed but are no longer recognizable.  There will be a need to have stone sarcophagi and effigies constructed for them as well.”

            Frodo’s eyes were wide as he examined the construction.  He turned to look up at Faramir.  “And is there any indication as to how they looked that could be used in making the statues?”

            “In the Hall of Memorial within the Citadel complex are statues of all of the Kings and Stewards of Gondor.  After all, there have been rather too many for the statues of each and all to stand between the pillars in the Hall of Kings.”

            “I see,” said Frodo.  Then, after a moment he suggested, “Shall we go, then?”  So saying, he turned his back decidedly upon the broken tomb, his gaze now fixed upon the way ahead of him, plainly intending not to stop until they were outside the door again.

            They were quiet as they walked together, merely exchanging bows with Gildorin as he opened the door at Faramir’s knock and prepared to lock it again after them.  As they emerged at last from the submerged lane, Faramir noted that Frodo’s breath was becoming labored, and realized that the Hobbit was tiring.  “Shall we rest for a time within the gardens for the Houses of Healing?” he suggested.

            Frodo nodded, obviously relieved.  He followed the Man as the Steward turned in through the gates to the garden, and sank with relief upon the first bench they reached.  Faramir sat beside him, and for a time they were still.  At last Frodo stretched some, as if he felt easier.  At this point an apprentice to the healers arrived, carrying a platter of fruit and cheeses and two mugs of light ale for their refreshment, smiling as he presented this and retreating back indoors to his proper duties.  Frodo sipped at his mug, staring thoughtfully at the low wall beyond which he now knew the cutting led down toward the tombs for the notables of the city.  After setting the mug between the two of them, he asked, “Did you tell your father about meeting Sam and me, there in Ithilien?”

            “Yes, I did. It was not something I could conceal from him, after all, not when all those with me had seen you also, and when, surprised to see your kinsman Pippin in the crowd of those who greeted me back to the city, I had blurted out that this was not the first Halfling I had seen.  In spite of your statement that you had traveled with two of your kinsman besides Master Samwise, I found coming so unexpectedly upon Pippin dressed in the garb of a Guard of the Citadel quite put me out of my reckoning.  I doubt I was as careful with my words as perhaps I ought to have been.”

            “Was he angry with you?”

            Faramir nodded.  “He was so certain that had we the Ring here we could somehow fend off the assault by Mordor.  But I kept remembering what you had said about two haunted cities grinning at one another across the wasteland between, and I knew I had done well.  He—he accused me of seeking ever to appear a gracious lord when I ought to have thought first of the needs of the city and our people, and swore that had Boromir met you instead he would have brought our father a mighty gift.”  He could hear the bitterness in his own voice at the remembered words.

            The Hobbit had paled, his own eyes darkening as he recalled his last encounter with Denethor’s older son.  “No, he would not have brought the Ring here to surrender It to your father.  He thought that he could use It to defeat the Enemy himself, and told me that it was but a chance that It had come to me rather than to him.  The Ring had taken him, you see.  All have told me that they heard It calling to them, that they could make things better if they should take It from me, that they could each be the great Hero of the Age.  Even Sam!”  He raised his eyes to meet the Man’s gaze, and Faramir could see the grief within them.

            They were both startled to hear the voice of the new King from behind them.  “Oh, yes, I certainly found myself fighting Its calls to me.  And Boromir recognized that he’d been taken by It, and begged my forgiveness for having tried to take It from you, Frodo.”

            Rising, Faramir began, “I had no idea that you were there, my lord.”

            But Aragorn was waving his hand dismissively.  “I was told you were here, and but now came out of the Houses and overheard the last of your discourse.  Yes, we all heard the call of the Ring, even Legolas.  It told me that I could force Denethor to accept my claim for the Winged Crown and to again honor me as if we were the brothers so many thought us to be when I was here before.  It told me that I could conquer Sauron without the need for armies, and in the end force him to acknowledge my overlordship and to set right all he’d destroyed in the last five thousand years.  I could free the Three from Its power, allowing the Elves I knew, loved, and honored to remain in Middle Earth indefinitely.  I could take the desire of my heart without having to meet the stringent requirements laid upon me.  And I could save you, Frodo, from the burden of carrying It, and see you relieved of the grief and pain It had laid upon you.”

            “As if I could have borne seeing It in any hands but my own at that point,” Frodo responded, to which Aragorn nodded his agreement.

            “It would have torn you in two, small brother, had any managed to take It from you.  You would have killed, I suspect, to get It back.”

            Frodo closed his eyes, turning his face away.  “You speak truly.”  Abruptly he rose to his feet and walked toward the wall, the two Men following in his wake, Aragorn catching up the platter and Faramir bringing the two mugs of ale.

            Once at the wall, the Hobbit drew himself up to sit somewhat sideways upon it, looking again eastward toward the Ephel Dúath.  For a time he remained broodingly silent, but at last he murmured, “I feel at times that much of me remains out there, ever seeking to cross those mountains into Mordor.”

            “That is understandable,” Aragorn responded quietly, sitting on Frodo’s other side where he might look over the Hobbit’s head to follow the direction of his gaze.  He reached around Frodo to set the platter on the stone where the Ringbearer could easily reach the food upon it, and taking a single slice of apple he straightened, his own attention eastward again.  “Just as I found myself, on first rounding the spur of the Ephel Dúath, looking warily toward the Dead Marshes as if I could see myself creeping upon Gollum there.”

            There was a moment of quiet.  “He remembered you capturing him there,” Frodo finally murmured, at last taking an apple slice for himself.  “He hated you for having done so.”

            The King smiled ruefully, shaking down his sleeve to inspect a now faded scar on his wrist.  “I know.”

            “Is that where he bit you?” Frodo asked, turning and noting the hint of the healed wound.  “He left quite the scars on Sam as well.”

            “The newer wound on his neck was filled with infection when you were brought out to me,” Aragorn commented as Frodo ran his finger over the faint marks of teeth.  “We were very worried at first, although it healed quickly enough—more quickly than I healed of this bite, I must say.  One of Thranduil’s healers saw to it while I remained for a short time within Mirkwood.”

            “I’d hoped to see him healed,” Frodo whispered.

            “Your hope was noble, but I doubt that poor Gollum could be healed this side of the Halls of Mandos.  Too long did It hold sway over his heart.”

            “Indeed,” added Faramir, “so I saw, too.  But do not grieve overmuch, small master, for he is now free of his enslavement to It, even as is true of you.”

            Frodo gave a slight smile that did not reach his eyes, and turned his attention back eastward once more.

            “So many died,” he sighed at last, and took a small bite of his apple.

            “And so many lived as well,” Faramir returned.  “So many lived who otherwise would have died had you not arrived in time at the Sammath Naur.  It was a great deed, and I find I am grateful to that poor gangrel creature for taking It from you at the end, saving you along with the rest of us.  He managed, with the grace of Ilúvatar, to save us all, you know.  He, too, is a hero—perhaps the most unexpected hero of all.”

            “May he rest easily in the realm of Lord Námo,” said the King solemnly.  “Indeed—the special hero to us all.”  And as he smiled down into the Hobbit’s eyes, Faramir felt his own spirits rise as well.  Indeed, there was much lost and many gone from the land of the living; but with these two Hope had been returned to a land long fighting the despair engendered by the Enemy, and once more the Sun shone brightly on a renewed Gondor.  And when it did come his time to lie there, in the Rath Dínen, he would not begrudge it, having seen the peace his father and brother had fought for so fiercely finally come to be.  He thought once more on the creature Gollum, and rejoiced that Frodo here had stayed his hand when he had thought to order its death.

For Imhiriel for her birthday.  Beta by RiverOtter.

New Moves

 

            “Now the left foot forward—no, Frodo, your other left!  Yes, that is right.  Good!  Turn now clockwise and clap your hands!  Yes—that is excellent!”  And Frodo shone like a flame as he mastered the dance Bilbo was teaching him.

            Across the width of Eriador, Elrohir Elrondion was directing his mortal brother:  “No, your dagger is held too low.  Raise it to the level of your upper chest.  Yes—there!  Now parry.  No!  Watch my eyes, not my hand!”

            Two learned new dances that day, one a dance of joy, the other a dance of guard.

For Lily Baggins for her birthday.  Beta by RiverOtter.

Concerns

            Merimac Brandybuck surreptitiously watched after the wagon as his nephew drove it out of the stable yard toward the road leading to the High Hay and Crickhollow.  Merry was up to something, of that he was certain.  There had been something furtive about the lad for months, and it did not bode well in his estimation.

            But it wasn’t until he was approaching the main barn itself that he realized that his brother was there, his own face troubled, also watching after the departing wagon.

            “What is it, Sara?”

            Saradoc turned toward the sound of his brother’s voice, and immediately the signs of his concern smoothed away.  “And what are you doing up so early, Mac?”

            “I told you last night I’d be here early this morning checking the harnesses and saddles to see how much work will be needed over the winter to prepare for spring plowing and the travel and carting needs for the coming year.  You let Merry take the smaller wagon?”

            “He said he might need it to get supplies for Frodo once Frodo arrives with Sam and Pippin.”

            Mac snorted.  “With all you and Esme have sent over to Crickhollow, do you really think they’ll need anything more?”

            Sara sighed and looked down the track toward the road to the Ferry.  When he spoke there was no further attempt to hide his worry.  “I doubt there would be anything Frodo would find wanting, although Sam Gamgee might want something that his family favors that we might never think of.  I can’t really think that they’d need anything more in the way of furnishings, though—between what Frodo sent ahead and what we’ve taken over, I swear that there couldn’t be anything else they’d need—mattresses, lamps, bedsteads, wardrobes, tables, lamp oil or candles….”

            He turned suddenly back to face his younger brother.  “Mac, did you see any sign at all that those ponies Merry bought were suffering from the scours?”

            Mac shook his head.  “Not a symptom.  Seemed very sound last I saw of them before Merry suddenly took them out to the fields near Crickhollow.  Not that I understood why he’d lie about it.”

            “Unless he wanted them close at hand for some reason he didn’t want us to know about.”

            Mac found himself nodding at his brother’s words.  “You think that they are considering doing something…?”  He couldn’t finish.

            The lines of concern were back on Sara’s forehead.  “I am afraid there is something going on.”

            At last Mac added, “Something centered on Frodo and why he lied about running out of money?”

            Saradoc looked off in the direction of Crickhollow and the High Hay beyond it.  “Yes.”

            “Why would he think anyone would believe such a story, Sara?”

            It was Sara’s turn to snort.  “You know Hobbits, Merimac Brandybuck—we’ll believe what we want to believe, and a good many folk would love to think that the Bagginses were finally running into a spate of bad luck for a change.  Oh, I do believe that Frodo merely told the good people of Hobbiton what many of them wanted to believe anyway, and that others were afraid of.”

            “That still is no excuse for selling Bag End to Lotho Pimple, though.”

            “No.  You’re right there, Mac.”

            The two of them stood, staring blindly back toward Crickhollow, for some time.  At last Mac asked, “Did you look to see if Merry already had something in the wagon, Sara?”

            “He had several new packs—larger ones than Frodo usually carries when he intends to be walking for two or three days between one place and the next.  And I saw a bag or two, also.”

            After a moment Mac commented, “I noted that someone had taken a good deal of the mixture of raisins, dried berries and fruit, and nuts that we send along with those who take the wagons into the Shire, to the Great Smials, Hobbiton, and Michel Delving.  And at least eight of the loaves of travel bread were missing.  And a metal tin was missing, and the seal on one of the honey stores had been broken.”

            “And he had Treasure prepare some trail foods and jerked meats as well,” Sara added, rather reluctantly, or so it seemed to Mac.

            The Hobbit who watched over the poultry yards was approaching them.  “Master Sara—someone was into the chicken runs during the night, and took all of the fresh eggs.  Appears to have packed them into baskets and pillowed them with fresh hay from the signs I saw.”

            Mac and Saradoc exchanged looks.  “So, it would appear that there is a journey of some sort in the offing,” Sara said softly.  He spoke more loudly to the waiting Hobbit.  “It’s all right, Merkidio.  Apparently Merry was taking some extras for Frodo’s use—he will have Fatty and Pippin staying at Crickhollow with him, after all, and you know how much those two can eat.”

            Merkidio appeared relieved.  “Oh, well—if it was simply Merry taking them for Frodo—Frodo can always have as much as he wants, after all.  So good to think he’s coming home again, back to Buckland.  But with the word we had of strange Big Folk breaking into the Shire across the Sarn Ford last week….”  Whatever else he’d thought to say went unsaid as he gave a pull at the bill of his cap and returned to his duties.

            Mac found himself searching his brother’s eyes.  “Do you think that these black Big Folk have anything to do with Frodo leaving Bag End when he did?”

            Saradoc was shivering.  “I certainly hope not!  And how would Frodo know about them anyway?  There’s not been time to send word to him about it—we just learned last night about it ourselves!  And Frodo’s said for months that he would be leaving Bag End as soon as his birthday was over.”

            Mac turned once more eastward toward Crickhollow and the road to the High Hay.  “I wish I had some idea what those lads have going on.  No matter that Frodo’s about the most responsible Hobbit in the Shire—when Merry, Pippin, and Fatty Bolger all get their heads together I become concerned.”

            But there was nothing else they could do for the moment.  Mac decided that tomorrow he’d find some excuse to ride toward Crickhollow and the High Hay, and check things out.  Perhaps Merry had actually intended to give Frodo and Samwise Gamgee a choice of ponies to ride around Buckland on—it wasn’t as if all would be as close for them as it was in Hobbiton when it was but a five minute walk to the marketplace, after all.  And since Merry had bought the ponies with his own money, it wasn’t as if the Master of the Hall or his stable master had any say what he did with them.

            But he still felt foreboding in his heart as Sara turned to return to the Hall and as Mac went into the barn with his note pad and writing stick in hand.  Yes, Mac reflected, something was not right concerning Cousin Frodo and the young Hobbits who were at his side at the moment, and he was determined to find out just what that was.

Written for the LOTR Community Hearts and Flowers challenge.  Beta by RiverOtter.

Letting Go of Love

            “Pearl Took!”

            Pearl was taken aback by the tone of the call, and turned around quickly, expecting to find herself face to face with her father.  Instead, the stony visage that met her surprised gaze was that of her little brother, at the moment as stern as ever had been Paladin Took or Grandda Adalgrim.  He raked her with cold, disapproving eyes, then turned away from her as if she were beneath his dignity to look upon further and went into the farmhouse, his travel cloak fluttering as if it, too, felt cold fury towards her.

            “You’d think he was the Thain himself,” said Pimpernel admiringly, watching after their brother as the door slammed behind him.  But as her eyes met Pearl’s her expression also became decidedly cool.

            “So, you’re angry with me, too?” Pearl demanded.

            Pimpernel sniffed, “What do you think?  What you’ve done to Frodo was unconscionable.”

            “And just what do I owe to Frodo Baggins?”

            “He loves you, Pearl Took.  To just throw him over like that, all of a sudden, no warning at all----”

            Pearl interrupted, “Why does everyone act as if I’d done something terrible?  I just realized I simply don’t love him!”

            “All of a sudden—in the morning you’re discussing your wedding trousseau, and in the afternoon you can’t even give him the time of day?  What happened yesterday when you went into Hobbiton?”

            “And what makes you think something happened in Hobbiton?” Pearl demanded, her own voice icy now.

            “What?  What makes us think something happened?”  Pimmie was looking at her with wide, amazed eyes.  “Pearl, you were as ready as any of us to accept Frodo’s promise gifts yesterday before you went into the village, and you know it as well as I do.  But when you came back your attitude was all different, and you wouldn’t speak to Frodo at all, but kept avoiding him, acting as if it embarrassed you to be anywhere near him.”

            Pearl felt exasperated as she tried to find an answer her sister would understand.  “What was I supposed to do?  Am I to continue acting as if I were besotted with him when I’m not?  You know as well as I do that Frodo would never move to the Great Smial, which is where I really want to live.  I mean, he has Bag End, and it’s the most gracious smial in the whole Shire—why would he ever want to move away from it?  And there’s no question that when Bilbo is gone it will be Frodo’s!

            “Frodo may love to dance, but he doesn’t like to go to parties as much as I do.  He actually likes working with his copying, and would want to take commissions when I’d want to go visiting with my friends or travel to see our parents, whether here or in Tuckborough.  He’d expect me to do a good portion of the cooking….”

            “And why not?” Pimpernel asked.  “You’re a decent cook, after all.”

            “But I don’t like cooking every day.  That’s why I want to live at the Great Smial, so I could let those who make a living by cooking do what they do best and I could spend more time visiting with my friends and talking, or working at my sewing.  I don’t mind sewing, but it seems that cooking is something that takes up far too much of a wife’s time.  And I can’t see Frodo agreeing to employ a servant just to do the cooking I don’t want to do.

            “And what about Snappy?  You know how Frodo feels about dogs—he doesn’t like them at all, and never has.  I think he’s afraid of them, actually.  Already every time he comes here we have to put Snappy and Dizzy out back, and Snappy is just a puppy still.  I’d refuse to make Snappy stay outside if I were to marry him.  And it certainly wouldn’t be right to bring the focus of Frodo’s fear right in to the hole where he has to face it all the time.

            “Plus he likes to read so much, and to work in the gardens.  What if I’m eager to tell him all about what’s happening in the village and he doesn’t want to listen?  You know how he can be—he’s sitting there, apparently listening intently, but in reality he’s trying to find some Elvish word to describe a flower he’s been admiring much of the morning, or he’ll answer with a question about whether or not I’ve read anything about the Men of the West.  What do I care about the Men of the West?”

            She felt the sigh building, and let it out.  “I’d resent him deeply in no time at all, and he’d most likely feel the same toward me, and you know it.”

            Pimmie searched her face for a few moments, and finally said, “You mean that?”  At Pearl’s nod, she continued, “Then why didn’t you say all that to him?”

            Pearl found herself throwing out her hands.  “How can I, Pim?  How can I tell him, I was more interested in being in love with you than I was in you yourself?  How can I tell him that I find his interests boring, and that I just don’t want to live in Bag End or Hobbiton?  How can I tell him I don’t want to live within five miles of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and her poisonous tongue?  You should have heard what she was saying there in Hobbiton yesterday, Pimmie!  It was awful!  And then I realized that I didn’t want her saying things like that about me, too!  And then there’s the question of children….”  But this came far, far too close to the real problem, the one she didn’t want to talk about to anyone, or not as yet.

            “So you’d let the nonsense Lobelia might say get between you and the one you love?” Pimpernel asked.

            Again Pearl nodded.  “And if I feel that way, just how much do I truly love him, Pimmie?  That was when I realized I didn’t really love Frodo at all, just the idea of being in love with him.”  After a moment she added, “It’s not really fair to him to keep leading him on as I was doing.”

            “Are you going to tell Mummy and Da?”

            Pearl shrugged.  “I think Da knows how I really feel—or he will, at least; but Mum won’t ever understand, I don’t think.”

            The two lasses were quiet for a time, and at last Pimpernel hazarded, “Does this mean you’ll let Isumbard press his suit now?”

            “I don’t know.  Maybe.”  And then, “Yes, I probably will.”

            “Frodo’s truly heartbroken, you know.”

            “I suppose he is.”

            “He had a beautiful pendant and set of ear drops for you as a promise gift.”

            She felt some bitterness she didn’t really understand in herself.  “I am certain that whatever Frodo would offer as a promise gift would be especially beautiful and in the utmost of taste, Pim.  But he can offer them to Narcissa as easily as to me.  At least she truly loves him, and it’s not just fascination the way it was with me.”

            But Pimpernel was shaking her head.  “No, he’d never give anything to her that was first intended for you.  And it will be a long time before he’ll even look at her, much less accept that he was her first love as much as he was yours.  If he ever does heal enough to look at another lass, he’d want a special promise gift to offer her that reflects her and his love for her, not something left over from his first serious love.”

            Pervinca came out of the house, gave a swift glance at Pearl and then looked decidedly away from her, and focused her attention on Pimpernel.  “Mum wants us lasses to help put away the clothing while she starts dinner.”  But she didn’t turn about to go back in herself, instead asking Pimmie, “Do you think that Frodo will ever get over being thrown over like that?”

            Pim gave her older sister a sidelong glance before answering Vinca, “In time I think he will.”

            “His heart hurts now, though—it hurts sore, it does.  He didn’t deserve that—he’s never done anything to deserve being treated like he’s nothing.”  And with that she finally went back inside, and although she didn’t slam the door as hard as had Pippin, it still was a rebuke to Pearl for her behavior.

            The two older lasses stayed outdoors still a few moments longer.  Pearl plucked a spray of lavender and was turning it in her fingers when she suggested, “The way is open for you now, Pimmie.  I know you’ve been fascinated by Frodo as much as I ever was.”

            Pimpernel gave a brittle laugh.  “Oh, yes, me and half of all the lasses between my age and his in the Shire, and probably a few older than he is as well.  And I know that what you found is true for you is truer for me.  Oh, I wouldn’t mind living in Bag End and being Mistress of the Hill; but I have no more interest in all the things that Frodo likes than you do.  Going out walking about the Shire looking for Elves?  Hosting Dwarves?  Oh, no—not for me!”  She shook her head as she turned her eyes back in the direction of Hobbiton.  “I’d make him keep at least a couple of ponies, for I have no interest at all in walking all the way from Brandy Hall to Tuckborough the way he does.”

            Pearl felt relieved, and set her hand on Pimmie’s shoulder, and they looked Hobbiton-way together for some time in quiet, until Pimpernel questioned softly, “And do you think that that Lobelia is right, and that Frodo has a weak heart?  Is that why his mother couldn’t have more than one child live—that they all tended to have bad hearts?”

            Pearl’s mouth was dry.  “She told you, too?”

            Pimmie turned to search her sister’s eyes again.  “So, that was the real reason?  I remember the one bairn Mummy lost—I wouldn’t want to go through that, either.”

            And for the first time Pearl felt tears slip from her eyes, and they put arms about each other.  Pearl rested her head on her younger sister’s shoulder as together they let go of the thought of marrying Frodo Baggins.         

My birthday mathom to you all, with special thanks to Tallis for her inspiration!

Waking Thoughts

            Gandalf sat by Frodo’s side as the Hobbit slept.  How often he’d done this in the past few years!

            The first time was in Rivendell, and Frodo had just arrived at the Last Homely House, carried in by Elves and with Aragorn and Arwen on either side of him while Glorfindel shepherded in his companions.  How small and fragile he’d looked—nothing like the sturdy young Hobbit, as slender as he was for one of his race, he’d known as Bilbo’s young ward and heir, there in Bag End.  At first he’d lain like one dead, his face bloodless and his lips blue, his left hand like ice under Gandalf’s.  Only after Elrond had stripped him did Frodo show signs of life then, scrabbling at his side as if searching for something and whimpering as if he were in deadly pain.

            Aragorn stood by the bed, pale himself with worry and exhaustion, supported by Arwen’s presence.  “He’s not done that before,” he’d whispered. 

            Elrond looked up from his examination of the Hobbit to meet his fosterling’s eyes, then exchanged glances with the Wizard.  Both recognized what was happening.  Gandalf said, “Bilbo always carried It in his pocket, either his trousers or his waistcoat.”

            “And you think that Frodo would do the same, then?” Elrond asked.

            “He had It in the pocket of his waistcoat at the Prancing Pony, when It slipped Itself onto his finger,” Aragorn said.  “Or at least that is what he insisted—that It slipped Itself onto his finger, of Its own volition.”

            “And why would It do that?” Elrond had asked.

            “To reveal Itself,” Gandalf answered him.  “Were there some within the room who appeared to be agents of the Enemy?”

            “Yes—and the Pony was attacked that night, the Hobbits’ room entered and the beds torn apart.”

            “They were not in those beds, though,” Gandalf had commented.  He knew that the apparent calm of his voice would not fool either Aragorn or Elrond, and that they recognized he was as worried as were they both by the evidence of the Enemy’s awareness of the movements of his Ring and the large number of enemies that seemed to be gathering along Its path.

            “Well, I’m glad that he doesn’t have the Ring on him now,” Elrond said.  “With a Morgul shard in his shoulder, young Frodo here does not need Its influence adding to the shard’s own malevolence.”

            “Yet he’s fought the shard’s influence for two weeks with It in his pocket,” Aragorn noted.

            “You perhaps should have taken It from him,” Elrond suggested.

            The Man had straightened with shock.  “Take It from him?  Touch It—myself?  And what would It have done to me, do you think?  It would have loved that, and the chance of making Frodo my enemy.”

            Elrond had withdrawn his attention from Frodo then, straightening himself to examine Aragorn’s eyes.  “Then It is awake?”

            Aragorn nodded, and looked down to the Hobbit’s face and scrabbling fingers.  “Oh, yes—It is awake, and aware.  It has been trying to capture my attention, and the more so since Frodo was stabbed.  When he’s been fully awake and aware, Frodo has been lucid enough.  But as he tires as the day draws near its end, then the Ring has called more insistently to me to reach for It, at which time Frodo’s looks have become anxious and suspicious.  More than once I have seen him handling the pommel of that long knife he’s carried as a sword, eying me as if I were plotting to take It from him—until he has forced his hand away with a decided effort.  Yes, It is seeking to cause problems between Frodo and me.”

            “Then, when It leaves here It must be surrounded by several strong individuals so that It cannot focus on only one person,” Gandalf had advised.  Elrond had nodded, and turned his attention back to Frodo’s shoulder once more.

            The first probe on Frodo’s shoulder was not as total a disaster as it might have appeared.  Yes, Aragorn had started to sway and collapse, his fatigue finally taking him, and Elrond had been forced to abort the procedure.  But he’d found where the shard was and could see now what path it would most likely follow.   Too dangerous now to remove it, but in a couple of days’ time there would come a moment as it approached the heart itself when it could be caught.  And with that much rest and good food to sustain him, the Dúnadan was able to be there at his adar’s side, a presence Frodo could recognize and respond to in a positive manner, trust already having been established.

            After the first attempt to remove the shard, Frodo had become more anxious about the absence of the Ring; but as he weakened he’d moved less and keened more.  At last Gandalf had insisted that the Ring be returned to the Hobbit, and at Elrond’s direction a chain was forged and wound about with spells intended to dampen Its power.  Once the chain was settled around Frodo’s neck and It rested against his skin, the Hobbit had calmed remarkably, and Gandalf was able to at last sort through his tangled thoughts and memories, finding that Frodo Baggins had a mind that easily responded to the Wizard’s probes.

            “Remarkable,” he’d said to Elrond after the shard was at last removed and the two had retreated to Elrond’s private study to restore themselves with small glasses of miruvor.  “It is as if Frodo were a natural for osanwë.  I doubt I’ve seen more than a handful of mortals as responsive to my probing of his thoughts.”  He’d told the Master of Imladris all that he’d learned from his searching of Frodo’s memories, including how he’d perceived the attempts by the Ring to take control of his body.  “And Aragorn’s perceptions of the Ring seeking to drive a wedge between himself and Frodo were confirmed by what I’ve learned from Frodo himself.  I’ve done my best to settle those memories well behind other more pertinent considerations, and to leave him feeling reassured so that when he wakens he will not know any overt anxiety.  But apparently carrying the Ring for the last seventeen years has prepared him to accept communication mind to mind, heart to heart.”

            Somehow he’d not been surprised when, during the Council, Frodo had stood up to claim the quest as his own.  He’d noted the surprise in Frodo’s own mind to hear the words issuing from his mouth, but knew that on a deeper level the Hobbit had known all along that this would likely be required of him.

            He missed Frodo’s natural light-heartedness as they left Rivendell, and noted the melancholy that was now a constant presence in the Hobbit’s heart.  More than once he blessed the Powers for seeing to it that young Pippin was a part of the Fellowship, for the impetuous and seemingly irrepressible Took had a marked sensitivity to his companions’ moods, and was ever on the lookout to intervene with a joke or comic song or some apparent Tookish foolishness that would make Frodo laugh and step forward to accept his proper place as the eldest and most responsible of the four Hobbits in the party.  More than once the Ring’s attempts to subvert Frodo to suspicion of the others was interrupted by some action by Pippin or, to a lesser extent, Merry or even Sam; and often when the Ring was focusing Its malevolence on one of the others in the party again they would find themselves being saved by that Fool of a Took.  How he’d shaken his head over Pippin’s decisions and behavior at the same time he’d been glad to see the Ring foiled by the small Hobbit’s excellent timing.

            He’d been aware of Gollum’s shadowing of the Fellowship from their first few hours within Moria, and had noted that the Ring had also recognized the presence of Its former bearer with Its usual mixture of antipathy and consideration as to how It could use the creature to reach Its own ends.  But Frodo had also become aware of the new, unseen member of the Fellowship.  He admitted to having heard Gollum’s footsteps, but what Gandalf himself noted was that Frodo was responding to a mind that was as responsive to the Ring’s considerations as his own had become.

            How the anguish in Frodo’s mind at the sight of Gandalf’s fall had torn at the Wizard’s heart as he’d found himself plunging after the Balrog.  He’d recognized that this was necessary—that Maia must fight Maia that there not be a second to Sauron in the final battles.  Mortals could face the Wraiths, if they could be brought to work together in concert and mutual trust and compassion; but there was no other at hand of his own rank to face the Balrog, so he must do this, even if it removed him from Middle Earth.  He could trust the Valar to send what aid they could to face Sauron in the end, and Radagast at least was true, if not at ease with facing Sauron directly.

            In the wake of his return, Gandalf had learned from Galadriel Artanis that Frodo had reacted uniquely to her probing of his heart at their meeting.  Aragorn, who’d been through such scrutiny before from both his Elven family and his hostess on earlier visits, had opened himself to her thoughts, seeking to hide nothing from her.  She’d been amused by the other Hobbits’ reactions of shame at seeing their own concerns for what might be happening at home placed before their awareness; she’d been proud of Legolas’s defiance of her attempt to find Its possible means of assailing his integrity; and had been pleased at the openness of the Dwarf’s mind to this new experience, and his realization that her probe had been benign rather than malicious.  She’d been rightly concerned for the integrity of Boromir; but it was Frodo who’d surprised her with his own counterprobe, seeking to assure himself that she was not already plotting to claim the Ring as her own.  And how much more impressed she was when he openly offered It to her in the presence of her Mirror, and she’d seen that he had indeed grown wearied of Its constant attempts to destroy his own integrity.

            On his own return, Gandalf had been able to sense Frodo and what he was feeling for a time.  He knew when Frodo descended from the Emyn Muil to the level of the Dead Marshes, and was aware of Frodo’s horror at what they saw there on more than one occasion.  He’d also been aware of Frodo’s relief when he and his companions entered into Ithilien.  Only when they began the climb up the stairs to Cirith Ungol had he found he could no longer sense Frodo’s thoughts, and he was glad.  If he could not do so, neither could the Enemy.

            Frodo’s will had been broken by It at the end, and the loss of the Ring by Gollum’s violence had been the only catalyst that had been capable of keeping Frodo’s personality intact enough to allow healing afterwards.  In the struggle he’d been able to focus enough on trying to keep possession of his precious treasure to avoid focusing on his failure in his quest—had that happened, Gandalf was not certain that Frodo would have been able to come back to himself.  That and Sam’s presence….

            He was aware of the struggle waged when Aragorn utilized the power of his birthright to seek after the Hobbits’ straying spirits, and that there was a debate at the Gates themselves before Frodo would agree to turn again and reenter his battered body.  Afterwards he’d found it difficult during a good part of that two-week’s sleep to learn what had happened during their sojourn within the fences of Mordor—or at least difficult to learn from Frodo himself.  Sam’s was now the easier mind to reach, for often Frodo shrank violently away from any attempt to touch on his thoughts.  “What It did to you, child,” he murmured, reaching down to brush the backs of his fingers against Frodo’s cheek, “was beyond what any creature should endure.”  He smiled as Frodo’s head turned softly in response to that touch, not away as it had usually done during the last stages of healing sleep then, but toward the hand brushing against him, trust once again restored.  Only as Frodo neared waking had Gandalf been able to easily sense his thoughts and feelings again, but they were confused and, all too often, sharp edged, as it they were shards of a broken mirror that was slowly repiecing itself.

            Afterwards Frodo’s responses were too often those of a chronic invalid, constantly being painfully reminded of what he could no longer do with ease.  Certainly the Wizard could appreciate how Frodo, who ought to be looking toward a resumption of his life and perhaps even knowing the freedom now to love as he pleased, felt insulted by the loss of the competence and endurance he’d always entertained.  The graceful dancer could not look forward to finishing a set; the one who used to walk across the Shire and still dance till dawn once he’d arrived at his destination was now exhausted by a walk of less than a mile, and the Hobbit could no longer eat until he felt full.  How can one rejoice fully when one cannot count upon one’s body to cooperate in such simple tasks as eating a full meal or a walk down to the turning in the lane?  As for returning to his accustomed place in Shire society----

            Frodo’s keen mind had been sharpened by his interaction with Sauron’s abomination, however.  He could and did shield his mind from others when he chose.  But at the same time he was more aware of the thoughts of others.  His hearing had been sharpened by the effects of the Morgul shard; now he was far more sensitive to the feelings and thoughts of others than he’d ever been.  Gandalf remembered the realization that, as he watched the silent communion between Elrond, Galadriel, Celeborn, and Gandalf during the time they spent in the last camp before the denizens of Lothlórien turned east to cross over the Redhorn Pass, Frodo was increasingly aware of the flow of thoughts and considerations among the parties of great ones.

            You are surprised, Olórin, Galadriel had asked him, that he is able to follow our communication?  Think what it was he was forced to carry for so long.  Of course he would become more sensitive, for he was forced increasingly to shield himself from Its attempts to manipulate him, and to hide his intentions from It as much as he could.  Once such channels are opened, they will only grow more sensitive.

            After they parted outside the Old Forest, Gandalf had frequently monitored Frodo’s feelings and sometimes his thoughts.  Again and again he’d tried to ease the Hobbit’s way by—rearranging—priorities or memories; but he’d realized that he could not do this forever, and that he was doing Frodo no favors in the end.  But the stubborn Baggins had become so dear to him—to them all!  He realized that Frodo had known since near the beginning that he remained in Middle Earth on borrowed time; and when Frodo accepted that his remaining time was limited if he stayed the Wizard believed he felt the greater grief in the end.  But then Frodo had chosen, and Gandalf had begun to hope for him to know full healing.

            Had Frodo’s desire to shield Sam from the likelihood of his own death been, perhaps, too great a motivation for his decision to sail with Elrond and Bilbo?  When Frodo had collapsed aboard the Grey Ship, once he was certain that the others would not see the starglass fail, Gandalf had been so afraid he would simply turn away from life completely.  But Bilbo had recalled him in the end, and since his arrival here on Tol Eressëa Frodo had been slowly strengthening, day by day.  Frodo was no longer afraid, however—no longer anxious or angry.  What he was granted he’d now accept, whether it was the joy of a new beauty or the peace of that final rest.  He’d faced the last of his fears and let them all go.  And now his thoughts were peaceful, calm, and, the Maia realized, once again filled with hope.  Hope!  How that estel had managed to bring down the evil of two Dark Lords!  And now once again it served to polish the fëa of this most special of Ilúvatar’s children!  And he began singing one of Bilbo’s walking songs, of hidden roads and secret gates….

            And Frodo began to waken, a smile on his lips.

Written for the LOTR Community Poetry challenge.  For RS for her birthday.  Beta by Lindelea

Ode to a Hopeless Love
(found by Bilbo after the Fellowship left Rivendell)

She walks in beauty like the night!
Pretentious words!  They just aren't right!
How I worship from afar
the beauteous Arwen Evenstar!
Now, there's a sentiment trite and callow
from one whose heart has long lain fallow.
I sound the veriest shallow youth.
How to speak my heart's sweet truth?
For she's an Elf and I a Hobbit.
I see her and my heart will throb!  It
seems my loves are doomed to fail.
It's best my thoughts I not unveil.
But is it love or merely fancy?
It's not as if there were a chance she
would give a thought to such as me,
who's bungled things so thoroughly.
A wand'rer now, my home abandoned,
a quest to take me to a sad end--
or so it seems.  What can she see
beyond the one who draws her pity?
But if I could my love but tell,
I'd speak of sweet Undómiel!
And with ev'ry attempted verse
my writing grows but worse and worse!
She smiles, and stars rise in the sky.
She sings, and not an eye stays dry.
Oh, Frodo, best put down thy pen
before it proves to be no friend!
Leave poetry to others who
can weave words far more sweet than you.
No, not for you the Evenstar,
nor Pearls, nor flowers in a jar.
Your dreams, you know, are too oft foul,
wicked enough to make one howl!
Nay, if you would see her stay untainted,
best she not see your heart's been painted
with bloody images of pain and death,
quite enough to stop one's breath.
Yet I would love you, Arwen, queen
of my heart--ah, that it might have been!

My Easter offering to you all, as we see the Shire renewed.... Beta by RiverOtter.

Chance Encounter

            Carnelian Delver paused in her gathering of nuts to listen, her ears twitching slightly.  Her brother Dodi, twelve to her fourteen years, paused in his own raid on the squirrel’s cache they’d found, to watch her.  “What is it?” he asked, his whisper low and wary.

            “A pony—I heard a pony, that way.”  She pointed in the direction of the bridle path that led toward Michel Delving.

            Dodi, alarmed, moved closer to her, whispering in her ear, “Do you think as we should go hide in the bolt hole in the orchard?”

            She shook her head, but uncertainly.  “It’s not Ruffians, ’cause they can’t ride ponies anyway.  Gatherers and Sharers couldn’t come that way, either, not with wagons.”

            Dodi nodded.  “Hardly nobody comes that way no more,” he noted, “not with all the Chief’s Rules.”  His brow furrowed.  “But Da told Mummy that the Ruffians went away two weeks ago, what with that trouble over Hobbiton-way, and that they’ve not come back.  And Missus Sourloam says as they’ve all been chased out—that the Thain’s son’s come home and chased all the bad’uns away.”

            Carnelian didn’t feel convinced.  “How could Pippin Took chase the Big Men away all on his own?” she asked.  “No Hobbit could do that!  They’re too big and too strong, the Big Men!”

            Dodi was looking stubborn.  “Maybe he got other Hobbits to help him.  Get enough together, and I’d wager as it could be done.”

            She shrugged, and looked back toward the bridle path.  She could hear the pony again, nickering, and another sound, as if someone was being ill.  That noise concerned her, and she started that way, if warily.  She remembered how she’d felt three years ago when she ate some mushrooms as oughtn’t to have been eaten.  Maybe that had happened to someone else.  She knew as it wasn’t a good thing, getting so sick that your stomach itself rebelled.  She slipped from one tree trunk to another, then still another, until she peered around the bole of an ash tree, and saw a gentlehobbit kneeling by the Sourloams’ rail fence, retching convulsively.  A particularly lovely bay pony with a large set of bags across its withers stood behind him with its reins dragging, nosing at his shoulder with concern.  She could see the steam rising from the pile of vomit before him, as well as the white puffs when he or the pony breathed out.

            “Carnelian!” Dodi hissed with alarm from the brush behind her.  “What is it?”

            “It’s all right,” she said over her shoulder, straightening and stepping out from behind the tree.  “It’s just a single Hobbit, and he’s not about to hurt anyone.  I think as he needs help, maybe.”  She went forward until she stood by the stranger’s shoulder, the other side from the pony.

            He was thin beneath his odd, grey-green cloak—that was the first thing she noticed.  And he was quite pale—but then, as sick as he was being, she wasn’t surprised by that.  He was holding so hard onto the rail fence to balance himself that she wouldn’t be surprised if he had a splinter or two through his fine gloves and in his hand by this time.  At last he was done, and he straightened on his knees, his eyes squeezed closed as if it had taken all he had in him to do what he’d done.

            The pony again nosed at his shoulder, and he said, “I’m all right, Strider.  Be calm.”

            “His name is Strider?” Carnelian asked.

            He opened his eyes to look up sideways at her.  “Yes.”

            Dodi had come out of hiding, although he was ready to dart back into the woods at any moment.  He was staring at the pony’s tack, which was beautifully decorated with a silver star on each cheek-piece.  “Oh, my,” he murmured, “but that bridle’s fine!”  He turned curious eyes toward the stranger.  “Did the Dwarves make it?”

            The gentlehobbit was starting to stand up, leaning on the rail fence rather heavily.  “No,” he said.  “I believe it was made in Rohan, or perhaps in Minas Tirith.”

            Carnelian asked, “Are you bad off?  Would you like to sit down and have a drink or something?  It sounded pretty bad.”  She thought he looked far too young to need to hold onto the fence that much while rising.

            “I have a water bottle on my pommel,” he said, turning toward the pony, patting it gently to reassure it before fumbling the strap free of the saddle.  His hands were trembling slightly as he worked to remove the stopper, and he took a small sip to rinse his mouth and spat it delicately on the ground before actually swallowing any.  He drank slowly and deliberately, allowing time between swallows to assure himself that the spasms were truly over.  At last he replaced the stopper and settled the strap again over the pommel of his saddle before turning to examine the children more closely. 

            His face was still pale, Carnelian noted, but not deathly so as it had been when they found him.  “And what are you two doing out on such a cold day?” he asked.

            “We were looking for nuts.  We found a squirrel’s hiding place and were raiding it, actually,” she explained.  “We don’t have much at home in the larders.”

            “The Gatherers and Sharers took most of your harvest?” he asked, his expression gone rather stern.

            The children nodded.  “They came on the day we were harvesting the potatoes and took them right from the field, and the same with the turnips,” Dodi told him.  The lad had finally come out alongside his sister.

            “And when we were harvesting our apples they did the same.  They took all of our bushel baskets and even our canvas picking bags, as well as our cider press,” his sister added.  “We think it was because one of the Gatherers and Sharers is our mum’s brother, and he knew when we’d be harvesting.  A lot of other people could hide a good deal of their harvest before the Gatherers and Sharers could get there, but not us.”

            The stranger Hobbit’s face grew even more set.  “Turning brother against brother?  If Lotho were still here he’d have a good deal to answer for!”

            Dodi’s face had gone pale.  He leaned forward to warn, “You can’t call the Chief by his real name!  His Big Men will come and haul you off to the Lockholes, and you’ll never come home again!”

            But the gentlehobbit was shaking his head.  “No, they won’t—they’ve been driven out of the Shire, most of them.  There may be a few hiding in the woods here and there, but that’s all.”  He leaned forward to catch his pony’s trailing reins into his finely gloved hands.  “And if you see any Men at all in the Shire, all you have to do is send word to the Mayor’s office or the Thain, and someone will be dispatched to see to them.  Merry and Pippin have made it plain that they will not allow any outsiders to lord it over the people of the Shire, and especially not as long as the real King has returned.”

            He attempted to mount his pony, but found he could not lift himself up properly in the stirrup.  He closed his eyes again as he fought to keep his balance.  “Too soon,” he murmured.  At last he opened them again and looked apologetically at the two children, and addressed himself to the lass.  “I’m sorry, but I find I may need to impose upon your family’s hospitality briefly.  Do you think your parents would mind if I rested in your home for a brief while before I resume my journey back to Bywater?”

            “I suspect it will be all right, although we can’t give you any sort of a proper meal.”

            His laugh was rather bitter.  “You don’t have to worry about that—I’m not truly up to eating any sort of proper meal right now, I find.  And you said you’d found a squirrel’s cache?”

            He helped them empty out the store of nuts, and spotted a second cache on their way home.  “I rather hate robbing the squirrel, although I know they tend to be rather scatterbrained creatures who forget where they hid many of their stores before the winter is over anyway,” he commented as he saw the last few nuts into the pillow slip Carnelian had been using to gather the food into.  He might look tired, but his fingers were as dexterous as were those of the children.

            As they were walking together back to the farm followed by the pony, the lass asked, “Then it’s true—the Thain’s son has come back?  Everyone was certain he was dead by now.”

            “Not for want of trying,” he muttered.  “Oh, yes, Peregrin Took has returned,” he said more loudly.  “As has Meriadoc Brandybuck.  And the two of them are intent on seeing the Shire restored to our own folk.”

            “And we don’t have to worry about the Big Men any more?” Dodi asked a bit anxiously.

            The stranger shook his head.  “No—I doubt any of Lotho’s Ruffians will want to face down Merry and Pippin.  They were furious when we found Lotho had erected a gate at the end of the Brandywine Bridge and was setting up huge lists of silly rules to lord it over the Shire.  Will Whitfoot’s already let me know that the Shiriffs are to be reduced to the proper number of twelve again, also; although a few who’ve been dismissed already seemed to want to argue about it.”

            Soon enough they were back at the Delver’s house.  Their dad came out of the byre, a pitchfork in his hands, staring warily at the Hobbit who walked with his children.  “It’s all right, Da!” Dodi said, skipping ahead of his sister with his nearly full bag lifted to show his father.  “He helped us, and we have lots now!  And he says the Big Men are almost all gone!”

            Still, if it hadn’t been for the fact their helper was standing there shivering with the cold in spite of the warmth of his garb and the presence of that fine pony of his, Carnelian was certain neither of their parents would have allowed him on the place.  But his lips were looking a mite blue, and as she stepped out of the farmstead’s hole their mother gave a cry of alarm and in a moment had their visitor by the shoulder, shepherding him into the relative warmth of the kitchen, where she settled him into the rocking chair in the corner, sending Carnelian off to fetch the rug from the foot of the big bed to wrap around him.   Dodi had remained outside to help his father see to the pony’s comfort, leading the fine animal into the byre where their missing milk cow had been stabled, divesting it of its beautiful tack, and rubbing it down with twists of straw, seeing the manger filled with hay (that at least they had in plenty) and the bucket with clean water.  Their father then shouldered the large bag and the tooled saddlebags and carried them into the hole, settling them into the corner by the door to the nearly empty first larder.

            Mummy was plying their guest with a hot cup of tea.  “I’m sorry as there’s no milk to go with it,” she said.

            He nodded his understanding, although his pale lips were a thin line.  “They took your cow?”

            “Well, someone did,” she answered with an anxious glance toward her husband.  “She was taken in the middle of the night during the summer.”

            “We think Uncle Otis took her, really,” Dodi volunteered, although his mother had gone pale and was shaking her head in warning.

            The stranger sighed, noting the wordless concern shown by their mum.  “I understand—truly I do.  It’s all really too bad, what happened while we were gone.  But we’re working to set things right.  Although it doesn’t appear that the Big Men cut down all of your trees as they did elsewhere.”

            “No,” Dad said, “the Big Men didn’t come here themselves.  But Otis saw to it as the Gatherers and Sharers came ’round more’n our fair share, I’m thinkin’.”  He drew another chair from the table and set it opposite the stranger.  “So, you was one of them as left the Shire through the Old Forest, was you?  You that Sam Gamgee as we’ve heard tell of?”

            For the first time their guest appeared amused.  “Sam?  Oh, no!”

            Mum was shaking her head in exasperation.  “Really, Tod—don’t you recognize Frodo Baggins when you see him?”  She turned apologetically to face the Hobbit.  “Forgive him, Mr. Baggins.  Tod’s not much for recognizing gentry, you see.”

            But Mr. Baggins was shaking his head as he sipped appreciatively at the tea in his hands.  “There’s nothing to apologize for, mistress.  And I do thank you for allowing me to warm myself.  But do know that Lotho’s rules are worth less than the paper they’ve been copied to.  Indeed, you might look to burn that list there to add to the warmth if you’d like.  No more restrictions on fuel for your fires, you’ll find.”

            The family all exchanged glances until at last Dodi, greatly daring, reached out to yank the list Uncle Otis had so ceremoniously nailed to the larder door last time the Gatherers and Sharers had come through, and in moments it was shoved gleefully into the flames, along with a few solid logs.  And when Mr. Baggins told them they could have the contents of the large bag their dad had carried in, they found they had even more food than they’d anticipated.

            “Not all of the storage rooms in Michel Delving had Hobbits imprisoned in them,” he explained.  “Many were full of food they’d taken from various people.  I’d intended to bring this to the Cottons, seeing they’re playing host to so many right now.  However, they were able to hide a fair amount of stores from the Gatherers and Sharers, and it appears you couldn’t.  So, take it with my thanks.  And we’ll be having wagons heading out across the Shire to see more food returned to those who’ve been robbed, definitely before Yule.”

 *******

            A week later Otis Tunnely answered a call to Michel Delving, along with several others who’d taken part in the Gathering and Sharing in the region north of the Road between the environs of the Hill and the White Downs country.  Some might have thought to have refused to go; but the fact the requests to come to the Council Hole were being delivered by Tooks and Boffins armed with hunting bows made the invitations harder to ignore.  And when two of the Tooks cut a cow out of the surprisingly substantial herd Otis had in his front pasture, he looked on them with disapproval.  “Leave my cows alone!” he demanded.

            “How many are truly yours is still up for question,” announced Ned Boffin from Hobbiton.  “But this one with the white off-hoof is definitely not yours, and we’ve been told particularly to look for her and see her returned to her own family.”

            The righteous anger Otis had been ready to loose at these interlopers reduced some as he realized that none of them were looking at him any too kindly.

            At last he was led into the banquet hall in the Council Hole, where he found himself forced to stand with his fellows across the table from that Frodo Baggins, several family heads including the ones for the Tunnelies and the Delvers, and a number of Tooks armed with statute books and pens and ink.  A quick glance indicated that several of his fellows recognized their own family heads sitting along the other side of the table.  And when Paladin Took entered from the kitchen with a steaming cup of tea and settled himself alongside the errant Baggins, the seriousness of the situation finally hit home with Otis, who tried to step back to hide himself more behind his fellows but was prodded forward again by Ned Boffin.

            They were allowed to stand there in an increasingly heavy silence, aware of the unfriendly stares of all in the room.  But it was the examination that Frodo Baggins was giving them all that bothered Otis most, for there was no question that the Master of the Hill found him wanting.

            “What are you doing here in Michel Delving, Baggins?” he finally said, forcing bravado into his voice.  “Thought as you was dead and gone—or at least gone from the Shire.”

            “I was.”  Frodo’s voice was cool and measured.  “I am here today, however, as deputy Mayor, to see to how you and your companions here discharged your duties as Gatherers and Sharers.”

            “Mayor don’t hold no authority, not any more,” Otis declared.

            “No?  And who does?  Lotho Sackville-Baggins as so-called Chief Shiriff?  Alas, I fear that he’s lost that role, along with his life.  Oh, yes,” Baggins said in response to the startlement of several of them, “Lotho is gone.  Murdered on the orders of Master Sharkey, you see.  He’d been dead at least a couple of weeks before we returned.  And Sharkey himself is gone, too—dead at the hand of his fellow, after he admitted he’d ordered that—execution.  And their Big Men?  Well, the ruffians and footpads that Lotho accepted as his private army are gone, also.  And some of those are dead as well, at the hands of those who fought them in Bywater.”

            He stood, and it was as if he wore a cloak of solemn authority about him.  “I am here both as the deputy Mayor and as the representative of our new King to see the King’s justice as well as the Shire’s justice done here today.  Let us see which of those who did the Gathering and Sharing are before us, shall we?”  He took up a list that lay upon the table.  “Terence Banks.  Otis Tunnely.  Bosco Banks. …”  And the names dropped from his lips as if each were facing a doom he’d never anticipated.

            As Otis noted that his sister’s husband and son were among those who’d been entering as witnesses and observers to today’s proceedings, he felt the hair on his feet and his scalp stirring.  Maybe answering the call put out by Lotho and that Bracegirdle lawyer cousin of his hadn’t been such a good idea after all….

My Memorial Day offering.  Written for my dad, who died in service when I was still a baby, and for Kaylee and Addie for their birthdays.

Leave-taking

            As Pease reentered Michel Delving’s public stable from his adjoining cottage, he was aware immediately that someone was there.  Oh, the ponies were all quiet enough, but it wasn’t the slightly shifting quiet of drowsing ponies and occasional wisps of hay being lifted from the hay nets.  No, the ponies were all still and watching someone.  But strain his ears as he might he could not hear the movement of a soul.

            Well, for all that most Hobbits were soft-footed, only one Hobbit Pease knew in all of the Shire made almost no sound at all as he moved about the stable.

            “Hullo, Mr. Frodo, sir,” he said as he came around Grey Lad’s stall.

            Frodo Baggins looked up from his inspection of his Strider’s off fore hoof—a most responsible one he was with that lovely bay gelding of his, nodded an acknowledgment to the stablehobbit, and let the foot go to check the other fore hoof.

            Pease felt his heart drop.  Mr. Baggins wasn’t quite as peaked as he’d looked at the Free Fair at Midsummer, but it appeared that once more he’d been losing weight.  His face was unnaturally thin, with little color under the nearly transparent skin, and his eyes were shadowed, although his expression was determined enough.  No one, Pease now knew well enough, would do better than Mr. Baggins to see that all that needed to be done was accomplished and done right properly at that; but how could he keep going when it appeared his body was intent on wasting away to nothing?

            Having assured himself that the pony’s hooves were sound, Mr. Frodo now turned to preparing his steed for the return to Hobbiton.  Pease watched as the Baggins stroked the pony’s ears and prepared the bridle.  “I was a bit surprised, sir, as you’ve chose to use a hackamore rather than a bit.”

            Frodo didn’t turn, merely giving the ghost of a shrug as he saw the straps settled over the pony’s head and the headstall properly centered.  “I have chosen not to impose my will over any other creature by force, not unless it is truly necessary.  If Strider will not bear me of his own will, out of our caring and trust for one another, then perhaps I should simply walk anyway,” he said quietly.  After a moment he added, “Many of the Elves use no tack at all, or a hackamore at most simply for adornment, with bells hung from the reins to ring forth their delight in life.”

            Pease, for the first time in his life, felt some envy toward Frodo Baggins.  “You saw such things, there, outside, while the four of you was gone?” he asked.

            At last Frodo turned to face him.  “Yes, we did.  Lord Glorfindel did have both saddle and reins for his great horse Asfaloth, but more, I understand, because he needed to ride far and long each day and so that he might carry his personal goods more handily and fight unemcumbered if it should prove needful than because they were necessary for him.  He said that when he rides for pleasure he rarely bothers with them.”  He was searching Pease’s face.  “I never thought that you would wish to see such things yourself, Pease.”

            “You’re not the only one whose dreams was full of the stuff of old Mr. Bilbo’s tales, Frodo Baggins.  I member when I was but a wee one and him only recently come back from his travels, and sittin’ at his feet when it was him there behind the ale tent at the Free Fair, tellin’ of his adventures to the bairns.  You think as I haven’t wanted to see Elves myself?  But then, I have seen a few, and not just that first Free Fair when you come back, when at the last you chose not to run for Mayor after all.  Twice I’ve seen them, in the woods north of the Road, headin’ west.  First time I was but a lad, dreamin’ in the gloamin’, like.  And there they was, a great party of them, some afoot and others on great horses such as I’d never seen afore, movin’ quiet through the trees, as if they was barely the memory of other times, if you take my meanin’, sir.  The second time I was a Hobbit grown, and you would have been but the smallest of faunts at the time.  It was not long afore the Lithe-days, and your dad and mum had come already with you to stay in the inn, preparin’ for the start of the Free Fair.  Now, if’n you wasn’t the most precious of little lads at the time, and it was so clear how much they loved you, Mr. Frodo, sir.  And that night your folks come out to the edge of the fairgrounds to sit on the benches to show you the stars, and I saw two Elves standin’ still in the trees, watchin’ the three of you, and none of you the wiser for it.”

            He saw that Frodo’s eyes were shining as if with unshed tears.  He continued, “I often had dreams of what it might be like out there, and wanted to see for myself.  But—well, I couldn’t just leave my folks and go off on my own, you know.  And then I was prenticed to old Oatbarrow as was stablehobbit afore me, and it was mebbe too late, or so I thought.

            “I told your Uncle Bilbo once though, that I wanted to go outside myself some day, I mean.  And he sighed.  Told me that it wasn’t all glorious adventures and makin’ fools of trolls.  Told me that sleepin’ on the ground night after night is awful, and that it was often too cold to bathe, no matter how clear the water you might find, and how too many nights there was no shelter from the rain.”

            “And that’s true enough,” Frodo said.

            “I told him as I’d like to see Men’s cities sometime, and he agreed.  Said as Bree and Laketown was the most as he’d seen, and they weren’t really cities, properly speakin’, not being much more’n Michel Delving, he figgered.  But he did tell me that if I’d learn to read, I could see them in my mind, and that was more’n many ever do.  Give me my first book, he did.”

            Frodo was smiling fondly.  “Sounds just like him.  Bless the old fellow.”

            “Is he still alive, Mr. Bilbo, I mean?”

            Frodo’s expression grew rather solemn.  “He was the last I heard from Rivendell, a few days ago.  But how much longer he might linger—he’s now quite elderly, after all, even taking into account that he’s the grandson to the Old Took.” 

He now turned away toward his saddle where it sat on the rail of the saddletree.  It was a beautiful example of the saddler’s art, inlaid with silver stars just as Mr. Pippin’s was with silver trees and Mr. Merry’s was with horse heads and Mr. Sam Gamgee’s with sunbursts.  Pease saw Frodo start to lift it up, and that his hands had begun trembling at its weight.  Immediately he moved forward to take it from Frodo’s hands, to lay it himself over the saddle blanket already rested across Strider’s back.  “I’ll do this, Mr. Frodo, sir.  You go and rest on the hay bales for a minute.”

            For once Frodo did not argue but did as he was told.  He slipped the water bottle from his shoulder and drank from it, then stoppered it and set it beside him on the bale.  There was an expression Pease could not fully interpret on his face.  There was some pain there, and he thought he discerned more than a little anger—and relief, and something else the older Hobbit couldn’t put a name to.  To fill the silence he said, “Beautiful tack as you four brought back with you.  Not Dwarf work, though.”

            Frodo paused, but then replied, “No, they were made either in Rohan or Gondor.  I’m not certain which.  Perhaps both.  I think the actual leather was worked in Rohan, but there’s something to the decorations for Pippin, Sam, and me that speaks of Gondor.  Now, Merry’s—that’s purely Rohirric work, from what I could tell, between the brass and the horse heads designs.  The White Tree on Pippin’s tack, though, is definitely indicative of Gondor and Minas Tirith, while the sunbursts on Sam’s tack and the stars on mine are almost Elvish somehow.  But, then, the rulers of Gondor are descended from the people of Númenor and thus were heavily influenced by Elvish culture until not that long before the island foundered.”

            Strider stood still and cooperative while Pease saw the saddle settled and the girth tightened, merely twitching his tail a few times as if anticipating the journey to come.  Once Pease was satisfied with the lay of the saddle he turned to the saddlebags that hung over the gate to what had been Strider’s stall.  “These aren’t the same work as the saddle, though,” he commented as he fastened them to the ties on the back of the saddle.

            “They were gifted to us by the Prince of Dol Amroth.”

            “Him a Man?”

            “Yes.”

            “Seems odd, that Hobbits should be getting’ gifts from kings and princes of Men.”  Finished, he stepped away from the pony and turned to face the former deputy Mayor.  “Odd as Hobbits should meet such folk at all, come to think of it.  But, then, it’s said as Bucca of the Marish did that, and that was how he become the first Thain.”

            “Yes, Aragorn’s ancestor laid that duty on him and gave him the title,” Frodo said.  “They remember, the Dúnedain of the north, how forty Hobbits of the Shire marched out to serve Arvedui Last-king, and how much they owe to those Hobbits, who never refused to face the enemy.”

            Pease’s voice was low even in his own ears as he said, “And this time it was but four as went forth, although this time you all come back again.  Only you come back changed.”

            Frodo looked down at his hands.  Was he looking at where his one finger was gone, Pease wondered?  Probably.  He said, equally softly, “Yes, we all came back--changed.”

            “And you really all faced the Enemy?”

            Frodo rose to his feet.  “Yes, we did, each of us in his own way, Pease.”

            They stood looking at one another.  Frodo Baggins, Pease realized, appeared somehow particularly alone—alone and tired.  At last he accepted the truth.  “This will be the last time as I’ll see you, isn’t it, Mr. Frodo?”

            Frodo closed his eyes, and the pain he’d been trying so desperately to suppress could finally be seen plainly.  “I suspect so, Pease.  I’ve—I’ve little enough time left, and I must soon away.”

            “It’s not fair!”  Pease was surprised at his own vehemence.

            Now Frodo opened his eyes again, and the stablehobbit noted that there was a glint almost of grim amusement and compassion in them.  “Life has never been fair, my friend.  Never.  At least the Shire wasn’t destroyed by the evil that touched it while we were gone, and has now been set to rights again.  It wasn’t all for nothing, what we did out there.  We learned that we Hobbits are strong enough to send mere bully-boys running, and that we can and will care for our own as well as for others.”

            “And you’ve made Mr. Sam Gamgee your heir.”

            Frodo sighed.  “Yes, I have.  And Will’s already let word of that make the rounds, has he?”

            “He come to me, and had me witness your signature on the adoption papers.  After all, he knows as I know your signature and you, and that I can read and write.”  After a moment he asked, “Why are you makin’ him one of the gentry, Mr. Frodo?”

            “Because he’s perhaps the best Hobbit the Shire ever produced, Pease.  If it hadn’t been for him I certainly would not have survived.  Most likely I’d just have let the Mountain itself kill me.  In fact, I wouldn’t have made it to the Mountain if he’d not been there with me.  And if that had happened, then it would have been a far different world today than what we know now.”

            “So, you’re dyin’ now.”

            Frodo gave a mirthless laugh.  “Sam keeps telling me not to dig my own grave before I’m quite dead, so I’m trying my best to keep that in mind.”  He sighed again.  “I’ll be leaving soon.  Perhaps the journey will finish me, or I might just recover.  We will have to see which it will turn out to be.”

            Pease felt a thrill of hope run through him.  “You goin’ with the Elves, then?”

            Frodo appeared surprised.  “Yes--yes, I am.”

            “And you’ll stay away, same as Mr. Bilbo did?”

            “Yes, it will be needful.”

            “Him goin’ with you?”

            Frodo gave a slow nod.  “Yes, we’ll be going together, Bilbo and I.  Find rest and healing together.”

            At last Pease said, “The Shire will be a poorer place with you gone from it, Mr. Baggins, sir.  I know as many think as Mr. Bilbo was cracked, but I’ve never thought so.  Knew as him was about the wisest Hobbit we ever had livin’ in the Shire.  But you—well, you’ve always been the best Hobbit ever.”  Suddenly he stepped forward to take Frodo in his arms.  “You go well, Frodo Baggins.  You go well, and know that at least a few here in the Shire know as how much we owe to you.  Mebbe we don’t quite understand all as you did out there; but there’s no question as we needed you here when you come back.  We’ll heal, and for the most part it’s ’cause you was there in the Mayor’s office helpin’ to put things back in order.  At least some of us appreciate that the Mayor does more’n just make speeches.

            “And we know as the King hisself respects you.  I suspect as him’s not one as does that for just anyone.”

            Frodo hugged Pease in return before pulling away.  He appeared even more fragile than he had at first.  “It’s been a long day,” he said.  “Again and again I’ve had to bid farewell, and it’s been tearing me apart, Pease.  Please understand.”

            Pease found he did understand.  He took up the empty water bottles that hung over the corner post to the now empty stall Strider had occupied and hung them from Frodo’s saddle horn.  He led the pony to the mounting block and then offered Frodo his arm to steady him as he used it to ease himself into Strider’s saddle.  Frodo sat there for a few moments, and again squeezed his eyes closed as he worked to once again steel himself to do what needed doing.  At last he opened his eyes, nodded to Pease, and spoke to his mount.  Strider started forward, needing no further urging, and Pease hurried to roll the door open to see them out, into the growing darkness.  He watched after, seeing the soft glimmer of the stars reflected from Frodo’s figure as he headed out of the square toward the Road back east.

            “Go well, Frodo Baggins,” he whispered before Frodo was quite out of sight.  Then he looked up at the distant stars.  “Watch over him, please, for him’s one of your own.”

            With that he turned to go back in and check his charges once more before he settled himself into his chair to read a book once given him by old Mr. Bilbo.

For Cathleen and LoveThoseHobbits for their birthday.

Spite Scorned

            As they walked from the bridge over the Water toward Bag End, Sam Gamgee found himself juggling several letters he held, trying to ascertain who might have sent each of them.  “Don’t know exactly why Nipsy’s decided as he must bring all my letters to me at the Green Dragon,” he complained.  “Why not just leave ’em with the Gaffer at Number Three?”

            Frodo gave a short laugh.  “Well, he apparently hasn’t been convinced you are quite living any specific place, Sam.  First you were staying with me at the Cottons’ farm, and then you were everywhere throughout the Shire finding out how many trees were lost and where homes needed rebuilding and those awful monstrosities of Lotho’s needed taking down, and now you’re busy with replanting and have been seeing to it that Bag End was finished for me to return to it.  I suspect he figured that the stable at the Green Dragon is the one place he could count on you visiting at least every fortnight or so.”

            “If you say so,” Sam commented before at least three of the letters he’d been holding fell out of his grasp.  “Paper and ink!” he exclaimed, stopping in frustration and leaning over to pick up each one.

            “And look who’s just chose t’come home to Hobbiton at the last!” said someone, and Sam twisted to see that Ted Sandyman was behind him.  “Thought as you was too high ’n’ mighty to mix with the likes of us,” Ted sneered.

            Scooping up the last envelope, Sam straightened to give Ted a cool stare.  “And just what do you think as you mean by that?” he asked.

            “Oh, it’s just that you don’t seem t’think as you owe anything to us here in your own village,” Ted said.  “Off, trapessing all over the Shire, here and there as the whim takes you, not carin’ aught for those as seen you born and bred.”

            Sam gave a single, unvoiced laugh.  “Do you hear that, Frodo?  This one thinks as I don’t care for my own!”

            Frodo, who’d turned when Sam stopped to retrieve his dropped post, stepped to the gardener’s side.  “Hmm,” he said.  “He seems to forget that you oversaw the building of the home he lives in now.”

            “I had a home already,” Ted insisted.

            Sam snorted.  “You call that ruin as Lotho had built for you a home?  Maybe so, if’n you can call a place with cracks in the masonry, windows as are either stuck closed or won’t fasten proper, and with a pump as don’t work a home.  It had t’come down, or it was like to fall down and hurt anyone with bad enough luck to pass it by when it did so.  I’d call it an accident as was bound to happen soon.”

            “But I was comfortable enough in it!”

            “And when the floor caught fire from that stove as was in it, what then?  Or when more roof tiles blew off—a good quarter’d been lost already!”

            Frodo put his hand on Sam’s shoulder, and Ted could suddenly see the gap where he’d somehow lost his ring finger while he’d been gone.  “It does not behoove the Lord Perhael of all of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth to listen to the nonsense spouted by such a one as this,” he said, his eyes cool as they examined the former Miller’s son.  Ted felt his scalp prickle, for it felt as if the gaze Frodo Baggins was giving him were stripping him naked, leaving him totally open and vulnerable to the consideration of the others from the village who’d begun to gather to observe the confrontation going on between these two of the Travellers and that scapegrace Ted.

            Sam raised his right hand to lay it over that of his Master’s, and it could be seen that his ring finger, at least, was still intact, and sporting quite a fine ring, one Ted had failed to truly notice or examine before.  It was heavy, and obviously of great worth.  Sam’s fingers might be broader and blunter than those of Frodo Baggins, but they were well kept, and that ring on his hand appeared to be proper to it.

            Ted blustered, “Well, not that you’re any better than him, Frodo Baggins—disappearin’ as sure as old Mad Bilbo did!  And now you’re more often in Michel Delving than you are here, playin’ at bein’ Mayor, all speeches and banquets, and forget common Hobbits and what they need.”  He was pleased to see Frodo’s face go pale, with but a spot of color in his cheeks.

            Sam’s gaze was also cool.  “Well, if’n it’s beneath the dignity of the Lord Perhael to pay this one no mind, that’s true also for the Lord Iorhael, or wouldn’t you say so, Frodo?”  He shifted his attention to his Master, who raised a brow and offered him a crooked smile in return.

            “Well reasoned, Sam.  Ah, well!  Your sister left word at the stable that I have a chicken pie baking in the oven in Bag End.  Shall we go and have our supper then?” he asked.

            The two of them turned their backs on Ted and walked away, underlining their dismissal of him.  And it was only as they did so that he realized that Sam wasn’t walking his accustomed half step behind his Master as he’d always done before he’d left the Shire, but was fully at Frodo’s side.  And if the cloth of his waistcoat and the embroidery on it wasn’t as fine as anything the Master of Bag End had sported for years!

            And just what had they meant by that talk of lords such as no Hobbit of the Shire had ever heard tell of? he thought as, shunned by those who’d been watching who now followed the example of Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, he was left standing impotently in the middle of the road.

For Mews for her birthday.

A Secret Shared

            When his feet carried him one more time to the hills overlooking the Fanes on the west end of Tol Eressëa, Frodo found someone already there, a Maia clad in the fána of something more than but an Elf, and the particular shade of royal blue that denoted those who primarily served Lord Manwë.

            “Welcome, Frodo.”

            Hello, Olórin.  What brings you here?

            “Much the same as draws you, I must suppose.”

            Frodo looked westward.  My time grows ever nearer, and I find my feet itching to carry me across that bright land and beyond.  He looked upwards to his friend’s face.  Do you miss it—being in the Timeless Halls, I mean?

            Olórin smiled down at his small companion.  “I was drawn back there when I died—did I tell you?  Oh, yes—it was a Man’s body that died atop Zirak-zigil, and so I must suffer a Man’s fate.  I won’t tell you everything that I experienced then, for I don’t wish to spoil the surprise; but I remembered in that visit before I was sent back something I’d quite forgotten during my time served here and in Middle Earth.  Do you remember being told that when Glorfindel appeared so brilliantly to your eyes when you were on the verge of entering the wraith state that it was because, as one who had lived in both worlds and had been Reborn, he dwelt simultaneously both in Middle Earth and here in Aman?  Yes, his hröa might be there in Middle Earth, but a part of his fëa remains in Aman, ever able to enter the presence of the Valar.”

            Yes, I remember that.

            “Good, then perhaps it will help you understand what it was that I learned—or rather, relearned—before I was sent back as the White.”

            He leaned down to murmur into Frodo’s ear, and it was the Wizard’s whiskers that delightedly tickled it as he confided, “You see, Frodo, I learned that it was the same with me—I am both here and there, in Atto’s Presence.  I’ve never truly left it, no matter I brought myself here into Arda at its making.  And there’s something more----”

            He turned Frodo to face him, and Frodo found his eyes caught by Gandalf’s bright gaze.  “----It’s the same for you, Frodo.  Yes, you are both here and there in Atto’s embrace as you ever were and ever will be.”

            And Gandalf had the satisfaction of seeing his friend’s Light flare with delight!

Written for the LOTR Community "Summertime Blues" fixed-length ficlet challenge.  272 words. 

The Lover’s Kiss

 

            As a child he’d thought he’d loved Lavender Brandybuck, and he would exchange examples of her name flower and a clumsy child’s kiss for her baking.

            As a youth he’d shared increasingly more experienced kisses with Pearl Took, his first serious love, and dreamed of doing more, of sharing his heart and body with her, of bringing forth children to fill the long empty bedrooms of Bag End and to play in its gardens.

            As a Hobbit grown he’d been afraid to even seek to kiss Narcissa Boffin, although he knew she loved him desperately and he found himself increasingly drawn to her in return, terrified of what something that seemed a part of him wanted him to do to her.

            He’d never dreamed of offering a kiss to those women of the outer world who’d fascinated him—Tom Bombadil’s bright Goldberry, the glassblower’s daughter, the Lady Éowyn, the Lady Arwen Undómiel.  Each was already taken, had given her heart into the keeping of another he respected who loved her devotedly.  How could he even consider tempting one of these to rethink the love already established before he’d first met them?

            When newly come he’d kissed the Elf maiden Livwen as an adult kisses a child, in comfort, in reassurance.

            But now the time had come.  Livwen leaned over him to kiss him, and at long last he kissed her in return as lovers ever had, heart to heart, spirits entwined, and he smiled into her eyes, just before he slipped out of his fading body to dance with the stars in the vibrant midnight blue of a midsummer night’s sky.

 

For GamgeeFest and FEBOBE for their birthdays.

On Proper Address

            Everard Took looked up as the door to the Mayor’s office opened, admitting Samwise Gamgee.  It no longer seemed odd to see the gardener here, although Ev suspected that Sam had probably never been inside this room in his lifetime prior to that mysterious adventure that he’d undertaken at the side of his Master, Merry Brandybuck, and Paladin and Eglantine’s Pippin. 

            The four of them had all come back changed—that was certain.  The rather shy gardener’s lad whose attention was ever caught by Bilbo’s tales and who had always idolized Frodo Baggins showed no awe at all for the Mayor’s office in the Council Hole.  Of course, if what Pippin and Merry told even pretended toward truth, it appeared that Sam, along with the rest, had become familiar with Kings’ courts; and what was the Council Hole in comparison with that?

            Frodo looked up, and smiled.  “Welcome Sam!  You’re looking very well today!”

            “As are you, sir,” Sam answered, smiling with approval.  Which was true enough.  Frodo had been eating more lately, that Everard could attest to, and his color was much better than it had been at times since he’d taken over Will’s duties.  “A new scarf, then?”

            Frodo actually laughed.  “Yes—a gift from Dianthus, Will and Mina’s granddaughter.  She thought my others might just prove insufficient, or so she told me.  And since her mother’s been teaching her how to knit, she set out to knit me the most colorful scarf she could think of, to remind me of how beautiful the garden will be once Spring comes again, she said when she gave it to me.”  He lifted one heavily tasseled end that had been hanging down toward his hip.  “It rather reminds me of that shawl my cousin Estella knit for me some years ago—once she got started she found that although she’d learned well how to cast on stitches, she was nowhere as good at casting them off.  It does appear to go on forever, doesn’t it?”

            “It looks good on you, I must say, although I suspect that it would do well even on Lord Strider.”  Both laughed easily.

            “And what brings you here today, Sam?” Frodo asked.

            “Well, I was pullin’ down another of them pesky sheds, don’t you know, Master—” Sam began, and Everard saw that imaginary shutter Frodo had to him anymore beginning to swing shut.  Sam, however, had also seen Frodo’s expression beginning to close up.  “Now, what’s the matter?” the gardener demanded.  “You don’t have to look at me like I was one of Lord Strider’s hangers-on comin’ at you with all that ‘my Lord Iorhael’ business.”

            “Sam—once and for all, I am not your Master.  And particularly not after what we went through together.  You are my friend, my closer-than-brother.  I’d not even be here now if it weren’t for you!  So when are you going to quit using terms that aren’t true anymore?”

            Sam’s face flushed as he sat down hard in the chair in front of the desk.  “Lords and Ladies, Frodo Baggins!” he exclaimed, although he kept his tones low.  “We’ve not all that to go through again, have we?”

            Everard stopped and looked at the two of them directly.  Had he just heard Samwise Gamgee address Cousin Frodo by his given name?

            Sam, however, had his attention fully fixed on the deputy Mayor.  “First of all,” he said, quietly but firmly, “I’ve never thought of you as if I was a slave and you the one as owned me.  And I know well enough that since we woke up in Ithilien, if’n I still do the gardens of Bag End it’s only ’cause I want to, not ’cause I have to to support myself and my family.  I know as I ain’t no servant—not now, and not ever again.  But there’s masters and masters, don’t you see?  Them Elves in Rivendell as call Mister Bilbo ‘small Master’—they don’t do so ’cause him’s their lord or nothin’ like that—they do so ’cause they respect him true, and you know that.  And that’s why I call you Master.  You and Mr. Bilbo—you two taught me most of what I know, and when you did that, you and him was equally my masters—my teachers.  And you’ve kept teachin’ me all through everything, even all through the journey to Mordor and back.

            “And then,” he added, leaning back in the chair and with less intensity, “there’s the fact as it’s almost impossible for me to change what I call someone once it’s fixed in my head, and that’s a fact.  You know it, Merry and Pippin know it—even old Strider knows it!  Why else would him have told me I could go on callin’ him Lord Strider till the day I die?  You found out his right name, and you changed over right quick, although I note as even you have difficulties referrin’ to him as ‘my Lord Elessar,’ too.”

            Frodo gave a weak laugh, then sighed and shook his head.

            “So, you don’t intend to change what you call me, either?”

            “Like I said, it’s almost impossible for me to do so anyways, so why bebother myself?”

            Frodo shook his head, his expression rueful.  “I see.”

            “And I don’t mean nothin’ but love and respect by it, you know that.”

            “Yes, I know.  Not that I deserve all that much respect, and certainly not from you.”

            “But I couldn’t of gotten that there, not by myself.  No, that took all the stubborness and strength of the most responsible of all stubborn Bagginses, and you know that, too.  And you know full well as nothin’ could of stopped It takin’ you at the end, so just be glad as you stopped me from killin’ that villain as I’d wanted to, as it took the three of us to get rid of It.”  Again Sam leaned forward, fixing a stern stare on Frodo.  “Just remember—it was you as taught me just how powerful and needful mercy is—mercy and forgiveness.  So you work on forgivin’ yourself.  You know as no one else blames you for nothin’.  And—and—well, and thank you for bein’ you.”

            Frodo suddenly began to laugh, loud and clear.  “Ah, Sam—what would I do without you?  Come to the inn with me and we’ll have a mug of light ale and some of their seed cake.  It’s not as light as Bilbo’s, but it’s toothsome, at least.”

            “Certainly, Master.”  They both rose to their feet, and Frodo wrapped another length of scarf about his neck to keep it from dragging on the floor.  Sam, smiling and shaking his head, commented, “I just hope you don’t trip over the tassles sometime.”

            “When I leave Middle Earth, see to it’s sent off to Minas Tirith for Aragorn’s use—he’ll need reminders to be a person first, you know.”

            “Oh, Mr. Pippin—he’s seen to it as old Strider don’t forget that—you can count on that for true!”

            Frodo caught up one of his water bottles and the two of them headed down to the front door to the Council Hole.  “All right—just what did you find in this shed, Sam?”

            Everard was left watching after the two of them, wishing he knew more about just where they’d gone, and what It could have been.

For Anglachel for her birthday.

Most Unsatisfactory

            Frodo had merely given a twisted smile in response to Eglantine’s question, excused himself, and gone to welcome the Bolgers on their arrival at the door to Bag End.  Esmeralda sighed and gave her sister-in-love a sideways look and a shrug.  “He just refuses to address the question at all, Lanti.  And I don’t begin to understand it, either.  I know that since he was a teen Frodo’s looked forward to the day he’d marry and begin a family of his own.  But he’s not really looked at a lass since the day Bilbo left, when he came of age and found himself Master of Bag End.”

            Eglantine nodded her agreement, watching after Frodo as he politely took the cloaks of Rosamunda and Estella, preparatory to seeing them hung in the entranceway.  “At least he was dancing with Narcissa that day and returning her smile.  I was so certain then that he’d finally recovered from Pearl throwing him over as she did.  But it’s been fourteen years now, and although he’s still behaving in that courtly manner of his toward the lasses, it’s as if he is totally oblivious to their charms.  He ought to be married by now and filling Bag End here with all those children he’s always wanted to father.”

