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The Choice of Healing
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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5
Questions that Need Answering

Questions that Need Answering

Once back at the Great Smial, Isumbard checked out Paladin’s study and found the Thain still there, awake, and, as had been Frodo, going over documents. He looked up as his son-in-law entered and nodded him to a chair. Drawing it close to the desk, Isumbard sat down. Finally he asked, “The dispatches from the King, then?”

“Did Frodo tell you of them?”

“Yes, said that Pippin would be serving as King’s Messenger and delivering them.”

“Did Frodo tell you anything about this King Elessar?”

“Not a great deal. Said he is a Man, and the last remnant of the line of Kings North and South, that he’s marvelous, and that he himself had been at the King’s side for a couple of months. What did Pippin say?”

“Not a great deal more than that. Was standing at attention in that ridiculous getup he’s taken to wearing, ‘Yessirring’ and ‘Nosirring’ me as if he weren’t even my son.”

“Did he tell you where they’d gone?”

“Said they went through the Old Forest to the Road, then to Bree, then to Rivendell, then south. Have you ever heard of Rohan or Gondor?”

“Gondor, yes, in some of the books Bilbo sent us. But where’s Rohan?”

Paladin Took shrugged. “I have no idea. But apparently he’s been both places.” He sighed and looked back at the documents. “This first one is an official declaration that the King has come again, that the King Aragorn Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar was crowned King of Gondor on the first of May, and that the Sceptre of Annúminas, conferring his rule over Arnor as well, was delivered into his hands on the day before Midsummer by Lord Elrond of Imladris, who has kept it in trust since the death of King Arvedui. He confirms me in the office of Thain of the Shire, and sends his greetings via his official messenger, Captain Peregrin Took, Guard of the Citadel, whose office is to guard the King’s person.”

“Imladris?”

“Pippin tells me that is the Elvish name for Rivendell.”

Isumbard stretched. “Then there truly is an Elven Lord in Rivendell?”

“Apparently.” He sighed. “The second describes the current government of Arnor. Did you realize this King Elessar can summon me to his court at Lake Evendim to consult on dangers to the realm whenever it pleases him?”

“He can?”

“Yes, he can. I’ll be going into the archives tomorrow to check out our own charters, but I suspect that he has the right of it.” He shook his head. “It goes further to explain that I answer to a Lord Halladan of Arnor, current Steward of the North Kingdom, until the King returns to his northern lands, and concerns regarding the integrity of our borders are to be referred to him.”

“Where was this Lord Halladan when Sharkey’s Big Men came into the Shire, then?” asked Isumbard grimly.

“Apparently, according to Pippin, those who guarded this part of Eriador were summoned south to their Lord’s side, to assist him in the war against Sauron.”

Isumbard paled at the name. “They fought against Sauron?”

Paladin nodded. “And, apparently, they won.”

“How does anyone win against the likes of Sauron?”

“I don’t know. Pippin was saying something about Bilbo, Frodo, a ring, and going to Mordor, but I can’t make heads nor tails of it all.”

“Have you seen Frodo yet, sir?”

“No. But when I do, he will get an earful.”

Isumbard considered. “I wonder if you will feel the same once you see him.”

“Why?”

“Pippin has changed--and more than just that he is now taller and all. But so has Frodo, and you will find it hard to believe he is the same Hobbit who left here just over a year ago.” He shook his head. “He has been badly, badly hurt.”

Paladin looked alarmed. “Hurt? Who would dare hurt Frodo Baggins?”

“I don’t know, but you will know it when you see him.” He wondered if he ought to go on, but finally said softly, “His friend Samwise indicated he went to Mordor.”

The Thain rose to his feet. “What?”

“Yes, he definitely said that Frodo had been in Mordor--that he didn’t need to stint himself with water as he did in Mordor.”

Paladin sat back down, gripping his desk, looking with disbelief into Isumbard’s eyes. “What on earth would take a sweet lad like Frodo to Mordor?”

