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Stories, Familiar and Rare  by Larner

Written for B2MeM 2015 on a prompt based upon the song "Now and for Always" from "LOTR, the Musical". For Lavender Took for her birthday

 

Stories, Familiar and Rare

            The children of Brandy Hall were excited.  They’d learned from Horto, who’d served as the primary door warden for the Hall for some years, that Cousin Frodo Baggins had come unheralded, and such an event hadn’t happened for some time.  He’d only been back to Brandy Hall twice since he returned from Outside, and then they’d had little chance to prevail upon him to tell them stories.

            “He tells the bestest stories,” declared little Agata Brandybuck.

            “Or at least he used to,” temporized her older brother Sebiric.  “His stories at the Free Fair aren’t like they used to be.”

            Zadoc, whose father Gomez had been saved from an icy death in the Brandywine by Frodo Baggins when they were both tweens, said, “I want a scary story, with a monster in it.”

            “What’s a monster?” asked Agata, who having only recently turned seven was little better than a faunt.

            Zadoc explained, “They’re big, horrible creatures with claws and huge teeth that could eat you!”

            Agata shuddered and pouted.  “I don’t want to hear about scary things!”

            “Oh, don’t be such a bairn, Agata!” her brother insisted.  “They’re only stories, and nothing to be scared about.  It’s not like they’re real, you know.”

            “But she is still a bairn,” said Evro, who at ten was more grown up than those who’d spoken so far.  “And a lot of the stories Cousin Frodo tells are real, or are about things that really happened.  Cousin Merry told me that.”

            “But there aren’t really dragons or spiders big enough to eat a Hobbit or a Dwarf,” insisted Sebiric.  “Or,” he said more thoughtfully, “there aren’t such things here in the Shire.”

            “There were the odd Big Men who had skin like mud and strange-colored eyes,” Evro said.  “The ones who weren’t Rangers.  The ones who killed my brother.  They were monsters, you ask me.”

            The others looked at him sideways.  Hobbits died—everybody knew that.  But not usually Hobbit children, and never at the hands of someone else.  Evro’s brother had been eighteen, nearly a tween, when he managed to somehow come face to face with one of the ugly Big Men who tried to take the family’s milk cow from the lad, and struck him with a huge club when he’d refused to let go of its rope.  Evro had seen it happen from the other end of the pasture, and he still had nightmares about it.

            “Well,” said an older lad, “those are all gone now.  All of Lotho’s Big Men are gone, those that aren’t dead.  Merry and Cousin Pippin saw to that.  Even that strange Sharkey and his Worm are gone!”

            “I hope the Big Man who killed Evro’s brother is gone,” Agata said.  “I don’t ever want him to come back!”

            The others all agreed with her.

            Suddenly one of the older lads joined them.  “I found him.  He’s in the visitors’ parlor.”

            “Why’s he there?” asked Sebiric.

            The older lad shrugged.  “I don’t know—I just saw he was there and then came away back to the rest of you.  I’d say it would be all right to ask him for a story.  After all, he’s not in his own room in the Heir’s quarters.”

            They all nodded.  Merry had made it very clear that when Frodo was in his own room in the Heir’s quarters he was to be left strictly alone unless he expressly invited someone to keep him company there.  Merry had always been protective toward Frodo Baggins, but since they’d come back from Outside his care for his beloved cousin had increased notably, but nobody seemed to know just why. 

            They’d been told that after Frodo left Brandy Hall to go live with old Bilbo Baggins in Hobbiton that the two Bagginses usually slept in the inner rooms reserved for guests when visiting Brandy Hall, but that since Bilbo left the Shire Frodo had returned to sleeping in the room in the Heir’s quarters that had been his as a lad.  Merry had also returned to the Heir’s quarters after he came of age in 1415, again preferring, it was said, to sleep in the room that had been his before his father became Master rather than moving into the Heir’s bedroom that was now his by right.

            But now Merry didn’t even live in the Hall at all.  Instead, he and Pippin Took lived together in the Crickhollow house that Cousin Saradoc as Master had sold to Frodo when he said he’d run out of money.  Frodo, however, had gone back the West-farthing and lived again in Bag End, and had given Crickhollow back to the Brandybucks with the condition that Merry and Pippin were to be allowed to stay there as long as they needed to do so. 

            Only—well, why should Merry and Pippin need to live there rather than in their own homes with their families? 

            Again, nobody seemed to know just why—or at least they’d not admit they might know why to the children of the Hall.

            After standing thoughtfully for a few moments, exchanging questioning glances with their fellows as to the advisability of possibly disturbing Frodo, at last Evro gave a snort of decision and turned toward the visitors’ parlor, and the others followed him.

            The visitors’ parlor was an inner chamber with its own hearth, used to allow a relatively private space for visitors and their hosts within the Hall to meet without the general worry of the Hall’s children running in and out or nosy resident relatives barging in uninvited.  As the room tended to be cool even at the height of summer a fire was always kept laid there, and now and then someone who wanted perhaps a bit more privacy than his family’s quarters might offer would take refuge there, as apparently Frodo had done now.