            Merry listened to his mother and his aunt, silently agreeing that this was a most unsatisfactory situation.  He, however, had his own suspicions as to just what the matter was, and he suspected it somehow had to do with that gold ring Frodo carried, as Bilbo used to do, in his pocket, a chain binding it to the loop Merry knew Frodo had carefully sewn inside the pockets of all his waistcoats and breeches.

            The Bolgers were now joining those who’d already gathered for Frodo’s birthday celebration, and Frodo had returned to close the door.  But he was lingering there a moment too long, staring down at the lane below, the lane that led to the Bywater Road and beyond to the Road, the one that led east and west out of the Shire itself.

            “The wanderlust is almost ready to take him,” Merry murmured to himself.  “It’s time, I think, to set Sam spying on him for me.”

            “I agree,” Fatty said quietly, having silently come alongside him, his own concerned gaze noting that look of disquiet and longing on Frodo’s face, the look he quickly hid as he turned politely to listen to whatever question Estella was putting to him as he finally closed the door.  “I don’t want him slipping away alone to find Bilbo as I know he wants to do, either.  Whatever you can think to do to make certain that when he finally goes he doesn’t go alone, I’ll help you with it.”

            And so a conspiracy was born.

This story references “Honor Avenged” in the Moments in Time collection:  http://www.storiesofarda.com/chapterview.asp?sid=3966&cid=26533 .  Written for the LOTR Community "Feast" challenge.  For Just-Ann-Now for her birthday.

 

The Sacrifice Accepted

            “So, Frodo is the only one of you who doesn’t cook?” asked Prince Faramir.

            “I don’t know where you got that idea,” Pippin said, shaking his head.  “He’s a Hobbit—of course he cooks!  Actually, he’s quite a good cook, when he doesn’t get distracted by translations or a project of some sort.  It’s just that Sam doesn’t give him a great deal of chance to cook for himself, seeing himself as the one who provides for his Mr. Frodo, you understand.”

            “I see, I think,” Faramir answered.  “Does he have a specialty of some sort?”

            Pippin nodded enthusiastically.  “Oh, he bakes the best roast chicken in the entire Shire!  He says that Aunt Esmeralda, Merry’s mother and my father’s younger sister, taught him how to make it, but Aunt Esme insists that he’s made it his own and has nothing to do with how she prepares it any more.  All I know is that when I am upset with my family and retreat to Frodo’s house, he makes it for me and I forget everything else in Middle Earth.  Nothing seems too hard to face with Frodo’s roast chicken in you!”

*******

            Frodo eyed his younger cousin consideringly.  “You promised Prince Faramir that I would do a roast chicken for him, did you?”

            Somehow his boasts to Faramir seemed perhaps ill advised to Pippin now.  “Well, yes, Frodo.  But it’s not as if it’s something that you don’t like to do anyway.”

            “Yes, I like to make roast chicken, but it isn’t something I tend to do just on the spur of the moment, you know.  I like to take my time and do it right!  How am I to do so and have it done in time to serve him and Aragorn tonight?  It’s noon already!”

            Sam eyed his Master consideringly and gave Pippin a look that was both apologetic and exasperated at the same time.  “We don’t have a lot of time, and that’s a fact, but we can still do it, Mister Frodo, if’n we work together.  Now, I’ll go down to the market and find the best fowl I can find.  Should do at least four, don’t you think, Master, to feed all of us?  Unless Gimli and Legolas should join us, of course—then we’d need at least six.”

            “I’d want eight,” Frodo said, his expression still somewhat dark as he eyed his younger cousin.  “And some apple cider vinegar, if they have it here, or something else tart.  And garlic—two cloves for each fowl, I suppose.  Do they have potatoes here?  Or are they available this time of year here in Gondor?  I’d want at least five pounds, don’t you think?  And you, Peregrin Took, get to peel every one of them!  Perhaps some parsley—I saw some good stalks at the greengrocer on the south side of the market last week.  And if you can’t find the vinegar, perhaps some of those lemon fruits would do.  They are quite tart and would give good flavor, I’d think.”

            Sam was committing Frodo’s shopping list to memory as he continued to reel off the foodstuffs he felt would be necessary.  When Frodo at last went quiet, Sam nodded.  “I have it all in my head, Master,” he said.  “We have some potatoes here, at least, so you can have Mister Pippin start with them, I suppose.  I’ll find more if’n I have to scour the whole marketplace.  And there’s some interesting honey there in the cool room—the bees had been feedin’ on a field of what they call lemon balm, I’m told.  We can have it on scones.  Don’t have time to make your herb bread to go with it, I fear.”

            “But we’ll need bread for the stuffing, and what Mistress Loren baked for us today will be unsuitable, as it is a sweet bread.”

            “We’ll find what we can,” Sam advised him.  “Come on, Mister Merry—we’ll hurry and get what he needs.  And send young Lasgon to tell Lord Strider as we’ll all be engaged till them can join us for dinner, Master.”

            In moments Sam and Merry were hurrying off to the lower Circles where the primary marketplaces were in the city.  Frodo dispatched the young page assigned to their needs to the Citadel to carry his regrets to the King that he’d not be able to return that afternoon, and Pippin was busy with potatoes, a paring knife, and a basket to catch the peelings as Frodo and Mistress Loren, their housekeeper, began bustling about the guesthouse kitchen to prepare for the arrival of the fowl.  “At least,” Frodo muttered, “I know I can trust Sam to choose chickens proper to the meal.  Some glazed carrots, I think, to accompany the fowl, and I do need to look at the store of mushrooms we have on hand.  I might need to go to the empty house to fetch more from the gardens there….”

            After examining the stores of mushrooms the Hobbits had been harvesting within the city, Frodo shook his head.  “Not nearly enough!” he sighed, and went to fetch his cloak.  Taking a short knife and a gathering basket, he, too left the house, returning just prior to the arrival of Merry and Sam with the basket filled with mushrooms and with a goodly amount of freshly culled rosemary wrapped in his clean handkerchief.  Pippin had just finished peeling those potatoes in the house’s stores, and Frodo fixed him with a gimlet stare.  “Done there?” he asked.  “Then fetch down the mortar and pestle—I want you to grind some of this rosemary and then some peppercorns.  Get on with you, Pippin!”

            The young Took sighed and did as he was told.  He had, after all, been the one who’d done the promising for the evening’s delights.

            Sam and Merry hurried in with heavy baskets, followed by a lad from the poulterer’s shop with the desired chickens, all freshly butchered, cleaned, and plucked.  “And are you preparing to entertain the whole street?” the youth asked as he carefully laid the chickens on the long, low worktable.  “This is a goodly number of fowl you’ve purchased this day.”

            “No, just for us and a few friends,” Frodo said distractedly, examining the eight fowl.  He prodded one carcass.  “This one seems to have perhaps been at least a bit scrawny, but the others appear to have been sound enough.”

            “I am sorry, Master,” the young Man responded.  “It is rather late in the day, and these were among the last we had on hand.  My master sent this to try to make up for it,” and he set out a fat pigeon alongside the chickens.

            “Hmmph,” murmured Pippin in Merry’s ear.  “Not that we will get any share of that one, what with the way Frodo loves squab.”

            “Well, if anyone deserves it, Frodo does,” Merry whispered back as Frodo glanced their way.  “And is that fresh rosemary?  How delightful!  All we could find in the marketplace was dry.  Here, Frodo—none of the bread such as you usually use was available, but this looks promising.  It was made with a sour dough, and tastes delightful.  And this garlic from Ithilien is excellent!  Shall I add the chicken necks to the stock Mistress Loren has simmering there?  It should give a marvelous flavor.”

*******

            The new King and his Steward and the Warden for the Keys arrived just after sundown, all of them looking rather tired.  The Lord King Elessar’s head lifted as Merry admitted them, and he sniffed appreciatively.  “Well,” he said to Lord Húrin, who was a first-time guest in the Hobbits’ temporary home, “it appears that we will be truly royally feasted this evening.  And is that fresh rosemary I smell?  Excellent!”

            They were soon in the kitchen themselves, and a bemused Húrin found himself tossing a salad while Faramir helped Samwise set the table and Aragorn stood alongside Frodo helping to set the chickens on platters as each was removed from the oven.  “It smells heavenly, my friend,” he said as he placed the eighth fowl on its bed of lettuce leaves. 

            Frodo, meanwhile, was preparing a smaller plate that was half shielded by his torso, and merely nodded.  “We have filled them with a rosemary and mushroom stuffing, so they should be quite moist in spite of their size,” he said.  “Are the potatoes all properly mashed, Peregrin?” he asked, raising his head to call to his cousin, who’d been busy in a corner of the room since their arrival.

            “Just finished,” Pippin assured him.  “The butter is excellent, by the way, and the fresh parsley adds well to the flavor.  Let’s get it all on the table before any of it cools too much!”

            In minutes the table was ready, and four Hobbits, three Men, a Wizard, Mistress Loren and young Lasgon, and a newly arrived Dwarf and Elf were all standing by their chairs, facing West, before taking their seats at the table.  Both the servants were now accustomed to sometimes being invited to eat with those who dwelt here, and neither felt abashed to find themselves sitting down to table with the new King of the Reunited Realm, much less the two lords who’d accompanied him this evening.  “I suppose you’ve been busy all day with the delegation from Rhûn,” Frodo said as he indicated they should remove the covers over the platters of fowl that lay before them.  “You all three deserve a meal of good, homely fare tonight.”  And he laid a smaller covered dish before Aragorn.  “They sent an addition to the fowl to make up for one of the chickens being decidedly smaller than the others,” he said.  “And I thought you would appreciate it.”

            The eyes of all his three Hobbit companions widened in surprise as the King raised the cover to reveal a delicately baked squab.  “Imagine that!” Sam whispered to Merry.  Aragorn removed it to his own plate and carefully cut off a bite, and savored it, his eyes closed in appreciation.  “Never seen him do that afore, I haven’t.”

            “Ah, but it melts in one’s mouth!” Aragorn murmured.  “My friend, when Bilbo named you a master chef in your own right, he was undervaluing your skills!”

            “As long as he doesn’t get distracted while he’s cooking,” Pippin sniffed.  “Now, pass those potatoes!  I worked long and hard on them, and I intend to enjoy my fair share!”

            And all laughed as the potatoes were handed down the board to where the young Took sat.

            The meal was as plentiful and in many ways far more satisfying than many banquets and feasts the Men had enjoyed.  There was a richness to the fare that the Men found themselves appreciating, for it was indeed good homely food, expertly prepared, filling and comforting at the same time, cooked and well seasoned as only a Hobbit could prepare it.

            Gandalf attended the three lords as they returned to the Citadel once they took their reluctant leave of the Hobbits.  “I don’t know if you realize just how highly Frodo honored you, Arathorn’s son,” he advised the Man as they walked under the bare limbs of the old White Tree that stood still by the fountain.  “But I’ve heard of Frodo preparing squab very rarely indeed.  For him to surrender it to you—that’s unprecedented as I understand it.  He just doesn’t tend to share squab with others, you realize.”

            “And considering how he reacted the one time I ate his extra share of mushrooms just after we left Bree,” Aragorn mused, “I suspect this is his way of acknowledging that perhaps I’m not quite the rogue he once considered me.”

            So saying, he related the tale of evergreen needles inserted into his shoes and clothing to the amusement of his companions as they returned to the Citadel and the responsibilities they shared in the running of the realm.

            And back in the guesthouse Frodo was clearing away that plate from the table, glad that his sacrifice had been so well received, even if Aragorn never appreciated just how hard it had been for him to place that squab before his friend instead of eating it himself.

 

-~0~-

 

            I don’t tend to use recipes when baking chicken, just seasoning the whole roaster with whatever I have on hand and feel like using at the moment.  Sometimes I will drizzle some honey over the chicken before I bake it, and sometimes I will splash it with some wine.  Personally I don’t care for sherry or much cooked with it, but I’ve been known to add a bit of Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon—not often, I’ll admit, but now and then.  But I usually use rosemary and lemon juice when preparing the chicken when I bake it, so this recipe seems good for preparing the fowl, should you wish to add some honey as well.

            You can use these recipes as the basis for your own rosemary chicken, whether you bake only chicken breasts or whole chickens; and the stuffing sounds divine, particularly if you were to use a good Italian bread or sourdough—supposing you LIKE stuffing, that is.  I’ve used a similar recipe once in stuffing my chicken and received a nice response, although as one who doesn’t particularly like bread stuffing I was unimpressed myself.  But when it comes to stuffing I will bow to the expertise of those who like it! 

            Honey has different flavors and even different colors depending on the flowers the bees were able to access while building their honeycombs.  Some health food and natural foods stores have different honeys available, each of which will add its own character to the meal. 

Bon appetit!

 

Garlic Rosemary Chicken Breasts

Ingredients

  • 2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons dried rosemary
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • (I personally would pour a bit of honey over the chicken once everything else was there, just prior to baking it.  After washing a whole roaster, I generally pour a bit of plain or seasoned salt and fresh garlic into my hand and rub it into the cavity of the chicken before otherwise preparing it.  B.L.S.)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).
  2. Cover the chicken breasts with garlic, then sprinkle with rosemary, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Place in a 9x13 inch baking dish and bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes or until done and juices run clear (baking time will depend on the thickness of your chicken breasts).

From http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/easy-garlic-and-rosemary-chicken/detail.aspx

 

Garlic Rosemary Stuffing

Serves 8| Hands-On Time: 1hr 00m | Total Time: 2hr 00m

Ingredients

·   3 tablespoons olive oil

·   2 pounds cremini mushrooms, quartered

·   6 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for the baking dish and foil

·   1 large loaf Italian bread (about 1 pound), cut into 3⁄4-inch pieces (about 16 cups)

·   2 medium onions, chopped

·   4 celery stalks, thinly sliced

·   kosher salt and black pepper

·   3/4 cup dry sherry

·   2 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

·   2 large eggs, beaten

·   1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

·   1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

Directions

  1. Heat oven to 375° F. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, cook the mushrooms, tossing occassionally, until browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate and reserve the skillet.
  2. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Divide the bread between 2 rimmed baking sheets and bake until dry and crisp, 10 to 12 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, wipe out the skillet and melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions, celery, 1 teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until very tender and beginning to brown, 10 to 12 minutes. Add the sherry and cook until evaporated, 2 to 4 minutes; transfer to a large bowl and let cool for 10 minutes.
  4. Add the bread, broth, eggs, mushrooms, parsley, rosemary, and ½ teaspoon salt to the vegetables and toss to combine. Transfer to the prepared baking dish. Cover with buttered foil and bake for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake until browned, 20 to 30 minutes more.

By Kristen Evans Dittami,  November 2010  

From http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes/browse-all-recipes/mushroom-rosemary-stuffing-00000000045078/index.html

 

 

For Armariel, Lily, Cairistiona, and Ellynn for their birthdays.

Echoes of Distant Waves

            Folco found his cousin Frodo outside the house that had been built to replace the Silver Ridge smial in which Folco had been born and lived throughout his life.  There was a gallery out front with a raised rail, and Frodo was leaning upon that rail, his attention fixed westward, a look of naked longing on his face.  A breeze had sprung up, rustling the leaves of the young larch trees that surrounded the house, no longer mere saplings as they’d been last spring when Sam Gamgee and his helpers had planted them to replace the grove that had grown just south of the Boffin hole.  That grove had been felled on Lotho’s orders just before the hill in which Silver Ridge had been dug had been caved in completely.  It appeared that Lotho had been intent on destroying the happiness and homes of those who’d been close friends to Frodo as much as possible, as he’d had Bagshot Row dug out completely and its former tenants moved to drafty houses Bywater-way, had dispossessed the Bolgers from Budge Hall and thrown Fatty—once he was caught—into the Lockholes, and besieged the Tooklands and Buckland, firing what fields and homes they could get to.

            “The trees are particularly beautiful,” Folco commented to his kinsman.  “They are growing so quickly!”

            “The blessing of the Lady,” Frodo said distantly in return, giving his cousin but the barest of glances before turning his attention again westward, rubbing at his left shoulder as if it caused him pain, a slight grimace of discomfort on his face.

            “The Lady?” asked Folco.  Frodo had told him very little about the adventures he, Merry, Pippin, and Sam had shared beyond the boundaries of the Shire, save that they’d journeyed far to help see the King Returned.  Whatever had happened to him, he’d returned deeply changed, his personal peace disturbed, his innate good spirits apparently blighted.  Oh, he could still melt your heart with his smile—when he smiled, that is.  But he didn’t laugh as readily, and not only was his formerly ageless face now etched deeply with lines of care, but his hair was now streaked with silver, particularly at the temples, and he was developing a white streak to one side.  He was as slender as he’d been as a young Hobbit newly returned to Hobbiton as Bilbo’s ward, if not even thinner, and there was that sense of fragility to him Folco had seen in Frodo during visits made with his mother to Brandy Hall not long after the death of Frodo’s parents.  Folco repeated his question.  “What Lady, and what kind of blessing should she lay on the Shire?”

            “The Lady Galadriel, Lady of the Elven land of Lothlórien, which lies hidden between the eastern slopes of the Misty Mountains and the River Anduin, far to the south.  We passed through the Golden Woods on our journey south and eastward, and she gave a box of the earth from her gardens to Sam.  It was her parting gift to him.  He says he placed a grain of earth beneath the roots of every sapling he planted, and dug some into every garden or field he helped cleanse and till.  We are certain that is why the trees grow so quickly and are so beautiful this year.”

            Again Frodo grimaced as if with discomfort, and he straightened, once more rubbing at his shoulder.  Folco watched with concern.  “You’re in pain, Frodo?”

            Frodo dropped his hand.  “It is nothing to worry about.  Just my shoulder again.  Not hurting so much as—as reminding me that I was wounded there.”

            “Wounded?”

            Frodo’s face closed somewhat.  “We were all wounded in one way or another during our journey.  It is what is to be expected when one takes part in a war, I understand.”

            “Was it a serious wound?”

            His cousin didn’t look at him, merely shrugging.  “Serious enough, I suppose.  It’s all healed now, however.  But you know how deep cuts or old breaks tend to ache some at times, even long after they’ve been considered healed.”

            Folco understood.  His mother’s hip had been broken when she was sixty-two, and although she finally was able to stand and walk again, he suspected it never stopped giving her at least some pain.  She’d taken to using a cane, and had often limped until her joints began to swell when she was in her eighties, and she found herself confined almost totally to her bed in the end.  She’d died a few weeks ago, and Frodo had come to spend a few days now that he no longer served as deputy Mayor.  At least Wisteria Boffin had died in her own bed, in her home rebuilt, comfortable with the thought that the Shire was healing after the Time of Troubles, and that her son would be able to remain in Silver Ridge for as long as he wished.  He nodded, and stood by Frodo, placing his hand on Frodo’s shoulder.  They were quiet for a time until a bird above them gave a plaintive cry.  Both looked up at it.

            “A gull,” Folco noted.  “It’s far inland.  There must be a storm upon the sea.  That’s what Bilbo always used to say, the few times we saw them over the Shire.”

            “Yes, that’s what he told me as well, and Gandalf and Aragorn told me the same.”  Something in Frodo’s tone drew Folco’s attention to his companion’s face, and the longing he’d seen there earlier seemed even more intense.  Frodo’s lips were parted, his eyes fixed on the grey and white bird wheeling overhead.

            At last he could bear it no longer.  “Frodo, you must tell me what’s bothering you so!  You look as if you are—are suffering with some great desire or need!”

            “Suffering?”  Frodo’s voice was uncharacteristically rough.  “Suffering, you say?”  He again glanced briefly, if with some irony, at Folco, and purposely looked away again, toward the western horizon.  “Do you really want to know what is bothering me, Folco?”

            “Yes, I do!  Frodo, you know that I love you dearly—my favorite of our many cousins.  I would do anything to help you in any way I could.  If there’s anything you want….”

            “But you can’t give me what I need, what I want.”  The sentence was said with a simplicity that verged on the flippant.  For a time Frodo stayed quiet, both hands now clenched on the rail to the gallery, his eyes staring blindly into the distance.  At last he continued, “You once copied Bilbo’s translations of Lord Elrond’s journals back when he was sent them to search through them for any mention of previous contacts with Hobbits—both you and he told me that.”

            Folco couldn’t imagine what Lord Elrond’s journals could have to do with Frodo’s fascination with the western horizon.  “Yes.  So?”

            “Did you ever read any mention of lembas?”

            Folco wracked his memory.  “The word is familiar somehow.  Some kind of bread or biscuit, I think.  Yes, I remember him mentioning in one entry made in the autumn that the womenfolk were preparing the grain to make lembas.”

            “It’s the Elvish waybread.  The Lady spoke with me about it during our return journey, one day while we were riding and my pony was near her palfrey.  At first I thought she was merely seeking to distract me from my—my discomfort.  Then it hit me, after she was done, that what she’d really been doing was to—explain.  Explain what I was feeling, or rather, part of what I was feeling.

            “The grain from which lembas is made is sacred to the High Elves.  Its seed came with them from Aman, I believe.  It is planted by those maidens who have vowed themselves to the Lady Yavanna Kementari, the Lady of the Harvests and Growth.  They use no metal tools in preparing the ground for its sowing, or in removing weeds from its fields.  They go forth with baskets at the prescribed times to pull its grain from its stalks by hand.  They grind it in the manner used by their foremothers since the dawn of time, and they make from it a bread that is much lighter than Dwarves’ cram or Men’s travel cakes.  It takes little to satisfy hunger and to give one strength for a long journey. 

            “When we went to leave Lothlórien, we were provided with a great store of it in the boats they gave to us for our journey southward.  When they saw it, Legolas, the Elf King’s son from Mirkwood, and Aragorn both were very surprised, and I thought at the time that Aragorn looked somewhat worried by its presence among the stores they gave us.  He would not speak of it before the others, but he took great pains to see the most of it put into our packs, Sam’s and mine.  He admitted, once we were in Minas Tirith, that he felt that Sam and I would need it most.  Sam and I believed at the time it was to keep Pippin and Merry, mostly Pippin, of course, from gorging themselves on it.  It was very good, you see, and you know Pippin’s penchant for sweets.”

            Folco smiled as he nodded.

            Frodo continued, “What I did not know is that Elves have not shared this bread with Mortals save for those who were openly dying since soon after the Noldor returned to Middle Earth.  It wakens in mortals who consume it—Elvish—cravings, cravings we as mortals cannot assuage easily, if at all.  And greatest and most likely of the cravings it tends to waken is the tendency toward the Sea Longing, the desire to sail West to live at the feet of the Powers, there in the Undying Lands.”

            Again he was quiet for some moments, and when he spoke again it was in such low tones that Folco found himself straining to hear his cousin’s words.  “We were forced to depend on it, Sam and I, as we traveled further and further eastward into Mordor.  There was little game to be had, and no time for me to see to tickling fish, even if we came upon any likely streams.  It was the end of winter, and we were traveling mostly through lands purposely turned barren by the hand of the Enemy and his creatures.  Only during the brief time we spent in Ithilien did we manage to find some early herbs growing, and Sméagol caught us some conies to cook.  Not that he didn’t regret it the moment Sam began to prepare them for the pot, of course.  I don’t know how long it had been since Sméagol had eaten cooked food—perhaps not for most of five hundred years.  Now and then he’d share what bannocks Sam would bake on rocks about a firepit, but he didn’t really like them—ate them only because there was nothing else for him to find.  Few birds lived in those lands, and what few did were carrion birds for the most part, making what nests they might high in rocky crags and squabbling about whatever spare remains they could find amongst the rocks and desert lands they flew over.  He wouldn’t touch lembas at all, said it choked him to merely put it in his mouth.  It might have done him some good had he eaten it….

            “Once we were inside Mordor proper, we had next to nothing we could find to eat or drink.  It is a sere land, long blasted by the fires of Sauron’s hatred for anything and anyone he could not dominate.  We found growing things only just inside the walls of the Ephel Dúath, the high, bare mountain range that encircles Mordor.  They were twisted plants with hard, woody stems and long, dagger-like thorns that rent our skin and our clothing.  We found but one thin stream of water I remember, there on the inner slopes of the mountains.  As we journeyed further eastward the only water to be found was in cisterns built along the roads that allowed swift travel between orc fortresses.  Sam tells me it was not really fit to drink, but we had no choice at that point.  And when we left the road behind to head directly for the Mountain, we had only what little we could carry in Sam’s remaining water bottle.  Both of us were dying of thirst before we were done.

            “We had the lembas, and little enough of that.  Sam would give me whatever he could get me to eat, and most of the water he felt we could afford to drink each day.  It was enough to keep us going, but nowhere near enough to fully sustain us.”

            Again they were quiet for a time, and Folco squeezed his hand on Frodo’s right shoulder.  He was shocked to realize how little flesh he felt there.  Frodo shrugged his hand away, and stood brooding for a few more minutes.

            The Sun was sinking beyond the hills across the Water, and Frodo’s pale features reflected the warmth of the sunset rays.  Folco found himself speaking aloud one of the weather rhymes he remembered from his childhood.  “Red sky at night—traveler’s delight.”

            Frodo gave a slow nod, perhaps remembering that rhyme from his own youth.  But his words drew a shudder from Folco.  “That was the color we saw at night in Mordor—reflections of the cooking fires for the Enemy’s forces and flames from the Mountain’s torment.  At least it helped us keep to our path….”  He quieted once more, and finally whispered, “I suspect that while we slept, after Gandalf and the Eagles found us, that Aragorn, his Elvish brothers, Legolas, and Gandalf fed us at times with lembas wafers soaked in wine, Sam and me.  Once we became able to swallow and keep down other foods they weaned us off the lembas completely.  Sam must have been relieved, even with him asleep and not fully aware of how we were being taken care of.  None of us could imagine when we first tasted them that we would ever tire of lembas, but Sam particularly was aching for what he thought of as good, homely foods as we traveled eastward.  But without the lembas we wouldn’t have survived to be found, I suspect.”

            At last Folco said, “So, what you are trying to tell me is that you are now feeling these—Sea Longings—you spoke of?”

            Frodo’s eyes finally met those of his cousin.  “Yes.”  He looked up at where the lone gull still sailed upon the winds that rustled in the larch trees, its white breast the color of garnets in the sunset.  “Legolas was warned by Lady Galadriel that if he were to hear the call of the gulls on the shore, that he’d find no peace in the woods any more.  He traveled with Aragorn through the Paths of the Dead, a great ancient tunnel through the White Mountains from Rohan into the Morthond Vale in Gondor, a shortcut to the southern shores of Gondor where an enemy navy was finding its way up the River Anduin to join the battle for Minas Tirith, Gondor’s capital.  As they reached the city of Penargil on the shores of the great river, he heard the gulls crying for the first time in his life, and since then he, too, has been fighting the Sea Longing.  If he felt free to do so, he would either build his own boat to sail down the river to the Sundering Sea, or travel to Mithlond, the Elves’ Grey Havens west of the Shire, and set sail westward to find the Straight Path to the Undying Lands.  He won’t do so now, saying he’ll wait until Aragorn and his queen Arwen are gone.  But when he hears the echo of the Sea in the wind flowing through the grasses and leaves of trees, or when he hears the gulls’ cries, you can see the longing to start that journey now, and how hard he must fight it.”  He again looked west, his eyes now fixed on the growing light of the evening star as it began to become visible.  “Hail, Eärendil,” he breathed.

            After another time of quiet, he finally purposely turned away, shouldering by Folco into the house, closing the door decidedly behind himself, shutting out the echoes of the distant Sea.  And Folco felt compassion for his cousin, caught in the midst of a hunger no mere mortal could expect to ever satisfy, or not as Folco understood it.  He went inside, and began fixing late supper for the two of them.  Frodo seemed more himself, but each time they heard the echo of distant waves in the rustling larch leaves Folco grieved that he could not give his beloved kinsman what he now seemed to need.

            And that night Folco dreamed of a grey ship sailing away toward the last echoes of sunset, a silver light marking its passage as the night fell ere it sailed past the grey horizon.

           

For Antane for her birthday.

Properly Managed

            Frodo looked exhausted as he entered Bag End on his first return to Hobbiton from Michel Delving since Sam and Rosie’s wedding.  Sam and Rosie looked at him with surprise, for he’d not appeared this tired for quite some time.

            “Master—what’s wrong?” Sam demanded, taking Frodo’s Elven cloak and hanging it on one of the pegs in the entranceway while Rosie took Frodo’s water bottles back to the kitchen.

            “Oh,” Frodo sighed, “it’s only that while I was away visiting Brandy Hall after the wedding Aunt Eglantine’s young cousin Snowdrop Banks decided to make herself—useful—to those working in the Mayor’s office.”  He allowed Sam to lead him to the parlor and help him settle into his chair there before the fireplace that held a small but cheerful blaze in spite of it being a warm day in late spring.  “Useful, did I say?” he asked with a distinctly ironic tone to his voice.  “Nay, not so much useful as indispensable!  She’s tried to take over everything, insisting on immediately straightening away anything she considers out of place, always there dusting things or tutting at those who’ve been assisting me to put things right for not wiping their feet when they come in or for setting their mugs right on the table and leaving rings on the wood or for settling their cloaks or jackets over the backs of their chairs rather than hanging them on the rack.  She’s so busy seeking to manage us that she’s not really helping with things at all, I swear!”

            Sam was taking the rug from off the chest by Frodo’s chair and settling it over the Baggins’s knees.  “Is that so, Mr. Frodo?”

            Frodo gave a nod before allowing his head to drop back against the cushions.  “Oh, yes!  Isumbard and Hillie are constantly looking for whichever document they were going over last, and Tolly is ready to strangle the little chit for constantly taking away his cup of tea once it finally cools off enough that he can drink it—has a sensitive mouth, Tolly does, and won’t drink anything until it’s nearly as cool as the air.  The first time she tried that on me I’m afraid I rather frightened her the moment I caught her reaching for my mug.  She gives my desk a wide berth at the moment, but is twice as vigilant now with Tolly’s cups.”

            Sam nodded sympathetically, but couldn’t quite hide his desire to grin from his bride as she came from the kitchen with a laden tea tray complete with a steaming mug to present to the Master.  Rosie gave her husband a curious glance, to which he responded with a sideways look that promised to tell all when they were alone.  To Frodo he said, “I see.  Now, here’s your footstool—let’s get your feet up and warmly covered, shall we?” 

            In moments Frodo had his favorite oversized shawl wrapped about his shoulders and a buttered seed cake in his hands; his feet were comfortably situated upon a footstool and covered by the rug Sam had tucked about the older Hobbit’s knees; and the room was filled with the fragrant scent of the tea, rich with comfrey and athelas, that Rosie had brought him.  “I fired up the boiler in the bathing room some time ago, Mr. Frodo,” Sam told him.  “Would you prefer your bath before or after you’ve had your supper?”

            “After, I think.  And thank you so, Sam.  You cannot know how wonderful it is to be home, and away from being managed by young Snowdrop Banks!”

            “I can imagine,” Sam assured him.  “No, no one likes to think as someone’s tryin’ to manage him, does one?  You just rest and be comfortable.  My Rose and me—we’ll have our supper ready on the table in the kitchen soon enough.  Does a roast of beef suit you tonight?  Rosie’s a dab hand at makin’ a succulent gravy!”

            Frodo settled more deeply into his chair, not minding at all having his comfort managed for him by his beloved friend and brother-of-the-heart.  “Will there be roast potatoes and herb butter?” he asked.

            “And a fresh crusty loaf,” Rosie assured him.  “It’s a-bakin’ right now.”

            Frodo smiled deeply.  Such was his current bliss!

Written for the LOTR Community "A Different Green" challenge.  For Lavender Took for her birthday.  With thanks to RiverOtter for the beta.

A Dream of Tea Green Silk

            Lily Brown Cotton watched as the younger Hobbits who’d been working on the hay harvest headed off to the barn, a distinct frown of concern creasing her lovely brow.

            “And just what has you so worried, Love?” asked her husband.

            At first she just shook her head, her eyes on the backs of the youngsters, but at last she explained, “It’s just as it somehow isn’t quite right, Mr. Frodo Baggins goin’ off with the lads and lasses the way him’s doin’, my Tom.”

            Tolman Cotton the elder peered after the retreating younger Hobbits.  “What’s not right about it?  It’s not as if this was work as he’d never done before, you know.  After all, as shown by the Hall cloth as he’s wearin’, Frodo Baggins grew up in Brandy Hall, and all who live there work together at plantin’ and harvest times—always have.  They might be gentry, but they’ve always been workin’ gentry.  And that lad’s not afraid of honest work.”

            “It’s not that as bothers me, my Tom.  Him’s always been a willin’ worker from the first day as him come back to Hobbiton and Bag End with old Mr. Bilbo.  No, it’s not that, nor the fact as him’s gentry and our lot’s anythin’ but.”

            “Then what is it?” asked her husband, trying to understand the point of his Lily’s concern.

            “It’s just that it don’t seem right as him should be goin’ out t’the barn with the lads and lasses like that.”

            “And just why not?  He’s been a friend to our Sam since that day you just spoke of.”

            “I know—but then it was a different kind of friend.”

            “What in Middle Earth are you talkin’ of, Lily?”  Tom’s voice displayed his confusion and exasperation with his wife’s failure to explain herself.

            “Think, Tom—the first time as we saw him with Sam, there in the gardens at Bag End, was when we went to deliver them hams Mr. Bilbo had purchased from us.  There him was, kneelin’ down so as him wouldn’t loom over Sam, holdin’ out his hands to show somethin’ to the little lad.  And Sam was but a little lad at the time, you’ll member—not more’n eleven, if’n I recall rightly.  And him, Mr. Frodo, I mean, him was a great lad, a young tween twice Sam’s own age.”

            And the image of the scene drew itself in Tom’s memory, just as she’d described it.  His own brow was furrowing as he watched the last of the party of young ones disappear into the barn.  “Yes,” he said, his voice somewhat distant as he watched the door close after the youngsters.  “That’s right.  Hard to think now as he’s that much older than Sam and the others.  If anything, he looks younger than some of them as just went in there,” indicating the barn with a sweep of his hand.

            “Him must be almost fifty now,” Lily agreed.  “Or him will be in a year or two.  And you don’t see Adamo there goin’ out t’the barn with the lads, and him’s but forty-three.”

            The older adult Hobbits sat stolidly at the trestle tables set up in the farm’s yard, Adamo Greenhold seated by Gaffer Gamgee, Daddy Twofoot, and old Noakes, regaling his older fellows with tales of the accomplishments of his little daughter, in between sips of beer, of course.

            It was a puzzle, how the Bagginses of Bag End seemed to somehow hold the secret of apparently eternal youth.  Tom shook his head.  Well, it certainly wasn’t his job to solve all of the mysteries of Middle Earth.  He set himself to fetching another pitcher of beer to set before the Gaffer and his fellows, and found himself agreeing that, indeed little Pansy Greenhold must be a particularly gifted faunt, considering how much she’d learned to do already at the tender age of five.

*******

            Out in the barn the younger Hobbits were sharing whatever dreams they’d known the preceding night, or making up stories to tell if they’d no true memory of the images that had entertained them during their sleep.

            “And just as that great old owl swooped down towards me,” young Tom Cotton was saying, “Nibs here was a-pokin’ me, tellin’ me as it was time to get up, as the Sun would soon be risin’.”

            There was a murmur of comments agreeing that such a dream would be frightening to anyone.  “How about you, Sam Gamgee?” asked one of the Twofoot lads.  “What did you dream of last night?”

            Sam flushed some.  One of May and Rosie’s lass friends laughed.  “Him dreamt of Rosie, I’d say,” she said, her eyes sharp as she examined his face, which went even redder in response to her teasing.

            “Not,” Frodo Baggins said, “that there’s anything wrong with that.”

            “Well,” Sam said, emboldened by his employer and friend’s championship, “I’ll admit as I dream often enough of my Rosie’s sweet smile.”  Rosie’s eyes shone with pleasure.  “But the part of my dream as I member most had t’do with the garden, there at Bag End.  I was plantin’ kingsfoil in the bed there below Mr. Frodo’s window.  Now, if’n that isn’t a silly thing, dreamin’ o’ plantin’ a weed like kingsfoil there with them lovely Elven lilies as grow there already.  Although its flower’s pretty enough for gardens, I suppose.  And it does have a pleasant scent.”

            “There’s enough of it growing around the gardens in Brandy Hall,” commented Merry Brandybuck, who’d come with Frodo and Sam to help in the harvest.  “My father once said that the old people who used to live in the Shire before the King gave it to us Hobbits must have loved it especially, considering how common it is throughout the Shire and Buckland.”

            One of Lily Cotton’s kin on the Brown side snorted before Merry was quite done speaking.  “Humph.  If’n that ain’t typical of a gardener, I’d say, dreamin’ o’plantin’ things.”

            Nibs raised a hand.  “I’d say as a gardener such’s our Sam dreamin’ of plantin’ weeds should be odd enough,” he retorted.

            “Well, I dreamt o’what we’ll be a-havin’ at my birthday supper,” announced the lass who’d been teasing Sam earlier.  “How ’bout you, Rose Cotton?  Did you dream o’yer Sam?”

            Rosie colored prettily, and her glance at Sam indicated that she probably dreamt of him at least as often as he did of her, but still she shook her head.  “Didn’t dream of him last night, at least,” she said.

            “Then what did you dream of?” asked one of the Strawflower lads.

            “Well,” she began, “I s’pose as it must of been brought on by a story as Mr. Frodo here told t’the children in the Commons in Hobbiton last Market Day.”

            Frodo cocked a brow at that, but kept his tongue, although he perhaps listened the closer to what she might say.

            “He’d told a story of a lass as was brought up thinkin’ as she was a woodman’s daughter, only t’learn when she come of age as she was truly the daughter of a King, sent into hidin’ as a bairn t’keep her safe from the King’s enemies.  She meets this lad as she thinks is from the next village, and thinks as him’s a likely enough one, and her heart is full stirred by him----”

            “Sounds like she’s speakin’ o’herself and Sam there,” commented the Twofoot lad to Jolly Cotton with a nudge to the younger lad’s ribs.

            Jolly gave him a sour look in return.  “Hush,” he said softly.  “Don’t innerupt me sis.”

            Rosie gave her younger brother a grateful glance, and continued.  “Only this fair lad proved t’be a Prince, sent out by his own father t’prove hisself to hisself, like, and him found hisself stirred by the lass and decided he’d ask for her hand in spite of him thinkin’ as she was but a commoner, for most times them as is royal can’t think t’marry for love alone, but more for policy.”

            Frodo nodded in recognition of the tale he’d told the children.

            “So him asked her t’marry him, but she wondered if’n she ought to, since she, too, knew that as a King’s child she must put duty afore mere pleasure.  In the end, though, she agreed, and his friend is sent to bring her through many dangers to the lad’s father’s house, and she goes, imaginin’ as mayhaps his father’s a farmer as owns some land and all.  But she brings the dress sent to her on the day as she learned as she was truly a king’s daughter, one suited t’her proper rank, thinkin’ that if’n him balks when him sees her dressed far above his station she’ll know as it’s only right she should return and go back t’her own father’s house instead.”

            Rosie went quiet and thoughtful for a few moments, and then said, “And I dreamt of her in that dress, only it wasn’t a lass of the Big Folks as I dreamt about, not like the button seller’s daughter.”

            They all knew about the button seller, who was a Big Man who came through the Shire, there along the Road, twice a year, once in the spring just after the big cloth fair in Kingsbridge where Big Folk, Dwarves, and Hobbits all three tended to meet to purchase the products of looms from all over Middle Earth, and again in the fall as he headed back home to wherever it was he lived in the lands of Eriador—or perhaps further afield.  He had been accompanied by his nearly grown daughter for the past three years, saying that her mother had died recently and that he refused to leave her with neighbors or kin when he must be abroad about his business selling buttons and other fancy frills for clothing and whatever intriguing oddments that he might have stumbled across since his last journey through the Shire.  All of the Hobbits who saw the girl were intrigued, few having had the chance to see any womenfolk from amongst the Big People before, and her hairless feet and shoes had been the object of much curiosity by most occupants of the Shire.

            Rosie continued, “No, her wasn’t a girl of the Big Folks at all as I dreamt of, but a proper Hobbit lass, but one with hair of purest gold, with the hair on her feet right fine and but a shade darker gold than that on her head.  And she wasn’t tall and willowy as Mr. Frodo’s lass was said t’be, but small and dainty, much smaller’n me, I fear.  But the dress as her was wearin’—it was right beautiful, of a shiny and smooth gold cloth as must of cost a fortune in coin t’purchase, with an outer skirt and overbodice and sleeves as was fine enough t’see through, all the color of green tea.  She was wearin’ a bride’s crown o’ flowers such as I’d not seen afore, golden star flowers them was, with blossoms of baby’s breath and blue primulas in atween them.  She was wearin’ that dress as if it was somethin’ unfamiliar, somethin’ as her must get used to, don’t ye see?  But you could see as it was what her was born to wear on her weddin’ day.

            “And it was at the Free Fair as she was a-wearin’ that dress of tea green silk, and the Mayor and the Master and the Thain was all there to see her wed t’her Prince, and the Master was a-carryin’ the Sword….”

            All straightened at that, for the Sword was something of a legend within the Shire, an ancient artifact carried by the Master of Buckland during all ceremonies of worth, said to have been given to Bucca of the Marish by the Last-king himself.  Certainly Frodo and Merry, having come from Buckland, straightened in respect at this mention of one of the major heirlooms of Brandy Hall.

            And when Frodo Baggins came away from the Cottons’ farm to his own home in Hobbiton, the dream that Rosie Cotton had related stayed on in his memory, and from time to time he, too, dreamed of a dainty Hobbit lass dressed as a bride, her golden hair spilling over the shoulders of her gown of tea green silk.

*******

            During the stay in Rivendell, awaiting the day on which the newly formed Fellowship would leave to begin the quest for Mount Doom, Frodo spent much time in Bilbo’s rooms, safe while in his beloved kinsman’s company from being overwhelmed by discussions of the best routes to Mordor or the nature of the folk who lived along the various roads south and east or the dangers they must guard against.  As his shoulder mended, he began drawing.  One night he again dreamt of the little Hobbit bride and her tea green gown, and the next day he found himself drawing the lass as she’d appeared in his dream.  Then, once he’d finished the drawing, he went to the Scriptorium, and begged some watercolors from the Elf woman who ruled the place.  He worked a good time mixing colors and water, but finally got the perfect shade for the dress, making the presence of the more solid golden cloth and her otherwise bare arms plain under the tissue of tea green silk, her delicate feet bare, clad only in a Hobbit lass’s golden curls, to be glimpsed beyond the full skirt.

            The painting he did in a room he’d found that was open to the sky in its middle, with a graceful poplar growing in the center of it, rising above the roof in praise of Sun, Moon, and stars.  And there he was found by the Lady Arwen one day, just as he was finishing the tinting of the picture.

            She stood, looking down over his shoulder at the work of his hands, seeing the gentleness he showed as he laid down the last wash of color on the right-most portion of the tea green tissue of the outer skirt.  “She is beautiful,” Elrond’s daughter said.  “She is a young woman of your people you know well?”

            Frodo looked up in surprise, holding his brush well to one side, having finished his painting of the dress.  His face grew pale, save for the patches of pink that bloomed at the center of his cheeks.  He carefully set the brush in the largest of his several cups of water to rinse clean before he made the effort to answer her.  “She’s not a real person, I suppose, although she’s become someone I feel I’ve come to know over the past two years, as I’ve found her haunting my dreams from time to time.”  He picked up the picture and considered it thoughtfully.  “She was first described to me by a friend as the lass appeared in her own dream.  It was that the description she gave was so vivid I, too, could see this lass just as the friend described her.”

            Elrond’s daughter reached out her graceful hand for the picture, and Frodo gently, if somewhat reluctantly, gave it to her to examine.  She pored over the image of the lass, a smile hovering over her lovely lips, and Frodo swallowed visibly, as moved by the image of the Elven lady approving of his painting as he’d been by the dream Rosie had told two years earlier at harvest time, there in the barn on her parent’s farm.  “She is someone you could love, then, were you to meet her?” Arwen asked him.

            “I think so, but not as someone I myself would marry,” he replied.  “I would worship this lady, I think, but cannot see her as my own wife.”

            “Have you never thought to marry?” she inquired as she finally held out the picture to return it to him.

            He shrugged.  Although his old infatuation with Pearl Took was many years behind him, as was his imagined courtship to the one other lass of the Shire who’d managed to stir his heart, he found that thoughts of romantic love could still cause twinges of pain.  “I’ve not thought to marry anyone for many years, my Lady,” he said carefully.

            His eyes were caught by hers, and his cheeks grew a rosier color as the confusion of his attraction to this woman from among the Elves filled him.  What she read of his heart he couldn’t tell, but there was a sad edge to the smile she offered him at the last as she released his gaze.  “I see, Master Frodo,” she said gently.  She laid her cool fingers on his forearm.  “I would hope to see you find the joy of a proper love one day,” she murmured.  “Perhaps this delight might indeed by granted you, if the Belain and Creator are willing.”  She bowed her head in honest respect to him, and then withdrew as quietly as she’d come.

*******

            After the Fellowship left the vale of Imladris, Arwen retired to her room to find that the picture that Frodo had drawn and painted was lying on her pillow.  She was touched that the Ringbearer had left her this as a gift, and she had it framed and hung it on her wall. 

            But when she left her father’s house to go to her bridegroom, once Mordor had fallen and Sauron was no more a threat to Middle Earth, she did not take the picture with her, leaving it in her old room, a remnant of a life she’d foresworn, still another tribute by one she’d recognized had loved her but whom she could not love in return.  Still, the image of the delicate Hobbit lass remained with her, and as she came to know Aragorn’s Hobbit companions more closely she found herself associating the lass in the picture, for some reason, with Sam Gamgee.

            Aragorn told her what he’d learned since he’d been crowned King of Gondor and Arnor—that Lord Samwise Gamgee loved a lass of his own people whose name was Rosie Cotton.  Was Rosie Cotton the woman in Frodo Baggins’s picture, she wondered?  But why would a woman named for roses crown herself with elanor, baby’s breath, and primulas on her wedding day?  But still, when she found herself gifted by the ambassador from Harad with a bolt of heavy gold damask silk and another of a tissue of tea green, she felt herself inspired to make the dress Frodo had painted the delicate, golden haired lass wearing, a gift she intended to send to Rosie Cotton.

*******

            A week before the intended wedding of Rose Cotton to Sam Gamgee, the messenger of the Quick Post arrived at the Cotton farm with an odd parcel that he carried reverently, explaining that it had apparently been sent “from foreign parts.”  Once the heavy canvas covering it had been removed, it was found to contain a large, flat box, exquisitely carved of a fragrant wood.  And inside it was a dress—and such a dress!

            “Oh, my!” breathed Lily Cotton as she lifted the gown from its box.  “I never seen such a delicate thing in my life.”

            Marigold looked at it with awe.  “It’s the most beautiful dress as I’ve ever seen,” she said.  “It’s far more delicate than the dress we made for you of the silk cloth Sam brought back from the King’s city!  Do you want to wear this instead for your wedding, Rosie?”

            The dress was surrendered to Rosie, who held it up and absolutely devoured it with her eyes.  “I’ve dreamt of this dress,” she finally said.  “Three and a half years ago I dreamt of this dress!”  And as her mother and her soon-to-be sister-in-love twice over exchanged questioning looks she began to explain.  “It was that hay harvest two years afore Sam and his Master and them left the Shire, when Master Frodo and Mr. Merry come with Sam to help.  Member as how them stayed with us the night afore, Mum?  Whilst Nick’n me was doin’ the dishes after late supper, Mr. Merry, him was tellin’ us as how Master Frodo often dreams true, and Sam agreed as it happened.  Nick said as that could prove right useful sometimes, and we was talkin’….”  Her voice tapered off for a moment before she continued.  “Anyways, Nick said as mayhaps if’n we was t’ rub Mr. Baggins’s head, that might allow us t’dream true, too, at least oncet.  So we waited until him come into the kitchen with the pitcher to fetch some more ale—Sam said as him was certain as his Master would choose to fetch it for all as was in the parlor—and we all reached out and—and done that.  And that night I dreamt of this little Hobbit lass, one with golden hair, a-wearin’ just such a dress as this for her weddin’ day.  It wasn’t me as was wearin’ it, though.”  She held it to her breast and looked down.  “’Twouldn’t fit me, anyways—it’s for someone as is smaller’n I am.”

            Lily and Marigold had to admit she was right about that, and reluctantly they carefully folded it back into the box and fitted the close-fitting top to it, and brought out the dress that had been made of the peacock silk Sam had brought from Minas Tirith to have the bride try it on one last time.

            When her brothers and father loaded her trunk and boxes into the wagon to carry up to Bag End the night before her wedding, Rosie carefully packed the box into the wagon bed with the rest of her things, and two days after the wedding she found that it had been placed under the bed she now shared with Sam, and there it stayed for quite some years.  She actually managed to forget about it until it was time for her eldest to marry Fastred Fairbairn from Greenholm, with the wedding set to take place in Michel Delving during the Free Fair.

*******

            They made for Elanor a dress of soft apple green, and all were pleased with it until two days before the wedding when young Tom brought a friend and his little sister, a sweet child who was still but a faunt, into Elanor’s room to look at what Tom’s older sister was to wear for her wedding.  No one paid attention to the little lass’s fingers being sticky with the caramels she’d been eating until that night when Elanor tried on the dress one last time so that Fastred’s mother could see her in it.

            “Oh, stars and Moon!” exclaimed Mistress Fairbairn.  “You can’t wear that, child—not until it’s been properly cleaned and pressed!  There are sticky fingerprints and hand prints all over the skirts!”

            She was all too right.  Rosie-lass and Goldilocks, who’d done much of the finishing of the embroidery, were reduced to tears of frustration, and young Daisy was threatening to tear their little brother to pieces when she caught up with him for ruining Elanor’s wedding day.

            Rosie was about to call upon the Thain’s wife Diamond to see if she had a dress that Elanor could borrow when Gramma Lily suddenly clapped a hand to her breast.  “The dress as was sent from the Queen, back afore you married your Sam, child—do you still have it?”

            Rosie gave her mother a questioning look, and then paused, suddenly smiling.  “The princess’s dress?  Oh, but Mum—I think as you have it aright!”  She set off as quickly as she could to her bedroom, followed closely by most of her daughters, and she set Primrose to searching under the bed for the carved flat box in which the dress had reposed for all of these years.  Soon it was out and lying upon the counterpane, and Goldilocks carefully pried off the lid. 

            Elanor, wearing now merely her shift, her eyes suspiciously red, was called from her room to her parents’ bedroom, and as she entered her sisters all moved aside so that she could see.  And as Rosie carefully lifted the dress out of its box and held it up, Elanor’s eyes widened and her mouth went into an O of surprise.  “But when did this come, Mummy?” she asked.

            “Just afore I married your Sam-dad,” Rosie told her.  “We thought at the time as it might of been meant for me to wear for our wedding, but it was too small for me even then.  And so it’s been sittin’ in its box there, there under the bed, all these years, just waitin’ for you to be ready to wear it!”

            And when, two days later, Elanor came to stand by her bridegroom’s side, wearing the tea green gown and a wreath of her nameflowers from atop the Hill interspersed with baby’s breath and primula blossoms in honor of Uncle Frodo, who would have so wanted to be there for her wedding if it was possible, bound at the back with gold and green ribbons, Fastred’s eyes lit with love and delight.

            Attending the wedding were the Queen’s brothers, and as a gift to bride and groom, they’d been directed by the Queen herself to bring from her old bedroom a picture that they indicated had hung there since the Fellowship of the Ring left Rivendell so many years ago.

            Ruby shook her head in wonderment.  “It’s of you, Elanor!  It’s of you!”

            Pippin was smiling.  “The Lady Arwen is the daughter of Elrond of Imladris, after all, and inherited her own fair share of the family gift of foresight.  Certainly Diamond and I have blessed that gift more than once over the years.”

            But the eyes of the Master of Buckland and the Mayor were misted over.  “No,” Sam said.  “I know as the Queen’s an artist in more ways than one, but it wasn’t her as did this picture.”

            “You fool of a Took,” Merry said hoarsely, “look closer!  You know what to look for, after all.”

            The Hobbit lass in the picture walked surrounded by butterflies--nine butterflies, and---

            “Nine butterflies and a single dragonfly,” Pippin whispered.

            But how Queen Arwen ever came into possession of a painting of Elanor as a bride done by Frodo Baggins she never told them.

           

My birthday mathom to all!

Orders to Enjoy Himself

            “I have had it up to my ears, watching you merely nodding politely to the lasses when they try to catch your eye, Frodo Baggins.  I expect you to get out there at our party and actually dance, do you understand?”

            “But, Bilbo----”

            “Don’t but Bilbo me, my boy!  You deserve some happiness, which you won’t find if you continue to mope about Pearl Took throwing you over how many years ago now?  It’s been far too long for you to continue nursing a supposedly broken heart.”

            Frodo’s voice became stiff.  “If I’m to be considered a full adult and Master of Bag End as of our birthday, don’t you think it’s up to me to decide whether or not I wish to pursue finding a Mistress for the hole?  It’s not as if you felt compelled to marry in all the years you’ve lived here since your mother’s death.”

            Pippin rose from his bed and pressed his ear against the door.  Apparently the two Bagginses were in the kitchen, engaged in one of their rare arguments.

            Bilbo gave a great sigh.  “And who would even consider marrying me, what with my reputation for having left the Shire without warning and ignoring public opinion ever since?  Not that Lobelia Sackville-Baggins would have allowed any Hobbitess sufficiently willing to put her own reputation on the line by considering me as a potential husband to go unmolested, mind you.  I strongly suspect that’s why more than one no longer grieving widow has suddenly thought better of inviting me to dinner on Highday next.”  Pippin thought that the old Hobbit sounded rather bitter, not that he blamed Bilbo, considering just how nasty Lobelia had proven herself when she felt people who should share her disgust at the old fellow’s flouting of tradition and typical Hobbit sensibilities just might be warming up to him in spite of her.

            Bilbo continued, “So far she’s been relatively circumspect with you, but that won’t last once she’s accepted that the rumored adoption and the resulting change to my will are long-established facts.  However, there is the matter of you being quite a popular young fellow in your own right.  All she’s ever tried to do to ruin your reputation has managed to blow up in her face—or it has so far, at least.”

            The noise Frodo made could only be described as rude.  “Lobelia isn’t the only Hobbit matron who hates me,” he said.

            “But no one pays much mind to Lalia Clayhanger Took,” Bilbo returned, his tone eminently reasonable.  “Or, rather, no one who doesn’t live within the Great Smial, at least.  Not even a good percentage of the Tooks feel she is the infallible example of proper Hobbit feeling and behavior that she considers herself.  Besides, Ferumbras may detest me, but he respects you and your innate wisdom and displays of uncommonly common sense and responsibility.  He may be wary of your ability to exact revenge, but has had to admit that you only do so when the one on the receiving end definitely deserves it.  After all, Ferumbras is eminently fair minded in spite of his prejudice against eccentricity.”

            “And just who does he believe taught me to behave responsibly?” demanded Frodo.

            Bilbo retorted, “Your Uncle Rory and Aunt Menegilda and cousins Saradoc and Esmeralda, of course.   But all of this is avoiding the main issue, which is that you are to give the lasses a chance, and you are going to have some real fun during this party of ours.  For it is not just my birthday, after all.  If you don’t dance at least once with Narcissa Boffin I will personally turn you over my knee, and you know fully well I can and will do so.  Don’t give me that look, Frodo Baggins!  I may be ancient, but I’m still more than a match for you!”

            “You wouldn’t!”

            “I would, and try sitting there at the Party looking pathetic and long-suffering once the music starts, I shall—right there in front of everyone!  And what’s more, I will gladly enlist Gandalf to see to it that you itch unbearably under your braces if you aren’t out there dancing with the rest!”

            For some reason the idea of that caused Frodo to begin laughing merrily, and Pippin found himself smiling in response.  Good, then; Frodo would be dancing!  For Pippin had plans to see him dancing with Melilot this year, Melilot Brandybuck and Estella Bolger--and Pimpernel and Pervinca, even!  But, if Narcissa Boffin truly fancied him as Bilbo had indicated, Peregrin Took intended to see to it that Frodo danced a good deal more than once with her.  Now, he loved his sister Pearl past bearing, of course, but he was so glad that Frodo hadn’t married her after all.  Pearl wasn’t the Hobbitess for his beloved Cousin Frodo, not at all—she was nowhere the cook their mother was or that Frodo himself was, and she hated doing housework.  She’d live in the Great Smial once she came of age, undoubtedly married to Isumbard.  She was good at seeing things planned and done, particularly when others were doing the doing.  But Frodo would need someone who was as happy in an old dress helping with the spring cleaning as she was in an elegant gown exchanging pleasantries with Cousin Lalia.  Someone as much like Aunt Esmeralda as possible!

            “Now, you remember what I’ve said, Frodo,” Bilbo cautioned as the two of them came down the passageway toward their rooms.  “You will be out there enjoying yourself, hear?”

            “I hear and will obey, Uncle,” Frodo capitulated.  “Can’t have Gandalf putting a spell on my braces, after all!”  And with another laugh he went into his room and shut the door.

            Bilbo murmured, “I only want to see you happy, my dear, dear lad.”  He was apparently just outside the door to Pippin’s room.  Pippin discovered he was nodding in response to Bilbo’s last pronouncement.  He, too, wished to see Frodo happy, almost more than he cared about the future happiness of Merry, even.  If anyone deserved to be happy, it had to be Frodo Baggins!

Written for the LOTR Beauty of Arda poetic challenge.  For Rhyselle for her birthday.  Beta by Lindelea.

The Empty Shell

He lay 'neath boughs of swaying beech,
the leaves all fluttering, out of reach.
Spring was now come, fulfilling each!
It seemed life was his once more.

All rejoiced in firm belief
that gone fore'er were pain and grief.
But as he watched each flutt'ring leaf
he found his heart yet sore.

Although the winter'd warmed and thawed,
and all greeted him with praise and laud,
he looked upon the trodden sod,
knew himself worth nothing more.

For joy was tempered with death and loss,
scars barely hidden beneath the gloss
of bright array, and he but dross,
or so the doubts his dreams tore.

Crowned was King, and raised was song!
New Lord acclaimed by joyful throng.
Yet he felt himself still in the wrong
since he'd lost the Ring he once bore.

Home he went, but it, too, was scarred
for none had thought the Shire to guard.
But even with gates now closed and barred
he knew they could not ignore

The outer world, for it was wide
in which much evil might yet abide.
The Little Folk couldn't think to hide
from what might yet prove in store.

Though Shire was scoured of evil Men,
surely they might yet come again.
(And the Sea, he knew, it called to him,
its waves a constant roar.)

Others the evil did chase away,
Sam saw trees planted anew to sway
in summer winds that among them play,
and the damage did restore.

But Frodo alone could find no cheer
amidst the plenty or the laughter dear.
It seemed he alone yet grief did fear,
his heart but an empty core.

He penned the tale of evil faced
by folk of all sorts, and so he traced
the history of Ring and challenge, and laced
it all with ancient lore.

But still he found he faded yet,
his pain and loss could not forget.
At last he knew a new course was set
if his hope he would restore.

He knew all now was at an end,
the Shire no longer his to tend.
He saddled pony, and with his friend
went West in search of more.

His sacrifice was now complete
as those aboard the ship did greet
his coming.  Now all was mete
as they sailed to distant shore.

Now Sam was left behind to grieve
to know his Master had had to leave
behind all he'd loved.  Now, all bereaved,
Sam turned for home once more.

Rosie's greeting was gentle kiss,
drew him in, set his darling miss
upon his lap, and fulfilled all this
with the closing of the door.

Yet Sam found he must daily cope
with loss and grief, and through them grope
to know each day's full joy with the hope
Frodo's Light would shine once more.

Written for the LOTR Community "Bunny Hutch" challenge.  For Anariel for her birthday.

A Quiet Talk

            “If you step on me, I shall be most upset.”

            The words were so unexpected that Gimli jumped slightly sideways, scanning the ground rapidly for the speaker.

            Frodo lay alongside the stream near which they were camping, one arm thrust into the water, searching for those sheltered places where fish might be found even in the cold of January.  Frodo had the ability to remain sufficiently still that he could be easily overlooked by others.  Of course, Hobbits could be difficult to spot when they didn’t wish to be seen, a fact his father had remarked upon when remembering his own travels with Bilbo so long ago.  Frodo Baggins, however, had raised this natural skill to an art form, from what Gimli could tell.  Certainly until he spoke Gimli hadn’t noticed him at all. 

            The Dwarf had to admit that the Hobbits had proved far more capable traveling companions than any of the others appeared to have anticipated.  Merry and Pippin were always finding edible plants even in the depths of winter, and could be counted upon to brighten the moods of the others when the dreariness of their journey seemed likely to lead to frayed tempers and arguments.  Sam had a remarkable talent for taking the most ordinary foodstuffs and making of them meals that were not only filling but also remarkably tasty.  And Frodo could be counted upon to provide them with fish if the streams they camped near could support them, using either a line or, as today, his bare hand.

            The Dwarf considered the supine Hobbit with interest.  “Your arm must be nearly frozen stiff,” he grunted quietly so as not to frighten any fish that might be lying under the banks.

            “It’s worth it if it means a change from jerked meats,” Frodo murmured, then suddenly he pulled his hand from the water, flipping a fish onto the bank sufficiently far from the water that in it’s fright it could not flop back into it and so escape.  In a trice he was upon his feet and stringing the fish upon a line he pulled from the water on which four fish were already secured.  He considered his catch so far.  “At least two more,” he decided before returning his string below the surface to keep the fish cold and fresh.  He then walked, as soft-footedly as only Hobbits (and Elves, the Dwarf admitted to himself) could, further down the bank, looking for still another place that his experience had taught him could provide similar cover for a lurking fish, drying his arm with folds from his cloak as he searched.  At last he made a soft, wordless grunt and laid himself carefully down so as to disturb his quarry as little as possible. 

            Gimli sat himself upon a fallen log some distance from the creek to watch.  “Who taught you how to do this?” he asked.

            It took a moment before the Hobbit answered.  At last he said, still in a soft voice, “Mac taught me.  My cousin Merimac Brandybuck, Merry’s uncle.  Mac’s the younger brother of Merry’s father.”  He went still for a moment before continuing, “I was fifteen, if I recall correctly.  We were on a visit in the Southfarthing, Aunt Esme, Merry, and me, and Mac had driven us.  One of my Hornblower aunts had decided to have a house party for the teens who were cousins of various sorts to her granddaughter Phlox.  She wanted the lass to get to know her widespread family ties more closely, or so she told us.  We spent a good part of the hottest weeks of the summer together.  It was the first time I’d ever been—popular—amongst young Hobbits near my own age.  In Brandy Hall I tended to be belittled a good deal as an orphan, as if having lost my parents was seen as somehow suspect.  I had a few friends, but more enemies led by Cousin Gomez.  Both Aunt Esme and Bilbo were concerned, but they wisely allowed me to work things out on my own.

            “Anyway, there on the second Hornblower leaf plantation we teens were allowed to have free run of the place, and one day we scrumped some food out of the gardens, and someone suggested that the meal in the orchard we planned would be better still if we had some fish as well.  There was an ornamental pond with a creek running out of it.  Several of us let lines down into the water, but the fish weren’t biting that day.

            “When I told Mac about it that evening he suggested that perhaps tickling the fish might work better on such hot days, and he took me down early the next morning and taught me how to recognize where the overhangs in the banks were so I could tell where fish were most likely to be sheltering.  I became even more popular, once it was recognized I could be counted upon to add a fish or two to our impromptu picnics.”

            Gimli gave a delighted chuckle.  “And did Merry help as well?”

            Frodo gave the slightest of shakes to his head.  “He was but a bairn at the time, not even officially a faunt as yet.  Oh, I’m almost fourteen years older than Merry, you must remember.”

            He stopped, and his expression grew more focused.  A sudden twitch to his cheek, and he lunged, flipping another fish onto the bank, quite a large one this time.  The Dwarf was on his feet in an instant and on the creature even as Frodo was flipping still another fish out of the water.  “There were two of them down there!” Frodo said with satisfaction as he got to his feet and used one to kick the second fish further away from the stream.  “Oh, but I’m so glad!  I don’t know that I could have taken much more of the cold at this point!”  He was vigorously drying his right hand with his cloak, although it seemed to Gimli his movements appeared rather clumsy with both hands. 

            “Were you using your left hand earlier?” the Dwarf asked, concerned.

            Frodo was shaking his head.  “No, I’m decidedly right-handed at it, I fear.  But since I was wounded by the—the Black Riders, my shoulder grows cold easily and can cause me a good deal of pain.”

            Gimli considered the Baggins thoughtfully.  “So, tickling fish in such weather as this is perhaps not the best way for you to spend your time,” he said.  “I’ll string these two for you, but I suspect that Aragorn would suggest you use a line from now on.”

            “Nonsense!” Frodo objected as best he might, although he was now decidedly shivering.

            Once he had the last two fish on the string and settled the string back into the stream for the nonce, Gimli guided Frodo to a stone and settled him there, wrapping his own cloak around the Hobbit.  He quickly gathered some wood and set up a ring of stones, and in moments had a fire started.  “We’ll get you warmed up before we return to the others,” Gimli decided.  “There’s no point moving until you can do so with some degree of comfort.  I’m certain Gandalf will agree, as will Aragorn as well.”  He settled back on his fallen log and examined the embarrassed looking Hobbit for a few moments.  “I would never have thought you to be so much older than Merry and Pippin, really,” he commented.

            Frodo shrugged, and huddled closer under the two cloaks he wore.  “Gandalf and Elrond appear to be convinced this is due to the effects of the Ring,” he said, looking away from the Dwarf.  “They say that this is probably why Bilbo also never seemed to age that much—how he was able to be so spry and active at the age of eleventy-one.  Gandalf told me last spring, back in Hobbiton, that the Great Rings prolong life and energy, which was one reason he grew so concerned about Bilbo not apparently aging as is common to us Hobbits and so began to be worried as to just what Ring it was he might have found.  He wasn’t all that surprised, I think, when he threw the Ring into the parlor fire and the fiery letters appeared as they did.  His face grew pale, yes; but he wasn’t all that surprised—just more worried.”

            He sighed and held his hands out to the growing flames to warm.  “Yes, I’m a good deal older than Merry, and older still than Pippin.  Pippin’s only just twenty-eight, you see.  Definitely not of age yet, not as we Hobbits define it, at least.  But he’s a game lad, Pippin is—game, and as Took stubborn as they come.”  He looked back to meet Gimli’s eyes and gave a wry shrug.  “Merry swears he did his best to convince him to stay home, but Pippin was having nothing to do with the idea.  Pippin blackmailed him, I suspect, into keeping quiet about it and saying nothing to his parents or family.”

            “And you didn’t know they were coming, too?” the Dwarf asked, fascinated.

            Frodo shook his head.  “Definitely not!” he said emphatically.  “I didn’t want even Sam to come with me,” he insisted, “although Gandalf decided he was going to do so anyway.  To find out that Merry, Pippin, and Freddy all knew about me leaving the Shire and that the former two were insisting on coming as well was quite the shock.”

            Gimli shook his head with admiration for the youngest Hobbit’s insistence on being included in Frodo’s adventure.  “I knew I liked that lad,” he commented, smiling.  “Determined, young Pippin is!  I wish I’d had the same determination when my father left the Blue Mountains with Thorin intent on returning to the Lonely Mountain.  But my mother had refused to give me her permission to go, too, and Father would never go against her will in such a matter.  After all, I wasn’t even seventy as yet.”

            The two of them shared a smile.  Frodo asked, “Were you jealous that Fili and Kili were allowed to go but not you?”

            “Oh, yes, and deeply affronted as only a young Dwarf would be.”  His face grew more serious.  “But they didn’t return, and lie now near their uncle’s tomb.  We were so young that it had never occurred to any of us that we might die.  I was so shocked when they didn’t come back, and my mother made me spend a good deal of time adding to the decorations for their tombs once we arrived in Erebor.  She wanted to impress upon me just how dangerous the whole enterprise had proved to be, I think.”

            “But she didn’t forbid you this time.”

            “No, but then I am a full adult now, and a proven warrior.  Had I not accompanied Father to Rivendell to offer him what protection my training and skill could provide along the way she would have made my life miserable for me.  And as one of Dúrin’s descendants it falls to me to stand for the dignity of all Dwarves in the quest.  She may well worry for me, but had I not volunteered she would have berated me as a possible coward.  And rightly so,” he added.  He gestured widely.  “I’m glad that I came, for I’m seeing more of the world than many of my people have, and it may well be that what I do to protect you will help to remove the threat of Mordor and Dol Guldur from all lands in Middle Earth, not just Erebor and the Blue Mountains.  And perhaps I will be able to bear word of Balin and his party back to our kinsmen in Erebor, the Blue Mountains, and the Iron Hills.  We’ve heard nothing for years, after all, and we worry that this might mean that they are yet besieged within the ancient halls of our people.”

            Frodo nodded his understanding as he rubbed absently at his shoulder.  “I thought of going with Bilbo when he left the Shire after the Party,” he said.  “He told me of his visit to the Lonely Mountain and all, there while we tarried in Rivendell.  But he’d not wished me to leave the Shire, not when I was only just come of age, you see.  He hoped that I’d prove important, and perhaps end up elected Mayor or something.  Funny—he’d not really wanted to be Mayor himself, but always told me that he hoped I’d come to it, and that he was certain I’d make an excellent Mayor, as responsible as he felt I was.”  He shook his head.  “Bilbo was disappointed when he learned I’d not agreed to run at least during the last election, five years back.  But I didn’t feel I’d do that well as Mayor, considering….”  His brow furrowed, and he murmured, “Perhaps all that was just the effects of the Ring.”

            “What?” asked the Dwarf.

            Frodo’s face paled, although his cheeks grew rather pinker.  “It appears foolish now,” he said with a shrug.  “But I would—sometimes, I’d have such strange thoughts.  Unnatural thoughts—for a Hobbit, at least; or at least that’s how I saw it.  Thoughts of how thick-headed so many Hobbits are, and how perhaps the world would be better off without a few Bracegirdles and Sackvilles I knew of.  How perhaps all young Hobbits approaching their majority should be sent outside the Bounds to see a bit of the world before accepting them as Hobbits grown.  And a few less savory considerations,” he muttered.

            “Oh, I think most younglings approaching adulthood are convinced that our elders are far too stodgy and set in their ways for the good of the race,” agreed Gimli.

            Frodo gave a weak smile.  “So, it’s not so unusual for me to have had such thoughts?”

            “I’d say not. How is your arm feeling?”

            “Well, it’s not so cold now, and even my left shoulder is a bit warmer.”

            “Perhaps we should be getting back to the others, then.”

            Frodo sighed.  “Yes, I suppose perhaps we should.”  He rose to his feet, and removing Gimli’s cloak he offered it back to the Dwarf.  “I think I can safely return this now.  Thank you for the loan of it.  But as cold as it is, I think you need it now more than I do.  It is delightfully warm, by the way.”

            Gimli smiled with satisfaction.  “I’m happy to offer you any service at all, Frodo.  I’d have done it gladly for the nephew of the Esteemed Burglar, but I find it even more gratifying to offer you its use for your own sake, Frodo Baggins.  For you, too, have displayed that special quality of integrity that my father so admired in Bilbo.  It’s a true honor to be one of your companions on this road we travel.”

            Frodo’s cheeks were even more flushed.  While Gimli saw the fire extinguished and its traces scattered, the Hobbit turned away and drew the string of fish from the stream, unfastened it from the sapling to which it had been tethered, and together the two of them set off up the path toward the camping spot, Gimli pleased to guard the back of the Ringbearer.

For Addie, Julchen, and Catherine for their birthdays.

Disappointment

September 15, 1418

              "Who left this here?" demanded Frodo, pointing at a parcel lying on the tiles of the entranceway to Bag End.

            Pippin and Merry exchanged guilty glances, recognizing both were responsible for its unwanted presence but neither wishing to admit to having anything to do with it.  "Perhaps Sam left it there?" suggested Pippin as if hopeful the gardener would cheerfully accept responsibility for the offending item.

            "I sincerely doubt it," Frodo said, shaking his head.  "Sam's not the sort who leaves things lying on the floor under a bench.  Besides, he mostly comes and goes by way of the kitchen door."  He leaned closer and sniffed at the parcel, and pulled back violently, holding his nose against the stink.  "Good heavens!" he gasped.  "What a reak!"  Noting how the two of them were flinching, he fixed both his cousins with his sternest stare.  "You had best out with it," he advised them.

            "Well," Pippin began uncertainly, "it's not that we'd intended to leave it there, mind you."

            When it became evident that the young Took was not going to say anything further, Frodo turned his gaze on Merry, who ran his finger around inside his collar.  "Dad sent it, actually.  He thought you would appreciate some squab."

            "Some squab?  Oh, well I might, if it weren't apparently already going bad and stinking up the hole," Frodo responded, his expression darkening noticeably.  "Why is it sitting there?"

            Merry cast a hopeless glance at his younger companion before hazarding, "We sort of forgot about it?"

            "And just how did you manage to forget a package containing an unknown number of dressed squab here?"   There was no question that Frodo was definitely upset.

            "It wasn't so much that we forgot it here," Pippin said, "as that we left it in the kitchen at the Floating Log last night."

            "In the kitchen?"  Frodo looked to Merry for confirmation.

             Merry appeared most uncomfortable as he added, "Yes, near the kitchen fireplace.  I suppose it was my fault, as I should have gone in myself to ask them to place it in the cool room."

             "Actually, I do believe they have an ice house," Pippin interjected.

            "So, why didn't the squabs make it into the ice house at the Floating Log?" Frodo asked, looking fom Merry to Pippin.

            "Well, you see, Merry didn't tell me the package needed to go into the ice house or the cool room."  Pip was pointedly refusing to look at Merry now, while the latter gazed at him with growing frustration.  "He only told me to take it to the kitchen and have Calendula see to it for me."

            "So, why didn't you do so?" Frodo asked.

            "I did take it to the kitchen, but Calendula wasn't there.  She was in the guest rooms, I believe.  So I left the parcel by the fireside where she ought to have seen it when she came back.  Then, when I was going back to the common room I ran into her.  No, I mean it!  I really ran right into her, and she almost dropped the tray she was carrying.  And if she didn't begin to tease me!"

            Frodo sighed.  He could easily imagine the scene.  Calendula Greenbalm had served at the Floating Log for years, and loved teasing the tweens who came through Frogmorten.  And certainly Peregrin Took had proved one of her favorite targets for teasing, considering how cheeky he could be.  Not, of course, that being the Thain's son and heir didn't add to her interest in the lad.  Calendula certainly was not above considering the advantages of a potential--agreement--with the Thain's son.  To become the future Thain's Lady would be quite the triumph for a mere cottager's lass from the East-farthing.

            "We were both laughing so hard that I quite forgot to mention the parcel I'd left by the hearth.  So when Merry sent me to fetch it before we left the inn, I found it right where I'd left it.  I fear that it had been quite warm all night.  But it wasn't until we got here and I went to get it out of my pack that I realized that what was in it had gone--off.  Decidedly off," he added unnecessarily.

             Frodo's face was a study in carefully controlled temper.  He leaned closer to the package and quickly drew back again.  "Well, you can take it out to the compost heap right now," he instructed Pippin.  "Get it out of here!  Now!  And you," he added to Merry, "can help him.  Now, out with the both of you!"

            "He's not happy with us, is he?" murmured Pippin to Merry as he watched Frodo head for the kitchen, his back unnaturally straight.

            "When we managed to ruin the squabs my father was sending him for his birthday dinner?   You know how much Frodo loves squab.  Dad wanted Frodo to have at least one happy memory of his last birthday spent in Bag End, you know."  Merry turned his head and took a deep breath.  "You'd best hold your nose.  This is pretty ripe!"

            So saying, the Brandybuck led the Took from the hole, holding the odorous package out at arm's length.

 

Written for the LOTR Community Longest Day Challenge.  Thanks so to RiverOtter for the beta.

The Water Is Wide

            Galadriel found the Ringbearer out on the deck of the grey ship upon which they sailed.  He sat near the stern on a coil of rope, a seat better suited to his stature than the benches built for those who would walk upon the decks on those few fair days they knew during their voyage.  Little thought appeared to have been taken for the comfort of the two small mortals who sailed with them—no shorter benches apt to their own stature.  It was true that Frodo had been given the cabin intended originally for the Lady Arwen, with its comfortable berth and its delicate appointments.  But even it had yet been prepared for one Elven tall, not for one barely four feet in height.

            One of the sailors sat near at hand, working upon the nets with which fresh fish were caught for the sustenance of passengers and crew, watching over the safety of this one.  He looked up and nodded his acceptance of her to replace him, and moved off to the bow where he resumed his labor, his eyes now eager as he looked westward toward their destination.  Frodo, on the other hand, watched eastward, knowing that he drew further by the moment from all he had ever loved.

            The Hobbit’s face was pale, but that was nothing new, considering how delicate his health had become ere they’d set sail, and how close he’d been to giving over when the memories of his woundings had hit him on the sixth of October.  He often said little or nothing over the space of a day.  Although it was given her to sift the hearts of those she was with, Galadriel allowed Frodo Baggins his privacy, letting him choose what and when he might share with her of those thoughts that occupied him.  But it appeared he had no wish to talk, not now….

            “Water is such a blessing, but has cost me so much.”

            She was startled, for she’d sat by him for much of the long hours of the day with him not even appearing to take notice of her arrival.  Even now his gaze continued to be upon the darkening horizon behind the ship.  She laid her hand upon his shoulder and looked also eastward, and awaited what else he might say.

            “My mother loved the river, and when I was a child she took me to it and taught me to love it as she did, to relax in its embrace and lie back upon it and allow it to bear me upon its surface.  I learned to swim, and to swim well.  But she warned me that the Brandywine was to be respected, and not always to be trusted, especially when the current was running swiftly and the water was rising.”

            He was quiet for a time.  Then he continued, “My first sight of the Brandywine when I was old enough to appreciate it was when we approached the Buckleberry Ferry.  I remember….”  A pause.  “I remember asking, ‘The water is wide.  How will we cross over it?  Are we to fly?’  And she laughed and pointed to the ferry.  A barge really, rather than a boat, to be poled rather than rowed.  My father was tense, and she calmed him with her arm about his waist.  When the ferry Hobbit untied the ropes and began to push us across against the current he grasped onto the rails so hard his knuckles were white with the strain of it.  But once we floated free I was caught—caught between terror and delight.  So strange, this feeling of floating, of seeing not solid land on either side but water, moving and ever changing by the instant.”

            He took a shuddering breath.  His voice was almost a whisper when he spoke again.  “Mother loved the Brandywine so, to paddle and swim in it, and to sail upon it.  Not that we had boats with sails, of course.  We Hobbits tend to have but rowboats and coracles, and a few barges and rafts intended only to carry loads from here to there.  All her life she and my uncles and aunts would start from a particular landing far upstream of Brandy Hall in one of our rowboats, and would allow the river to carry them downstream until they fetched up in the shallow bay at the turning of the river where the children of Brandy Hall would swim and play within the water.