“Uncle Paladin, Frodo has not been a lad for many years. He is fifty-one now, I’ll remind you.” Isumbard considered. “So, you say that Pippin also spoke of going to Mordor?”

“Yes. Do you think it could possibly be true?”

“Something has changed Frodo Baggins.” He found himself looking at the black seal on the document before his wife’s father. Finally he said, “He’s lost a finger also, Frodo has. The ring finger on his right hand.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. When he saw I was looking at it and the scars on his wrists, he pulled his hand off the table, pulled down his cuffs.”

“Scars on his wrists?”

“Yes, as if he’d been tied tightly.”

“Peregrin has such on his ankles.” Looking at the Thain’s eyes, Isumbard realized that the older Hobbit had not intended to say he’d noticed such a thing. Finally Paladin turned away, looked at the picture of his father that hung over the fireplace to his left. “What on earth happened to them out there?”

“I don’t know, Uncle.” They both stayed quiet for some time. Finally the younger Hobbit asked, “Are there other documents there, too?”

Paladin sighed, turned back to his desk. He lifted the upper document and set it aside, then the second one. “The third is the most ridiculous of the group. It declares the titles conferred on Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Meriadoc Brandybuck, and Peregrin Took. Frodo and Samwise are declared Lords of the Free Peoples of the West, and Frodo has a number of titles including ‘The King’s Friend’ and ‘The Ringbearer’ and some title in Elvish I can’t pronounce, much less understand. Samwise Gamgee is named ‘The Faithful’ and another Elvish title. Peregrin Took is a Captain of the Guard of the Citadel for both Gondor and Arnor, is a knight of Gondor, has been appointed King’s Messenger to the people of the Shire, and again it says something about him guarding the King’s person. Meriadoc Brandybuck is declared a Holdwine of the Mark, Esquire to the King of Rohan, and a Knight of the Riddermark.”

“What?”

Paladin shrugged. “I told you it is ridiculous. It goes on to say that their faithfulness and courage helped to defeat the might of Mordor through endurance and hope, and that the West would not have continued to stand without the contributions of all of them.”

Isumbard was impressed. “That is a great deal to say.”

“Yes.” The Thain lifted this document. “The next is a proclamation of marriage, calling all to rejoice that the King Aragorn Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar married the Lady Arwen Undomiel, daughter of the Lord Elrond Peredhil of Imladris, on the day of Midsummer.” He lifted it and laid it aside. “The next is a private letter to me outlining my duties as Thain now that there is again a King to whom I am responsible. Mostly it appears to say that as long as the folk of the Shire continue to prosper and be happy, he won’t do anything to upset our own pattern of government. However, if there is any threat to Arnor he can and will call upon the Shire to provide archers as before, although he also says he would consider accepting our service in terms of cooks for his armies.”

Isumbard found himself wanting to laugh. “Cooks for his armies?”

“You heard me. We are free to have whatever form of government and laws as we please as long as they do not conflict with the laws governing the rest of Arnor and Eriador. We will send representatives to a conference to be held at some unspecified time in the future regarding our willingness to trade with the rest of Arnor, and possibly Gondor and Rohan as well. We can send messages to the Lord Steward Halladan via Barliman Butterbur of the Prancing Pony in Bree, and the same for messages sent south to the King himself in Minas Tirith in Gondor. We are to continue our quick post message service within the Shire, and the King will provide a messenger service to our borders at least three days a week within a year of his accession to the Throne.”

“Frodo has set Sam Gamgee on restoring the quick post service already.”

“I see.” He sighed. “And finally he wants me to know how much he has come to care for and esteem the four Periannath who came to the aid of the Free Peoples of the West in the War of the Ring.”

“What?”

“Periannath--Elvish for Halflings or Hobbits.”

“Oh.” Isumbard reached out to take the proclamation of marriage. He smiled. “So, he had Frodo copy this, did he?”

“Recognizes a fair hand for a copyist, apparently,” Paladin agreed.