            They paused outside the door, again looking uncertainly from one to another until at last the oldest lass gave a nod and knocked tentatively at the door.  They could all hear Frodo answering in a quiet voice, “Enter, if you wish.”  Emboldened, the lass pushed the door open, and they all huddled for a moment in the doorway before filing in, the taller children letting the little ones to enter first.

            “Welcome, children,” he said.  The children were a bit uncertain in spite of his smile.  Certainly he didn’t look as most of them remembered him from before he and the others had left the Shire and Buckland through the Old Forest.

            “You don’t usually sit in here,” one of the lasses said.

            He gave a shrug.  “As no one knew I was coming, nobody thought to put any wood into the parlor or the kitchen in the Heir’s quarters.  So as I did not wish to disturb anyone I came here, knowing I could easily light the fire on the hearth and sit here watching it.  Now, what can I do for you?  Did you come for a story?”

            One of the older lads asked uncertainly, “Will you want to tell us one?  I mean, if you don’t feel like telling us a tale we could go away again and let you sit by the fire.”

            Frodo gave another smile and a small shake to his head.  “No, I find that sitting here by the firelight’s glow is warming me to the memory of tales and stories.  What kind of story would you wish to hear?”

            “An old tale,” suggested one of the older lasses.

            But at the same time, Evro Brandybuck was saying, “I’d like a new one, one nobody else in the Shire has heard as yet.”

            Little Zadoc added, raising his hands as he imagined evil creatures must move, “And it has to have a scary monster in it!”

            Frodo gave a little wince, although Evro couldn’t be certain whether the wince was pretend or real.  “A scary monster, eh?”

            Agata said, “But somebody has to destroy the monster, if there’s one in the story.  I don’t want scary monsters with horrible claws and huge teeth to be able to come here to eat us!”

            Frodo almost laughed aloud at that.  “Then I promise that if there’s a scary monster in it that it will be vanquished.”

            The oldest lass asked, “And could it be a real story, one that really happened?  And could the hero be the bravest person possible?  Please, Cousin Frodo?”

            Frodo’s expression grew more solemn, almost as if that request hurt him somehow, or so Evro thought.  “If you wish,” he said with a short sigh.  He rubbed at his shoulder for a moment as he thought of what tale he might tell, and then reached for the mug that sat beside him, only it was empty.  He looked at it thoughtfully, then raised his eyes to meet those of the oldest lad.  “I’ll tell a tale, and wait to start until you return, if you will go and fetch me a jug of water from the kitchens.”

            Delighted, the lad leapt to his feet.  “I’ll be right back,” he announced.  “Wait right there!”  And he was instantly running out the door as fast as he could go.

            As they waited still more children, knowing in that odd way that tends to happen in such places as the greater smials that a wonderful treat was on offer, began to arrive to hear the story, too.  While they waited, Agata came closer to Frodo and was taken by him onto his lap.  “Why do you want some water?” she asked.

            He shrugged as he allowed her to settle into his embrace.  “I find I often feel very thirsty anymore,” he answered her.

            “Why?”

            He looked down to meet her gaze as she looked straight up into his face.  “I had to do without enough water for a time while I was gone, and I find now I cannot bear to be without a drink beside me.”

            “Oh,” she said, obviously finding it hard to imagine not having enough water to drink as her mouth puckered slightly.  “How come you didn’t have anything to drink?”

            He gave a slight shrug, and his face twisted a bit as if with pain.  “We found ourselves in a desert land where what little rain that falls quickly dries into the sand, stones, and ash that make up its floor, not leaving enough water to make a single stream.

            “But why were you there, there where there’s no streams?” she persisted.

            He hugged her closer and rested his chin on the top of her head.  “Why indeed,” he murmured.  But he didn’t try to answer her question.

            “Too bad you came now when Saradoc and Esmeralda are away,” said the oldest lass.

            A lad added, “And Merry and Pippin are away, too, looking for bad Men down in the South-farthing.”

            “I know.  They wrote me to tell me that they would all be gone.”

            The oldest lass looked confused.  “Then why did you come now?” she asked.

            He cocked his head with a slight shake.  “I had business outside the Shire, and I wanted to rest for a few days before I go home again.”

            “Did you go to Bree?” asked Sebiric.

            “No, just to a place opposite the Barrow-downs where my contacts from the Breelands came to meet me.  I only went out this morning, and once we were done with our business I returned again.”

            One of the other older lads shuddered.  “I’ve heard tales about the Barrow-downs.  You don’t want to go there.”

            Frodo seemed to have no expression when he replied, “No, you don’t want to go there.  But I no longer fear the Barrow-wights, not now.”  He reached for his mug, bur realizing it was still empty he pulled his hand back and rubbed absently at his shoulder again.

            “Didn’t you want to see Bree?” asked Agata.

            He smiled gently down at her.  “I’ve been there before, once after we left Buckland and again on the way home.  At least when you are ready to visit Bree it should be safe to go there and come back again.  The King’s Men will keep watch to see that ruffians and highwaymen don’t trouble the Road anymore.”

            Agata’s ears grew pink with excitement.  “Have you seen the King?”

            “Didn’t Merry and Pippin tell you that we all know him, and that we traveled south in his company?  He is a fine Man, and worthy of the responsibility that has fallen upon his shoulders.”