            “After they married, she finally convinced my father to sail with her in this manner.  It must have taken quite some time to talk him into it, for he was fascinated by the sight of the River, but had no more liking of being in or upon it than most other Hobbits other than the Brandybucks.  In time he learned to use the oars after a fashion, and I remember rowing out with the two of them and seeing how uncomfortable he was, but how determined he was not to disappoint her.  Usually she would end up taking over the oars, amused by his barely hidden relief that she was doing so.”

            He again sighed, and took a drink from the water bottle he had with him, his eyes still not leaving the horizon, which was now a delicate pink.  After he settled the bottle again between his knees he continued once more.  “To sail—no, to float—down the river at night when the stars were brightest—that was my mother’s delight.  And to please her, my father would suggest that they sail on fair evenings in the spring and summer and early fall of the leaf.  And she loved it so, and him so for overcoming his fears for her sake.

            “We don’t know why they didn’t come home after that last sail.  There was talk of a strange creature seen along the bank that dove into the water when the one making the report came near to it.  But the water, although somewhat higher than usual as it was spring and the water always flowed higher in springtime, was yet calm enough, and the current not dangerous where they tended to sail.  My father knew well not to move suddenly within the boat, having done this on many occasions by this time in their marriage.  They found her body next day, under the overturned boat, below the bay where the boat usually fetched up.  It appeared she’d struck her head upon the gunwale as she tried to surface, and was stunned, and that this alone was why she drowned.  My father’s body—it took far longer to find it.  It was beginning to bloat when it was found, caught in a snag of roots in a downed tree that had fallen during the winter.”

            Was he brooding? she wondered when he went quiet again.  The pink of the horizon was now going purple and turquoise, the few clouds dark bruises upon the deepening blue of the upper sky.

            “The boats you gave us, they bore us well.  I rode with Sam and Aragorn, two I already loved deeply as brothers of the heart.  Sam was even more wary in the boat we rode in than had been my father.  But the suspicions of Gamgees toward the water are very strong.”  He had the ghost of a wry smile upon his face, but the crease between his brows was pronounced.  “I knew I must leave them, the rest, to go on upon my own.  I could not take them to the certain death I saw for myself, going into Mordor willingly.  I thought that if I went on alone, I would draw the danger after myself, allowing them to continue free and to find a safe haven to await the signs that I had either won through, or, more likely, failed miserably.  What did I know of Saruman’s Uruk-hai coming from the west, seeking out Hobbits to carry them away, knowing only that such creatures were said to be carrying something needed by their master for the war?” 

            His face was growing stern.  “After—after the Ring took Boromir, I knew I could wait no longer.  It was growing too strong for them.”  He took a deep breath, and whispered, “It was growing too strong for me, too.  I didn’t know how much longer I could hold out against It.

            “I went down to the boats, where they’d been drawn up above the waterline.  No one else was about.  I suspected they had gone after me, and was glad, for I would not have to fight them about this.  Even if they could not see me because I wore the Ring, I knew they would see the boat being drawn into the water, and would guess what was happening.

            “Then it happened just as I’d anticipated—Sam was calling to me, insisting he would go with me.   And then he was trying to follow after me—only he cannot swim!  And when he began to sink I had to turn back and save him, and take him into the boat.  And in the end, Sam Gamgee, who was so terrified of boats and water, rowed with me across the lake to the eastern shore, bound to go with me for the sin of loving me as a brother.  And I was glad, and also felt terribly guilty, that I would not in the end die alone.  But I felt that I’d lost the rest there, once I went into the boat there at Parth Galen.”

            Tears were beginning to roll down his cheeks unheeded.  She could feel how painful these memories were for him, and she wished—almost—she could spare him such anguish.  But, she knew, this was necessary for his healing, to speak aloud what he’d kept hidden in his heart for so long.  She was glad when he again continued his thoughts.

            “I saw Sam beginning to wilt as we journeyed further and further into Mordor.  He was not built for waste places, my Sam.”

            For the first time she answered him, “Nor were you, my friend.”

            He shrugged.  “No.”

            Again he sipped from his bottle, and brooded.

            “When your granddaughter first spoke to me of the chance to sail west and find healing once more, I felt the first true thrill of hope I’d known since we’d been in Lórien.  Since we left your land I’d felt increasingly as if I were in fact becoming a ghost—a wraith indeed.  And there were so few moments even within Minas Tirith when I felt as if all were truly real about me.”

            A sigh.  She tightened her grip upon his thin shoulder.  Indeed, he felt barely substantial even now.

            “I could barely cross the Bruinen when we left Rivendell on the last leg home.  The water looked so wide.  I knew it was shallow enough to ride across, perhaps even to wade across; but I found myself wishing for a boat—or to perhaps be transformed into a bird as was Elwing!  And the—the memories were hitting me so, of both being stabbed and of facing—facing them!  The Wraiths and—him!”

            He was beginning to shake under her hand.  “When we approached the Brandywine—the Baranduin—the river again looked wide, perhaps wider than it was when we crossed over at the Buckleberry Ferry the night we reached Crickhollow as we looked to leave the Shire.  But we could cross over at the Bridge, and I remember rejoicing that it was as solid underfoot as I remember it always being!  But although we were home again, it was not the same, even as I’d known it could not be, for I was not the same.  And I began again losing substance, only this time physically as well as spiritually.”

            The horizon was now dark, and only the flecks of reflection upon the waves of the sunset behind them to the west could indicate where the water lay.  “And you chose at the last to accept the gift that Arwen offered you,” she said.

            “Yes, I did.  And the water is wide, and growing wider, between those I love and me.  And I will not see them again, for no ship could bear me back to them.  I am not of Melian’s blood, and cannot think to transform into a seabird to fly back to see them again.  Will Sam follow after?  I did not wish him to leave his Rosie and little Elanor, after all, nor the future I have foreseen for him.  He has so much to do and to be!  He can live—there!  He can know the fulfillment—there!—that I cannot.  But once Bilbo is gone from me, I will be so lonely!  No matter what beauty and joys there may be in Elvenhome for me to encounter, I remain a child of Middle Earth, and a mortal.  I do not wish to die alone, I find.”

            He wiped his face with his sleeve.  “I do not want Sam to find his love for Rosie going cold, but I don’t want his love for me to fade away, either.  How selfish I am—to want him to be with me at the end only so I feel comfortable when it comes, knowing again that I am not alone when death must come for me.”

            He looked up into her eyes at last.  “I am not afraid of dying, but I don’t want to be alone then, although I don’t want to be forced to say goodbye to those I love, either.  Am I not pathetic?”

 *

            She thought on that conversation often as she watched him upon Tol Eressëa, as she saw him give over the horrors of his memories, as he learned once more to embrace life, and as he again began to dance and to sing in the joy that was returned to him.  She saw how the young Elfling Livwen was drawn to him, and came to love him, and how she shared in his renewed curiosity by teaching him to sail and gave him the small boat her father had given to her when she was smaller.  Yes, he grieved when Bilbo left him, but not overmuch.  Soon few who knew him well could imagine life on Tol Eressëa without him, so much beauty and delight did he draw to himself.

            But the day was coming, all too soon for those who must remain in this world until its ending, when he must look to leave them.  And on the day he knew that Rosie had died, and at last Sam was free to join him, she saw how torn he was, wanting that comfort, but not wanting to draw Sam from what was proper to their kind.  And she was as glad as he was to know that at last Sam had himself chosen, and was upon his way, voyaging as had Frodo, away from pain and loss, to reunion, as brief as it might be, before Frodo Baggins, the Lord Iorhael, must go on and finish his own voyage.

            She was both amused and saddened to see the pain all of this gave to young Livwen, herself but newly come to adulthood.  For Livwen truly loved the strange being she’d known since her childhood.  Frodo would no longer sail in the boat she’d given him, and there was but little chance he’d take his beloved brother of the heart out into it, not at this late stage in their lives.  Although he’d had it cleaned, sanded, and repainted, and its sails replaced, its centerboard and tiller planed.  Perhaps he thought to take Sam out upon the Sea in order to give over his life.  She hoped that in the intervening years that Samwise Gamgee had learned to row properly, for she knew that he would find the water appearing wide once his friend was gone from this life.

 *

            But in the end, the two Hobbits left Tol Eressëa together, their fëar rising to dance amidst the stars.  And it was one who was fearless who joined Frodo in boarding Eärendil’s craft to make that final journey to the true West beyond the West, where no further pain or grief could come to either ever again.

            But one stood watching after them, ignoring the abandoned body of Sam Gamgee lying beneath the White Tree of Tol Eressëa, and for Livwen daughter of Talorë the sailor, Galadriel knew that the elleth was finding the water to be wide.

 

-o0o-

Inspired by the English folksong The Water is Wide.  A version can be found here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clSZU1HRxJE&feature=related

For Dreamflower and Leianora for their birthdays.

Confrontation

            “But why not marry here?” Rhodium asked her daughter Sapphira.  “You are the bride, after all.”

            “I told you, Mama,” Sapphira answered her mother yet again, “Oderiadoc and I decided we want to be married on neutral ground.  We’re going to live in the Eastfarthing rather than in Buckland, and in our own house, not either the Great Smial or Brandy Hall.  And we don’t wish to look as if we’re favoring either family over the other, either the Brandybucks or the Tooks.  We decided that having the deputy Mayor marry us would be best, then.  Think!  We wouldn’t be marrying at all, most like, if the Travelers hadn’t come back when they did.  So, why not allow Frodo Baggins to lead the ceremony for us?”

            The argument had been going on for the last three weeks at least—definitely ever since Rosamunda and Odovacar Bolger had arrived at the Great Smial to stay until their home of Budge Hall should be livable once more.  Once Paladin Took had arrived to see what damage had been wrought by Lotho’s folk after the Bolger and his wife were forced out of the family smial into a storage hole on a farm they owned just outside Budgeford, he’d insisted that the two of them were not to remain in what had become their abode, as it tended to be damp in wet weather, and not even what they used as the kitchen hearth drew properly.  “You are Sigismond Took’s daughter, after all,” he’d explained to Rosamunda.  “It doesn’t matter you grew up here in Budgeford rather than the Great Smial or Tuckborough—you still have the right to call upon your Took family ties.”

            There was no question they were far more comfortably housed in the Great Smial than they’d been once they were driven out of their home by Lotho’s Big Men.  But Rosamunda found living amongst so many of her father’s people to be—difficult.  She found herself favoring Sapphira in her constant defense against her parents’ arguments that she and her bridegroom should just settle down in quarters within the Great Smial.  It seemed there was little privacy to be had in the place, and particularly once worsening weather drove almost all of the inhabitants indoors.  One was always hearing the shrieks of playing or quarreling children, and someone bored with their more familiar family was always wanting to visit.  Rosamunda found she could fully appreciate just why Sapphira wished to be mistress of her own home rather than just another resident within the vast warren that housed so many of the Tooks.  And much as she loved Foxy, as she still thought of her brother Ferdinand who’d moved back to the Great Smial decades ago, and his son Ferdibrand, she wished desperately she were back home in Budgeford once more.  Besides, she had grown tired of being in quarters that had no outside windows.  She felt so closed in here!

            But she didn’t understand Sapphira’s desire for her wedding to be conducted by Frodo Baggins.  Truth be told, Rosamunda found herself blaming Frodo for the Time of Troubles.  If only Frodo had realized just how deranged his foul cousin Lotho was, he would never have been persuaded to sell Bag End to the git and his odious mother, and Lotho would not have convinced himself he could make himself the tyrant of the Shire.  Nor would her beloved Fredegar have been terrorized by whatever strange folk had pursued Frodo out of the Shire, much less would her dear Dumpling have been likely to decide to become a rebel against Lotho and his Big Men and their policies.  Imagine, her Freddy had defied Lotho and his Big Men!  That should never have happened!  What danger that had put him—and Odi and herself—into!  She was now so glad that Odovacar had chosen to send Estella into hiding amongst the Tooks before Fredegar went for a rebel.  She, at least, had remained safe from the possible repercussions of her brother’s choice to oppose Lotho.

            Anyway, Sapphira was grateful for Rosamunda’s support in opposing her parents’ desires for the wedding, and one day pressed an invitation into Rosa’s hand to attend the ceremony to be held a few weeks before Yule in the banquet hall of the Council Hole.  The idea of having to travel to Michel Delving during the possible worst of winter weather wasn’t inviting, but it would allow a break from being confined within the Great Smial for a few days!  Even Odovacar appeared more cheerful at the idea of being outside the Tooklands for a time, and he sent a letter by the Quick Post to the inn in Michel Delving to take a room for that whole week, as it had been decided to hold a meeting of the Family Heads the day after the wedding.

            Sapphira and her mother rode with Rosamunda to Michel Delving in the Bolger coach, remarkably unscathed after its time in the hands of Lotho’s people—not, of course, that any of the Big Men could have fitted in it.  The cushions had been replaced, but otherwise all was as she remembered it.

            “I can’t believe the day has come!” Sapphira exclaimed.  “Tonight we shall be married, Oderiadoc and I.  How long it’s been since I promised him.  We’d planned to be married last summer, you understand, at the Free Fair.  But with Lotho’s Big Men patrolling the bounds of the Tooklands and the edge of the Brandywine and Lotho refusing to allow the Free Fair to be held, even, how could that have happened?  I’m just glad Oderiadoc still wants me after all of this time.”

            “How could he not, Chick?” asked Rhodium.  “Ah dearling, but it’s because he’d already proved himself constant to you that we agreed to you marrying him to begin with.  But we’d so expected the two of you to settle within the Tooklands, at the very least.”

            Eager to distract them before the old arguments could be rehashed again, Rosa commented, “I’m only surprised you didn’t insist that Will Whitfoot should say the words.  After all, he’s the true Mayor.”

            “But word is that he can’t stand for that long of a time as yet,” Sapphira pointed out.  “Besides, when we played at weddings when we were children, we always wheedled Frodo into saying the words, as he had them all memorized and could say them so convincingly.  It’s wonderful to know he’ll now be saying them for real for the two of us.”

            “But if he hadn’t decided to go for an adventure when he did—” began Rosamunda.

            Sapphira made a rude noise.  “Pish tosh!  He wouldn’t have left when he did if it hadn’t been something terribly important, not Frodo Baggins.  Why, he’s the most responsible Hobbit in the Shire, after all—always has been.  Besides, Pippin says that he’s now the King’s special friend, and that the King and almost everyone outside the Shire all respect him more than anyone else, and precisely because he is so responsible.  If it hadn’t been for Frodo’s part in the War against the Enemy, both he and Merry insist things would have ended up far worse for everyone than what we knew in the Time of Troubles.  And don’t you think that it’s exciting to think of oneself being married by the King’s special friend?”

            Rosamunda shrugged thoughtfully.  Paladin and Odi had discussed the reports delivered by Pippin often enough, and Paladin had read aloud to them the one proclamation in which was listed the new titles bestowed upon the four who’d gone outside the Shire.  All four of them were listed as the King’s Companions, and Frodo Baggins in particular had been singled out as the King’s Friend. 

            “It’s said that he came home maimed, though,” Rhodium objected.

            “Tolly says that he lost a finger—just a finger.  He says that it’s hard to spot unless you’re looking for it,” Sapphira responded.  “So, he lost a finger.  That doesn’t mean he’s become horrible to look at or anything of the sort.  And Periangard, who’s the smith for the Great Smial, has managed to lose parts of two fingers in his work, but that’s never slowed him down any.  Am I to avoid Cousin Periangard because he’s maimed?”

            “I hope that the menfolk won’t delay following us too long,” Rhodium said fussily.  “I’d hate for Hildimans to be late to his daughter’s wedding.”

            “They’re only waiting for the Brandybuck party to reach the edge of the Tooklands, Mother,” Sapphira sighed.  “Really, you don’t have to worry over everything!  They’ll be escorting Oderiadoc as is right and proper.  Besides, the Thain wishes to consult with the Master while they’re on the way.”

            It was rather a relief to reach Michel Delving at last and to be able to escape into the rooms Odi had taken for the two of them and to be shut of the constant bickering for a time.  There were already some of Rhodium’s Tunnely kindred there, and they descended upon the bride and her mother in an excitedly chattering mob to assist Sapphira to prepare for the wedding to come.

            But somehow the rooms in which Rosamunda found herself seemed disturbingly quiet once she was behind their closed doors.  Face it—she’d begun to become accustomed to the constant noise from the population of the Great Smial!  She shuddered at the thought, but certainly she felt somehow cut off without at least Odovacar’s presence.  At last she decided to go across to the Council Hole to see to it that the banquet hall was properly prepared for the wedding to come.  That should offer her a welcome distraction from the fact she was temporarily alone.

            She was relieved to find that there was already someone within the banquet hall when she arrived.  She didn’t recognize his back as he stood before the great carved sideboard that stood along one wall.  As she remembered it, Drogo Baggins had crafted the great piece of furniture shortly before the accident that robbed the Shire of him and his wife.  He’d carved into its panels a map of sorts of the Shire, including representations of everyday life throughout the four Farthings.  The stranger, with his rather long curls of dark hair shot through with strands of silver, appeared to be focused on what Rosamunda remembered to be the area of Hobbiton, in which Lobelia Sackville-Baggins was depicted listening at the window of someone else’s hole, and with a spoon in her hand.  Rosamunda wondered what this stranger, with his unusual grey-green cloak, thought of that?

            He was remarkably slender, the stranger was, even more so than was her own Fredegar now.  She wondered who he was, and what business had brought him to the Council Hole.  Perhaps he was from the far Westfarthing, perhaps from Greenholm, come to report on sightings of Elves or Dwarves beyond the western Bounds.  She didn’t know anyone from that far west in the Shire, after all, and couldn’t be expected to recognize such people.  Or he could maybe have come from Bree—it was said that the road to Bree was open to free travel as it hadn’t been for years, and some adventurous Hobbit from the Breelands might have been sent with word from the people there.  She supposed that examining the sideboard would offer entertainment to anyone awaiting the arrival of the Thain and the Master.  Although she had to admit it was unlikely that such a one would come ahead of the groom’s party, as the Master was planning to escort Oderiadoc to Michel Delving.  Surely the Bounders on watch at the King’s Bridge would so advise any guest to the Shire coming from the Breelands!

            She approached the stranger.  His trousers were longer than was typical of Shire Hobbits, and the sleeve of his jacket as he reached out to caress a figure on the depiction of the Hill was definitely not of any fabric woven inside the Shire.  It was of a sober brown, she noticed, with rich embroidery along the edge of the sleeve.  As for the shirt worn underneath the jacket, she saw that the creamy cuff was held together at the wrist with a gold stud set with an opal.  Whoever this stranger was, he was apparently well off!  It was not until she’d come alongside him that she could see his profile, and noticed that his face was uncharacteristically serious for a Hobbit, his brow furrowed with concentration as he examined the carving he touched.  “That’s supposed to be Bilbo Baggins,” she volunteered.  “He lived in Bag End in the Hill for quite a long time, certainly the whole time that the one who carved this sideboard was alive.”

            “I certainly know that, Cousin Rosamunda,” the stranger said, and she realized this was no stranger after all.  No, it was Frodo himself.

            Automatically she drew back, her back straightening in surprise.  “Frodo Baggins—what are you doing here?”

            He turned his face to examine hers.  “I’m the deputy Mayor, you know, Cousin Rosa.  I’m to officiate at the wedding tonight.  I came in to see if everything had been arranged properly, and I stopped to look at my father’s work on the sideboard.  I was there when he carved it, you will remember.”

            “But you were only a child.”

            “I was eleven, definitely old enough to remember.”  He looked back to the figure of Bilbo again, and sighed.  “Not that my father was that good at doing portraits of people.  I think the best one he did was the one of Lobelia, actually.”  His finger moved down the Hill to another figure outside a door on the Row.  “And here’s Bell Gamgee with Sam in her arms.  He showed you with Freddy in a pram,” and his attention shifted eastward to Budgeford, where he tapped his finger against the figure of a Hobbitess pushing a basket on wheels.  “I know we visited Budge Hall a time or two, but I don’t remember Freddy’s birth, I’m sad to say.  I know that you didn’t visit Brandy Hall after my parents’ funeral.”

            “And we left Freddy in Budgeford with my father,” she said.  “He hadn’t been to Buckland before you returned to Hobbiton and Bag End.”

            He nodded.  “Then the first time I remember seeing him was at the birthday party Bilbo threw for us that first September after I became his ward,” he murmured.  “I don’t even remember seeing him at the Free Fair.”

            “We usually went to the Lithe Day celebrations in the Tooklands instead,” she admitted.  “We only went to the Free Fair in election years then.”

            Things went quiet between them as Frodo again focused on Hobbiton and the Hill as shown in his father’s carvings.  “You wouldn’t recognize Bag End or the Row now,” he said softly.  “Lotho had the smials on the Row dug out, or at least through Number Four.  Number Five wasn’t completely collapsed, perhaps because it was the biggest and ran the most under Bag End itself.  The Big Men filled the gardens of Bag End with sheds—and such awful ones, at that!  As for inside the hole----”  He shuddered.  “We were all sickened by the stench of the place and the damage we saw.  Lobelia won’t return to it, as that is where Lotho was murdered.  She sent me the deed back, did you know?”

            “I’d heard rumors.”

            “They were true ones, then.”

            She felt her anger growing within her breast.  “You ought never to have sold the place to them!” she said with a vehemence that surprised even her.  “Once he got his hands on its deed, Lotho decided to make himself the boss of all!”

            He was shaking his head as she finished speaking.  “He’d been planning it for longer than that, Cousin,” he answered.  “Many of the loan agreements he had written included strange clauses in them indicating he would take possession of people’s properties once I left the Shire at last.”  Again he shook his head, his pale lips pressed into a tight line.  “He always believed that one day I would follow Bilbo,” he said bitterly.  “He planned for it!  And, then, after he’d come to me to offer to pay cash for Bag End, just what I’d offered to sell it to Ponto and Iris for, he made me promise not to make the deal public for three weeks, in which time he changed the clause to one in which he said he’d take possession of other people’s deeds once he was Master of Bag End and the Hill.  Only I never made him Master of the Hill.  I never offered him more than the deed to Bag End and its gardens and orchard.  He declared himself the Master of the Hill strictly on his own, just as he declared himself Chief Shiriff!”

            “You should have known he’d do such a thing!” she insisted.

            “Didn’t you and Odi accept a loan from him, guaranteed by the deed to Budge Hall, in which he included that clause?” he asked, his eyes stern.  “I warned Odi not to take a loan from Lotho, but to take the one Paladin offered instead.”

            “But who could believe—” she began, and stopped abruptly, blushing furiously.

            His voice was filled with bitter irony as he responded, “Who, indeed?”  He returned his gaze to the sideboard again, his eyes on the figure of a Hobbitess and a child alongside the Brandwine’s banks.

            She found the anger still spilling out of her.  “Well, you should never have included my Freddy in your plans.”

            “I didn’t!  I intended to leave the Shire alone, until Gandalf insisted I had to take Sam with me.  We swore Sam to secrecy, but he’d already been telling Merry, Freddy, and Pippin what I was planning.  I learned nothing of the conspiracy until we got to Crickhollow.”

            “At least you had the sense to leave Freddy in the Shire!”

            “He didn’t want to go, Rosa.  He never intended to leave the Shire.  Instead he decided to stay in Crickhollow to make people believe I was still there.”

            “And those horrible black Big Folk attacked him there!”

            “I know.”

            There was something in the way that he said those last two words that drew her eyes to examine his face more closely, some echo of anguish.  “What do you know of them?” she demanded.

            He rolled his eyes briefly to meet hers, and then back away again.  “Too much,” he whispered.  His eyes were filled with pain, his face bloodless.  “Too much,” he repeated.  “They were terrible.  At least they are gone now, and cannot return again.”

            “How do you know that for sure?”  Her tone was imperious.

            “The Ring is gone.  Their power was shorn with Its destruction, even as is true of the Rings of the Elves.  Gandalf and Aragorn and Prince Imrahil have all told me that as soon as I—as soon as the call came the eight remaining turned their steeds back toward the Mountain, and they fell as soon as the Mountain began tearing itself to pieces, even as Barad-dûr itself began to fall.  Prince Imrahil says that they all burst into flame—eight great fireballs plunging toward the raging volcano.  How Sam and I managed not to be struck by the molten rock thrown all about by the Mountain I could never say.”

            “What mountain?”

            “Orodruin—Mount Doom in Mordor.”

            “But there is no Mordor—that’s just a children’s tale!”

            His eyes as they met hers were haunted.  “There is no Mordor now.  But it was never but a children’s tale, Cousin Rosa.  No, it was real enough.”

            “And how do you know all this?”

            He turned again to face her directly.  “Because we went there, Sam and I.  And because Pippin went to fight before its gates, part of Aragorn’s army of defiance.  We almost died there, Sam and I did, and Pippin also outside the Black Gate.  A troll fell on him.  If he’d not been as small and young as he was, it was likely he’d have been crushed to death.  That any of us survived to return home again was not due to our own efforts.”

            She could feel cold reaching toward her heart.  “And if Freddy had gone,” she said, then paused.  “Would he have come home again?”

            “I don’t know.  But he was fighting as surely as Merry and Pippin did, only he was doing it here in the Shire rather than in strange lands whose names we barely heard of before we left home.”

            “And they caught him, and put him in the Lockholes!”

            “Yes, Cousin Rosa, they did.”

            She could see in his eyes that he felt he was to blame for Freddy’s imprisonment, and agreed with him.  “It wouldn’t have happened if you’d not left when you did,” she said accusingly.

            “Perhaps.  Or perhaps not.  We have no way of knowing for certain.  But Sharkey, as they called him here—he’d already heard of the Shire, and had sent his people here to take over the Shire in Lotho’s name, but in reality for him.  You’ll note that the moment he entered the Shire they saw to it that Lobelia was sent into the Lockholes herself, and Lotho was killed.  Sharkey was the one who masterminded the whole affair—of that I am certain.”

            “Why didn’t you get Freddy out sooner?”

            “Out of where?  Out of the Shire?  I thought you did not wish to imagine him ever leaving the Shire!  Oh, you mean out of the Lockholes!  How were we to know he was even there?  Until we reached the Cottons’ farm we’d never dreamed anyone would take those old storage tunnels in Michel Delving and think to imprison Hobbits in them!  And we found ourselves having to deal with the ruffians and to free Bywater and the region of the Hill first!  Then, when we went to confront Lotho we discovered he was dead, and Sharkey was there instead.  And Bag End was all but ruins.  You cannot believe what they did to it—the beams hacked, the carpets defiled, the doors hanging off their hinges, the walls fouled and the mantels broken to shards of stone!  As for the gardens—they have been trampled to dust and those sheds are everywhere, like giant, misshapen toadstools!”  Frodo was white, and he was shuddering visibly.  “We went to Michel Delving the next morning, first thing,” he whispered.  “And he was the first one we found, Freddy was.  Poor Freddy!  He couldn’t walk….”  He stumbled over to the nearest table and sat down heavily in a chair, burying his face in his hands.  “That was when they told us he’d led the rebels, stealing food they’d ‘gathered’ so that it could be given to those Hobbits who were starving.”  He swallowed heavily, and finally looked up at her.  “He was afraid to go out of the Shire, but he stood up to evil here, Cousin Rosa.  He’s a hero—do you realize just how great a hero he is?  You must be so proud of him!”

            “Why didn’t you send him home?

            “To live in a storage hole with the two of you?”  Frodo was plainly shocked at the idea.  “Maligar was with the archers who came from the Great Smial, in spite of not being a Took, and he told us what had happened to you and Odovacar.  You didn’t have the room to house a Hobbit as sick as Freddy was, not in a storage hole.  And you cannot believe how much time is involved in caring for someone who has almost starved to death.  Lily and Rosie Cotton worked ceaselessly for days making certain there was the type of food he could stomach so that he wouldn’t grow more ill from eating the wrong things, and then seeing to it he was eating at least hourly for the first two weeks.  He is likely to suffer from damaged digestion as well as a weak heart from now on, and he must never gain back all of the weight he had before.”

            “You could have sent him to the Great Smial when Paladin gave us a place there to stay until Budge Hall is habitable once more.”

            “Perhaps, except that Estella had arrived by then and was gladly taking care of Freddy where he was.  And the Cottons were proud to care for him, considering how he worked to see to it that others didn’t starve while the Big Men were in control.  They are special people, Tom Cotton’s family.  You owe them thanks for more than just the care given your son.”

            She felt her jaw clench, for indeed the Cottons had seen to it more than once that extra food reached their storage hole outside Budgeford, mostly after it was known that Freddy had been taken by the Big Men.  It stung to be reminded how much she and Odovacar owed to the farmer and his wife.  She wracked her brain for some other charge to throw at him, but couldn’t think of anything else.  At last she growled, “At least you didn’t drag him off into danger with yourself on that foolish adventure of yours.”

            “No, for he stayed purposely to avoid it.  But the danger I left to try to draw away from the Shire came here anyway, in spite of all I did to protect it.  And he was at least here to do what he could to protect our people, and I am so very, very glad—and sorry—that he did.  I am so very, very proud of him, Rosa, of how brave and creative and caring he was.”

            Rosamunda Took Bolger was surprised to see that Frodo indeed felt proud of his younger cousin.

 

Written for the third anniversary of the Many Paths to Tread archive.  For Raksha the Demon, who has always loved to see Faramir interacting with the Hobbits.

New Roads and Secret Gates

 

            Sam was whistling as he knelt in the herb garden outside the Houses of Healing, thinning the comfrey.  Faramir, newly named Prince of Ithilien as well as the Steward of Gondor, smiled to hear the Hobbit.  It was good to know that this worthy soul had also survived the horrors of his recent past and was now able to rejoice by producing such music.  To the gardener he said, “And you find both the day and your activity pleasing, Master Samwise?”

            Sam looked up, a smile of pleasure on his face to see Faramir standing there.  “Oh, but both are true, Captain Faramir, sir,” he responded.  “Been the first as I’ve found myself whistlin’ in quite a while, it is.  It’s a right pleasant day, Lord Strider’s provin’ a good king and a discernin’ one as well, and most as I’ve worried over along the way are doin’ well enough today.  Mr. Frodo was smilin’ this mornin’ as he sung a song as we’ve heard the neighbor singin’ to her bairns, and neither his hand nor his shoulder seems to be painin’ him for a wonder.  As for the others, they was all smilin’ as they come back from their weapons practice, so I suspect as they all did right well.  And I’ll tell you as it’s a joy to find somethin’ both useful and pleasant to do today in such a pleasant place.”

            “And what song is that you were whistling?  I don’t recognize it, so I gather that it is a song of your people.  The tune is delightful—I suspect that I’ll find myself humming it frequently.”

            Sam flushed.  “Oh, and your brother liked it well enough, too.  He was hummin’ it often enough as we walked along, headin’ south from Rivendell.”  He brushed the loose earth from his fingers and leaned back to sit upon his heels.  “You’re right—it’s a song from the Shire.  Old Mr. Bilbo wrote it, and it’s always been a favorite of my Master’s and his kin, and especial those as is closest to Mr. Frodo.  It’s a walkin’ song.”

            Faramir found himself chuckling.  “Yes, it sounds perfect for walking, I admit.  We have plenty of marching songs here in Gondor, and many sea shanties for sailors to time their pulling on ropes, lines, and nets to, as well as a goodly selection of songs, many from Rohan originally, fit for riding.  But we of Gondor have rather lost the art of enjoying a simple walk, I fear.  And, yes, I do suspect that my brother would have been as drawn to the tune as I find myself.  And you say that the Ringbearer’s kinsman wrote this song?”

            Sam nodded.  “That he did.  Mr. Bilbo was always writin’ poetry, and set a good deal of it to music over the years.  And for all so many Hobbits said as they was sure as him was cracked, still they’d all sing his songs.  Suspect as many didn’t realize he’d written those songs they liked.”  His smile was crooked as he shook his head at the wonder of it.  “We taught that one to your brother as we was walkin’ along.  Pippin would usually start it, singing soft-like as we’d walk, and then the rest of us would join in, and then old Strider and often Gandalf as well.  Of course, Gandalf has been a friend of Mr. Bilbo’s for years and years, so he knows most of the Shire walkin’ songs and all anyways.  Suspect as Mr. Bilbo and maybe the Old Took afore him taught him lots of songs from the Shire long afore Mr. Frodo and I met him.  Wasn’t too long once we was on our way afore your brother and Gimli was singin’ with us as well.”

            “What is the song about?  Would you sing it for me?”

            Sam flushed, but began to sing:

“Upon the hearth the fire is red,
Beneath the roof there is a bed,
But not yet weary are our feet,
Still round the corner we may meet:
A sudden tree or standing stone
That none have seen but we alone.

”Tree and flower and leaf and grass,
Let them pass! Let them pass!
Hill and water under sky,
Pass them by! Pass them by!

”Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate
And though we pass them by today
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run
Towards the Moon or to the Sun.

”Apple, thorn, and nut and sloe,
Let them go! Let them go!
Sand and stone and pool and dell,
Fare you well! Fare you well!

”Home is behind, the world ahead
And there are many paths to tread
Through shadows to the edge of night
Until the stars are all alight.
Then world behind and home ahead
We'll wander back to home and bed.

”Mist and twilight, cloud and shade,
Away shall fade! Away shall fade!
Fire and lamp, and meat and bread,
And then to bed! And then to bed!”

            Faramir laughed in delight.  “You have a fine singing voice, Master Samwise,” he complimented the Hobbit.  “Oh, yes, my brother would have loved such a song.  Always he loved to take new roads, I found.  I doubt we took the same road twice in traveling to our uncle’s home in Dol Amroth once we were able to go there on our own, for example.  It drove his aides to distraction, his tendency to examine the new roads and secret gates.  The most common complaint was that should he be injured along the way, it would be difficult to find him if those who sought to aid him could not determine which route he might have taken.  Of course, he would offer this as a justification for his tendency to explore—that if his friends could not predict which route he might take, the same was true also of his enemies.”

            Sam nodded.  “Yes, he said as much to us as well.  But I noted as him appeared to prefer real roads to the deer paths and such as we took south, although he’d keep his complaints to hisself for the most part save when him was tired.”

            He shifted his position a bit.  “But as for new roads and secret gates—well, that’s always how my Mr. Frodo’s been.  Most folk of the Shire would think as him was far, far too curious for a proper Hobbit when he was younger, don’t you know.  Afore Mr. Bilbo left Bag End when my Master come of age, the old fellow told me that in spite of only bein’ free to ramble about the Shire for eleven years, Mr. Frodo already seemed to know more about the Shire’s lesser ways than even he did.  And since my Master become the Baggins and the Master of the Hill, he’s probably walked every inch of the Westfarthing, Eastfarthing and Buckland, and most of the larger villages in the North and Southfarthings as well.  He’s spoke of visitin’ villages I’d not known was there in the Shire at all, and even has explored the Binbole Forest.  His maps never meant a lot to me when I was younger, but now as I have my own journeys under my belt, I’ll be payin’ far more mind to them once we’re back home again.  Just seems odd to think as I’ve seen far more of the outer world than most folks have, but have seen so very little of our own Shire.”

            “Your Master truly loves your land and people, or so I understand it, even as my brother loved Gondor.  Both of them appear to have sought to know as much of their homelands as they could.  At least Master Frodo has the chance to continue to explore your country once he returns home.”

            “If’n he will,” Sam said in softer tones, then continued on more confidingly, “He’s getting’ better, no question of that.  But he’s that upset when he gets out of breath just walking the length of the way along the Sixth Circle from the Houses of Healin’ to the barracks at the north end.  We walked all the way from Bag End in Hobbiton to the Marish and he wasn’t nowhere as tired as the rest of us, for all of him teasin’ us as him’s so much older’n Pippin and me.  He’s gone east to Brandy Hall, a good forty miles each way, comin’ back with Merry and them plannin’ on goin’ to the Great Smial next.  And Mr. Merry’ll be complainin’ as how tired he is after walkin’ all that way from Buckland, and Mr. Frodo will be sayin’ as how soft as he’s gettin’.  And then, with Mr. Merry and young Pippin barely gone back home he’ll be growin’ restless again and be speakin’ of checkin’ out a different walk to Michel Delving or Westhall or Budgeford or somethin’ like.  Has kin down in the Southfarthing and north in Long Cleeve, and has seen most of them at least three times each in the last five years alone, usually goin’ on foot.  It’s hard on him, not bein’ able to walk less’n a mile on a smooth way now.”

            “I see,” Faramir said gently.  “Yes, I can appreciate it must be difficult for him.”

 *******

            An hour later he entered the archives for the White City, and found Frodo Baggins sitting at a low table provided for those children who would visit the place on occasion, deep in study of a volume Faramir recognized as being a history of the war between Angmar and Arnor as told by one of Eärnur’s aides.  It was one of the few documents the Man was aware of to be found in the collections that held what was said to be a valid description of Pheriannath, although most scholars tended to discount the reports he gave.  In most of the tales for children in which Halflings appeared they were depicted as magical, mischievous creatures who were often a bit foolish but usually sufficiently sly as to leave those intending to take advantage of them sitting in the dust, uncertain as to how their intended actions had managed to backfire upon them.  The aide had indicated that he’d been told that originally there were many Halflings in Arvedui’s army, but that by the time Eärnur’s armada arrived there were but four left, and that two of those died fighting trolls.  He also described going through what was said to be their land and having the Men of Arnor indicating that they were surrounded by the homes of the Pheriannath, but that he saw only low ridges and hills and ruined fields of vegetables and grain.  Never did he recognize villages or barns, although now and then he would see ancient ruins and standing stones indicating that Men had once dwelt there.  Where those who tended those fields might live he could not say.

            Faramir approached the table and pulled over to it a low stool.  “You find this volume interesting, Master Frodo?” he asked.

            The Hobbit looked up at him.  His cheeks were slightly flushed, which the Man had learned indicated that he was fascinated by what he’d been reading.  “Indeed, my lord.  The description the author gives of Bucca of the Marish is so similar to my Uncle Rory that I find myself picturing him standing before someone who resembles Aragorn, receiving the Sword.”

            “The Sword?”

            “Yes.  There aren’t many weapons within the Shire, you must understand, beyond slings and hand catapults and bows, and those are used almost exclusively for hunting or for chasing off animals and birds from our fields.  The King’s son is said to have given Bucca the Sword, and it hangs now in Brandy Hall in the office of the Master.  When I was a child that was my Uncle Rory, my mother’s older brother and Merry’s grandfather.  No one is allowed to touch it usually, although the Master always carries it when he is about one of his duties as one of the representatives of the King.  It’s carried when he officiates at weddings and funerals mostly.  And here the giving of the Sword is told, too.  So, that was witnessed by someone from Gondor!

            “In Long Cleeve the cradle for the children of the family head is said to have been made of a shield given to one of the Tooks by a soldier he led through the Shire to safety.  Having seen the shields used here, I’m now certain that it must have come from Gondor originally.  It has the White Tree upon it, you see.  And another shield, a round one, is used in the main kitchen of the Great Smial to cover the kettle in which soup for the main dining room is prepared.  It resembles one of the shields the Southrons your men ambushed in Ithilien carried.  And here it tells that there were Southrons who accompanied Angmar’s army.  Imagine traveling so far to fight in a war in a land you probably never heard of as a child!  And then to have your shield ending up used as a pot cover!”  Frodo shook his head.  “I wonder what Aunt Eglantine would say if I were to tell her that really is a shield in the kitchen?  She loves the story, but doesn’t really believe it, I fear.”

            As he returned to his quarters in the Citadel that night, Faramir found himself smiling to remember the interest and excitement Frodo Baggins had exhibited that day.  Perhaps he might not now feel up to searching out the new roads and secret gates of the Shire, but with his new knowledge of the outer world he had found perhaps roads and secret gates that few of his people had ever imagined existed.  “I believe,” the Man murmured to himself, “that the Ringbearer will always follow new roads and secret gates within his heart, and I pray he always knows the pleasure of discovery I saw in him today!”

            And that night he dreamed of his brother walking in company with the rest of the Fellowship, singing along with the Hobbits of many paths to tread.

For Febobe, Shelley, Arc5, and GamgeeFest for their birthdays.

Recovering from a Winter’s Dip

 

This tale takes place while Frodo, newly a tween, still lives in Brandy Hall, a year before Bilbo decides to take him to Bag End as his ward.  The circumstances of the November flooding are told in the tale "Second Mum," to be found on the Stories of Arda, Henneth Annun Story Archive, FanFiction.net, Many Paths to Tread, and Tolkien FanFiction archive sites.

            “Frodo?”

            The young Baggins cracked his eye open to find his little cousin Merry standing by his cot.  “What are you doing here in the infirmary, Merry mine?” he whispered.

            “I came to see if you were beginning to feel better, and to bring you a sugar biscuit.  I saved it from dinner.”  He held out his offering for Frodo to take.

            Frodo swallowed and noted how raw his throat still felt.  “No, thank you,” he murmured.  “Oh, I am feeling better, yes, but I couldn’t eat biscuits yet.  The crumbs would hurt my throat.  You eat it for me, and tell me how good it is.”

            Merry brought the treasured cookie back to his chest.  “I had three so far,” he admitted.  “They are very good—Willow makes excellent sugar biscuits, you know.  And she flavored them with spearmint this time.”

            Frodo sighed.  He loved it when Willow flavored her sugar biscuits with spearmint!  He felt deprived.

            Merry saw the disappointment in his beloved older cousin’s face.  “Would you like some tea with mint?  Mummy was making some, and I can make sure it has plenty of honey in it.”

            Frodo gave him a pleased smile.  “Yes, please,” he said raspily.  “That would taste wonderful, and hopefully will help my throat feel better, too.”

            Merry hurried off, but barely had the door closed after him before Cousin Gomez’s parents came in, bringing Frodo a cup of soup made from butternut squash, one of Marguerite’s specialties.  Considering how Marguerite Sackville Brandybuck had always looked down on Frodo since his parents’ deaths, this was a pleasant change in attitude to contemplate as Frodo sat up to sip at the gift, finding warmth in his heart at the change Gomez’s mother had known since Frodo had plunged into the Withywindle to save her son.  He couldn’t manage the full cup of soup as his throat was still too sore, but he could tell her honestly that he found it very good and hoped to enjoy more once he was feeling better.

            Then it was young Boridoc, one of Gomez’s best friends, who came in with some chestnuts that had been roasted in butter and rolled in salt.  Ordinarily Frodo would have loved to have these, but his one attempt to eat one had his throat burning and Frodo coughing terribly.  At this Beldir, one of the Brandy Hall healers, came in and did his best both to reassure Bori that he’d done nothing wrong but also to let him know that there were certain foods that one did not offer to someone whose throat was as sore as was Frodo’s.

            The young Baggins lay back in his bed and tried to fall back to sleep, only to have his rest disturbed again when Cousin Lavender came in with some pastilles from Sweetwater’s shop in Bucklebury to give him, and a vase of dried lavender sprays to set on the table by his pillow.  After her arrived Brendi and Merilinde, who brought him a book to read and a bottle of ginger beer to enjoy, and then a group of smaller children with a plate of crumbly oatmeal scones and a pot of raspberry jam to spread on them, demanding that he tell them a story.  Beldir soon had these sent on their way as well, disappointed for the moment but filled with the hope that within the next week Frodo would be able to spend a good hour or so fulfilling their own hunger for tales.

            When Merry returned with his mother and a pot of mint tea with plenty of honey, Beldir threw up his hands.  “This lad is never going to properly rest to recover from his chill and the subsequent sore throat if he’s not given some respite from this constant stream of visitors!” he declared.  “And I can’t spend all my time guarding the door to the infirmary to protect him, what with all of those who were hurt or who’ve become ill in the wake of the storms and flooding Buckland has just experienced!”

            Esmeralda examined Frodo’s face.  His cheeks at least had some color to them again.  She remembered how grey he’d looked when they brought him back from the old bothie where he, Gomez, and Dinodas had taken shelter after Frodo had rescued Gomez from the flooded Withywindle.  But there was no question that Frodo appeared rather tired, and that sore throat of his didn’t appear to be getting any better with all the visitors he was reported to be receiving in the past two days.  “I think,” she said thoughtfully, “that he might do better if we took him back to his own room in the Son’s quarters.  It would be a good deal easier to allow him to rest with Sara and me screening his would-be well-wishers and accepting gifts to him on his behalf.”

            Beldir’s expression cleared.  “Would you really?” he asked.  “Yes, I suspect that this is precisely what the lad needs!  Being the hero of the moment is well enough, I suppose, but not when the notoriety doesn’t allow him sufficient rest to recover his proper strength once more.  I’ll go find Markos, and we’ll see about getting him moved back to your quarters and his own bed.  I suspect he’ll feel most comfortable there anyway.”

            He was right, Frodo realized an hour later as he sipped at his cooled cup of mint tea and lay back against his own pillow, able to see the glass shelves in the window that held his collected treasures and the familiar gleam of candlelight reflected from the handle of his wardrobe that his father had carved with images of wizards and dragons for him.  His own bed, only a few visitors to disturb his rest, and privacy so he could read that book lent him by Brendi and Merilinde in peace, once he awoke again.  And he knew that Merry would be waiting on him hand and foot, and Aunt Esme had confided that Bilbo had sent word he was on his way from the Westfarthing.

            As he yawned and rolled onto his side, Frodo Baggins had to admit this was indeed precisely how he wished to spend his time recovering from his November dip into the Withywindle.  Now, if his throat would only just stop aching.  Certainly the mint tea with honey was helping that.  And as he drifted back off to sleep he was smiling softly, glad for the comfort of his own bed.

For ChickLovesLOTR and Tracey Claybon for their birthdays.

First Fruits

            “No, hands out of there!”  Merry’s warning was accompanied by a soft slap to the back of Pippin’s hand as he paused with it over the contents of the basket on the kitchen dresser.

            Pippin, as affronted as only a Hobbit lad of twelve years could be, glared at his older cousin.  “But the berries and apples look so good!”

            “I know, but nobody is to eat any of those Frodo puts in that basket.  It’s for the First Fruits.  You want berries, you get them out of the bowl in the cool room—same with apples.  Those in the basket are to be left alone.”

            The young Took couldn’t see what made the apples or berries or other fruit or vegetables in that basket so special, but he had a feeling he’d best not push the matter any further.  He examined the basket critically.  “That basket is a bit lopsided, you ask me.”

            “I know.  Cousin Lavender made it—the first one she ever did all on her own, and she gave it to Frodo years ago, back before I was born.”

            “Lavender Brandybuck?  But she’s married!  Why would she give a basket to Frodo?”

            “He used to be sweet on her, back when the two of them were younger.  And she wasn’t married then—she was just a lass, just as he was just a lad, and about the same age you are now.”

            It was odd to think of Frodo being just a lad much like Pippin was now.  He’d always been almost grown up in the youngster’s experience.  And it was odder to think of him being sweet on anyone other than Pippin’s oldest sister Pearl, up to a few years ago, at least.

            “And what’s this First Fruits business?” asked Pippin.

            Merry shrugged.  “It’s just something Frodo does, like him making those odd snow figures at the first snowfall, or him skipping on his right foot after he steps off a bridge, or him making certain to pick up every pin or penny he sees upon the ground for good luck.  He’s done it since I was a little one is all I know.  Goes back to some story or other Bilbo told him or that he read in one of the Elvish books Bilbo translated.  He liked the idea of it, so he does it to please himself.”

            “But what does he do with them?”

            “He takes them up on top of the smial and spreads them out on the ground.”

            “Why?”

            Apparently flustered by so many questions he couldn’t easily explain, Merry answered, “How would I know why, Pip?  It’s just something he does!  He used to do it at Brandy Hall, too, and he’s always taken them out in that basket since Lavender gave it to him.  My Gammer Menegilda used to shake her head about him wasting perfectly good berries and apples and pears and such, but it never stopped him.  Sometimes Frodo gets odd ideas, is all.”

            It was a good deal because Frodo didn’t do things just the same way other Hobbits did that Pippin admired his older Baggins cousin so much.  Both Auntie Jade, his da’s older sister, and Cousin Lalia referred to Frodo as deep, although it was obvious that when Lalia said it she didn’t find it an admirable trait as did Auntie Jade.  Pippin had come to the conclusion that this meant that Frodo tended to think things over more than did most Hobbits, and he certainly couldn’t see that this meant anything other than that no one could quite figure out what all Frodo might be thinking of at any time.  Certainly that would be more than enough to make Cousin Lalia suspicious, of course!

            But he decided that he was going to question his older cousin on the subject of First Fruits as soon as Frodo got back from his cousin Daisy’s house, where he’d been called to consult on some Baggins business or other.

 *******

            “First Fruits?”

            Pippin could tell that Frodo was stalling, trying either to think what to say, or how to say it.  His face had gone a bit pale, and his cheeks were brighter than normal. 

            Frodo sighed, glanced over guiltily at Merry, to whom he’d never explained his small ritual, either, and shook his head.  “How can I really explain the rite of First Fruits?”

            “Is it an Elvish custom that’s described in one of Bilbo’s books from Rivendell?” asked Merry, who found himself as curious as any Took by this time.

            Frodo’s cheeks grew even redder.  “Actually, it’s not an Elvish custom at all—it was a Mannish one.”

            “Was?”  Merry caught on that word.  “Do Men quit doing some customs after a while?”

            “Well, it was practiced by one particular group of Men, only they practiced it on a mountain that isn’t there any more.”

            Pippin’s ears twitched with interest.  “How can a mountain not be there any more?” he asked.

            Frodo shook his head.  “It was on an island, and long ago the Sea washed over the island and it’s not there any more, so Mount Meneltarma isn’t there any more, either.  Mount Meneltarma was at the center of the island, you see, and was the highest place anyone could go.  From the top of it the people of the island could see where the Powers live, and so they considered the mountain to be a special place.  Every year at the harvest, the first fruits were gathered and brought there, and presented to the Powers by their King, who was the only one allowed to speak there.”

            “What are the Powers?” asked Pippin.

            Frodo looked up at the ceiling, rather helplessly, Pippin thought.  “They helped sing the world into being, or so Bilbo tried to explain it to me.”

            Pippin exchanged a surprised look with Merry.  Returning his gaze to their older cousin, he demanded, “How do you sing a world into being?  When I sing, I can’t make anything like that happen! ”

            Frodo gave a wry smile.  “Neither can I, but then neither of us is one of the Powers.  The Powers are the helpers for the Creator.”

            “Who’s the Creator?”

            “The Elves and some Men believe that the world was created by the Creator, but that the Powers helped Him make it by singing special magic songs He taught them.  After the world was finished, the Creator then made the Children to live on it, Elves, Men, Hobbits, and so on.”

            “Dwarves, too?”

            “Well, that’s a special case.  One of the Powers made the Dwarves, but the Creator accepted them as his Children, too, and so they were allowed to live as do Elves, Men, and Hobbits.”

            “But I’m my da and mummy’s child.”

            Frodo gave a rather strained laugh.  “And I’m Drogo and Primula’s son, although I think I belong just as much to Bilbo and Merry’s parents as I do to my own mum and dad by this time in my life.  But we wouldn’t be here at all, the Elves and some Men believe, if the Creator hadn’t wanted for there to be creatures who could love the world as much as He does and who could rejoice in it as He does.  The Elves say that we who can use speech are all the Creator’s Children, and they call him Ilúvatar, which means Father of All.”

            “Oh!”  Pippin felt impressed.  “I see!”

            “I hope so, for you’re making me feel a bit muddled with all your questions.  Anyway, a long time ago some Men were allowed to live on this island where they could see the Undying Lands where most of the Elves in the world live and where the Powers live with their servants, and their King was the one who each year would say thank you to the Powers for them all for the wonderful island they lived on.  And the first fruits that were harvested were brought there and offered to the Powers and the Creator.”

            Pippin asked, “Did the Powers come in a big boat to have supper with them or something like that?”  He tried to imagine what that might have been like.

            Frodo shook his head, his expression rather rueful.  “No, they didn’t, or at least I don’t think so.  The Powers and the Creator don’t really need that food, you see.  So I suspect that the animals that lived on the island and the birds that flew over the top of the mountain really ate what the people brought up there.  It was mostly just a way for the people who lived there to feel that they were thanking the Powers and Creator for the wonderful things they had and for how happy they could be, I think.  And, after all, the birds and animals are as much creatures of the Creator as we who can talk are.  So, why shouldn’t they have as much reason as we do to feel happy about the first fruits from our harvests?  It’s a way of sharing how happy we are with other creatures.”

            “So you try to copy them,” Merry suggested.

            “Yes, I have since about a year after my parents died, when I first found the story about the King offering the First Fruits in one of the books Uncle Bilbo gave me for our birthday that year.  I asked him about it, and he explained it as well as he could the way I’ve just told you.”

            “Why didn’t you explain it to me when I was smaller?” Merry asked.

            Frodo shrugged, folding his arms and plopping down in his chair, the one that used to be Bilbo’s before he went away.  “I did try to explain the second year I did it, which was when Cousin Lavender made me that basket.  She thought it sounded very noble, and wanted to make something special for me to bring my First Fruits up to the top of Brandy Hall over the Master’s parlor where I scattered them.  But Cousin Gomez saw her with the basket and made her tell him why she was giving it to me.  She couldn’t explain it right, so he started teasing her, and then he taunted me when I got there.  I tried to explain, but he wasn’t listening, just getting more and more obnoxious.  He took the basket and threw it out a window, and he and his friends hit me and pinched Lavender and then ran away laughing.  She went out on the night I took the First Fruits up on top of the Smial, but after we left they came up there and ate it all.  The next day they bragged about it, until I said, really loudly, to Lavender, ‘See, I told you that the beasts would eat it, didn’t I?’  They got all mad, but Cousin Merimas came by right then and they just left.  They forgot all about it by the next year, although Lavender didn’t.  But she was now embarrassed to think that she’d taken part in something so odd, so she never went up with me after that.  And I realized that I wasn’t really in love with her the way I’d thought I was after all.”

            Merry gave Pippin a sideways glance.  “See, I told you that he was sweet on her once!”

            “Well, I certainly thought I was at the time,” Frodo admitted.  “But after that I didn’t feel right trying to explain it to anyone I thought wasn’t likely to understand, or to anyone who might try to explain it on to others who would most likely make fun of it.  It’s not that I thought you’d make fun of it, Merry, just that I didn’t want Gomez to be reminded of it.  And you just accepted that this was something that made me feel good, and I was very glad that you’d go out with me and not say anything to anyone else.”

            Pippin was glad to see Frodo giving Merry that special smile of his, as he could tell that Merry was beaming to receive it.  He said, “So, can we go up with you when you take up the basket?”

            “Yes, if you want to.  Sam’s going to come, too, you see.”

            “You told Sam about it, but not me?” demanded Merry.

            Again Frodo shrugged.  “Well, he wasn’t going to tell Gomez about it, was he?  Nor is he likely to try to explain to the likes of Lotho or Ted Sandyman, for he knows they are both as thickheaded as a support beam.  But he read that story while he was studying with Bilbo, and asked him a lot of questions about it, and was impressed when I admitted I took First Fruits up on top of the Hill in remembrance of what the King of the island used to do.  So he’s gone up with me every year since.”

            “I bet the Gaffer doesn’t know what to think about it, wasting good food,” Merry said.

            “Well, we don’t tell him about it.  He considers me an odd creature, the Gaffer does, but accepts that it’s my privilege as the Young Master to do as I please, and even respects me the more for my odd ways, I think.  He’s rather pleased that Bilbo and I have always left most Hobbits scratching their heads, you see.  Even if he’s never completely understood us, at least he knows it is nothing to be ashamed of to think differently.”

            “So, we’ll go up on top of the Hill and spread the fruits and leave again?” Pippin asked.

            “Well,” Frodo said slowly, “I tend to sleep out after I spread them, there on top of the Hill, letting the creatures who come to get the food know I trust them to take what’s offered and will allow them to enjoy it in peace.”

            “Is it all gone in the morning?”

            Frodo smiled again.  “Most of it usually is.  Want to sleep out with me, then?  If you do, you’d best get your bedroll ready.  The Moon’s full tonight, so it should be beautiful up there!”

 *******

            Shortly before sunset there was a knock at the door, and Sam poked his head into the kitchen.  “You about ready, Mr. Frodo, sir?” he asked.  “Got my barrow ready, you see.  Got a few nice taters an’ turnips in it, and a good-sized squash, too.  And the prettiest blossoms from the garden.”

            “Come in, Sam, and share some of our late supper with us.  Then we’ll go up when the Moon is higher.  I’d rather hoped that Freddy and Folco might come, but they are taking part in a pageant in Budgeford, so they couldn’t be here tonight.”

            “What does the Gaffer think of you taking such things as root vegetables and squashes and all?” asked Merry.

            “Thinks as we’re a-havin’ a bit of a party under the full Moon,” Sam answered.  “And I’m not goin’ t’try to put him right on it, if you take my meanin’.  After all, it is a kind of party, only we’re not the ones as is goin’ t’eat it all.”

            “Do we have to keep quiet once we’re up there?” Pippin asked.  “You said that only the King was allowed to speak, there on the mountain.”

            “Well, that was on Mount Meneltarma, not the Hill.  It’s just that the Hill is the highest place in the whole of the Shire, so it only makes sense that we should take it up there.  But if you’d keep quiet at first, until we’re ready to lie down and sleep under the stars and Moon, that would make it more special, perhaps.”

            Within an hour the four of them went out the back door and around to the north side of the Hill and began the climb to its crown.  Pippin carefully kept quiet during the climb, carrying his pillow in his arms, the rest of his bedroll in Sam’s barrow with the rest.  Frodo led the way, carrying his basket, with Sam at the end of the procession pushing his barrow.  Just before they crossed into the shadow of the roof tree he stopped Frodo with a hand to the older Hobbit’s shoulder, and wordlessly he brought out of the barrow a wreath woven of leaves and chrysanthemums and solemnly crowned Frodo with it.  Frodo appeared surprised, then rewarded the gardener with one of his brilliant smiles before turning again to lead the way past the old oak to where the four of them could stand directly under the full Moon.  With a gesture he indicated they should stand in a line facing west.  After a period of quiet Frodo stepped forward, holding out his basket.  “We know not,” he said quietly, “what the King of the Star Isle said when he brought the First Fruits to the top of Mount Meneltarma.  We know that we aren’t the people of the island, and this is no mountain, and that it isn’t a particularly sacred place.  But like them, we are glad for the fruits of the earth, and wish to give thanks for the blessings we have received in the past year.  And we wish to share with the other creatures of the Shire at least a portion of what we’ve harvested, the First Fruits of this year.

            “Thank you, and may all be grateful for the joy and fulfillment we know.”

            At that he began to sing a harvest song, and the others joined him in it.  He turned and scattered the contents of his basket in a circle near where he stood, and the others helped Sam bring out his offerings, which included early nuts and seeds as well as a number of early pears, rose hips, and tomatoes besides the vegetables he’d mentioned, and even a small sheaf each of wheat and barley as well as ears of corn, and then a number of flowers.

            Sam and Merry began rolling out the rugs they’d brought up with their bedrolls, laying them side by side well clear of the offerings of food they’d brought.  Soon they were seated together on the rugs, their blankets wrapped about their shoulders, and Frodo shared out bars made of sunflower nuts mixed with honey and strawberries, and while the others ate he told them the story of the rising of the Moon and the Sun, and how Tilion ever pursued the bright bark of Arien, the one woman he’d ever loved.  At last they lay down side-by-side, little Pippin pressed up against Frodo’s right and Sam to the left, with Merry protecting Pippin’s right side, their blankets piled over them to keep out the night’s dew.

            Pippin was soon deeply asleep, followed almost immediately by Sam, and then Merry, and at last Frodo himself, his wreath still on his head, although definitely askew.

 *******

            Atop Taniquetl, Manwë looked out toward Middle Earth through Varda’s window, seeing a group of four small forms lying together in sleep beneath the light of a full Moon.  He was bemused to see nearby foodstuffs lying purposefully upon the hilltop where they slept, and noted that a number of small creatures had ventured forth to eat the berries, seeds, and fruits that were spread for them.

            And what is this, Atto? he asked.

            It seems that there remain some who would be faithful to the old ways, who would offer the First Fruits in thanksgiving for blessings known, came the answer.

            But these are not even Men, much less those of the Dúnedain.

            True, but they would be faithful nonetheless, and I will bless them for their pure hearts and the love they show for the land and people that nurture them as well as for their love of one another.  For these in their way will offer themselves as First Fruits when the season is right for it.  Take note of them, my son, for through them shall my Love be made manifest.

            And others were shown to the Elder King—a young Dwarf standing on watch outside the gates of Erebor; a young Elven Prince with his bow and a quiver of arrows upon his shoulder, singing softly as he looked up at the Moon from the eaves of Mirkwood; the Chieftain of the northern Dúnedain as he sat near a campfire, accepting a mug of broth from his kinsman; the two sons of the Steward of Gondor seated upon the mountainside of Mindolluin, pointing out to one another the constellations that could be discerned beyond the Moon’s brilliance; and what appeared to be an old Man, stretched out, wrapped in his grey cloak, in the wilderness of Eriador.

            Behold my chosen ones, and take note of them.  Let each of them know peace, at least for this night.

 *

            And these each knew fair dreams—for a time.

Snubbed

            The formal dinner was marred for Frodo Baggins by excessive attention from one particular Man, a minor lord from a region of Gondor that produced primarily pigs, or so the Man had taken great pains to explain—at extreme length, as it proved.  Frodo had tried several times to drift away, but it was as if there were an invisible cord that appeared to drag the minor lord behind in his wake, and as soon as Frodo began to listen to another discussion going on within the banquet room, the Man would tap Frodo on the head and begin again, pausing only to sip frequently from his wine goblet, which he’d had refilled each time a servant passed with a ewer of refreshments.

            “Frodo does not appear to be enjoying himself at all,” Pippin remarked to Merry.

            “No, he certainly doesn’t.  First, he’s made to dress up as a prince of the realm, and then he can’t seem to shake that big piece of baggage for love nor money,” Merry observed.

            Sam, who’d been following discreetly after Frodo to make certain that a plate of cheeses, vegetables, and fruits were always at hand for his Master, came over with a thunderous expression on his usually pleasant face.  “Fool’s been drinkin’ far more’n’s quite good for him,” he muttered privately to the Ringbearer’s cousins with a backwards thrust of his head toward the offending Man.  “Is beginnin’ to say things as perhaps ain’t quite proper for such a formal party.”

            The three turned to look at Frodo.  The Baggins’s face was growing pale, save for a small spot on each cheek, which was flaming.  “May be time to interfere on Frodo’s behalf,” Merry decided, and led the way toward the twosome.

            As they arrived near enough to hear the conversation, the Man was leaning over Frodo, saying something he’d intended to be private, then elbowing the Hobbit in the ear.  “But, then, we’re both men of the world, friend Frodo,” the minor Lord said as he straightened once more.

            Rubbing at his ear, Frodo straightened up, his eyes flashing as they usually did only when he was faced with some insulting foolishness spouted out by one of his indiscreet S-B relatives.  Even this minor lord, thickheaded as he’d proved, paused, suddenly uncertain.  “To be precise, I am not a Man at all, whether of the world or just of the Shire,” the family head for the Bagginses said, his voice cold enough to cause frost to form on a glass tumbler.  “And I would prefer that you address me by my formal title.  I wish you a good evening, my lord.”  With that he turned away in a manner that not even this fool could mistake for anything besides dismissal, going toward where a number of Men were gathered about the King, a company this minor lord could not hope to be accepted among.

            The Man turned helplessly toward Merry, whose face was now alight with amusement.  “But I was told he does not answer to his formal title.”

            Merry was plainly struggling to keep from laughing aloud.  “He doesn’t.”  With that, he led his two companions after Frodo, leaving the pig-lord gaping after them in obvious—and fruitless—distress.

For The Birthday and for PearlTook for hers.

Enlightenment

            “You’d best run, or old Mad Baggins will get you!” roared Piper Took as he chased some younger fry, shrieking and laughing, down a main passageway in the Great Smial.  “There will be a great flash and a bang, and you will be no more!”

            Peregrin Took stuck his head out of his study door, flushing with fury.  That his own nephew should say such things was intolerable.  He stepped out of the room and stuck out his unusually long (for a Hobbit, that is), leg to trip up the tween as he went by, and Piper obligingly fell sprawling upon the carpet runner, startled to find himself no longer upright.

            Piper struggled to his hands and knees, and looked over his shoulder at his mother’s brother, hurt in his eyes.  “What in Middle Earth did you do that for?” he demanded as he straightened up.

            “What in Middle Earth are you doing, continuing that foolishness about Mad Baggins?” the Thain of the Shire demanded back.

            “But it’s just a story…” the youth began, but Pippin was having none of it.

            “You never knew Cousin Bilbo, but I did,” he said.  “Contrary to what dear Rosamunda might have told you, Bilbo Baggins was anything but mad.  Indeed, on his return from his adventure he proved himself to be particularly intelligent, sagacious, and wise—far too wise for the likes of most Hobbits, sad to say.  Did he at times act in an eccentric manner?  Yes, he did, but only because he’d learned the folly of mistaking predictability for respectability.  He realized that sometimes doing the unexpected is exactly the right thing to do, and bother what other people think.  Can you not imagine how much worse the world might have turned out had he not gone off with thirteen Dwarves, a Wizard, and a string of ponies on an adventure and found a certain gold Ring?”  He shook his head.  “He took the Ring and held It in his care, never using It to try to get one over on others without need, and when the time came he surrendered It to Frodo, who was exactly the one who was right to see It to where It could be properly destroyed.”

            “But, he told stories about tricking a dragon!”

            “Yes.  So?”

            “But there aren’t any dragons—you said so yourself!”

            “There aren’t any that I know of, at least, although some traders in Gondor speak of there being friendly ones in the far eastern lands, dragons who are considered a blessing to know, unlike those Morgoth and Sauron used to terrorize the West.  But the main reason there aren’t any evil dragons left in the lands of the Free Peoples is because your Cousin Bilbo helped see to the death of the last one.  And, no, it’s not just a story.  It happened.  Gandalf himself confirmed it for me, as did Glóin and Gimli, and Elrond of Rivendell.”

            The younger children, on finding their pursuer no longer chased them, had begun to creep back to find out what the problem was between Piper and the Thain.  “Who is Elrond of Rivendell?” asked one small lad.

            “He was Elrond Half-Elven, the founder and lord of Rivendell, the Elven land that lay hidden at the feet of the Misty Mountains on this side of them.  Piper can tell you of it, perhaps, for he did go there with us when he was a child.  Although Master Elrond is no longer here in Middle Earth.”

            “Did he grow old and die?” asked a lass.

            “Grow old and die?  Oh, dear, no.  Elves don’t grow old and die, and he was the brother who chose the life of an Elf rather than that of a Man as had his twin.  No, he chose to sail West years ago to be with his parents and paternal grandparents and their families again—and his wife, too, of course.  He’s gone to Elvenhome with the rest of the Ringbearers, and can’t return again, any more than the others can.  There are rules, you know, that govern what those who sail West can do afterwards.”

            “Why did he sail West?” asked the lad.

            “Because the time for Elves within Middle Earth is almost finished, at least for the Great Elves, that is.  Wood Elves might linger for ages yet, but almost all of those of the Noldor and the Sea Elves have gone by now, or will once our Lord King Elessar is gone.  Now, he will grow old and die, although I pray that doesn’t happen until years after your Uncles Sam and Merry and I are gone.  Middle Earth still needs him, you see.”

            “But Aunt Rosamunda says that there aren’t really Elves any more,” the lad persisted.

            “The one time Rosamunda Took Bolger ever saw Elves was at the first Free Fair after we returned from the war, and those weren’t full Elves.  Those were Master Elrond’s twin sons, Elladan and Elrohir, the brothers of our Lady Queen Arwen.  They’ve been allowed to remain in Middle Earth now as long as they wish, and they’ve told me that they intend to do so at least for as long as their younger sister remains.  She chose, as did the Lady Lúthien and Elrond’s brother Elros, to become a mortal and to live and die as do Men, Hobbits, and Dwarves.  She can’t sail West now, since she chose Mortality so that she could cleave to her beloved and become his wife and our Queen.  We’re blessed to have her, you see.  But there are still Elves within the Mortal Lands—nowhere as many as there once were, but some.  There will be Elves living in Mithlond for quite some time yet, until the Last Ship sails.  And Legolas has indicated he will remain in Middle Earth at least until Aragorn finally dies, in spite of the Sea Longing he suffers from.  As for Legolas’s people, well, I don’t know for certain if most of them will stay or go in the end.  Most of them are Silvan Elves whose people never thought to go to the Undying Lands.  Some of their greater lords and ladies do have some Sindar and even Noldor blood in them, and may find the Sea calling them home, too.  But I suspect that Legolas’s father Thranduil may choose to remain stubbornly in Middle Earth for as long as he can get away with it.”

            “But what about the Mad Bagginses?” asked the lad.

            Pippin’s temper began to rise, and he held it in check as well as he could.  “What Mad Bagginses?” he asked, his tone a bit chilly in spite of himself.

            “Aunt Rosamunda says that the Bagginses were all mad,” the child said.

            “And your Aunt Rosamunda is a closed-minded fool,” Pippin returned.  “She never forgave Bilbo for using the Ring at the Party to disappear and startle the whole family as he did, although the flash and the bang that happened weren’t actually due to him—Gandalf was the one who decided to make things appear more—well, magical by setting off a firework just as Bilbo put the Ring on his finger and went invisible.  He told us that while we were in Gondor after Frodo and Sam woke up in Ithilien.”

            “Who is Frodo?” asked another child.

            Pippin’s voice softened.  “Our Cousin Frodo Baggins was the greatest Hobbit that ever lived, in my estimation, at least.  The last of the Bagginses of Bag End.”

            “But there aren’t any Bagginses in Bag End,” insisted an older lad.  “Mayor Sam lives in Bag End with his family.”

            Piper spoke up unexpectedly.  “That’s only because Cousin Frodo adopted him as his brother and heir,” he explained.  “I remember Cousin Frodo.  He was—well, he was wonderful!”

            “That’s not what Aunt Rosamunda says,” muttered the younger lad.  “She said that the Time of Troubles was all due to him.”

            Piper’s father, who’d come down the way during this conversation, interrupted.  “My aunt has said that, has she?”  Ferdibrand sighed, shaking his head.  “She has been wrong-headed about Frodo for years.  Always tried to blame him for what happened to her family during the Time of Troubles.  They got expelled from Budge Hall by Lotho’s people and had to live in a converted storage hole; their daughter Estella had to go into hiding here in the Tooklands, pretending to be a lad; and Fatty was frightened nearly to death by the Black Riders before he went for a rebel and ended up in the Lockholes as I did.”

            “But he didn’t go blind as you did,” said the older lad.

            “No, he didn’t.  But his health isn’t exactly the best in Middle Earth because of what they did to him.”

            “And it isn’t Cousin Frodo’s fault?” asked an older lass.

            “Certainly not!” Ferdi answered.  “It’s all the fault of Lotho and Sharkey and their Big Men.  Frodo had nothing to do with it at all.  He wasn’t even here in the Shire at the time.  In fact, Frodo led those who rescued us all, once he got back home again.”

            “Then why does Aunt Rosamunda blame him, then?” demanded the older lad.

            “Because she’s certain that Frodo should have realized that Lotho was already trying to take over the Shire even before Frodo left.  Lotho always figured Frodo would leave the Shire one day just the same as Bilbo had, so he wrote some bad clauses into his loan agreements and lease agreements that took other people’s houses and businesses if he ever did so.  Ask Cousin Isumbard about it, or Everard, or Hillie.  They can tell you all about it, for they helped Frodo set things straight again once he was deputy Mayor.”

            “But Sam Gamgee is Mayor!” objected one of the lads.

            “Old Flour-dumpling, Will Whitfoot, was Mayor then, and Lotho had him thrown into the Lockholes, too,” Pippin said.  “Sam only became Mayor after Frodo left the Shire, at the next election, after he became Master of Bag End and the Hill.”

            “Did Cousin Frodo die?” asked the little lass.

            Ferdi smiled.  “I don’t think he’s dead,” he answered her.  “He was allowed to sail with the other Ringbearers and go West to Elvenhome, with Lord Elrond and Lady Galadriel and Gandalf and Bilbo.  We are blessed to have two of our kinsmen allowed to go there, and no one deserves it better than they do.  The Shire wouldn’t be the beloved place it is if they hadn’t proved as wise and true as they did.  And if Frodo hadn’t shown such startling responsibility and endurance, the chances are that the whole world would now be in shadow.  Be grateful to know that you have such a one as your cousin, Primula.  Why, you were even named for his mother.  Did you know that?”

            “When will they come back?” she asked.

            Pippin answered, “They can’t.  I told you—there are rules, and those who sail to Elvenhome can’t come back again to Middle Earth.  That was why Sam was able to inherit Bag End in spite of Frodo still being alive—Frodo can’t return here again, no matter how much he might wish to or we might wish him to do so.  So Sam was able to become the Master of the Hill in his place.”

            He straightened to his full height.  “I will tell you what—this evening after supper I will be in the first Sun Room, and whoever wishes to do so can come there and hear me read the real story from the Red Book.  I’ll read a portion of it every night until we are finished, and when we’re done, then you can tell me if you think Bilbo was really mad or if Frodo was to blame for what happened when Lotho took over.  Is that agreeable with all of you?”

            “What if you have to be away and can’t read for a night or two—or more?” asked the older lad.

            Pippin smiled sideways at Piper.  “Then my beloved nephew here will read instead of me,” he decided.  “And if you can’t hear the story for a few nights, you can always read it for yourself when you have the chance.  Our copy of the Red Book isn’t going anywhere, after all.”  He gave them all a stern look.  “But one thing—there’s not to be any more talk of Mad Baggins around here ever again—not where those of us who knew and loved Frodo and Bilbo can hear of it.  Understand?”

            With that the children indicated they accepted the offer and the agreement, and all dispersed except for Piper and Ferdibrand, who remained with Pippin.  “You’ve heard a good part of the story,” the Thain said to Piper.  “Now it’s time you learned the whole of it.  And who knows—you might learn something about Sam, Merry and me as well that just might surprise you.  Acceptable?”

            “Yes,” Piper agreed.

            Ferdibrand clapped him on the shoulder.  “Good, son.  I’m looking forward to hearing it all in order, so I’ll be there with the children to hear each evening as well.  How I miss being able to read a book for myself!  Now, if you will come with me, your mother wants you to try on your new outfit we had made for the wedding next week.  Come along, then—lead me back to our quarters.”  And with his hand still on his son’s shoulder, the two of them headed back to their apartment, and Pippin found himself smiling after them.

For Virtuella and Illereyn for their birthdays, and for Thanksgiving.

The Wedding Invitation

            Frodo and Gandalf were walking back from one of the smaller markets in the Fourth Circle toward the gate to the Fifth Circle when a voice called out behind them.  “Lord Frodo!  Please—wait!”

            Frodo stopped, shuddering at the sound of the title, one that continued to leave him feeling somehow unnatural.  Gandalf looked down at him with concern, allowing one hand to touch the Hobbit’s shoulder.  “What is it, my friend?” the Wizard asked.

            “Someone is calling out to me,” Frodo murmured.  He took a deep breath, and turned reluctantly.  A young Man and a woman were coming toward him, the Man on crutches, one leg missing below the knee, a hat askew upon his head not fully hiding the scar where the slash of an enemy sword had removed his left ear.  The woman was young—quite young, and very pretty, her right hand upon her escort’s back, her face somewhat anxious and protective.  Something in that expression made the Hobbit reluctant to take the young Man to task for the use of the unwanted title.  For he was quite young, Frodo realized, young and rather excited.  Instead, Frodo held himself respectfully still, watching the two approach.

            “We thought at first we saw a child,” the young woman said, letting her hand fall and giving but a half a curtsy before she stepped closer.  “But then Derunol told me, no, it was not child but one of the Pheriannath.  He said that he’d come to recognize the Pheriannath in the camp at Cormallen, and that one of them had befriended him while he recovered in the healers’ tents.  I’d told him I wanted to thank you, to thank you all, for saving him for me, and for giving him hope when he lay in the tents thinking that he would have no life, what with losing his leg and an ear, thinking I would not want him back again.  And he said that you would come through the tents with the King, and all rejoiced to see you come, for doing so gave them heart to live again, and hope for the future.

            “I understand that you, too, were badly wounded, and far closer to dying than was my Derunol, to the point some despaired of you waking yet again.  I rejoice that you did so, so that we could thank you.  Had you not succeeded in making it all of the way to the Mountain when you did I understand that it is likely my Derunol would not have come back to me.  So, I thank you, and ask that you bear my thanks also to your kinsman Meriadoc who comforted my beloved in the healers’ tents.  Thank you for your faithfulness and for your endurance, that you made it possible for the Enemy of us all to be finally brought down completely.  And I ask that you bear my thanks to your esquire, also, who it is said accompanied you all of the way through Mordor.  I do not know what I would have done, should I have lost my beloved either to his wounds or to despair.”

            She leaned down and kissed the top of his head, and Frodo felt his cheeks burn with both embarrassment and an unexpected pleasure.  “I thank you, mistress,” he managed.  “But I feel you perhaps think more highly of us than we deserve.  We only did what was needed, you know.”

            She laughed rather breathlessly, touching his cheek gently.  “And what was needful was that you reached the Mountain before all who fought the forces of Mordor were lost, and that you did!  And you allowed me to find my love again, and to know that he also helped protect us all.  We all bless you for it, Lord Frodo!  And we—well, Derunol and I wished to ask if you and your companions would honor us by attending our wedding next week?  We’ve been betrothed for a year, you see….”  Her cheeks were pink with her own presumption, and Frodo felt himself warming to the two of them in spite of himself.

            At last she was done, her eyes bright because Frodo had promised for himself and for the other Hobbits to come to an inn in the Fourth Circle where the wedding was to be held on the Treesday next, and with another fumbled curtsy and as awkward bow from her intended the couple turned away, her arm once more possessively across her beloved’s back.

            “Well, that was interesting,” Gandalf mused, watching after them with approval.  “I remember seeing him in the camp at Cormallen as they taught him to use crutches, watching after the one for whom so many worked to give him that wheeled chair you thought of.  I never thought I should give much thanks for the example of Lalia Took, but I did on that day.”

            Frodo noted, “At least she had both legs on which she could stand, even if walking more than a step or two was no longer possible for her.”

            The Wizard nodded his agreement.  “That was true enough.  But it was you who inspired so many to work together to help make such a chair for the one who’d lost both his legs, and that one to stand once more and to walk with crutches.  As Sam would say, where there’s life there’s hope.”

            “And want of vittles,” finished Frodo, surprising himself with a small but heartfelt laugh.  “Well, what do you know?  I’m to attend a wedding, here in the White City!”

            “And one that they both appear to feel is happening only because of what you and Sam—and Gollum—achieved together.  Well, perhaps we should get those pigeons you just purchased back to the guesthouse so that they can be placed in the cool room until they are wanted for dinner, and then you can pass on the invitation to Merry, Sam, and Pippin and begin thinking on what you all should wear.”