Paladin shifted the letter from the King. “The last document is a request for a written list of concerns to be forwarded jointly to the King and the Lord Steward, things we believe the Crown ought to be providing for us.” He looked at this document. “There is again an indication that representatives from the Shire, including the Thain or his representative if he is incapacitated, will eventually be summoned to a conference regarding such in the future.”

“Fair enough, I suppose,” his son-in-law commented. After a few more moments of contemplation, he asked, “Are you going to come to Michel Delving in the next few days, sir?”

“Probably. Is Frodo going to be there, then?”

“As deputy Mayor, apparently. I don’t know how long it is going to take us to review all the documents there are to go through. And he’s insisting that we need to carefully go through all the contracts involving Lotho individually. He’s concerned about the possibility of there having been a conspiracy.”

“I salute his concern, I must say.”

Isumbard looked seriously into the Thain’s eyes. “Just be warned, he has been hurt, and hurt badly. He’s changed a great deal.”

*******

Two days later Paladin Took and a group of his folk from the Great Smial rode into Michel Delving. He approached the Council Hole and was greeted with a good deal of cheer from the folk of the village. When he asked about Frodo, he was advised he’d gone to the house of the Mayor for elevenses.

The Thain sent his folk off to consult with those who were inventorying the finds from the storage tunnels, bringing the lists he’d garnered of pilfered goods on one hand and stored crops and goods which might be of need in other parts of the Shire on the other he’d had drawn up. He headed for the Whitfoot’s comfortable house and knocked at the door, was welcomed by Mina herself, who took his cloak with many words of welcome and directed him down the passage to the kitchen where she, Will, and their guest had been eating. He could not help but notice, however, a level of concern in her eyes as she looked that way.

Will Whitfoot sat in a chair cushioned with pillows, and there was no question he was in no position to serve as Mayor. Paladin Took had seen signs of abuse on many folk who had fled to the Great Smial during the Time of Troubles, as it was already coming to be known, but Will’s condition was shocking. Never had he seen any Hobbit so emaciated in his life. One knee was heavily splinted. His eyes were still haunted. Even Ferdibrand, who was being nursed now in the Great Smial by his grateful wife, didn’t look as haunted as Will did. But the smile Will produced at seeing the Thain was genuine and heartfelt. “Hello and welcome, Paladin,” he said. “Mina, bring the Thain an ale. Would you join us for elevenses, then?”

“Certainly,” Paladin said. “If you have enough, of course.”

“We do now,” Mina said proudly. “Much of what was found in the storage tunnels here has already been distributed throughout the area, and Frodo has sent a group over to the Brockenbores to bring back as much as they can from there.”

“What is the condition of the leg?”

“The healers are concerned about the knee. Say the kneecap was cracked when they threw me into the Lockholes. They say it should heal properly now that I can get proper food and bed and rest and all. But I have to eat small meals almost constantly, as I can’t feed properly as yet. Frodo has assured me it isn’t as hard as I’d like to think it is, eating lots of small meals instead of larger ones.”

Paladin raised his eyes to smile at his and his wife’s younger cousin, and stopped, shocked. Maybe, he thought, he ought to have paid more heed to Isumbard’s warnings. Frodo sat in the corner, his face pale, his eyes shadowed. He was smiling at Will, but the smile didn’t reach all that deeply. The shirt and vest he wore were not ones Paladin recognized, and although they were of typical Shire patterns, they were not of Hobbit weaving or stitching or materials. They hung on Frodo as if he’d lost weight since they were made for him. Before him sat an almost full plate of food, while the plates before the other two were almost empty. He watched Frodo take a small bite of food, then set down the fork as he swallowed, as if each bite must be deliberate. When he reached for his glass, then Paladin could see that, indeed, the ring finger was missing. When he realized his cousin was looking at the place where the finger was now gone, Frodo’s face became wooden, and he pulled his hand away, dropping it into his lap.