            The oldest lad returned then carrying a large tray on which rested not only a jug of water but a large platter of biscuits and enough mugs and apple juice for them all, and a plate with cold meats, cheeses, and vegetable and fruit slices for Frodo.  Once each of them had a mug and a biscuit or two and Frodo’s mug was full and he’d taken a few sips from it, he sat back and after a moment of quiet, began:

 ~

            It happened once, long ago, back when your dad was a lad, that a sturdy little bairn was born in a snug hole at the bottom of the Hill, far away in the West-farthing.  They named him Samwise, but he was almost always called Sam.

            Now, he wasn’t the oldest, for he had first two brothers and then two sisters who were older than he was.  Nor was he the youngest, for after him was born one more sister named Marigold who was quite the sweetest bairn you could hope to meet; and all of the love that Sam had known from the older children he in turn lavished upon his baby sister.

 ~

            “Was she pretty?” asked Agata, peering up at him.

            Frodo smiled down into her dark eyes.  “Oh, yes, quite a pretty little lass she was, and a lovely grown lass she is today.  But the story isn’t about Marigold, but about her next older brother, Sam.”  He sighed as his expression grew more thoughtful, looking off into the distance, and continued.

            From the time Sam was able to walk, he would always go with his Dad, up the Hill to where he worked as the gardener for the gentlehobbits who lived in the fine smial above their own hole.  He took care of his Master’s flowers, and planted and weeded the vegetable gardens, and helped oversee the health of the fruit trees in the gardens and the apple trees in the orchard on the east side of the Hill.  Sam loved to help his dad, and he proved to have both the talent to be a master gardener in his own right and the self-discipline to see it through.  He was offered the chance to explore other professions, but he so loved the flowers in the Masters’ gardens that he insisted on being apprenticed to his father once he was old enough.  And when he was twenty-two and the old Master was gone and his heir was the new Master, his old dad retired, content to know that the gardens he’d so faithfully tended for so many years were safe in his son’s care.

            Sam’s dad had never bothered to learn to read or write, content to know only enough to sign his name when it was necessary.  But the old Master, realizing that Sam was quite smart, taught him to read, and he and the young Master both taught him anything he indicated he wanted to learn about, loaned him books, and discussed everything he asked questions about.

 ~

            “Then his name didn’t really fit him,” Evro commented.

            “What do you mean?” asked Frodo.

            Evro explained, “Samwise—it means half-wise, doesn’t it?”

            Frodo examined him briefly, noting, “I am pleased to see that you are paying attention in your lessons.  Yes, that is what Samwise means.  No, Sam was not only half wise.  If anything, he was half again as wise as most Hobbits I’ve ever met.”

 ~

            There were three things Sam cared for most—the flowers in the Masters’ gardens, the respect and friendship offered him by his young Master, and Elves.  Sam was enthralled by the thought of Elves, and begged for stories of Elves, and read the books about and written by Elves the Masters had in their library.  By the time he was a Hobbit grown he already knew more about Elves than most who deal regularly with Elves know, and he was sure he had seen an Elf once when he was younger.  Now he wanted to see another one to be absolutely certain he’d seen one the first time.

            One day the young Master learned that something he’d inherited from his guardian was terribly evil and wicked, and if he stayed at home in the Shire it would make things horribly bad for everyone he knew, loved, and cared for.  So he decided to take it far away to see it dealt with, and left to go to the Elves in Rivendell to get their advice as to what to do with it.  And Sam, anxious to help his Master however he could, insisted on going with him, every step of the way.

            That proved terrible indeed.  It had to be destroyed, but that could only be done if it were taken to the absolutely worst and most evil and desolated place in all of Middle Earth, and it would take a very long time just to get there.  How they were to get inside the borders of that land they didn’t know, for the maps they’d seen they’d not fully understood.  They could only tell that it was surrounded by craggy, bare mountains and was guarded by orcs—or goblins.  Thousands and thousands of goblins dwelt in that land, doing their evil Master’s even more evil bidding, doing their best to kill or take as slaves any Men, Elves, or Dwarves they ever came upon, and fighting with one another when there were no other enemies to fight.

            Sam and his Master knew about only one individual who had ever gone into that land who’d escaped again, and that was the creature Gollum Bilbo used to tell of in his stories.  The evil, wicked thing that the young Master had inherited used to belong to Gollum, who’d taken it from his cousin long ago when he was young.  Gollum had carried it for far, far too long until he lost it in the halls of the goblin King Bilbo used to tell of.  I won’t tell you how it came to the young Master’s guardian, but as I said, he left it to his ward.

            Gollum had learned that it might have been taken back to the Shire, so he’d started off in search of it after he escaped from his imprisonment in that terrible land.  Only he wasn’t certain where the Shire was, so he ended up staying in the mountains until Sam and his Master came that way, and then he began to follow them.   They would think that they had lost him, but then they’d realized he’d found them again and was following them once more.   Afraid that they might fall asleep and waken only when he caught up with them and was perhaps trying to strangle them in their sleep, they finally agreed to trap him.

            Once they managed to capture him, and only after a horrible struggle, the Master made him promise to help them come to the terrible place.  At first he was pleased to find he was treated well by them, but after a time they realized he was again plotting how he might get the wicked thing back.