            As they turned again to resume their return to the Sixth Circle, Frodo murmured, “Well, at least they called me by my proper name, and with a minimum of bowing and scraping and that ‘Lord Iorhael’ nonsense.”

            Gandalf laughed loud and long, and many watched after them as they passed the gate into the Fifth Circle.

           

For Yule, and for Baranduin, Alphien, Chibi-Amber, Curious Wombat, Surgical Steel, and Ainu Laire for their birthdays.  Please forgive me, but with computer troubles it's been all I could do to get this one posted for all of you!

Dark Receding

            “Well, that’s enough excitement for you right now, Frodo my lad,” Bilbo said as he escorted his young ward back inside Bag End.  “It’s all right, Dora,” he called back toward where his cousin was coming out of the kitchen to check on the two of them.  “He’s done quite well, believe me!”

            “I still do not understand just why you felt compelled to allow him to watch the Yule bonfire, even from the bench out front, Bilbo Baggins,” Dora Baggins said with a level of disapproval.  “I mean, he’s only recently been allowed out of bed for any stretch of time.  He was so very ill….”

            “And to overprotect him when he’s decidedly on the mend would have made him fractious and more inclined to slip back into illness, believe me,” Bilbo responded.  “Just look at him—his color has returned, and he is much happier for knowing that the whole village felt up to celebrating this year in spite of so many having suffered so from ague and catarrhs and the like.  My cloak?  Oh, if you feel up to it of course you may hang it up for me, Frodo.  Thank you, my dear boy—you are so very thoughtful!”

            Frodo smiled indulgently as he made away with Bilbo’s cloak back to the entrance hall.  Bilbo in turn gave a triumphant look at Dora as he headed her way to accept the mug of mulled wine she’d prepared for him.  In a lower voice he confided, “There’s no need to worry, old girl—he’s well past the point of any danger.  I swear that he’ll outlive all of us.  And he did enjoy being allowed out to see the fire being lit.  Nor did he indicate any desire to do more than he was able.  Primula and Drogo named him most properly, you see, the wise young Hobbit he is.”

            “If you say so, Bilbo.  I find myself shuddering each and every time I remember how very ill he was.”

            “As do I.  But all people become ill from time to time, except for the Elves, of course.  Although they can suffer greatly from injury, or so I’m told.”

            “I wouldn’t know.”  Again Dora’s disapproval was obvious.  “At least now the days will begin growing longer again,” she continued, her tone softening.  “It’s good to know that the days won’t keep growing shorter and shorter until we find ourselves facing darkness the clock around.”

            “That’s true enough,” he agreed between sips of his wine as the two of them watched Frodo, his eyes sparkling once again with his renewed health and returning strength, coming their way.  “The Dark Days when all dwelt beneath the Shadow won’t return this year, at least.”

            “Were there truly such days?” asked Frodo as he joined them.

            “According to what I’ve read in Elrond’s books it appears there were indeed such days, but long ago in the Second Age, before the last King of Númenor took Sauron the Terrible prisoner back to his island nation.”

            “Then the King of Númenor saved Middle Earth from the Dark Lord, did he?”  Frodo smiled his thanks to his aunt as she gave him a mug of the mulled wine as well.

            Bilbo frowned thoughtfully.  “Well, if he did, it was not as a result of his intent to do so.  No, he only wished to prove himself stronger than Sauron.  So it was he came to Middle Earth at the head of a great armada of ships, so great that not even Sauron could command a greater force than he, and so Sauron the Great, Sauron the Terrible, abased himself before the King of Númenor and allowed himself to be bound in the shape of a Man—or was it an Elf?—and taken as a prisoner back to the Star Isle.   A bad business it proved, in the end.  Inviting the greatest villain there is into your home is not a particularly wise move, and trusting the word of such a person is even more dangerous.  I’m not certain how it came about, but in time the King accepted Sauron as his closest advisor, and of course he was counseled to commit all sorts of atrocities, including allowing a temple to be built to honor Morgoth with human sacrifices, and to cut down Nimloth the Fair, the White Tree gifted to the people of Númenor by those who dwelt in Elvenhome as a sign of the favor his ancestors had known for their faithfulness.  All who might have counseled the King to remain faithful to the old alliances and covenants were driven out of the capitol and treated abominably!  But it was when Sauron sought to send the armies of Númenor to attack Valinor itself that things went truly wrong, and the land of Númenor sank beneath the waves as the world was broken.

            “But all was not lost, and the very waves that destroyed the Star Isle brought the aid we in Middle Earth needed to guard us against Sauron’s return.  Those from Númenor who had remained among the Faithful prepared their ships as they’d been advised, and when the King’s armada sailed west, the Faithful set sail to the eastern coasts of Númenor, and were driven back to Middle Earth, where they set up the two realms of the Sea Kings and prepared for the day when Sauron might find his way back to Mordor once more.”

            Dora sniffed.  “Not that this is of the least of importance to those of us who live in the Shire, particularly as we are neither Men nor Elves.”

            Bilbo gave her a lopsided smile.  “You think not, do you?  But there wouldn’t have been a Shire were it not for one of the descendants of the Sea Kings granting these lands to us Hobbits as our own.”

            “But there isn’t any King anymore,” she pointed out.

            He shrugged.  “Who’s to say that the King won’t come back one day?” he asked.  “The Elves have hope that it might happen when the time is right.  You might say that they have ever guarded that hope.”

            “And what do we have to do with Elves?  When was the last time an Elf even came through the Shire?  Tell me that, Bilbo Baggins!”

            “The last time I saw an Elf was at Midsummer, actually, and not far from Michel Delving.”  Bilbo’s expression dared her to nay-say him.  “He was headed eastward on foot, and traveling north of the Road.  Although most I’ve seen here within the Shire have been heading the other direction, toward the Grey Havens to sail to Elvenhome.”

            Frodo’s attention was fixed on his nominal uncle.  “But why do the Elves wish to leave Middle Earth?” he asked.

            Bilbo grew more solemn.  “I’m told because the Shadow is growing once more in the east.  Sauron returned to Mordor when Dol Guldur was attacked by the White Council back when I accompanied the Dwarves to the Lonely Mountain.  The rumors of war brewing have been confirmed by those Dwarves, Elves, and even some Men that I’ve had the chance to speak with.  Many of the High Elves will remain to face down the Dark Lord when the final battles come, but many others have no desire to have to protect themselves and their families yet another time, and seek to distance themselves from the troubles to come.  So, they choose to sail West, from which they cannot return here to the mortal lands.”  He finished his drink and allowed Dora to take the mug from him.  “Thank you, my dear cousin.  However, there are no indications that the final battles between the Dark Lord and the rest of Middle Earth will come during the next year or so, or even within our lifetime, Dora.  Now, I cannot speak for that of Frodo here, of course….”

            Dora stared at him, her mouth open in shock and denial, until outrage took all and she slapped down the mug she held on the top of the head of her second cousin.  “How dare you wish evil times upon our Frodo here, Bilbo Baggins?  How dare you wish them on anyone?” she spat at him. 

            “Dora!” he remonstrated, rubbing the painful place with his hand, but she ignored his words completely.

            “As for you, young Hobbit,” she said, turning on Frodo and snatching his own mug from his fingers, “it is long past time for you to be in bed.  For all Bilbo here treats you as an adult, the fact is that you are still early in your tweens, and you are barely recovered from a serious illness.  Off with you—now!

            Frodo fled down the hallway with a wary glance back over his shoulder, and she stood there shaking with emotion, dribbles of spiced wine falling from the mug she’d taken from the lad spotting the carpet runner.

            “Was that quite necessary, Dora Baggins?” asked Bilbo in acerbic tones.  “You almost cracked my head!”

            “And you would have deserved it, Bilbo!” she shot back.  “I swear, I simply do not understand you at all at times!”

            “I am wishing evil times on no one, and particularly not on dear Frodo there.  But what will come will come when it will, whether or not we wish to see it happen.  And all of the wishing in Middle Earth—or all of Arda, for that matter—will not stay it an instant.  I tell you, the end of this age is coming closer by the day, and it very well may prove that Frodo shall see in the beginning of the next one, whether for good or ill.  We may be aged, but he is still young and fresh, and has the greatest heart I’ve ever encountered in our kind—or of any other kind, for that matter.  If I could spare him evil times by mere wishing I would.  And I will tell you this—should I ever sense evil seeking to hurt the child I will do all I can to stand between him and it.  This I swear by all that is good in the world, Dora Baggins, and in light of the great love I always had for your brother and his beloved wife as well as that I hold for their son.  Will you accept this?”

            She was beginning to weep, and she rubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand.  He hastily withdrew one of the handkerchiefs he carried in the pocket of his vest and handed to her to use, surprised that she’d forgotten decorum enough not to have one of her own tucked up her sleeve.  “I am sorry, Bilbo, dear.  I ought not to have bopped you on the head like that.  But just the thought of anything further threatening that dear, dear lad drives me wild, I find.  To know how close we came to losing him, too….”

            “I know, my dear cousin.  But he came through the lung sickness well enough, and for that I am forever grateful to whatever powers might have sought to ease his way.  He survives, and that shows both the Baggins and Tookish nature of the lad if anything does.  Stubborn as the day is long, and perfectly willing to defy all obstacles to continue on until he finds out what comes next.  And if the evil I fear does choose to manifest itself during his lifetime I predict he will be there, his lips compressed and his ire raised, to defy it and help in thrusting it back.  He’ll not allow it to hurt any more than can be managed, not our Frodo.  And when all is over and done he’ll not understand just why others seek to praise him for helping to put things right again.  You just wait and see!”  He put his arm about her shoulder and hugged her close to him, whispering in her ear, “You will see, dearling.  It’s not just the Elves that have managed to guard the hope for the future, I suspect.  The dark will recede then just as it does now with Yule upon us.  Yes, Dora my sweet, sweet, decorous cousin, the dark will find itself drawing back as much from the pure flame at the heart of our lad there as it will from anything.  You will see!”

           

For the Master's Birthday, and for that of Nimue8 and Imhiriel as well.  Enjoy!

A Little Surreptitious Reading

            “Are you all right, dearling?” Aunt Dora asked Frodo as she set two mugs down on the piecrust table beside the sofa on which he lay.  He had pillows under his head, a colorful woolwork blanket that his mother had hooked for Bilbo back when she was newly married to Drogo and the two of them lived together down in Number 5 on the Row, and a book in his hands that he’d been reading from.

            “I’m doing very well, Aunt,” he answered her with a smile.  “I am feeling much better, now that the fever is done with and the heaviness is gone from my chest.”

            “You do look much better, I must say,” she said.  “Well, here is a mug of chicken broth and a second one of a rosehip tisane steeped with kingsfoil.  I know that my mother used to drink kingsfoil tea when we were younger.  She swore it was a sovereign remedy for headache and humors of the stomach.  I know that she used to steep the leaves in steaming water if we were ill—she said that it cleared the air nicely and promoted more rapid healing.  Certainly Mistress Chubb found it the only remedy that appeared to aid you to recover from the lung sickness, although she admits it’s not the most favored remedy there is.  Tell me, lad, are you comfortable?  Are you warm enough?  I could bring another blanket….”

            Frodo laughed.  “I don’t need another blanket.  The fire is almost roaring, and Bilbo saw to it I’m wearing his heaviest and warmest nightshirt as well as my new dressing gown.  And this blanket is quite warm—my mother made it well.  I’m just glad to finally be able to see another part of the hole rather than just my bedroom.  I have been so glad to feel better at long last, Aunt Dora, and to be allowed to get up and move about a bit.  In here or in the study at least I don’t feel all closed off from the rest of Bag End.  Thank you for the broth and the tisane—they are most welcome.  Now—weren’t you planning to make your famous apple fritters for afters for dinner tonight?  I’ve been looking forward to them for days.”

            Dora smiled.  There was no question that the lad could flatter her, and she lapped it up as a cat would a dish of cream.  And how could she deny that sweet smile anything?  He so reminded her of his father when Drogo was young.  Drogo, too, could melt her heart with his smile, even after he’d just filled her bath with frog spawn!  She was just turning to go back to the kitchen when the bell rang, indicating someone was at the door.

            Minutes later she was knocking at the door to Bilbo’s study.  “Bilbo—it’s Angelica, Ponto and Iris’s lass.  Had you promised to go over to their smial today?”

            Bilbo looked up, surprised.  “Go to Ponto’s?  But I wasn’t to go to Ponto’s until the Highday!”

            “It is the Highday, Bilbo Baggins.”

            “Is it really?  I’d been certain it was Mersday.  How in Middle Earth have I managed to lose an entire day that way?  Oh, well, I suppose I’d best be off—Ponto wanted me to help him decant his mash brew today.”  So saying, Bilbo rose hastily, rather threw his quill toward the inkstand, and hurried off to his room to change his waistcoat and run a quick brush through the hair on his head and feet before setting off across the village for Ponto and Iris’s place.

            Dora shuddered.  Ponto’s mash brew was famous—or, to be more accurate, infamous—amongst the gentlehobbits living in the region of the Hill.  She was certain that every family in the area had tales to tell of what odd things had been done by those under the influence of that mash brew!  She only hoped that Bilbo would not agree to bring any back home to Bag End with him—impressionable young Hobbits such as Frodo should not come into contact with such potentially lethal drink!

            She turned her gaze on the quill Bilbo had so thoughtlessly tossed aside.  Tut, tut—that would never do!  He ought to have wiped it carefully and set it in the tray for the inkstand, of course.  Well, she would do that for him now.  Not that he would be likely to notice, she thought as she picked up the scrap of cloth he’d used for this service in the past.

            It was quickly obvious why he’d been particularly careless with this quill—it was all but worn out, and she saw that he had a new one ready for when he resumed his writing.  He’d not put the book away, she noticed.  It was a beautiful thing, she thought, with that brilliant red cover and the eight-pointed star and monogram of BB embossed into it in silver foil.  He must intend to write a good deal, considering how thick the thing was.  Out of curiosity she opened the cover.  Why, he’d not even tied the laces!  As she turned the first few pages she found the working title—A Hobbit’s Tale.  Now, if that wasn’t just like Bilbo!  She smiled unconsciously and turned to the first page of text….

            *******

            Frodo awoke to find the hole quiet.  The book he’d been reading had slipped off his chest and was lying closed upon the floor by the sofa.  The room now felt a bit cool, and he noted that the fire had begun to die back.  He was surprised that Aunt Dora hadn’t been through in the last while to stir it back up and put on another log.  He didn’t hear her in the kitchen, and was rather disappointed not to smell the scent of her apple fritters cooking.  Had she changed her mind and decided they’d be too heavy on his stomach after all?

            Then he heard the front door close, and realized that Bilbo must have just returned from Cousin Ponto’s.  He rather hoped that Bilbo had brought home some of Ponto’s home brew, as he’d heard a good deal about how strong it was, and he was curious to sample at least a swallow or two—once he was decidedly well, of course.  He heard Bilbo humming to himself as he hung his cloak and scarf on the pegs in the hallway, and a moment later the older Hobbit appeared in the doorway to the parlor, giving Frodo an approving glance.  “Just awoke, I notice.  You’ll find yourself drifting off suddenly for the first few days at least.  You were quite ill, you know.”

            “Yes, I’m aware of that, Uncle,” Frodo said.

            “The fire’s dying down.  Hmm—your aunt isn’t usually so inattentive.”

            “I’ve not heard anything from her for a time, so I wonder if possibly she’s gone to take a nap herself,” Frodo said thoughtfully.  “I’ll miss her when she goes off home again.”

            “As will I, although you’re not to tell her that, my dear boy.  It’s been nice to have her capable help these last few weeks, I’ll admit, particularly as Bell Gamgee has not been well enough to come up and help as might be needed.  I’d not realized how much I’ve come to depend on the Gamgees, really.  One nice thing, however, will be again finding whatever it was I was using last where I was using it instead of put away where it belongs.”  They both laughed, and Bilbo headed down the passage toward the kitchen and bedrooms.

            Dora was not to be found in either place.  Had she perhaps gone down to offer her assistance to Hamfast, then?  Surely not, though—her cloak and other winter outer garments still had been hanging in the entranceway when he came in, and he’d not seen any footprints save for his and Angelica’s from when they’d left together on his approach to the green-painted door of the smial. Then, where was Dora Baggins?

            He returned to the study, memories of the cast-aside quill he intended to dispose of in mind, and he opened the door.

            ***

            Frodo had sat up and was leaning down to pick up the book he’d been reading when he heard two indignant voices raised. 

            “What are you doing here in my study, reading my book?  I’ve told both you and Frodo—this is not ready to be read as yet!”

            “Do you mean, Bilbo Baggins, that you didn’t even invite those Dwarves into your home—they just showed up at the door and entered as if they were expected?  You never told me that!  And was it due to them that Aunt Belladonna’s prize teapot got a chip in the base?  I remember how very proud she was of that teapot, after all!  Why, Uncle Isumbras brought it back all of the way from Bree for a wedding present for her and Uncle Bungo.  She told me that it was made for Men.  What was wrong with those Dwarves?  Had they no sense of decorum at all?”

            Frodo found himself laughing so hard he began coughing.

 

Sparx recently posted a couple of challenges, one in which we were to see where "Pied Piper" led us, and one about reconnecting. For some reason, this vignette presented itself in response to the combined prompts. For Garnet Took for her birthday.

The Teller of Tales

            Always when Frodo arrives the smaller children flock around him, often accompanied by a smattering of older lads and lasses as well as an occasional adult. As with his infamous kinsman Bilbo, Frodo Baggins has always been gifted in the telling of tales, and, oh! such tales as he’s ever been given to telling!

            But since his return from his unexpected travels Outside his stories have tended to be quieter, less given to grand adventure and more filled with thought and consideration, tales of loss and finding, tales in which the yearning catches at your heart and about the edges of which other tales whisper, tales of which you aren’t certain you wish to hear the endings, much less the beginnings.

            But the one tale that should be told, what happened to him that changed him so while he was gone, he won’t tell, and you sense that somewhere within him his spirit still bleeds through a gap that appears to have once contained a finger….

Written for the LOTR Community Pot-luck Challenge.  For Ellynn and Armariel for their birthdays.  Thanks so to RiverOtter for the beta!

Surrounded by Concern

            "Is that it for the morning?" asked Everard Took of his cousin Isumbard as the two of them tidied away the documents they'd been reviewing preparatory to heading across the Square for luncheon.

            "I believe so," Isumbard answered, giving a swift look around the Mayor's office before they left the Council Hole.  It was amazing how much neater the room appeared after a mere four weeks' worth of work.  The first time he'd seen the room after the return of the Travellers and the release of Old Flour-Dumpling he'd been dismayed.  Of course, simply getting the mass of documents that during Will's imprisonment had literally piled up in the room sorted as to function had done a great deal toward making the task of reviewing them all feel far less daunting.  Bard had to admit that Cousin Frodo had excellent instincts regarding organization, as was proving true also of his recognition of how manipulation of phrasing in contracts had resulted in Lotho obtaining control of far more property than was good for him.  Had Frodo Baggins studied the laws of the Shire rather than languages no one spoke and histories of peoples who lived outside the Shire, he would most likely have become a formidable lawyer.  Certainly he could have given old Bernigard Took, who'd been chief of the Shire's Guild of Lawyers for decades, a run for his money--in the opinion of Isumbard Took, at least.

            And thinking of Frodo Baggins....

            Bard found the deputy Mayor sitting at the Mayor's desk, his arms crossed over the will he'd been perusing, and his head on his arms, asleep.

            "Drifted off again, did he?" asked Everard, although his voice held no malice.

            Bard shrugged slightly, answering, "Apparently.  But the Whitfoots indicated he had a bad night of it last night.  Mina said he drew himself a bath at about midnight, and still was up before dawn."

            "He was certainly at work here when we arrived," Everard noted.  "And if the past is any example he'll be awake and back to work before we return from the inn.  I certainly don't begrudge him a short nap.  He pushes himself far too hard from what I can tell."

            Bard had to agree with his kinsman's observations.  Cousin Frodo appeared to be more responsible than ever since his journey outside of the Shire.  Certainly he was a more sober person than he'd been before he left Bag End, and there was now a decided crease between his brows that had not been there before.  It was disconcerting to see how wary he'd become, not to mention how suddenly he appeared to have begun to look his actual age of fifty-one.  Not, of course, that many Hobbits of his age had so many silver threads among their curls.  But before his unexpected adventure, there had been no such hairs to be seen on Frodo Baggins's head.  Bard wished he had a better idea as to what had truly happened to the four of them out there.

            "We'll bring him back something from the inn," he decided, glancing into Frodo's mug.  Yes, he still had some of that special tea of his that he appeared to rely so heavily upon.

            "I heard tell they had some pigeons brought in.  If they make a pie of it Frodo would like that.  He's always had a love for squab."

            Bard nodded.  "You are right about that.  Squab it shall be, then.  He'll do well with a bit of a rest followed by a good bite or two"

            With that the two of them left, closing the door softly behind them.

 *******

            Frodo awoke, raising his head slightly and realizing that there was no rustling of pages or scratching of pens.  Bard and Everard would have been the last to leave the Mayor's office for lunch, so he must have been asleep for some time, as all of the Tooks he'd convinced to aid him in clearing out the backlog of documents had been there the last he recalled.

            "Did you have a bit of a rest, Frodo Baggins?"

            Startled, Frodo sat up.  The voice was female and familiar, although he didn't immediately place it.  He looked about and found that a rather tall (for a Hobbit, at least) Hobbitess stood beside him, wrapped around with a heavy cloak of jade green, her head protected by a matching hat of green wool wrapped in gauze, her expression rather stern and forbidding as she examined him.

            "Auntie Jade?" he asked, feeling decidedly wrongfooted.

            Jade Took Bolger, next older sister to Paladin Took, had had little enough to do with Frodo over the years.  She and her husband had settled in the North Farthing, where they served as agents for their respective families to the North-Tooks.  Rarely did they visit with their relatives other than those of their families of name, and Frodo knew of few visits from Jade and Morigrin even to Buckland where her younger sister Esmeralda ruled as Mistress of Brandy Hall.  Mostly the Baggins encountered this particular Took cousin when both were visiting in the Great Smial at the same time, and the last time she'd been to Hobbiton (other than for the Party, that is) had been when his parents had dwelt in Number 5, Bagshot Row when he'd been but a faunt, a few years prior to her marriage to Morigrin Bolger.

            “Morigrin and I came to file some sales agreements between Paladin and the North-Tooks,” she said, displaying a sheaf of documents she held in one hand.  “Morigrin is at the Whitfoot’s place, seeing how Will’s recovery is progressing, while I came across the Square to present the agreements.  So, Will has appointed you his deputy while he recovers, has he?”  So saying, she laid the documents on the desk.

            She continued to examine him severely for some minutes before she spoke again.  "I am sure that I cannot begin to understand what you were thinking when you decided to drag dear young Peregrin off on an ill-advised adventure, young Hobbit!" she declared.  "Poor Paladin and Eglantine were quite beside themselves with anxiety!  Just what was going through your mind at the time?  I would never have believed it of you had I not been at the Great Smial when the letter arrived."

            "What letter?  I sent no letter!"

            "No one said that you sent any letter, Frodo Baggins.  I'm speaking of the letter young Peregrin sent."

            "Oh, yes--he and Merry both sent letters--they told me of it once we were well clear of the Shire."

            "It would have reflected better on you had you written yourself, you know.  Although it would have been best not to have included either Peregrin or Meriadoc to begin with!"

            Frodo felt anger rising in his heart at the unfairness of her accusations.  "Now see here, Cousin, I never included anyone--Merry and Pippin included themselves with no thought as to what I did or did not want.  I told them nothing of my plans.  I intended to leave the Shire alone.  I did not tell anyone at all that I intended to go.  Only Gandalf was supposed to know.  But my cousins and Sam knew me too well.  They were spying on me, having realized, as had Lotho, that I would leave the Shire one day, that I would follow Bilbo when I decided the time was right. 

            "Only when the day came for me to leave the Shire, the reason was far more important than merely wishing to find Bilbo once more."

            She appeared startled.  "Then you didn't find him?"

            Frodo snorted.  "Of course I found him.   He has been living in Rivendell with the Elves.  We saw him both on our way south and as we returned homeward again.  We spent our birthday together.  But that was not the main reason I needed to leave the Shire."

            "Then why did you leave the Shire, Frodo?"

            He sighed, feeling suddenly very tired.  "Does it truly matter?  There was a great need that I do so, so I went.  We finished my business, so we returned, but only to find that Sméagol was not the only villain to have begun as a Hobbit."

            "I have no idea who this Sméagol might be, but Lotho Sackville-Baggins certainly proved himself a scoundrel!"

            Frodo leaned back in his chair, rubbing at his eyes.  "Lotho, his cousin Timono Bracegirdle, Marco Smallburrow, Beasty Bracegirdle, and a few other choice individuals, including, of course, Ted Sandyman.  Oh, the names are repeated until I think I will go mad with them."

            "I'm surprised you have been awake enough to hear them, considering you were sound asleep when I arrived."  Did she sound amused?

            He answered, a bit stiffly, "I did not sleep well last night, so came here to the Mayor's office early.  I rejoice that I found this particular will to be without questionable irregularities, and sufficiently wordy that my tiredness caught up with me.  I fear that it happens with me at times."

            "Why didn't you go to luncheon with the others?"

            He shrugged, answering tonelessly, "As you noted, I had fallen asleep.  The Took lads simply let me continue."

            "At least you chose people with sense to aid you."

            "Few will question their willingness to investigate impartially or thoroughly--there I agree with you."

            She was examining his face again.  "You should not skip meals," she cautioned him.  "It appears your travels did not particularly agree with you--you have lost a good deal of weight, you know."

            "Yes, I am aware of the fact."  Considering her expression, a mixture of hurt and surprise, his response must have been exceptionally curt.  He reached for his mug, grateful to find it about half full of the tea Sam brewed for him, and sipped from it.

            "You don't need to take that tone with me, young Hobbit!" Jade exclaimed.

            "Yet although I've been a Hobbit grown for nearly twenty years you can get away with speaking to me as if I were a mere thoughtless tween?"  he shot back, slapping the mug back on the desk top.  "I went to Mordor and back to have to face treatment like this?  I will put up with a good deal, Jade Took Bolger, but I will not tolerate being treated as a child!"

            He took a gulp of air, and realized he was holding onto the Queen's jewel with a grip like that of a vice.  He was alarmed, and found himself eminently glad that he no longer wore the Ring.  What he would have been tempted to do....

            Jade's expression changed from outrage to concern.  "You're not well!" she said with surprise in her voice.  "Are you feverish, Frodo?"  She reached out to lay the back of her hand to his forehead.  "Your skin--it's clammy!"

            He did his best to turn away from her touch.  "I'm well enough, cousin.  Let me be!"  Caught as he was in the Mayor's chair he found he could not effectively evade her hand.  "There is nothing to be done."

            That caught her attention.  "Then you have seen the healers?"

            "I've seen several, among them the greatest healers in all of Middle Earth, and they agree that all that can be done has been done.  But nothing can be as it was before I left the Shire--too much happened to me while I was gone."

            "How do you know you have seen the greatest healers?"

            How could he explain properly?  "Well, one was Elrond of Rivendell, who has been accepted as among the greatest of healers for over two Ages of the Sun.  And another was our new King himself.  All speak of him as being a great healer.  Certainly they tell me that none of us would have lived had it not been for the healing in his hands."

            Her face had gone white.  "Pippin, too?"

            He nodded reluctantly.  "Yes, Pippin also almost died.  He marched with Aragorn's army to challenge the Enemy's forces.  He fought in the front lines--that is what all tell me.  A troll was charging their position, and Pippin killed it.  He slew it with his sword.  But it fell on him as it died, and it crushed him beneath its body.  They searched for hours before they found him."

            "Why," she whispered, "was he fighting at all?  He's but a child!"

            "Do you know how many children the Enemy has killed, Jade?  Do you know how many boys born here in Eriador or in Rohan or Gondor have had to learn to protect themselves and their families before they learned to read or write?  Aragorn began to learn swordcraft almost as soon as he could stand.  He began learning to use his healing gifts at the same time. 

            "I met many of those who fought with Aragorn and Pippin before the Black Gate.  Almost all who fought there volunteered, as did Pippin.  One I met was barely eighteen years old.  His father died fighting the Enemy six years ago.  His brother refused to allow him to fight to defend the White City when the Enemy came there.  All he was allowed to do was to bring arrows to the archers while his brother fought with the City Guard.  His brother died in the fires in the First Circle of the city.  When it was announced that an army would go to the Black Gate, Derunol chose to go with it, to avenge both his brother and his father--not to mention how many generations of defenders before them.  He lived, but lost a leg and an ear.  He was married not long after the army returned to Minas Tirith, after Aragorn was crowned King.  Sam, Merry, Pippin, and I attended the wedding."

            "Why didn't you forbid Pippin to fight with the army?"

            "It would have done no good to even try," said a voice from the doorway.  Peregrin Took, dressed in his black tabard and with his sword at his waist, stood just inside it, holding a large canvas bag on his shoulder.  "Hello, Aunt Jade.  How are you holding up, Frodo?"  He came further into the room and laid the bag with an audible thump on one of the tables at which those aiding Frodo worked.  "We found these in one of the barns where Lotho's ruffians were staying near Scary.  It appears to be all silver serving pieces, and much of it looks to have come from the banquet hall here in the Council Hole."

            "More indications that many of the Men were primarily motivated by greed," Frodo sighed, leaning back.  "Please bring your aunt a chair, Pippin.  She has been standing for quite a time now."

            "Did you sleep well last night?" Pippin asked as he complied.

            Frodo shrugged.  "Not particularly well," he admitted.  "The wind, you know."

            "Here, Auntie, make yourself comfortable.  Yes, I know.  That sound in my head when he questioned me--I keep hearing it in the wind.  That and the fires in the lower city."

            Frodo nodded grimly.  He reached for his mug and drained it, then accepted the water bottle Pippin handed him from the cloak tree to refill it.  "Thank you so, Pippin.  Would you explain for your aunt why you would not be dissuaded while I go out to the privy, please?"  So saying, he capped the bottle and hung it over the back of his chair before quitting the room.

            He had not closed the door to the office, so even though he'd done so with the door to the privy he could still hear most of what Pippin said.  "So, I’m to explain myself, am I?  Let me begin by assuring you, as I have tried to do with Da and Mum, that Cousin Fatty—Fredegar, that is, Merry, and I have been watching Frodo for any signs he might try to leave the Shire for years.  Yes, we’ve been spying on him, and I admit we have shamelessly used Samwise Gamgee to help us.  He had no idea that we’d realized he was leaving, or that we were making plans to see to it he didn’t go alone.  No, Fatty didn’t go with us, but that was his choice, as it was Merry’s and mine to follow Frodo as far as we could.

            “Now, first, Frodo was in no position to deny me the right to go fight, for he and Sam weren't there at the time.  They were following Frodo's own errand, which was of the utmost of importance.  He'd already done his best to make it so no one else would be in danger, but it didn't work as there were orcs--goblins--he didn't know about who were about to attack us.  He'd planned to leave us secretly, only Sam wouldn't let him go alone any more than we'd let him leave the Shire alone.  They were able to get away without knowing the rest of us were under attack by Saruman's orcs."

            "Who is this--Saruman?"

            "You know him as Sharkey.  He'd allied himself with the Enemy, although he'd been intended to help us fight against Sauron and his creatures.  He'd learned from Gandalf that a Hobbit had--It--and he sent his own fighting orcs to capture Hobbits so he could take It for himself.  Only Merry and I didn't have It.  Frodo had been able to get away with It, you see.  Gandalf took me ahead to warn Minas Tirith of the impending attack from Mordor, and Merry followed after with the Riders of Rohan.  The Riders broke the siege on the White City, only Merry was badly hurt.  So when the Captains decided to march on the Black Gate I was the only Hobbit able to go with them.  Had Frodo been there he wouldn't have been able to dissuade me.  One of us had to go for the Hobbits of the Shire, you see.  Legolas went for the Elves and Gimli for the Dwarves, and Elrond's sons for the High Elves, and Aragorn and his kinsmen for the Men of the North.  So, I went for us, for the Hobbits.  And I'll never regret it."

            "But Frodo could have gone himself!"

            "How, Aunt Jade?  You don't understand--we were going for Frodo's own sake, to give him and Sam their only chance to do what had to be done.  If the Enemy had realized why a Hobbit was trying to sneak into Mordor it would have all been for naught.  You think it was bad here in the Shire under Lotho's Big Men and Sharkey?  You have no idea how much worse it would have been if Sauron had been able to get It back again!"

            "But Mordor is just stories--the worst of stories!"

            "Now it is--and because Hobbits were able to slip into that land and destroy the Enemy's own greatest weapon.  Frodo and Sam made it, and in great part because I was with the army that drew Sauron's own forces out of Mordor so Frodo and Sam wouldn't be caught."

            There was a moment of silence as Jade digested that, and Frodo was just as glad he couldn't see her face.  He could just barely hear her when she said in a low voice, "But he says you were in the front line, and that a troll fell on you and almost killed you!"

            "Did he tell you how he almost died himself, Auntie Jade?  Did he tell you how he and Sam went without food and water for days while crossing the desert wastes of Mordor?  Did he tell you they had to spend a fortnight in healing sleep after they were rescued from the ruins of the mountain, and how often it was believed they wouldn't awaken again?  Did he tell you how often he can't keep down the food he eats, or how his sleep is disturbed by terrible dreams?  What happened to Merry and me was bad enough, but nothing to what Frodo himself suffered.  And he did it to protect all of us from far worse than what Sharkey and Lotho did to the Shire.  Be grateful, Auntie Jade, that the Ring came into the keeping of someone as responsible as Frodo Baggins rather than to the likes of Lotho Pimple."

            Frodo sometimes wished he hadn't been stabbed with the Morgul knife, for he often heard things he'd rather not have known about.  Now he could hear the sobs of Jade Took Bolger, and the shushing of Pippin as he sought to comfort his distraught aunt.  It was a relief when he heard Isumbard and the others return. 

            "Where's Frodo off to?  We've brought him some squab and mashed taters from the inn.  He ought to be able to keep that down, don't you think?"

            Suddenly Frodo realized he was hungry, and that he was glad to be surrounded by those who cared for him.

Written for the LOTR Community "March of Power" challenge.  For Lavender Took for her birthday.

A Moment of Light

          The day had grown darker and darker as the brownish clouds, augmented with ash from beyond the Mountains of Shadow, grew steadily thicker.  And Frodo found his own spirit increasingly oppressed as the light decreased.  He found himself stooping as he walked, his eyes avoiding the darkness overhead and before him.  He could barely discern the green of the grasses and ferns and brambles, much less of the leaves of the surrounding trees.  Mostly there was earth underfoot, and leaf mould obscuring the pavement that had once marked the road they now followed.

          “Oh, but my!” Sam breathed, and Frodo finally looked up.  They were approaching a cross-roads, in the midst of which on a scarred plinth carved into the likeness of a great throne sat the powerful statue of what must have been one of the former Kings of Gondor.  The length of leg to the knee was greater than Frodo’s own height, and even without the curls that were common to the Hobbit’s own folk he could tell that the foot in the straps of the sandal it wore was shapely and the leg well muscled.  The left hand was spread upon the arm of the great chair, while the right rested on the hilts of a long sword, similar in style to Andúril although not precisely the same, its point against the ground by the leg of the throne.

          But the head of the statue had been struck from its shoulders and lay nearby, vines that appeared grey in the pervading gloom wound about the carved curls.  He found the sight of it filled him with grief for what the land of Gondor had once been but was no longer.  As he’d seen when in the company of Faramir’s soldiers, these woods and the roads through them were no longer safe or secure, and enemies came unheeding, sure that they were under the protection of the lord of that dark land behind the mountains.  The thought made him quail, and the Ring on Its chain about his neck felt even heavier than usual. 

          He looked up at the statue again, at the atrocity set there in place of the original visage of a long-dead King.  Was that indeed how his creatures saw Sauron to be? he wondered.  Was the great Enemy truly a monster with but a single eye in the center of his face?  Or had those who’d defaced the statue, who’d sought to cast down this symbol of the might of the Sea Kings and who’d replaced the fallen head with this horror, merely imagined Sauron thusly?  Would mere orcs have looked into Sauron’s own face?  Did he actually have a face?  After he returned to Middle Earth following the drowning of Númenor, Sauron had no longer been able to take on a shape pleasing to Elves or Men—Gandalf had told him that so long ago, in that now fabled time when Frodo had known the comfort and safety of a home, a time he now found almost impossible to believe had been real.  Could a spirit capable of surviving the drowning of as great a land as Númenor was said to have been truly have a body that ate and drank and needed rest, and all of the other things that living beings must do?  If the wraiths must wrap themselves to give their nothingness a shape that could be discerned by the living, was it not likely that Sauron must do the same?

          Frodo felt a shudder of horror as such a thought took him, and he had to stop there by the fallen head from the statue and take deep breaths to overcome it.

          “Master?  Are you all right, Frodo?” Sam asked, his expression concerned.  Beyond him Gollum looked back over his bony shoulder, hissing with his distress at this pause in their forward movement.

          But there was a reflection of golden light to be discerned in the gardener’s face.  Frodo had noted it at times, had realized that Samwise Gamgee’s form hid a far nobler spirit than his mere bodily appearance could show forth.  But then he realized that true light was being reflected this time from another source, so he turned westward to see that the lowering Sun as it neared the horizon had finally come below the level of the spreading pall of darkness.  He felt a single flame of hope rise in his heart, and he was warmed by it as he’d not felt since they’d left the company of the Gondorian Rangers.  “Light!” he whispered to himself.  There was still Light in the world, although Sauron sought to blot it out with his clouds.  But could even Sauron overcome all good?  All he could do was to veil the Sun, not obliterate her Light! 

          He felt his burden lightened as he began to turn back to their road.  He might never walk in the sunlight again, but that did not mean that the whole world should lie ever under Mordor’s shadow.  Aragorn was out there somewhere, a shining sword at his hip that he would use ever to beat back the shadows, to protect the innocent.  Frodo might not be of any help as an ally or fellow soldier, but he could do this—keep going, even if it meant going into the heart of Darkness Itself, to aid the Man intended to be the King Returned.  Perhaps he might never look into Aragorn’s face again and see the honor there, but others at least could.

          As he turned, his eyes were drawn again to the fallen head from the statue, and he realized with awe that it, too, was reflecting the sunlight, that it was wreathed with gold and white and living green, as if it were crowned with a bridegroom’s coronet of living leaves and more.  His practical mind recognized white blossoms and stonecrop amongst the vines of wild blackberries and white clematis; his artist’s soul saw the truth of it, however.

          “Look, Sam!” he cried, startled into speech.  “Look!  The King has got a crown again!”

          And he felt his resolve renew itself.  No, he might never see Aragorn come to the crown and throne and sceptre he deserved, but he would do his best to see to it that there was a chance for the King to return at last, to see that darkness felled, even if it must cost him his own life.  It would be a worthy sacrifice, he knew.

For Iorhael, Antane, and Maniac for their birthdays.

The Protest Rebuffed

          The deputy Mayor leaned forward over the will he was examining, his left elbow beside the document and his chin resting on the back of his knuckles.  In his right hand he held a writing stick of graphite with which he would at times underline questionable phrases or make notations on a separate tablet.  His attention was fixed on his work, and the crease between his brows that had not been there before his journey outside the Shire's borders was pronounced in his concentration.

          "Harrumph.  Excuse me, please, Mister Baggins, sir?"

          Frodo looked up to meet the apologetic gaze of one of the Hobbits employed to keep watch on the prisoners held in the new gaol for the Shire.  The crease in his brow deepened, not due to the interruption but to the probable reason why this particular Hobbit was now present in the Council Hole rather than standing watch on his charges.  "Yes, Master Greenhill?  Is Mister Smallburrow grousing again?"  Marco Smallburrow had been one of the Shire lawyers that had actively collaborated with Lotho Sackville-Baggins to help fleece so many citizens of the Shire of their goods and property, and had been the first to take up residence in the new cells created in the middle reaches of the old storage tunnels where Lotho's Big Men had set up their infamous Lockholes. 

          The Shire's new gaoler shook his head.  "No, not the Smallburrow this time, not since you told us he might sit in the hole where them kept old Missus Lobelia.  Gave him pause, it did, realizing him could end up sitting there in the dark and damp like those Lotho had locked away.  No, this time it's that Timono Bracegirdle what's demanding to talk to the deputy Mayor.  Seems convinced as nobody has the right to put Hobbits behind bars, and that he'll be able to 'explain' things so you understand as him didn't do nothing wrong, but that what's happening to him and to Smallburrow is just intolerable.  It's only a misunderstanding, it is.  Just ask him!"

          "He's said this in front of you?"

          "Him and Smallburrow--the two of them discuss things with one another and how neither belongs in gaol, and seem convinced that us gaolers, since we talk plain, we must not be able to understand them.  Tell each other how quaint our language is, they do, and Bracegirdle in especial talks to us like we're particularly stupid children.  If it weren't so funny it would be insulting."

          "Bet as they'd look on me the same way," said a voice from the doorway, and both Frodo and the gaoler turned to face Sam Gamgee, who'd just entered with a large bouquet of early blooms in hand.  "You're looking good, Master.  Slept reasonably well last night, did you?  I brought you some of the first blooms from Bag End's garden to make it feel more homelike.  You should be able to move back home early in April, I'd say.  So, Mr. Smallburrow and that Timono Bracegirdle think those as were raised to work with their hands can't understand proper speech, eh?"

          "Apparently," Frodo responded.  "Anyone who judges intelligence or even basic learning on the basis of language used is downright foolish.  Although such beliefs aren't limited solely to the Shire, of course."  He gave a wry smile.  "Certainly there were a few high lords in Gondor who were surprised to learn that the new Lord Perhael was familiar with the tales of Beleriand, and that he had read them in the original Elvish!"

          Sam laughed.  "I was more surprised to learn that there was them there who'd never read them at all in any tongue.  Who would of thought?"  He indicated the document Frodo was closing around his writing stick.  "That one of the tainted contracts?" he asked.

          Frodo's snort was totally without humor.  "A tainted will, rather.  Mister Bracegirdle's work from the look of it.  I intend to ask him about it since he's insisting on trying to persuade me  no one has the right to lock up other Hobbits."

          Handing off the flowers to one of the nearby Took lawyers who were serving as Frodo’s aides in reviewing the backlog of documents that had built up since Will Whitfoot’s imprisonment, Sam asked, "And then where was he when Lotho and his Big Men locked up the Mayor, or Mister Freddy, or old Missus Lobelia?  Seems he wasn't so certain then that no Hobbits should be locked up.  Do you want your cloak, Master?"

*******

          "So," Marco Smallburrow said to his fellow prisoner, who inhabited the stone-lined cell opposite his own, "you have summoned the deputy Mayor, have you?"

          "Yes," said Timono Bracegirdle, turning his disturbingly intense gaze on Marco.  "And I'm surprised you never did so.  It sounds as if he's become even softer since his return from parts unknown than he was as a mere lad.  It ought to be fairly simple to persuade him that this imprisonment is both cruel and unusual, and thus must needs be lifted.  After all, we are agreed in that understanding of our state, are we not?"

          Marco asked, "Baggins, softer than when he was a lad?  How did you come to that conclusion?"

          Timono shrugged.  "When the word came that Baggins, Merry Brandybuck, and Pippin Took were back they were saying that Baggins wouldn't allow any Hobbits to kill the Men unless it was to keep them from killing another Hobbit.  He didn't want them even to hurt Sharkey or Sharkey's Worm creature, they say."

          Smallburrow's brows rose with his surprise.  "But I heard that both Sharkey and the Worm were dead!"

          "Not due to anything Baggins did or said.  He wouldn't allow them to do anything to Sharkey even after the Man tried to kill him."

          "Then how did they both end up dead?"

          "They say that the Worm killed Sharkey, and the Took archers were so shocked by that that they shot the Worm."

          Marco thought this over.  "It is hard to imagine that Worm creature having the courage to strike out at anyone."

          "He was provoked."

          The two prisoners turned in surprise at the unexpected voice from up the tunnel.  Frodo Baggins stood there, draped in a grey-green cloak that fell nearly to his feet, a water bottle slung from his shoulder.  Beyond him stood a far more substantial Hobbit with a similar cloak flung back from his sturdy shoulders, his eyes shrewd as he examined the opposing cells and their occupants.

          "So, here you are, Mister deputy Mayor, sir," Timono said, his voice unctuous.  "It appears that you did not eat well during your time outside."

          Frodo's jaw clenched briefly, but his voice was steady enough when he answered, "I will admit that Sam and I went through a time when we simply did not have nearly enough to eat.  But while he recovered well enough, I did not.  Why did you summon me from my work, Mister Bracegirdle?"

          "Work?  And what work is it that you have done?  What work does a mere Mayor do?"  Timono's attitude was most dismissive.

          Frodo's expression became merely more formal as he came to stand between the two cells.  "It is the Mayor's duty to review all documents brought to his office, to see to it that they are properly written and witnessed, and that they are not so devised as to cheat any party for whom they were prepared.  Your client Lotho Sackville-Baggins, in allowing the unlawful imprisonment of our elected Mayor, thus withheld Mister Whitfoot's services in this manner from the people of the Shire, allowing an overwhelming number of our citizens to be robbed of both their rights and their property.  The two of you were most active in preparing the majority of such questionable documents forwarded to the Mayor's Office in the Council Hole both prior to and since Will's arrest and imprisonment.  As Will Whitfoot will be continuing to recover from his ordeal for some months yet, he insisted that I, as the representative and confidant of our new King, should serve as his deputy, examine the situation that led to the Time of Troubles in his place, and make such reports and recommendations as I should find necessary or advisable to the Thain, the Master, the Council of family and village heads, himself, and the King and his representatives.  That, then, is my current work."

          "King?  What King?  There has never been a King," Timono said coldly.

          Frodo shook his head decisively.  "There has never been a King, you say?  Then who gave Marcho and Blanco the Charter granting the Shire to us Hobbits as our own land?  Why did Bucca march forth with forty archers to the aid of the King if no such person existed?  It appears you failed to study the history of the Shire if you believe there has never been a King, Timono Bracegirdle.  It is true that the heirs to Arvedui Last-king did not claim his office for a thousand years, but I assure you that at last his current heir has done just that, and that he is now King of both Arnor here in the North and of Gondor in the South.  Sam here, Meriadoc Brandybuck, Peregrin Took, and I all accompanied him southward and saw him invested with the Winged Crown of Gondor on the first of May and the Rod of Annúminas on First Lithe.  The Lord Aragorn Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar is now our King, now that Mordor is fallen at last."

          Timono's lip curled with incredulity.  "And just how would you four have met with the one meant to be King?" he demanded.

          "We met in Bree.  Does it surprise you that the heirs to Isildur have always traveled widely through all of the lands their ancestors once ruled, even the Shire?  Yes, our King Elessar has ridden through the Shire, back when he was the Chieftain of the northern Dúnedain.  He wore no royal robes, and he did not carry the Star of Elendil with him at the time, for he must ride swiftly to come to the Sarn Ford in order to deter raiders from the south who had attacked villages along the Greenway and who intended to hide from retribution here in our land, and who most likely would have killed whatever Hobbits they encountered as well.  We met mostly because he had been charged by Gandalf to watch for me and to aid me in my journey."

          Timono examined him.  "Lotho always swore you would leave the Shire one day.  It would seem he was right."

          Frodo gave a slight shrug.  "Considering how you helped him write a number of loan contracts that gave him the deeds to other people's property should I do so, it would appear that you were also convinced that I would do this one day, or at least you were impressed by Lotho's surety."

          "And this King of yours will do as he's told by the likes of that old wandering conjuror, will he?"

          "Those who are wise and are people of honor would always do well to listen to Gandalf and to heed his advice and his requests."

          Something in Frodo's tone made Timono shiver visibly.  It appeared the Baggins had learned the art of near immobility during his time outside the Shire, for he made no unnecessary movements now.  Yet there was an air of authority to him that both prisoners found somehow daunting.  The lawyer eyed the deputy Mayor warily.

          At last Frodo prompted, "I ask again, Mister Bracegirdle, why did you think to summon me from my work?"

          "We would protest our imprisonment."

          "It is certainly your right to do so."

          Timono gave him an expectant look, but it appeared Frodo had nothing further to say on the matter.  At last the Bracegirdle prompted, "Well?"

          "Well what?"

          "When are you going to order our release?"

          "And why should I do such a thing?"

          "You just agreed that we were being unjustly imprisoned."

          "I do not remember doing any such thing."

          "But you just said I was right in protesting our imprisonment!"

          "I remember saying only that you have a right to so protest.  I did not say that you were right in so protesting."

          "Then you believe we belong in this gaol?"

          Frodo sighed.  "Did you do rightly when you wrote loan papers in which you insisted that a widow must see to it that there be a viable well dug on the east side of her smial when there was already a good well producing sweet water on the north side of her home, and that if it were not done by a certain date far too soon for such a project to be completed she would be in default and her property would revert to Lotho's possession?  Did you not do so when in fact she was a smallholder leasing her farm and garden from another, and as the landlord had no part in the loan, which she had thought originally to secure with her flock of sheep, Lotho's agreement written by you was already both illegal and invalid?  So you and he thought to deprive her of her home, her landlord of his legal property, and Lotho went on also to seize her sheep as well after you and he had convinced her that she should not risk her livelihood for such a small amount of capital.  Did not Marco here write a loan agreement for one of the Brandybucks again secured by his home and property specifying that he must have new shutters made by a carpenter in Greenholm you knew to be ailing, of wood purchased from a sawyer in the North-farthing and painted in an unlikely pink paint to be purchased from a supplier in another remote village in the far West-farthing whom you knew to be dead, again giving him scant time to get the work done--when in reality his smial had already sound shutters of far better quality in an honored shade of green?  The Master and his people just managed to get the job done by the deadline set, although they tell me it was worth it to see the impotent fury on Marco's face when he found he'd not be taking possession of the smial and farm in Lotho's name after all.  And then there were all of the items stolen from others found in the immediate possession of each of you and certain relatives when you were found and arrested, items taken by the 'Gatherers and Sharers' and then appropriated by yourselves.  What would be the standard treatment should a Hobbit be suspected of thievery?"

          Timono and Marco exchanged wary glances before the former responded, "Well, there certainly would be no imprisonment within a gaol.  There has never been such a thing here within the Shire before."

          "You have failed to answer my question."

          "You have failed to justify the presence of this prison!"

          Frodo gave a slight smile.  "But my answer must follow from yours."  The smile faded and his voice grew stern.  "What is the regular procedure for dealing with thieves?"

          Again Timono glanced at his fellow prisoner before answering, "The accused would be put on house arrest under the authority of his family head until the  investigation was complete.  But this is not house arrest, and you are not the family head for either of us."

          "Nor would I wish to be, considering the degree of your crimes.  The problem is that the family heads for neither of you will agree to have anything to do with you.  Marco here accompanied the Gatherers and Sharers to the homes of the three in whose Books his name appears and supervised the looting of all their valuables, as well as the homes of Will and Mina Whitfoot, the family heads for the Bolgers, Boffins, Proudfoots, Maggots, Smallfoots, Brownloams, and more, and substantial numbers of valuable items taken in these raids were found in his home, his mother's home, and in storage holes on his properties.  After his sister spoke out against his actions her home and farm were fired, as was true of others who protested his treatment of them.  You were caught after you were turned back from the Sarn Ford, and the amount of valuable jewelry in your possession was staggering, and a good deal of it was taken from the Bracegirdles, Sackvilles, Whitfoots, Goolds, Hornblowers, Boffins, Bagginses, Chubbs, Grubbs, and Oldbucks from the East-farthing and the Marish.  You even had several items taken from Lotho and Lobelia, which indicates you had access to Sackville Place and Bag End possibly after Lotho's murder.

          "When your own family heads insist on washing their hands of you and are considering striking you from your family Books, and when hatred for you is such that neither of you would be particularly safe outside of these walls, then what is to be done with the two of you?  I will tell you this--Bree does not want you, either, so simply banishing you beyond the Bounds is not an option.  Considering the number of ruffians we've expelled, had you encountered any of them with the looted jewelry you were found with, you would most likely have been murdered and the jewelry in their hands before you'd traveled twenty leagues along the Greenway.  Nor would the King's people have treated you any better than we have--they would have housed you in the gaol in Bree, most likely, which is nowhere as comfortable as this, I'm told by some who have spent time within it."

          "But we've had no trial, and have not been found guilty of any crime!"

          "Do you deny your involvement in presenting tainted contracts and even wills?  Do you deny being found in possession of stolen goods?"

          "What tainted wills?"

          Frodo brought out the document he'd been holding against his breast under his cloak.  "There is this," he said. Suddenly he began to waver on his feet.

          The sturdy Hobbit who'd been standing behind him turned to the nearby gaoler.  "Please, a seat for my Master," he said, and the guard hurried to bring one of the stools from the gaoler's own table. 

          In moments Frodo was seated, his face pale but composed.  Courteously he thanked the gaoler before he opened the document he held.

          "Are you well, Frodo Baggins?" asked Timono.

          "As I indicated, I have not recovered as fully from our  experiences as did Sam here, but that has no bearing on your claim that you should not be locked up.  You are correct that there is no history of prisons here within the Shire, not until Lotho's Big Men began using the storage holes in this complex to imprison those who questioned their actions or Lotho's authority.  Did either of you protest this decision?"

          "Why should we?" asked Timono impatiently.  "It was no affair of ours, after all.  It is not as if we ourselves were involved in the situation."

          "Yet Fredegar Bolger names you as the one who searched him for valuables before he was consigned to the Lockholes, and his grandfather's pocket watch and the ivory pipe banded with silver that I gave him for my birthday before I left Bag End, which you took from him at that time, were both found amongst the jewelry seized with you when you were arrested on the second Hornblower pipeweed plantation.  Perhaps you were not as distant from the decision to set up and utilize the Lockholes as you would prefer people to believe.

          "Now, as for this will, prepared for Mistress Gloxinia Goold----"

          Timono interrupted him abruptly.  "I did not file that will.  I have never filed a will for any of the Goolds."

          "Did I say that you filed this will?  I do not remember making any such statement.  No, the records indicate it was filed by Dido Marchbanks of Pincup.  However, the handwriting indicates that it was written by you, not Mister Marchbanks, who is decidedly left-handed and whose writing is quite distinctive."

          The Bracegirdle was becoming visibly angry.  "And how would you come to recognize Marchbank's hand?"

          Frodo smiled.  "Haven't I served as a copyist for the Shire for more than a quarter of a century?  Dido Marchbanks has been one of my regular customers for at least fifteen years, Mister Bracegirdle.  I recognize his hand easily.  As I do yours as well now, having reviewed since I was appointed deputy Mayor so many documents that you have prepared.  And there are certain mannerisms in what you write and how you phrase it that are even more distinctive.

          "Mister Marchbanks has been questioned regarding this will and certain contracts and other documents that we have had reason to believe were originally fabricated by persons other than himself, and he has admitted in each case who it was that--persuaded him to present them as his own work.  He says he purposely filed your original of this will with his signature because he wished it to be easily recognized as being contrary to the best interests of his client and her family.  If you had not threatened to make the imprisonment of his son, who was arrested when he objected to the stealing of his grandmother's silver, untenable, he would have never agreed to presenting any document originating from you or Mister Smallburrow here as his own.  Now that his son is free and recovering from his own ordeal in safety, he has proved willing to confess to what he did at your bidding, and has described the threats you made against his son and family.

          "So much for your earlier claims to have had no interests in the existence of the Lockholes, Mister Bracegirdle.  You and Mister Smallburrow both indicated to numerous citizens of the Shire that you could influence the treatment of those imprisoned herein.  I do not know how much true authority you held over the bully-boys who ran the place, but we have been able to prove some prisoners were given better--or worse--treatment than others and apparently on the directions of Lotho or other individuals who did not work directly within the Lockholes."  He paused to drink from his water bottle.

          "And why would I wish to devise a revision of the will of  Gloxinia Goold?" asked Timono.

          "Why indeed?" returned Frodo, corking the bottle and allowing it to swing free upon its strap.  He again lifted the will from where it had rested on his knees and opened it at the place marked by his writing stick.  "Within it are numerous examples of a particular form of clause that the Took lawyers who work with me have taken to calling the false jest.  I am not certain if I should be flattered or insulted to be so positively compared to Bilbo's father and grandfather, but clearly I have been viewed by most of the Shire as being far more eminently predictable, and thus more respectable, than Bilbo.  Therefore when conditions have been written into your documents based on the possibility of me leaving the Shire most Hobbits have perceived such statements to be bitter commentary exhibiting the frustration Lotho has felt toward me ever since it became apparent Bilbo had chosen me as his ward and likely heir.  Indeed, it appears that the idea of me leaving the Shire has been equated in the minds of most Hobbits to the likelihood of the Return of the King.  Therefore few if any have thought better of signing an agreement in which a condition should be based on a contingency believed to be so unlikely.

          "Lotho, however, had reason to believe I would leave the Shire one day.  After all, I once told him I intended to go out and learn for myself where Bilbo had gone once I was convinced the time had come to do so.  And by that time Lotho had learned well that I do not make such statements idly.  It was on the basis of how honest he knew me to be that he suggested such conditions be written into whatever documents you prepared for him to present when he made legal agreements.  It proved a successful strategy, won't you agree?"

          Timono Bracegirdle could not hide a smirk of triumph even as he protested, "But who would expect such doings from the oh, so respectable Frodo Baggins?"

          "Who indeed?" Frodo muttered.  "We have become accustomed to seeing such jest clauses in sales and loan agreements, but to find them in wills proved unexpected.  And who shall inherit now that I met the first condition by leaving the Shire, Lotho was killed betimes on Sharkey's orders and so cannot inherit, and you have inadvertently met the third condition by finding yourself imprisoned, and perhaps for life?  It would appear that stating that you yourself would be discredited as an heir should you find yourself imprisoned does not seem anywhere as funny now that it has come to be, I would think."

          Timono snarled, "You can't keep us locked up forever!"

          Again the deputy Mayor shrugged.  "You will not be released any time soon, not until the investigation is complete.  And now that we know that you have corrupted wills as well as contracts the time it will take to complete the investigation has become even longer."

          "You mean to survey every single contract or will I have ever written?"  He sounded disbelieving.

          Frodo had again set the will upon his knee and was removing the stopper from his water bottle.  "You will find that the Tooks and I are all disposed to be most thorough, Mister Bracegirdle," he said.  He took another drink and again stoppered the bottle, eyeing the lawyer with a weary expression.  "And if you are trying to convince yourself that I delight in counting all of your questionable clauses and use of tricky wording, you are much mistaken.  I find the necessity for reviewing each and every word that you have written or dictated to be tedious, distressing, and, after all this time spent in keeping the scores of your perfidy and attempted perfidy, mind-numbing.  However, I have been instructed to see to it that each and every questionable clause and condition is recorded not only by Will Whitfoot but also by the Thain and the King and both his Stewards, not to mention by Master Peringard Took as the Master of the Shire's Guild of Lawyers, and by the Council of family and village heads as well.  Yes, the King himself has taken an interest in the cases against you and Mister Smallburrow and the others who chose to assist Lotho in taking over the Shire and its wealth and who profited by the troubles visited upon our people.  But then Aragorn is a most compassionate individual who cares for the needs of the least of his subjects.  He has little tolerance for those who willingly twist the law to the benefit of themselves and those who are already possessed of more wealth and power than they deserve, much less need."

          He was now riffling the edges of the pages of the will with his fingertip.  "You should have restricted yourself to false jests involving situations such as me leaving the Shire that most Hobbits would dismiss but that you knew to be likely rather than inserting what you believed to be a true jest.  I am aware that at the time you crafted this you had no means of realizing that you would indeed lose your liberty in this manner.  An ironic happenstance, surely, that you should state here that your claims on Mistress Goold's estate should become null and void should you end up a prisoner, and that this circumstance should become true before this will came under our scrutiny.  This will was questioned last week by Cousin Gloxinia's son, who was asked to do so by his mother a few days earlier.  He was surprised, having been assured by Mister Marchbanks before I left Bag End that there was no need to do a revision of her will in spite of the death of his sister as that eventuality had already been addressed in her then-current will.  Cousin Gloxinia was unsure as to why Dido had changed his mind about rewriting her will, but assumed that perhaps it was required by some new change in the law. 

          "That this will was written before it became known in Pincup that Lotho had named himself Chief Shirriff and had directed his ruffians to seize Mayor Whitfoot ere he could reach Hobbiton to berate my foolish kinsman for his effrontery is obvious, considering it was this possible event that was presented as the false jest that would give her estate to Lotho.  Had you already considered murdering Lotho at this point, or were you planning to encourage one of the Big Men to do so?  Certainly by this point you must have begun entertaining greater ambitions yourself than merely to remain the primary schemer to rob the wealthier Hobbits of the Shire of their homes and livelihoods, all for the primary benefit of Lotho Sackville-Baggins."

          Timono's face had gone white with dismay, and his pale eyes were wide and even frightened.  Marco Smallburrow looked across the aisle at his fellow prisoner.   "I say, Bracegirdle, did you truly wish to do away with Pimple?  Not, of course, that the idea is all that bad, I suppose.  He was becoming quite out of touch with reality there at the end, I must say."

          Frodo looked from one to the other, shaking his head.  "You two do make quite the pair.  Poor Lotho, thinking himself so clever, surrounding himself with others as empty as himself.  And all three of you trying to fill yourselves from the substance of others."

          Both the prisoners looked at him with surprise, for he spoke with compassion so clear in his voice, and great sadness in his eyes.  Smallburrow said, "What are you on about, Baggins?  What's this talk about us being empty?"

          "Who truly loves you, Marco Smallburrow?  Who has looked at you and seen how fine a person you could be rather than how you might excite envy in others?  Who has looked at Timono and seen how much he might give to others rather than how he might take advantage of them?  Who ever looked at Lotho and imagined how he might strengthen the entire Shire as the family head for the Sackvilles rather than thinking on how important he was to be a family head at all, as if the Sackvilles were the equal to the Tooks or the Brandybucks rather than a family with but a few members left, just as is true of the Bagginses.  Instead, three generations of that family have convinced themselves that they have lost all by being denied the headship of two families at the same time, and believed that somehow that robbed them of power they believed to be their due.  At least I have known how dearly I have been cherished, as unworthy as I may have proved in the end."

          There was a period of quiet as the two prisoners tried to understand what Frodo Baggins meant.  Frodo had another drink from his water bottle, handed the will he carried to his companion, and drew himself to his feet.  "While we were in Gondor I found myself discussing the nature and need for prisons of one sort or another with our new King, Prince Faramir and his uncle, Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth, with King Éomer of Rohan, with Legolas, whose father is the King of the Elven realm of Eryn Lasgalen east of the great river, with Gimli and his father Glóin from the Lonely Mountain, with Lord Halladan, Aragorn's kinsman and Steward here in the north,  and with the sons of Elrond Half-elven of Rivendell.  I learned that even the Elves have needed secure quarters for those accused of great wrongdoing, particularly those caught up in great passions of wrath or grief, both to restrain them until tempers cool that judgments might be just and to protect them from possible unjust attacks from others.

          "I was certain at the time that we had no need for such things here in the Shire--and then we returned and found what Lotho and you had made of the Shire while we were gone.  True, many of the most evil changes were due to the influence of Saruman, or Sharkey as you knew him, his influence or that of his creatures he sent here to assist Lotho in subduing our folk.  But I found that we also cannot allow all wrongdoers to remain unrestrained, for not only do they run the risk of continuing to victimize others, but they also pose great temptation for others to seek vengeance for what they have suffered.  No one can force Lotho to face the enormity of his crimes now that he is dead on Sharkey's orders, but many know that you two were among his closest accomplices and would love to see the two of you pay in pain and grief for what Lotho did to them.  So, no, I will neither order nor recommend your release while the investigation continues.  And you will soon have companions in the two remaining cells.  One is another cousin of yours, Timono, for Bigelow's son Bedro will be sent here from his current imprisonment in Buckland.  And one of the local Gatherers and Sharers is in danger of being soundly drubbed if he is not swiftly remitted to the safety of custody here."

          "You would bring the likes of Beasty Bracegirdle here?" protested Timono.

          Frodo shrugged once more.  "His nickname does appear to be well chosen, considering the viciousness he displayed in Kingsbridge, Stock, and the Marish toward anyone who failed to jump at his word once he was accepted as a Shirriff and assigned to the Shirriff House hard by the old Bridge Inn.  Saradoc has had him locked up in a storage hole for some weeks, but again neither your family head nor Gander Proudfoot as his village head will accept further responsibility for him.  After all, he and his father were already in internal banishment due to gambling with weighted dice, dosing ponies slated to race, and threats toward Hobbits who'd caught them cheating and had threatened to expose them.  Bedro already had a nasty reputation even before he went for a Shirriff of Lotho's recruitment."

          He started away, then turned back to add, "Now that I think of it, I suppose we Hobbits have always practiced a level of imprisonment when it's needed.  This is not the first time that particular storage hole in Buckland has held someone who had proved violent.  I can remember it being used at least twice when I was growing up.  And Fortumbald set up an isolation suite in the Great Smial that Ferumbras threatened to consign me to the time someone managed to glue his mother to her chair.  And, I regret to say, it was not I who did that.  Paladin and Peringard talked Ferumbras out of it as I recall."

          Timono said, "Well, I for one don't wish to be locked up beside Beasty!"

          Frodo's smile was apologetic.  "We do have one other cell that has remained empty for some months.  Mister Smallburrow can describe it to you, as he was offered the chance to change to it when he complained before regarding the unsatisfactory nature of his accommodations.  Just tell Mister Greenhill that you would like the move and he will see to it as soon as he finds sufficient timber to close the opening.  I wish you gentlehobbits a good day."  So saying, he left, followed by the sturdy Hobbit.

          Marco Smallburrow fell back in his armchair, laughing out loud.  "That sly soul!  Oh, he'd delight to see you in that one, wouldn't he?"

          Timono glared suspiciously at his fellow.  "You didn't tell me there were more cells, or that you had complained to him."

          Marco gave a decided smirk.  "You just decided for yourself that I'd not complained.  He came then and compared this to where he said he'd been imprisoned.  Indicated this was a palace by comparison.  Offered me this other cell, too, and even had the warders haul me down to it when I kept complaining.  I'm told it was probably the best cell in here before these four were set up.  There's even a family connection for you, my friend--it's where your Aunt Lobelia was kept after Sharkey's people dragged her here from the Hill.  Just down there and around the bend...."

          Timono felt a chill go through him.  One of the Big Men had laughed to him about Lobelia's accommodations in the Lockholes after he'd let Timono into Bag End to rifle the rooms Lotho and his mother had dwelt in, having admitted to the lawyer that Sharkey had ordered the Chief killed.  Oh, no doubt that Frodo Baggins would have enjoyed the thought of Timono in Lobelia's old cell!

          The second gaoler, whose name Timono had never bothered to learn, came forth to fetch the stool on which Frodo had sat back to the table at which the two guards ate while on duty, asking, “What did that mean, when he said as he was the King’s con-fi-daunt?”

          Greenhill shrugged.  “Not sure, but I suppose as it means the King has confidence in him.”

          His fellow smiled with satisfaction.  “Of course!” he said.  “Anyone with a lick of sense knows that Frodo Baggins is most likely the most responsible Hobbit in all the Shire.”

          Greenhill cocked a brow in response, then commented, “What surprised me was what he said about him once bein’ in prison hisself.”

          The other one set the stool he’d brought back on the floor and sat on it, crossing his forearms on the table top.  “What he said back when it was Mr. Smallburrow there as demanded to see him was that he’d been kept in a tall stone tower, and that it was cold, and they’d took his clothes or something like.”

          Greenhill shuddered.  “Must of been bad’uns who’d of done such a thing,” he said, “even worse than Lotho Pimple’s Big Men!”

          Timono wanted to ignore the conversation, remembering that he and Smallburrow pretended not to be able to understand the speech of the two guards.  Deep down, however, a part of his mind was worrying over the realization that the deputy Mayor had admitted that he had once been imprisoned.  That night he dreamed of cold stone floors and the bite of a whip, and a distant mix of howls and clanking metal.

For Shirebound, LamePegasus, and Lady Sherlockian for their birthdays.  A sequel to The Protest Rebuffed.

A Matter of Titles

            Sam knelt over the remains of the chrysanthemums, which had gone ragged now that October was better than half over.  What with Mister Frodo leaving as he'd done, and finding himself and Rosie Master and Mistress of Bag End and the Hill, the garden hadn't received anywhere near enough attention in the last month.  Perhaps now they were back from Buckland where all had gathered to comfort one another he'd see to setting the place in proper order.  Perhaps Frodo would like some of those white lily-type flowers Strider had sent him word about that had been brought to Gondor by sailors who had sailed east past Hinya and Catya, across a wide ocean to a land where it was said that the Men had skin that was reddish.  Yes, those ought to please the Master----

            And the realization of what he'd just been thinking hit him, and another wave of grief swept over him.

            "Apples and strawberries, so sweet to eat!"   Marigold came up the lane from the Row, singing happily.  Her grief at the departure of Mister Frodo was already being healed by time and the pleasure of now being Missus Young Tom.  He was glad that she, at least, could sing in spite of the rapidly greying sky.  She must have been checking on the Gaffer, he realized.  He'd go down this evening, then, and see for himself how their father was doing.  He heard the front gate swing open and bang closed behind her, and then heard the muffled chime of the bell.  He gave a sigh, and focused on the chrysanthemums until Rosie came down the garden path, calling his name as the distant gate again swung closed behind his sister, her song resuming as she headed into the village.

            "Goldie brought up the post, all what come while we was in Buckland," Rosie said once she saw him crouched over the mums. "Most of it's but notes of respect, I think.  But there's one from Michel Delving as I think is more."  She sorted through the envelopes she held until she found one with the arch of the Bridge of the Stone Bow stamped into the red wax sealing it closed.

            Sam gave a grimace as he took it from her and slipped a thumbnail under the wax.  "Wonder what Mister Whitfoot's got to say as he didn't say afore?" he wondered aloud.  He pulled the enclosed missive out, handed the envelope to his wife, and unfolded the single page, frowning slightly as he read the message:

Dearest Mister Gamgee,

            I know as you and your honored wife have just returned from Brandy Hall and probably have been looking forward to some time alone to begin to appreciate how much things have changed for you now as our beloved Frodo is gone from Bag End and the Shire.   But do you think as you could find it inside of you to come to Michel Delving very soon to talk to Masters Smallburrow and Bracegirdle, here in our gaol?  You see, they are demanding to talk to the former deputy Mayor, and refuse to believe he can't come.  Seem convinced as he should be here at their beck and call.  It's not just as they have too much time with nothing of worth to do, but now as the time nears for their trial they are beginning to feel anxious, I believe.  I've tried and tried to get it into their heads as they have no say as to what evidence is presented or who gets to testify against them.  They are sure they can somehow convince Frodo they are badly used and he could then talk to his friend the King and get them off with just a talking to.

            I think as the only one they'll listen to now is you.  Please come!

Yours in desperation,

Will Whitfoot, Mayor of the Shire  

            Sam read this twice, and found that it said the same thing the second time through.  He shook his head.  If Will couldn't get anything through the heads of those two, how did he think Sam Gamgee would be able to be able to do any better?

            "He wants for me to come talk to them two lawyers as was working with Lotho Pimple.  But I won't be goin' there today of all days, not when we just got home from Buckland.  I'll go tomorrow, 'cause I intend to spend today and tonight here with my family."

 *******

            Marco Smallburrow looked across the aisle at his fellow prisoner.  "Do you think Baggins will really come?  Whitfoot was saying that he can't."

            Timono Bracegirdle sniffed.  "Just because he doesn't want to stir off the Hill unless he's forced since he refused to run for Mayor doesn't mean he won't come if we insist.  He had this atrocity constructed and ordered us put here--he owes us!"

            "He owes you?  How'd you come to that idea?" asked a voice up-tunnel from the four cells that made up the Shire's gaol. 

            The two prisoners looked to see who had come down into the old storage tunnels, as the voice certainly wasn't that of Frodo Baggins.  Timono rose to his feet and stepped closer to the bars so as to peer more closely at their visitor.  "It's that other fellow who followed Frodo in here before," he announced to Marco.

            Marco Smallburrow rose from his own chair, glaring at the newcomer.  "You're who?  Sam Gamwidge or something of the sort?  Baggins's servant?"

            "Samwise Gamgee, Esquire."  The newcomer came forward, stopping between the opposing cells and examining their occupants, first one and then the other.

            Marco's eyes widened.  He exchanged a meaningful glance with Timono before he returned his attention to their--guest.  "Esquire, is it?  I fear we have neither of us heard such a name here in the Shire before,” he said, his tone belittling.

            Samwise Gamgee's face flushed, but he stood proudly enough.  "It's not a name, rightly speaking.  It's one of the titles they give me down there in Gondor, the only one I feel properly fits.  Just never you mind about that.  Now, like I asked afore, just what gives you to think as my Master owes you anything at all?"

            The Bracegirdle glared at him.  "Of course he owes us.  We neither of us would be here if it hadn't been for Baggins!"

            Sam snorted.  "Say rather you'd neither be here if'n you'd not done your best to cheat other Hobbits for Mr. Lotho's sake as well as your own.  Cheated and stolen."

            Timono gave a sigh of dramatic proportions.  "But there was no here before Baggins had these cells built!" he said with an exaggerated tone of reason.

            Their visitor merely shrugged.  "At least he give thought to comfort, dignity, and health for them as might end up here from time to time," he noted.  "Not like what those as were held here afore ye knew.  Although I'm told as each of you was offered the storage hole as old Missus Lobelia was kept in.  You can bet, though, even if you'd chose to stay there as you'd of had a proper chamber pot with a lid, clean water and proper blankets as well as decent food rather than what they'd give her when she was nailed into it like a hen in a crate on the way to market."

            Marco Smallburrow shuddered, protesting, "He would never have really done that, Baggins wouldn't!"

            Again Sam shrugged.  "You think not?  There was a time when I'd of thought the same.  But I learned when I saw him dealing with that Gollum that his courtesy and soft words for others don't mean he's truly soft hisself.  No, when you try to--to use his pity to get your way he sees right through you and lets you know as that's not what's goin' to happen.  He won't be manipulated, not Mister Frodo Baggins."

            "But this--this prison we're in--it's not natural for Hobbits!" Smallburrow insisted.

            Sam gave a faint smile.  "Was what you did to help the Pimple and his bully-boys take over the Shire natural for Hobbits?" he countered.  "I'll ask this--when those Big Men took Will Whitfoot prisoner and threw him into one of the rooms here and broke his knee bone and locked him up, did either of you speak up against it?  How about when they was kicking Mister Ferdibrand Took in the back of the head enough to blind him--did either of you say, 'No!  That ain't right!'?  Or when they drug an old Hobbitess like Missus Lobelia here, did you try and stop it?  No?  Didn't think so!  Maybe us Hobbits ain't given to using gaols in proper times, but neither are we likely to take what isn't ours to begin with, much less allow others to do what happened when Lotho Sackville-Baggins put hisself in charge."  So saying, he stepped to the guards' table, and after a brief but courteous exchange with the gaoler on duty he returned with a stool and sat down firmly on it, ready to swivel either way depending on which prisoner might require a response.

            It was Timono Bracegirdle who finally challenged him.  "Why are you here rather than Baggins?" he demanded.

            "Will insists he tried to explain as Frodo couldn't come."

            "He's been saying that for months, but these--" with a gesture to indicate the gaoler, "--told us that Baggins came to Michel Delving on that fine pony they say he rides now some weeks ago.  If he made it here then just to meet with the Mayor, why can't he stir himself to talk to us?"

            Sam's expression was curiously flat as he searched the former lawyer's face.  Finally he answered, his voice carefully modulated, "My Master's not been fully well for quite some time."

            Timono interrupted, "I don't understand how he's in such delicate health.  I know Aunt Lobelia used to go on and on about how he had a weak heart or some such, but I saw no signs of it when we were young."

            Sam shrugged one shoulder.  "Other than that first winter as him was at Bag End, Mister Frodo never had much illness.  But that first winter was when almost everyone seemed to have colds, catarrh, ague, or the lung fever.   He was mighty sick for a time, but he got through it and didn't have no ill effects afterwards.  Not like my mum--she never was as well again.

            "But what we went through out there--it took him quite down.  All of us was bad hurt one time or another, and it was all Strider could do to see us healed again.  I mean, each of us almost died!  But Frodo was worst hurt, and more than once.  He was stabbed a week out of Bree, and we almost lost him then.  Some foul creature near the Dwarf gate caught him and tried to drown him in a lake, and a troll hit him with a spear and knocked the breath out of him.  No doubt as if'n he'd not had that Dwarf mail of Mister Bilbo's on him he'd of been dead, and no mistake!  It's a wonder his ribs wasn't broke.  Had quite the bruise on that side.

            "But that wasn't all, of course.  That Shelob bit him in the pass and poisoned him--I thought he was dead!  Then the orcs caught him and took him to their tower.  They beat him with whips afore I could find where they'd put him.  He was tied so tight the ropes cut his wrists and ankles, and he wouldn't tell what all they done to him.   He'd have nightmares about it, and I sure don't blame him!

            "He was still sick with the poison of the spider bite when we got away from the orcs' tower where they'd held him prisoner.  Yes," he added in response to the expression on Timono's face, "Frodo Baggins spent his own time as a prisoner.  It wasn't an old storage hole like those as was in here afore the two of you saw, but it certainly wasn't anywheres like this--" he indicated the four cells Frodo had ordered prepared with their narrow but adequate beds, arm chairs, heavy tables, and screened area for necessaries.  "It was at the very top of a tall stone tower built high in a mountain pass.  Had to climb a ladder to reach the trap door as was its only entrance.  They'd took all his clothes, and like I said they'd beat him bloody.  Don't know what they'd fed him, but him said as it didn't bear thinkin' about, it was that nasty.  They'd took his pack and torn it to pieces, they'd ate his food or trampled on it--or worse.  There was no privy nor chamber pot--and the corners and the pile of rags they'd dropped him on was right foul with their filth.  His back where they'd beat him and where he was tied was oozing, but there was nothin' to clean it with.  He had to wear bits of their uniforms I'd taken off dead orcs lower in the tower.  They'd done for his water bottle same as they'd done to his pack, so what little water as I carried or could find from the cisterns along the orc roads was all we had, and it was barely drinkable.  Orcs don't leave things clean.

            "We had only a bit of food, and it took almost two weeks to get from that tower to the Mountain.  We often had only a bite or two each to eat in a day, and we was near dying by the time we got there.  Once we was done with what we needed to do we knew we were goin' to die.  Only we didn't.  We'd fainted away, and the great Eagles saw us and brought us away to Lord Strider, and he managed to call us back.  I pretty much recovered, but Frodo didn't, not all the way.  Both Lord Strider and Elrond say as it's what happens when there's too much damage that lasts too long.

