I will stay strong, he commanded himself. I will stay strong.
He’d said that repeatedly as they rode through the Shire, as they’d seen the signs of rapine and destruction and the humiliation of their people all along the road to Hobbiton and Bywater. The worst had been when they had walked up the Hill to Bag End, saw the loss of the trees and all vestiges of beauty, the destruction of the garden, the loss of the orchard, the proliferation of the ugly sheds like some enormous species of toadstool, ghastly and malignant, where once Sam’s flowers, shrubs, and bushes had bloomed and given forth sweet perfume through all seasons. The Row had been dug out, the Chubbses, Daddy Twofoot, the Gaffer and Marigold, Widow Rumble, and the Proudfoots displaced to brick hovels on the edges of what had been fertile garden places on the outskirts of Hobbiton. Then they’d gone in, and Frodo had had to stay in the remains of the parlor, leaning for support against the entranceway, clutching at the Queen’s jewel, while the rest searched through the ruins for any sign of Lotho.
Merry and Pippin both had their swords out when they came back, their faces white with the shock they, too, were experiencing, sick with the realization all was now reduced to ruin, that filth had been left in corners, that the beautiful old paneling and cornices had been purposefully destroyed, the flooring and carpets slashed and scarred. Sam had not unsheathed his sword, but was holding his handkerchief over his nose to screen out the noisome smell--as well as to use on the tears that fell heavily at the sight of the wanton destruction.
Pippin looked at him with pity. “We can find no sign of him, Frodo.” He looked about and shuddered. “You don’t want to see more, believe me.”
Merry shook his head. “Where is that miserable Lotho hiding? Should we turn the others to searching the sheds?”
“This is worse than Mordor!” Sam declared, looking around, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. “Much worse in a way. It comes home to you, because it is home, and you remember it afore it was ruined.”
Frodo agreed. Somehow, he knew Saruman was to blame, but couldn’t yet say how. He started to straighten, then leaned back against the wall. Fortunately, they weren’t looking at him, hadn’t seen the momentary weakness. They needed him to stay strong, he knew. Quickly he uncorked the waterskin he wore on a cord across his chest and took a swallow. He never was without a drink to hand any more, not since the time in Mordor. Aragorn had recognized from the first time he saw Frodo watching with horror as one of those serving him in the healers’ tents at the Fields of Cormallen tried to remove a goblet of water, intending to bring a fresh one back in a few moments, that the lack of drink as they went through Mordor had come to represent almost all he remembered of that horrible time. He’d given definite orders to those serving in that tent, and Merry and Pippin and the other members of the Fellowship as well, that they were to bring fresh water to Frodo and Sam before removing older glasses; and one of the small gifts he’d quietly presented to Frodo was a small hip flask in which he could discretely carry water with him at all times.
The waterskin he carried was full of not water but Sam’s tea, but Frodo had been quick to recognize that he was refreshed by it even better than by plain water when he felt weak or sick, and he was grateful for this now. His chest hurt, and he had been having lapped-over visions again. He seemed to see around them the darkness of the tunnel of Cirith Ungol and smell the stench of Shelob; and as he looked at the damaged row of hooks where once hung thirteen of the best detachable party hoods of an unexpected group of Dwarves come to call on Burglar Baggins, he seemed to see also the horrors of the room in the orc tower where he’d awakened in agony and despair, thinking the Ring was now on its way to Its master. As he corked the skin again, he closed his eyes, heard the laughter of the Ring echoing in his mind, enjoying his pain and fury and terror. He reached up to grasp it, wishing it had a neck he could wring ... found instead the Queen’s jewel again, and the illusions began to fade, and finally the pain as well.
Merry was watching what he thought of as his cousin’s grief with compassion. “I’m sorry, Frodo,” he said quietly. “Once we find Lotho, I will personally wring his neck!”
Horrified to hear his own murderous desires echoed by Merry, Frodo gasped out, “Don’t even think such thoughts, Merry! No, don’t become like----” He couldn’t finish the statement.
And then they were facing Saruman, and things were happening too fast for the visions to seek to reclaim him.
He pitied Saruman, pitied him and the other creature, the one everyone called Wormtongue. The others could not begin to understand--they saw in them only foul creatures who deserved to die. Frodo knew better, had divined Saruman’s true origins from the songs of the Elves in Lothlorien and the view he’d had of Gandalf uncloaked when the one they thought of as a Wizard had come to reprove the evil dreams which had plagued him. He watched the death of the physical form given to what had once been a Maia with horror, watched with dread as the rising grey cloud which stood over the desiccated body was dispersed by a breeze from the West, knowing he deserved no better for what he’d done in the Sammath Naur. Once Saruman and Wormtongue were dead all he wanted was to get into a bed somewhere and not rise from it again. Again he took a pull at his water bottle, shook his head, and asked to return to the Cottons’ farm.