            They couldn’t get into the terrible land by the main way, for there were too many evil Men who had come to serve as soldiers to the Dark Lord there, and too many goblins of all sorts, from the little mountain goblins to the huge and mighty Uruk-hai warrior orcs who guarded the entrance to the land, not to mention trolls and evil beasts whose names I do not know.  So when Gollum told them he knew a different way that was secret with only small companies of orcs to guard it, they decided they would follow him that way and hope that they could somehow sneak by the guards who watched the pass.

            The way was indeed secret, and for at least two days they did nothing but climb the stairs cut into the mountains that led into the Pass of Cirith Ungol, for that was what the pass was called.  Had either Sam or his Master truly thought on the name to the pass they might have suspected what awaited them above, for the name Ungoliant appears in the histories of the Elves who returned to Middle Earth from the Undying Lands across the Sundering Sea.  They left their homes to chase after the Dark Lord of those days, who’s companion Ungoliant had drained the light and life from the two great Trees of Light that used to illuminate those lands.  Afterwards Ungoliant, a demoness who had taken the shape of a great spider, hid for many years in a distant refuge until she was found and slain at last by Eärendil the Mariner, leaving her daughter to take her place.

            How long Shelob, Ungoliant’s own daughter, wandered until she found the caverns that led up to the final portion of the Pass of Cirith Ungol nobody knows.  She took up her residence there, and found narrow places to build her webs, webs intended to capture whatever creatures she might ensnare.  I have been told that when the Dark Lord was resident within his own land he would often send particularly troublesome prisoners to her and have his orcs report back to him how she sported with such prizes.  And if she caught his own evil soldiers for her meals he did not care—he had countless such slaves and could easily spare one now and then for her sustenance, entertainment, and pleasure.  If an orc went missing whilst going through the tunnel it would simply be replaced, and even if the other orcs who guarded the pass found a missing comrade hanging yet alive in her larders they left them there to be drained of life when the great spider felt they would be weak enough not to fight her.

            This was Gollum’s plan—to lead the Master and Sam into the tunnel, right to Shelob herself, and let her capture and kill the Master while he killed Sam in retribution for the warnings the gardener had uttered against trusting Gollum at all.

            It almost worked.  They found one of her webs at last, but the Master carried—an Elf-forged blade that was capable of cutting through the web’s cables, and with it he cut away the web so that they could reach the end of the tunnel and so win free.  Once he’d done this he had the gardener take the sword and he ran ahead, certain that he was now safe.  But Shelob had many side tunnels that ran alongside the main passage of the place, and she lay in wait in what appeared to be a small hollow to one side of the entrance, and when the Master ran past her she leapt out after him and struck him down just after he’d entered the open air, biting him on the back of the neck and injecting into him a poison that paralyzed rather than killed him.

            He could do nothing, not even after he heard that Gollum had slipped up behind Sam and was now trying to strangle him with bare hands, describing in detail what Gollum would do once the gardener was dead, and how once Shelob was through with the Master’s body he would take back his Precious and pay back every single person who had ever threatened, hurt, or disparaged him, or who might have done so.

            But Gollum had spoken too soon, and Sam had a stout walking stick shod with a silver tip he’d recently been given, and with it he managed to strike Gollum over his shoulder, forcing the creature to let him go.  Once he was free, Sam caught up his Master’s blade to attack Gollum, but the wretched thing ran away and hid.  So Sam turned the other way and found Shelob had been wrapping his Master about with her cords, and he attacked her now, forcing her to let her burden fall to protect herself.

            Shelob was the greatest of all of the great spiders now remaining in Middle Earth, a mountainous creature far, far bigger than the biggest of horses, much less than a Shire pony.  When you look at a spider in your garden, unless you have a Dwarf lens you cannot see all of the spikes that protrude from its legs that allow it to easily swarm up a stalk of grass or the trunk of a tree or a woody stem.  On Shelob you could not avoid seeing such features.  Many blows had been struck her in the past, but until now they’d barely bothered her at all.  But Sam now carried the Elf-forged blade, and with that blade a claw was sheared from her foot and one of her bulbous eyes filled with many cells had been damaged, putting out the light of that great eye and blinding her on that side.  But she had other eyes, and she was now full of fury.

            The Master could not move whilst the spider’s poison still worked within him, not even to close or move his eyes.  But for a time he could hear the battle as Sam fought for his life, for both his own life and that of his stricken Master.  Sometimes the spider and Sam would loom into what little vision he had, for the circle of what he could see grew steadily smaller as the poison did its foul business within his body, plus his face was much obscured with webbing.  He once saw Shelob’s side, and realized it was covered with deep cuts that bled out a foul green ichor, some of which fell upon his shrouded body and bled through the web to burn the back of his hand.  He could see at times the blue light of the Elven blade shining as it repeatedly struck the body of the great spider, and heard the grunts as the flailing of the creature’s legs struck Sam and at last knocked him to the ground.