            "It's why he decided not to stand for Mayor at the last minute.  Knew as he couldn't count on lasting a full seven years.  Only come here 'cause Master Elrond of Rivendell sent some special herbs to help him do what he had to do."  He sat up straighter.  "He come here to record his will and some other papers as needed filing by old Flour-Dumpling.  Wanted to know it was all done right and proper.  He was settin' his affairs in order."

            "Are you telling us," Timono asked, trembling slightly, “that Frodo Baggins is dead?"  It was plain he could not credit such an idea.

            Marco Smallburrow was already shaking his head.  "No, not dead.  Gone, like old Mad Bilbo before him!"

            Sam swiveled to give Marco a brief nod before returning his attention to the other prisoner.  "No, my Mister Frodo was still living when last I saw him.  And what's more, so was old Mister Bilbo as well.  But you're right as they're both gone now, and neither is ever goin' to return, not never.  We saw them aboard the ship as took them away.  I only hope as Frodo lives to get there."

            "A ship?"  Timono's expression was one of mixed incredulity and revulsion.   "What in Middle Earth are Hobbits doing on a ship?"

            "But they're not in Middle Earth now, or at least we figger as they aren't," was the reply.  "They went with the Elves, to Elvenhome.  It's their reward for helpin' to beat the Enemy."

            "What??!" responded both of the prisoners more or less at the same time.

            Sam sighed, "Didn't you hear?  There was a war on out there, and we four as left the Shire all fought in it!  Why else did we all come home with armor and swords, do you think?"  He shook his head.  "And even you two can be glad as we did," he added.

            It was the Smallburrow who was able to talk first. "And just how do wars between Men affect those of us as live here in the Shire?"

            Again Sam Gamgee was shaking his head.  "Oh, but if only it had just been fights between Men!" he answered.  "But no, it wasn't--not this time!  Everybody was fighting--Men,  Dwarves, Elves, the Great Eagles, orcs and goblins, trolls, wolves and wargs, and even some as you've not heard of like the Ents!  So we four Hobbits each did what we could to bring the Enemy down, each of us as we could fight him."

            "And since when have Hobbits fought in wars?"  Marco's tone was scathing.

            "We've done it afore," Sam shrugged.  "Forty Hobbits went out of the Shire to fight for King Arvedui, back afore Bucca of the Marish was made Thain by the last King's son.  Only this time only four went out.  But we all did as best we could to see Sauron destroyed."

            Timono gave a disbelieving laugh.  "Frodo Baggins with a sword and shield?  I can't imagine him killing anyone!"

            "Actually, he didn't," Sam admitted.  "The most he done was to stab a troll's foot, hit a giant spider in the eye, and cut the hand off a barrow-wight.  But it wasn't for lack of courage or tryin'.  No, the great Elves, they think as him wasn't meant to really kill no one, as that could of made it easier for the Ring to take him over long afore we got through Mordor.  It was for the rest of us to do what killin' as might need doin'.  He had more'n enough to do just dealin' with the Ring."

            "What's this about a ring?  Or Sauron?" demanded Marco.  "Sauron's just in stories!"

            Sam gave him a smile of grim amusement.  "So it never occurred to you as them stories just might be true at least in part?" he asked.  "Well, I'm here to tell you as they were.  And Sauron and Mordor was even worse than you can dream."  He looked down the passage past the two empty cells beyond those in which Marco and Timono dwelt, clearly seeing distant sere lands rather than the chalk of the tunnel walls.  "If'n you've not been there you can't rightly imagine just how terrible it was."  There was grief in his voice and in what each could see of his face.  "I suffered more'n enough.  But what it did to Frodo, carrying that horrible thing on him--just how he recovered enough to come home is the wonder."  He turned to meet Marco's eyes.  "You could never imagine," he repeated.

            There was a thoughtful silence for some minutes.  Finally Timono prompted, "And what's this about a ring?"

            "Oh, that.  It was Sauron's own Ring of Power.  The One Ring.  Old Mister Bilbo found It long ago on his own adventure, down in that Gollum's cave.  Those stories he told what nobody really believed--they was true, all true.  Him left the Ring to Frodo after the Party, and Frodo kept It in his pocket all those years after Mister Bilbo left.  No one dreamed as what magic ring It really was, though, no one but Gandalf, and he didn't want to believe it."

            Sam paused, looking from Timono to Marco and back.  "You two can feel privileged.  Hardly nobody's been told all this, and those as was told for the most part don't want to believe it.  Doesn't really matter if you do or don't, I suppose.  Probably easier if'n you don't.  But Mister Frodo Baggins did the bravest thing as anyone, Elf, Dwarf, Man, or Hobbit could do--he offered to take It to Mordor, all the way to Mount Doom, the only place It could be destroyed, to get rid of It.  And I went with him, every step of the way.  We made it, just barely in time, and that Gollum from old Mister Bilbo's stories, he got the Ring from my Master and fell into the river of Fire with It and they was both destroyed.  That done for Sauron, and without him to guide things Lord Strider's army could finally defeat Mordor's forces."

            Marco Smallburrow looked disbelieving, and it was impossible to describe Timono Bracegirdle's expression.  At last the latter said consideringly, "That Sharkey--he only wanted rings.  Rings and books."

            "And the only things as haven't been found to return to folks is rings," agreed Sam.  "From what Lord Strider's kin and we've been able to figger out, Sharkey decided to take over both Rohan and the Shire some time ago, and was sendin' advice to Mister Lotho on what he could do to make hisself the tyrant over the Shire even afore he learned from Gandalf as the Ring was likely here.  Once he learned that, he seems to of agreed that Lotho should start the Gathering and Sharing scheme, telling him to look at jewelry and food in especial, and for his share all he wanted was rings.  He'd been buying food for his army him was building for several years, but maybe I'm only tellin' you what the two of you already knows.  It was just afore we left, apparently, as the family heads begun realizing as suddenly pipeweed was in short supply and that Lotho was stealing wagons full of food they'd bought for their own and sending it off south out of the Shire.  Merry and Pippin found barrels of pipeweed with the Hornblower brand on them there in Isengard, and it's likely much of the food as they found was grown right here in the Shire, too.

            "Certainly as soon as he convinced the Ents to let him go he headed north as fast as his legs could bring him.  Looked far better fed when we saw him there at Bag End than he did when we passed him on the road six days after we left Lord Strider at the Gap of Rohan.  But I'd surely like to find what him did with all those rings Lotho give him."

            Timono gave him a jaded look.  "Looking for some treasure for yourself?" he asked, his voice full of sarcasm.

            Sam appeared offended.  "What for would I want someone else's rings for?  No, I'd only want to see them sent home to those as lost them is all."

            The Bracegirdle gave Sam's hands meaningful glances. "Doesn't appear you lost any rings."

            Sam flushed.  "Never had any afore I went to Gondor," he said.  "Strider suggested I have this made as a signet so as to use it with the bankers there."  He displayed the heavy ring he wore on his right hand with its red stone into which was cut an intaglio of a budding rose.  "And this is my marriage token," he said, looking at the ring he wore on his left hand.  "It come from Gondor, too, same as the one my Rosie wears."  He gave Timono a wry smile.  "Lotho's folk couldn't take what wasn't even in the Shire at the time.  But it seems the deserving poor somehow needed almost all the dresses my sister Marigold owned, as well as my mum's linens and my Gaffer's shirts and flower pots.  They had hardly nothin' when we got back.  Same was true of the fabrics from the tailor shop my sister Daisy and her husband run, or almost all of Mister Frodo's kin.  Seems it was all about gatherin', with only those as cooperated with Lotho getting to share."

            Now it was Timono's turn to flush, although in his case the reddening was due to anger.  Marco turned from his fellow to Sam once more.  "What about Baggins's things?" he asked.

            "What about them?  My Master had but two rings, the one as was his dad's what he never wore--too big for his hand I member him saying, and the one he got from Mr. Bilbo, and that's gone now like I said, and good riddance.  What else he had from his dad and mum Lotho never touched, for no one got that far into Buckland.  He has cousins as is seeing to those things.  His rightful heir would of been his Cousin Daisy as married Mister Griffo Boffin, I suppose, but those two agreed to his own choice of heir.  Now they've got their own back, they say they don't need nor want Bag End or what else was Frodo's.  They even signed the articles of adoption, so nobody can say he was overlooking them."

            “Adoption?  So he did the same as Bilbo did, then, to choose his own heir?"

            "Yes."

            "Who?"

            "Does it really matter?  Neither of you is any sort of Baggins, after all.  If the Bagginses have agreed, what's it to you?"

            Timono's mouth worked as he stared intently at Sam Gamgee.   "Then who is the Baggins now, then?  His cousin Ponto?  Or Ponto's daughter Angelica, who married Rico Clayhanger?"

            Sam shook his head.  "No, not neither.  Nor Missus Geli nor her sister as married your cousin Bartolo.  I'm told it's one as was born a proper Baggins, a younger lad as Mister Frodo didn't tell no one about, someone as has lived elsewhere than Hobbiton.  There are a few Bagginses as live elsewhere, you know.  According to what he wrote in his will he didn't want this lad to grow up the target of Missus Lobelia's gossip such as him did.  No, there's to be no more hyphenated Bagginses lookin' to be Baggins family head.  He'll have to do family business under watch by Missus Daisy and Mister Griffo and the Mayor until him comes of age, but Frodo said he's a steady and sensible lad so he has no worries for the family's future."

            "So a mere lad is now Master of Bag End and the Hill?" pursued Marco.

            "No!"  Timono's voice was dripping with a mixture of disgust and amazement, his eyes fixed on Sam.  "It is you, isn't it?  He left Bag End to you!"

            Marco objected, "But he has a family of his own!  How could Frodo Baggins adopt him?"

            Sam gave a deep sigh.  "Yes, I have a dad still, and brothers and sisters, and now a wife and child as well.  But Frodo had none of those.  Nor would he think to marry with him not feelin' whole after what carrying the Enemy's Ring done to him.  So he--"  He stopped and swallowed, then continued, "He adopted me as his brother, and left Rosie and me everything as he was leaving behind.  Couldn't make me family head for the Bagginses, not as I'd want that anyways.  Bad enough as my family all decided I should take over as family head for the Gamgees and the Ropers and the Gamwidges.  But the Baggins lad don't know nothing about Hobbiton nor the Hill, and we're told him has property of his own as was his parents'.  Has no need for a smial here in Hobbiton, too."

            "But you're a gardener--a servant!"

            Sam was quiet for a minute, staring down at the stony floor under his feet.  Finally he raised his head and gave the two prisoners each a considering look.  "I told you as they give me the title 'Esquire' down there in Gondor.  Either of you know what the word means?"

            It was Timono who responded, "I've only heard the word in stories Baggins told us that summer we spent on the second Hornblower plantation.  Something to do with those who are servants to knights or lords as I remember it."

            Sam gave him a nod of approval.  "You have that right.  But mostly those as become esquires is sons of lords and knights themselves.  When they're old enough not to spill they start out as pages, lads what carry messages and run errands mostly.  Then when they're older they advance to esquires.  Now they work mostly for one person, a knight or a lord or even a king, maybe.  They work as body servants, take care of their lord's weapons and armor and horses, wait on them at formal dinners, and still run errands and carry messages and all.  But their lord is trainin' them up in return, teaching them everything as him knows about taking care of property and tenants, keepin' records, how to speak proper to other people, and everything about guarding those as is under the knight or lord's protection.  Then, when they show as they can handle the responsibility, the esquires become knights themselves, and may go on to become lords or even kings in their own right.  And sometimes when the one who's been training them up dies or decides as it's time to retire, they take their master's place.

            "But not all of those as become pages or esquires is wellborn.  Sometimes a specially likely lad who was the son of a tenant or servant will be chosen to become a page or an esquire.  It's considered an honor, you see, and some rise high over what was their station.  Since I went all the way with my Master and served him as I could, those as live in Gondor decided I must have been his esquire, not just a servant.  Then I realized as Frodo had always thought of me that way, too."

            He set his hands on his thighs and straightened to his feet.  "So there you have it.  And I suppose as Pippin Took and Merry Brandybuck can use the same title, too.  Lord Denethor, as was Steward of Gondor, accepted Pippin as his personal esquire, and King Théoden of Rohan done the same with Merry.  Pippin's more than an esquire now, though.  He's a Captain of the Guard of the Citadel and serves as Lord Strider's own bodyguard now.  I'll warn you of this—don’t think as either of you take on Peregrin Took.  Pippin is really good with that sword of his, or King or no King old Strider would never of let him have that job.

            "You two are still here when the other two as was with you are out mostly ’cause others have said as they’ll keep an eye on them but nobody wants to take charge of neither of you.  What they did was mostly petty, aimed at a few as they felt particularly jealous of or they was sure they could force to do what they wanted to, while the two of you was out to cheat everyone in the Shire if’n you could, right there along with Mister Lotho hisself.  You found the ways to take everything away from anyone as you or the Pimple chose, and helped yourselves to the spoils, even goin’ into Bag End and stealin’ from him and Missus Lobelia once you knew as they was out of the way.  Now you’re payin’ the price, and I doubt as anyone is too worried about whether or not you think it’s fair or not.

            “Now, if'n you'll excuse me, I want to go back home to Bag End.  I've spent far too long away from it, and I have to prune the rose bushes afore the frost comes."

            So saying, he picked up the stool to return it to the guards' table.   Marco Smallburrow, however, stayed him with one last question.  "Wait a moment, Gamgee--wasn't Frodo made an esquire, too?"  Somehow, however, the query did not come out as sarcastically as he'd intended.

            Sam turned and gave him a look that was decidedly cool.  Then a smile quirked at the corner of his mouth.  "My Mister Frodo, an esquire?  The folk there in Gondor was certain as if'n him was ever that it was afore Mister Bilbo left him as Master of Bag End.  No, to them he's Lord Frodo Baggins, a Prince of the West."

            With that he set down the stool and left, his head held up proudly.

            The gaoler on duty sniggered.  Marco glared at him.  "What's so funny, Longsmial?" he demanded.

            The guard didn't appear the least abashed.  "Him didn't tell you as him, too, is considered a Prince of the West.  Mister Pippin told me that when him was here in Michel Delving last, and old Flour-Dumpling admitted as that was in the letters our new King sent to him, the Master, and the Thain.  Both Mister Frodo and Mister Sam is Princes together.  So there!"

 

For RabidSamFan for her birthday.  Sorry it's so belated!

In the Inn

            There was a rap at the door, followed by, “Mister Baggins, sir!” 

            Frodo Baggins awoke, confused.  Oh, yes—Aragorn had wished to have his company in the Houses of Healing this morning—there was that woman, the young one who’d just lost her child and whose husband had not been found in the wake of the battle of the Pelennor, who appeared to be so much calmer when he visited her in company with the King….

            He blinked furiously, trying to clear away the greyness that seemed to fog his vision at times, much as it had after he was stabbed with the Morgul knife.  He peered upwards, but the ceiling was not that he’d become familiar with in the guesthouse on Isil Lane in Minas Tirith, seeming impossibly high and characterized by straight lines and flat planes such as Men preferred.  No, this ceiling was at a comfortable height, and nicely rounded where it met the walls.  Nor did he see the lines of books to his right he’d known in the room in which he’d slept in the guesthouse, with the two sets of shelves, one set on either side of the tall, narrow window that looked across at the large empty building that he’d been told was often used to house embassies from foreign lands come to treat with the lords of Gondor.

            This was a room in a Hobbit home—or establishment.  But it was not his beloved bedroom in Bag End, nor any he’d slept in either at Brandy Hall or the Great Smial.  Nor was it the room he’d slept in at his Cousin Freddie’s new house in Budgeford, nor that in Will and Mina Whitfoot’s home in Michel Delving.

            Wait—those last two were places he’d only known since they’d come home to the Shire!  He couldn’t be in Minas Tirith!  And he felt a stab of mixed relief and disappointment to know that he was again in his own land.

            Nor was he lying comfortably and familiarly on his right side with his right arm extended and his left one across his chest as he preferred to sleep, but instead he reclined against carefully arranged pillows, facing upwards.  Yes, he remembered asking Queen’s Lace to bring them….

            He was in Michel Delving, but not in the Whitfoot home.  No, instead he was in the inn that faced the town Common, there near the entrance to the Council Hole.  And he’d needed those pillows to help him breathe while he rested.  Yes, both Aragorn and Budgie Smallfoot, Freddie’s resident healer and general aide, had advised him that if he felt short of breath while lying down it could be eased if he raised his torso somewhat.

            He laid his head back and closed his eyes.  He was fading, he knew.  He thought that he had sufficient strength to make the ride to the Havens, but doubted he had much more than that.  He felt weak, tired, and very old.  And as much as he loved the Shire and Sam, Merry, Pippin, Folco, Fatty, his aunts and uncles and cousins, as much as he loved Elanor and Rosie, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli—oh, but it was time to leave, now, before he came to resent all of them for keeping him here when he no longer belonged among the living!

            There was another succession of raps on the door.  “Mister Baggins—are you all right, sir?”

            What?  Oh, the innkeeper!  Yes, he should answer him, he supposed.  “Do come in, Master Greenbriar.”  Oh, but his voice sounded rusty!

            Bobbin Greenbriar had inherited the inn for Michel Delving from his father.  Unlike many other innkeepers throughout the Shire, he’d not sold out to Lotho Sackville-Baggins in the last few years before Frodo left the Shire in company with Sam Gamgee and the heirs to the Thain and the Master of Buckland.  Lotho had made an offer, to which Bobbin had responded with an amazed laugh before turning away to see to the needs of another customer he felt was not trying to josh him.  What need had the Greenbriars to sell their inn to anyone?  They had the most profitable inn in the entirety of the Shire, after all, offering rooms, food, and drink to almost everyone who came to Michel Delving to file papers or record bills of sale in the Mayor’s office, to the heads of families and villages come to the Council meetings held twice a year in the Council Hole, to wedding parties throughout the year, and to many who came to the Free Fair during the Lithe Days.  In the end Lotho’s Big Men had seized Bobbin’s brother and a son and had used threats toward them to force the close of the establishment.  Then one of those who oversaw the Lockholes had decided to allow Bobbin to continue brewing beer—only for the consumption of himself and his fellows, of course, and had seen to it the innkeeper had malt and hops and so on to keep the Men in drink.  Bobbin had been able to divert a good deal of the grain to those who were worst off in the region, and once the Big Men were gone and his son and brother released had been able to reopen his doors fairly quickly, unlike many others whose inns had been burned to the ground or torn apart in search of any spoils.

            He entered now, his eyes searching the room, checking the details to make certain that Queen’s Lace and Oto, who cared for the guests and the quarters let to them, had done their best to meet whatever needs the former deputy Mayor might have expressed.  “I am so pleased that you chose to stay with us, Mister Baggins, sir,” he said with a bob to his square head.  “It’s been quite a time since you slept beneath this roof, I’m thinkin’, sir, not since you was a wee lad, come with your mum and dad to the Free Fair, I believe.  Not what I wasn’t the same, of course.  Fine people, your parents were.  Did you sleep well, sir?  I member as you asked to be waked early.  The clock in the common room just rung six—is that early enough for you?  Would you like a breakfast brought in, do you think?”

            Did all innkeepers talk like this, the words rushing out of them while they noted whether the curtains needed drawing and whether the mantel had been properly dusted and the ewer on the wash stand needed filling, he wondered?  Other than size and a lack of facial hair on Bobbin, Frodo thought that there was little if any visible difference between Bobbin Greenbriar and Barliman Butterbur in Bree.  Perhaps it was this attention to detail while they produced soothing prattle that made them decent innkeepers.

            The grey haze was creeping across his eyes once more, and he blinked furiously to clear his vision, then rubbed at his forehead.  Bobbin was quick to notice this, and a look of concern crossed his face.  “Are you unwell, Mister Frodo?” he asked.  “Would you like some willow bark tea, do you think?  Perhaps you should stay in bed for now, and I’ll have the missus prepare a posset for you.”  He was eyeing the number of pillows behind Frodo consideringly, his brow slightly furrowed.  Frodo remembered that the Greenbriars also had relations amongst the Boffinses where heart problems were not uncommon, and Bobbin was most likely aware of why extra pillows might be wanted.

            “I am well enough,” Frodo said, “and I don’t need a posset, thank you.”  He sat up, doing his best to hide the effort it cost him.  “I shall do better once I’ve had my morning tea, I suspect.  Oh, no—you do not need to go order some brewed up.  It is a—a medicinal tea that Sam brews for me.  I suspect that Aragorn taught him the making of it.  If you will hand me one of my water bottles from the back of the chair and the cup from the wash stand, please.”

            He turned to sit properly with his feet over the side of the bed, and reached for the rectangular shawl that Rosie had packed for him along with his night shirt to pull it around his shoulders.  This had been made by Sam’s mother for Bilbo the first year Frodo lived in Bag End as Bilbo’s ward, done in the finest wool blended with rabbit fur and dyed a gentle blue.  He had to admit that it was warm as he drew it around him, then looked up to smile as reassuringly as he could at the innkeeper as Bobbin approached with mug and bottle in hand.

            “I must say, Mister Baggins,” Bobbin commented as he handed the cup to Frodo to hold and removed the stopper from the water bottle to pour some of its contents into it, “I believe as that is one of the most elegant of nightshirts as I’ve ever seen.  But then, all of the gear as you four Travellers come back with is particularly good, I’m thinkin’.  Made in foreign parts?”

            Frodo shrugged, nodding his thanks.  “I must admit most of what we brought back from our journeys was made elsewhere.  Aragorn had clothing made for all of us there in Gondor, including nightshirts, of course, as what little we had once we got there was far too ragged to wear any longer.  You go wandering through the wild for months at a time, through briars, brambles, mires, and waste places, and your clothing is bound to suffer.”  He sipped at the tea in his cup.

            “Not just your clothing, or so it would seem,” grunted Bobbin shrewdly.  “All of you come back far thinner’n’ what you was when you left, or so I sees it.  And perhaps I’m sayin’ as one who shouldn’t, but I fear as at least your health has suffered.”

            Frodo felt his face going stiff.  He wrapped both hands around the cup and fixed the innkeeper with his sternest stare.  “Perhaps it did, but I can—and will—do what I have to.”

            Bobbin raised one hand in an apologetic manner.  “I’m meanin’ nothin’ by it, Mister Baggins, sir.  Certainly you’ve done well by all of us here in the Shire, what I can tell.  You found my wife’s shell brooch as them thievin’ Gatherers and Sharers took and got it back to her, and our servin’ pieces and all.  And you saw to it as no one went without that first Yule, and that was a great thing all on its own.  I’m just worrited for you, is all.  You’re among the finest folk as I’ve ever known, and at least I’d miss you somethin’ terrible if’n you was to leave us.”

            There was a twisting behind his breastbone, and Frodo dropped his gaze.  “I’m sorry to have snapped at you, Mister Greenbriar,” he said softly.  “Of course I know you never meant to offend me.  And I do appreciate your concern.”  He finished his tea, glad to feel it taking effect already.  “I will be better directly.  If you will have an egg boiled for me, five minutes would do, a couple slices of toast with butter and perhaps some cherry conserve such as you put by last summer, and a mug of green tea piping hot, I’ll dress and be ready for my day.  Are the Goodbodies here yet?”

            “Mister Oridon Goodbody is to arrive this morning sometime later.  Shall I advise him as you’ll look to speak with him when you can?”

            “I would so appreciate it,” Frodo said gratefully.  “I have some business to do first, and it may take me most of the morning and perhaps into the afternoon to complete my negotiations.  Once all is settled I shall need to consult with Oridon as my banker of discretion.  And if I might leave my things until after dinner, I shall pick them up before I go to the Mayor’s office.”

            “There’s no problem with that, sir.  Are you certain as you’d not wish more for first breakfast, Mister Frodo?  That’s hardly enough to keep body and soul together, if’n you’ll pardon my sayin’ so.”

            The Baggins suppressed a sigh.  “Well,” he said carefully, “you could bring a few pippins for me to eat as I walk out upon my business.  I do have a good deal to sort out this morning, I am afraid.  Again, thank you for your concern, but I assure you that what I asked for is enough for the moment.”

            Bobbin Greenbriar recognized the dismissal, and making certain that the water bottle he still held was firmly corked, he hung it by its cord again from the back of the chair.  “If’n you’re certain as that’s all you wish for the moment, I’ll see to it as Pippa brings it up directly as soon as it’s ready.  And if there’s anything else as we can do for you just let us know and I’ll see as it’s done and done right.”  He walked to the door and opened it, but paused to turn back momentarily.  “It’s been a true honor hosting you here, Mister Baggins,” he said.

            “Thank you,” Frodo said simply.  “I remember coming here with my parents when I was a child, and thinking it the grandest thing in the world to stay here for the Free Fair.  And I did notice that this is the same room that my father always took for us.  Bilbo preferred camping out after his own adventure, and he taught me to love sleeping out under the stars, but now and then it’s good to know that others enjoy caring for us.  Thank you for that, for your hospitality and the care you’ve shown me.  I feel I ought to have stayed here myself more often in the past.”

            Bobbin’s face lit up with pleasure.  “It’s the greatest way for one like me to make a livin’ for myself and my family,” he answered, “seein’ to it as others is comfortable and well fed.  You come back for dinner, and we’ll have it all in hand for you.  There’s a pigeon pie planned, I do believe.  I’ll see to it as a goodly piece is set by for your meal.”

            So saying, he left, and Frodo found himself smiling as he began dressing for the day.  No matter how odd so many people seemed to find him, it was good to know that some Hobbits of the Shire would remember him kindly once he sailed.

           

For Cathleen and FrodoSweetStuff for their birthdays.  A drabble and a half.

High on the Hill

            “My Sam says as him and Rosie’ll live there in Bag End, with you.”

            Frodo Baggins turned that too-wise gaze of his on the Gaffer.  “Yes,” he said.  “I have asked them to join me in Bag End.  But they will not be there only to ‘do’ for me.  They are to be there for their own sake, as my brother and his beloved wife.  We would not be free today were it not for Sam, you see.  And he will be important for the Shire.”

            “Him tells me as that new King of ourn lives at the top’ve his city.”

            “Yes.  And the one who will be Mayor of the Shire as often as he pleases shall live high on the Hill.”

            “So the folks c’n see him?”

            Frodo gave that odd smile of his, proud and sad and joyful all at the same time.  “Even so, my friend.”

Written for the LOTR Community "Time in a Bottle" fixed-length ficlet challenge: 313 words.  For Rhapsody for her birthday.

Rededication

            Each time he enters this room, he remembers those times he did so before, when Frodo Baggins dwelt in it.  He remembers helping Mr. Bilbo settle the table there, and his mother hanging yellow muslin curtains in the window.  He remembers sitting by the bed, coaxing Frodo, ill with lung fever, to swallow the thin gruel, calves-foot jelly, and broth intended to strengthen him to health again.  He remembers being sent in by Bilbo to rouse Frodo to come to first breakfast.  He remembers seeing bright eyes emerging from images of dragons and great heroes of long ago, said images engendered by books, refocusing on the present as they recognize a beloved young friend come to call him to real life within the Shire.  He remembers drawing open the curtains to let the reflected light of sunrise into the room of one who’d spent the previous evening reading until the wee hours, wakening him to the dawning of a new day that must needs be explored for the delights to be found within its grasp. 

            He remembers responding to muffled gasps of past terrors that for the moment seem more real than the safety and comfort now known.  He remembers wiping tears of loss when Frodo ought to have been rejoicing at the promise of life embodied in their Elanor.

            The quest gave Sam the full life he’d always hoped for and that Frodo had ever promised should be his.  But it robbed Frodo of his joy, of his innocence, of his ability to hope.  Oh, he’d endured—that Frodo had done.  But what does that endurance signify when the one who endures cannot again find hope for himself?

            But now it is time to put those memories aside, for a different Frodo shall sleep in this room from this day, and he shall know hope because of all that his name-father endured.

For Febobe, Shelley, Arc5, and TracyClaybon for their birthdays, and for Tallis, who wanted such a tale.

 It Was a Dark and Stormy Night ...

            Frodo wasn’t in the Mayor’s office when Merimac Brandybuck and his wife Adamanta arrived there from Buckland late one rainy afternoon in February.  “He’s gone back to Will and Mina’s house,” advised Hildegard Took, who was one of the Took lawyers helping Frodo go through the backlog of contracts, sales agreements, apprenticeship indentures, wills, and so on that had built up during the months Lotho’s Big Men had held Mayor Whitfoot prisoner in the Lockholes.  “He’s been fighting a headache much of the day.  I suspect that it’s the weather that’s caused it.”

            Mantha was surprised.  “Frodo hasn’t been subject to headaches for years,” she objected.

            Hillie shrugged.  “I certainly don’t remember him having such things often at all before, but he has them now.  He did take some contracts with him to review, although I hope that he’ll just let them lie for the evening.  He works too hard, and would do well with a good night’s sleep.”

            While Mac presented the documents his brother Saradoc, as Master of Buckland, had sent to be registered and filed, Mantha indicated she would go to the Whitfoot house to check up on their cousin.  She hurried back out of the Council Hole, paused to evaluate the wind and rain, pulled the hood of her travel cloak over her head, and ran as quickly as she could to Will and Mina’s door.

            Mina Whitfoot opened the door at her knock, and immediately invited her in.  “You just arrived from Buckland?  Do wipe your feet well there—you don’t want them wet, I know.  Fancy coming all that way in this weather!  Frodo?  Oh, he’s gone back to his room.  Has a nasty headache, not that he wanted to admit to it, of course.  But there’s no mistaking the signs.  And his shoulder seems to be aching abominably as well.  I was just fixing up a cold cloth for him to place over his eyes.  Would you like to take it back to him?  I’m certain as he’ll be glad enough to see some family today.  They’ve been going through several of the contracts as that Timono Bracegirdle and Marco Smallburrow wrote up and presented for Lotho’s benefit.  Who could imagine as Hobbits of the Shire would be so quick to take advantage of others in such a manner?”

            As she led the way through the kitchen she paused to advise Will, who sat in front of the kitchen fire with one leg propped up on a padded stool, “You remember Adamanta Goodbody Brandybuck, don’t you, Will?  She’s come to see Frodo!  You two came on Brandybuck business, didn’t you, you and Mac?” she asked, turning to address Mantha.

            “Oh, yes—Sara had us bring some of the documents from last summer that we weren’t able to get here then, of course, what with Lotho’s ruffians blockading the Brandywine as they did.  It’s the first I’ve been out of Buckland in what seems forever!”

            Mina’s eyes were shadowed as she responded, “Oh, but we do understand.  No one was able to do much of anything, not while they were in charge.  Here, let me take your cloak and hang it here near the fender—’twill be warm and dry in no time.  And here’s the cloth for Frodo’s eyes.  I soaked it in rosewater and comfrey.  I do hope it will help.  He has a mug of his tea there for him to drink already.  Here—just this way, and through that door.”

            Mantha knocked at the indicated door, and at a muffled word from inside she opened it and went in.

            Frodo sat on a padded wooden chair at a small table, looking down at a bound document, a single candle lighting the page he was studying.  Her first impression was of how much he had matured while he was gone.  His face no longer appeared unusually youthful, and his expression was far more serious than she remembered him ever looking.  He appeared so very serious!  When had she ever seen him look so serious?  She didn’t think that even in the dark days before Bilbo brought him away from Brandy Hall to live in Bag End had Frodo Baggins appeared so solemn and determined.  As for his hair—well, there were a goodly number of white hairs to be seen in it, and particularly at the temples.  His face was thinner than it had been, with decided hollows in the cheeks and in the temple area, and there was a definite furrow between his brows that was new.  As for his eyes----

            Not since his parents died had his eyes been so shadowed!

            She did her best to hide her surprise and dismay.  Instead, she tried for a light tone.  “Hello, Frodo dearest.  Missus Whitfoot asked me to bring this to you—she is certain that you have been suffering from a headache, and she believes that if you will consent to lie down with this across your eyes it will help to ease it.”  She held out the thick, cool cloth.

            Frodo eyed it uncomfortably.  “It’s nothing I can’t bear with, Mantha,” he said.

            She widened her eyes at him.  “And just why must you bear with a headache, Frodo?  Is that a loan agreement, one of those that allowed Lotho to take possession of someone else’s property?  It can wait, can’t it?  I mean, Frodo, that we all know by now that Timono Bracegirdle and Marco Smallburrow were deep in the plot with Lotho to take control of the Shire and to rob our citizens of their property and comfort.  All that is is far more sour icing upon the cake, isn’t it?”

            “It is the loan agreement that allowed Lotho to turn Odovacar and Rosamunda Bolger out of Budge Hall.”

            She paused.  Oh, but that was definitely one of Lotho’s far fouler moves.  Even Ponto and Iris Baggins had been allowed to remain in their own home, although they’d been made to pay an exorbitant rent, from what she’d been told by Ponto’s recently widowed brother-in-law, Milo Burrows.  Poor Peony—she’d simply faded away in shock and shame, once she realized that her gossiping to that old harridan Lobelia had helped Lotho convince her brother to accept a loan guaranteed by the deed to Ponto and Iris’s smial, in which a clause had been written allowing Lotho to take possession of the deed should he ever become Master of Bag End.  Peony had died late in the spring.  Then in the autumn Lobelia found herself inhabiting one of the old storerooms in the storage tunnels in Michel Delving that Lotho and his creatures had dubbed the Lockholes.  Not even being Lotho’s mother had kept her safe!  “I still find it difficult to fathom why Lotho acted so hatefully to so many,” she said.

            “He hated me, and sought to punish me through behaving terribly toward anyone he knew I especially cared for and who cared for me in return,” Frodo sighed, closing the volume with an air of finality.  “Although he and his fellows appear to have allowed themselves to become particularly greedy for anything of any value they could get their hands upon.”

            “Why did they take so much food?” Mantha asked.

            Frodo was rubbing his fingertips against his forehead—yes, that headache was definitely bothering him.  “I suspect at first it was done on the orders of Saruman—the one everybody here called Sharkey.  He had been building a terrible army with which he’d intended to take over the country next to where he lived, after which they apparently were intended to go eastward to attack Gondor from the northwest while Mordor and its other allies attacked from the east and south.  Once they were done there I think that Sharkey intended to bring his army northward.  An army such as he brought together needs a good deal of food, and Merry and Pippin tell me that they found at least one storeroom within his keep that was filled with provisions brought at least in part from the Shire.  It’s where all the food and pipeweed and other goods ended up that disappeared from the Shire the summer before we four left through the Old Forest.”

            “That Sharkey fellow was a warlord?”  The idea repulsed the Hobbitess.

            “He’d certainly become one by the time we became aware of him.”

            “And you first heard of him down south, where you four went?”

            Frodo was already shaking his head.  “I had heard of him—in passing—from Gandalf a few times.  He was the chief of Gandalf’s order, the head Wizard, if you will.  And Gandalf had always held him in deepest respect, although it seems they hadn’t seen one another for some time.”  He now was rubbing at his eyes.  “I know,” he breathed, “that I could indeed do without this headache.”  He reached out for the mug upon his desk and drank deeply from it.  “The tea usually helps,” he said, eyeing the mug again once it was back in its place, “but this time it doesn’t appear to be doing much good.”

            “Then perhaps you should do as Mina suggests and lie down for a time with this over your eyes, dearling.  You do look to be in quite a bit of discomfort.”  As he rose, far too slowly and stiffly for her satisfaction, she asked, “The tea is medicinal, then?”

            He started to nod, but stopped with a grimace of pain as he turned to sit gingerly upon the edge of the bed.  “I’m not certain whether Aragorn or Lord Elrond taught Sam how to make it, but it’s similar to several versions of supposed tea they’d been giving me for some time.  A thinly disguised draught, I suppose.  For a time I refused to accept any draughts at all, so all of a sudden they simply saw to it that I always had some special tea or other beside me.”  He swiveled to lie with his head upon his pillow, and she could see the misery in his eyes.

            “You never used to need draughts, Frodo Baggins,” she said as she came to settle the cool, damp cloth over his eyes.  “You became ill while you were away, then?  You’ve not been seriously ill for years.”

            He gave an abbreviated shake to his head.  “Not ill so much as injured, Mantha.”  He swallowed.

            She pulled the chair about and sat upon it, her hands folded together on her lap.  Outside, the wind rattled at the shutters, and the rain beat a distinct tattoo.  “Injured?” she asked, again deliberately keeping her tone as light as she could.  She’d learned during Frodo’s last two years at Brandy Hall that it didn’t do with Frodo Baggins to make a question about how he felt sound serious.  “It doesn’t appear to have been a serious injury.  You look quite fit.  Thinner, yes—but no more so, I must say, than when you were a lad in the Hall.  But I must suppose that it is hard to get regular meals out in the outer lands.”

            He gave a brief, painful laugh, and she was glad he couldn’t see her flinch, what with the cloth over his eyes.  “And we’ve been back in the Shire since the fall.  Don’t you think that in four months I should have begun to look more a proper Hobbit once more, Adamanta?  Mina has never tried to stint me, nor the Cottons, either.”  He was quiet for a minute or two.  At last he said, “I just can’t eat as I once did.  They tell me that it happens sometimes, when a person has been through the types of—experiences—that Sam and I went through.”

            “And who are they who tell you this, Frodo?”

            A small shrug.  “Aragorn, Lord Elrond, Lord Elrond’s sons, the healers in Minas Tirith.  We were given a house to live in next to one of the healers who went with Aragorn to the Black Gate and who helped with those who had been injured during the battle, and who saw to Sam, Pippin, and me as we recovered.  He and Aragorn both have told me that having to breathe the air where we were alone was enough to damage my digestion.  Sam was able to recover more fully and has regained much of his weight.  But he didn’t suffer all that I did.”

            It was difficult to continue her pretense of mild interest.  “Pippin?  Was he injured, too?”

            “Yes.  He almost was crushed, poor lad.  You should have seen him when Sam and I awoke—he was still sporting a good deal of bruises, most of them going yellow as they healed, thank the stars.”

            The shutter rattled particularly hard, and Frodo shuddered.

            It took her a moment before she could respond.  Her mouth felt dry.  “He looks quite fine now, I must say.  He and Merry both appear to be magnificently well now, what with how much they’ve both grown.  Who could have imagined that little Peregrin Took could grow so tall in just over a year?  Why, we’d all thought he’d never be much taller than Bilbo, who wasn’t a particularly tall Hobbit, if you’ll remember.”

            At last she saw a smile upon his lips.  “Oh, I know.  You should have seen Bilbo standing there in Lord Elrond’s house when we stopped there on our way back, his head cocked and his hands on his hips, giving Merry and Pippin both a bit of last minute advice.  ‘And don’t let your heads grow too large for your hats!’ he told them, before noting that as tall as they both are now they are likely to find hats and other clothing a good deal more expensive, what with all the extra cloth needed to make them a suit of clothes any more.”  His laugh this time sounded more like him, and she laughed along with him.

            “Yes,” she said, “Merry said that you’d all seen Bilbo there in Rivendell.  How wonderful, to think that he’s lived there all these years!  Still intent on passing up the Old Took, is he?”

            His nod was more normal.  “Yes.  He has always wanted to live longer than his grandfather.”  He reached up and rubbed briefly at his forehead, and she saw for the first time the gap where his one finger had been lost.  She swallowed hard.  Who had so damaged their Frodo?!  If she ever managed to find the one who’d done this she’d—she’d—well, she would make him pay, somehow!

            She cleared her throat.  “This Aragorn you all speak of sounds to be rather marvelous.”

            Again he smiled, and his voice was softer when he answered.  “He is, Mantha.  I’d never dreamed that there were Men such as he is.  Terrifying and caring by turns, the greatest warrior among Men born this whole last Age of the Sun, they tell me, and the greatest healer among Men as well.”

            “And who has told you this?”

            “The Elves who raised him.”

            She thought for a moment.  “Why would Elves raise a Man?”

            Frodo was now rubbing at his left shoulder as if it, too, were aching some.  “His father died when he was a toddler—that’s what Men call their children we’d refer to as faunts.  Aragorn is the last of the line of Kings, the latest of the descendants of Lord Elros Tar-Minyatur, who was the brother to Elrond, the Master of Rivendell.  Elrond is counted among the lords among Elves as his brother was counted as among the lords among Men, and since the return of the Sea Kings to Middle Earth he has always cared for his brother’s descendants.  Because Sauron sought ever to kill those of that lineage, after the death of Lord Arathorn Elrond took Aragorn and his mother into his house to keep the child safe until he was old enough to return to take on the rule of his people, and to help prepare him for the last battles.  He didn’t tell us who he was when we met him, and only after we were given a letter from Gandalf telling us we could trust Aragorn did he admit that he knew the Wizard.  Sam didn’t trust him for quite a while, I’m afraid, although they are now best of friends.  Who would have ever dreamed that a gardener would become a special friend to the King Returned?”  He smiled, and they were quiet for a minute or two.

            Adamanta glanced around the room and saw a pair of brushes on the clothes chest.  She reached to pick up the foot brush, saying, “Who would think that the King would return?”

            Again he laughed.  “We can’t say when the King returns and mean never in your wildest dreams any more, can we?”

            She again laughed with him.  “I suppose not.  Here, let me brush your feet for you.  You always liked to have your mother brush them when you were a little one.”

            She could see the furrow in his brow reappear briefly.  “Yes, she used to do that to help me calm down when she felt I was growing too excited.”  His brow smoothed, and his mouth grew gentle.  “I missed her doing that after—after the accident.”

            She turned and shifted her chair, and found herself caught by the beauty of the brush she held in her hand.  “Oh, my,” she said, her tone breathless with wonder.  “But this brush is truly a work of art!  Where on earth did you come by it?”

            Were his ears going pink?  They were!  He licked his lips before explaining, “Aragorn had sets made for each of us, as parting gifts.  Although the artisans who made them wouldn’t accept any payment for them.”

            “Why not?” she asked as she turned the brush in her hand.

            “They were made by a couple, a husband and wife, who lived in the Second Circle.  Their son went with the army to fight before the Black Gate.  One of the great Uruks, the largest and most evil of goblin warriors, had knocked him down and was leaning over him, preparing to bite out his throat, when—when It went into the Fire.  When that happened almost all of the truly evil creatures stopped fighting, and the Uruk who was preparing to kill the young Man stopped with the rest.  He stood quite still, surprised by the withdrawal of the Enemy’s attention, and the young Man was able to scramble to his feet and kill the Uruk before it could run away with so many of its fellows.  His parents were so grateful to have their son return alive and mostly unscathed that they would do anything for those of us they felt were responsible for his survival.  When Aragorn explained why he wanted these sets of brushes made they threw themselves into making them the most exquisite they could manage.”

            Adamanta turned the brush in her hand.  “This isn’t bone,” she said tentatively.

            “No, it is ivory.  It is made from one of the tusks from an oliphaunt.  And the bristles are also mostly from oliphaunts as well, although some are boars bristles, I’m told.  The Southrons brought fighting oliphaunts with them from Harad, and all that made it to the battle of the Pelennor were killed.  A few of the tusks were given to the King of Rohan, whose people did the most to kill the beasts, and others were given to some of the guilds in Minas Tirith.  The parents of the young Man were carvers, and they were allowed to have a whole tusk for themselves to carve and sell, for their house and shop were among those that were destroyed in the fires that ravaged the lowest Circles of the White City.  They had often crafted brushes of wood, bone, and occasionally ivory that came their way for the women of Gondor; now they were given drawings of Hobbit brushes by the new King to make some for us.”

            The back of the brush was sheathed in silver inlaid with other metals.  It depicted a Man who was turning to face the artist, his face proud and glorious, a circlet set with a shining jewel about his brow.  He stood upon a construction that reminded her of….

            “Is he standing upon a great boat?” she asked.

            “It is the ship known as Vingilot, the craft on which sails Eärendil the Mariner as the morning and evening star,” he answered.  “And it is sailing toward Menelvagor, the Warrior of the Heavens, or so they call it among the Elves and the Men of Gondor.”  The familiar constellation was picked out in small gems.

            She felt odd using such a beautiful and obviously valuable brush for such a mundane activity as brushing Frodo’s feet, but she could see that Frodo himself had been using it for precisely that purpose, the actual purpose for which it had been made.  She started slowly, diffidently, but brushed more firmly as she saw his muscles begin to relax.  His voice was growing softer.  “The set made for Pippin has a depiction of one of the Guards for the White Tree upon the back of each of them, while those for Merry have the White Horse of Rohan on them.  Sam’s have roses surrounded by elanor and niphredil blossoms.  He loves them!”

            “Was your shoulder injured?  You have been rubbing at it.”

            He paused before admitting, “Yes, not long after we left Bree.  I was stabbed.  It was rather a bad wound.  It’s healed, but I’ve been warned that it’s likely to continue hurting me for years, and especially when the weather is bad or changing for the worse, or when I am particularly tired or anxious.”

            “Like Mac’s collar bone, where he broke it.”

            “Yes.”

            She dug the bristles more deeply through the curls on Frodo’s feet.  He’d always had the most beautiful hair there, as dark and glossy as that on his head.  But now she could see that there were some scars beneath the hair, and even on his soles.  “It appears you had some burns on your feet, Frodo Baggins.  What were you doing, dancing in Yule or Midsummer bonfires?”  Again she had to work to keep her tone light.

            His ears were now pale.  “No,” he said, turning his head slightly away from her.  “Although Sam and I appear to have stepped on burning embers we were barely aware of at the time.  There was a good deal of ash and such that escaped from the fire and lay about us on the ground, and particularly at the end.  I was told that they had to treat us both for burns and cuts, and particularly to our hands, knees, and feet.”

            She was surprised.  “What in Middle Earth were you two doing—crawling through the ashes?”

            “Not on purpose,” he said, the furrow reappearing on the portion of his brow she could see.

            She had to push the lower end of his trouser’s leg up so as to get to all of the hair.  “I don’t remember you wearing your trousers so long.”

            “They tend to wear them longer in Gondor.”

            “Oh?  Do Hobbits live there as they do here in the Shire and in Bree?” she asked.

            He appeared uncomfortable.  “No, there are no Hobbits there in Gondor, although the people of Rohan have stories of having lived near Hobbits when their ancestors dwelt in the upper valleys of the River Anduin.  And according to Lord Elrond’s journals our people migrated from the upper valleys of the Anduin westward into Eriador, eventually settling along the Great East-West Road in the Breelands and finally, with King Argonui’s permission, here in the Shire.”

            She shrugged.  “I admit I’ve not seen as many Men as you have, much less from as many lands as you four appear to have journeyed through, but those I have known all tend to wear their trousers longer than Hobbits do.  So, what does it matter if those Men who live in Gondor wear their trousers longer, too?  Were you trying to copy the fashions of the Men who live there?”

            He sighed audibly.  “It’s not as much a matter of copying them as it was that all we had once we reached Gondor was basically rags, Mantha.  We couldn’t carry too many changes of clothes during our journey once we headed south and east, so most of what we took with us was sturdy clothing that would withstand the weather and countryside through which we would walk.  We would wash them when we could during the first month and a half, but I’ll admit we didn’t have the chance to do so more than two or three times.  When we reached Lórien the Elves there cleaned them thoroughly and mended them all for us, but once we reached Cirith Ungol—”  He paused and swallowed.  Finally he resumed, “When we reached Cirith Ungol, the orcs there got hold of my pack and tore it apart, it and everything in it.  They took what was left of our regular food that I’d had with me, and they threw the lembas, the Elvish waybread, off into a corner, much of it crumbled.  I suppose I should be grateful they didn’t befoul it the way Sharkey’s people did the carpets of Bag End, for I was able to recover a good amount of it.  We found ourselves relying solely on that by the time Sam and I reached our destination.

            “I had no clothing left, and Sam had to—to borrow clothing for me to wear.  But it was foul, and did not—fit—correctly.  Neither correctly nor comfortably.  I finally had to throw it away, and we made do as best we could with Sam’s cloak tied about me.  After they rescued Sam and me, a tailor made us new outfits to wear, but he made them patterned on the clothing worn by their children.  Aragorn had a good many sets of clothing made for us to wear while we stayed in Gondor, but little of it was proper for here in the Shire.  I’ll admit that I ended up giving a good deal of it away before we reached home.  I did have some suits of proper Hobbit garb made, but they still made the trousers longer.”

            “Well, I recognize the shirt and waistcoat you’re wearing today, and those are ones you wore frequently in the first years after Bilbo left.”

            “I always swore I’d not do what Bilbo did and fill Bag End’s wardrobes and dressing rooms with more clothing than I could possibly wear.  But I did keep more clothes than I ever got rid of, even though I never imagined that I would ever lose enough weight to be able to again wear what I did at the time I came of age.  I was grateful to have sufficient of my old clothes that I can now wear once they brought some of my things to me from Crickhollow.  But the trousers from Gondor seem to fit me better now than the ones I wore when I was younger.”

            Mantha was examining the scars about Frodo’s lower legs and ankles where his legs had apparently been tied together so tightly that the ropes used had cut into his skin, scars the newer trousers hid.  They fit you better, Frodo Baggins? she thought.  If you say so.  But knowing him, he’d not tell her how he’d come to be bound up so.  “Why did you give away most of what you brought from Gondor?” she asked instead.

            “Because most of it would appear totally outlandish here,” he said.  “You know that even though I finally gave in and began wearing grander things that Bilbo had made for me, I still have preferred to wear plain Hall cloth when I can get away with it.”

            She couldn’t deny that!  She thought for a time, and as she rhythmically brushed his feet she said, “You remember Fred Oldbuck’s cousin Nicco?  He ran afoul of one of the new Shirriffs Lotho appointed.  Nasty sot, Beasty Bracegirdle proved.”

            Frodo made a spitting noise.  “You don’t have to tell me about Beasty Bracegirdle,” he said.  “Always was a bully, you know.  Bigelow never appears to have tried to do anything about making him behave, either.”

            “Fancy you knowing about Beasty Bracegirdle!  After all, he came all the way from Westhall, they tell me.”

            He gave another of those slight shrugs.  “I have business dealings all across the Shire, between the partnership agreements and farm shares I made and those Bilbo and my parents left me.”

            “True,” she commented.  “Anyway, Beasty appears to have taken a particular dislike to certain people, like the Chubbs brothers who bought the tailor shop in Kingsbridge, and Nicco Oldbuck.  Caught Nicco out rounding up his goat one night after the curfew they’d declared, and he had him bound hand and foot and carried into Kingsbridge to the Shirriff house there where they accused him of all kinds of things.  They let him go after second breakfast the next day, telling him that what happened to him was just a warning.  He was in terrible shape!  They’d used fine line to tie him up, and it had cut hard into his wrists and ankles.  The cuts to his ankles were so bad that they festered, and it’s a wonder he didn’t lose a foot!”  There, she thought.  I know what I see when I see such scars, Frodo Baggins.  Who tied you up like that?

            Frodo didn’t make any response to that, not that she’d expected one.  But she knew that he was aware that she recognized that a similar thing had happened to him.  At least he knew that she recognized he’d been a captive.

            She decided to change the subject.  “Tell me about your time with the King—once he became the King, that is.  Merry tells me that you were all there when he was crowned?”

            Again the tips of his ears flushed.  “Yes—we were all there.  He had Sam and me walk on each side of him, while Pippin went before him as Guard of Honor, and Merry walked by Éomer as the Esquire to the King of Rohan.”

            “You walked beside him, you and Sam?”

            “Yes.”  After a pause he added, “He said that he could not have become King if it weren’t for us.”  She left another pause to see if he would continue, and at last he did so:  “After all, if we hadn’t made it, made it all of the way to the mountain, the rest of it, the battles and all, would have all gone for naught.  It had to go into the fire for the Enemy to be brought down.”

            “And the fire, the one you and Sam went through, it was at the mountain?”  She had to admit she felt confused.

            He almost whispered, “Yes.  The mountain, it was a volcano.  Its core was the fire.  It was the only place—the only place where It could be destroyed.”

            It was a moment before she could respond, “And—so, that was where you and Sam—crawled—through the ashes.”  She had to struggle to keep her voice calm.

            “Yes.”

            That answer was so simple, and so terrible.  Suddenly she didn’t want to know the rest that had happened, not there, there on the mountain where the ashes were not from a bonfire but of rock itself.  She worked to make her tone light.  “Is the King married?”

            Again his ears grew decidedly pink.  “He is now, but not when he was crowned.  She came at Midsummer, for the Lithe Days.  They were married on Midsummer Day.”

            “And you attended the wedding?”

            He was smiling, apparently remembering.  “Sam and I were two of those who attended upon him during the wedding.”

            She was surprised.  “He had more than two attending on him?” 

            “He had seven attendants, as did she.”

            Now, that was impressive!  In the Shire bride and groom usually had only one person each to stand beside them at a wedding, although sometimes there might be two apiece.  That was considered to be a trifle excessive, however.  “So, what is his wife like?”

            “She is the daughter of Elrond Peredhel, the Lady Arwen Undómiel.  She is truly the most beautiful woman of any race I have ever seen.  Oh, Mantha, you cannot imagine!  Her hair is dark, almost black, and her eyes the most beautiful grey, and it as if you see a field of stars when you look into them.  Aragorn’s eyes are grey, also, but then they are both descended from Eärendil the Mariner after all.”

            “But, wouldn’t that be like him marrying his sister, if he was raised by her family?”

            He gave a shake to his head, then made certain the cloth was centered over his eyes.  “She was not there when he was growing up.  She’d gone to Lórien to stay for a time with her mother’s people, so the first time they saw each other was the day he came into his majority.”

            “Did her mother take her to visit her grandparents?”

            “No.”  His voice was growing drowsy.  “Her mother has been gone for quite a long time.  About five hundred years, Bilbo tells me.”

            She stopped in the rhythmical brushing of his right foot, surprised.  “Just how old is this Lady Arwen Undómiel?”

            He gave a gentle but amused smile.  “She was born only a couple hundred years after the start of the Third Age, long before the founding of the Shire.  Her mother is the daughter of the Lady Galadriel, who with her husband now rules the realm of Lórien, and she married Lord Elrond not long after the War of the Last Alliance was won.”  The smile faded, and she could hear the regret in his voice.  “I am told that the Lady Celebrían was captured by the Enemy’s creatures as she was traveling between her parent’s realm and her home in Rivendell, and she was subjected to terrible tortures and suffered a poisoned wound.  She never truly recovered, and could not find rest for her spirit while she remained here in Middle Earth.  After a year her husband accompanied her to the Grey Havens west of the Shire and saw her put aboard one of the Grey Ships that take those Elves who choose to leave Middle Earth to Elvenhome.  Her husband, her sons, and her daughter all grieve that she cannot be with them, for those who leave Middle Earth cannot return.  Lord Elrond intends to sail soon enough, I suppose, now that Sauron is defeated for good, and I suspect that the Lady Galadriel will accompany him, and both look forward to being reunited with her.”

            “Then the Lady Arwen is an Elf?”

            “She has more Elvish blood in her than mortal, but she was still counted as one of the peredhil, the half-Elven.  It was foretold that Elrond’s children would be granted the same right to choose that was accorded to Elrond and his brother Elros, to choose whether in the end they would consider themselves Elves or Men, and that this choice must be made at the latest by the time their father chooses to sail from Middle Earth to Aman.  The Lady made her choice when she found that Aragorn stirred her heart—she has now allied herself with those of us who are mortal.  Although I am told that her brothers now have been given more time before they must declare themselves, for although they are still undecided they do not wish to leave her for the time she has left to her.  Aragorn expects to live at least for the next century, if he is not slain in battle before his death by age comes.  It seems a rarely long time for us, but for one who has already lived almost three thousand years it will seem no more than the blink of an eye, I fear.  Most of us suspect that in the end she will know a good deal of surprise to find how soon in her eyes that day will come, and she will not truly be ready for it.”

            As Adamanta resumed gently brushing his foot, she thought on what he’d said and the tone of voice he’d used, and made a realization.  “I think, Frodo Baggins, that you are more than a little in love with the Lady Arwen Undómiel yourself.”

            He was quiet for a time before he sighed.  “I cannot deny that she has stirred my heart almost as much as hers was stirred by Aragorn.  How it has torn me, to find that almost every woman who has ever seriously drawn my eye had already given her heart to another.”

            “Except for Pearl, minx that she was at the time.  Pearl and Narcissa.  I saw you with Narcissa at the Party, Frodo.  And you and I both know that she loves you truly to this day.”

            “And what can I give her back, Mantha?  The Ring—It all but scoured me out during the time It was entrusted to my keeping.  I’ve been stabbed, poisoned, beaten, starved, bitten, and tortured almost beyond belief.  It showed me terrible things being done for Its Master’s benefit, always telling me that I could stop it all if only I would claim It for my own.  I held out for as long as I could, and then—then I failed, and It claimed me!  It certainly wasn’t my doing that I was saved at the last.”

            Ring?  What ring? she wondered.  Frodo had never worn any ring in her memory.  He’d inherited his father’s ring, but that was much too large for him.  Nor, considering how he’d seen it last upon the swollen finger of Drogo’s drowned body could she imagine him ever wanting to do so!  Knowing Frodo, he had it carefully stored away for the day when he had a son to pass it on to, not that that day was likely to come now, not as long as he was convinced he wasn’t fit to marry! 

            Deciding it would be best to change the subject again, she reverted to questions about their new King and Queen.  “So you attended on the King and the Lady Arwen at their marriage?  Was it a lovely ceremony?”

            He relaxed again.  “Oh, yes.  It was very lovely.  I swear better than half of the city came up to the Court of Gathering outside the Citadel to see them married, in spite of there being almost no warning that it was to happen.  The Minister of Protocol was quite out of his depth—he has always managed all ceremonies for the rulers of Gondor for about thirty years or so, I understand; but here the King was, seeing to almost everything himself!  Aragorn went out to the gardens himself to choose the flowers to decorate the bower under which they were married, and he gave the orders for the food vendors to provide for a special feast for everyone in the whole of the White City and paid for it from his own purse rather than from the public treasury.  He chose who was to sit where at the formal wedding feast in the feast hall of Merethrond, and directed how the Citadel was to be cleaned and decorated for the arrival of his bride and her party.  I think he even chose the music that was sung to welcome her!  He’d been a heap of nerves for weeks until one day a messenger arrived from the north, and suddenly he was all business and secretive.  I think he might have told his housekeeper and the Seneschal, but other than Gandalf, Legolas, and those of his kinsmen from here in Eriador who’d come down to fight at his side, I don’t think anyone knew what was to come!”

            “Who said the words?” she asked.

            “Her father, Lord Elrond.”

            “Not someone from his new city?”

            He again gave a small shake of his head.  “I suppose he might have asked her grandfather, Lord Celeborn, for he and Lady Galadriel arrived with the bridal party.  But Lord Elrond is his family head, I suppose.  And I think that both bride and groom wanted for him to be the one to marry them, he who was father to them both, as it were.”

            He raised his hand to his throat, undoing the top button of his shirt.  “Is your collar too tight, sweetling?” she asked.

            He gave a slight shrug.  “A bit.”  She realized he was bringing out a white gem in a silver setting he wore suspended from a chain about his neck.  He fingered it gently.

            “I’ve not seen that before,” she said.

            “The Queen gave it to me, there before we came away home.  I am told she was given it when she was very young.”  Again he was quiet for a time before continuing, “She told me to wear it and remember Elessar and his Evenstar, and to allow it to ease the memories of pain and grief when they come upon me.”  He swallowed, tipping his head backwards somewhat.  “The headache is much better, but with the wind and rain the shoulder is aching worse now.”  He added wryly, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”

            He took a deep breath, held it for a moment, and then let it go, rubbing at the cloth across his eyes with the palm of his left hand.  He tried to cover the yawn he gave.  “Elessar and his Evenstar—our Lord King and Lady Queen.  They are so wonderful to see together!  We never dreamed when we met him in Bree that he would prove so great—so great and so worthy.”

            “And she gave you that jewel?”

            “Yes.”  She had the feeling he was almost asleep at last.

            “That is a very beautiful and personal gift.”

            “I know.  And she gave me another.”

            She kept her voice low.  “What was that, Frodo?”

            “She said—said that if the pain and memories were too much, I could go in her place.  Like her mother.  Find healing there.  Had a poisoned wound, too, her mother did.  Couldn’t heal here, but could there.”  He turned onto his side, pulling his ankle from her hand.  “Should I go?  Do you think so?”  He yawned again, and as he rubbed at his face the cloth fell away.  His eyes were blinking sleepily.  “To sail away, go with the Elves….”  Again he yawned.  “Go with the Elves—cross the Sea….  Maybe be healed.  Like the Queen’s mother.”

            His eyes closed, and after a moment he began to breathe deeply.  He was asleep.

            She rose to set the brush softly back on the chest, and carefully removed the damp cloth.  She opened the wardrobe door, and on its floor lay a feather quilt, beautifully embroidered.  She smiled as she brought it out to lay it gently over Frodo’s sleeping form.  It should keep him warm, she thought.  The wind had died away as they talked, and now there was only the soothing sound of the rain upon the roof. 

            She blew out the candle and went to the door and opened it.  But then she turned back to look at where he lay upon the bed, now sound asleep, and she felt a lump in her throat.  He looked almost frail, lying there; frail and unworldly.  “He works too hard,” Hillie Took had said.  “There’s no mistaking the signs,” Mina Whitfoot had said.  “I’ve been stabbed, poisoned, beaten, starved, bitten, and tortured almost beyond belief,” Frodo had said.  And the Queen had offered him her place upon her father’s ship?

            She shivered as she noted that the furrow was back, there between his brows.  Never had she thought to see Frodo worn with care.

            Reluctantly she wondered if perhaps—just perhaps—he might think seriously about whether or not he should accept the Queen’s second gift.  But she knew that she would not speak of what he’d confided to her this night until after she knew for certain what he had decided.

            She gently closed the door and heard the snick of the latch, and went out to drink a cup of tea with Mina and Will, and listen to the gossip of Michel Delving until Mac came for her.

For Tiggersk8, Primula Baggins, Ignoblebard, SugarAnnie, and Lady Branwyn for their birthdays.

The Ringbearer and the Door Warden

            Horto Brandybuck, who’d served as door warden for Brandy Hall for more years than he liked to admit to, shuffled toward the Heir’s apartment alongside Gomez, who worked in the stables.  “So, Frodo arrived while I was taking my nap?  Did he say why he was here?  I know that he was advised that neither Sara nor Esmeralda is present in the Hall at the moment.”

            “He appears to have come back from Bree,” Gomez answered, his tone indicating that he was as surprised to see Frodo arrive at this time as was Horto.   “The word from those on duty at the Brandywine Bridge indicates that he came back to the gates and turned toward the Hall perhaps two and a half hours ago.”

            Horto was shaking his head.  “Couldn’t have gone all the way to Bree,” he objected.  “He stayed at the Bridge Inn last night—they sent word this morning that he had been there and was headed out the gate eastward shortly before dawn.”

            Gomez appeared even more surprised.  “Then he couldn’t have gone more than halfway to Bree at best,” he agreed.  “But why would anyone go but halfway and then come back again?”

            “I have no idea,” said the old Hobbit.  “Since he came back from south-aways Frodo has been remarkably closed-mouthed.”

            Gomez could do no more but agree with that.

            The kitchen staff indicated that they’d taken a light meal to Frodo’s room at his request; he’d not been there when it was delivered, so it had been left on his mother’s desk.  No one answered the knock at the open door to the Heir’s apartment, and when Horto poked his head into what had been Frodo’s room since his parents’ deaths he saw the tray, still untouched, there where the servers had left it.

            So, where was Frodo Baggins?

            It took but a moment of thought to realize he was most likely up atop the Master’s parlor, where he’d spent a good deal of time when he was younger.  Horto’s bad knee twinged at the very thought of it, but he gamely went to see if Frodo could be found there.

            He was.  There atop the ridge, one hand leaning against the fireplace flue, Horto could see a tall, slender shape standing silhouetted against the rising moon to the east, thoughtfully staring westward toward the echoes of the sunset.  Gamely the old Hobbit set himself to climbing the steps that had been cut for that purpose to join the Master’s younger cousin and former ward.  He settled heavily on the wooden bench that Old Rory had placed there for those who wished to look out across the Brandywine while they smoked their evening pipes, saying, “And does the Shire appear fair to you this evening, Frodo Baggins?”

            Frodo turned to look down upon him, his face in shadow.  “Fair, Horto?  Fairer than when we first returned, at least.  The Shire heals, thank the stars.”

            “That it does,” agreed the door warden.  “That it does, although I will admit I wondered just how much it could heal, there when the Troubles were worst.  Although I suppose it takes more than a few bully-boys and a twisted Hobbit such as Lotho to destroy the Shire.”

            Frodo returned his gaze westward once more.  “Although between them Lotho and Sharkey did their level best to leave the place as wounded as possible.  I do rejoice that Sharkey didn’t manage to do worse, as he’d intended to destroy the land if he could.”

            “Why, Frodo?”

            Frodo shrugged one shoulder, a trick he apparently had picked up during his journey abroad, but it was a moment or two before he finally spoke.  “Lotho hated me, and wished to hurt all I’d ever loved, while Saruman----”  He gave a sigh.  “Sharkey, who was known as Saruman outside the Shire, hated Gandalf, and envied him the love and respect that he knew.  He was supposed to help Gandalf inspire the peoples of Middle Earth to stand against the evil of Sauron, and for years he appears to have done just that.  But then the Steward of Gondor gave him the ancient tower of Orthanc to live in and to care for, and now that he had a home that was built as a citadel he began hiring guards to drive potential enemies away.  Then he began envying the respect given to the lords of the lands near which he dwelt, and the few guards began to grow into a small army.  He found the seeing stone of Orthanc somewhere within the tower, and apparently began using it to spy upon his neighbors, and so caught the attention of the Dark Lord, who goaded him into playing small mischiefs against Gondor and Rohan.  Looking upon Sauron’s lands and slaves, Saruman envied him the power that the Dark Lord wielded.  He captured a few orcs, and in studying them instead of seeking to free them of their base natures he instead sought to duplicate the processes used by Sauron and Melkor before him, and so breed even more powerful and violent warriors.  Knowing that Gandalf would disapprove, he hid his doings but still imagined that Gandalf somehow knew of the evil he practiced, and so began thinking how he would punish Gandalf should the Grey Wizard ever seek to interfere with his experiments.”

            “What are orcs?” asked Horto.

            “Goblins.  From the Elvish name for them—yrch.”

            Horto looked up disbelieving at Frodo.  “You mean that this Sharkey was breeding more goblins?  Whatever for?”

            “He sought to make himself as much a warlord as Sauron had done, and at first we think he was certain that he could only fight the Dark Lord with Mordor’s own weapons.  But by the time Saruman had perfected his breeding of his Uruk-hai, the largest of the fighting goblins, he had secretly become the Dark Lord’s ally.  It is horrible, realizing just how much he’d fallen, Horto.”

            “But I still don’t understand why he came here!”

            Frodo sighed, shaking his head.  He came to sit by Horto, moving uncharacteristically slowly.  Horto felt alarmed as Frodo dropped rather heavily onto the bench.  The Baggins reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a flask, removing its stopper in order to drink from it before he answered.  “The Wise have known of the Shire for quite some time, from shortly after its founding, actually, although they have rarely paid us Hobbits much attention one way or another.  Only Gandalf and certain of the Elves, mostly those from the wandering tribes, appear to have visited the Shire on any regular basis.”  He considered the stopper to his flask absently for a moment, finally replacing it and settling the flask between his knees.  At last he continued.  “Gandalf became convinced somehow that in order for the dragon Smaug to be destroyed a Hobbit of the Shire needed to be involved.  So when he learned that Thorin Oakenshield and twelve companions were set to travel to Erebor in order to find at least the Arkenstone and so challenge Smaug, he came here to find someone who could serve as the Dwarves’ burglar.  He apparently hoped that one of the Old Took’s descendants should serve as that burglar, and his feet for some reason led him to Bag End, where he found Bilbo sitting upon the bench by the doorstep, smoking his pipe as the Sun rose.  And, he tells us, his heart told him that Bilbo was intended to be the one to go with the Dwarves. 

            “Poor Bilbo had no idea what the visit from the Wizard might lead to, and he certainly never intended originally to leave Hobbiton for any such purpose.  But we can rejoice that he did, or so Gandalf insists, for if Bilbo hadn’t gone with the Dwarves who knows what might have become of that magic Ring he found in the dark of Gollum’s cave?”

            Horto was surprised to hear the bitterness in Frodo’s tone—bitterness and irony.  “You don’t sound particularly cheerful about it,” the old door warden noted.

            Frodo looked away, but not before Horto noted the rigid set to the Baggins’s chin.  “Considering what that cost me, do you expect me to be delighted by the fact that in stumbling about in the dark Bilbo chanced upon the Ring that Gollum had managed to drop, Horto?  That discovery certainly did me no favors.”  He sat stiffly, his attention fixed upon the western horizon well beyond the Brandywine.  After a moment, however, his posture drooped, and he reached up with his right hand to rub at his left shoulder.  “No,” he murmured, “I should not complain so.  At least this gave me the chance to meet fair people and to see lands others in the future cannot know as Bilbo and I have done.  I doubt that the Elves of Lórien will remain within their borders all that long—perhaps no more than a few decades—now that their Lady’s Ring of Power is shorn of its magic and she purposes to leave Middle Earth to return to the land of her birth.  I doubt that her husband will agree to go with her, particularly as I believe he was born here in the Mortal Lands and will know so few there beyond the Sundering Sea.  He at least will wish to see what the new order shall be like for the world he knows so well.  I suspect it will be many years ere he will agree to come to her side again.  As for Rivendell, once the Lord Elrond quits it, to what shall it come, do you think?”

            Horto had no idea how to respond to all this, for he had no true experience with those outside Buckland.  Oh, he’d ridden out to Bree alongside Old Rory a time or two when he’d been much younger, and he’d even had the chance to speak to an Elf on one occasion when one came to ask if Bilbo was visiting within Brandy Hall, which had chanced to be true.  But he’d rarely crossed the Brandywine to go much further than to the village of Kingsbridge on the Shire’s end of the Brandywine Bridge or to fetch back mushrooms for the Master’s table from Bamfurlong Farm.  He’d been once to the Free Fair, back when he was a curious lad, and had attended the infamous Party when Bilbo had disappeared so spectacularly.  But except for those two occasions he’d not gone any further west than the Marish.  What did he know of Elvish lands beyond the tales old Bilbo and Frodo had always delighted in?

            Frodo again lifted up his flask and removed its stopper, and paused as he swallowed, the flask still raised, still staring toward the western horizon.  There was something in the Baggins’s gaze that frightened Horto.  The older Hobbit licked his lips uncertainly, and suddenly daring he reached out to take the flask from Frodo’s hand.  “Well, since you’re tippling you could at least offer a sip to an old gaffer like me,” Horto said, and he put the flask to his lips.

            Frodo turned, surprised, to face the door warden, and for the first time that evening Horto thought he saw a level of amusement in the younger Hobbit’s expression.  “I fear you shall be disappointed,” Frodo said.  “There’s no liquor there, not even a sip of ale.  I doubt that it should hurt you, however, so drink freely with my blessing.”

            Horto had taken slightly more than a sip, and was surprised to discover he had a mouthful of what appeared to be cold willow-bark tea that had been sweetened with honey.  He swallowed with a grimace, and held the flask out to return it to its owner.  “Are you in need of draughts, Frodo Baggins?” he asked as Frodo took it and stoppered it again.

            Again Frodo shrugged.  “Apparently,” he admitted with a sigh.  “My shoulder often aches, as does my entire left arm on occasion.  And there’s a spider bite on the back of my neck what will suddenly fill with infection at almost regular intervals—it can hurt like anything when the boil reforms again.  And there are headaches—always the headaches.”  Once again his gaze had strayed westward.  “Gandalf and Lord Elrond did their best to help me deal with the pain, but they’ve both warned me that there is no true healing for such wounds as I received, not as long as I remain within Middle Earth.”

            Horto’s mouth felt dry in spite of the draught he’d tasted.  “Then you were hurt out there, out in the outer lands.”

            Frodo didn’t meet his eyes.  “Yes.  We all were.   Merry, Pippin, and Sam—they’re almost wholly healed, but not me.  I was hurt too badly; the wounds go too deep….”

For several minutes they remained quiet, and at last Frodo spoke again, his voice low, and he told the tale of Saruman the Wizard, for so long the chief of the Istari, until he forgot his purpose and found himself lusting for power to the point he sought not only to copy the ways of the Lord of Mordor but to possibly defeat and supplant him!  “The Powers—they couldn’t allow that to happen,” he said simply.  “So, when Gandalf fell with the Balrog and he was sent back from Death, Gandalf was made the White instead, and Saruman’s staff was broken.  He could no longer work magic, and his army of Uruk-hai that he’d engineered had been destroyed by the warriors of Rohan and the huorns of Fangorn Forest.  The Ring of Isengard that encircled his tower had been broken by the Ents and filled with water to drown the lowest of his forges and dungeons.  He could no longer use the power of Orthanc, and that Worm-creature with him had thrown from the tower his palantir, so he could not answer the questions of the Dark Lord any longer.  Once Mordor fell, Saruman was left with nothing but his wits and his bitterness and what power lingered within his voice.  He’d been corresponding with Lotho for years and had been giving him advice that, had it all been followed, would have begun destroying the lands of the Shire long ago.  But he was able to convince Lotho to ship growing amounts of produce southward so he could feed his army, with more and more being diverted all the time.”

            “Is this why things were getting dear?” Horto asked.  “Pipeweed and such?”

            Frodo gave a brief nod.  “Apparently.  Merry and Pippin found one of his storehouses in his fortress of Isengard, and in it they found a barrel of Longbottom Leaf with the Hornblower mark branded into it.  The storehouse was full of food that all are certain came in large part from the Shire.  Certainly as deputy Mayor I heard more than enough stories about shipments that never made it to Hobbiton, the Great Smials, Budge Hall, Michel Delving, Long Cleeve, and the like, and from farmers all over the Shire who never got paid for shipments that went missing and didn’t arrive where they were supposed to go.  Even before we left the Shire there were complaints of farm shares that weren’t being fulfilled, and the sellers of pipeweed in Hobbiton were worried that they weren’t receiving enough barrels of leaf to meet the demands of the village.”

            “Certainly we didn’t receive as much Old Toby and Longbottom Leaf as we usually do that year,” Horto agreed.

            “They were complaining about insufficient shipments from the South-farthing as far away as Bree,” Frodo added.

            “So how did this Sharkey and his sniveling companion end up here?” demanded Horto.

            Frodo sighed again and explained as well as he could.

            “So they got well ahead of you, did they?”  Horto shook his head.  “Right villains they proved.  And between the two of them they did for Pimple, I understand?”

            “Yes.”

            Horto sat quietly for a time, considering the grief he heard in Frodo’s voice.  He sighed, and lifted his hand to lay it gently on Frodo’s shoulder.  “I’m sorry, dear lad,” he said gently.  “He may have been a terrible git, but after all, he was your cousin.”

            Frodo gave another brief nod.  “Yes, he was that.  May he know greater peace now than he did before,” he said. 

            “So, why did you try to spare that Sharkey when he admitted he’d had his servant kill Lotho, then?”

            Frodo took a deep breath and held it briefly.  “Because of what Saruman was supposed to be,” he said.  “Both he and Sauron fell so far.  Sauron once repented, but then recanted his repentance and became even worse than he’d been before.  Saruman could have redeemed himself, Horto.  I’m certain of it!  But he wouldn’t do so.  Instead, he cursed me.”

            “He cursed you?  Is that why you can’t eat enough to look a proper Hobbit again?”

            “What?”  Frodo looked a bit confused.  “Oh, that.  No.  Or—well, perhaps it adds to it.  But the problems with my stomach, well, they started there in Gondor after Mordor fell.  Aragorn and Lord Elrond both have told me that what we went through, Sam and me, could badly damage our digestion.  It took a while before Sam could eat regularly again, but as I said, I’ve not healed as much as the others did.  But, then, I was wounded more often as well as more deeply than any of them, so I suppose that must be why I’ve no chance of becoming truly well again.  But certainly the curse laid upon me by Sharkey hasn’t helped.”

            “But you said that he couldn’t do magic any more.”

            “That is correct—he couldn’t.  But the power of his voice was native to him and he retained it, although not as strongly as he could before his staff was broken.  In the letters sent by Lord Elrond he assures me that just hearing the truth of my physical condition spoken aloud as Sharkey did, there on the stoop of Bag End, was enough to make it even worse.  So, as I said, Sharkey’s curse certainly did me no good, even if he didn’t retain sufficient power to make things sufficiently bad to carry me off immediately.”

            Again, Horto thought on what Frodo said.  At last he asked, “Are you dying then, Frodo?”

            Frodo’s tone had gone rough when he answered, “Dying?  Aren’t we all in the slow process of dying all during our lives, Horto?  After all, none of us will leave the world alive, isn’t that so?”  Then his voice gentled once more.  “My health isn’t particularly good, and it’s not going to get any better.  In fact, it’s likely to get worse.  But I doubt I’m in any danger of dying within the next few weeks, at least, barring the sort of accident that could carry any one of us off unexpectedly, that is.  But I’m not likely to make it to a hundred twenty-nine as Bilbo or Great-grandfather Gerontius had done.  In fact, I doubt I’ll live to a Man’s expected lifespan of three score and ten.  Perhaps not even to sixty.”  Horto could see, as Frodo met his gaze, the brightness of the Baggins’s eyes, the tears unshed.  “I would like perhaps to linger to see Sam and Rosie’s second child born, although it’s perhaps too much to hope for.  I suspect that Elanor is the only one of their children I’ll ever hold in my arms.”

            “It’s not fair.”  Why he said that Horto couldn’t imagine, but as he said it he knew he meant it.

            “Who ever said that life is fair?” Frodo responded.

            “Are you certain you won’t get better?  Are you certain that it’s not just being morbid?”

            Frodo gave a twisted smile.  “Oh, I have no question it’s not just being morbid.  That I was allowed to return to the Shire was a grace I’d not expected to know.  I never thought I’d get further than the mountain, and I thought those last few moments as the fire surrounded Sam and me were our last.  Who could have suspected that Gandalf and the Eagles were already searching for us?  We both thought we would be dead within minutes, and neither of us expected to awaken again still within Middle Earth.  It was a shock, then, to find ourselves lying upon proper beds in an enclosure within Ithilien, and particularly to find Gandalf standing there, watching over us!  After all, both of us had believed him dead for some weeks, and nobody had been by to tell us that he’d been sent back.”

            Again Horto didn’t have the slightest idea as to what Frodo meant.  “That Gandalf—he’s not going to come back and carry you off again, is he?” he asked, the suspicion clear in his voice.

            Frodo once more looked westward.  “If I leave the Shire again, Horto Brandybuck, it won’t be Gandalf’s doing, but instead solely my own.  But I suspect that the next time it will be to rejoin my parents, since I wasn’t granted a family of my own to cherish.”

            “Where did you go today, then?”

            Frodo gave him a slightly curious glance before answering, “I am the King’s Friend now, so I have certain duties to him and the lands he rules.  I had some papers to sign regarding my responsibilities in the outer world, is all.  Bartolo came from Bree with the King’s own lawyer to see them properly presented and signed off on.”

            “And why is Bartolo Bracegirdle your lawyer now?  I thought Brendi was that.”