Alone finally in the room given to his use, Frodo lay, held the jewel, and focused on the one who had given it to him. He saw her eyes in which bright stars seemed reflected, as was true of also her grandmother. He saw her dark hair. He saw her fair skin, her gentle smile. And by her he saw, finally, the grey eyes with the hint of blue and green like the sea of Aragorn, and the Light that filled him. He felt the presence of each of them comfort him, the reassurance he was beloved, that he was needed. He sighed and drifted into sleep, felt the others, whoever they were, that he felt surrounding the King, those who also sought to reassure, to comfort. He relaxed further, and the tension left him.
Sam and Rosie peeked in, looked down on him, on the gentle smile on his pale face. Sam smiled. “Good,” he murmured, “it’s one of the good dreams this time. He’ll be well enough with one of them.” He drew her out into the passageway. “He has too many of the other sort, he does,” he explained. He’d checked to see the filled glass lay where his Master could reach it, and that his breathing was even.
“He’s so pale,” Rosie whispered, her concern filling her face.
Sam nodded. “Yes, I know he is. But after what we went through, it’s a miracle he’s with us at all. It almost--it almost killed him, Rosie.”
“He’s holding that jewel of his again.”
“Yes, I saw. But if it helps him lie easier, I’m not going to worry about it.”
He felt stronger when he woke and dressed again, came out to the kitchen and joined the others at table. Robin Smallburrow was there, describing the situation in Michel Delving. “The folks there, they can hardly believe it’s over at last. They are still jumping at every little noise, and ask we come tomorrow and help them get into the Lockholes to rescue those as is within. The Big Men have the smith locked up there, too, and took all his tools from the forge away. They even took away all the axes and hatchets and even shovels and spades from folk in the village so as no one could try to break in and get those as is imprisoned out."
“I’ll ride over first thing in the morning,” Frodo said. “We will get them out--I swear we will. Is Smith Longsmial still in Bywater? Does he still have his tools?”
“He managed to remain free and has many of his tools, although them gatherers and sharers seem to of convinced themselves poor folk as they was supposed to be sharing with was in desperate need of a lot of his stuff. But I think he’s got enough left to help us get in there.”
Evam Longsmial proved to have hidden away some of his strongest cutters and prybars and biggest mallets. Carrying these and a number of axes, a large party headed off to Michel Delving at first light, where they were greeted with cheering by the locals--those that remained free, at least. Frodo ordered all healers to get their tools and herbs in readiness, asked folk to prepare simple foods and clean water and whatever bedding they could spare. “They will probably be half starved, and you dare not give them much at a time,” he warned them, knowing how he and Sam had needed to be dealt with on their awakening. “Simple things they can digest easily will be best.” With the assurance of the healers that this was so, many scattered to their homes to fix meals with whatever food they could get together.
In the end all the tools the smith had provided were needed. The locks and bars were not of local manufacture, were much heavier than Shire Hobbits would ever use. It took the better part of an hour to get the main doors open so they could begin to get into the place.
Those lamps which had lit the Lockholes for the Big Men’s use had burned out, and while others were brought, Frodo led the way into the noisome darkness, a strange light in his hands. Sam noted that while Frodo held the Phial of Galadriel he stood tall and straight, fearless in the darkness which fled at his approach.
What had been open storage rooms were now sealed shut with hastily contrived doors; some had had heavy boards set across the openings and nailed to the oaken beams which framed them and offered support to the paneling which had kept them somewhat dry, only small slits allowing food and water in to those imprisoned within. Frodo turned to allow those who had entered with him to see the situation. Several now went out to fetch axes and hatchets, the prybars and cutters.
Soon eager hands were at work on several sides, working to bring down the boards, to remove hinges from doors, to even remove bricks and stonework which had sealed some of the contrived cells.
The first cell opened had held Freddy Bolger, and Frodo was shocked to see the former Fatty was now almost as thin as he was himself. He called for a litter, for it was obvious Fredegar could not stand. Frodo held his hand as they brought him out into the light, looking up amazed at the changes in Merry and Pippin, joking about them being giants now. Then back down he went again, leading folk deeper and deeper into the galleries in search of other prisoners.
The hole in which Will Whitfoot had been held was cleaner and drier than most, and he at least had a large vessel now half full of clean water in it; but he also was half-starved, pale, and sickly looking. Again a litter was called for.