            He could see no more, yet he heard Sam’s last cries of defiance as the spider hovered over him.  The gardener struggled to his knees, raising his weapon over his head as his enemy drove her body down upon him, intent on crushing him into the stone beneath him even as we might seek to crush a spider found in the larder.  But his arms were locked and the blade of his sword keen, and rather than crushing him, she merely drove her own body upon its point and was impaled.  She cried out in her agony, a cry as piercing as the point of the small sword that was buried briefly deep within her belly.  She yanked herself away and off the blade, and struggled backwards until she managed to pull herself back into a crack and disappeared.

            But the Master did not hear that.  He was locked by then in the spider’s poison, his body incapable of movement, his mind no longer able to hear, see, feel, or even think at all.  When Sam cut away the winding cords that held him, there was nothing to show that his Master was yet alive.  His eyes stared upwards, and Sam could find no pulse, could feel no beat of the heart, could note no rise or fall of the chest.  Convinced that his Master was dead, he cried out his disbelief and railed against the spider and any Power that might have brought them to this pass.  He begged his Master to live again, and not to go where Sam himself could not yet follow.

            Yet the need to destroy the wicked thing remained, and if Sam did nothing it would all be for naught.  At last he set out to compose his Master’s body, and removed the wicked thing from the Master’s possession.  He said later that only then did he give up all hope that the merest flicker of life might remain within the still form, for so deeply had the evil token entwined itself in the Master’s thoughts that Sam was certain he would rouse at least when anyone else might seek to take it from him.  Sam also laid his own sword by his Master’s body and took the Elven blade to wear himself, for it was the keener and more deadly weapon should he need again to protect himself against the terrible foes that filled that foul place.  Weighed down by his terrible grief and the burden he had taken upon himself, he set out to seek the way into the Black Land and creep, hopefully unseen, to the great mountain where, alone among all places within Middle Earth, the terrible creation of the Great Enemy might be destroyed.

 ~

            Frodo went quiet for a time, but the children sat still, hoping against hope that this Sam he’d spoken about would realize his mistake and somehow rescue the Master he’d loved so. 

            At last Agata spoke up.  “Did the monster die?”

            Frodo met her eyes, apparently awakening from the grievous thoughts or memories the story he’d been telling had stirred.  “What?” he asked.

            “Did it die—the horrible spider.  Did it die?”

            He took a deep, shuddering breath, then pulled her closer to his chest protectively.  “I don’t know for certain.  The King, once the great battle he’d been fighting was won, thought to send Men up the stairs to the tunnel and to check out the tower that stood beyond it.  But I never heard all that they found.  They heard nothing within the great tunnel, and found no enemies beyond it where the tower stood.  There had been a terrible earthquake when the wicked thing went into the Fire at last, and the topmost chamber of the tower, where Sam managed to find his Master at the end, apparently fell into rubble when that happened.  No one could say whether or not Shelob managed to survive the wound the Elven blade wrought on her.

            “Ah, but I have been skipping the rescue of the Master.  I suppose you wish to hear that?”

            “Oh, yes,” said the oldest lass and the oldest lad almost together, while the younger children all nodded their agreement.

            He gave a single nod, and reached out to take up his mug and to drink deeply.  He at last set it upon the table, and refilled it from the jug of water that had been brought to him.  He again put his arms around Agata and went quiet for a brief time before resuming the tale in a markedly low voice.

 ~

            The Master awoke knowing somehow that he was high up—dangerously, horribly high up.  He lay upon a stone floor on a thin pile of noisome rags, all that remained, other than a few bones, of previous prisoners that had been held in that room.  A lamp that gave off a disturbing red light hung from the center of the rafters, shining its ominous glare out through the unglazed windows through which a searching cold wind shrieked and moaned in echo of those who had suffered and died there in the past.

            Even as he had slowly, painfully lost consciousness after the spider bit him and injected her paralyzing poison, so he now awoke, hearing evil voices and his imagination providing evil dreams to match the voices.  His eyes were now closed, and he could not open them, although the red light beat at his eyelids in time to his returning heartbeat, and he was certain that he was being bathed in blood—the blood of those he’d thought of as his companions and had come to love and honor as a result.  They had watched—watched—one of their company fall to his death, dragged into an abyss by yet another demon, one in the shape of fire and shadow, who as he fell yet called out for the rest—for him—to fly, you fools! ere he fell out of sight after the creature he’d challenged.  Now the Master saw him falling and splattering against the rocks that must lie untold distances below, encircled at the end by the still cruel flames of his adversary.  He saw his kinsmen being tortured by the Enemy’s executioners, made to tell everything they could think about him and how he had held possession of the Enemy’s wicked trinket for seventeen and a half years.  He saw his gardener held without water, watching with despairing eyes as the gardens he’d so loved were reduced to ash and dust, and the very Water turned into a body of poison to match that of Shelob.  He saw the one Hobbitess he had ever thought to marry, back when he was a callow youth, shrieking with agony as her fair form was torn apart by foul engines, cursing him with every breath left to her to take.  He saw the deaths of those who’d died during his lifetime, and the terror they’d known and the hatred they’d held for him who’d been granted the grace to continue on in life whilst they must die.