            Frodo looked down at the ground between his feet as his hands uncorked the flask once more.  “Brendi is still my personal lawyer within the Shire, while Bartolo is the one who sees to my business outside it.  Brendi will be starting his own training with the King’s lawyer sometime after Yule, I think.  But until he is qualified to write contracts and deal with legal situations before the courts of Arnor and Gondor I must rely on Bartolo to see to my business with the King.”  He took another sip from the flask, then replaced the stopper solidly before thrusting the flask back into his pocket.  He rose stiffly to his feet.  “I do not have to answer to you, to Sara or Esme, or anyone else within the Shire, Horto.  I had business dealings to see to, and I was met halfway to Bree, saw to them, and that’s the end of it.  It’s late to drive further back toward Hobbiton and Bag End, so I thought to spend a few days in the Hall, here where I spent so much of my childhood.  I know neither Sara nor Esme is here, and that Merry and Pippin are also absent from Crickhollow.  I’m sorry to miss them, but I cannot always arrange for business matters to be dealt with when I can visit with family, no matter how much I love them.  But at times I just need to take a break from my relationships.”  One last time he met the old Hobbit’s gaze.  “Please understand, Horto—there are times when I feel stretched far too thin.  I now fully appreciate just how Bilbo could tell Gandalf that he felt as if he were butter that had been scraped over too much bread.”  He laid his right hand, the one with the missing finger, on Horto’s shoulder, gave a light squeeze, and then disappeared down the ridge.  Horto listened until he heard the soft closing of the door to the Master’s parlor, and knew that he’d not likely see Frodo again that night, even if he went to the Heir’s apartments and Frodo’s room.  Nobody who’d ever lived in Brandy Hall could disappear within it as effectively as could Frodo Baggins, who’d searched out every hidden hidey-hole in the place back when he was a mere lad. 

            He rose slowly to his own feet and stood, looking down the steps that Frodo had already descended.  “The stars watch over thee, lad,” he whispered.  “The stars watch over thee.”

            Stiffly, Horto followed Frodo downward, although he turned away from the Hall and walked in the moonlight through the gardens for a time, listening to the rush of the river within its banks.  Hobbits came and went, but the Brandywine would continue, bearing witness to many joys and sorrows.  Somehow that thought comforted him when he at last headed for the nearest entrance into Brandy Hall so that he could find something to eat for late supper.

 

Written for the LOTR Community "Lost and Found" challenge.  For RiverOtter.  A triple drabble.

In Search of Peace

            It was past midnight by the time the party headed for the Grey Havens stopped for rest.  The Elves did not require such rest, of course; but for the three mortals traveling with them it was necessary.  Swiftly gathered bracken laid beneath the spreading limbs of a linden tree served as a bed for the three Hobbits.  Frodo lay embraced by Bilbo, with Samwise Gamgee lying in guard at their feet.  Elrond Eärendilion and Galadriel Artanis stood looking down upon their sleeping forms, seeing in the expression of Frodo Baggins the contentment he’d not truly known since he’d lost his innocence to Sauron’s Ring. 

            Galadriel murmured, “He is not the only mortal to make the journey, and Lord Samwise understands his decision.  I believe that for the moment that is enough for him.”

            Elrond gave a single nod of acknowledgment.  “He can never have his innocence restored to him as he’d looked to know, but I pray we will see him once again find his peace and come to appreciate the benefits conferred upon him by what he has experienced.”

            Galadriel examined Sam’s face with compassion.  Tears were caught in the gardener’s lashes, although his own expression was now peaceful as he slept.  “And in time this one will find again the treasure he willingly loses now.  He will so miss his friend and Master; but he shall know fulfillment he could not have known were Frodo to remain here to endure continuing pain and grief.”

            Bilbo opened one eye to look up at them.  “Shh!” he whispered.  “Let them sleep now.”  With that he laid his head against Frodo’s shoulder protectively, and in a moment they could hear his soft snore.  His own dear boy lay safe in his arms—what more could the old Hobbit wish to know?

For Lindelea and Armariel for their birthdays, with much love and apologies for being late.

Seeking Advantage

            “Sam!  Samwise Gamgee!  Wait up there!”  Old Odo Proudfoot hurried to catch up with the gardener for Bag End.  If, of course, that was what he was now.  Sancho, Odo’s grandson, had told the old Hobbit that now that Bag End was restored and Frodo Baggins had moved back into it, Frodo had invited Sam to move into the hole with his intended bride.  Now, that would have caused a good many eyebrows to rise not all that long ago; but now that the Travellers had returned to the Shire and everything that had been damaged by Lotho Pimple and his bully-boys was now being set aright, it was doubtful that many people would be likely to question why the gardener and his farmer’s daughter of a new wife were to reside in the smial belonging to the Master of the Hill.

            Sam had indeed stopped and turned to wait for the Proudfoot, his eyes curious as to why Odo had hailed him, although he politely kept his questions to himself.  It did not do, after all, for working Hobbits to interrogate their betters.  Instead he gave a deferential nod to his head.  “Good evenin’, Mr. Proudfoot,” Sam said.

            “And to you,” Odo responded, noting automatically that Sam had not added on sir to his greeting.  “You’ve already been out this evening?” Odo asked.

            “Just comin’ back from the Ivy Bush, where Mr. Frodo’s stabling his pony.”

            “What?  Frodo’s too good to stable his pony himself, is he now?”

            Sam shook his head as he turned to glance up the Hill toward the windows of Bag End.  “It’s not so much that, sir, as it is that he was right tired when he got back to Hobbiton this evenin’ from Michel Delving.  I suspect as the weather’s about t’change, for his shoulder’s been achin’ more’n its usual.”

            “And just why’s his shoulder aching, pray tell?”

            Sam would not look at the Proudfoot.  “He was injured there, is all.”

            “While you were off traipsing around the wild lands?”

            “Yessir.  Are you wantin’ to see my Master, Mr. Proudfoot?”

            “Well, yes, I am.” 

            “Then let’s be quick about it.”  Sam lengthened his stride, and Odo had to quicken his own steps to keep up.

            “You in a hurry, Gamgee?”

            Sam shrugged, apparently not in the least winded.  “Been off long enough, is all.  Want to make certain as my Mr. Frodo is set for the evenin’ afore I head off to Bywater to see my Rosie.”

            “And he can’t see to his own supper?”

            Sam suddenly stopped and turned to look Odo in the face.  “My Mr. Frodo is tired, as I told you, and his shoulder is achin’ on him.  He works hard t’see as all as has been found what them ruffians took is give back t’them as they belongs to, and that they find out just how that Lotho Pimple got hold of so much land and property with nobody raisin’ a hue and cry about it.  He just finished a long ride—alone—on his pony from Michel Delving, and he deserves some coddlin’, to my mind, at least.  Yes, he could cook his own supper, but if’n I can do it for him and give him at least a bit of a rest, I will.  Is that all right with you, Mr. Odo Proudfoot, sir?” 

            Sam’s expression was seriously grim, and Odo was truly taken aback by it.  What had happened to change the once simple gardener?  He’d never heard the young Gamgee answer back so stiffly, as if somehow Odo was the one being impertinent!  He found himself doing his best to placate Sam.  “Oh, I know that you’re only being careful for Frodo, now----” he began.

            “You’d best believe that,” Sam muttered as he set off once again up the Lane to the gate to Bag End.  Odo swallowed down what he’d been ready to say and hurried after as well as he might, although he had to admit to himself that Sam was far more fit than he himself was.

            “Master!” called Sam as he led Odo through the green door into Bag End without either knocking or pulling at the bell cord.  “Mr. Proudfoot’s here to see you!”  He took Odo’s jacket and saw it and his muffler hung up alongside his own cloak.

            The fire was burning low in the parlor, so Sam paused to add another log from the basket before leading the visitor to the door to Frodo’s study.  There he knocked politely, although the door was already open and Frodo could be seen kneeling in front of the hearth, poking at the fire there.  “It’s Mr. Odo, Master,” Sam repeated.  “Says as he wishes t’speak with you.”

            Frodo looked up, and Odo thought that he didn’t look particularly pleased to see company at the study door.  “You will have to excuse me,” Frodo said.  “One of the logs was doing its best to escape the andirons.  Do come in and have a seat on the sofa there,” he added, giving a vague gesture at the indicated piece of furniture as he coaxed the offending log back into its place and returned the poker to its hook.  He rose rather stiffly, rubbing the ash away on his pants leg before turning his desk chair about to face Odo and sitting down heavily.  “And what can I do for you, Odo?” he asked.

            “Can I bring the two of you anything?” Sam interrupted.

            “A cup of tea, please,” Frodo suggested before addressing his guest, “If, of course, that is acceptable to you?”

            Odo shrugged.  “That would suit fine.”

            “There’s some of them winter apple tarts left as Marigold brought up this mornin’, too, if’n you’d like them,” Sam said.

            Frodo smiled, although Odo realized he did look a bit tired.  “That does sound very good, Sam.  Just one for me, however.”

            “Yessir, Mr. Frodo, sir.  I’ll be right back.”  With that the younger Hobbit turned and left.

            Odo eyed his host.  “You’ll have just one?”  He gave a snort.  “You look as if a good wind’d just blow you away, Baggins.”

            Frodo eyed him, his expression now stiff.  “And this is your business?  How?”

            The Proudfoot refused to be repressed.  “And you were just beginning to look a proper Hobbit, too.  Obviously going off into the wild didn’t do you much in the way of favors.”

            “I didn’t go with any thought of bettering my health, Odo.”

            “You don’t appear to’ve spared much thought about what it would mean before you sold Bag End off to Lotho and left us to his tender mercies,” Odo returned, sarcasm clear in his voice.

            “And how was I to anticipate what Lotho would do?  Most of his crooked contracts were set to work in his favor only if I left the Shire, at which time I was in no situation to be aware of them, much less to do anything about them.  Nor did I intend to sell Bag End to Lotho—I’d offered it to Ponto and Iris, after all.  It was only that when Lotho arrived with a cash offer for what I’d asked of Ponto and Iris that there was nothing I could do.  That he would lead Ponto and Iris into making an agreement to accept the money they’d hoped to borrow to purchase Bag End was something none of us could imagine.  I am only grateful that you didn’t accept any loans from him, Odo.”

            Well, Odo thought, it wasn’t because Lotho hadn’t tried to inveigle him, too, into one of his schemes.  But the S-B had pushed just a little too hard, and Odo had balked—to his own saving, at least.  But he wasn’t going to admit this to Frodo Baggins, of all people.

            Frodo continued, “But this has little to do with why you wished to see me, I suspect.  What can I do for you, Odo?”

            Odo shrugged away the thought of how close he’d come to losing his own hole to Lotho Pimple, and turned to the matter at hand.  “It’s this reparations fund….”

            Frodo cocked his head.  “The reparations fund?  But you didn’t have significant losses to Lotho and his bully boys, did you?  You gave up farming years ago when your father died and you became the Proudfoot, and have supported yourself primarily with farm shares and business investments, which Lotho had a good deal more difficulty interfering with.  His people didn’t confiscate your property as they did that of others who were closer to me or who were more socially prominent, and a full inventory of what was taken by the Gatherers and Sharers has been returned to you, except for the two rings noted.”

            “And you’re certain as no one found those and is keeping them for themselves?”

            “No rings have been recovered of any sort.  The only ones who still have family rings are those whose homes were not entered, such as those in the Tooklands or Buckland.  Sharkey appears to have taken all rings for himself, and I don’t know if we shall ever discover what he did with them.”

            “But why’d such as him want rings as were meant for Hobbits?” demanded Odo.

            Frodo looked uncomfortably down at his hands.  “Why indeed?” he asked darkly.  Something in his tone led Odo to consider him with a degree of suspicion.  The deputy Mayor continued, “As you’ve been advised, a group of jewelers and merchants have been set the task of assigning value to the confiscated rings and other missing jewelry, and when all have been assessed and the list is returned to the Mayor’s office then reparations payments will be made for them.  But we seem to be receiving more and more returns each week of troves that various ruffians appear to have taken as their own share of the loot, so until such returns are no longer received the jewelry committee is finding its own hands tied, although payments on confiscated rings will be forthcoming I hope by the end of the harvest season.”

            Odo gave a brief nod.  “Well,” he said, “what I’d wished to ask after was not about the rings, actually.  It’s really about our windows and kitchen.”

            Frodo examined Odo’s face.  “What about your windows and kitchen?  They appeared to be in perfect condition when we passed by your place on the way to Bag End to confront Sharkey.  I remember the Sun reflecting off of the panes of your kitchen windows as we passed by, after all.”

            Odo felt himself squirm some.  “No,” he said, “I have to admit as our windows weren’t broken by the ruffians.  They seem to’ve pretty much left us alone, Mira and me.”  Mira, who’d married Odo’s son Olo, had moved back into Odo’s place to serve as housekeeper for him after the deaths of Olo and his mother, leaving Number Five, Bagshot Row to her own sons, Pulgo and Sancho.  “It’s only—well, it seems as Mira’s not too keen on the windows and the kitchen of our house, so I was hoping at we’d be able to get them fixed up nicer for her.”

            “So?  And how can I help you with that, Odo?”

            “Well, if there’s money to be had for fixing things----”

            “The money is to be used in repairing or replacing things that were damaged by Lotho’s Big Men, Odo, not just to fix things that aren’t really broken and that weren’t touched by them.”

            Odo shrugged.  “It’s Mira as wishes things better.  She’s done naught for years but complain about the pump in the kitchen at our place, and has told me over and over about how much better the one at Number Five was.”

            “That was installed by Pulgo, wasn’t it?  As I remember it, he replaced the one here at Bag End at about the same time, although we’ve had to put in a new one now.”

            “Gave out at last, did it?” Odo sneered.

            Frodo took a deep breath as he shook his head.  “No, the one he installed here was destroyed while the Big Men were in charge.  Too bad, too, for his was truly a work of art.  Your older grandson was indeed gifted in his work in crafting and installing pumps.”  He smiled suddenly.  “I will never forget his experiments with the things back when he was still a lad, just before he was apprenticed to that cousin of his, and how well the one he powered with a carriage wheel worked.  It’s too bad that the epidemic of ague that carried off his grandmother took him and his wife, too.”  He thought for a moment, then cocked his head and asked, “Why didn’t you let him put one of his pumps into your house?  I know he offered to do so.”

            “But he offered to do so when the one as is there now was only about five years old, and I wanted to get my money’s worth out of it before I had a new one put in.”

            “I doubt he would have charged you for it, with you being both his grandfather and his family head.”

            Odo shrugged.  “Maybe not, but I’d paid good money for that pump as is there now.”

            “And you can pay good money to have a new one crafted and installed if you wish.  Tordo Watersmith made the one we have now.  It’s almost as good as the one Pulgo installed here.  It wasn’t the cheapest one on offer, but I doubt it will need to be replaced for many, many years.”

            “But the fund paid to replace the ones for the smials along the Row.”

            “Yes, but then all of the smials along the Row had been dug out on Lotho’s orders, and all of them needed to be redone from the start,” Frodo pointed out.

            “If you’ll offer to have everything made new in my grandson Sancho’s place,” Odo began.

            “To be strictly honest, not all was made new there or in any of the holes along the Row,” Frodo interrupted.  “We found that entire panels of wall materials and whole windows and doors were intact, stuffed into the sheds Lotho and Sharkey had ordered built outside the walls of Bag End, along with stone and tiles from many of the floors and much of the furnishings that those turned out had been forced to leave behind.  Yes, the fund helped pay for much of the work at rebuilding to be done, although much of it was done for free by volunteers, and particularly those who helped use the bricks to reinforce walls and new floors.  But, again, this was work to restore what had been destroyed as a result of Lotho’s actions and choices, and it wasn’t done just to please the whims of someone wanting new windows made or a more modern sink.”

            “But it supplied new dishes and dressers!”

            “The Big Men had broken Sancho and Geli’s old dishes into fragments, and had reduced the kitchen and dining room dressers and tables to kindling, Odo.  They did the same to most that was left in Number Three as well.  The Gaffer did well to get as much as he did away to the new house before the Row was dug out, or he’d have hardly anything familiar and comfortable now.  Indeed, the only reason I have anywhere as much as I do that is familiar is because I didn’t sell it all with Bag End—most of what Lobelia and Lotho bought from me was destroyed, too.”

            “But the tiles in the kitchen floor in my place are all cracked now, and the wood’s rotting in the window frames!”

            Frodo leaned forward, rubbing at his left shoulder, his patience plainly exhausted.  “Odo Proudfoot, if you weren’t so tight with your own money, you would have had your windows recaulked and repainted and the shutters there repaired regularly, and broken tiles replaced long ago.  It is not the fault of Lotho Sackville-Baggins that your pump is outmoded or that the wood in your windows is rotting!  If you want things redone, you’d best loosen the strings on your own purse and see to it!  I’m not going to let someone whose barn was burned down or whose animals were stolen and slaughtered go wanting just to see to it that your place is made smarter!”

            Odo realized that Sam Gamgee waited outside the study door with his tray, having been loath to interrupt the quarrel building between himself and his host.  He felt his face redden.  “Well, if you refuse to help, I’ll just have to leave!” he said, rising abruptly.

            “And that is supposed to chasten me, Odo?  How?  Oh, Sam—set the tray down there and see Mr. Proudfoot out, please.  I am sorry that I cannot help you, Odo, but Cousin Lobelia left strict instructions that the resources she left to the reparations fund were intended to help those Lotho’s actions had hurt, and other than the missing rings and the trees on your property that were cut down and have now been replaced you simply didn’t suffer during the Time of Troubles.  I wish you a good evening, and ask that you leave me to recover from the stress I’ve had to know dealing with the repercussions of Lotho’s deeds over the past week.”

            And in short order Odo found himself on the front stoop to Bag End with the door shutting firmly behind him, and he heard the sound of the bolt being driven home.

 *******

            A week later there was a knock at the front door to Odo’s hole, and when he went to answer it he found his second grandson Sancho standing out there, his little lass by his side, a large wooden box in his arms.  “Hello, Grandfer,” Sancho said.  “Cousin Frodo asked me to bring you this.  He said that you’d been wishing for one of Pulgo’s pumps to replace the one in your kitchen here, and this was found in one of the old storerooms and that perhaps it might just suit you.” 

He pushed the box into Odo’s arms, and left, little Cyclamen wishing her great grandfather, “Hope you like it, Grandfer!” as they returned to the horse and wagon Sancho had left in the lane.

            Inside the box Odo found a pump Pulgo had fabricated out of the old one from the hole here and the wheel to a doll’s pram back when he was a lad.  On a whim he had his neighbor help him install it in the kitchen, and, stars!  If it didn’t work like a wonder!

For Antane, I o r h a e l, and Xhebepiv's birthdays.  A true drabble.

Frodo prepares to leave Bag End for the last time.

In Readiness for Departure.

            “I’m ready to leave,” Frodo said simply.

            “But aren’t you goin’ t’wear your sword?” asked Rosie.

            “Why should I?”

            “You’re a-goin’ out into the wild,” she said.  “There might still be some of them ruffians about.”

            Sam added, “We may need to protect ourselves, Master.”

            Frodo shook his head, his expression closed.  “I gave Sting to you, Sam.  As I said before, I shall not raise a sword again.”

            “Not even if’n you’re in danger?” Sam persisted.

            “Especially not then.”  His eyes softened.  “It was you who fought the spider, Sam.  In this, you follow Bilbo.”

           

For all those whose birthdays I've managed to miss this past few months.  Please forgive me!

Dealing with Dirna

            Sam stood watching Frodo, who was uncertainly running his finger over the frame to the door to the dining room.

            Rosie, who stood behind Sam at the door to the kitchen, whispered into her husband’s ear, “What’s him doing?  He’s never been concerned about my housekeepin’ afore.”

            Sam twisted his head to whisper back, “It’s ’cause of it bein’ Dirna Brandybuck as is comin’.  Don’t think as she’s been anywheres near Bag End since the Party, actually.  But from what my Master, Merry, and Pippin tell, she’s about the most complainin’ person as you could ever hope to meet.  She’s his aunt by marriage, by the way—was married to his Uncle Saradas as died in 1407.  She’s of a hearty age, bein’ about eleventy-five, I think, but still clear-headed, and stubborn as stubborn, I’m told.”

            “But if’n she’s that old, why’s she a-comin’ here? Isn’t she goin’ frail, this time of life?”

            It was Frodo who responded, obviously having heard Sam’s remarks, although his eyes continued the search for any missed details that might catch the attention of his troublesome aunt.  “She’s a Diggle by birth, and her great-great niece from Greenholm is getting married in Michel Delving in two days.  Why she’s decided to attend this wedding after not going out of her way to attend any Diggle family functions for at least the last three decades I have no idea.  But I suspect a good deal of it has to do with her curiosity about rumors she’s heard about us—or at least about me.”

            Sam could feel Rosie shiver against his shoulder.  “Doesn’t sound particularly pleasant,” she commented, to which Frodo gave a single nod.

            “She’s never been especially pleasant.  But I don’t wish her to be carrying bad reports about you elsewhere.  She’s always been prone to the most negative of gossip, you see.”

            “Well, I don’t think as she’ll have nothin’ she can say bad about her room.  I give her the room closest to the privy, and it does look right smart, what with the flowers on the dresser and that beautiful quilt as your mum left you.  You did say as she’d most likely prefer an inside room, right?”

            Frodo nodded.  “Yes, that’s right.  That room has a nice hearth with a good draw should she decide she needs a fire, and it’s close also to the kitchen, so it ought to prove both warm enough and handy to meals and the parlor.  I only wish I could anticipate what she’ll find here to complain about, because she will be looking for just that.” 

            Sam shrugged.  “Well, it won’t do to worry about what’s not happened as yet, I’d say, Master.  No matter what we do, if’n she’s one as will find fault, she’ll do just that.  We can certainly live with it.  Most like, others as know her well don’t make a habit of listenin’ too close to her to begin with.”

            Rosie gave a distracted nod to acknowledge the truth in her husband’s words.  “And I have the room as has Mr. Pippin’s bed in it ready for whoever it is as might drive her.  She wouldn’t think of drivin’ herself, would she?”

            Frodo shook his head thoughtfully.  “Not at a hundred fifteen.  I’m surprised she’d think to come at all, really—she was beginning to look rather fragile the last time I saw her, a few months before we left the Shire.  Most likely she’ll have drafted Ilberic into driving her, and it’s possible she’ll have browbeaten Celandine into serving as her companion.  They are her grandchildren, after all, and neither is married as yet.”  His mouth twisted wryly.  “Not many who know the family well wish to marry into it while she’s still alive, to be honest.”

            Again Rosie gave a slight shudder.  “I see,” she said.  “I’ll fix up the room next to yours just in case, then.  I only need to air it some and put some flowers in—the room’s not been slept in since it was set up again, and looks quite festive anyways with them lovely curtains as your Aunt Esmeralda sent.”

            Frodo gave her a sideways smile.  “You are right, Rosie.  And I do thank you so.  I’m only sorry that there are some in my family who are—difficult.”

            “Oh, it’s all right, Master Frodo.  I suspect as that’s true most families, actually.  I put the kettle on a moment ago, and the good service is laid out on a tray.  It’s a simple matter of scaldin’ the pot and adding the tea at this point.  The two of you can see to that if’n she should arrive afore I’m done, right?”

            Their assurances they could handle that detail ringing in her ears, Rosie disappeared down the passageway to the bedrooms while Frodo led Sam into the kitchen.  As she’d said, all was in readiness there—a tray laden with sliced vegetables, cakes, and dainty sandwiches sat on the table beside a second on which resided cups, saucers, sugar bowl, small plates, and spoons, while the tea pot stood between the stove and the stone sink, waiting for water to boil in the kettle.  The cream jug, they knew, waited in the cool room that the cream not go sour, considering the summer weather outside.  This room also was clean and neat, with a large vase of gladioli on the kitchen dresser and one of red poppies, babies’ breath, and delphiniums on the table.  The roast intended for supper smelled delightful, and a cake cooled on the work table.

            Frodo and Sam finally made their way past Frodo’s study to the parlor, where the tea table stood in readiness, and a comfortably padded chair sat across the chest that stood beside that of the Master, a gay shawl draped across its back in case Mistress Dirna, as happened too often with those who are aged, should feel a chill even in the heat of July.  The windows were open, allowing in the fresh scents from the garden, with vases of flowers and greens on all surfaces (or so it seemed).  Frodo sat down rather heavily in his chair, automatically reaching for the cup of cool tea that sat awaiting him, a sprig of mint sticking out of it with which he stirred it before taking an appreciative sip.

            “This is good,” he sighed.  He paused a moment before confiding, “I have to admit, Sam, that I’ve come to rely heavily on your tea.  And I was the one who informed Aragorn so forcefully that I refused to take any more draughts.  I was foolish, wasn’t I?  I hope he has forgiven me.”

            “You know he has, Frodo.  He knows well enough as just how much you hate bein’ less’n your best.”

            “I didn’t give him that good of a time as we were coming home.”

            Sam gave a soft laugh.  “You were a bit of a challenge, I must say.  Would you like some more?”

            “Before I’m even done with this?  Ah, but don’t tempt me, Samwise Gamgee!”

            He paused listening, and a moment later Sam, too, could hear a trap coming up the way from Bywater.  “They’re here, then,” Sam said.

            “Apparently,” Frodo responded.  He ran his fingers through his hair as he rose reluctantly to his feet.  “Well, I suppose we are as ready as we can be.”

            “I’ll get the door, then,” Sam said, heading for the entrance hall.  “You just take a deep breath.  We’ll get through this together.”  He gave Frodo a smile of encouragement, and opened the door as a trap pulled to a stop at the foot of the steps below the wicket gate, signaling the arrival of Dirna Diggle Brandybuck.

            A younger gentlehobbit hopped off the box, and stood looking up the steps to the green door, distress written plainly across his face.  “I’d forgotten how steep the stairs are!” he murmured as Sam came down them to open the gate for him and his two companions. 

            A sweet-faced younger Hobbitess descended from the back of the trap, and held up her arms to what was plainly an older relative, but she, too, was looking over her shoulder at the steps with dismay.  “It’s not going to be easy getting Gramma up those,” she agreed.

            “Let me help with that, then,” Sam said, coming down the remainder of the way to the lane.  “Here, Missus Brandybuck—take my arm now and I’ll see you up to the door.”  In a trice he had Aunt Dirna out of the trap and was supporting her up the steps to the stoop where Frodo now stood awaiting them.

            At first the elderly Hobbitess went readily enough, although it was plain that she was surprised to be taken in hand in this manner.  But halfway up she stopped.  “And just who are you?” she demanded querulously.  “And where is my nephew?”

            “I’m Sam Gamgee, at your service, Mistress.  As for where is Frodo,” he smiled.  “Look—there he is at the door, a-waitin’ for you, so’s he can do you proper honor.”

            With that he urged her on with his arm about her shoulder, and again she went, her eyes now on Frodo’s face.  Only when she stood on the stoop did Sam remove his support, and she paused before the Master of Bag End.  “Well, it’s been long enough since I saw you last,” she said, making of it an accusation.

            “I am sorry that you did not come out of your rooms in Brandy Hall when I visited in May,” he said.  “I looked for you, and I certainly saw Celandine and Ilberic at the time.  Here, let me take your bonnet.”  He quickly had it hanging neatly on one of the pegs in the entranceway and was leading her into the parlor.

            “I wasn’t feeling particularly well at the time,” she said defensively.

            “So I was told, which was why I did not pursue the matter.  Now, we have rooms ready for Ilberic and Celandine as well as for you, and all three of you are most welcome.  Would you wish for some tea right away, or time to tidy up first?  The boiler is lit in the bathing chamber, and there is warm water in the ewers in your rooms should you prefer to go there first.”

            Again she stopped short.  “That Hobbit who helped me up the steps—Sam, he called himself?  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him before.”

            He smiled, although it was slightly strained.  “I doubt you’d remember Sam that well, as the only time you’ve seen him was during the Party when I came of age.  He supervised those who were serving the family at dinner.  He’s gone back down to help Ilberic with the bags.  Now, again, would you wish tea first, a bath, or merely time to tidy up?”

            Unable to find fault with the choices offered her, she indicated she would prefer to see her room, and that all would follow from that.  He led her down the hallway and through the kitchen to the passage to the bedrooms, pointed out the doors to privy and bathing room, and indicated that the next door on the right was hers.  “As you’ve always shown a preference for an inner room, we took the liberty of preparing this one for you.  I hope that you will find it suitable and comfortable.”

            Rosie was just coming out of the third door on the left from the far end of the passage, and stopped at the sight of the guest standing by Frodo.  “Missus Dirna, is it?  Welcome indeed.  If’n you should find you need an extra blanket or pillow or such like, do let me know so as I can fetch it for you.”

            The smile Frodo gave Rosie was decidedly more open than the one he’d given his aunt.  “Aunt Dirna, may I present Rosie Gamgee?  She was just making certain that the room prepared for Celandine is ready.  Now, if you will excuse me, I shall go assist Celandine, Ilberic, and Sam.”  So saying, he disappeared back through the kitchen as swiftly as he could.

            Dirna entered the room slowly, prepared to find what fault she could, although to be honest there appeared to be nothing there about which she could make any complaint.  A low bench awaited her luggage to one side of the door, and the room was both larger and better appointed than her bedroom in Brandy Hall.  The quilt was one she recognized from when Frodo’s mother was piecing it together many years past, and its colors were reflected in the flowers set forth upon the dressing table.  A rush light was ready to be lit on a small shelf beside the bed, and a lamp burned steadily on the bedside table. 

            “Pardon me, Gramma, for I’ve brought your portmanteau,” panted Ilberic, carrying her large bag in and dropping it heavily upon the bench.  “Celandine has your other satchel.  Now, I must be off to the Ivy Bush to board the pony.”  He was gone before Dirna could say a word, headed back toward the front of the hole.

            Celandine entered next.  “Your satchel, Gramma,” she murmured, dropping it on the bed.  “Now, I must find the privy before I burst!”  Again, she was gone before Dirna could insist she stay.

            “No appreciation from them,” the old Hobbitess murmured under her breath as she checked her appearance in the mirror over the dresser.  Neither item of furniture was particularly new, but the mirror was yet clear and undistorted and the woodwork on both well kept and polished.  “Look at my hair!  So blown by the wind!”  She rummaged through the personal satchel that Celandine had set so hurriedly upon the bed to find her brushes, but found that her shoulders were stiff when she went to apply her hair brush.

            “Here—let me help with that,” said a voice behind her, and she turned to find that Rosie Gamgee was watching from the doorway.  The younger Hobbitess entered with a smile on her face and took the brush from her hand, indicating that Dirna should turn again toward the mirror.  “You have the rheumatics in your shoulders, then?  My granny had them something awful afore she died.  Used to brush her hair for her when we visited her or she visited us’n,” she confided.  After a brief pause she added, “Sam’s Gaffer has it, too, but mostly in his legs and his back.  Gives him his share of misery, I must say.”  She swiftly stroked Dirna’s hair into order.  “There!  Would you like me t’do your feet as well?”  When Dirna indicated she was satisfied with her appearance Rosie gave a pleased smile, returning the brushes to the older lady’s possession.  “Then I’ll go see to it as the tea is in hand.  Do join us in the parlor.”  And with a smiling bob she was gone, too.

            Dirna thoughtfully set the brushes atop the dresser, and followed Rosie out of the room and back toward the kitchen.  The door to the privy was slightly opened, so she entered the room.  It was well appointed, with a small sink basin and its own small pump and drain opposite the stool , which she found quite a modern touch.  In minutes she felt well relieved, and having washed her hands and dried them on a cheerful yellow guest towel, she made her way toward the parlor, taking but a moment to peer first into the dining room and then Frodo’s study, only finding the multitude of books there anything over which she could shake her head.  There was a second parlor, far more stiff and formal than the main one, but she rightly judged that most likely not even Lobelia had used it often, if at all. 

            The kitchen had been well appointed, with doors indicating a cool room and at least two larders as well as a door out into the gardens.  Dinner was apparently already under way, and she had to admit to herself that it smelled delicious!  Her appetite stimulated by the wonderful scents coming from the kitchen, she made her way to the main parlor to see what was on offer for tea.

            Frodo stood up from his chair as she entered, indicating she should sit in the chair beside his, both being well upholstered and appearing most comfortable.  “Would you like to pour, or shall we allow Rosie to have the honors?” he asked as she seated herself.

            Rosie pour?  Since when do servants pour out for tea? she wondered.  Aloud, she said, “Perhaps we should allow Celandine to pour.  She is of age, after all.”

            Rosie, who sat by Sam upon the settle by the hearth, exchanged looks with Frodo, finally shrugging her acceptance of the arrangement.  Neither Celandine nor Ilberic was in the room as yet, the old Hobbitess then noted.  Oh, well, they should be along directly.

            Indeed, a moment later the two of them appeared from the direction of the kitchen and bedrooms, both appearing freshly washed and brushed and eager for something to eat.  “I must say,” Ilberic announced, “that that is the longest bed I have ever seen!”

            “It came from the Great Smial,” Frodo explained.  “Paladin has had a new bed made for Pippin appropriate to his height, and sent this one, which was used by the Old Took, to me, expecting, I must hope rightly, that Pippin will continue to spend a good deal of time here as he has always done.  I’m not certain whether this was made for the Old Took to his specifications, or if he merely appropriated the one made long ago for Bandobras.  Certainly both Pippin and Merry needed to have new beds appropriate to their stature.”

            “Then what are they using there in Crickhollow?” Dirna asked, her tone rather demanding.

            It was Ilberic who answered, “Oh, but they had new beds brought in from Bree, crafted for Men, and installed them there, and Uncle Saradoc ordered two more to put into their rooms in the Hall.  They were to arrive the day after we left Brandy Hall for here, Gramma.”

            “It sounds like unnecessary flapdoodle to me,” his grandmother replied.  “And what business did the two of them have growing at such an unusual rate to begin with?”

            Frodo smiled wanly.  “I doubt either imagined that drinking Ent draughts could cause them to grow as happened, Aunt Dirna.  But I am told that strange things do happen to those who drink that which is brewed by the Shepherds of the Trees.”  He looked at Celandine, who was uncertainly seating herself in the corner opposite Sam and Rosie.  “Your grandmother has indicated she would like for you were to pour the tea, Celandine.  If you would do so, I think we would all appreciate it.”

            Celandine colored prettily at Frodo’s smile, which as was often true with him was very sweet and filled with approval.  “I don’t know,” she began, but Dirna cut her off.

            “Don’t be silly, lass,” Dirna said.  “It’s good practice for when you have a hole of your own.”

            Celandine’s pleasure fled, and her expression was now slightly pinched as she moved to the chair behind the tea table and prepared to do the honors.  Ilberic was clearly fighting to control his temper, while Frodo gave his aunt a glance that was decidedly neutral, and returned his attention to his younger cousin, again showing Celandine that particular warmth that had always been his.  “I had expected that by the time we returned home you would be Missus Theragar Bolger.  Has he not pursued the courtship?”

            It was Ilberic who answered this time.  “Once Lotho declared himself Chief Shirriff and had Odovacar and Rosamunda thrown out of Budge Hall, he did his best to cut off those in Buckland and the Tooklands from everyone else.  Theragar apparently joined Fredegar’s gang and helped raid the food taken by Lotho’s Gatherers and Sharers.  He wasn’t with the rest the night that Lotho’s Big Men caught up with them in Scary, and according to what we’ve learned since November he hid out in an abandoned forester’s hut in the Woody End.  He was thin as a rail and quite ill when he was found there two weeks after you lot returned, much as we’re told Fatty and Will Whitfoot were, and word is that he’s only just now returning to proper health and vigor.  I only hope that he still cares as much for Celandine as he did before.”

            As Celandine handed a cup of tea and a plate of sandwiches, biscuits, and cakes to her grandmother she said, her eyes downcast, “I received a letter from him last week, only the third he’s sent me since just before Yule.  He says that he hopes I still care for him in spite of how long we went without hearing from one another and how thin he is now.  I hope to see him on our way back to Buckland after the wedding.  Would you prefer the cress or a ham sandwich, Cousin Frodo?” she asked, looking up at him.

            “Cress, if you please.  And some of those vegetable fingers, please, Celandine.”

            “You ought to have some cheese as well,” Sam advised.

            Frodo nodded.  “You are right.  Aragorn did indicate I should eat what cheese I could.”

            “Who is this Aragorn?” demanded Dirna.

            Again Frodo gave her a decidedly neutral look before answering, “The King.  Aragorn Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar, King of Arnor and Gondor.  He was trained as a healer as well as a warrior and ruler.  He insisted on serving as primary healer to all four of us after the war was over.”

            “You didn’t really take part in a war, did you?” Dirna asked.

            Frodo gave a studied shrug.  “Yes, Aunt, we did.  It has been building for longer than I care to think upon, or so it proved.  Once we left the Shire we found ourselves heading right for the heart of it, whether we wished to be there or not.”

            “So, how did it happen that you all four needed the services of a healer?  And how did you come to the attention of this King you tell of?”

            Sam answered for Frodo, “He didn’t start off as the King, you see, Missus Dirna.  Him’s been hidin’ from the Enemy all his life, him and his people.  But the Rangers as ride the roads from time to time is most of what remain of the King’s people here in the north, and Lord Strider, he’s been their chief.  He led the armies as fought against the Enemy’s folks, and when the war was ended and won, the folks of Gondor accepted him as their King, while those here in the north in Arnor have been thinkin’ of him as their King for years.  Now him’s been accepted as High King of the Men of the West by about everyone, includin’ the Elves and the Dwarves as well as by all those who fought against Mordor, includin’ us. 

            “We met him in Bree and didn’t know as who or what he really was, but we learned along the way.  There at the end all four of us Hobbits was bad hurt, and since he’d gone south with us and we was all close friends by then, he did as he could to keep each of us from dyin’.”

            Frodo added quietly, “If it hadn’t been for his skills and gifts as healer and King, none of us would have survived, Aunt Dirna.” 

            Something in his expression caused her to swallow several questions.  But in the end she still found herself saying, “You ought not to have left the Shire at all, any of you!”

            Frodo’s expression was now stern.  “And if we hadn’t done so, things would have been far worse, and far sooner than happened under Lotho.  We had to go, or at least I had to go, for the sake of the entire Shire.”

            “But what do the wars of Men and other creatures have to do with our people?”

            “As it happened, this time, we had everything to do with it, whether we liked the idea or not.”

            Sam added, “If’n we’d not gone, the war would have been lost afore it even started, Missus Dirna.  As it was, Merry and Pippin both saved a mort of people, if’n you can believe it.  Merry helped kill the chief of the Black Riders, while Pippin, all by hisself, managed to do for a troll as was gettin’ ready to kill a Man as he’d been fightin’ by.  They’re both heroes, they are.  And what that Lord Denethor was gettin’ ready to do to his own son—if’n Pippin hadn’t of been there, Captain Faramir would of been dead now.”

            Celandine looked horrified.  “What awful things to speak about at tea time!”

            Sam looked abashed.  “I’m sorry, Miss Celandine.  You’re so right!  Please forgive me.”

            After a moment of silence Ilberic spoke, trying to keep to the proper topics for a meal.  “The sandwiches are very good, Mistress Rose.”

            Rosie gave a self-deprecating smile.  “I admit as I baked the cakes and biscuits, but it was Master Frodo and my Sam as made the sandwiches and prepared the vegetables and fruit,” she said.  “Both of them are good in the kitchen, and my Sam is a fine cook in his own right.  Even the King says so!”

            Their guests appeared surprised, with Dirna looking outright skeptical.  “The King says so?” she asked.

            “Oh, yes, he says so in his letters.  Says as he wishes Sam was there to give lessons to the new cooks on how to fix foods plainer and better tasting.”

            Frodo smiled down at the plate that had been handed to him.  “Some of the foods that the cooks in Gondor prepare are wonderful to look at, but not so good to actually eat,” he affirmed.  He looked up to catch his aunt’s eye.  “At a feast they once served a boar that had been cooked with a lamb in it, and it had a goose in it, and it had a capon in it, which had a dove stuffed into it!  It must have taken hours just cutting open each beast to put the next one inside it, not to mention actually cooking the whole assemblage.  And it really didn’t taste all that good at all!  Aragorn had to appear to appreciate it during the feast, but afterwards he went to the kitchen himself to tell them that they weren’t to waste time or good food doing such a thing again!  But they also made some marvelous foods as well.  There’s one dish made with a seed they call sesame and with sesame oil, thinly sliced beef, and slivered carrots and beans and green onions that is a wonderful thing to eat.  They usually serve it over rice, but it is good just by itself!  Sam learned how to make it and cooks it for us once every two weeks or so.  Prince Faramir himself has sent us both the seeds and the oil pressed from them and some of the other spices that we cannot obtain by usual trade with the Dwarves.”

            “And them oranges and lemons and limes—ah, but they’re a wonder, and oh, so good,” added Sam.  “We both got a crate of them at Yule.  Once Lord Strider knew as my Master loves them, he said as he’d always make certain as we got some, and especially in the winter.  They’re as good as rose hips for stavin’ off colds and sniffles, or so the healers in Gondor all tell us.”

            “You receive gifts of food from the Southlands?” inquired Celandine, intrigued.

            “Oh, yes,” Sam assured her.  “There’s some lemon juice there in that little glass bottle as we often put in our tea now.  They all use it in Gondor, so we got used to it.  Only there they don’t call it tea—they call it the ‘herbal drink.’  It’s tea for all that, of course, just with different herbs added to it is all.  Some blends are quite tasty, I must admit.”

            “How does the King know that you are a good cook?” asked Ilberic.

            Frodo and Sam exchanged glances.  Frodo answered, “When we were travelling south together we took turns cooking much of the time, although by common consent it appeared Sam’s turn to cook seemed to happen more often than those of the rest of us.”

            “You went south together?” Ilberic asked.

            “Yes.  We’d not meant to go further than Rivendell, actually, but the news we bore made it imperative that at least I should go south to see a particular—errand—met, and Sam, Merry, and Pippin insisted that I should not be the only Hobbit in the company.  In the end there were nine of us, plus Sam’s pony, Bill.”

            “Why did you cook more often than the others?” asked Celandine of Sam, obviously intrigued by the notion.

            “Well, when Mr. Frodo here was cooking, more often than not it seemed there were questions as only he could answer, so I’d end up takin’ over from him so as Gandalf and Lord Strider and Boromir could talk over plans with him.  As for Captain Boromir—well, of all those in the Fellowship it seems as him was the only one as couldn’t cook anythin’ without it bein’ a disaster.”

            Frodo gave a wry smile.  “He was perhaps the only person I’ve ever met who could burn water.”

            “What kind of person is he?” asked Celandine.

            Sam swallowed the bite of ham on bread roll he’d taken.  “Captain Boromir was a Man, from down in Gondor, you see.  Was the son of Lord Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, and ought to of gone on to be Steward hisself one day, only he died.  Killed by orcs just after we split up.  We met his brother a while later, Mr. Frodo and me.  Captain Faramir’s a fine-spoken Man, and him’s Lord Strider’s Steward now.  Lord Strider made him Prince of Ithilien, and nobody could deserve it more, if’n I might say so as perhaps shouldn’t.”

            “You are right, Sam.  Lord Faramir deserves all of the honors that have fallen to him.”  Frodo’s expression had become thoughtful, almost sad.  “I only wish that Boromir had survived to see the war won and his land and city made safe.”

            Sam shrugged and sipped at his tea.  It was clear that there was something he still held against the ill-fated Boromir of Gondor.

            Dirna felt left out of this conversation, having little interest in those other races that peopled the wilderness she believed made up all of Outside the Shire.  She felt herself shiver at the talk of orcs, whatever they might be, killing a former companion of these two strange Hobbits who’d left the Shire and then come back again.  Suddenly she interrupted the others, addressing herself to Rosie.  “You, lass—fetch me a shawl.  I’m feeling a distinct chill.”

            The others looked at her with surprise at her peremptory tone.  “But there’s a shawl right there over the back of your chair, Gramma,” Celadine pointed out.  “There’s no reason to send anyone to fetch another.”  She bit back the comment that there was also no reason for her grandmother to be so rude, knowing it would fall on deaf ears.

            Dirna straightened, feeling embarrassed but doing her best to avoid any criticism toward herself.  “Perhaps I ought to have been advised that it was there for my use before I sat down,” she said.

            Ilberic muttered, “And when it’s as gaily colored as it is, why should anyone have to tell you about it?  You can’t have missed it as you were directed to the chair to sit down!”

            Dirna ignored him, giving Celandine a commanding look.  The younger Hobbitess gave a sigh as she rose to her feet and came forward to settle the shawl about her grandmother’s shoulders, then returned to her seat.  “A bit garish,” was all Dirna Brandybuck had to say at that point.

            Rosie’s face was red with embarrassment.  “That was a gift to me from Sam’s old dad when we got married,” she said.  “Sam’s dear mum made it years ago afore she died, and the Gaffer wanted me to have it in memory of her.  I thought as you’d find it cheerful.”

            Dirna only sniffed and turned her attention back to Frodo, whose face had gone distinctly neutral again.  “At least you didn’t drag Rosamunda and Odovacar’s son Fredegar out of the Shire with you when you four went off as you did.”

            “He might have had an easier time of it if he had gone with us,” Frodo said, giving his attention to his tea.  He took a sip, refusing to meet his aunt’s gaze.

            “Him didn’t wish to leave the Shire,” Sam advised her.  “Was certain as it was safer to stay home.  Only Lotho’s Big Men caught him and threw him into the Lockholes.  They almost starved him!  So much for stayin’ safe, I’d say.”

            Frodo gave him a swift sidelong glance.  “Not that we did much better,” he said in a soft, almost inaudible tone.

            “At least we had the lembas,” Sam commented in return.  “We come out of it better off than I’d looked to see.”

            Frodo again gave a shrug.  His brow was now furrowed.

            Sam gave him a thoughtful look.  “The headache comin’ back again, Master?” he asked.

            “Perhaps a bit.  I will be all right,” Frodo assured him.

            “I’ll go and get some of the other tea, then.  It should help with any pain.”

            “I still have some here.”  Frodo lifted up the cup with the stem of mint in it.  “There is no need for more right now.”

            Dirna gave him a critical look.  “You have two cups of tea?  Isn’t that a bit much, Frodo Baggins?”

            Frodo was now clearly doing his best to control his temper.  “This has willow bark in it, Aunt.  Do you begrudge me some willow bark for my headache?”

            “Probably comes from reading so much,” Dirna said as she lifted her cup to take another sip of her own tea.

            Ilberic cringed, and Celandine drew into herself in embarrassment.

            No one seemed to want much in the way of seconds, and no one was surprised when Frodo indicated he was going to return to his room to take a nap in hopes that when he awoke the headache would be gone.

            “Not as long as Gramma’s still here,” Ilberic muttered once more. 

            His sister shot him a warning glance, but Dirna didn’t appear to have heard, indicating that she, too, intended to take a nap.  “It is tiring, riding so long in a trap at my time of life,” she announced.  She turned to Rosie, adding, “You can call me when you are ready to serve supper.”

            Rosie cringed at the older Hobbitess’s tone of voice, but answered merely, “Yes, Missus Brandybuck.”  All seemed relieved when Dirna followed Frodo off through the kitchen toward the bedrooms.

            When Dirna awoke a couple of hours later the hole was filled with the vague stirring of an overlying quiet that indicated that she was not the only one rousing from a nap.  She rose and shook out her skirts, checking to see that her petticoats were not bunched up above her knees.  She washed her face carefully and slowly ran a brush through her hair until it looked decent.  She almost wished that Rose Gamgee had again come in to help her, but had an idea that this wasn’t likely to happen.  Most likely the lass was seeing to it that supper was ready to put on the table soon.   

            As Dirna closed her bedroom door behind her, she heard still another door close, and looked down the passage to see Rosie stopped before the last door on the left, carefully retying the laces first to her blouse and then to her bodice.  That’s the master bedroom! she thought.  Why should she be in the master bedroom with her bodice and blouse loosened?  Then she thought, It would appear that our dear, peerless Frodo Baggins is nowhere as pure as it has been said!  She wasn’t certain what she felt about this turn of affairs—shock at what she imagined Frodo’s behavior to be or disappointment that he wasn’t better than that, or—well, a level of smug satisfaction.  Whether or not she consciously realized it, it was the last that she truly felt.  She almost felt sorry for that Samwise Gamgee, knowing his wife was no better than she was.  She turned through the kitchen to the front of the hole, missing that door opening again and Sam coming out, wrapping an arm lovingly about his wife’s waist and kissing her hair fondly.

            The table in the dining room was already set, and she had to admit that it looked quite fine and formal.  As for the flowers both on the table and the windowsills—well, it was plain that a master gardener saw to those, for they were nothing short of perfection!  How she would love to see such flowers so well chosen and arranged in her own rooms in Brandy Hall.

            Now she heard noises from the kitchen, and in moments Sam and Rosie both appeared with bowls and platters to set on the table.  “Oh, but you’re up already,” Rosie commented.  “I suppose as there’s no need to call you, then.  The others is outside takin’ the air and admirin’ the flowers, I believe.  Did you call Master Frodo, Sam?”

            “I knocked at his door, dearling.  He said he should be down directly, once he’s done with the chapter as him’s readin’.”

            “Then it appears him didn’t get much sleep,” Rosie sighed.

            Finishing a chapter, is he?  Or merely making it appear he hasn’t been trespassing on his gardener’s flower bed? Dirna thought maliciously.

            Celandine and Ilberic came in through the kitchen, both smiling and laughing about whatever frothy subject they’d been on about while outside, and Ilberic was slipping his pipe into the inner pocket of his weskit.  “Is there anything we can do to help?” he asked Sam and Rosie jointly.

            In moments the two younger Hobbits were helping to set supper upon the table, exclaiming with pleasure at the dishes to be shared amongst them in the coming meal.  Frodo appeared in the midst of this, pale and far too thin, his clothing impeccable but his hair slightly mussed.  Dirna gave an inward sigh of disappointment that he didn’t give more sign than that of what she believed he’d been doing while the others napped.  He ushered them into the dining room and indicated which seat had been prepared for Dirna, and he then stood behind another chair.  “Sam and Rosie have prepared a marvelous feast for us,” he told them.  “Now, if you will bear with Sam and me for a moment.”

            Sam and Rosie had taken the two chairs nearest the door.  Sam also remained standing by his chair, and he and Frodo both looked out of the windows, giving a slight bow toward the west before they sat down with the others.  Dirna was granted the first servings from all of the dishes, which she felt to be her due anyway, and she was pleased until she saw Rosie and her husband exchanging looks that she felt were inappropriate both in company and considering what she assumed had been going on earlier.

            “You, lass, this fork has a spot upon it.  Fetch me another one,” she ordered Rosie.

            Celandine, Ilberic, and Sam all looked at her with surprise, while Rosie went, her face flaming, to take away the offending fork and to return with another.

            “But I polished all the silver myself,” Sam said.

            “She managed to miss a spot on this one,” Dirna said coldly.

            Frodo said nothing, but the furrow in his brow, which had not been there before he left the Shire, became more pronounced.

            Throughout the meal it was much the same, with Dirna constantly criticizing this or that or sending Rosie scurrying off to the kitchen again to bring her a new glass, a saucer for her to put her bones and crusts upon (not that there were any bones in the roast or crusts left from the rolls), and a cup of tea, and then the other sugar bowl from the kitchen table as she insisted she’d seen an ant in this one, although no one else saw the insects anywhere.

            And the furrow on Frodo’s brow became even deeper.

            After dinner the menfolk went out into the front garden to smoke a pipe and enjoy an ale together while Celandine, Rosie, and Dirna sat in the parlor, Rosie with a basket of mending and the others with small glasses of dandelion wine.  “This is quite nice,” Celandine said to Rosie, lifting her glass for emphasis.

            Rosie smiled.  “It’s Master Frodo’s brewin’,” she said.  “Old Mister Bilbo used to make it every year, and taught Master Frodo the makin’ of it.  He gave the last few bottles there was in the hole to the Gaffer afore he left Bag End to Mr. Lotho, and the Gaffer never drank them, for although he loves a good beer or a fine dark ale, him never was much of a one for wine.  So, when Sam and the others finished restorin’ Bag End he give them back again.  Apparently the receipt was one as Missus Belladonna favored, and she always kept some on hand to share with her lady friends.”

            Dirna sniffed.  “It seems that you are learning all of the Baggins family stories,” she said with obvious disapproval.

            Rosie again flushed.  “It’s just as he says as him doesn’t wish them all forgot,” she said defensively.

            “He should marry and tell them to his own wife,” Dirna returned. 

            Rosie shook her head.  “He says as he shan’t marry now.”  Her voice was sad. 

            “And why not?” demanded Dirna.

            “It is none of your business as to why I have determined that I shall not marry, Aunt Dirna.”  The three Hobbitesses turned toward the entranceway in surprise, for none had heard Frodo enter the hole.  “I will thank you not to pursue the matter further, and to refrain from badgering Rosie here about it.”

            “But there’s no one to take on the headship for the family!” she declared.

            He gave a bitter smile.  “And how much of the Baggins family remains within the Shire at this point?  We have had no sons hereabouts that have lived to adulthood for many years.  I fear that only Lotho and I were in any position to carry on the family name here in the region of the Hill, at least, and with him now dead and me in no condition to marry it appears only the few families scattered elsewhere in the Shire are likely to keep the name alive at all.  Not that many of them were ever all that closely related to Bilbo and me.”

            “What do you mean, you are in no condition to marry?”

            “You may make of that anything you wish, Aunt Dirna.  After all, you will do so anyway—you always have.”  With that he stalked off toward his study, went in and shut the door.

            “He didn’t stay out with the others to smoke?” Celandine asked tentatively.

            Rosie shook her head.  “Him doesn’t smoke no more,” she said.  “Had to give it up, for his health.  He was bad hurt, there while they was gone.”

            “And just how badly was he hurt?”  Dirna made it plain that she didn’t believe Rosie’s explanation.

            But Rosie simply repeated, “Bad hurt.  Real bad.”

            Sam and Ilberic entered soon afterwards. Both set their pipes upon the mantelpiece, and stood with their ale mugs in their hands.  Rosie started to stand up to take their mugs to be refilled, but Sam waved her back into her chair.  “Never mind, lovey.  I can see to the ale.  But where’s Frodo?”

            Celandine answered, “He went into the study.”

            “It’s not like him to ignore his guests,” Sam murmured as he went to follow Frodo’s footsteps.  They could hear him knock at the study door.  “Master, may I come in?”  The door opened and closed again after him.  Not too long afterwards the two of them came out, and while Sam took the mugs back to the storeroom where the ale barrel was kept, Frodo reluctantly came into the parlor and sat in his chair, across the chest from his ancient aunt, refusing to look at her.

            “Is it your usual habit to avoid your company by retreating to the study?” Dirna asked scathingly.

            He turned his head with a sigh.  “No, it is not, save when they are being unutterably rude.  Oh, I know that I am now following suit by speaking openly of it, but that is what you have been much of the day, Aunt Dirna.  I did not go on so long and dread a journey to expect to come home and find my own aunt insulting all and sundry here in Bag End.  I realize you have reached a venerable age and undoubtedly have many aches and pains from a body gone stiff and weary with the years, but I tell you that you are not the only one to be paying with your body for what your life has done to you.  Others also have suffered pain and injuries, you know.  However, such pain does not excuse all inconsideration.”

            “Are you saying that this has happened to you?”

            Frodo was plainly exasperated with her at this point.  “We told you that all four of us were at the brink of death as a result of our participation in the defense against the Enemy and his works, Dirna Diggle Brandybuck.  Yes, all of us, Pippin, Merry, Sam here, and I, were badly injured, and more than once.  And all of us will know at least some distress from what we endured for a long time to come.  I do not say that any of us begrudges the wounds we received, for wounds are suffered by those who take part in wars.  But, yes, I have my own share of physical discomfort to this day.  And I do not wish to speak further on the subject.”

            There was a tense quiet for a time.  Ilberic at length cleared his throat.  “Our Merry seems to honor the new King a good deal.”

            Frodo’s expression softened somewhat.  “We all honor him a good deal, Ilberic.  Aragorn is exceptionally wise and dedicated to seeing to it that all he comes into contact with are well served by him.  Elrond of Rivendell saw to the raising and training of him when he was yet a child, his father having died when he was little more than a babe in arms, and he was groomed all of his life for the day when we must all face Mordor at the last and seek to destroy its power utterly.  He is not only the finest warrior among Men that we are aware of, but also a great strategist and leader of soldiers.  He inherited the gift of healing common those of the lineage of Eärendil and Elwing, so he was trained also to use that gift to the best of his considerable abilities.  I am not certain how many languages he speaks, but he has proved a consummate diplomat.  He did a good deal of traveling when he was younger, and is familiar with the ways and customs of many lands.  And he reads the hearts of all he meets easily, and is able to inspire others to be the best that they can ever be.”

            “He’s a Man of honor, and makes all he meets wish to be folk of honor as well,” Sam added as he reentered the parlor and set each mug in place.  “I don’t think as we could have a better person as King.”

            “He didn’t keep those ruffians from coming into the Shire,” Dirna snapped.

            Frodo pulled himself up straighter.  “He wasn’t King as yet when they came in, and neither he nor his Rangers could have kept all of them out.  He went south with me to face down the threat of Mordor, and those of his people who could be gathered most swiftly, which included most of those who were guarding our borders, followed after him not that long after we left Rivendell.  They brought word that they feared more Men were entering the Shire from Bree or by way of the Sarn Ford than were leaving it, and at Lotho’s behest; but how could they deny entrance to any who appeared to come here on legitimate business?  All of us heard these reports as they were told to Aragorn, but none of us had any idea that Lotho was using them as his own personal army to take control over most of the Shire.  But most appear to have entered the Shire after the Rangers went south to join their Chieftain.”

            “But what could Hobbits do against any enemy?” Ilberic asked.  “And I always thought that Mordor was only in stories!”

            “If only,” Frodo murmured.  He picked up his mug of ale and took a sip, then held the cup close to his chest as if using it as a shield against whatever further verbal attacks might be launched at him.

            “You’d be surprised as what Hobbits can do,” Sam said.  “Everyone as fought the Enemy says as if it wasn’t for us Hobbits the war most likely wouldn’t of been won.”

            Celandine asked, “You two fought in the war, too?  Then why don’t you have swords like Merry and Pippin?”

            “We do,” Sam said.  “But we didn’t fight with the armies.  We fought in a different way, and neither of us thinks as we need to carry swords no more.  It’s not like either Mr. Frodo or me will be likely to ever fight anyone again.  Mr. Merry’s now a sword thegn to the King of Rohan, while Mr. Pippin is a guard of the Citadel of Gondor and serves as one of Lord Strider’s own personal guards when he’s in the King’s company.  They are soldiers, and fought as soldiers, and they both helped win battles.  And both suffered soldier’s wounds.  Our work was different, and we didn’t win through by usin’ swords.  Although I have to admit as we did fight at times, there with them wargs and in Moria, and against that horrid Shelob.  But mostly it was our job to get through unseen—real Hobbit work.  And we managed in the end.”

            “You mean you were spies?” asked Celandine, obviously thrilled at the thought.

            Frodo shook his head.  “Not spies—saboteurs.”  He took another small sip of his mug and sighed, putting the mug back on the chest and rubbing at his eyes and the bridge of his nose using his right hand.

            “The headache again,” Sam sighed.  “I’ll go get you some of your tea.”  With that he was up and off to the kitchen again.

            It was at that point that Dirna decided to draw the attention back to herself.  She turned to Rosie and ordered, “You lass, go off to my bedroom and fetch that shawl for me.  It’s getting cold!”

            Rosie rose to her feet, clenching her fist so hard that she was digging into the palms of her hands with her nails.  “Missus Dirna, you might just try usin’ the word please.”

            “And just why should I say please to a mere servant?” Dirna sneered.

            Sam returned from the kitchen, his face white, and put his arm about his wife protectively.  But it was Master Frodo who faced down the Hobbitess.

            “I will have you know, Dirna, that Rosie is the Mistress of this hole, and is not to be treated as a servant.”

            Her worst thoughts apparently confirmed, Dirna Brandybuck looked, widening her eyes purposely, from Frodo to Sam and back.  “You mean, you share her?”

            “What do you mean, share her?” Frodo asked.

            “I saw her come out of your room!”

            “And when did you ever see such a thing?”

            “After I woke from my nap.  I saw her come out, retying her laces.”

            Frodo was shaking his head.  “To my knowledge she was never in my room today at all.”

            “She came out of the master bedroom—I saw her!”

            Sam started to laugh.  “The room at the end of the hall?  But that’s our room, not Mr. Frodo’s.”

            But Frodo’s face had gone stark white, and for the moment all saw in him the majesty of Lord Iorhael, as Sam had told Rosie he was known in Gondor.  “You would think that of my brother’s wife?” he said, his voice dangerous.  “For know this--Samwise Gamgee is my adopted brother, and not merely my gardener.  He sought to give his life for me and for all of Middle Earth.  There is nothing I would not do to honor him--and his family--as he deserves.  And I suggest that if you question the propriety of me sharing my hole with the brother of my heart and his family, that you write to the King Elessar himself.  I am certain he would be glad to set you straight.  But I gave what was Bilbo’s room to them when they consented to come live with me, for I’ve never wanted to change mine from what it’s always been, and if anyone deserves the best bedroom in the hole it is these two.”

            He rose to his feet, leaving his mug on the chest between them.  “I will allow you to remain for the night, Dirna Brandybuck, and we shall have first breakfast ready for you when you awaken in the morning.  But although Ilberic and Celandine will always be welcome in Bag End, the same shall not be true for you.  When you return this way, if you like I will arrange for you to stay at the Ivy Leaf.  But I do not wish to see you anywhere near the Hill from tomorrow on.  Good night, Aunt.  And may you learn not to be so swift to make judgments from this day on.”

            With that he left the room, his head raised regally.  Sam and Rosie followed him, and after giving her glaring looks Ilberic and Celandine headed for their rooms, also, leaving Dirna Diggle Brandybuck alone in the parlor, for the first time in many years feeling less than an inch tall.

  -~0~-

An expansion on a double drabble I did a few years ago.  Somehow Dirna started nagging at me lately, so I decided to deal with her once and for all! 

For Shirebound, Lame Pegasus, and Lady Sherlockian for their birthdays.

Final Conversation

 August, 1420

            Frodo Baggins sat in what had been his room in Brandy Hall ever since his parents died and he came to live with Saradoc and Esmeralda Brandybuck, staring obliquely out of the window, past the glass shelves that had been fitted into the window’s frame to hold those treasures he’d collected as a child and had set there to catch the light of the Sun.  Most of those treasures still lay there, all these thirty-something years later, mostly colorful stones he’d gathered or small trinkets he’d been given by others.  He wished that they gave him now the gentle pleasure he’d received from them when he was still but a lad, but that, of course, was more than he could expect.

            Treasure, now the head cook for Brandy Hall, had left a tray for him, and he was touched that she would do so.  But he wasn’t particularly hungry.  That, he thought wryly, was perhaps better than it often was, when he felt ravenous but knew that if he ate anything more than a bite or two he would only lose it, and most likely within a few agonizing minutes.   He knew he ought to eat something, but could find neither the appetite nor the energy to do so.  Why, when he would be leaving soon enough, one way or another?

            There was a knock at the door, but he ignored it.  Whoever it was appeared to leave, but after a time that someone apparently came back, and there was another knock, a quicker, more insistent rap.  This time, even though again he didn’t answer, the door opened, and he turned his head disinterestedly to see that his younger Cousin Ilberic stood there, obviously distressed.

            “Then you are here,” Ilberic said.  “She said that you would be.”

            “Who?” Frodo murmured.

            “Gramma.  Please come—she wishes to see you.”

            “Dirna?  She could come here if she wished.”

            But Ilberic was shaking his head, and when he spoke there was a catch in his voice.  “She can’t get up any more, Frodo.  She hasn’t much time left.  Please come—she wants to talk with you once more before—before she goes.”

            Frodo shook his head, but not emphatically, he found.  “Considering her last visit to Bag End she would think of wanting to talk with me?”

            Ilberic gave a watery smile.  “Actually, you banning her from visiting the region of the Hill anymore was maybe the best thing that ever happened to her.  Others have tried countless times to tell her that she was too prone to rudeness, but apparently they’ve all been far too gentle with her.  You actually convinced her of the fact, and mostly, I think, by being rude back.  You’ve never been rude to her before, or not so ruthlessly so as this time.  Gave her a taste of her own medicine, it did!  She actually tends now to think about it when she catches herself heading into imagining the worst or getting ready to be particularly nasty to someone else.  It doesn’t actually stop her, or not very often; but things tend to be far less acid that they used to be, I must say.  Saradoc has certainly commented on how much easier it has been to live with her in the place since we got back from that wedding, and Theragar finally actually smiled with her in the room without her insisting he was being lustful toward Dini.”

            Theragar Bolger had been drawn to Ilberic’s sister Celandine for years.  “Then Theragar and Celandine are finally properly betrothed?” Frodo asked, feeling the brushings of the emotion of satisfaction for the first time that day.

            “Yes, and they are planning to invite you to the wedding.  I rather think they’d like you to officiate at it, in fact.  They plan to be married in Budge Hall five days before Yule.  It will give you time to get here afterwards before the start of the Yule festivities.”

            But Frodo was shaking his head.  “I doubt I shall be in any position to come to the wedding, although I shall make a point of having a gift I am certain will please both of them sent a few days before the event.”  He thought of some of the gifts he’d been given by Aragorn and Arwen that he could pass along that Sam and Rosie simply didn’t need.

            “Then you won’t come here for Yule, either?”  Ilberic was a study in disappointment.

            “I truly doubt that I will be able to be here, either,” Frodo answered simply.  “But it will not be because I do not wish to come.”

            Ilberic drew a deep breath, examining his face.  At last he asked in a low voice, “Will you come speak with my grandmother now, at least?”

            Frodo closed his eyes, feeling more weary than ever for a moment, but at last gave a nod and rose slowly to his feet.  Without another word spoken, he followed his younger cousin through the Hall to the door to Dirna Diggle Brandybuck’s apartment.  Ilberic did not knock, simply opening the door and holding it for Frodo to enter.  Cousin Melilot and her mother sat sewing in the parlor, and some other cousin was apparently washing dishes and tending what smelled to be a light broth in the small kitchen.  The door to the bedroom was open, and Celandine sat inside by the bed, a basket of woolwork beside her, her hook in her hand and a ball of blue yarn in her lap, although her hands were idle for the moment.  And on the bed, barely lifting the bedclothes at all, lay Aunt Dirna, her face nearly fleshless and her eyes sunken in their sockets, her hair thin now with the scalp showing easily through.

            Frodo felt a shiver run through him, for the sight reminded him far too strongly of his beloved Uncle Bilbo.  Was this the state to which Bilbo was also sinking?  After all, he was far older than was Dirna.  He took a deep breath, and at last murmured, “You asked for me to come, Aunt?”

            The eyes might be sunken, but there was no loss of clarity to them.  “When Celandine said you’d come,” she began in a near whisper, then paused to simply breathe, at last continuing, “I knew I had—had to speak with you.”

            He merely waited.

            A look of concern crossed her face as she examined him, and suddenly she looked at Celandine and said, “You’d best get up, lass.  Get up and—and let your cousin sit down.  Before his legs let go.”

            Surprised, Celandine stood awkwardly, spilling her ball of yarn onto the floor.  She bent down hastily to retrieve it and the basket, and ceded her place to Frodo, who gave her a wan smile of thanks as he sank heavily into the chair.  She bent down over her aunt to cover her confusion and pecked a kiss at her cheek before retreating to the other room, drawing her brother after her and closing the door.

            “Then, then you aren’t doing particularly—well, either,” Dirna observed when they were alone.

            Frodo shrugged.  “No, not particularly,” he admitted.

            “He said—said you’d almost died out there, that Sam did.”

            “He almost died, too, but has had a more full recovery.”

            “I hear….”  She was forced to stop and take a breath.  She licked her lips and gave a significant glance at the invalid’s cup sitting on the table before the flickering lamp.  He took and held it for her as she drank, grateful that his hands weren’t trembling.  She at last turned her head slightly, indicating she was satisfied.  At last she continued, “I hear that your Sam and his—his wife, that they have a child now.”

            He felt a smile show itself, and was glad he could smile today.  “Yes, a beautiful daughter.  They have named her Elanor.”

            “What kind of name—is that?”

            “It is the name of a beautiful golden flower, a sun star of a flower, that grows in the Elven lands.  We could see it in some of the small, protected courtyards in Rivendell in spite of it being winter, and it grew in abundance in Lórien, and particularly on the hill of Cerin Amroth where their lost King had his dwelling.  Lord Celeborn and his wife, the Lady Galadriel, rule there now.  Elrond and the Lady both sent elanor and niphredil plants to Sam, and he has them planted with the Elven lilies Bilbo so loved below my window and atop the Hill, in a circle where I often sit and watch the sunset and the stars at night.”

            “You always were—one for stars.  That’s not changed.”

            “No, it hasn’t.”

            There was quiet for a time, until at last she said, “You were—harsh—to me.”

            “You were terribly rude, and made alarming accusations against Rosie, not to mention myself.  They were totally unfounded.”

            “So you made clear.”  Briefly her tone was the one he remembered from that last visit the old Hobbitess made to Bag End.

            “And you never apologized.”

            She gave the slightest of shrugs.  She whispered, “I’m not—not practiced at it.”

            He was surprised to hear himself laugh.  “No, I must agree that you are not.”

            They contemplated each other silently again before she asked, “Will you forgive me?”

            He sighed, but felt something inside him loosen, and felt the better for it.  “If you ask it of me, then, yes, I will forgive you.”

            “Why didn’t you—why didn’t you marry?”

            He looked away.  “It took me quite some time to recover, back when Pearl threw me over.  It wasn’t till the Party that I realized at last that my heart had healed.  But then----”  He sighed and looked back to meet her eyes.  “It was not just Bag End Bilbo left me.  One thing he left proved—poisonous.  Not poisonous to the point of killing—or not then, at least.  But It poisoned my ability to love—that way.  I didn’t understand why I couldn’t fall properly in love again, not until Gandalf came and had me test the thing, and we found out just what loathsome item It was.  Then I had to take It away before It could hurt more people than just me, and that led to me needing to go on my journey.

            “The—the thing and the journey—they almost destroyed me, Aunt Dirna.  I’m not the same Frodo Baggins who used to be able to dance the night away.  I was too badly hurt.”

            “Do you—do you dance?  Now?”

            He shook his head.  “The last time I danced, it was at Aragorn’s wedding.  I could barely finish.  I had to lie down afterwards.  I was so ashamed.”

            She contemplated him for a moment, then moved her hand to where his lay now on the counterpane.  Laying thin fingers that still were surprisingly warm on his, she murmured, “When you dance again, remember me.  I should have—should have danced—more often.  Then maybe,” she paused and took a visible breath.  “Maybe I wouldn’t—wouldn’t have been so quarrelsome.”

            He felt tears stinging his eyes.  Surprised even as he did so, he turned his hand to hold hers, and was glad to realize that his hand also was warm.

-~0~-

Who would believe that the old girl would insist on the last word?  Heh!

For RS9 and InzilbethLiz for their birthdays.  Their favorite characters are not present physically, but are there in spirit!

Círdan’s Gift

            As Frodo approached the Council Hole from Michel Delving’s public stable, he was surprised to see a true horse standing in the Commons, cropping grass.  It carried a proper saddle with carriers, but the harness and reins with their myriad silver bells were obviously more for show than for proper service in guiding the steed.

            “What is an Elf doing in Michel Delving?” he asked himself aloud.

            “Waiting for your arrival,” Isumbard Took said as he came from the other side of the horse.  “It is a beautiful animal, but it’s so tall!  How can anyone ride such mountains of beasts?”

            “Very well, actually,” Frodo said, a small smile lighting his features.  “But why should an Elf seek me out?”

            Bard shrugged.  “He says that he brings a gift from someone he called Círdan.”

            “He brings a gift to me from Círdan?  But I didn’t think that Círdan even knew my name!”

            “He didn’t ask for you by name, Frodo Baggins.  He asked for the Cormacolindo.”

            Frodo’s face went pale, although the points of his cheeks were decidedly pink.  “Then how do you know that he is waiting for me?”

            Bard shook his head.  “I did get to read the letters that that King of yours sent to Cousin Paladin, you know.  That is one of the titles he called you by, isn’t it?”

            Reluctantly, Frodo nodded.  “Yes,” he said with a sigh of resignation.  “I see that the story has made it all of the way to the Elves’ haven at Mithlond.  I suppose I should not be surprised.  After all, Gildor Inglorion himself came to Minas Tirith with Elrond and the Lady Arwen, and I would guess that his people’s proper halls aren’t all that far from Mithlond.”

            “Who is he, this Círdan?”

            Frodo shrugged as he turned to lead the way into the Council Hole.  “He is the Lord of Mithlond, and, I believe, the oldest Elf still living in Middle Earth.  It is said that he was one of the first Elves to waken by the Waters of Beginning, but that he never finished the journey to the Undying Lands, remaining here at Lord Ulmo’s request to build ships for those who do sail upon and across the Sundering Sea.  He is known as Círdan the Shipwright.”

            Tollie awaited them outside the door to the Mayor’s Office, his eyes great circles of surprise and wonder.  “Cousin Frodo, did you see?  There’s an Elf’s horse out there—the tallest and most beautiful beast I’ve ever seen!  And the Elf himself, well, he’s in the banquet room!  He’s apparently here to talk to you!”

            Frodo gave an absent nod, drew back the hood of his cloak, and passed two of his water skins to Tollie and his personal satchel to Bard.  “I suppose I must find out what his errand is here in the Shire,” he sighed, and so saying, he went into the banquet chamber and approached the Elf, who stood examining the great sideboard that Frodo’s father had crafted for the Council Hole back when Frodo was a small lad, Tollie and Bard following.  It was a good thing that when the repairs had been made to the Council Hole after the collapse of the roof that had given Will Whitfoot his nickname of Old Flour Dumpling that the floor had been dug somewhat deeper than it had been and the roof raised somewhat, as the tall being who visited them actually was able to stand upright.  That was good, Bard thought, as he doubted that the Elf could have sat comfortably on any chair designed to accommodate a Hobbit.

            The Elf turned, and seeing Frodo coming toward him he bowed deeply.  “My Lord Iorhael!” he said in his markedly musical voice.  “It is a joy to see you again.”

            Frodo was bowing, murmuring what must have been an Elvish greeting, one that the Elf returned with grave courtesy.  Straightening, Frodo examined his guest.  “I remember you from the Council in Lord Elrond’s house,” he said.  “Your name is Galdor, is it not?”

            Again the Elf inclined his head.  “You remember rightly, my Prince.” 

            Frodo again paled, even his cheeks this time.  “We do not use such titles here in the Shire,” he said quietly.  “Please, do not address me again in that manner.  If you must use a title, please address me rather as Master Baggins.”

            If anything, the Elf appeared amused.  “As you wish, Master Baggins.  I have no desire to offend against your customs, particularly as you have demonstrated that you appreciate those common to my own people.  I am here on behalf of Lord Círdan, who at the behest of both Elrond of Imladris and Lord Aragorn, now the King Elessar, has sent you gifts.”

            “A gift requested by Aragorn?  And what is that?  Why would he think to ask Círdan for a gift intended for me?”

            Galdor indicated the gem that Frodo had unconsciously brought out of his shirt and was fingering.  “The second gift offered you by the Lady Arwen is known to us, Master Baggins, along with the reasons why she thought to give it to you.  Indeed, knowing what your service to Middle Earth must have cost you in hröa and fëa, we would have you know, from Lord Círdan himself to the least dockworker and scullery maiden dwelling within Mithlond, that all of our people seconded her petition on your behalf.  Lord Círdan rejoices to tell you that the petition has been granted, and that whenever you should choose to come to him he will see it is brought to be.  He believes that it shall be somewhat less than two sunrounds from now that all will be in readiness for such a venture for the first time, and it will be some years later that the next chance shall come.

            “But for now—well, as a healer Lord Aragorn holds concern for the stresses that you undoubtedly still suffer in your body as a result of your ordeal.  He let it be known that you have ever favored fish, but that your stomach can no longer accept many of the stronger-tasting fish that you once enjoyed.  He remembered from his early days sailing to far lands upon the ships of his people that there are some fish to be found far out to sea that are very mild and soothing to the stomach, and he requested that we bring you samples of such things.  This I have done—some of such fish, known as tuna and mahi mahi, were recently brought in.  We usually preserve their flesh within carefully sealed containers, and I was sent to bring you several of these for your pleasure.”

            He indicated two leather carriers that lay on the sideboard.  “And,” he added, reaching within the bag he carried upon his shoulder, “Círdan himself sends you this as a token of your welcome should you choose to accept the Queen’s gift.”  With that, he held out a small box covered with a soft fabric that shimmered in blue, silver, green, and grey as Frodo accepted it.

            Frodo opened the box slowly, and gasped at what lay within.  Tollie and Isumbard crowded close to see, too.  It held what appeared to be a brooch made of a shining silver metal wrought in the shape of a seabird bearing a great silver pearl in its beak and with a sparkling gem upon its breast.

            “Wear it once you have made your decision, Master Baggins, and bring it with you to the Havens.  And know that you will be welcomed ever in Círdan’s halls for what you have accomplished, you and Lord Perhael both.”

            With that the Elf gave a second low and reverent bow, and on straightening to his full height he left swiftly, disappearing with his great, graceful horse from the Common as if he’d not been there to begin with.

            “What was he talking about, Frodo?” Bard asked.

            Frodo only shook his head, his bloodless lips pressed into a stubborn line as he closed the box and thrust it into his pocket.  Neither Bard nor Tollie ever saw Frodo wear the thing.

            But after the news came that Frodo had quitted both the Shire and Middle Earth, Will and Mina Whitfoot, their daughter and granddaughter, and Narcissa Boffin all stated that Frodo was wearing it the last time he travelled from Hobbiton to Michel Delving, only days before Frodo left Bag End for the last time.

           

For RabidSamFan and DianaMarich for their birthdays.

The Perils of Knowing One’s Dinner

            Frodo, newly returned from Michel Delving to his refurbished home of Bag End, was just in the process of hanging up his cloak when the bell over the front door jangled raucously, and then the door burst open before he even managed to turn around to face it.  What Frodo saw as he eyed the figure in the doorway was the backside of an unusually tall Hobbit against the lowering Sun to the west, but for the moment he could not tell whether he was looking at Merry or Pippin.  It had to be one or the other, considering the fact that the head nearly brushed the top of the door.  Whichever it was appeared to be carrying in something rather awkward, something that made the most suspicious noises.  Frodo had heard such noises before, back in his days in Brandy Hall.  He rolled his eyes ceilingward.  “Peregrin Took,” he hazarded, “are you really bringing chickens in here?”

            Pippin turned toward him.  He was carrying what appeared to be rather a flimsy crate, and it had to be holding several chicks, considering the cheeping and chirping escaping it.  “Sorry, but could you close the door, Frodo?” he asked.  “My hands are a bit full at the moment.  I was returning to the Great Smial from the South-farthing, where Merry and I had been checking out reports of sightings of a big Man or two, and decided to come through Overhill.  Suddenly I’m being hailed, and it turns out to be Gustis Grubb.”

