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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.
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