            He wept and groaned at these images, and at last realized he was being lifted and turned and rolled unmercifully, and that his clothing had been removed from him, and that now cruel fingers were searching his very body, that foul words were being uttered about the horrible shape he wore, that his manhood was being judged as anything but satisfactory.  They laughed at him, those who poked and twisted him, and finally he was dropped from a height of what must have been several feet once again upon the rags.  They wished for him to be awake so that they could question him, so they forced the mouth of a skin into his mouth and squeezed into it some brew that made his bowels twist in rebellion.  He spewed much of it out again immediately, but at least his eyes now opened, and he was able to choke and cough to rid himself of that horrible drink.  Again they squeezed more of the drink, more potent and dark than one can easily imagine, into his mouth and forced him to swallow it.  Combined with the remnants of the poison in his veins, he began to gibber and howl with pain and confusion.  What all he said to them I could not say, but he knew that he cried for his mummy and cursed the kinsman who’d left him the foul thing he’d carried for so long, and he begged them to let him sleep, and after they’d begun to beat him with a whip with many lashes, he begged them to simply kill him and let him know at least the peace of the grave.  Only they would not.

 ~

            The children watched and listened with horror, realizing somehow that Frodo had forgotten about them at all, that for him the story he told had become once again real, that he was in the tower with the Master, watching that unknown Hobbit being tortured and whipped and made to swallow some foul potion.  He could not spare them the terrible details because he could not spare himself these memories.  Agata sat as still as a statue in his lap, holding her breath, somehow realizing that he must remember this and so free himself of the horror known in that horrible place and time.

 ~

            He had worn, under his clothing, a shirt wrought of mithril, the true-silver mined by Dwarves and wrought by them and the Elves into shapes great and wonderful.  All who know of it covet mithril, which does not tarnish as does silver, that withstands far higher temperatures than does gold, that resists even the blades of the strongest steel swords or knives or axes.  The Dark Lord coveted it also, and had instructed all of his servants and slaves that they were to bring him any object of mithril they might find, and that those who did so would be rewarded richly.  The Master had worn this mithril shirt under his regular clothing, with another shirt of finest leather under it to protect his body from the metal links and another shirt of heavy silk over it, partly intended to keep him warmer and to protect against arrows and some other wounds, but mostly worn to hide the mithril from the eyes of any other person.  One of the orcs who’d been involved in the searching and the questioning was going through the clothing peeled off of him whilst he was still senseless, and was seeking to separate the silken and leather shirts, and so found the mithril corslet worn between them.

            At once they forgot about him, and two of the orcs that appeared to be competing leaders nearly came to blows, each wanting the mithril shirt for himself.  One wanted to keep it, while the other one wanted the reward he would get for it from the Dark Lord, reminding his fellow that it was commanded of them that all that any prisoner taken carried upon his person must be brought immediately to the Black Tower where the Dark Lord dwelt.  One took it and all the Master had carried with him down through a trap door in the center of the room and sought to flee with it, but the other went after him, having drawn a cruel knife and seeking to slay and rend the thief.

            Not having any other direction, those who remained commanded the smallest of their company to bind the prisoner and to go down to keep watch below the chamber, securing the trap door from beneath.  Having disposed of the Master, or so they thought of it, they went down to join the growing battles lower in the tower.

            The remaining warder orc took his time in binding the Master, uttering threats and warnings of what the poor Hobbit could expect to know once he came into the power of the Dark Lord.  He bound the Master tightly and cruelly, as is the way with all orcs and goblins, I suppose.  Finally bewailing the warning that they must not despoil any prisoners they might take, the orc went down the ladder, and the Master could hear the bolt being shot home. 

            He could not rise or move, not bound as tightly as had been done.  His stomach still roiled from the evil draught they’d forced him to swallow, and he was feverish.  Every time he sought to shift his weight or position the weals of the lash stretched and burned like fire.  Again he sank into delirium.  Down below there was a constant crash of blows as the orcs fought one another, some hoping to get the prize of the mithril shirt while others supported their separate commanders; but I suspect that most were fighting simply because that is the only way that orcs seem to know to act.

            For the Master, the sounds of the battle below him seemed to be more.  He became certain that the one meant to be King was coming to the tower to rescue him, and thought the howls of pain he heard were those of the soldiers who would undoubtedly accompany his friend.  He was certain his friend would be taken prisoner and killed violently.  He was certain that his Sam was too hurt in his battle with the Spider to come to find him.  He was certain that the red light of the lamp overhead was that of a great fire that would consume the tower and all within it, and he found himself praying it would come quickly and cleanse the place on which the tower stood of all memory of evil and himself.

            But the noise died, and all went still, and he sank into a deep sleep, although it did not last long.  He was awakened by a song, a new song sung to a familiar tune he’d learned when he was but a little lad walking with his parents and their older kinsman who in time became his guardian.  He could not hear all of the words, but the voice that sang it was not that of any orc or goblin—it was familiar somehow.  He could not sing the words the singer had used, but he sang the first verse as he’d sung it for years, hoping he was able to sing it loudly enough to be heard; and for the first time since he was bitten by the spider and filled with her poison he felt hope stir in his heart.