            “Gustis?  What did he want?” Frodo asked as he saw the door shut.

            “He wanted to send this crate to you, that’s what he wanted.  And a blessed nuisance it’s been, trying to carry it on ponyback.  Jewel was not happy to have it there, and appears to have objected primarily to the smell.  Where should I put it?”

            “If I’m correct in deducing it is full of chicks, nowhere in here,” Frodo said firmly.  “I have no desire to have anywhere within Bag End smelling of chickens.  And why is Gustis sending me chickens?  I thought that the Big Men and the Gatherers and Sharers had pretty much depleted most of the stocks of chickens throughout the West- and East-farthings.”

            Pippin, obviously frustrated, set the crate on the floor.  Forestalling Frodo’s intended objections, he raised a hand and shook his head.  “I have to set it down at least for a moment, Frodo Baggins,” he said.  “It’s deucedly awkward!  You can have no idea!”  He sighed, bringing out a pocket handkerchief from his trousers pocket and wiping his face.  “As for why Gustis is sending these to you, it appears to be in thanks.”

            “In thanks for what?” Frodo said, eyeing the crate with obvious anguish for the state of the floor under it.

            “Apparently for advising so many not to agree to any loans offered by Lotho.  He had been considering accepting one Lotho was offering him in order to rebuild his barn, but changed his mind after you spoke out at that last meeting of the Family Heads you attended.  Have you any idea as to why he’d have been there, by the way?”

            “He wasn’t there that I remember, but he’s pretty tight with his cousin Grupo in Bywater, who was there with the Grubb party.  So, at least a few people listened to me.”

            “So it would seem.”

            “But how did he manage to have so many chicks to spare?”

            “You know that small ridge at the back of his property?  Well, it seems that he dug his bolt hole back there, and none of the Gatherers and Sharers or the Big Men ever found it.  He’d send his lad Golly out with as many hens as he could gather in a hurry whenever he heard that the Gatherers and Sharers were headed his way, and they kept their favorite rooster there all the time.  So, he managed to save a fair number of his flock.  Since the rooster has been allowed to return to the pens he’s been very, very busy, so there have been a fair number of chicks hatched this spring.  And Gustis decided that you deserve at least a few.”  Pippin leaned down to remove the top of the crate.  “It appears he’s sent you at least eight pullets and a cockerel.”

            “And what am I to do with chickens?” Frodo asked.

            “They look like they will be good layers—you could keep them for fresh eggs.”

            “But I have no pens!”

            Pippin shook his head.  “Pens are easy enough to put up, and Sam would welcome the droppings for the gardens, and the vegetable garden in particular.  But you could just let them roam free and pen them up at night—that’s what we often did with our chickens out on the farm.”

            Frodo shuddered.  “As I remember all too well.  Sparky used to attack me every time I went out the back door to fetch in extra water for your mum.”

            Pippin laughed.  “Sparky was the meanest rooster we ever had.  You had to know how to handle him if you didn’t want to get raked or pecked.”

            “And I remember how the chickens ate every seedling in your father’s prize tomato patch that one year he was determined to grow a bigger tomato than Farmer Maggot could bring to the Free Fair.  Sam would not be happy to have chickens denuding the kitchen garden.”

            Pippin cocked his head.  “I suppose not.  So, raise them for the pot instead.”

            Frodo threw up his hands.  “For the pot?  Do you think I could eat a chicken I knew personally?  Really, Peregrin Took!”

            “It’s easy—you don’t give them proper names.  You name them things like Breastmeat.  Then it’s easier to enjoy them when they go on the table.  Besides, I didn’t notice you saying no when Mum served up Sparky that one Highday you were there.”

            Frodo glared.  “I didn’t know it was Sparky, if you will remember.  Didn’t know it was a chicken I knew until I went out to help Pearl gather the eggs and I found I didn’t have to brain the evil creature with the egg basket to get into the hen house.  When I realized that we’d eaten him the night before I almost lost my first breakfast!  Not that this long discussion of nasty roosters long gone makes it any easier to decide what to do with these creatures!”  He gave the chicks within the crate a despairing glance as they stared up at him and cheeped loudly.

            The door behind them opened, and Sam entered.  “Hello, Frodo, Pippin.  Well, I just got back from Frogmorton, and the saplings we planted there are growin’ a right treat, I must say,” he commented as he hung his cloak from the second peg from the left, which for some reason he favored.  “And what have we here?” he asked, looking down into the crate where it lay near the toes of the two other Hobbits.  “Chicks?  What are chicks doin’ here inside Bag End?”

            “A gift to me from Gustis Grubb,” Frodo explained.  “He seems to think that I deserve them for warning him off accepting a loan from Lotho.”

            Sam searched his Master’s face.  “Don’t seem as you’re any too pleased to get them, if I might say so as perhaps shouldn’t.”

            “I’m not.  We don’t have anywhere to keep them, after all, and I cannot imagine you’d want them in the gardens.”

            “I wouldn’t,” Sam agreed.  “They eat ever’thing as tries to grow, chickens do, as well as whatever bugs as they can lay their beaks on.  No, best thing for these would be to see if the Cottons would keep them for us.  What do you think about that for a plan?”

            Frodo looked hopeful for the first time since Pippin had brought the crate into the hole.  “Do you think they would, Sam?”

            “I’d hope so.  None of theirs survived the gatherin’ and sharin’, after all.  They’d be glad to care for them in return for some of the eggs, I’d think.  Grubb’s chickens have always been good layers, considerin’ how often he won the award for most eggs produced by a single hen all those years at the Free Fair.”

            Frodo gave a sigh of relief.  “That would give them a good place to live with good people looking after them, at least.  Would you take them out there for me and ask Tom and Lily if they’d do so for me, please, Sam?”

            “Gladly!  And undoubtedly they’ll give us a fair number of chickens for the table in time.  Why, I think that I’ll name that little speckled one Drumstick right now!  Come on, Pippin, and we’ll go out there right away to ask.”

            As Pippin fitted the lid back over the crate before Sam lifted it easily, he saw Frodo again shuddering at the idea of possibly eating a chicken he’d once known, and he suppressed his laughter as he followed the gardener out the door and closed it behind them.

           

For Shelley, Febobe, Gamgeefest, and Arc5 for their birthdays.

Aftermath of the Spider’s Bite

            “Elrohir?” enquired a voice.

            Elrond’s younger son looked up from the store of comfrey he was evaluating to see the Ringbearer standing in the doorway.  “Master Frodo?” he asked.  “Am I able to offer you any assistance?” 

            The Hobbit took a tentative step forward, his expression rather diffident.  “Actually, yes, you can,” he answered.  He reached up to pull the hair away from the back of his neck.  “It’s the place where that spider bit me, there in the Pass of Cirith Ungol,” he explained.

            The peredhel grew more attentive.  “Is it bothering you again, then?”

            Frodo nodded, appearing relieved not to have to explain himself.  “So, Aragorn told you about it, then?”

            “Yes.  He told us that it has drained twice, once in Minas Tirith in May and a second time while we were traveling between Gondor and Rohan for the funeral of Lord Théoden.”

            “Yes, and now it is again becoming swollen and quite painful.  I fear it is nearly ready to drain once more.”

            “Would you like for me to summon my father?”

            Frodo winced.  “I doubt that there is any need for that.  You could lance it for me, could you not?”

            “Of course, if that is what you would wish.”

            “Please.  I don’t wish to make more of it than it needs to be, you see.”

            “Then let us go to one of the examination rooms so that I might see it better.”

            Elrohir led the way to a small room that boasted quite a large window looking southward over the Brúinen toward the pastures where Rivendell’s horses and ponies grazed in the brightness of a crisp September morning.  “I am rather surprised that you aren’t with Master Bilbo this morning,” he said as he indicated a bench where the Hobbit could sit down.  “Is it not true that you and he share today as your birthday?”

            “We do, but until this is drained I do not wish to force anyone else to endure my presence,” Frodo said as he undid the buttons to the shirt he wore.  “Should I remove it?” he asked.

            “It would undoubtedly be wise,” Elrohir answered.  “I should be able to see the place more easily, and if I find it is ready to lance the drainage is less likely to spoil your clothing.”  He reached down to assist Frodo to remove the garment.  Under it the Hobbit wore the padded silk shirt intended to be worn under his Dwarf mail.  Elrohir considered it and the possible reasons Frodo might have for wearing it.  At last he hazarded, “Do you often feel particularly cold, Master Baggins?”

            Frodo grimaced as he reached to untie the laces at the throat.  “Yes,” he admitted, “I often do.  It is not as intense a cold as I knew when I was suffering from the Morgul wound, but I will suddenly find myself shivering when others appear to be more than comfortable with the temperature.”

            The peredhel nodded his understanding, and again assisted the Hobbit to remove the garment.  He fetched a high stool with a low back, setting it facing away from the window, and assisted Frodo up onto its seat.  He then lifted Frodo’s hair up off of his neck so that he could examine the site of the spider bite, and found himself suppressing a shudder.  He could easily see where the two mandibles of the creature had pierced the flesh on either side of the large raised boil that had formed to the posterior right side of Frodo’s neck, as well as the mass of pus just under the skin.  The scars from the spider’s mouth-parts were nearly black, and behind the pus was a core of darkness that somehow appeared to writhe.  Why it made him feel sick to his stomach he could not say.

            “I will need to trim your hair away from the place first,” Elrohir said, carefully keeping his voice steady.

            “I know,” Frodo sighed.  “Aragorn had to do the same before.”

            Elrohir left to fetch a tray of clean instruments; cloths for cleaning away the matter once the site was lanced; alcohol, a kettle of hot water on a wrought stand that held it over a candle, and leaves of athelas to cleanse the boil both before and after it was emptied; and a pair of fine scissors along with a draping sheet to catch the hair.  After thinking on the situation for a time, he added the gauze used to wrap his mouth and nose so as to protect the wound, although in this case he had the feeling that it would protect himself more than it would the Hobbit.

            He began by draping the sheet with care and gently cutting Frodo’s curly hair short enough that it would not afterward touch the site where the boil was now.  “I am rather surprised that Master Samwise did not accompany you here,” he commented so as to offer a distraction to his patient.  “He is so rarely far from your side.”

            Frodo shrugged slightly, if a bit stiffly.  “We are not precisely joined at the hip,” he answered.  “He and my cousins are planning the quiet party that we will enjoy with Bilbo at noon, so I was able to slip away.  He will not be happy to see my hair trimmed again, for both he and Aragorn appear to prefer it to be long.  But this will be better once we return to the Breelands and home, for we gentlehobbits don’t tend to wear our hair anywhere as long as do the Men of Gondor or Rohan, much less as long as do Elves.”

            Elrohir nodded.  He had heard much the same from Bilbo over the years, and he’d often seen to it that the older Hobbit’s hair was cut in keeping with the fashion of his own people.  It did not take too long before he had Frodo’s suitably trimmed and shaped, at which time he brought a mirror from a side table so that Frodo could see how he now looked.  Frodo nodded solemnly, and indicated that Elrohir should do what was needed now to cleanse the boil.

            The peredhel took a deep breath to steady himself, and examined the boil carefully.  He found he could not bring himself to touch it with his fingers.  There was just something about it that he found too unsettling to bear.  It was ready to drain—that was clear.  “It must be quite painful,” he said.

            Frodo gave another slight shrug.  “Yes, and I find that turning my head or moving it far in any direction is difficult when it is this swollen.  I also tend to suffer from additional problems with my digestion, which as you know has become—delicate.”  He paused, again grimacing, then added, “Aragorn has discussed it with both other healers in Minas Tirith and with your father, and all agree that it appears there is something there in the depths of it around which the recurring infections grow.  But all also agree that it is in too delicate a place for a probe to be wise.  Your father told me that if the surgeon’s knife or the tongs were to slip I could easily find myself unable to move from that point down, or able to do so only with the greatest of concentration.  As it only tends to drain every seven to eight weeks or so, I have decided to leave it be and to keep an eye on it in between times.”

            “Undoubtedly a wise decision,” Elrohir answered, and again shuddered as he noted that the dark core behind the pus appeared to move once more.  “Does it feel odd?” he asked as he poured steaming water into a basin and crushed two athelas leaves into it.  Under his breath he murmured the invocation for healing he tended to favor, and this time he added a special prayer to Yavanna to add potency for cleansing to the athelas.  He dipped a cloth into the basin as the scent of fruit trees and flowering plants overlaid with what he knew to be the tang of the Sea filled the room.  The Sea?  What would a Hobbit of the Shire who admittedly had never left the boundaries of his own land ere he fled it with the Ring know of the Sea? he wondered.

            Frodo appeared to be considering the question.  “Well, most of the time I don’t feel anything there unless I happen to brush it particularly hard when brushing my hair,” he said.  “But there is a decided tickle deep beneath the skin from time to time, and particularly as it begins to fill once more.  It’s not a pleasant tickle, either, and at times it feels as if I were being stung or—or bitten there.  Inside the wound, that is.”

            Elrohir felt his shoulders shiver.  “Have you told this to my adar?” he asked.

            “I’ve told him what it feels like when it is full,” Frodo admitted, “but not all I’ve just said to you.”

            Elrond’s son thought as he began cleansing the area over the boil.  “I think,” he advised slowly, “that I should summon my father and have you tell him this.  I do not think that whatever it is that is within the wound is necessarily good to allow to remain there, no matter how delicate the area is for probing.  And he would be far better at finding and removing whatever is caught in there without causing further injury than I am.”

            But Frodo’s voice was firm.  “No!  No, I do not wish to tempt fate further than I have already.  To return to the Shire a cripple, unable to move easily on my own, would be more than I could bear, and at the moment all I truly wish is to return home and—and to find myself again.  I feel as if I have lost so much of who I am or ever have been.”  He turned his whole torso to look up into Elrohir’s eyes, and the expression in his own was now so earnest that the healer in him could deny the Hobbit nothing.  “Please, Elrohir, please just drain the boil and let it be.  Let me go home and be just Frodo Baggins of Bag End once more.  I have had more than my fill of being the Ringbearer and this stranger, Lord Iorhael.  I do not wish to be bedbound and be required to submit to the ministrations of others for the remainder of my life.”

            Elrohir swallowed, and unwillingly indicated his intention to submit to Frodo’s request.  “If you so will it, Master Baggins,” he said quietly, and once he had his face masked with gauze he continued to wash the skin, then pressed a hot compress over it to ready it for lancing.

            The compress itself caused the skin to open and the matter beneath it to begin draining.  The peredhel knew well enough that the draining of the pus itself caused little if any discomfort—indeed it should be relieving Frodo of a good deal of pressure.  But when he sought to express the last of it he suspected that Frodo would experience a fair amount of pain.  He only hoped that he could somehow cause the object that served as an irritant to come out, too.  But if it was indeed deep between the edges of the rounded bones that protected the spinal cord he knew it was unlikely to come out without probing.  Still he tried his best once the majority of the matter was cleansed away to force whatever it was to surface, but it would not come.

            Through it all Frodo sat stoically, refusing to cry out or shy away.  When at last Elrohir, shaking his head in disappointment, removed his hands and began to cleanse them, Frodo again turned to look up at him, obviously as disappointed as was the healer at the failure to remove whatever it was that was caught inside the spider bite, but also accepting that this was only to be expected.  “Thank you, Elrohir.  I appreciate that you wish to remove the thing, but it is apparently too stubborn to allow itself to be pressured out of there.  Just leave it be.  It will most likely do little if anything for at least the next two months.”

            The peredhel nodded, and once more cleansed the wound first with the infusion of athelas and then with spirits, knowing that his ministrations were plainly causing the wound to burn, but hoping against hope that he was managing to kill all within the opening so that it would not fill again.  At last he laid two spent athelas leaves against the wound and carefully wrapped bandages to hold them in place, doing his best to make certain that the bandages would not be easily visible under the Hobbit’s clothing.  “Return to me in the morning,” he said, “and I will change the dressing and see to whether it needs to be drained again.”

            “Thank you,” Frodo said, accepting his help in restoring his former state of dress.  “I will return.  And thank you also,” he added, “for agreeing not to speak of this to anyone else, or at least not while I remain here in your father’s house.  I will see you tomorrow morning, if we do not encounter one another before that.”

            He slipped gracefully to the floor.  Elrohir remembered how beautifully Frodo had danced at the wedding of Aragorn and Arwen, and felt grief that Frodo had indicated he would never dance again, that he simply no longer had the stamina for it.  Arda had lost one who had displayed a great gift in his younger years, and as Frodo left the Healers Wing, the younger son of Elrond found himself praying that in time the Ringbearer would heal fully once more and be able to once again express his joy in life through dance and the free movement of his body.

            And he wished he’d been allowed to use fine tongs to probe that wound and remove whatever foul thing there was that dwelt at the heart of it, for he was certain that it was a good part of why Frodo had so little stamina now compared to what he’d known until he’d been bitten by Ungoliant’s get.

           

For SpeedyHobbit for her birthday.

Seeing Past the Rascal

            Frodo went over the documents before him, intensely aware of the Hobbit standing at his shoulder.  A headache was already threatening to overwhelm him.  Annoyed, he turned slightly to look at the elderly farmer.  “Was there something specific you wished to point out to me, Mr. Brownloam?” he asked.

            “No, sir, Mr. Deputy Mayor, sir.”  Polo Brownloam’s voice was very stiff, reflecting the fellow’s posture.  In spite of being over ninety years of age, there was no question that he was still capable of standing upright, unbent by the seasons he’d spent tending the raised beds in his gardens and glass houses in the Marish.  And there was no question that the farmer looked upon the gentlehobbit Will Whitfoot had named his deputy as Mayor of the Shire with the same distaste he’d shown when Frodo was in his late teens and had been known as the Rascal of Buckland.  “I only thought as to see to it as you read the whole will, is all.”

            Frodo sighed as he turned over the final page and read it, at last affixing his signature in the requisite red ink.  “I grieve to learn that your wife died while I was gone,” he said as he closed the document and signaled for one of the Took lawyers who assisted him in fulfilling the duties of the Mayor’s office to bring him the registry book so that he could record it.  “She was, I will swear, one of the sweetest and most generous and forgiving of ladies I have ever known.”

            Brownloam shrugged, his eyes bleak.  “I know, Baggins,” he said, his voice uncharacteristically soft.  “I miss her something terrible, I do.  And for some reason as I’ll never understand in this lifetime, she thought you one of the best people as she ever knew.”  He shook his head.  “She wanted to leave you a bushel of hazel nuts, but we ended up with none this fall.  All I’d brought in—the Gatherers and Sharers got  them, and then when that Sharkey got there he ordered the trees that side of the farm cut down, and if those villains didn’t set fire to the hazel thickets around them!  I’m glad as the Missus didn’t see that!  It would’ve broke her heart.”

            Frodo felt his expression harden.  “Sam is determined to see the Shire healed, and is planning to go that way soon.  I suspect that in the spring he’ll be seeing your trees and hazel thickets properly replaced.  They didn’t do damage to your glass houses, did they?”

            “Broke a few panes, but the damage is already being put right.  My grandson—he’s seeing to it.”  He paused for a moment before saying, almost grudgingly, “I suppose as it was a good thing after all as she married a Brandybuck.  They do right by their own.  Only, I never wanted to think of myself as being part of the Brandybucks, even by marriage.”

            Frodo remembered the marriage of Violet Brownloam to Dodiroc Brandybuck, back when he was a tween, come to the Hall to attend the birthday celebration for his Aunt Menegilda, then still Mistress of Brandy Hall.  “Dodi loved Violet dearly,” he said softly.  “I never understood just why you thought all the lads were out to do badly by your lasses.”

            “You don’t?”  Polo gave the deputy Mayor a searching look, one eye squinted.  “You never thought to do badly by any lass?”

            Frodo felt his cheeks flush.  Considering some of the things he’d imagined doing at times, back before he realized that it was due to the influence of what dwelt in his pocket, he certainly couldn’t say no to that question.  “Thought is not deed, Mr. Brownloam,” he replied, and hated the prim sound of the statement once it was made.

            The farmer gave a humorless laugh.  “Oh, I’d think as you’ve thought of doing your own share of despoiling,” he said in a low voice, having glanced around to see that the Tooks were all intent on their own work.  “After all, there was a time you and that Pearl Took were out in the Grove together during the Free Fair.”

            “We were young and certain that we were in love at the time, and I assure you that we did no more than most other Hobbits our age.  We kissed, mostly, and talked.  Made plans for when we were married.”

            “Only you didn’t marry her, did you?  Once she found out what you wanted from her----”

            “And just what do you suppose that I—wanted from her?” Frodo asked, his voice chilly and his tones guarded.  “Oh, I wondered what it might be like to be married to her and to—to worship her with my body, as they say in Gondor.  But I respected her and her family far too much to seek to go further than kisses and sitting together.  We were not promised, after all.”  He shook his head.  “But she threw me over before we got to that point.  She realized she didn’t truly love me enough to give up living in the Great Smial, not enough to come share Bag End with me and to be Missus Baggins first rather than the Thain’s daughter.  We all knew by that point that it was only a matter of time before Paladin would follow Cousin Ferumbras as Thain and the Took.”

            Polo Brownloam was looking at him curiously now.  “You mean it?  You never did more than that?”

            “What more could I do?” asked Frodo.  “Do you think that Pippin, young as he was at the time, was allowing us time to do anything untoward?  His parents were not allowing him to go into the Grove himself, but I’m certain that they were keeping their own watch from outside to make certain that no one seeking time together in there was going too far.  I mean, they admit that when they were courting and met at the Free Fair they went into the Grove themselves, and were aware that Adalgrim and Eglantine’s parents were all not far outside with their ears tuned to any sounds indicating anyone was going beyond propriety.  And it was much the same when we visited at the farm in Whitwell or in the Great Smial or they were at Bag End.  Pippin was always spying on the two of us when we were together.  I love Pippin beyond bearing, but as a child he was a true pest at times.”

            The farmer was shaking his head in wonder at the thought.  “Then you never—never—did—anything?  Not really?”  He scratched his ear.  “Who’d’ve thought it?”  Suddenly his look grew intense again.  “But you admit as you thought of it, though?”

            “Don’t all Hobbits at least think of it?  It is part of nature, after all, or so both Bilbo and Uncle Saradoc told me.  And certainly it has been on Sam’s mind that he’s going to marry Rosie Cotton as soon as he feels it is decent to do so, and I doubt strongly that once they are wed they will wait any great time to consummate their marriage.”

            “Well,” Mr. Brownloam began, then stopped, flushing.  “Anyways,” he finally said, “I was certain that all the lads wanted my lasses for but one thing only, and I wasn’t going to let any of my daughters be forced into an—unwise—marriage.  Not like----”  His flush grew stronger, and suddenly Frodo realized.

            Polo Brownloam and his wife had put the dessert before the meal!  Now that he thought on the subject, he remembered hearing Uncle Rory and Uncle Dodinas commenting that Polo had been but twenty-nine and his bride only twenty-seven when they were married.  Not many Hobbits married before they came of age, but it did happen, and usually for precisely that reason.

            Well, that was certainly something to think on!  But there was no question that the Brownloams had appeared to have a fairly happy marriage, and it had lasted about sixty-five years and had given them a brood of delightful (if plain) daughters and four Brandybuck grandchildren by way of Violet, not to mention the other five he’d heard tell of.

            He decided it was time to put the subject to rest.  “Well, I must say that you did very well for the two of you in your marriage, and I know that Violet has been very happy all these years with Dodi.  Certainly he’s very happy with her.  And I doubt she’d have been all that good a wife for him if she’d not seen good examples of what marriage ought to be like in her own home while growing up.”

            He looked directly into Polo Brownloam’s face, and was surprised to see an odd, gentle expression in the farmer’s face, and that the old fellow’s eyes seemed uncommonly bright.  “You truly think so, Mr. Frodo, sir?” Brownloam asked.

            “I do,” Frodo said solemnly.  “Now, your wife’s will is signed and registered, and you may file it when you have finished seeing her bequests met.”

 *******

            In the fall one of Farmer Maggot’s wagons appeared on the Hill a few days before Frodo’s fifty-second birthday, and one of his sons brought up two bushels of hazel nuts as well as a generous basket of mushrooms.  “The nuts are from the Brownloam farm,” he told Frodo.  “Old Polo said as we was to see to it as you got them safe.  Says as half are from his Missus, and half from him.  Says as he’ll never again think of you as just the Rascal of Buckland, Mr. Baggins, sir.  Says as you growed up just fine.  And my mum asked me to tell you that she’s never forgot as you called her a queen amongst Hobbits.  Tickles her fancy, that does.  Good day to you, Mr. Frodo, sir, and many happy returns.”

            Frodo looked down at the bushels of nuts, and felt touched as he’d never thought to be at the thought of Polo Brownloam saying such a thing about him.  “Well, we’d best get these into the hole now,” he said aloud, and turning he called out, “Sam!”

Written for the LOTR Community "Gratitude" challenge.  For ThunderaTiger for her birthday.  A triple drabble.

Rejoice and Be Glad

            “Did you miss us, Frodo?” Sam asked one bright morning as he and his friend walked through a glade of impossibly green grass and colorful flowers, hearing from afar the songs of the Elves as they went about their own business inside the eaves of the distant woods.

            Miss you?  Oh, yes, Sam, I did—intensely!  But I was here now, and there was so much beauty to see and experience, so many from whom to learn!  And I had time to do it all.  You know as well as I that I no longer belonged there in the mortal lands, that I was too changed to remain there, had seen and done far too much to fit in.  Not that I was liable to live that much longer.  Even here the ties between fëa and hröa are far too fragile.

            “Yes, too stubborn a Baggins even here to let go afore I could come to be with you.”

            Sam was delighted to hear Frodo’s beautiful laugh.  You have it in a nutshell, my beloved brother!  So Lord Námo tells me as well!  Not that he appears to begrudge me the chance to share what you wish to experience with me before we go on.

            Sam beamed at his friend.  “And that had best not be all that long now, my blessed Lord Iorhael.  Oh, it’s not that I’m unhappy here, you know.  It’s only, well, I’m findin’ myself awful restless.  It’s about time as we was thinkin’ of joinin’ the others—our mums and dads, old Mister Bilbo, and the like.  Mayhaps we’ll even see Boromir, too, and let him know as all ended up proper in the end.  What do you think of that?”

            Frodo’s smile added a Sun’s worth of additional brilliance to the day.

           

Uncertainty regarding Lordliness

            Hatto Hornblower sat in one of the lesser parlors in Brandy Hall, a glass of the Hall’s finest brew in his hands, looking over the glass’s rim as he sipped from it at the other occupants of the room.  Among the party were Odovacar and Fredegar Bolger, that young lawyer Brendilac Brandybuck and his father, Master Saradoc’s younger brother Merimac, and a few other residents of the Hall who were more closely related to the Hornblowers and Goolds of the South-farthing.  Hatto was an imposing figure, broadly built and dressed as he was in a jacket of golden brocade over a vest of forest green.  One had to look closely to see that the collar of the jacket had been turned at least once, and that the cuffs to his lawn shirt were worn.  Although he did his best to hide it, the last two years had not been anywhere as profitable as had been true prior to those days when he’d been convinced to allow Lotho Sackville-Baggins to direct most of his investments. 

            “So,” Merimac Brandybuck said, “you’ve just come from Bag End, eh?  And how was Frodo when you left him?”

            The door opened while Mac was speaking, and his sister-in-love entered, Esmeralda Took Brandybuck being followed by one of the servers who carried in a tray of cakes that were set on a large table alongside the bottles of wine, ale, and brandy.  Esme thanked the lass politely and dismissed her, and took a chair on the edges of the company so that she might rise and do what was needed by the Mistress of Brandy Hall.  “I am sorry to interrupt,” she said politely, “but as Sara is out at Crickhollow with our son Meriadoc and our nephew Pippin, I had some business I must make a decision upon in his absence.  I do hope you will answer Mac’s question, however.”

            “Frodo?”  Hatto’s jaw tightened.  “I must suppose he was doing well enough.  From what that gardener of his was saying, however, I wasn’t certain I would even be allowed to speak with him.  Seemed convinced that his Master wasn’t up to conducting business right then.”

            Several people turned toward Brendilac.  “You saw Frodo last week, Brendi, didn’t you?” asked one of the cousins.  “How was he then?”

            Brendi shrugged.  “He was a bit tired when I saw him.  He’d just come back from still another trip to Michel Delving to go over some business he and the Tooks had been working upon just before the Free Fair so that old Flour Dumpling would be better able to continue on most effectively.”

            “Frodo ought not to have bowed out of the office as he did,” commented Odovacar.  “I still think he did an exemplary job as deputy Mayor and would have made a blessedly fine Mayor in his own right.”

            Hatto cleared his throat and shook his head.  “Well, if he didn’t think that it was worth his time to become Mayor himself, I wasn’t going to waste my vote on him.  I’ve never seen anything like it, with Will Whitfoot himself putting him up as candidate and Frodo just shoving the office right back at him the way he did.  Shameful behavior!”

            Mac shrugged one shoulder.  “Frodo wasn’t honor bound to accept the office fully just because Will wished to see him take his place.  Frodo has had a good deal on his plate since he got back from Outside, after all, what with dealing with the reparations fund Lobelia wished set up to make things right for those who’d lost so much under Lotho’s misrule, helping to see to it that homes were rebuilt and repaired, and having to have Bag End totally refurbished after what those Big Men and Sharkey did to the place.  Mantha and I stopped by Hobbiton to see it on our return from Michel Delving, and it was truly unbelievable what had been done there.  Sancho Proudfoot and some others were hauling out the carpets, and they were absolutely destroyed!  As for the condition of the hole—it was unbelievable!  Axes, knives, and mattocks had been used against the walls and doorways, windows had been broken out, and almost every inch of flooring needed replacing.  As for what Frodo had to face as deputy Mayor—all of the damage done, food and possessions stolen, animals run off and confiscated, and all—it was enough to dishearten anyone!”

            Hatto snorted.  “If his sensibilities are so sensitive he couldn’t stand listening to hard-luck stories, Frodo should never have agreed to serve as Will’s deputy.”

            Too late, he realized his last statement had not been particularly—tactful.  After all, Frodo’s mother Primula had been the Master’s beloved aunt, the darling of Buckland until her untimely death.  And Frodo Baggins was first cousin to Saradoc Brandybuck as well as being closely related to everyone in this room, and had grown up largely here in Brandy Hall.   The expressions he saw reflected about him were anything but friendly at the moment.

            Fredegar Bolger was regarding him coldly.  “I never heard anyone complain about Frodo’s time as deputy Mayor.  Indeed, all spoke of his surprising willingness to do his best by everyone who came to him during that time.”

            Esmeralda’s face was no longer warmly welcoming, either.  “Indeed, my cousins from the Great Smial who helped him in the months he sat in the Mayor’s office indicated that he worked harder than any of them in seeking out the beginnings of Lotho’s perfidy and at seeing to it that a proper investigation was set in motion to learn how he managed to gain so much property and power so swiftly.  Frodo personally questioned every single Shirriff as to what he did and what he saw done during Lotho’s self-proclaimed term as Chief Shirriff, and made certain all who had taken advantage of their authority as Shirriffs have been properly disciplined.  I would not say that Frodo’s sensibilities were any too sensitive.  He has spent hours going through letters and reports detailing the thefts perpetrated by rogue Shirriffs, the Big Men, and the Gatherers and Sharers.  He has spoken with every person who spent time in the Lockholes or who was abused in their own villages or homes.  He has helped in reconstruction of homes, and has gone through lists of stolen properties and possessions and has helped send most of the found items back to their proper owners.  And he returned last to his own home, of all of those whose homes were damaged or destroyed while he was away.”

            “But it wasn’t his home when he got back!” Hatto objected.

            “Lobelia returned it to him.”

            “He could have returned here.  Didn’t he buy a new home here in Buckland after he sold Lotho Bag End?”

            Odovacar sighed.  “Frodo had agreed to serve as deputy Mayor at Will Whitfoot’s insistence.  He couldn’t have done that easily from here in Buckland, could he?  So, he stayed part time in Bywater where he was a guest of the Cottons and part time in Michel Delving while actively working in the Mayor’s office.  After learning that that Sharkey had seen to it that Lotho was killed right there in Bag End, Lobelia couldn’t bring herself to return to the place, choosing to return to her family in Hardbottle, and saw to it that Bag End was deeded back to Frodo.  Do you question her right to do that?  If your son had been killed dead in his new home, would you wish to remain there afterward?”

            Hatto looked sideways at the Bolger and licked his lips.  “That is rather hard to speak to, as I’ve never been in such a position.”

            “And I hope no one here will ever be placed in such a situation,” agreed Mac.  “It is not one we here within Buckland or the Shire are familiar with, although from what we have been told of the Outside it is not all that uncommon a situation for Men.”

            “Then I’m glad none of us are Men,” said one of the cousins, to which the rest of the company agreed.

            “What did become of the place Frodo bought here?” asked Hatto.

            Esmeralda said, “He has returned it to the possession of Brandy Hall to resume using it as a guest house for visitors who do not wish to stay within the Hall, as long as Merry and Pippin are allowed to remain there as long as they wish.”

            “And why don’t the two rascals just return home to their families?” the Hornblower demanded.

            Too late he realized that he’d caused more offense than he’d be forgiven as a good half of those in the room rose.  Brendilac Brandybuck’s father led the way.  “I do think,” he said, “that it is time for us to return home now, Brendi.”

            The son turned toward his father, shaking his head.  “I believe I’ll stay for the moment.  If Mr. Hornblower is planning a business transaction with Frodo, then I will need to know sufficient details to write out the agreement or contract.   Good night, Dad.”

            The older Hobbit nodded.  “I will see you when you get to the hole, then, Brendi.  Sir,” he added with far less cordiality and a stiff nod toward Hatto, and he led his relatives out.

            Only the Bolgers, the lawyer, Mac, Esmeralda, and two other Brandybucks remained, and all of them were eyeing Hatto as if they were waiting for what further insult he might utter.  At last Hatto murmured, “No insult intended, Esme.”

            “I am at a loss to understand just why you referred to my son and my nephew as rascals, much less why you have insulted Frodo tonight,” she returned.  “He was not compelled to continue on in the Mayor’s office just because Will nominated him for the post.  I will tell you this, Frodo does not do things for no reason.  He might not tell others why he makes the decisions he does, but once the whole matter is understood it usually proves that Frodo has done the best he can by as many as he can.”

            “Then why did he leave the Shire the way he did, and sell Bag End to Lotho Pimple, of all people?”

            Brendi was searching his face.  “I was unaware that you had any contract or agreement made with Lotho that had in it a clause based on Frodo selling Lotho Bag End.  I am aware of a number that were….”

            “No, nothing like that,” Hatto said, sighing and scratching his ear.  “But I made the mistake of allowing Lotho to steer me into a few business deals that did not turn out as promised, and the only person I am aware of who seemed to have any influence over Lotho to keep him in line, besides Lobelia, that is, was Frodo.  Had Frodo not done what he did, I could have turned to him to help see matters made right.”  He glared at the glass in his hand as if he saw within it a reflection of Lotho’s face, leering at him.  After a moment he went on.  “Lotho had convinced a number of us that he could make us fabulously wealthy.  He was dealing with someone outside the Shire who wanted food and pipe weed in large quantities, and Lotho was willing to broker the deals for us.  He also had some warehouses built on his own land near the third Hornblower leaf plantation, and he allowed us to use them to hold shipments we had prepared to send off elsewhere in the Shire.  Only some of these shipments wouldn’t be there when our carters came to pick them up to carry on to wherever they were intended.  Had a shipment of weed intended for Tuckborough—the Great Smial.  It went missing, and Lotho couldn’t tell me what had happened to it.  He swore he’d not tampered with it.  But then I learned that I wasn’t the only one this had happened to.  Erto Mason, near the Longbottom place—it happened to him—a shipment of fruit intended for Long Cleeve.  And two barrels of cherry brandy intended for here from the second Hornblower plantation.  A mixed shipment from the Pincup Proudfoots intended for Michel Delving disappeared, both produce and material, mostly ribbons, spools of thread, and bolts of broadcloth.  There were two wagonloads of Longbottom Leaf that were supposed to go to Gamwidge for distribution throughout the North-farthing, and a fair amount of foodstuffs that had come from the West-farthing that was supposed to be distributed to the various Hornblower holdings that I sent there, there to Lotho’s warehouses, where they, too, went missing.

            “We learned that huge wagons drawn by real horses were coming empty into the Shire by night, and leaving by way of the Sarn Ford early in the morning, headed down the Greenway now full of unnamed goods.  Lotho kept telling us that these reports were false, but then Leto Sandheaver went missing after he declared he was going to get to the bottom of this, that he was going to sneak into those warehouses at night and see what was really going on.  Nothing has been heard of him since shortly before Frodo headed off to here from Bag End, there just before he disappeared with Pippin Took and your Merry.  We think that the Big Men driving those wagons took him with them.”

            “Why did you go to see Frodo now?” asked Brendi.

            Hatto shrugged and looked at the floor.  “I was hoping to sell him an additional farm share or two in the third Hornblower plantation, which I run.  Lotho cost me a good deal of money, sending my goods I had stored in his warehouse off wherever it was he sent them.  I’ve had to pay back money for deliveries to the Great Smial and other places where they never arrived.  And when I tried to speak to Lotho about them once Frodo was gone and the Sackville-Bagginses were in Bag End, he just laughed at me, demanding how I was going to prove he’d had anything to do with the shipments that went missing.  If I’d not sold him so much produce to send off wherever the missing goods went to, I could perhaps have made things nearly even with the Thain and all.  But Lotho underpaid me for what I sold through him, and told me I ought to have read the sales agreements more closely before I signed them.  For all Frodo let it be thought he’d spent all he had before he sold Bag End, I’ve heard tell he’s flush enough since he came back, and that it was his own money that went into rebuilding many of the homes and inns and mills that were destroyed by Lotho’s Big Men.  Perhaps, with a bit of extra capital to start the coming year with I can get the place back on its feet.”

            “But didn’t the harvest this year help you?” asked one of the other Brandybucks in the room.  “It was the most abundant we’ve had in living memory!”

            Hatto gave a despondent shake of his head.  “That Lotho passed onto me some of the advice this Mr. White he’d been dealing with had given him about what to do to increase the yield of the soil, and we tried it—three years in a row we tried it.  First year it worked a charm—good yields on everything.  Second year it worked, but the plants appeared—damaged, somehow, and the harvest, although abundant enough, all tasted—well, sour.  Third year, last year, that is, it was bad, bad, bad!  One of the tenants on Lotho’s land came over to see what I was complaining about, and asked if I’d followed any advice Lotho had passed my way from his foreign customer, and told me that this was something I should not have done more than a year at a time, as it can kill the very soil itself.  This year was better than last year, and at least what we grew tasted wholesome enough—was excellent, in fact; but it was still far sparser than it was before I tried what Lotho had advised me to do.”

            Brendi and the Brandybuck who’d last questioned Hatto exchanged looks.  “The Lady’s gift probably helped undo the poisoning done by the misuse of the soil,” Brendi suggested.  “But if the soil was badly depleted it most likely couldn’t do a lot to make it stronger quickly.”

            The other Brandybuck nodded.  “Best leave as much land as you can manage to lie fallow for a year or two, work plenty of mulch and manure into it to strengthen it up, and then replant it  with beans first after it’s had a rest.”

            “That’s what Lotho’s tenant said,” Hatto admitted.  “Said as he’d read up on it a few years back in a book his family owns, one that was a gift from the Tooks.  There’s supposed to be a good deal of advice from the Elves in this book, apparently.”

            “There’s no question that the Elves know the proper way to heal the land,” Brendi commented.  “So, you wanted to try to sell Frodo more farm shares.  What did he say?”

            Again Hatto sighed.  “Took me a time to get the gardener to let me even see Frodo—seemed to think that Frodo wasn’t well enough to talk with anyone.  But I insisted, and at last he showed me into Frodo’s study.  If Bag End was badly damaged, it appears to have been repaired very well.”

            “Yes,” Esmeralda said, “it was.  Was Frodo in the study when Sam showed you in?”

            “No, but he came in quickly enough.  Looked all right to me, I suppose.  Except he’s very thin now.”

            Fredegar Bolger gave him a jaundiced look.  “I suppose he is.  But, then, so am I.”

            Hatto glanced at him, and then swiftly looked away, clearly embarrassed.  “I’d not wished to say anything,” he muttered.  He cleared his throat, scratched his ear again, and continued, “He asked me what crops I might have that he could benefit from, and I offered him two large barrels of Old Toby rather than the one small one he receives now.”

            Esme and Brendi exchanged looks.  “Not,” she said, “that he particularly favors Old Toby, much less Longbottom Leaf.  He’s always preferred Goolden Lynch.  But, then, I do not believe he even smokes anymore.”

            “So he said,” Hatto responded, his tone rather flat.  “He suggested I speak with Sam Gamgee.  But why would his gardener be interested in buying farm shares?  It’s not as if he has a great deal of money to invest----”

            Freddy gave a bark of a laugh.  “Do not be so swift to think that, Hatto Hornblower.  Sam has far more means since he returned to the Shire than he had before he left it.”

            “And how did the likes of Samwise Gamgee come into money just by leaving the Shire?” demanded the second Brandybuck who’d stayed behind when their kinsmen left.

            “It has to do with what he and Frodo and the others did outside the Shire towards winning the war,” Esme answered him, looking his way briefly.  “If Merry and Pippin came back soldiers, Frodo and Sam earned even more honor and respect for what they accomplished.”

            “Which was,” prompted Hatto.

            “Fooling the Enemy and destroying his greatest weapon,” Freddy said.  “Which,” he added, “effectively destroyed the Enemy himself.  And that allowed Aragorn son of Arathorn, who had been Chieftain of the Dúnedain of the North, to become King of both the North and the South Kingdoms, of both Arnor where we live and of Gondor to the south.  From what Sam, Merry, and Pippin have all told me, that earned all four of them a good deal of honor and respect, considering that all four of them almost died protecting others, with Frodo being at the point of death more than once.”

            Hatto didn’t understand all of this.  “But why in Middle Earth would they even consider leaving the Shire to begin with?”

            “Frodo had to leave the Shire,” Brendi said.  “He’d inherited one item old Bilbo brought back from his own adventures that was getting ready to destroy the whole of the Shire, and the rest of Middle Earth as well.  He left the Shire to take It away, and hopefully, he’d thought, to protect those of us he loved from the danger that was rocking the rest of the Free Lands.  Only one of the Enemy’s allies had realized where It must have lain hidden for the last sixty or so years, and both he and the Enemy himself sent agents in search of It.”

            Hatto realized that Fredegar Bolger was trembling, and that he’d gone quite pale.  “Some of the Enemy’s agents, on learning that Frodo was removing here to Buckland and the Crickhollow House, came there after the others left, and they attacked the house while I was still there.  We are fortunate that they didn’t remain once they realized that they’d been tricked and that Frodo was already gone out of the Shire.  Even they didn’t dare follow him through the Old Forest, so they tried to waylay him thrice on his way to Rivendell.  That was the first time he almost died.  And had they caught me in the house when they broke in, I have no doubt they’d have taken me prisoner and tortured me to tell them where Frodo might have gone before they finally killed me.  You cannot imagine what it was like, facing them even in as cowardly a manner as I did by fleeing out the back door.”

            “What kind of agents did these fellows send?” demanded Hatto.

            “The Enemy sent his most terrible servants,” Freddy said through a clenched jaw.  “And Sharkey sent the Big Men to help Lotho take over the Shire and do his bidding—at least until he came himself and had Lotho murdered.”

            “Are you saying that that Sharkey----” Hatto began.

            Brendi faced him, his chin raised, his demeanor sadly stern.  “Yes, Sharkey was this mysterious Mr. White who gave Lotho advice on how to improve the yield of our fields—and to kill them.  They aren’t certain exactly when he became a traitor and began serving the Enemy, but it appears to have been quite some time ago that he decided he wanted the Enemy’s weapon for himself, to conquer the Enemy and put himself in the Enemy’s place.  Once he realized that the weapon was likely here, he began plotting the destruction of the Shire.  And that was probably before Frodo was even born, certainly before it was guessed Frodo planned to carry It away.”

            “How do you know so much about all this?” Hatto asked, his confusion coming out as bluster.

            Fredegar Bolger sighed and said, “After they saved me from the Lockholes, I remained in Bywater at the Cottons’ farm, along with Samwise Gamgee, Sam’s dad and sister, and Frodo, when he returned to the center of the Shire on the days he did not work in the Mayor’s office.  I heard—things, and sometimes Frodo would even answer a question or two about it all.  And, as you know, Brendi there has been Frodo’s personal lawyer for years.”

            “I had to make out his will, and needed to know some things to see to it his wishes were followed while he was away,” Brendi added.  “He did not go into great detail, but I learned enough to convince me that he was compelled to leave as he did to protect us all.  Since he got back he’s told me some things, but again not all.  He’s told me enough, however, to reassure me that his fears before he left had been more than borne out.”

            “So, why doesn’t he smoke anymore?” asked Hatto.

            Esme answered, “From what little he and the lads have told me, it is because of the last injuries he suffered.  They affected his stomach and his lungs.  He apparently breathed in quantities of a poisonous fume, and the healers who saw him as he recovered and afterwards are all adamant that he must not smoke any longer.  Indeed, Pippin tells me that for a time he, Sam, and Frodo all three were forbidden to smoke, and that those who visited with them must only smoke outside and downwind of them.  Pippin and Sam recovered enough that they were allowed to smoke again within a few months, but Frodo cannot smoke at all, and Sam only smokes out of doors, away from Frodo.”

            The idea that a Hobbit of the Shire could not smoke for reasons of health was a totally new one to Hatto Hornblower.  “Who’d of thought?” he said, searching the faces of the others.

            “Indeed,” agreed Odovacar Bolger.  “But at last I understand.”

            “That Samwise was so lordly in his manner when he told me I couldn’t smoke there in Bag End,” Hatto said, remembering how offended he’d felt at the time.

            Esme laughed tiredly.  “Well,” she said, “from what it says in those letters Sara and I received from the King, if Sam behaves in a lordly manner, he has good reason.  He’s now considered a Lord of the West, you must understand, him and Frodo both, for all they did to see the Enemy’s weapon destroyed and the Enemy himself brought down.  He’s now the Lord Perhael, having been ennobled upon the Field of Cormallen, which apparently is a cleared area inside the forests of Ithilien in the Kingdom of Gondor, where the King was first crowned.  The King and his Council all appear to consider Frodo and Sam both among the highest of honored souls within all of Middle Earth.

            “Now,” she concluded, rising to her feet, “if you will excuse me, I must see to it that all is ready for dinner.  You will be joining us, Hatto, Odovacar, and Freddy?  Shall I prepare a room for you for the night, Hatto?  Good enough.”

            So saying, she left them, followed by the two Brandybucks who’d remained, leaving Hatto with Merimac, Brendi, and the two Bolgers.

           

For Antane for her birthday.

The Call Heard

            Cyclamen Proudfoot looked up from where she played in the dooryard to Number Five, Bagshot Row, to see Samwise Gamgee walking down to the turn in the lane.  A bench stood there that Sam had built for his Master to sit upon, and Sam now sat on it himself, his eyes sad as he examined what it was he held between his hands.  He wore that grey-green cloak that was so similar to the one that Frodo used to wear.  She knew that the other two Travellers also had the same type of cloak and that they often wore them when they came to visit their cousin in Bag End.  Not, she knew, that they’d do so again, for a few weeks ago Frodo had ridden away from Hobbiton with Sam as his companion, and a few days ago Sam had returned alone, leading Cousin Frodo’s pony Strider and leaving it along with Sam’s ponies Bill and Berry at the stable at the Ivy Leaf.

            She left her doll sleeping in the bed she’d made for it of fallen leaves, blanketed with petals from the rose bushes that grew each side of the door, and pushed her way out of the gate.  Quietly she approached the seated figure until she was close enough to set a small hand upon his knee.

            “Did he really go on a ship to sail upon the Sea?” she asked.

            Sam looked up from his examination of what he held to search her face.  “And how did you know as my Master was goin’ by ship?” he asked in return.

            “The Elf as brought you the medicine as him needed let me know, and those cousins of his as stay with Mr. Griffo and Missus Daisy said the same.  They say as he can’t come back again.”

            He nodded slowly and took a deep breath.  “And so it is, Miss Proudfoot.  Yes, he’s gone now aboard one of the Elven ships, gone with them to Tol Eressea, far, far across the Sea.  And, no, he won’t be a-comin’ back home again.  That’s to be his home now, there with the Elves as he loves and as loves him.  But him’s not the only Hobbit goin’ there, you know.  Old Mr. Bilbo is goin’, too.  Oh, but old Bilbo will like that fine, I’m certain, to be surrounded by all kinds of Elves.  He does love bein’ with Elves, Mr. Bilbo does.”

            She nodded thoughtfully, and looked at what he held in his lap.  “What’s that?” she asked.  “And where did you get it?”

            He gave her a small smile.  “And what does it look like?”

            She examined it closely.  “It looks like a snail shell for one of them snails as lives in water, but ever so big!” she said.

            He looked down at it, pink and orange and white with a whirly pattern echoed by the bumps on it, and rubbed a finger around and around its pointed end.  “We found it on the sand on the shore of the Sea afore we came away.  An Elf as was by us in the night while we was comin’ back to the Shire told me that it was a snail shell, but for a big snail as lives in the Sea and eats plants they call kelp and the green slime as grows on rocks in shallower water.  He said as it’s told that Lord Ulmo, the Lord of all waters, has his own trumpets, what they calls the Ulumúri, made from these shells, but ones as are big as big, bigger than Hobbits, even.  He has the Ulumúri blown to call all his own folk to him when he has need of them, it’s said, or to call those as is to come home to the Undying Lands to sail.”

            She reached out to touch one of the blunt bumps, following the swirling line of them with her finger.  “Do you think as Cousin Frodo heard them blowin’, then, to make him ride off to the Sea to sail away with the Elves?”

            He shrugged, but it wasn’t one of the shrugs that usually meant one was uncertain.  “I suppose as he well might of, Miss Cyclamen.  I suppose as he did.”

            And I’ve heard them, too, blowing for me, he thought.  Only it’s not time for me to sail, not yet.  But one day I probably shall, and find him again, afore I go on.

           

Written to a prompt by KGreen for B2MEM.  For LilyBaggins, Lily the Hobbit, and I_O_R_H_A_E_L for their birthdays.

Fish to Fry

            May Gamgee entered the kitchen of Number 3, Bagshot Row, to find her sister Daisy making a sour face over a bowl of breading and a platter of fish.  “What is it, Daisy?” she asked.

            “It’s these fish as Sam caught the other day down at the Water,” Daisy answered.  “I was goin’ t’fry them up for our dinner, but it seems as they’ve already gone off.  We’ll have t’have somethin’ else.  Mayhaps some of them pork chops as Cousin Tom sent over from their farm yesterday.”  She pulled the last fish out of the bowl of batter and set it on the platter.  “Well, that’s a waste of good batter, and no mistake,” she sighed.  “It’ll all need to go into the compost pile!  Oh, and would ye see to the scones as is in the oven, May?  They should be comin’ out any minute now.”  With that she headed out to the compost pile to pour out the batter. 

            May opened the oven to check the scones, using only her apron to protect her hands.  She put her hand inside the cavity to check how done they felt to be, but in pulling it out again she accidently brushed it against the door, burning herself.  “Yow!  Ouch, ouch!  Oh, curse and bebother it!  Why didn’t I use the mitt?”  After slamming the oven door shut again, for the scones weren’t quite done, she hurried off to the privy, as she’d always maintained the pump there produced colder water than the one in the kitchen, intent on filling a basin and soaking the burn.  As she hurried down the hall she called out, “Marigold!  Take the scones out of the oven in a few minutes!  They’re not quite done.  And remember to use the mitt!”

            Marigold didn’t come out immediately, but when she did she dragged the broad foot stool over to where she could climb upon it and reach the oven door.  Mitt in hand, she carefully opened the door and stretched to peek inside.  “Looks to me as if they’re done,” she commented, and carefully she pulled the tray out and set it on the flat stone on which such things were set to cool.  Then she spotted the platter of fish upon the table and shook her head.  “That Daisy—she knows better’n to leave the fish out!”  She spread the white cloth back over the fish and carefully returned the platter to the shallow cool room off the main larder, setting it on a lower shelf she could reach easily.  “There!” she said, and catching up the cat she carried it back to the room she shared with her sisters.  “Come on, Strudel,” she said.  “I’ll finish readin’ you that story as I was workin’ on earlier.”

            Strudel meowed a protest the small lass ignored, and soon the kitchen was empty and quiet once more.

            It was some time before Daisy returned to the hole carrying the bowl that had held the tainted batter.  “Bless Missus Rumble, but if she didn’t keep me out there a-talkin’ till the cows come home,” she murmured to herself.  “Oh, but it does look as if May saw to them fish, and the scones look a treat, they do.  But why didn’t she at least start the pork chops?  Well, I know as she’s workin’ on that dress to wear to the harvest dance at the farm—she’s the right to be distracted, I’m thinkin’.  But Dad should be home soon, and I don’t want him to have to wait to eat.”

            In moments the wide skillet was on the cooking surface, and after making certain the taters she’d peeled earlier were boiling gently, she began browning the meat.  A few minutes later May came in, a bandage wrapped around her hand.

            “You burnt yourself again?” Daisy enquired.

            May nodded as she got out another pan and a rasher of bacon, from which she cut a few slices to pop into the pan.  “You’d think by this time as I’d learn to use the mitt every time.  But I do get into a hurry, don’t I?”

            By the time Sam returned from Bag End the table was set, and May was pouring a pot of green beans cooked with slices of mushroom and bacon into a bowl preparatory to setting it, too, on the table along with a platter of chops, a generous basin of taters mashed with sweet cream, butter, and grated garlic and minced parsley, a basket of scones, a great bowl of mixed greens, two pots of jam, and a tub of butter.

            “Where’s our dad?” Daisy asked.

            “Decided to go over the Water to the Green Dragon with Daddy Twofoot,” Sam announced.  “We’re to see ourselves to bed.”

            Daisy sighed.  “We’ll set a few chops aside for him to have once he’s home,” she decided.  “Well, wash your hands well and sit yourself down.  Dinner’s hot now, it is, and ready for us even if Dad’ll have his later.”

            A plate with three chops, a hardy ladle of taters and another of beans, and an accompanying bowl of greens were covered with a clean cloth and placed in the cool room by May, who set them on the upper shelf since the lower ones were fairly full.  Not knowing when their father was likely to return, it was decided that the cool room would be better than the warming oven, as it would only all dry out if it stayed there for any length of time.  No one paid particular attention to the other covered platter on the lower shelf….

 *******

            It was a crashing in the kitchen that awoke Sam, and he was swiftly out of bed, drawing a well-worn wrapper about himself and headed down the passage to find out just what was going on in the hole.

            He found the Gaffer there, and two copper pots lying on their sides on the floor where apparently his dad had managed to drop them as he hauled out the biggest skillet.

            “What’s it you’re tryin’ to do?” Sam asked, eyeing his father.

            “They left me a whole platter of them fish you caught the other day!” the Gaffer said with satisfaction.  “And shush if’n you don’t want the lasses down here to share!”

            Sam found himself smiling, and after seeing the two pots back to their places, he hurried about the room setting things in place so he and his dad could share a midnight meal.  Neither of them paid the slightly off odor of the fish any mind….

 *******

            Frodo opened the side door to Bag End for the fourth time that morning, wondering where the Gaffer and Sam were lingering, much less why.  He’d prepared a pot of tea for them, and a platter of Bilbo’s seed cakes.  Had Bilbo been home, it was likely there would have been but three cakes each left for their gardener and his son; but Bilbo was in Michel Delving dealing with some business matter or another, and Frodo was left to play host as he wished.

            Frodo wandered down the paths, but found no signs of either Hamfast or Samwise Gamgee anywhere.  He was back at the north end of the hill checking out the vegetable gardens when he heard the side gate crash shut, and he hurried back toward the front of the smial only to find Sam, grey-faced and dull-eyed, almost hanging on the gatepost. 

            “What in Middle Earth?” Frodo demanded, frightened by the young Hobbit’s aspect.

            “It’s my dad,” Sam explained.  “He’s that bad—can’t keep anythin’ down this morning’, he can’t.  The lasses—they’re doin’ their best to keep him in bed, and I come up to work for the both of us----”

            Only it was plain that Sam wasn’t in any shape to work that day either, as he suddenly turned about and bent himself over the gate to lose whatever it was he had in his own stomach.  There was nothing Frodo could do for several moments but to support the lad as best he could until the spasm was over.  Finally Sam was done, and Frodo pulled him as upright as the younger Hobbit could stand, and with a hand about Sam’s shoulders he led him into Bag End and to the nearest bedroom and settled the lad into the bed there.  In moments he had the kettle on again, and while the water heated he brought the basin Bilbo had set aside for any bout of illness either of them might know and placed it within reach on the chest beside the bed.

            “Ginger tea for you, young Hobbit,” Frodo announced as he brought a cup of that drink into the room along with a small carafe of water and a glass to match.  He helped Sam cleanse his mouth with the water before giving him a few sips to swallow, only allowing the lad to have some tea once it was plain he was able to retain the water.  When Sam had half a cup of tea in him he shook his head to any more, and rolled over on his side, curling up around his sore stomach.   Frodo left him to sleep as he could, and hurried down to advise Daisy, May, and Marigold that their brother was safe in bed at Bag End and to check on the Gaffer’s condition.

            “It was them fish as Sam brought home the other day,” Daisy explained, obviously distressed.  “I realized as them was off, and took out the batter t’pour it out on the compost heap, but May burnt herself on the oven afore she could bring out the fish, too.  And Marigold was only doin’ as her was taught, puttin’ the cover back over the plate and seein’ it back into the cold room.  How was anyone to suppose as our dad would think as that was what we’d put aside for his own supper?  And Sam’s sick, too?  Well, him did get up when he heard the Gaffer in the kitchen, it seems.  And both ate of them fish as should have been thrown out instead!  I suppose as both of them’ll be better by termorror.  Thank you, Master Frodo, for seein’ to it as Sam’s cared for.  We’re all about run off our feet seein’ to it as the Gaffer’s taken care of!”

            With that Frodo was off back up the Hill to see to Sam’s welfare.

 *******

            “Sauce of apples, curds and whey, ginger tea, and apple juice for you today,” Frodo said as he settled the tray across Sam’s lap, once the young Hobbit indicated he felt he could do with some food in his stomach.  “I have some chicken broth simmering in the kitchen for an hour from now, supposing that you can keep this down.  So, you and your dad had some fish in the middle of the night, did you?  Daisy had intended to have it all thrown out as it had gone off, or so she told me.  But it appears that Missus Rumble saw her outside and kept her distracted enough for little Marigold to decide a platter of fish belongs in the cool room rather than on the work table.  I’m so sorry you and the Gaffer both were able to eat it without realizing that it should have followed the batter onto the compost heap.”

            “It was the fish as done it for us, was it?” Sam said.  “Should of been able to smell as it was bad now.”

            Frodo smiled.  “Maybe so, but we’ve all eaten something we should have avoided, I suspect.”

            Sam eyed him.  “Not you, too?”

            “Oh, yes, but for me it was eels from the Brandywine.  Mummy wasn’t feeling particularly good that day, and I must suppose they sat out too long before they were cooked.  Oh, but was I ill!  Couldn’t keep anything down better than half a day.”

            “And this was what them give you, was it?”

            “Yes, sauce of apples, curds and whey, ginger tea, and apple juice.  Standard fare for those whose stomachs are upset.  Just start with a bite or two, and make certain you can keep it down before you take more.  You don’t have to rush things—you have all day, and the garden shan’t suffer just because you and your dad are both kept in bed for a time.  And, if you think you can handle it, I even have some ginger beer put by that you can have this evening.”

            Sam sat back against the pillows the young Master had arranged for him and began with a small spoonful of curds and whey.  He found he didn’t mind being ill, not with Master Frodo caring for him.  Somehow, in Frodo’s care he felt safe as houses!

 

Written for B2MeM 2015.  For Alphien and Illyrien for their birthdays.

A Place to Work and Work to Do

            Faramir opened the heavy door and gestured within.  The ceiling was high—that was the first thing Frodo noticed as they entered the room, with a layer of windows high above them and another waist-height to the Steward and rising an arm’s length above Faramir’s head on the southern wall.  “I often worked here alongside my father until Boromir must go northward,” Faramir said.  “To think that this is now my own office I find rather daunting.  I am now the Steward of Gondor, second only to the King himself, as he has told me!  I still can little believe that it is true!  I will be glad to have you here working alongside of me, my—Master Frodo.  They are looking for a desk or table that would be of a more appropriate height for you.  I do not believe that the high chair our Lord King has had made for you to sit at in the Hall of Merethrond would be appropriate here, or comfortable for any length of time.”

            “I am afraid that you are too correct, Lord Faramir,” the Hobbit returned.  “Although as we are to be working together to learn what thought your father and his forebears took for those wounded or lost in battle and their families, I would prefer that you simply call me by my name as would any friend.  Frodo will do nicely from you.”

            Faramir smiled down at him, saying, “And you need not call me by my title either, Frodo—Faramir is the name given me by my parents, and is how those I honor as my friends call me.  Certainly it is how our Lord King addresses me, and how odd that feels also!”

            Frodo laughed.  “I am glad that Aragorn is indeed our King, but how strange his new title feels as I try to utter it!”

            “Not considering as strong a tie of fellowship as he feels with thee,” Faramir said, his eyes wide as he examined his small companion.  “I doubt he will ever accept mere titles from you, Master Baggins.”

            “I suppose not,” Frodo said, sighing.

            There was a knock at the door, and at Faramir’s call to enter it opened, the Seneschal for the Citadel peering within.  “We have found a table and chair that we believe should do well for Master Frodo as he works beside you, my lord,” he said.  “I suspect that you shall recognize them well enough.”

            He moved within and to one side and gestured for those behind him to enter.  Three pages came after him, two carrying a low table with a parquetry pattern to its top, and the third with an elaborately carved chair onto which had been tied new cushions of spring green and gold velvet into which patterns of leaves of many kinds had been pressed.  These were set to the right side of Faramir’s desk where light from both the clerestory and lower windows should fall across Frodo’s shoulders as he sat there.  Then with low bows, the boys withdrew, and the Seneschal stood, clearly awaiting the reactions of both the Steward and the King’s Friend.

            Frodo moved close, the light from the upper windows falling upon his hair as he leaned over to finger the carving of the chair’s back.  “How exquisite!” he said.  “My father could not have done better!”

            “Your father made furniture?” asked Faramir.  “I did not know.”

            “And when have we had time to talk of what I remember of him?” Frodo asked, looking up to meet his eyes, smiling through the softly swirling motes of dust floating lazily in the summer sunlight.  “But he did, and he would have loved these.  He was better with such arabesques as this than he was with faces, but I love all of his work that I possess and that I see as I move about the Shire.  The Thain sits in a chair Dad carved for Cousin Fortinbras when he held that office, and I smile every time I see Uncle Paladin seated on it.”  He turned to try it out, and smiled as he leaned back against the upper cushion.  “And it is so comfortable!  I doubt I shall wish to quit it at the end of the day!  How is it that you are expected to recognize it, Faramir?”

            “These sat in my schoolroom when I was a child.  I suspect that my father and grandfather sat in that chair and at that table in their own days as children.  We keep to old traditions here in Gondor, and here in the Citadel.  And one day I suspect that my own son and the King’s son shall sit together at that table and hear how it was once used by the Ringbearer, and they shall treat it with that much more respect.”  Faramir turned to the Seneschal and smiled.  “You may tell all who helped in making Master Frodo comfortable here how successful your endeavors have proved and how glad we both are for your thoughtfulness and care.  Thank you so, Belstador.”

            Master Belstador smiled in full satisfaction as he made his own bow and withdrew.

            “And now,” Faramir said, “shall we to work?  Here, through this door are the records my father always kept to hand….”

            So it was that Frodo Baggins and the Lord Steward Faramir began working together to advise the King as to what measures had already been put into place for the needs of those wounded in battle and for the succor of the widows and children of the fallen.

Written to a B2MeM prompt by Dreamflower.  For LadySherlockian, Lame Pegasus, and Shirebound for their birthdays.

One Final Boat Ride upon the River

            “Mummy?”

            Primula Brandybuck Baggins looked down at where her little lad sat on the white wolf skin before the parlor fire and smiled.  What a handsome child her Frodo was, she thought; and somehow, sitting on that wolf skin, a trophy from the Fell Winter, he appeared particularly mature.  “What is it, dearling?” she asked.

            He was looking at her with those large, intense blue eyes of his.  “Do you have to go out on the river tonight?”

            He’d never before appeared concerned about Primula and Drogo going out on the river at night, and she wasn’t certain why he was doing so right then.  “We don’t have to do so, Frodo, but we want to do it.  Why?  Have you been having bad dreams?”

            His cheeks grew flushed, and he shook his head, looking down at his right hand against the wolf’s fur.  “No, no bad dreams.  It’s just—well, I have a bad feeling about the river right now, as if it were planning mischief.”

            She laughed.  Such an imagination he had!  “Oh, I suspect that the Brandywine often plans mischief, sweetling.  That is why we must treat it ever with respect.  But it is friendly enough if you are properly respectful of its power.”

            He nodded, but continued in his contemplation of his hand.

            “And what is it that is so fascinating about your hand, Frodo Baggins?”

            He shrugged.  At last he answered, “I was just wondering about what it must have been like for Beren One-hand to realize suddenly that he didn’t have his hand anymore, after the wolf bit it off.”  He looked at the skin that had covered the wolf’s skull at one time.  “It must have hurt worse than anything he’d ever known.”

            “I must suppose so, beloved.”  Secretly she wished she could shake Bilbo for telling that story to her child.  Sometimes Frodo was so—sensitive!  She looked at Frodo’s hand, lying flat against the white fur, and she felt a shiver starting at the base of her spine.  To think that such a thing might happen to anyone, even to this so beloved child of hers!  She found herself imagining him as an adult, with that hand missing.  But in her mind’s eye she saw him looking much as he did now, only taller, his face somehow stern—stern but still vulnerable, and his hand was there, right where it belonged.  She started to feel relieved until she realized his hand in her imagination was not as it was now—that there was something wrong with the fingers and how they lay next to one another.  The shiver returned, only more strongly—an outright shudder.

            She returned to the previous subject, hoping it would distract both of them from the idea of bitten hands—or fingers.  “What kind of mischief do you imagine the river is planning?”

            He shrugged and finally again met her gaze.  “I’m not certain.  I think it was what Deloc Oldbuck said, that he’d seen something that looked almost like a Hobbit on the riverbank last week.”

            “Then that’s not the river planning mischief, dearling, not if it’s something that looks like a Hobbit but isn’t.”

            He made a face.  “I suppose you’re right.  But why do you like going out on the river at night?”

            She sighed.  “You know how you like sleeping out on top of the smial with your dad and Bilbo, how you love looking up at the stars and feeling as if they were leaning over you to tell you their stories?”

            He nodded.

            “Well, that is how I feel when we’re floating down the river in the punt or the rowboat your dad built, as if the stars were smiling down at us and wishing us well.  Oh, I know that you are too young to understand, but it is oh, so romantic!  Even your father is in awe of how bright the stars seem overhead when we are rocking in the river’s flow, Frodo.  And, besides, we do rather hope to one day give you that little brother or sister you’ve been wanting so.  Floating on the river, feeling the love between us, perhaps we might be able to start one more life.  Dearling, we love you so much that we can’t hope but to have that love doubled.  As wonderful as it is to have you, how much more wonderful it might be to have another!”

            He nodded.  “I want you to be happy,” he said, rather tentatively, she thought.

            “Don’t you want a little brother or sister?” she asked, suddenly realizing that maybe he didn’t still want one or the other, considering how long he’d been the sole focus of their love and attention.

            He hastened to assure her, “Oh, but I do—I really do!  But I want for the strange Hobbit-creature to be gone first.”

            She felt a wry smile cross her face.  “But, Frodo—it’s only Deloc Oldbuck who’s even said he saw such a thing.  And you know well enough that Deloc isn’t always certain he’s seen what he thinks he sees.”

            “I know he drinks too much, Mummy.  But, well, maybe this time he’s right?”

            “I’ll tell you this, dearling—if either your dad or I see anything strange we’ll not go out after all.  Is that all right?”

            Reluctantly he nodded.  “If you promise,” he said.

            “We promise.”

            He sighed and leaned back, shifting his hands behind him to hold his torso at an angle.  “I wish you’d let me go, too, then,” he said.

            She laughed and tousled his hair.  “No, dear lad-of-mine.  The romance is between your father and me.  Much as we love you, it’s just not the same with a child along.  Now, run along and get into your nightshirt and wash your face and hands, and bring back your brushes.”

            He rose to his feet and leaned forward to give her a kiss, and slipped off to his bedroom in the apartment that was theirs when their family visited in Brandy Hall.  She made certain that the basket she’d been readying and their favorite rug were lying by the door for when Drogo returned from her brother’s office.  She hoped Rory wouldn’t keep him that much longer.  She was eager to be out under the stars with her beloved husband, rocking in the gentle current of the Brandywine, hearing the wood of the boat creak under them as they talked or sang, or merely dreamed, together under the glory of the night’s sky.

            Frodo was soon back, clad in a soft, comfortable nightshirt, carrying his two wooden brushes.  She sat on the settee and he sat on the floor at her feet, and she quickly had his dark curls brushed smooth and shining in the lamplight.  “Now,” she commanded, “climb up here with me and lie back against the pillow there and I’ll brush your feet.  And would you like a story?”

            He nodded as he complied.  She smiled as she took his feet into her lap and began brushing the thick curls atop them.  “Once it was that a dad had a lad, a shining star of a lad that made him glad!”

            Frodo giggled, and her smile broadened.

            “The lad grew and grew until he was almost, but not quite, the tallest Hobbit to be found.”

            “That’s good,” he said.  “I don’t want to be tallest.”

            “He was most good looking, and his mummy was almost jealous of all the lasses who saw how nice he was and wanted him for their own.  But he had to have one who was as good as she was, and wouldn’t be satisfied with less than that.”

            He made a face.  “No lass could be as good as you are,” he insisted.

            She looked at him sideways.  “You think that now, but this will be years from now.  You will be surprised at how things appear to change between now and then,” she suggested.  “Anyway, he grew to be tall and handsome, and the best dancer in the Shire and Buckland combined.  And one day he decided to go on an adventure, just like his Uncle Bilbo did, so he saddled his bay pony with the dark mane and tail----”

            “Named Pacer,” he interrupted her.

            “Pacer?  Are you certain it isn’t named Trotter?”

            “No, it’s named Pacer, not Trotter.”  He yawned.  “Trotter would be almost as bad as Strider, I think.”  He yawned again, saying through his yawn, “Pacer.”

            “If you say so.  So, he rode off out of the Shire on Pacer with his friends alongside of him, for they loved him so much they wouldn’t let him go alone, and they went a long way until they came to the land where the Elves live.  The Elves welcomed them with songs and laughter, and told him where his fate lay, and he thanked them and left, his friends still beside him, all bound for great glory.”

            His eyes were blinking, and he smiled up at her sleepily as her strokes to the hair on his feet grew slower, gentler.

            “The Necromancer needed to be vanquished,” she said softly, “and he was just the one to see it done.  Never had the Necromancer seen anyone as quiet and secret as this lad!  And when he was vanquished, he was so surprised!  How was it that a Hobbit should be able to vanquish him when the greatest of heroes and the oldest of Elves and the wisest of Wizards hadn’t been able to do so?  It must have been because this lad was so brave!”

            “Then he wasn’t afraid?” murmured Frodo.

            “I didn’t say he wasn’t afraid,” Primula said.  “Not to be afraid would have made him careless.  But he knew that it had to be done, so he stood on his fear so that it taught him to be quiet and secret enough to slip into the Necromancer’s fortress and come to the place where the Necromancer was most vulnerable and to vanquish him before the Necromancer quite knew what had happened.  And when he came out again, all cheered and shouted.  But he was surprised, because he’d only done what had needed doing, after all.  So he came home again, found the most loving lass in the whole of the Shire, married her, brought her to his snug hole, and they lived happily ever after.  And while outside the Shire everyone told one another stories about him, inside the Shire hardly anyone realized he’d even been away and didn’t believe the stories his friends told about the marvelous things he’d done.”

            He yawned again as the door snicked open and his father came in.  “There they are, the two I love most in all of Middle Earth,” Drogo said.  “Are you ready for bed, my lad?”

            Frodo nodded, and his father lifted him up and carried him to his room.  “I see,” he said as he laid the lad upon his comfortable bed, “that your mummy has everything ready for the morning.  We shan’t be all that long tonight, but we may wish a bit of a lie-in in the morning, you understand.”

            Frodo’s face grew almost sad.  “I know.  Just promise that if you see anything strange by the river that you come home again directly, please, Daddy?”

            Drogo gave his wife a questioning look before turning his attention back to his son.  “If you wish it, Frodo dear.  Now, sleep tight, and dream of the day when you have another little Hobbit lad or lass to play with who looks up to you as the big brother.”

            "All right, Daddy.  Goodbye."

            He kissed his own lad upon the brow and covered him warmly.  “Rest well, my dearling,” he murmured, and Frodo was asleep almost before he and Primula were outside the room and pulling the child’s door closed quietly behind them.

            Drogo took the basket and rug first down to the landing where the boat he’d built lay, then returned to the south door where Primula, a thick shawl about her shoulders, awaited him.  As they walked back she told him of Frodo’s concern about the story Deloc Oldbuck had told about seeing a strange creature that almost but didn’t quite look like a Hobbit, and of Frodo’s insistence that they ought to not go out upon the river if it was truly still about.  She also told him of the story she’d told their lad.

            “And what possessed you to tell a tale like that tonight?” he asked, hugging her closer as they walked.

            “Well, you know how much he loves the tales of Bilbo’s adventures, Drogo dearest.  I just put him into them—sort of, at least.  Doesn’t it sound like the kind of thing he’d be able to do one day?”

            “Perhaps, Primmie.  But the idea that he’d come home and marry and live happily ever after sounds more like simply a formula.”

            “Well, it’s how most such tales end, Drogo Baggins, and it’s none the worse for wear for having been used in so many stories.  I am concerned about his worry as to what Deloc says he saw, though.”

            “Considering how many strange things Deloc has been certain he’s seen but nobody else has,” Drogo commented, “I doubt we’re in any real danger.”

            She laughed her agreement.

            “That you, Baggins?” asked Deloc Oldbuck, who stood by the landing, a dark lantern in his hand casting a single beam at the path they walked.

            “Yes, Deloc,” Drogo answered him.  “Have you seen anything strange about tonight?”

            “No—just an unusually large bullfrog off that-away.  Or, at least that’s what it looked like, just afore it leapt into the water.  Knew how to jump, it did.  Barely made a splash as it entered the river.  You two have a pleasant float down the current, now.”  So saying, Deloc held the line to steady the boat as the couple entered it, and once they were aboard he tossed the end of the line to Drogo, tipped his cap to them, and headed off toward his home not far to the north.

            They didn’t hear the hissing.  The first they knew something was wrong was when the boat tipped unexpectedly, and Drogo turned to see what appeared to be a strangely webbed hand clutching at the side of the craft, then large eyes that caught the starlight oddly.  He gave a gasp and fell sideways as the boat dipped again at the pull of the creature, and next thing anyone knew the boat had tipped over, and both he and Primula were overboard in the water, his wife apparently caught under the boat as Drogo thrashed about, finding that there was no solid bottom beneath him as he knew it when they reached the bay where their float usually ended.  His intended cry for help was stifled as he found himself being pulled under the water, still finding no bottom.  Something was tugging at his hand, at the ring he’d always worn there, but then whatever it was let him go.

            His body was growing cold and clumsy, and he found he could not manage to pull himself up enough to raise his head above the water.  Then the darkness was closing in about him….

 *******

            “That one said Baggins, but not the right Bagginsss!  No, my precious, not the right Bagginsss!  But where, where can we find the right Bagginsss?  Are there lots of Bagginses, we wonders?”

            But the next morning, when people were searching high and low about the river’s bank, the creature realized it was in danger.  Once it was dark again it left the river, going north to the stone bridge before turning east once more, heading back for the mountains where it understood the darkness that dwelt there.

           

My birthday mathom to all!  Beta by Lindelea.

The Curse Lifted

            On reaching the Green Dragon in Bywater, Frodo dropped heavily to the ground.  It had been a long and emotional day.  He’d just come from Michel Delving where he’d registered his final will, the papers in which he declared he’d adopted Samwise Gamgee as a brother and thus his primary heir, the transfer of the deed for Bag End into the possession of Master Samwise and Mistress Rose Gamgee, and the purchase papers for two last pieces of property he intended as a trust for all of the Shire.  The trip had been emotionally draining, for a very few people had recognized he was leaving the Shire and not intending to return.  True, he was not that far from home, but he found he needed to visit a privy, and then ought to eat something before he went any further.  Leaving Strider to the stablehobbit, Frodo straightened and entered the inn.

            After a brief visit to the privy, Frodo gave his order for a light meal and a mug of soft cider at the bar before finding a small, empty table near one of the windows looking out of the common room toward the village square.  His coming had apparently excited no awareness within the room, for which he was grateful.  He would eat some fruit and perhaps some cold meats, drink his cider, and ride home for a final time before he and Sam would leave to join the Elves and Bilbo.  That would be most difficult for Sam, he knew.  But it would be the right thing.  Frodo had no desire to remain here to continue to become a mere husk of himself, someone who did not live so much as he merely existed.  Not that it would be all that long, he supposed.  When the next anniversary of the night beneath Weathertop occurred was he likely to survive the wave of memories that he now knew plagued him?  He rather thought not.

            The cider arrived, and he smiled his thanks and dropped the requisite coin on the table, turning his attention back outside to consider the twilight.  When aware of another presence by his side he did not turn to look, expecting it was merely his meal, until he heard a sniff of frustration and the scrape of a chair, and turned to see Rico Clayhanger settling opposite him, clunking his own mug down on the tabletop.

            “So, you’ve emerged from the Hill at last, have you, Baggins?” Rico said, once aware he had Frodo’s attention.  “No one’s seen anything of you for months, it appears.”

            Rico had married Frodo’s cousin Angelica, daughter of Ponto and Iris Baggins.  Frodo barely knew him, as Rico had grown up in the South-farthing and had always associated more with the Bracegirdles than the Bagginses until he’d met Angelica at the Free Fair in Michel Delving.  He and Frodo might have been much of an age, but they were unlikely to become bosom friends, particularly as Rico had always been close to Bartolo Bracegirdle, who’d not liked Frodo since they met in their teens. Bartolo had married still another cousin, Delphinium Baggins from Overhill, whose sister, also named Angelica but known generally as Geli, had married Sancho Proudfoot and now lived in Number Five on the Row.  Barti didn’t particularly approve of his sister-in-love and her husband, as the two of them had—forced—the marriage.  It was ironic, now that Frodo thought on it, that Bartolo Bracegirdle tended to act more like Bagginses were known to do prior to Bilbo’s adventure in the company of thirteen Dwarves and a Wizard, while Frodo himself had only felt compassion for the young couple and had done all he could to see to it that their marriage was successful.