Two things Paladin Took, Thain of the Shire, realized at that moment. First of all, if he were to ask Frodo what had happened, his younger cousin would not answer. Second, he had no intention of asking--not now, at least. He sought out a safe subject for conversation, and finally commented, “So, I see the King had you copy out his marriage proclamation.”

The result was astounding, as Frodo’s face lit up with pleasure and the former wooden expression was totally gone. “Yes, he did. Although actually it was the Lady Arwen who asked it of me, although he was there at the time to confirm the request.”

“How did you come to meet him?”

“He was our guide from Bree to Rivendell, and accompanied us south toward--toward our goals.” The expression became private again, but after a few moments he added, “The kingship had not yet been restored--not till after.”

“After what?” asked Will Whitfoot, to which Frodo made no answer.

“What are they like, then, this new King and Queen of ours?”

Again Frodo’s face lit with pleasure and pride. “I cannot begin to describe them. Aragorn--Aragorn is one of the wisest mortals alive. He is quite tall, the greatest swordsman among Men, an excellent bowman as well. Yet he is also a healer, and full of great compassion. He is a scholar, speaks more languages than I’d known existed, can capture the allegiance of others with a glance and a word. The Lady Arwen carries the High Elven blood of her people, her hair dark, her eyes grey as the sea, lit with stars. You can’t remain afraid in her company. She has made the choice of Lúthien in choosing to marry our Lord King, and her father and her people grieve to lose her company, to know that when her father passes over the sea to Elvenhome she will not go with him, that she has chosen mortality.”

As he’d spoken, his face had become increasingly solemn, but it was the solemnity of pride and love, the Thain realized. “You say that you traveled together east and southward. Did you go directly to Gondor?”

Again the private look. “No, Sam and I had--an errand we had to accomplish. Aragorn and the rest headed west from the Great River first to Rohan and then to Gondor by various paths.” His face was solemn. “They fought in the War against the Enemy’s forces.”

“Who did?”

“All of them--Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf. Uncle Paladin, you cannot believe what Pippin managed to do. He did so well--he and Merry both.”

“I see.” He wanted to know, and hoped he would not cause another withdrawal. “Why did you leave, Frodo?”

Frodo looked away. “I had to,” he finally said. “I had to. Thought if I went the Shire at least would remain safe--but I was wrong. The Enemy’s will came here anyway.” He looked down into his lap--was he looking at the gap between little finger and middle one? his cousin wondered. “I was going to go alone, but they wouldn’t allow me to do so. And certainly had I done so, I’d have failed in the end.” He took up his glass, with his left hand, Paladin noted, and drank from it. He set it down. “I need to get back to the Council Hole. We are still evaluating all the documents. Will, I don’t know why you don’t develop writer’s cramp, having to sign so very many of them.”

“That’s your burden now, Frodo,” the Mayor said, smiling, although his smile was decidedly strained. Mina stood to allow Frodo to come out from behind the table, and he gave a courtly bow and headed out toward the front of the house. Will looked after, his smile fading. After they heard the front door close, at last he said, “I don’t know what to think of him. He’s not as I remember--oh, he’s more responsible than ever; but he has so obviously been hurt. Has Pippin given you the slightest idea as to what happened?”

“Won’t Frodo tell you?”

“Not a word. What he said just now is the most I’ve heard about what happened yet. No real indication as to why he felt he had to leave, why the others went with him, what happened to him.”

“Isumbard said when Frodo caught him looking at his hand he hid it under the table, and he just did the same to me.”

“What about his hand?” the Mayor asked.

“Where he lost his finger.” He looked at Will’s blank face. “You mean you didn’t notice?”

“No! How did that happen?”

“We have no idea.”

Will shook his head. “He’s even more responsible than he ever was, Paladin. But it’s as though he feels somehow he is to blame for everything that happened to us.”

The Thain looked at Frodo’s plate. “It looks as though he ate barely anything,” he commented.

The Mayor and his wife contemplated it as well. “He’s far too thin,” Mina said. “Far too thin, and far too pale.”