            He heard noises below, and the clash of the iron-shod boots of an orc and a dark scraping sound.  The small warder orc had set the ladder used to reach the tower room where the Master was imprisoned into place, and in moments had climbed up it, released the bolt, and was in the process of climbing inside, a crooked knife in one hand and that many-thonged whip that had been used upon him before in the other.  The orc swore, telling him to shut his mouth and stop the noise, and that he, the orc, would give him something worth howling over.  So saying, the orc swung the lash, and again it struck the Master over his back and side, tearing open his skin.  But when the orc raised his arm again, suddenly he found that the arm was gone, struck from his body by what appeared to be a blue flame!  For Sam, armed with what had been his Master’s Elven blade, had arrived in time to cut off the arm before the whip could be swung down again.  Shocked and dismayed, the orc struggled backwards, and managed to fall past the ladder and down the hole, breaking his neck as he hit the pavement below.

            Sam had arrived, past all hope or expectation, had realized that the Master must be imprisoned as high as was possible, and had climbed past the bodies of almost every orc that had been in that tower, come to find and rescue him, armed only with a long knife wrought by the Elves of Gondolin in the times almost beyond memory, and his own great courage.

 ~

            “But how did he know where to find the Master?” asked Evro.

            Frodo gave a small, sad smile.  “As Sam told it afterward, he’d started away he hoped toward the final portion of the pass, knowing he would soon be going downward on the other side, when he realized that orcs were coming.   Actually, it was two troops of orcs that met there, almost on top of him.  He did what he could to make himself—invisible to their eyes, and heard those who’d come up from below the pass and those who were posted there in the tower greet one another and share news.  And he heard when they found his Master’s body, and the assurance the captain of the tower gave to the newcomers that this one was not dead but only seemed so until the poison the spider used to freeze her prey wore off.  They lifted m—the Master’s body and bore it back into the tunnel to a side passage guarded by a half door that Shelob could not get past.  This passage led to the tower’s dungeons, and they said they would take the spy to the very top.

            “So, once he realized that his Master yet lived, Sam took the Elven sword in hand and set out to get into the tower and to search it until he found and freed his friend.”

            “So,” Sebiric said with satisfaction, “they won after all.”

            “Yes,” Frodo sighed, “they won, for that day, at least.”

            “Is there any more to the story?” Agata asked.

            Frodo’s expression was sad but gentle as he looked down upon her.  “You only asked for a tale of someone who was the bravest I knew of and who was wise and about his fight with a great and terrible monster that he vanquished.  No, that is not the end of their—experiences, but I have told all that I can for now.  Perhaps one day you will be able to get Merry or Pippin to tell you more—no, you should ask Pippin rather than Merry.  I fear it hurts Merry to speak of that part of what happened after they left the Shire.  Many of their adventures were glorious to tell and hear, but much of what happened was evil as well.”

            The children indicated they understood, and all rose to their feet, taking turns thanking Frodo for the tale as they filed out, the oldest lass taking their mugs and returning them to the tray along with the biscuit platter.  When she left she carried it away, leaving only the plate provided for Frodo, the water jug, and his mug.

            But not all of the children had left.  Evro had remained, and now he stood looking at his distant Baggins cousin thoughtfully.  Only after the voices of the others died away did he finally speak.

            “Why do you think Sam is the wisest person you know?”

            For a moment Frodo searched his eyes, and at last he said, “I have now met many who are wise beyond our understanding.  Gandalf is definitely the wisest of the three Wizards we know lingered within Middle Earth, and without his advice and leadership the world would have been doomed.  Lord Elrond had devoted himself to learning and the garnering of knowledge and the wisdom of the Ages of the Sun.  We have been told that Lady Galadriel’s foresight has made her wise beyond measure, and she described her husband Lord Celeborn as being known for his great wisdom in offering advice.  I have seen our King demonstrate his wisdom as he has made his judgments within his court, and similarly for Prince Faramir, now his Steward within Gondor.

            “But not all wisdom is based upon great knowledge or even great experience.  Sam’s wisdom is not due to all he has read or all he has seen as he traveled or all he has accomplished.  Sam’s wisdom is based upon his appreciation that fair is fair, that right is right, that wrong is wrong, and that what must be accomplished will only be done if someone will step up and at least make the attempt to start, and then carry on  step by step until it is finished.  His wisdom is based upon his love of the very earth itself and of those who have earned his trust.  And by doing this, and by keeping others grounded in these basic truths, he saw to it that when the time came for that evil thing to be destroyed he and his Master and It were all in the place where it could be brought to the proper end.  If not for Sam’s wisdom, Middle Earth would have fallen under a darkness none of us would live to see end.”

            “But it did get dark here while you all were gone.”

            “Yes, I know.  You are Evro, right, and you used to dwell down near Hay’s End?”

            “Yes.”

            “And one of Sharkey’s half orcs killed your brother.  Yes, I heard of that deed while I was serving as deputy Mayor.”

            “That was when my dad and mum and I came to live here in the Hall.”

            “I understand.  The Big Men who were truly Men and not half orcs knew what that one did.  He had the true orc’s nature, and must fight his fellows when there were no other enemies about.  One of the Big Men was attacked by him one day, and several of the Man’s closest companions came to his defense and killed the half orc.  He was so evil that not even those who lived with him and were sent for the same purpose could stand him or allow him to live, for he threatened them as well as the folk of the Shire.  He will never threaten anyone else anywhere within Middle Earth.”