            He considered Rico thoughtfully.  The Clayhanger’s eyes were rather bright, indicating he’d probably been drinking pretty steadily since well before Frodo’s arrival.  Frodo sipped at his own cider, noting it was more flavorful than he remembered cider being in the past two years, and was briefly grateful.  As he set down his mug he commented, “Considering that I’ve been twice to Buckland since Midsummer as well as being currently on my way back to Bag End from Michel Delving, I’d not exactly consider myself a recluse, Rico.”

            “But Ponto and Iris tell me you were ill last winter and haven’t been to see them or Daisy and Griffo more than once or twice since you returned to Bag End.  Nor were you precisely well when you went to the Free Fair during the Lithe Days.  In fact, you’ve appeared basically a shadow of yourself since you returned from Outside.  What happened, Frodo Baggins?”

            Frodo shrugged, suddenly feeling again tired.

            Rico continued, “Not that any of you are precisely as you were before you left, what with Pippin Took and Merry Brandybuck growing unbelievably tall and Samwise Gamgee acting anything other than a mere gardener anymore.  Angelica tells me that he’d barely do more than politely pull at his forelock when he met anyone in her family in all the time she can remember, but now he simply has to make suggestions and family heads will jump to follow them.”

            Again Frodo shrugged, smiling wryly.  “Sam has finally accepted that he is far more knowledgeable and competent than he’d ever dreamed, and it’s perhaps only to be expected others will begin to recognize that fact as well.  After all, Aragorn considers him to be one of the steadiest and most thoughtful of individuals he knows.  When the King himself makes it plain that’s how he feels, it tends to hit home, I suppose.”

            “Aragorn?”

            “Our new King—Aragorn Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar, Lord of Gondor and Arnor.”

            “And he considers Samwise Gamgee to be wise?”

            “Yes.”

            Rico considered that simple answer as he sipped again from his own mug.  He finally wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before saying, “And you four truly know this new King of ours?”

            “We traveled east and south from Bree with him, Rico.  We were all part of the events that led to his acceptance as King of Gondor and Arnor, after all, and were there when he was given the Crown and the Sceptre as well as witnessing his wedding to our Queen, the Lady Arwen Undómiel.  Sam proved himself repeatedly during our journey as well as during the time we dwelt in the King’s city after the coronation.  As I said, Sam no longer questions his own competence, and others unconsciously respond to his changed attitude toward himself.  Having earned the respect of great and noble lords from more than one realm tends to increase one’s self confidence.”

            Rico’s brow wrinkled as he thought on this.  Then his eyes fixed again on Frodo’s.  “How about the unprecedented growth of Pippin and Merry?” he asked.

            Frodo sighed.  “They met the Ents of Fangorn Forest, who shared their Ent-draughts with them.  Gandalf indicated that such drinks can have extraordinary effects on other creatures.”

            “So, because they drank something from these—Ents?—they grew taller than any right-minded Hobbit has the right to expect?”

            “Apparently so.”  Then, when it became obvious Rico expected more, Frodo added, “Well, they said that since it was obvious Bilbo intended to live longer than the Old Took, why shouldn’t they do their best to better the Bullroarer?”

            That had the unexpected result of setting Rico laughing.  “Better the Bullroarer, then?  What else, however, could we expect from either of them?  And it appears they’ve managed that!”

            Frodo found himself also smiling in amusement.  “Indeed.  According to what I’ve read the Bullroarer was four foot five, and both Merry and Pippin are now four foot six.  Sam has measured them both, and more than once, to make quite certain.  They’d not quite reached four foot three and a half before we stopped on our way home to meet the Ents keeping watch on Isengard, and Treebeard shared a second drink with the two of them.  Sam and I declined, although Pippin was almost begging me to have one, too, as he thought it might help my shoulder.  Perhaps I ought to have accepted.”

            Rico’s expression grew more solemn.  “And what’s wrong with your shoulder?”

            Frodo again sighed.  “I was wounded there, not long after we left Bree.”

            “And it’s not gotten better?”

            Why he decided to answer Rico directly Frodo could not imagine.  Perhaps it was due at least in part to the herbs sent by Elrond of Rivendell in the latest draught he was taking.  “No, it’s never properly healed, and isn’t likely to do so, not as long as I remain in Middle Earth.  So I’ve been told by several people who are in a position to judge such wounds.”

            “Why not?”

            Frodo closed his eyes and shook his head.  “Most people who’ve received such wounds from such weapons have died—or worse.”  He opened his eyes and looked steadily at his companion.  “Only one other ever properly recovered, if you can call it that.  But he suffered from increasing pain for what remained of his life.  I’m told he only lived twelve years after the source of his wound was removed.”  He paused before adding, “All that can be done for me has been done.  And considering—considering what else I endured, I must suppose I’m doing fairly well for someone—someone who’s suffered a Morgul wound.”

            Rico examined that portion of Frodo he could see, what with him seated as he was.  “You look better, perhaps, than you did at the Free Fair, but you appear to be even thinner.”

            “So they tell me, those who make my clothing,” Frodo admitted.

            The server arrived with what Frodo had ordered to eat—boiled eggs, slices of cheese and roast beef, and a platter of fruit cut into spears.  Frodo winced, realizing that it was far more than he could eat.  “Help yourself,” he advised Rico.  “They brought twice what I can stomach.”

            Rico’s eyes widened with surprise, even alarm.  “But that’s not enough to keep a bird alive!” he protested.

            Frodo felt his face stiffen.  Again he met Rico’s eyes.  “Why do you think I’ve lost so much weight?” he asked in low tones.  “I can barely eat, most days.”  As Rico continued to stare at him unbelieving, he continued, “My stomach is chancy now.  My head aches.  My shoulder is seldom without pain.  I cannot lie flat to sleep.  When I open my eyes everything appears surrounded by grey fog.  I can no longer dance.  Sometimes I can barely speak.  It can hurt to breathe, even.  My heart labors.  I have been hurt by cursed blade, by spider’s poison, and the bite of a crazed creature intent on wresting the evil that had taken me for himself.  I was at the gates of Death when Aragorn called me back.  Sometimes I wish I’d not turned, Rico Clayhanger.  Sometimes I wish I’d not come back.  The nightmares—they’d drive anyone near to madness!”

            He could see the growing concern and compassion in the Clayhanger’s face, and shuddered.  “Do not pity me, Rico,” he advised his companion.  “I doubt I am worth anyone’s pity.”  He turned away, stared blindly at the window once more.  The grey fog of which he’d spoken had been closing in on him again, and he couldn’t see past the pane, he found.  He murmured, “I don’t know why you even searched me out.”

            Rico ignored that last comment.  “Are you dying, Frodo Baggins?”

            Frodo took a breath and held it before answering, again in low tones, “Perhaps.  We don’t know for certain, of course.  But it can’t be too long—that I could remain, remain here, that is.  When I can find strength I—I do what I can.  So—so, I’m setting things in order as I am able.”

            After a pause Rico asked, “Who will be family head after you?”

            Frodo felt himself give another wry smile.  “Who indeed?  Ponto told Bilbo long ago he wouldn’t take the job, and has told me the same.  Not that he’s in—in much better health than I.”  He turned again to face Rico.  “Do you and Angelica want the position?”

            Rico again sounded alarmed.  “Want to be family heads for the Baggins clan?  Oh, don’t wish that on us, Frodo!”

            Frodo gave a weak laugh.  “Do not worry.  There is another heir for that position.  It won’t fall to you and Angelica.”  He took a few more breaths, feeling them catching in his breast.  “Where is Angelica now?” he asked.

            “With her parents,” Rico said.  “She wanted to tell them herself, and sent me off here to celebrate.”

            Frodo found his vision clearing.  “Celebrate?” he asked.

            Rico was nodding.  “Yes, to celebrate, and when I saw you I felt I should tell you, as family head for the Bagginses.  You know how she lost two babes early on?”

            Frodo nodded in response to the question.  “Oh, yes—it’s basically what’s happened more—more often than not in the family the last many years.”

            “Well, they told us last time she’d most likely not conceive again.  Only she has, and has carried it four months so far.  And the healers say this time the bairn appears healthy and strong, and should be born in March.  And we saw Daisy and Griffo as we entered Hobbiton, and Daisy says that she, too, appears to be expecting, and their bairn should be born in late April or early May!  We’ve decided, Angelica and me, to give the child both names when it’s born—it will be a Baggins-Clayhanger, not just a Clayhanger.  We don’t want the family name to die away, what with you never marrying and all.  And Daisy and Griffo have said the same—their babe will be a Baggins-Boffin.”

            Frodo felt an unexpected joy fill him.  “It’s over—the curse on the Bagginses!” he whispered.  “With the Ring finally gone the family shan’t die out after all!  But—but—a Baggins-Boffin?  I pray you—don’t let them name it Bilbo or Bluebell, or worse, Bingo or Belba!  That would be too—too absurd!”

            He drank down his cider and scooped up one of the eggs and a few apple slices.  “I must go,” he said as he rose to his feet.  “Do enjoy the rest, Rico.  But you couldn’t—could not have made me happier if you tried!  The curse on the family is over!  Bless Gollum for taking It away with him!  Bless him—and you and Angelica, not to mention Griffo and Daisy!  Bless you all!”

            And with that he went out to reclaim Strider for the short ride home, his heart lighter than it had been in months.       

Written for the LOTR Community "Adolescent Angst" challenge.  For Addie, Starli_ght, and Kaylee for their birthdays.

Dealing with Bullies

            When someone came into the stable where Merimac Brandybuck was going through Brandy Hall’s records for the pony herd he looked up only briefly, expecting to see Gomez or one of the other stable hands coming in on regular stable business.  Only this time….

            “Frodo!” he called joyously, slamming the record book shut unceremoniously, hurrying forward to embrace his young Baggins cousin.  “You’re home!  How wonderful to see you!  Are you here alone?  Oh, of course not, not with two ponies in tow!  So, Bilbo agreed to ride this time instead of walking here from halfway across the Shire, did he?  And he made good on his promise to teach you to ride?”

            Frodo was grinning widely as he pulled away from the hug.  “Oh, yes, I can ride now.”

            “And is one of these yours?”

            Frodo shook his head, with an extra toss to get his hair out of his face without letting go of the reins of the two mounts he’d led into the building.  “No, we hired them from the Green Dragon.  They’re nice enough beasts, I suppose, but nowhere as intelligent or affectionate as the pony Mum and I used to dream about that would be mine one day.”

            Mac laughed.  “I can imagine!  Here—let me show you where you can stable them.”

            Frodo followed as Mac led him to a pair of empty stalls side by side that had always been reserved for visiting mounts.  Between the two of them they soon had both ponies unsaddled and rubbed down.

            “Well, they are good enough ponies, I suppose,” Mac noted, “but neither is of exceptional quality, I must say.  You deserve a much better mount than either of these.”

            Frodo finished his work on the mane of the pony he’d been grooming and gave a grunt.  “I’m not certain I even wish a pony at this time, Mac.  They are a good deal of work, and I’m busy with my studies and with my explorations about the region of the Hill, my work as a copyist and all.  And I can see why Bilbo likes to walk about as he does—you can see so much more when you’re walking and not having to pay attention every moment to what the pony’s doing and whether or not he’s gotten distracted.  And they can startle, it seems, at the most inconsequential things, imagining that a blowing ribbon is a dangerous snake or that Odo Proudfoot’s stick is going to be used to strike them.  I’d never dreamed they could be so—so very silly!”

            “That’s only because you’ve not been introduced to an exceptional pony such as my Domino, Frodo.”

            “If you say so,” Frodo said, obviously not willing to be convinced otherwise.

            After seeing the ponies fed and watered, Mac and Frodo swung closed the stall gates and headed out of the stable towards the Hall, at which time Mac thought he saw something behind the tumbled curls that covered Frodo’s forehead.  “Wait a minute!” he directed, pulling the younger Hobbit to a halt and reaching out with his other hand to push the curls aside.  “Did one of those ponies kick you or something?”

            Above Frodo’s eyebrow a sticking plaster partially covered a healing split to his skin and a bruise that was fading toward yellow.

            Frodo’s face grew paler, and his cheeks went decidedly pink while his sensitive mouth thinned in remembered anger.  “Only if the pony had two heads and answered to both Lotho and Ted,” he responded, his tone bitter.

            “Lotho?”  For a moment Mac was confused by this answer until enlightenment touched him.  “Lotho?” he said again, his face clearing.  “You mean Lobelia and Otho’s foul get?  He’s still doing his best to make your life miserable?”

            Frodo nodded, his face uncharacteristically grim.  “He and Ted Sandyman, whose father owns the mill, are the worst bullies I’ve met yet, and are constantly lying in wait for me.  I try to give them as good as I get, but it’s hard when it’s two against one.  And it’s not like here—no one about my age lives on the Row or beyond me except for Ted, who lives in the mill on the Water, and as he’s the one supporting Lotho there’s no way that I can encourage him to take my part in the fights.  The two of them hid out in the woods at the south end of the Hill a few days ago and leapt on me as I came into it to visit the stream there.  There is a place where the Sun shines down upon it that is home to a number of caddis fly larvae, and Sam and I love to watch them build their shells out of whatever they can find to make them of.  Until lately neither Lotho nor Ted has come near the spot, but somehow they became aware I spend time there and brought the warfare to me there.  Lotho grabbed my arms and Ted hit me with a branch and left this.”  He touched the sticking plaster.  “Cousins Otho and Lobelia keep trying to make it seem that somehow I’m antagonizing Lotho on purpose so it’s not his fault that he attacks me, and they refuse Bilbo’s demands that they try to make him stop, not that I think he’d stop just because they told him to.  But now the Sackville-Bagginses are to head down to the South-farthing next week, so I shan’t have to worry about Lotho for somewhat better than a month, and without Lotho, Ted is too cowardly to approach me himself.  But until the S-Bs are gone Bilbo decided I needed a breathing space, so we decided to spend a few days here.”

            Just then a whirlwind in the shape of a Hobbit lad came racing toward them from the direction of the Hall and threw himself on Frodo.  “Frodo!  Frodo!  You’re here—at last!  Did Sam come, too?  Shall we take him down and show him the Brandywine and do you think he’d like to swim with me?  I’ll show him the gardens—he’ll like them, I know!  And----”

            Frodo threw his arms about Merry and lifted him up to hug him before setting him down on the ground once more.  “Wait, Merry mine!  No, Sam didn’t come, too.  His father doesn’t think it’s fitting for a working Hobbit to go about visiting his Master’s kin.  But, no, even if he was here I don’t think you could convince him it’s safe to go swimming.  His dad has told him that Hobbits and rivers just don’t mix, and he’s afraid to go into water deeper than his knees.  And I won’t try to force him to change his mind.  After all, it’s mostly just those of us who have Brandybuck blood and who’ve lived near the river who like swimming.”

            “That’s silly!” Merry protested, but Frodo just laughed kindly.

            “It’s the way most Hobbits think, whether we think it’s silly or not.  He does know that I swim and like it, and he’d be terribly impressed to know that you like it, too.  But you aren’t going to get him to try it, so don’t even bother trying to change his mind.”

            Merry didn’t look convinced, but agreed for Frodo’s sake not to press Sam should the two of them end up near water deep enough to swim in.  “The Whitwell Tooks are coming, and they are bringing the lasses and little Pippin, too.  Aunt Eglantine says he’s always trying to copy me and what he thinks I’m doing!  And….”  But then he stopped, having caught sight of the bruise and the sticking plaster.  “But you’ve been hurt!  Did someone hit you?”  The child’s face darkened.  “Was it that Lotho Sackville-Baggins again, and that Ted Sandyman?  I heard Mummy and my dad talking about it, how they keep trying to hurt you.  Do you hit them back?”

            “Yes, I hit them back, but they’re both older than me, and more muscular than I am, too.  It’s hard to defend myself properly when one of them is holding me still so the other is free to hit me.  But they both end up going home with bruises of their own each time.  Eventually they’ll realize it’s not worth it to attack me.”

            “Well, you should ask Uncle Mac here how to stop people from hitting you.  Dad says he’s the best he knows for knowing how to protect yourself.”

            Frodo gave Mac a thoughtful glance.  Merimac Brandybuck laughed.  “You know yourself that not even Brandy Hall has ever been completely free of bullies, Frodo Baggins.  We had them even when I was a small lad, and there was one that I finally had to face down when I got into my teens who wasn’t impressed that I was the Master’s grandson—in fact he seemed to hold that fact even more strongly against me, just as Gomez used to hate it that you were living in the Heir’s apartments when you weren’t even Sara’s child.  I finally stopped him, partly due to advice Granfer Gorbadoc gave me and partly what I’d learned on my own.  I realized that with my longer arms I could hit him just right before he had a chance to close on me and knock him down, and he stopped trying to bully me in the end.  Come out to the stable tomorrow and I’ll show you.”

            They separated at the back doors to the place, Mac heading for his own apartments he shared with his wife Amaranth and his children while Merry accompanied Frodo to the visitors’ wing where he now shared a room with Bilbo when they came.

 *******

            Late that afternoon Frodo had good reason to appreciate Mac’s comment that the Hall had never been free of bullies.  He and Merry were going out to the storage buildings to fetch in some raisins and dried currants to mix into scones when they heard a booming voice before them.  Merry stopped and went stiff at the sound of it.

            “Oh, no—Tolman Smallburrow is out here.”

            “Who?” Frodo asked.

            “Tolman Smallburrow.  He’s a hired Hobbit—was hired to help with a lot of the lifting work and to work on the farm.  He’s not fully of age as yet, but he’s quite broad and strong, and he keeps bothering us smaller Hobbits.”

            “Have you told your dad about what he does?”

            Merry shook his head.  “He’s said he’ll break the head of anyone who complains about him, and we believe him.  No one dares think of tattling on him.  I don’t think he’ll try anything on you, though—you’re taller than he is and almost a Hobbit grown, too, after all.  It’s the little ones he loves to beat on.”

            Frodo’s face darkened, but after a moment he stepped forward to complete their errand with Merry reluctantly but staunchly a half-step behind him.

            Tolman Smallburrow proved to be a lug of a lad, one whose only claim to acceptance was his strength, which he was as willing to use to cow the smaller denizens of the Hall as he was to help shift bales of hay or carry in loads of wood for the fireplaces or lumber for building or repairs.  At the moment he had one of the smaller lads held still with a single hand grasping the child’s shoulder, holding the lad out at arm’s length and laughing as his victim tried vainly to land a blow of either hand or foot while a gaggle of frightened lasses milled vainly about, unable to do anything to stop the torment their friend was suffering.  At last Smallburrow ended the one-sided fight by bringing his other fist down to clout the child’s ear, leaving the small lad sitting in the dust of the yard that held the storage sheds, holding his hand to the side of his head.

            “Stop that this instant!” Frodo called and ran forward.

            Smallburrow laughed and turned, widening his stance and readying himself for Frodo’s rush.  Tolman Smallburrow was fully willing to take on this new victim in spite of Frodo’s height, rightly judging that this stranger was no match for his muscles and likely no competition to begin with.  There was no question that Frodo went down fighting, but he still went down, and Smallburrow left him with a kick to the middle that thoroughly winded him.  As Frodo lay on the ground with his nose bleeding and with him struggling to draw breath, Smallburrow sneered down at Merry, the other lad, and the lasses.  “And don’t none o’you think t’tell the Master on me, or I’ll do twice as bad t’you next time as I sees you, understand?”  With that, he left, swaggering off toward the cider presses at the edge of the orchard and disappearing into the trees.

            Only once he was gone did the children crowd around Frodo to help him to his feet.  For a moment the tween stood bent over, clutching at where he’d been kicked, but he finally forced himself to straighten up.  Once he was able to breathe normally he saw to it that the sheds were opened and those who’d come to fetch out raisins, sultanas, or other dried fruit obtained what they’d been sent for, and together they returned to the Hall, all solemn and anxious save for Frodo, whose expression was full of suppressed fury and determination.

 *******

            Frodo went to the bathing room before he returned to his bedroom to change into clothing that wasn’t dusty and spotted with blood from his now swollen nose.  He looked quite presentable when he came into the dining hall for supper.  He had reason to believe that Bilbo noticed the new bruises, but knew that the old Baggins would be content to follow his lead.  Only after the two of them had withdrawn to their room rather earlier in the evening than they usually did did Bilbo make any comment.

            “Still another bully here, then?”

            “Yes, although I was rather surprised he’d think to challenge me.  I was wrong.”

            “Shall I speak to Rory or Sara?”

            “No—I shall see to it myself.  Mac has agreed to teach me a strategy or two that should help me.”

            Bilbo appeared most satisfied.  “Good, then.  Merimac Brandybuck was once one of the prime targets for bullies here within Buckland, but he learned how to deal with them in the end.  You’ll do well to learn what you can from him, Frodo-my-lad.”  So saying, he patted Frodo on the shoulder, only realizing his mistake as he saw Frodo wince.  Once he saw Frodo strip off his shirt to replace it with his nightshirt he realized how extensive the beating his lad had received that day had been.  He wisely kept his thoughts on the unknown current bully of Brandy Hall to himself, however, resolving to have a quiet word with Mac in the morning.

           *******

            The next morning Frodo again found Tolman Smallburrow tormenting the same small lad, and again the bully had him laid out in short order.  But this time Merimac happened by in time to forestall Tolman landing a kick that might well have broken a rib or two.  He hauled Frodo to his feet and held the two of them, each on either side of him. 

            “You,” he directed at Frodo, “as a visitor to Brandy Hall may be ignorant of the rules against fighting we have here, but you,” he said directly to Tolman, “certainly have reason to know them well.  We do not tolerate fighting here, and if I catch either of you fighting again I shall bring the offender gladly before the Master.  Do you hear?”  He shook them both.  Frodo nodded his understanding immediately, and was let go and directed away with a look.  It was a few moments, however, before Tolman Smallburrow also gave his grunt of acknowledgement, although it was unlikely he planned to change his ways.

            Some time after second breakfast Frodo turned up near the stables to find that Mac was already awaiting him.  Mac had fetched in the scarecrow from the grain field, where it really wasn’t as yet all that much use, after all, and on it he demonstrated several moves that he’d learned over the years were useful in dealing with bullies or those so taken with drink that they’d fight the Thain himself had he made the mistake of getting in the way,

            “It’s best, I’ve found,” he said, “to let them make the first move.  That way you can use their own weight and speed against them, and if the fight is seen it is plain that you aren’t the one who started it so the opinions of other people will almost always be on your side.  Who, after all, can the bully complain to if others have seen he was the one who threw the first punch or who made the first rush?  It makes the lesson go even further home when they can’t get anyone to feel sorry for them when they’re picking themselves up off the ground after a failed attack against you!”

            Frodo nodded.

            The young Baggins quickly realized just how important it was to reach out at just the right moment to take his opponent unawares so as to best throw him to the side or over his shoulder, and he was smiling with delight after the fourth time he managed to do that with Mac.

            Merimac rose panting.  “Well,” he managed, “it appears you have that down.  Now, shall we work on developing a proper punch?”

            It was soon apparent that Frodo was quite capable of using this tactic, and that with his long arms he had excellent leverage to throw a blow to his greatest advantage.  After he’d sent the scarecrow sailing across the empty paddock where they were working for a fifth time, Mac straightened and wiped his sweaty brow.  “I’d not wish to be struck by you, Frodo Baggins,” he said with respect.  “I will caution you—you have so much power behind your punch that you could easily hurt someone seriously, perhaps even kill someone, if you were to fully lose your temper.  You must never, never let yourself fully lose your temper, do you understand?  You must be very careful to not hit any harder than you need to in order to merely stop the bully.  Will you give me your solemn vow that you will keep these warnings in mind?”

            Frodo was surprised.  “You truly think that I could badly hurt someone?” he asked, feeling shaken by the idea.

            “Oh, yes,” Mac assured him.  “Will you vow to use only the force you need to stop a bully and no more?”

            Frodo gave a most serious nod.  “I so vow,” he said, his voice somewhat unsteady.  “I swear and promise that I will only use my punch in defense, and only such a punch as is needed and no more than that.”

            Reassured, Mac gave him a twisted grin.  “Good enough, then.  And I pity anyone who thinks to get the better of you, Frodo.  Let Lotho learn that he and his fellow are no match in the end for you.  Just remember not to keep the thumb inside the fist as you strike—don’t want to break it, after all.”

            Frodo nodded as he wiped his face with a handkerchief.  As he pulled on his waistcoat over his now dusty shirt he commented, “There’s one here I hope to try it on before I leave.”

            So he already recognizes that Tolman Smallburrow needs to be stopped? Mac thought.  I just hope Frodo doesn’t hurt him too badly.

 *******

            As the two Bagginses mounted their ponies preparatory to returning to Hobbiton, Merimac was pleased to see how easily Frodo completed the maneuver without the need to resort to a mounting block.  Frodo sat the pony well and with that marvelous grace that was becoming all the more apparent the closer the lad came to maturity.  “I look forward to hearing the details of your next encounter with Lotho Sackville-Baggins,” Mac said. 

            “I shall be glad to let you know exactly how it goes,” Frodo assured him.  “I do believe that I shall now be able to stop him in his tracks.”  With that he gave a conspiratory nod, and turned his pony to follow Bilbo toward the Bucklebury Ferry.  As he rode away, Mac noted that Frodo had gauze bound about his knuckles.

            So, it looks as if at least one lout about the place has found his match in Frodo Baggins, he thought as the two Bagginses disappeared down the track.  Good.  Hope I can recognize who it was that received Frodo’s first honest blow in retaliation for being a bully.  I do suspect it’s that Tolman Smallburrow.

           *******

            That night as the inhabitants of Brandy Hall gathered in the dining hall for dinner, Mac noted that Tolman Smallburrow sported quite a black eye, and that Pelto Brandybuck, son to Porto Brandybuck, a very small lad who always seemed to be wearing shirts just too big for him, was glancing at the larger lad with distinct satisfaction in his gaze.

            Good enough, Frodo! Mac thought with fierce pride.  Lotho and his minion don’t realize it yet, but they aren’t going to be able to get the best of you any longer.

            Somehow the strawberry fool for afters tasted just that much sweeter that evening.

An Old Love Revisited

            “Did you get the Thain’s business dealt with?” Everard Took asked his cousin Isumbard as Bard entered the Mayor’s office within the Council Hole an hour or so after his fellows.

            Bard shrugged as he closed his umbrella, reaching back to take that of his wife Pearl as she followed him into the room and thrusting both into the stand by the door.  “We have the response to the King’s last letter finished, but want to run it by Frodo before we send it off.”

            “Frodo?  Why not Pippin?  Wasn’t he still there this morning?”

            Pearl thrust back the hood of her traveling cloak, and drops of water scattered about her feet from the fur of its trim.  “Pippin left about halfway through breakfast,” she informed Everard.

             “Oh, you’re here, too, Pearl?” Everard noted.

            “I found I needed to get away from the Great Smial for a day,” Pearl answered.  “Da and Mum are being so stubborn about denying anything Pippin tells them of this journey of theirs could possibly be true.”

            “And the bairns?” asked Hildebrand.

            “Pervinca has the care of them today.  It will do them all good to spend a few hours together.  Where is Frodo?” she asked, looking around the room for her cousin.

            Everard shook his head.  “I sent him back to Will and Mina’s house for a quick, warm bathe and a change of clothing.  He got here from Bywater not all that long ago, and was pretty much wet through, having been caught in a brief but apparently heavy squall as he came by the Sweetbriars’ farm.  We could see the rain clouds darker along that direction than where we were—we were all damp when we arrived, but Frodo was simply dripping!”

            “I’ll go over and say hello to Will and Mina and hurry him along, then,” Pearl said.

            “Will and Mina aren’t there,” warned Hillie.  “The healer from Waymoot asked Will to come over there today so he could check out his knee, and they aren’t planning on returning until tomorrow morning.  I’m afraid Frodo is on his own at the moment.  Mina has been planning for this and left him plenty of food, at least, for which I’m certain he’s grateful.”

            Isumbard gave his wife a thoughtful glance.  “Why don’t you go over and check on him, dearling, and make certain he gets a mug of that tea of his.  It appears to do him a world of good.” He dropped a kiss on the top of her head, and walked to the Mayor’s desk to see what new correspondence had been placed there since he’d left two days earlier.

            Deciding that the rain wasn’t all that heavy now, Pearl left her umbrella where it was.  She pulled her hood back over her head and left the Council Hole, crossing the square to the Whitfoot place.  She knocked at the door as a courtesy, but knowing they weren’t home and that Frodo was likely to be either in the bath or in the room given to his use, she went in and shut the door behind her, shedding her cloak and hanging it carefully from a couple of pegs in the entryway so it would dry more evenly before heading through the parlor to the kitchen. 

            She could hear muffled music as she entered the kitchen.  “Heavens!” she murmured to herself.  “Frodo must be singing!  But, it sounds such a sad song.”  She could not make out the words, but it certainly wasn’t a song she’d heard before.  “He must have learned this whilst they were out there,” she decided. 

            She could smell the fragrant steam from the bathing room, and was glad that Everard had insisted Frodo bathe and warm himself before returning to the Mayor’s office to work.  “I should get some of that tea warmed up for him,” she decided, remembering that Bard had told her that Frodo carried tea with him in his water bottles.  His cloak was draped between two chairs before the kitchen fire, which had been deliberately stirred to waken the blaze.  She smiled:  Frodo had always shown an unexpected practical bent at times, and she was glad he’d taken thought to dry and warm the garment before he went back out to cross to the Council Hole.  Three water bottles hung over the back of one of the chairs at the kitchen table, so she appropriated one and began rummaging for a mug and a pannikin in which to warm Frodo’s drink.

            The song finished as she set the tea to warm by the fire, and she found herself sorry this was so in spite of the melancholy tone of its music.  She could hear the muffled slosh of the water in the tub, and at last the sound of the great vessel being emptied.  She had found a fresh loaf of bread and a knife, and was preparing slices to toast when she heard the door to the bathing room open and turned to see Frodo emerge from the hallway, wrapped in a warm-looking dressing gown of quilted turquoise, his hair still damp but with curls slowly releasing from his forehead as they began to dry, a towel hung over his shoulders.  He started at the sight of her, his face going markedly pale and his eyes widening, and she had a brief thought of him fleeing in terror before he recognized her and his cheeks went decidedly pink.

            “Pearl?  What are you doing here?”  His voice was barely a whisper.

            She smiled, holding up the loaf and knife.  “I was preparing to toast some bread for you.  Would you like it with butter, cheese, or both, Frodo?  And I have some of your tea heating up for you here by the kitchen fire.  Is that all right?”

            In a few minutes he was seated at the table with the tea in front of him, his hands wrapped about the mug to take best advantage of its warmth.  “Is it medicinal?” she asked. 

            Again his cheeks grew pink while the rest of his face paled.  “I suppose that it is,” he admitted, grudgingly if she knew her Frodo.  “Sam appears to have learned how to brew it from Lord Elrond, and he makes certain I have sufficient for several days at a time when I am busy here in Michel Delving.”  After a moment of silence he added, “And I must admit I do better for drinking it regularly.”

            After a moment she said softly, “Perhaps it might have been better for you if you hadn’t gone adventuring.”

            His face twisted a bit.  “I did little enough good for myself, I agree.  But had I not done so, things would have been so very bad here—far worse than they turned out under Lotho and Sharkey.”  He looked up to meet her eyes.  “I do not regret having gone, not really, for if I had not left the Shire I should have missed out on meeting Aragorn, which I cannot now bear to even think of.  But it was not an—easy—journey.  And each of the great joys I was able to share in was more than countered by the griefs and pains I also knew.”  He looked down into his mug and shook his head.  “It cost me much—very much.  Too much, perhaps.”

            “But you came home at last, safe and sound.”  Even Pearl was surprised to find herself making such a statement.

            Frodo again met her eyes, and there was a grim humor in his own gaze, one such as she’d never seen in his expression in all the years she’d known him.  “I came home, and perhaps I am now safe enough—for the moment, at least.  But, sound?”  He shook his head again, more definitely this time.  “Looks can be deceiving, you know.  And I certainly knew little enough safety along the dark road I followed.”  He dropped his gaze again to the mug, took a deep breath, and drank deeply from it.

            “Then why did you volunteer?” Pearl found herself saying.

            He thought about it, then answered, “I did not think to volunteer.  I do not believe I meant to volunteer.  But somehow I did.  And, having done so, I did what needed doing for as long as I could.  But it was Sam who got us there in the end, and Gollum who actually did was I was intended to do.”

            Her eyes widened in shock at the name.  “Gollum?  But he’s from old Bilbo’s stories.”

            His face was now grim.  “So, he was from Bilbo’s stories?  Did you think that those stories were only made up to entertain us children?  I assure you that they were more true than I’d imagined.”  He considered the mug in his hands.  “I almost wish I’d followed Bilbo’s path rather than the one I was set upon.  The Dragon was a far more straight-forward danger than the ones we faced, and far less subtle than the greatest opponent set for me to deal with.  At least with a Dragon, the worst he could have done would have been to kill me.”

            “You don’t wish that you had died, do you?”

            He gave her a sharp glance.  “I wished I could have died many times along the way, Pearl Took.  And, after—It—was gone, I was certain it was but a matter of minutes before Sam and I would be dead, there on the mountain, surrounded by the fumes and the fire.  Did you realize that rock could become so heated it would turn to a burning liquid?  We saw it, Sam and I, there upon the mountain after Gollum took It into the flame at the heart of the world.  When I lost consciousness I was glad I should not feel myself burn.  It was such a shock to awaken to find myself yet alive, alive and expected to return home.”

            “Weren’t you glad?”

            “Not as much as Sam was, or Merry, or your brother, Pearl.  Oh, I’ve been glad, too.  But it’s hard to remain glad when it feels as if I’ve been hollowed out as one hollows out a melon or a turnip.”

            She could not imagine such a state.  “But Pippin and Merry seem to feel you are a special hero, doing what you did.  And the King has such praise for you.”

            He did not respond.

            She tried again.  “And what is It?  This Ring that Pippin keeps speaking of?

            His response was accompanied by a challenging look.  “And if it was?  Do you choose to disbelieve him as your parents do?”

            “There were Rings of Power—I remember Gandalf speaking of them at the Party, that long ago they were made by the Great Elves, different kinds of Rings of power for each race—Elves, Dwarves, and Men, although there were none made for Hobbits, which Merimac Brandybuck thought was wrong, as Hobbits are people, too.”

            Frodo considered her for a moment, thoughtfully.  “Did Gandalf not mention one more Ring—the One Ring, created by the Enemy himself for his own use, intended to rule all the others that were made?”

            “And that’s the one that you had to carry?”

            He shrugged and drank again from his mug.  Pearl knew that her guess was right, although she still couldn’t imagine how It could have come into the possession of Frodo Baggins.  Best, she thought, to change the subject.  She placed a slice of bread on the toasting fork and held it near the fire.  “You didn’t say whether you would prefer butter or cheese, or both, Frodo,” she reminded him.

            Suddenly his face appeared young and vulnerable, like a little Hobbit lad who knows he’s asking for a special treat and isn’t certain it will be allowed.  “Actually, I’d like butter and honey, if I might have it that way.  The honey’s near the butter, just inside the cool room.  It’s in a honey-colored jar with yellow muslin over it, tied on with white string.”

            How could she deny that hopeful look in his eyes?  Leaving him with toasting fork in hand, she went to fetch the butter and honey, and soon had both the butter crock and the honey jar opened and ready for use.  He ate two slices with all indications of enjoyment, then stopped after three bites of a third, pushing it from him with signs of reluctance.  “It’s all I can eat,” he explained apologetically.  “You may have the rest.”

            Rather diffidently, she took a bite.  “Wildflower honey,” she decided.  “It does taste good!”

            They shared a smile.

            She searched his eyes.  “I sometimes think that I ought to have married you after all, Frodo,” she murmured.

            He was shaking his head.  “No, Pearl, you did rightly to marry Bard instead.  He will never leave you aforetimes as it is likely I should have done, and you never had to live with me during the years I was possessed by the Ring.  Somehow I managed to keep It under control most of the time, but what It would have had me do to someone I loved as a husband is meant to love his wife—I shudder to think of that!”  And shudder he did—visibly!

            “But at least you would not have been alone,” she began, before he cut her off.

            “Those who bear a Ring of Power are alone,” he said, his voice remote and sad.  “The Lady Galadriel told me that, and how true it proved.  Of course, she spoke from long experience.  Lord Elrond tried to tell me the same thing, of course.  But then, they wore two of the three Rings for the Elves.”

            “And you had to carry the One Ring, the evil one made by the Dark Lord to rule the others?  This is the Ring that Bilbo used to tell of in his tales, the one that made him invisible, that no one believed was true?” she asked.  At his nod, she continued, “Who has the third Ring made for the Elves?”

            He gave a wry smile and shook his head.  “I know now.  I’d glimpsed it before, but hadn’t realized what it was I’d seen.  But I only saw the one the Lady wears because I’d worn the One Ring, or so she explained it.  The other Rings of Power could not be hidden from one who’d worn the One Ring, not when he could see the bearers.  But recognizing what one sees is quite a different thing than just seeing it.”

            After a moment she asked, “Then you won’t tell me who wears the third Ring?”

            After searching her eyes Frodo smiled, and she saw the first faint signs of his old mischief that she’d seen in years.  “It is not for me to say.  I doubt you shall ever see either the Lady Galadriel or Lord Elrond, but this one you have seen in the past and may see yet again.  Since the One is now gone this person may now freely display the Ring worn, but I will not spoil things ahead of time.”

            “And the One Ring—the one you had, It’s truly gone now?”

            “Yes.”

            Just the one word, but such a weight to it!  Once again his expression was closed, his eyes turned away.  He put his hand up to rub at his forehead, as if he had a sudden headache, and she could see the place where his ring-finger was missing.  She wanted to ask about that, too, but knew from watching him with her parents that he was unlikely to answer—that he would most likely turn from her completely, and she didn’t want that.

            She found a safer topic.  “I’ve not seen that dressing gown before.”

            He looked down as if he’d forgotten what he wore.  He rubbed at the lapel and explained, “It was Fenton Whitfoot’s.  Mina told me to wear it, that it was honoring her lost son.”  He glanced up from under his brows.  “At first, I think she was seeing Fenton in me.  I mean, we were the same age and appear to have been much the same height and build, although his shoulders were a bit wider than mine, and I cannot wear his gloves—they fall right off my hands!  But somehow, allowing me to stay here during the week has helped her to accept that he’s been dead for so many years without the loss tearing at her heart as it did in the past.  And it also helps somehow to reassure her that the Time of Troubles is over, and that no one will take Will away again.”

            She considered him thoughtfully.  “It is a good color on you, that shade of turquoise.”

            He shrugged once more as he tightened the belt, which had begun allowing the garment to sag somewhat.  “I had best dress myself and return to the Mayor’s office.  There will be a good deal of work to catch up on.”  He looked up to catch her eye.  “And why did you come with Bard today?”

            “To be frank, to avoid Mum and Da for the rest of the day.  Pippin stayed the night, but left halfway through breakfast, which was generous of him considering how Mum was gushing over him and Da was arguing with almost every word he said.  I cannot begin to imagine why they don’t want to accept that he fought in a war, and that he fought goblins and even managed to kill a troll.  Brand is fascinated by his stories, and I’m certain Pippin is doing his best to hide from the lad how terrible it really was.  But I caught him changing his shirt and could see how different his ribs look now, that he truly did have them break when the troll fell on him.  And when I try to say anything of how bad it must have been he just says it was nothing to how badly you and Sam Gamgee were hurt, or Merry.  He says that all four of you almost died, and that without your Aragorn’s care none of you would have recovered as well as you have.”

            Frodo turned his gaze away, not so much avoiding hers as focusing on what she’d said.  “He is right in that, Pearl.  None of us would have survived if Aragorn had not been able to tend to us when we were worst hurt.”  He returned to her face, his eyes sad but with a tremulous smile nonetheless.  “We are so fortunate to have such a one as our King now.  I cannot wait to have you meet him, when he can come north again to us.  But there is a larger population in the southlands, and he will need to consolidate his rule there fully before he can come home to Eriador and Arnor once more.  I suspect he will rule mostly from Minas Tirith, but his heart dwells here in the north.”  He rose.  “If you will excuse me, I shall go change.  Thank you, Pearl, for being with me this morning.”

            He gave that beautiful smile of his as he disappeared into the side hallway to the bedrooms and the bathing room, and she heard him close his door before he reached for his dry clothing.

            She cleared up after his toast and honey and saw all the food returned to its proper place and the dishes cleaned and laid out upon the drying towel.  He emerged from the bedroom neatly dressed, his hair carefully brushed out on both head and feet, his trousers so much longer than he used to wear them, hiding his ankles.  She emptied the wash basin out into the yard and set it in the dry sink before turning to look him over once more.  “You look more as you did so many years ago when I was certain you were the only gentlehobbit I would ever love, Frodo Baggins.”

            “Thin as a stick, you mean?  Although with the silver threads in my hair and the lines now so clear to be seen on my forehead, I do not believe anyone would take me for a young lad ever again.”

            “No, I admit you don’t look a lad.  But you look even more an interesting person now than you did as a tween, and that is not saying you weren’t interesting then.  Have you seen Narcissa—Narcissa Boffin, I mean?  She will love you even more than ever.”

            He was leaning over his cloak, seeing how much it had dried.  His voice was quiet when he answered her.  “I doubt I will seek to court her, Pearl.”

            “But with that Ring gone now, why not?”  When all he did was to shake his head she continued, “She would love the pearls you bought as your promise gift to me.”

            He shook his head more emphatically.  “No—those were bought for you, not for anyone else.  And, if I were to seek a marriage with Narcissa, I would find a far different set of jewelry for her for a promise gift, one that matched her and the love I would know with her.”  He turned to look at her more directly.  “No one could ever replace what I dreamed of knowing with you with what I would know with any other woman, Pearl Took.  There is only one first love, and my first love was you.  I am certain that what you have said about your own love for me being immature is true, and how—satisfying our marriage, had we come to it, might have proved was likely to be far less than what we had imagined or had hoped for.  Had I pursued a courtship with Narcissa I believe we could have been happy—I hope very happy, as long as the Ring didn’t interfere.  But it would have been a different manner of happiness than I might have known with you.

            “But I know now that the—terrible things—that I found myself thinking of doing to those who caught my eye once Bilbo left It with me were due to the Ring’s imaginings rather than being my own, and I am grateful to know I was nowhere as horrible a person as I had found myself believing me to be.  I doubt our marriage would have been happy at all, not with the Ring in my pocket; what It would have tried to make me do to you and our children does not deserve to be dwelt upon.  And even should I have successfully defied Its will, still I should have seemed undeservedly distant as I sought to protect you from what I was being pressured to do.  I tell you this—I am now so very glad you did throw me over before we came to that

            “But It would have done Its best to corrupt my love for my wife no matter whom I might have married.”

            “You don’t still love me, do you, Frodo?”

            He was already shaking his head.  “Oh, I do love you, as a friend, almost a sister.  But I cannot imagine loving you as I once did, or as I might love someone else, someone like Narcissa.  That time is long past.  Do you still love me?”

            She smiled sadly.  “Not as I did when I was a foolish lass, Frodo Baggins.”

            After a moment of silence he said, “I suppose I should not be surprised to be grateful now that Lobelia warned you off me as she did.”

            Pearl knew she must be flushing deeply, feeling her cheeks burning with embarrassment.  “I still wish, in some ways, at least, that I’d never listened to her.”

            He touched her cheek, and his smile was the one she’d known when they were young, long before she’d come to think she loved him.  “It would have been a different life for us.  But I would have been so torn to have had to leave you behind when I went to rid myself and Middle Earth of the Ring, Pearl.”

            “Then it is good that I came to realize that I belonged with Bard.”

            “Yes.”  And the weight of that word as he’d stated it last was lifted.  He leaned down and kissed her forehead.  “Thank you.”

            “For what?”

            “For loving me at all.  At least I knew that once in my life.”

 *******

            He never courted Narcissa Boffin, and Pearl knew that Narcissa grieved for that love that never came to be long after Frodo left the Shire and Middle Earth.  She felt a degree of anger at this, for there was no question that Narcissa had worshiped Frodo Baggins for far longer than she had done, but then she remembered how he’d described himself as being as hollowed out as a melon and found herself forgiving him.

            She learned that Frodo had bequeathed to Narcissa most of the jewelry that his mother had left, and she was glad.

            But he did leave her a charm for the bracelet Pippin gave her that first Yule after their return from Gondor—a silver star set with a pearl in the center, with the words Thank you engraved upon the back.

Written for the LOTR Community Potluck challenge.  For Gail for her birthday, and for Shirebound as her prompt inspired this tale.

When Won with Pain

 

            Aragorn stood up from where he’d bent over Frodo’s bed, rubbing at his aching back.  “Well,” he said in low tones, “that is done.  We have some more fluid in his body, and he is clean and warmly covered once more.  I am so grateful that the farmer who brought these bedsteads was moved to do so, and that Faramir has managed to send out so many blankets, linens, and coverlets for those who were sore wounded.  All rest the better for them.”

            Gandalf, who sat on the other side of the bed containing Sam Gamgee, nodded up at the Man.  “And the sheepskins, too—they have proved invaluable for dealing with those who must be bed-bound for any period of time.”  He stretched, then rose and stretched again.  “I will be glad when the healer comes to relieve me.  This Eldamir is a good Man and a more than competent healer.  Both Frodo and Sam seem to sleep peacefully when he is with them, unlike some of the others we have in the company.”

            Aragorn nodded.  “Indeed.”  He looked down thoughtfully at the two sleeping Hobbits before glancing up at the branches of trees to be seen overhanging the enclosure erected about the two beds.  “At least this is a healthful place for them to rest.  Húrin chose well when he suggested we come here to Cormallen for the army to recover before returning to the White City.  It is close enough we can keep a watch on the ruins of the Black Gates, but far enough for the air to be wholesome and the spring to welcome those who lie in healing sleep back to awareness when the time comes.  And I trust that the sound of the small river running nearby will prove soothing and reminiscent of other, more pleasant climes for these two, at least.”

            The Wizard made his way around the bed to Aragorn’s side, now looking down at Frodo’s face.  Aragorn had positioned him on one side, a bolster behind him to support his back and with pillows supporting his upper leg and arm.  “His sleep looks more natural, at least,” he said quietly.  “He appears as comfortable as is possible, considering all that has happened to him.  He should waken to relatively little pain, I would think.”

            For a moment Aragorn stood silently looking down at the too-slender Hobbit lying in the big bed.  “It can never be for him as it was before,” he breathed.  “His shoulder will always ache to one degree or another, and I fear he will have a most difficult time regaining his ability to stomach his food.  Certainly he will no longer be able to eat in accordance with what is believed to be proper Hobbit appetite.  As to the return of his proper Hobbit spirits----”  He looked up to catch the Wizard’s eyes and sighed.  “The Ring was already eating away at his capacity for joy before you fell in Moria.  After we left Lórien he was increasingly quiet and uncommunicative, rarely laughing any more.  As to how he will be after he awakens—and, yes, I do now believe he will awaken—well, I suspect you can foresee, perhaps all too well, how he will be then far better than I, a mere mortal, can know.”

            Now it was the Wizard’s turn to go quiet for a time.  At last he murmured, “Frodo Baggins will find his great capacity for responsibility to be both his salvation and his bane.  It will help him find purpose once again, but it will also tax his compassion and his patience—and his stamina.

            “The four of them will not find things within the Shire as they were when they left their little land.  Frodo does not yet appreciate this, but it was only his presence in Bag End that kept his loathsome kinsman Lotho in check.  Since he has gone Lotho has done all he can to put the whole of the Shire under his thumb, and it will fall to these four to set things right once more.  But we must not speak of this again in the presence of any of them, awake or asleep.  He does not hear us now, for in his dreams he again fights a spider; but I would rather he be able to look toward the future with hope and patience.  He will not be in any condition to face down the evil Lotho has unleashed for some time after he awakens.”

            They turned toward the break in the curtain wall about the area in which the Cormacolindor slept to listen to the quiet words now being exchanged between the soldier on guard and the expected healer who would now sit by the two Hobbits as they lay deep in healing sleep.  “Eldamir has come,” Aragorn sighed. 

            The flap was now being pulled aside by the guardsman, and the healer entered.  Aragorn stepped forward to report what had been done for the two who rested in the place and to hear what Eldamir had to say about the condition of the other Pherian who slept amongst the wounded.  “His good leg he moved, seeking to shift himself as he slept,” Eldamir told the King with a smile of triumph.  “And he rubbed at his chest at one point.”

            The flap again was pulled aside, and Legolas followed the healer.  “I will share the watch with Eldamir here,” he said.  “Gimli sits by Pippin’s bed; I may as well make myself similarly useful.  You would think that the Dwarf was the young Hobbit’s father, the way he hovers over the lad!  I will gladly sit here under the starlight once Arien finally sets, and sing for these.  It seems to ease Frodo when he hears me sing.”

            Both Aragorn and Gandalf smiled.  “Indeed it does,” agreed the Man.  “Thank you, Legolas.  Both Frodo and Sam respond well to your songs.”  With mutual bows, the Man who would be King and his friend the Wizard quitted the place, giving its sleeping inhabitants one last thoughtful glance as they did so.

            “I have sent for Merry,” Aragorn confided as they walked toward his tent.  “Pippin especially should do better with him here, although I hope his presence will also strengthen Frodo.  Pippin I suspect will be the least changed when he awakens.  After all, he is young and resilient—and every inch a Took.  My adar always spoke well of the Old Took.”

            “As well he might,” agreed Gandalf.  “Dear Gerontius would be very proud of these five Hobbits you have come to know and love so well, his grandson Bilbo, his great grandson Frodo, his great, great grandsons Merry and Pippin, and their friend Samwise Gamgee.  Of them all Pippin is most like the Old Took, I suppose naturally enough, both of them Fallohide through and through.  But it is Frodo who has inherited the greatest share of his great grandfather’s innate wisdom and foresight, tempered with strictly Harfoot love of his land and people and Stoor sheer practicality.  But,” he added, “I believe you are correct that Pippin will be the least changed—outwardly, that is.  He will continue merry and impetuous, and it will take time for his own to appreciate just how wise he has become—indeed, how wise he has always been.  For him the old saying will be true--a good thing is all the sweeter when won with pain.

            The Man by his side went stiff.  “Sweeter?  What we have won is sweet?  Oh, I do not deny I rejoice that Sauron was defeated, but I do not find the victory in any way sweet!  Nor, I wager, will Frodo Baggins!  Too much has this victory cost us for it to be sweet, Gandalf Greyhame, my Lord Mithrandir!  It has cost so many of my forebears, slain in ambushes, through treachery, and through the Enemy’s myriad plagues.  It cost me my father when I was little better than a babe in arms, and my mother untimely when she could well have lived to see this victory.  It cost Gondor the sanity of its Ruling Steward as well as the leadership of his older son.  And how many good folk have died in the last year alone in all lands fighting Sauron and his creatures and mercenaries?  Halbarad, who was all but my brother, lies in a grave before the gates of Minas Tirith when he should be singing in the sunshine of Eriador right now, while Hirluin, whom I first named the Fair when he was but a winning child, will not return to the southern fiefdoms to the joy of his wife and children.”

            If Gandalf was surprised by Aragorn’s sudden loss of equanimity and uncustomary outburst of anger he did not show it.  “Calm yourself, my friend,” he said.  “Remember—you are son jointly of Arathorn, Gilraen, and Elrond Peredhel.  No, there can be gladness in the victory we have won, but I agree it is bittersweet at best.  I did not say that the old saying was true for all, only for young Peregrin and a few others who are like unto him in personality.  And you are most correct that it will not be in any way true for Frodo.”

            The Wizard stopped as they reached Aragorn’s tent and sank into one of the folding chairs set before it.  “I find that I am tired, son of Arathorn.  Did any of your kinsmen bring with him some pipeweed they would be willing to share with a weary old Man?”

            Aragorn suddenly burst into unexpected laughter, his usual hopeful attitude restored.  “I will ask Halladan.  I do not doubt he will know who has some to spare for the two of us.  I, too, would appreciate a good smoke at the moment, I find.  And do not give me that talk of being merely a weary old Man.  We both know better than that.”

            At that moment they heard, in the distance, Legolas raise his voice in song, one of the songs in praise of Ulmo and the peace those who crossed his realm might know.  As he listened to the hymn, Aragorn felt a twist in his own heart.  Turning to the nearest guardsman, he asked that Halladan be summoned.  He found he would indeed like to relax with a pipe hopefully full of Old Toby.

For Tari and anyone else who wishes to claim it.  Baylor?

Momentary Rest with Thoughts of Tomatoes

            Frodo awoke when Sam, whose left arm lay across his Master’s chest, cried out and jerked upright into a sitting position, his eyes filled with mixed horror and fury as he threw his other hand out blindly, as if striking away weapons targeted at the two of them.

            “Ye shan’t have ’em!” he said in a shrill, terrible tone.  “Ye shan’t have ’em!”  Again he waved his right hand threateningly, even as his left hand sought to close about----

            Frodo felt his own lust for the Ring rise in his heart, even as he felt fear for what It was possibly doing to his friend.  “No, Sam!” he cried.  “Do not touch It!”

            Something in his tone got through the confusion Sam was feeling, as the gardener turned a pasty grey in color and pulled back from Frodo, his expression turning from righteous fury to terror that was focused on the small, seemingly insignificant lump under the dark leather orc shirt Frodo wore.  Whatever state he’d been in was gone:  now he was definitely awake and aware.  “Smoke and ash!” he muttered.  “I would of used It!  And against a dream!”

            Frodo felt alarmed even as he quelled the Ring’s call to protect It from imaginary danger.  Sam rarely remembered any dreams he might have, yet this time he had known one—and whilst his hand lay across Frodo’s chest, right over the Ring!  Who could guess the kind of dream that the Ring would cause one such as Sam to know?

            “We both appear to have slept once we escaped from the orc army and made our way here,” Frodo said.

            “Have you heard aught of them?  Any sound of them orcs followin’ after us?”  Frodo noted that Sam’s face was now filled with worry.

            Frodo shook his head.  “No, not that I’ve been awake all that long.  Indeed, it was you sitting up and calling out that woke me, Sam.  But I doubt that the orc with the whip will dare take any time to chase after the likes of us with other overseers now beside him.  After all, he had hoped to earn credit for himself by forcing the two of us ‘deserters’ into his own line.  To admit before others that he first found us and then lost us again would be too awkward a thing to do, particularly as he could easily be slain for such an error in judgment.”  He glanced sideways at the orc helmet he’d prized off his own head on their arrival here in this shallow pit and let fall before allowing his previous exhaustion to overwhelm him.  Truth to tell, he did not feel particularly rested even now after however much sleep he and Sam had managed to know.  His legs ached, and the skin burned where the orc’s whip had broken the skin and it now rubbed against the sharp ash that appeared to serve here instead of soil.  “I know I was glad to get shut of that and the shield as well,” he added.  “They were growing too heavy for me to have carried much further.”

            Sam nodded his appreciation of that idea, looking sideways at where his own discarded helm and shield lay, obviously sharing Frodo’s own distaste for the orc gear.  “I’ll say this—I ain’t lookin’ forward to carrying on with that, but until we’re certain as the armies is far behind us, I don’t think as we’ll be able to let them go.”

            Frodo gave a tired nod of agreement, glad to see that Sam was already going through his pack to bring out a wafer of lembas for the two of them to share.  Although, he realized, he’d more appreciate a cool drink of water.  Well, there was little good thinking of that, considering there was little chance they’d find good water here in the wastes of Mordor, and particularly not in quantities that would likely leave them feeling satisfied.  He licked his dry lips with an equally dry tongue, and sought to distract himself from the subject of drink. 

            “What were you dreaming of that made you shout out like that?” he asked.

            Sam’s hands, as he pulled them out of his pack, held some of the fragments of lembas they’d gathered together in the orc tower.  His face twisted in disgust.  “’Tweren’t that much of a dream, I suppose.”  He sat back upon his haunches as he brought it up before his mind’s eye.  “I was in the vegetable garden there behind Bag End,” he said at last, “goin’ to weed the tomatoes.  I could see the tomatoes, there on their vines, all big and ripe and oh, so red.  Only as I got closer, first one and then another sort of popped, like a pig’s bladder such as you might buy at the Free Fair for the little’uns to play with, one what was stuck with a knife blade or somethin’ like.  And I saw as the vines was covered with aphids, only them aphids looked like orcs, once you saw them all close up, all ugly with nasty, filthy scimitars such as the orcs seem t’like so much, and wearin’ gold rings about their middles.  And as they sucked on the vines the tomatoes, they began to pop, or hollow out and fall in on themselves.  It was awful—about the awfullest thing as I think I’ve ever imagined.  And I knew I could stop it, maybe!  And I felt It, there, almost ’neath my hand, tellin’ me as I could use Its power to stop it all.  So I was goin’ t’do just that—stop them—only----”

            Frodo could feel himself shuddering at the thought of it.  “Only you called out in your sleep and woke me, and that in turn woke you, too.”  He took a noisy half breath, wondering if he should go on alone from here to protect Sam from Its further influence.

            But Sam apparently read that thought from his expression.  “No, Master, you can’t leave me behind, not now.  And I know Its plans now.  It wants you alone so as It can take you easier, like.  Or so It thinks.  Only I’d guess as It still don’t have the proper measure of you yet.  It don’t realize, even now, just how strong you are, there in your heart.  It won’t be able t’do as It wants till there’s nothin’ else left.  And only I can keep remindin’ you as there is more to life than just the Ring.  I’ve worn the foul thing now, and can recognize when It’s tryin’ Its tricks on me now.  Don’t you worry none about me.  Know this—I don’t want nothin’ to do with what It promises, ’cause I have the measure of It.  It’s naught but a liar and a cheat, and I wouldn’t have It again on a bet!”  And he spat on the ground to emphasize that thought—or at least he tried to, not that he had much in the way of spit to spare.

            And against all logic Frodo found himself smiling.  He might even have laughed, had he more energy.  But he knew that Sam was right, and that the Ring once again had overplayed Its hand, driving Sam that much further from Its proper influence.

            They each had a measure of the Elvish waybread and two swallows of water, picked up their helms and shields, and set off on the next leg of their trip to the Mountain, which now lay dead ahead of them.

            Dead ahead.

Written for the LOTR Community "Family Reunion" fixed-length ficlet challenge.  313 words.

The Return to the Light of Day

            “What a manner in which to know a family reunion!” muttered Griffo Boffin as he stood, peering over the shoulder of his wife’s cousin into the makeshift cell they’d just pried opened.  “Is that Lobelia?”

            It was.  She stood shakily, clutching at that umbrella of hers while leaning on it, staring out at those crowded about the beams and boards that had been so laboriously removed from the front of the place in which she’d been imprisoned.  Her hair hung in disarray about her face and straggled over her shoulders.  It was hard to say where the dirt left off and the bruises began on the side of her face and arms.

            “Who’s that?” she demanded, then whispered, “Frodo Baggins—is that you?”

            Frodo’s face appeared even paler than usual.  “The Valar forbid!” he whispered only just loudly enough for Griffo to hear.  “First Will Whitfoot, then Freddy, and now Lobelia!  What have they done to you?”

            Shock gave way almost immediately to compassion as he stepped forward to grasp her wrist and gently drew her forth.  “Come, child,” he said softly.  “Return to the light of day once more.”

            Child?!  How could he speak to her so?  Why, she’d once hoped to marry Bilbo, or so it was said!

            But her mouth trembled just as it must have done when she was but a little lass as she stepped uncertainly out of her confinement, finding herself responding to Frodo’s lead as would a small child newly rescued from a dark cupboard with a latch unreachable from inside.  She trusts him! Griffo realized.  She realizes he will bring her out.

            She paused but once, looking up from where she clutched desperately at Frodo’s arm to search his face.  “Lotho?” she asked.

            He shook his head, and she nodded in acceptance of the fact her son would not be there to greet her.

           

Written for the LOTR Community "Gratitude" challenge.  For Illereyn and Nieriel Reina for their birthdays as well as for Thanksgiving.

Memories of Cleansing

            As the two of them stood near the western end of the Lonely Isle, Frodo pointed out the entrance to the Fanes.

            Gandalf carried me there when the spider stirred within the wound on my neck, and there they removed it at last.  You cannot imagine how much weight felt lifted from my shoulders to have that gone, there where Shelob sought to poison me.  After that the Powers came to me and strengthened me.  It is Nienna I remember best—how she wept over me, and how I wept with her, and how the tears washed away all of the pain, the grief, the loss, the anger, the disillusion, my arrogance, even my jealousy of you, leaving me clean, ready again to be filled with joy, thankful for the chance to live and love again.  I remember when my tears burned my heart.  Who could have realized how they can free one to know true hope once more?  And now my own Hope Enduring is again by my side, and I no longer am required to endure without it again.

            Thank you for coming to me at the last, Sam.  I know what I sacrificed is now fulfilled.

Written in honor of the Master's own birthday.  Posted a day late due to travels and travails.

Self Justification

            Otis Tunnely sat on one side of the table while Frodo Baggins sat on the other, Paladin Took and other officials of the Shire ranged alongside him.  There was something about Baggins’s expression that made Otis most uncomfortable, and in response he felt his hackles rise.  As he read the reports lying before him, Mr. Baggins was different from what Otis remembered, more solemn, somehow; harder, less tolerant.

            At last Baggins raised his eyes to meet those of Otis.  “So,” he said, “your sister’s one milk cow was found in your herd, where she was apparently not treated well.  There were signs she’s been beaten with willow whips or worse, and she had lost considerable weight, indicating she’d been denied food.”

            “You cannot prove as this was my sister’s cow,” Otis growled in return.

            “Except that she responded immediately to the voices of your sister, your brother-in-love Tod Delver, and their children, and they all immediately recognized her; and once she was led onto their farm she immediately went to the byre and to her manger and began calling for her calf.”  Baggins lifted a few pages and set them aside.  “Also found in your hole and about your farm were a large number of items taken by the Gatherers and Sharers from the Delver home—three quilts put together by your sister and your mother; five of the set of six silver spoons your brother-in-love brought to the marriage—we still haven’t found the sixth one; a set of Dwarf-wrought mugs that were a gift from his father; many pieces of your mother’s jewelry that had been left to your sister, all save her rings, which had been taken by Lotho as Sharkey’s share of the loot; six warm blankets; even the cradle in which your niece and nephew slept as bairns; and all of your brother-in-love’s fishing flies, including one that had been put into a frame that was not of a quality to use in catching fish but had been made by your nephew and that had somehow attracted the attention of what must have been the most stupid bass in the pond on their farm.”

            “I inherited the quilts and the jewelry!  After all, I was the elder….”

            But Baggins interrupted him.  “Excuse me?  I will remind you that copies of your parents’ wills were filed in the Mayor’s office, and I have read them.  You are not even living on the farm that you inherited—you convinced your sister to swap with you as you were convinced that the one she’d received was better than yours, and neither she nor her husband wished to have bad feelings between you.  And those quilts and three of the blankets as well as all of your mum’s jewelry were definitely left to your sister, while the other three blankets were sold by my Aunt Eglantine to your sister and her family.  Or are you going to claim that the Thain’s Lady is a liar?  As for the spoons and the mugs, I have read the will of your brother-in-love’s grandmother, who left him the spoons, and have a letter from Gimli Gloin’s son confirming that his kinsman Dorlin from the Blue Mountains crafted those mugs and sold them to Tod Delver’s father at the Free Fair eight summers ago.  I will admit that many of the farm implements that were taken are difficult to distinguish, but the harrow found in your barn has the maker’s mark of the harrow-maker in Gamwidge to whom one of the Cotton lads is apprenticed, and I have the sales agreement that shows this harrow was sold by him to Tod Delver, your sister’s husband, and not to you.

            “As for the fishing flies, and particularly the one made by your nephew—there are many witnesses to the fact that the majority of them were made by your brother-in-love and his father, and your nephew’s name and the legend on the back of the frame in which it was placed make it plain that it was not made for you.  Indeed, it is well known that when you fish you do so with fish eggs or worms, and have never been known to fish the streams your brother-in-love prefers.  So, it would appear that this theft, at least, was not done for profit but primarily out of spite.”

            Having done, the deputy Mayor fixed a stare upon Otis that made it plain he was to at least try to explain his actions.

            Otis was angry.  He had well convinced himself over the years that he was badly done by, and particularly by his parents and his sister’s family.  He was certain that their parents had favored his sister over himself, and that the better production seen on the farm his sister had agreed to accept in exchange for that left to herself was due to her tricking him somehow into taking the less fertile land rather than accepting that he did not have the heart of a true farmer.

            “But I was the elder!  I ought to of had the choice as to which farm I got!”

            “But you were left the farm where she dwells now.  You only have the farm you live upon because you insisted you deserved it more, and your sister and her husband decided it was not worth it to argue with you.  It appears that you only want something if your sister had it first.  But you took things that have absolutely nothing to do with you at all!  You took the Delver spoons and the Dwarvish mugs that belonged to Tod Delver, and you took his fishing flies, which you neither needed nor knew how to use.  And you took that one fishing fly made by your nephew Dodi, one that is most likely useless to anyone else, one that has absolutely no value at all to anyone other than his family, a sign of his love for his dad.”

            Baggins straightened and rubbed absently at his left shoulder as if it pained him somewhat.  “According to your fellows, every time your sister and her family did any harvesting at all, you saw to it that their farm was raided by the Gatherers and Sharers.  You saw to it that their farming implements were taken as well as bushels for carrying and storage, picking bags, even their ladders and their cider press, which was found in one of your storage buildings this morning.”

            “But you can’t go sending folks into private property to search it without permission!” Otis blustered.

            “But is that not what you did, directing your fellows to denude your sister’s home, emptying her larder and taking the vegetables out of her fields and the apples out of the orchard after they went to the work to harvest them?  Is that not what you did, going into her home to take her jewelry and her quilts and her blankets, leaving her family with inadequate food for the winter as well as inadequate warmth against the weather expected?  Was their cow not found in your herd, along with animals from other farms about?  I recognize the Sweetloam’s cuts to their cattle’s ears, at least; and others have identified at least seven more animals taken from the fields of other farms.

            “But, again, you took some things not because they were of any value to anyone other than your sister and her husband Tod.  Why did you take that framed fishing fly?”

            Suddenly the store of resentment Otis Tunnely held broke open.  “What right does that one have to anything as ought to of been mine?” he spat.  “He’s no kin of mine!”

            “But he and your sister between them made the farm on which they dwell something to be proud of, while you allowed your own place to fall into neglect.  Their cow had been a fine milker while none of your cattle produced much to boast about.  Their home, while not as substantial as the one you dwelt in, was yet snug and warm and happy while yours needs substantial repairs because you have done little to see to its upkeep.  And this does not answer the question:  why did you take the fishing fly your nephew Dodi made for his father?”

            “’Cause he don’t deserve it!” shouted Otis.  “He don’t deserve nothin’ as he had.  It ought to of been mine!  All of it!”

            Frodo Baggins was shaking his head.  “No, you have it wrong.  He worked for what he had.  He was a youngest son in a large family, and there was no land to spare from his family for him to work.  He and his wife had land of their own to work in the farm she inherited, and agreed to swap for the other farm solely to keep the peace with you, the brother she loved but who has apparently never loved her.

            “Know this—no one is owed anything for which he has not worked.”

            “What would the likes of you know about workin’—everyone knows as you was given Bag End, what wasn’t yours by rights, in spite of there bein’ a proper heir in Lotho Sackville-Baggins!”

            Baggins’s face had gone stony.  “It was Otho, not Lotho, who was properly Bilbo’s heir before Bilbo adopted me.  But the idea that Otho deserved Bag End more than I did was laid to rest many, many years ago.  Lotho was not left destitute when his father died—far from it.  I’ve been able to read Otho’s will, and both Lotho and Lobelia were left well provided for.  Plus, Lotho has done nothing but add to his holdings since his father’s death, and mostly through cheating or threatening those whose properties he took.  Bag End was probably the only property he acquired that he was forced to actually pay a fair price for, and even then he used trickery involving its purchase to cheat others.

            “And I certainly worked within Bag End while I lived there.  I helped polish every piece of wood or stone within the place, and cleansed the tiles and renewed and resealed every line of grout.  I washed every dish and cared for each piece of silver or pewter.  I dusted every single shelf and book or curio.  I swept the floors and the hearths daily, carried in the wood and carried out the ash.  I helped beat the carpets and washed the linens when that job fell to me.  I helped in the gardens and the orchard, and I learned to keep the books long before Bilbo left the Shire.  I even polished the glass in the windows at least twice each year.  Can you say the same for the home you live in?”

            “But I oughtn’t have to!”

            “Why not?  Do you have the wealth to hire others to do the caring for you?”

            “But I oughtn’t have to!” Otis repeated stubbornly.

            “Then have you the magical skills of a Wizard to have things renew themselves on their own?  I tell you, Mr. Tunnely, that unless things are cared for regularly they will begin to fall apart, and that is obvious by looking at the state of your home and your farm.  Face it—if you love something well enough you will work for it and its welfare, but you have failed to do so.  And there is nothing that has ever given you the right to take that fishing fly within the frame that you took that your nephew made for his dad for his birthday.  You do not have any right to a sign of love given by someone else to another.”

            “But it ought to of been given me instead!”

            Frodo was shaking his head.  “No one who has done nothing to earn love deserves to be given signs of said love intended for others.  You have not shown love to your sister or her children, much less her husband.  Instead, you have acted as if the fruits of their labor was due to yours instead.”

            Frodo Baggins sighed, again rubbing at his shoulder, and then at his temple as if his head ached.  He finally dropped his eyes to the papers before him, his face grim.

            Otis tried to be belligerent as he demanded, “Well, what you gonna do with me?  Stick me down in those new Lockholes you had fixed up?”

            Baggins raised his eyes again to meet Otis’s.  “Alongside Marcos Smallburrow and Timono Bracegirdle?  Do you think you deserve to go there?”

            “Them didn’t do nothing against you,” Otis began.

            “Oh, no, not against me; but there is no question both worked hand-in-glove with Lotho to despoil the Shire while I was gone, and both had a good deal more of other people’s goods in their own hands than you did when they were brought here.  They were both in danger of bringing upon themselves deadly vengeance for the damage they did and the thefts they engineered and even deaths they’d plotted.  What you did was far more petty than anything they did.

            “The question I must deal with is what to do to see you pay for what you did while working with Lotho Sackville-Baggins.  I have read your parents’ wills carefully, and find that there was yet one other property that was theirs that was granted to yourself that you have never done anything with.  It was one your mother inherited from her brother on his death, a smallholding down near Needlehole.  It has languished from lack of care over the past fifteen years since her death.  I believe that it is time you saw to it and its upkeep.  Considering the damage you have wrought upon your sister and her family, you are now to be divested of your claims to the farm that was originally left to her and her husband as well as the one you insisted she should accept so that you could take what you saw as the more profitable property.  When you do so badly by what you have been granted, what you have misused shall be taken from you.  Once the ownership of all of the cattle found on the farm on which you dwelt is officially confirmed, those cattle proved to be yours will be herded to your new home outside Needlehole.  The Village Head for Needlehole will be advised to look for your arrival there within a week’s time, and if you leave your farm there for more than a week the Mayor, the Thain, and the Master will all be advised, at which time you will be taken and transported here to our new gaol.”

            “You mean as I’m to be exiled from my own home?”

            “Did you wish to be taken to the borders and sent Outside with no possibility of ever returning to the Shire?  Yes, you are being exiled from the Westfarthing, and you had best never set foot anywhere inside it or near the properties now to be owned solely by your sister and her family.  You will at least remain a Hobbit of the Shire, unless you continue to neglect your own responsibilities, and ever again work to take what belongs to others.  If that should ever happen, then you can indeed expect to be shown the Borders.  And I promise you—those who work against others are not treated any better Outside than they are here within the Shire and Buckland.”

            “But you don’t have the authority—”

            Thain Paladin, who’d sat quietly beside the deputy Mayor of the Shire, finally spoke.  “Oh, but as he told you when this series of hearings began, he most certainly does bear the authority to do as he says.  This is attested by the letters sent to me as Thain, to the Master, and the office of the Mayor by the King’s own hand and as confirmed by Will Whitfoot’s appointment of him as deputy Mayor while Will recovers from the injuries he suffered while imprisoned by Lotho and Sharkey.  And you are fortunate that it is Frodo who has been granted this authority, as I would have had you and certain others exiled to Outside days ago were it up to me.  Internal exile for what you have done, and particularly to one who loved you such as your sister, is too good for you as far as I am concerned.”

            “But I don’t deserve to be treated this way!” Otis insisted.

            Paladin Took stood and glowered at him.  “You certainly do, and more so because of the manner in which you have treated others.  To those to whom much is given, much is expected.  And when you don’t meet those expectations, then you can expect yourself to be deprived of what you had that you have misused and neglected and abused.  Now—begone, and you are to load up your own goods into the farm wagon you will find upon the farm where you’ve been living under the eyes of three Shiriffs and be on your way to Needlehole within two days.  Or are you going to question my authority as Thain of the Shire to confirm what Frodo has said?”

            So it was that Otis Tunnely found himself headed back to his farm under escort of two Tooks from the Hobbitry-in-Arms from the Green Hills district to remove himself and what possessions he would be able to take with him from the Westfarthing, unwilling to appreciate what he’d done to deserve even internal exile.

            At the same time Frodo was approaching Tod Delver to deliver into his hands that clumsy fly that his son Dodi had made for him, still within the frame that Tod had made to hold it, this sign of the love his son held for him.

For Shirebound, RS9, Rhyselle, and all others whose birthdays I've missed in the last month.

Excerpts from “Frodo of the Nine Fingers”

“Stand, Men of the West!  Lo, the Moment of Doom is upon us!”

So called Mithrandir, Grey no longer.  White he is now, Counselor and Guardian, grey veils discarded forever!

“Stand, Men of the West!  Lo, the Moment of Doom is upon us!”

And all stood!  Man and orc, troll and Elf and Dwarf, and beasts whose fell names have never troubled the tongues of the righteous.  None dared move.  Not the soldier in black and silver, nor Rider in greens, browns and gold; not knight with silver swan on blue surcoat, nor Northern Dúnadan in stained greens and grey; not orcs in their confusion nor trolls no longer guided by the Eye’s evil Will.  Even the Fell Creatures upon which the Nazgûl soared appeared to pause in their defense of the air while their Black Riders cried out in shock and despair.

For the Ringbearer and his companion, Samwise the Stouthearted, Samwise the Faithful and Hopeful, had come to the edge of the Fires of Doom, caught in that last moment before action, when at last the Ring in Its Malice took the Ringbearer and broke his otherwise indomitable Will, and thought that in so doing that It had Won!

But Malice too oft Malice mars!

Behold, the craven creature known as Gollum, without willing to do so, saved the Ringbearer, taking Ring and the finger upon which It had sat, falling under Its weight into the Fire himself.

Righteousness was saved from Evil by one of evil will.

And with the Ring’s destruction Mordor itself was destroyed.

“Stand, Men of the West!  Lo, the Moment of Doom is come!”

But it was doom for Mordor and its Lord and its cursed creatures, not doom for those of the West who had found, under the guidance of the one born to be King, courage to stand even before the Black Gates, even before overwhelming forces!

 *

A laita te, laita te!  We praise them with great praise, Perhael and Iorhael, Stouthearted Samwise and Frodo of the Nine Fingers, Hope-filled and All-enduring, Faithful and Wise by Experience, Harthad Uluithiad and Bronwë athan Harthad

 *

Princes of the West they are; Princes of the West they shall be ever!  The Cormacolindor, they offered themselves for our safety, even as we offered ourselves to give them time to win through the Black Land to the Mountain’s core.

 *

The King and his Companions watched the Mountain in its death throes, certain that their beloved Friend and his Esquire had died.  No!

The Eagles cried out in wrath:  No!

The Elder King, watching through Varda’s Window, cried, No!

And Lord Aulë, Lord Mahal of the Naugrim, called out also, No!

The Lord of Earth directed that one hillock should stand to catch the Cormacolindor as they fled the fire, to hold them for the time needed.

The Lord of Air and Breath sent word to his Servants:  Rescue!

Mithrandir called out, and the Great Eagles stooped to him, and on the Wings of the Wind they raced to what remained of Orodruin.

Dropping down, they took up new burdens, and on the Wings of Eagles were the Cormacolindor, now unknowing, drawn out of the Fire, returning to the Living Lands and the Healing Hands of the King!

And although he would not slam shut the Gates to Mandos in their faces, the Doomsman happily enough closed them behind the two small, unwilling heroes as the King called them back to battered bodies, breathed life with the scent of athelas back into their lungs and hearts, and they went not from us.

 *

We stood as the Hour of Doom loomed over us, and Death passed over the Army of the West and the two Pheriannath, fearful though they might have been, yet Valiant beyond measure!

Eglerio!  A laita te, laita te! 

 *

Praise them with Great Praise!

 

Written for the LOTR Community FLF "Picnic" challenge.  For Dreamflower for her birthday.

Reference to "Honor Avenged"    http://www.storiesofarda.com/chapterview.asp?sid=3966&cid=26533

The Ringbearer’s Share

 

            As the procession crossed the Isen, Aragorn paused, his attention fixed on what appeared to be stones used in building the mound that rose over the grave of Theodred.

            “What do you see?” asked Pippin.

            The King’s lip twitched as he murmured softly, “Mushrooms.”

            It took a moment for the Hobbit to discern them, for they were the same color as the stones against which they grew.  He didn’t turn his head as he glanced toward Frodo and Sam, whose ponies were scrabbling up the far bank.  “He’ll not expect extras if you’re the one who found them,” he returned, also quietly.  “We’d all get an equal share.”

            “Would we indeed?”  Aragorn handed his reins to Pippin and carefully crossed the stream.  Using a large handkerchief, he began gathering the mushrooms.

            “You’re certain that they’re edible?” Pippin asked.

            The King gave a brief nod to his head.  “I learned of them from Thengel King,” he said.  “They’re called here plover’s eggs.  They have a rather sweet taste.”

 *******

            Twice more that day Aragorn lingered behind to gather more mushrooms.  That evening he begged the use of a pan from the cooks, and adding in some bacon and butter he cooked his finds.  He bade the Hobbits to eat with him and the Queen, and each had a share of the mushrooms.  Frodo’s eyes were closed with appreciation.  “Ah, but they are excellent, and excellently prepared.”

            Pippin wasn’t certain, but he suspected Aragorn hadn’t served all he’d gathered that day.

            After the Hobbits chose where they would sleep for the night and spread their bedrolls, one of the pages approached carrying a bowl and spoon.  He gave a bow and explained, “From our lord King, to the Ringbearer, with his compliments.”

            Frodo accepted the gift.  He glanced within and shook his head.  “The rascal!” he murmured.

            In the bowl lay a single mushroom and nothing more.

           





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