Lobelia’s cell had been sealed with boards and beams, but she had been provided with a fair amount of food and water compared to most others. They appeared to have simply dragged her into the tunnels as she was and thrown her in, sealing her into the room as best they could. She insisted on walking out on her own, blinking furiously at the unaccustomed light, clutching at her umbrella; and when she was applauded she was shaken by the experience. The healers said she was actually in fairly good health compared to most, and a carriage was provided to take her to Hardbottle where she still had relatives who would be able to take her in.
“You can’t return to Bag End,” Frodo told her. “They admitted that Lotho has been murdered, and after you were brought here they appear to have done their best to destroy the smial. No one will be able to live there for some time.”
She looked at him with shock on her face over the cup of broth she sipped from. “They killed my boy?” She closed her eyes, handed Frodo the mug. “He was a fool--we were both fools, him and me. But he didn’t deserve being murdered.”
Frodo handed off the mug to Sam, who stood nearby, reached out to hold the old hobbitess while she fought her grief. When she at last pulled away and looked up into Frodo’s face, she seemed shocked to see he, too, was weeping. She could not believe it--first she was applauded and even honored by the folk of the Shire about, who included folk from Bywater, Hobbiton and Overhill she’d known as neighbors who’d despised her for most of her married life; then Frodo Baggins was sharing her grief at Lotho’s death. When Otho died he’d sent a letter of condolence that was desperately kind, particularly as nastily as she and Otho and Lotho had dealt with him and his over the years. She realized now that this letter had been heartfelt. She found herself wanting to comfort him, to apologize. But how could she do that? She didn’t know where to begin--was too bereft, too totally out of her depth by what had happened to her. And she saw, all too easily, that things had not been well with Frodo Baggins. Wherever he’d gone, it had not been easy for him. She easily saw the signs of pain and grief in his face, the signs he’d had to overcome even worse than she’d known to seek to comfort her now. Once carefully aided into the loaned coach and the door had shut, she peered out at him, wondering why she had always denied he was the most decent Hobbit in the entire Shire.
The most heartbreaking find for Frodo, however, had been the release of Ferdibrand Took. Ferdi had been found sitting on the dirt floor of a particularly small and damp cell, his face heavily bruised. As a Took he’d been given far harsher treatment than many of the others, including repeated kicks and blows to the head. He looked up at the opening of his cell, his face alight with pleasure. “Frodo?” he whispered, “Frodo, is that you? Have you really come back?” And then they’d found that he’d been blinded by the blows he’d taken. Supported by Frodo he’d managed to come to his feet, took his first steps toward freedom since late last spring. Pippin greeted his cousin and his sister Pimpernel's husband with tears, had given him over to the care of those Tooks who’d been aiding in the release to see him home to the Great Smial.
It took most of the day to get all cared for, and Sam and Frodo both were there working side by side with the healers and those who sought to feed the former prisoners while Merry and Pippin saw to finding ways to get as many as possible home to families scattered throughout the four farthings and Buckland. Near sunset a carriage returned, and they loaded Freddy Bolger into it. His folks had lost their home and were living in a smial that had been a storage cellar at one time. The Cottons had agreed to accept Fredegar as one more guest, and now Sam, seeing that Frodo was on the verge of exhaustion, convinced him to accompany his cousin back to Bywater and continue to give him small amounts of broth along the road at intervals. Frodo had to be assisted into the coach, and with Rosie on one side and Frodo on the other, Fredegar Bolger headed for the first bed he’d have seen in months.
In the search for more unfortunates they’d also found a fair amount of hidden food and goods. Frodo had chosen a few of the most responsible and honest Hobbits he’d known in the village to take charge of these, to see that food was distributed to families throughout the area and that owners of confiscated goods were identified and items returned.
Sam left Michel Delving a few hours after sunset, leading Strider, bags of hams and smoked poultry and beef over the pony’s back, for meat was the biggest need for those on the Cotton’s farm.
The next morning Frodo came back to Michel Delving to see how things were going. Better food was being provided for those who had not yet been able to return to their homes as well as for the folk of the village and those round about. The locals identified a farm which had been purchased by Lotho a few months prior to the acquisition of Bag End, and a goodly party went there to check things out. Men had apparently stayed here in the house, and the barn and several sheds on the property were stuffed with booty. Fredegar had told Frodo and Sam of the great storage bores where most of the malt and grain and foodstuffs taken from the farms of the Shire had been hidden near Brockenbores, stores he and his band of “regatherers” had raided repeatedly until they were finally taken by Lotho’s Big Men. Pippin and Merry arranged for armed parties to go about the Shire to scour out any remaining huddles of brigands, and the Thain and Master arranged for parties to begin identifying Lotho’s properties and go about searching for more stores of goods and food.