            “How do you know that?”

            “The first time Merry and Pippin went hunting for ruffians in the South-farthing they took several of them prisoner, and they asked each one why he might expect to be spared and set free outside the Shire.  Four told of taking part in the slaying of the half orc who slew the lad near Hay’s End.  Your brother’s death is the only one we heard of in that area that was caused by Lotho and Sharkey’s bully-boys.  Directions were given to where they’d disposed of the body, and it was verified that indeed this was no true Man who was buried there.”

            “So, he won’t be able to kill anyone else?”

            “No, he cannot do so again.  He is dead, and by the hands of those who saw daily how dangerous he was.”

            Evro swallowed.  “Then I can tell Agata that he won’t ever come back again and it will be true!”

            Frodo smiled.  “Yes.”

            “And you know that the story you told tonight is a true one?”

            Frodo’s expression became solemn and withdrawn.  “Yes, as truly as I can tell it.”

            “But it’s not the whole story.”

            Frodo looked down at the backs of his hands, and Evro could see the place where one of the older Hobbit’s fingers was missing, just as he’d been told.  “I don’t think,” he said, his tone measured and thoughtful, “that any story can truly be told completely.  We tell what we know, what we understand, what we saw; but our eyes cannot see everything or our memories hold all of the details.  And, whether or not we realize it, each one adds his own understandings to the story he tells and leaves out those bits that don’t fit with his way of telling it.  That is simply the way we who are considered the Children of Ilúvatar must act.”

            “Your stories aren’t like they used to be, there before you left the Shire.”

            “I know.”

            “Why?”

            Again Frodo lifted his eyes to meet the lad’s.  “I now have seen battle and death.  I have watched horrors you cannot appreciate—that I hope you never need to appreciate.  You think of the Troubles as the worst things imaginable, and that is true—for you and all of those who lived through them here within the Shire.  We left, hoping that by doing so we were protecting the Shire, that we would draw the danger after us.  But we could only fight the evil creatures we could see, and there are far, far more evil beings in the world than we could hope to know.  Not all were interested in following after us, but were set upon their own plans.  I never dreamed that my Cousin Lotho had allied himself with the likes of Sharkey and his creatures!  Who could have known that his desire to become important and powerful within the Shire would involve him agreeing to allow a fallen Wizard’s mercenaries to enter the Shire and rampage around it? 

            “But know this—far, far worse would have happened had we not gone when we did.  And because we fought the Enemy where and how we did, much evil has departed Middle Earth for good.  But it is not the end of all evil—it is the evil in our own hearts we must fight from now on.  Gandalf tells us that the war was won successfully only because each and every race was—finally—united in opposing the great Enemy.  And if it had not been for Bilbo’s actions so long ago in going to Erebor and serving as an example of integrity and fairness, I doubt that many within the wilderlands east of the Misty Mountains would have realized that all must stand together this time that they not all be destroyed piecemeal.

            “You saw the dark clouds that kept people from seeing the Sun, Moon, and Stars for    weeks.  The dark was far deeper where we were, and as each of us fought the Enemy as we must.  And the Light shines the brighter for us because we have known that darkness.

            “And among those who fought were heroes of the Shire, tough as old briars as they faced down wights, orcs, goblins, trolls, the Balrog, the Black Riders, Shelob, and the great Enemy himself and his artifice.”

            Evro didn’t know what else to say.  He was surprised to find he didn’t feel gladness for the death of the Big Man who’d killed his brother, only relief that he couldn’t hurt or kill anyone else.  And looking deeply into Frodo’s eyes, he realized the Baggins understood.

            He was more surprised to find he was crying, and suddenly Frodo slipped off the chair where he’d been sitting and knelt, drawing Evro to him and holding him while the lad wept, and much of Evro’s anger and fear left him.  Why he felt safe in Frodo’s arms he could not later say, but he was so glad for it at the time.

            At last his tears were spent, and he drew back, and Frodo produced a handkerchief from his vest pocket (“Bilbo always insisted I never should go anywhere without plenty of handkerchiefs,” he murmured as he wiped Evro’s face and let him blow his nose), and afterwards Evro felt much better and half as heavy as he’d felt ever since he saw his brother die.

            Evro smiled his thanks, his smile rather watery, he suspected, and left Frodo, who’d risen and watched after him.  The last Evro saw as he pulled the door closed as he left was Frodo sitting back down in the chair by the fire, reaching again for his mug of water.

 *******

            Letters from Bag End in Hobbiton arrived the last week of September, and word swiftly spread that Frodo Baggins had again left the Shire with no warning, for good this time.  The Master and Mistress and many others from Brandy Hall went to Hobbiton in early October to hear Frodo’s will read, and when they returned they were accompanied by the Thain and his family, and another Hobbit most of the residents of Brandy Hall had not met personally—Samwise Gamgee, who came with his wife and baby daughter.

            The children of the Hall looked upon him openmouthed and followed him everywhere.  And Sam appeared surprised when little Agata smiled up at him to show that she was missing a front tooth on the top and lisped, “I know you!  You’re Cousin Frodo’s hero!”





        

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