An hour later Paladin Took entered the Mayor’s office in the Council Hole. Frodo sat, alert and involved, speaking with three of the lawyers who had come to work on the project, examining a particular document. He was still too thin, too pale, but at least he didn’t look as if he were looking into a world unseen by others as he’d done through much of the meal, as Will and Mina had described it. Paladin looked on him with a feeling of relief.

Paladin Took then began a progress through the Shire, feeling that as there was a King again now, it would behoove him to make a report to the King on just what this Sharkey had done to the land of the Shire. He was not ready for what he found--trees cut down throughout the length and breadth of the land, fields and vineyards fired, people impoverished, families still in shock at having been torn apart and now starting to realize the nightmare at last was over. All of the inns had been closed, and many of them had been either torn down or set afire. Ugly, two storied “Shiriff houses” still stood in many communities, although many of them had already been torn down and their bricks stacked for other uses.

In many places the mills put up by Lotho had been torn down as well--better travel far to a proper mill, he was told, than to put up with an ugly monstrosity that not only did no more work than the older mills but did so only at the cost of pouring out filth into the land, water, and air.

In the Southfarthing he found himself meeting with Samwise Gamgee, who was also doing a survey. Sam had gathered about himself a party of farmers, gardeners, and landholders from throughout the Shire, all of whom were intent on much the same purpose as their Thain, but with one difference--they were looking at what it would take to restore things where Paladin had only thought to look at what was lost. Paladin liked Samwise Gamgee, although he’d also not thought a lot about the young Hobbit. Sam was capable, thoughtful, considerate, and devoted to Frodo’s welfare; and there was no question of any sort that this was a Hobbit fully attuned to his plants and his garden. That Frodo would treat Sam as not just a servant but as a friend had never bothered Paladin, although he knew Eglantine saw the relationship between the two of them as puzzling and not quite proper.

At first there seemed to be no difference in Sam since his return--except when he thought of it, Paladin realized that the Samwise Gamgee he knew would never have spoken to a member of the gentry that he didn’t know as freely as the one riding his pied pony with this party, and would certainly not have thought to take charge of the group or give the sensible orders he heard from him now. The odd thing was that no one questioned the gardener’s authority to make such decisions--not even Paladin Took, Thain of the Shire.

The Sweet Leaf in Pipestown had been closed but not torn down, and its owners under less observation than many closer to Hobbiton. Once the Big Men were gone, the inn opened immediately. Not all the ale here in the Southfarthing had been found and confiscated, nor all the wealth of the folk gathered, for the locals had long cared for bolt holes in which to hide bodies and goods if the Shire were to be overrun again as it had been almost a thousand years previously when Arvedui, King of Eriador and Arnor, had died at the hands of the Witch King of Angmar and the forces of Angmar had swept through the Shire following the path of his fleeing armies and his widow and heirs until they were overcome by reinforcements from Gondor. Hobbit memories were surprisingly long, Paladin realized, when it came to providing against further insults of such a sort. Suddenly there was life again in the Sweet Leaf, and here Paladin Took found himself sitting with Samwise Gamgee and his party, comparing notes.

“I’ve been to see my brother Hal in the Northfarthing,” Sam was saying, “and he and many others of the nursery owners throughout the Shire have been realizing as this day would come and preparing for it, gathering seeds of plants and trees, doing cuttings of downed trees so as to get rootings started, doing grafts and such so as there would be something to start with for the replanting.” He took a pull at his ale and set his mug down. “It may take time, but at least our grandchildren will have an idea as to what the Shire looked like in our day.” He shook his head. “To think as the works of Mordor should of come here to our land, but I suppose there was no hope for otherwise, once the Enemy realized as who had It and as where It had been hidden for so long. No, he’d of planned some kind of revenge, and those fools Sharkey and Lotho was just the right ones to have carried it out.”

“Enemy?” asked Paladin Took. Sam had just looked down into his mug and nodded his head. “You sound as if you knew what led to all of this.”