At mid-afternoon, Frodo, accompanied by Sam, finally went to visit Will Whitfoot in his home to report on what had been learned. Will lay propped up in his bed, still pale, but looking to be in considerably better condition than the previous day. His wife was feeding him a custard, and smiled up at the two Travelers as they were let into the bedroom by her sister. Will looked up at Frodo in amazement. He’d always liked Bilbo’s heir, always admired his intelligence and caring nature. He saw that Frodo was thinner than he’d been before his disappearance, but that he was self-possessed and full of a level of competence that was difficult to define but had to be recognized. Frodo sank into the chair vacated by Missus Whitfoot and began, as succinctly as possible, to list the prisoners released, the amounts of various kinds of food found and so far distributed, the types of goods found and steps taken so far to inventory it and identify rightful owners, the steps being taken to secure the Shire from further insult, the people who had agreed to aid in restoration....
Will smiled. He was, he knew, too ill to resume his duties as Mayor and would be so for some more months. He’d not really wanted to run for Mayor the last time, even, had hoped desperately that he’d be able to convince Frodo to stand for election. Here was his chance to see the best candidate for the position put into the role of Mayor, ready to be properly elected at the Free Fair at Midsummer.
Once Frodo had finished explaining what had been done and learned, and how the Master and Thain were searching out more information on Lotho’s and the Big Men’s activities throughout the Shire, Will nodded. “Thank you, Frodo. I can’t think of anyone who could have done better than you and Sam and Merry and Pippin have done. You’ve been home in the Shire how long?”
“Less than three days, sir,” Frodo said.
“And in less than three days you’ve managed to do more than the entire rest of the Shire in over a year’s time.” Frodo, uncertain where this was going, nodded warily. “I’m not going to be able to do anything official for some time,” Will continued. He indicated the room. “I need a someone to take over for me, Frodo.”
“Sam here---” Frodo began, but Will shook his head.
“No, Frodo, I want you to be my deputy. I know Sam is capable, more than capable, but I can also see the way his face paled when I mentioned the need for a deputy. No, maybe one day, but not yet. Nor is the Shire ready for someone who isn’t a land holder to stand as Mayor, not yet, and you know it.”
Frodo began to protest, his own face gone white. However, Will was having none of it. “You already know more about most of the folks in the Shire than any other Hobbit living, and you know it. Remember, I’m the one who has signed a lot of your partnership papers.” Frodo looked sideways at Sam, who simply looked back at him. “We need someone like you, someone who really cares about folks, taking over right now. Yes, I know Sam cares, too, but you are the one that will do the best job now.”
Had Frodo been in better health himself, most likely they would never have gotten through his Baggins stubborness; as it was it took three hours of argument before he finally gave in and accepted the job. He clutched at his jewel as Will swore him in.
He was pale and shaking as he and Sam rode back to Bywater in the cold twilight. “How could you let this happen to me, Sam?” he demanded.
“He’s right, and you know it, Mr. Frodo,” Sam returned complacently. “There’s nobody in the Shire who cares as much as you do, and we all know it. And you need something to do to keep you busy, keep your mind from the memories. I swear, it will do you good.”
“And when I get sick again....”
“Who’s to say as that will happen?”
“It will.” That was said low and softly. Sam peered at him in the gloom, concerned, saw the grimness of his expression.
Finally Sam said, equally quietly, “Don’t go diggin’ your grave afore you’re even dead.”
Frodo sighed, and after a few moments Sam heard him uncork the waterskin he carried, take another drink. Finally he said, “I’ll do it on one condition, Sam--you need to help me.”
“I’ll do that, you know as I will.”
“Yes, I know you will.” After a few minutes of silence he asked, “Will you help get the quick post back in place? I know you’ve already been working on it.”
“Yes, Mr. Frodo.”
“I got a message from Hal yesterday--through one of the real Shiriffs. They didn’t do nothin’ to his nursery--didn’t see as how it could be used to undo the damage they did. We have trees there we can replant.”
“That is something you can do better than I--help to see to the replanting of the trees and gardens.” Frodo sighed. “I have no endurance now, Sam. I can’t do the physical things. Yesterday and today were almost more than I could handle.”
“Why do you think you was sent home in the coach, then?”
Frodo laughed, then sobered. “I can see to the lists, things like that. But I’ll need you to do the legwork.” Sam nodded. “I suppose, between us, we can do it all.”
“You know we can, Frodo.”
Frodo reached out his hand, and Sam took it, felt the place of the missing finger, gave the rest a gentle squeeze.