“I can’t be certain,” Sam said, carefully, “but I’ve certainly seen too much of the Enemy’s work in the past year not to recognize it here.” He resumed sipping slowly at his ale, his attitude thoughtful, his memory apparently dwelling on evil he’d seen elsewhere.

Paladin wanted to ask Sam more, but didn’t know where to start or even the proper questions to start with. But finally he decided to ask about Frodo. “Sam, Frodo looks--he looks haunted.”

Sam gave a bark of a laugh completely devoid of humor. “Haunted? Oh, Mr. Paladin, I should say so. You saw as what he’s seen in the year past, you’d look haunted, too. It saw to it he saw the worst as well.”

“What happened to him, Sam?”

“He hasn’t told you?” At the Thain’s shake of his head, Sam took a deep breath and shook his own head. “Well, if he isn’t ready to tell, I’m not going to shout it all over the Shire, neither. Just know that he left just in the nick o’ time. If’n he’d left but a few hours later, it would of been too late, too late for all. You think things was bad in the Time of Troubles? You ain’t seen nothin’--nothin’ at all of terror, not real terror.” He took another deep breath. “We saw it, Mr. Frodo and me.”

“Where did you go?”

“South, south and east.”

“Why did you leave?”

“Had to, for they was coming for It, going to take It from him. They got here just as we was leaving. Like I said, if’n we’d waited any longer it’d of been too late. If they’d of found us, they’d of taken It, taken It to him, and that would of been the end of all. Had to get It out of here, afore they destroyed the whole of Middle Earth, not just the Shire.

“He wanted to protect the Shire, get out of here with It, draw them away, draw the evil away. But then we found out what we had to do to finish It at last, and we had to go south and east. Take It back where it was made so It could be unmade.

“They followed us, all the way to Rivendell. Caught up with us at Weathertop, stabbed him there. Almost lost him, we did. If it hadn’t of been for Strider, we’d of all been dead. Strider knew what they was, how to fight them. He chased them away, did his best to help Frodo, got us out of there, got us to Rivendell, to the Lord Elrond. Strider and Elrond got it out of him, saved him. Then we had to take It away.

“We left the others at Amon Hen, Mr. Frodo and me. He didn’t want to take any of us with him, knew he’d have to die to finish it, he did. But he couldn’t leave me behind. I followed him the whole way. He’d of died if’n I hadn’t--almost did anyways. But we did it, got It there, got away after. Gandalf found us, carried us to safety.

“We thought getting It out of here, the Shire would be safe. Tore him up coming back, seeing the Shire was touched anyway. He’s bound and determined to make it as it was, and I’m going to help as I can. He’ll do his best for our folk; Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin will make certain we’re safe from others comin’ in, trying to do it again. I’m going to do what I must to rebuild, replant, make it so at least our grandchildren will know the Shire we left.

“I got to do this, got to give him back his Hope. He deserves to know healing, some happiness after what he did for all of Middle Earth. If the King can renew Gondor and Arnor, we can do the same for the Shire.”

Paladin Took didn’t understand more than a portion of what Sam had said, but it was obvious that Frodo had been at the point of death at least twice. Finally he asked, “How did he lose his finger, Sam?”

Sam shook his head. “That’s his to tell, not mine.” He looked down into his drink, and would say no more.

A few days later he and Eglantine were received at Brandy Hall by his sister and her husband, to find that Merry and Pippin had arrived only an hour earlier. Paladin Took looked up into his son’s face, and as always since the four of them came back he felt decidedly odd. How had Pippin become so tall in a year’s time? How had he come to look so responsible, his little lad who had always been so foolishly endearing? Why had he gone away without a word? Where had come this air of watchfulness? Where had his son gone? He wanted to know this, but couldn’t even frame the questions, couldn’t get up the courage to ask.

They sat at dinner mostly in uncomfortable silence. No one seemed to know how to breech the unspoken questions. To break the tension, Merry described the search through the Shire, of finding three groups of brigands hiding in wild sections of the Northfarthing, one near the Longbottom plantation in the Southfarthing, one near the Woody End in the Eastfarthing. After another period of silence, Pippin spoke of seeing Sam near Tighfield, of the plans to replant trees, of the continued destruction of Shiriff houses, the inventory of smials and houses that needed to be reconstructed. Then again all went silent once more.

Merry and Pippin had started their meal by standing briefly and turning to the West in silence before sitting down and beginning to eat their own dinners. Paladin wanted to ask what that meant, but didn’t have the courage to ask. Finally Pippin asked after Ferdibrand. “How is he handling being home in the Great Smial?” he asked. “Pimpernel must be greatly relieved.”

His mother appeared grateful to have a subject she could discuss safely. “We were all glad to see he was still alive, Pippin. We had no idea whether he’d been thrown into the Lockholes or had been killed. But to find out they blinded him? How could they do that, kicking someone in the head that way?”

Pippin looked very grim. “The bunch in charge of the Lockholes themselves appeared to be half-orcs from Isengard. You can expect almost anything from such as those.”

“Where is Isengard?” Eglantine asked.

“South of here, near the Gap of Rohan. Saruman lived there for a long time, was somehow breeding Men and orcs to produce his Uruk-hai.”

“Who is Saruman?”

“That was one of Sharkey’s names.”

“You heard of this Sharkey before?”

The answer, when it came, was very terse. “Yes.”

“How? When?”

Pippin looked up into his mother’s eyes, his expression stony. “Mum, believe me, you don’t want to know.” After a brief moment he looked down at his plate.

Finally Eglantine looked to Merry in question. His expression was distant, and he appeared to be trying to avoid her gaze. Finally he sighed. “Saruman used to be a Wizard, like Gandalf, only he fell. He became corrupted by the desire for power, and tried to take possession of the land of Rohan, allied himself with Sauron. He appears to have been buying pipeweed from Lotho for some time--we don’t know how long. He’s the one who sent the Big Men up here to help Lotho take over control of the Shire; then after Treebeard let him go when the war was over and Sauron was defeated, he came here and had Lotho killed and took over.”

“Why?”

Merry shook his head. “We don’t know.”

Paladin looked at him thoughtfully. “Sam Gamgee said the Enemy would want revenge on the Shire, but I don’t understand who the Enemy was or why he’d care about us.”

“He knew the Ring was here for a long time--that’s why he sent the Black Riders here.”

Saradoc Brandybuck sat up, now very interested. “Black Riders? You mean the ones old Maggot spoke of?”

“He told you?” At his father’s nod, Merry took a deep breath. “They chased Frodo from Bag End to the Buckleberry Ferry. That’s why we left through the Old Forest, hoping they couldn’t find us there. They are the ones who attacked Crickhollow, from what Fatty has told us.”

“Did this Sharkey send them, too?”

Merry shuddered. “Oh, no. Sharkey didn’t have any control over them.”

Pippin looked at his cousin with pity, then finally looked at Saradoc. “They came from Mordor, Uncle.”

“They what?! Why?”

“Merry told you--they were after the Ring.”

“What ring?”

“The one Bilbo brought home from his adventure, the one he used to make himself invisible. When he left the Shire he left It for Frodo.”

“But that was just a story....”

But both of the younger Hobbits were shaking their heads. Merry’s face was solemn. “It wasn’t just a story Bilbo made up. Believe me, it wasn’t. We saw It. We saw how Frodo became invisible the three times we saw him put It on. Sauron made It, and he wanted It back. And Saruman wanted It, too. We’re not certain if he wanted It so he could give It to Sauron, or if he intended to use It himself.

“Sauron might have wanted the whole Shire punished for Bilbo and Frodo keeping It here for so long. Saruman--who knows for certain why he’d hate the Shire. Partly, probably, for the same reason; partly because he was jealous of Gandalf and he knew Gandalf cared about the Shire and us Hobbits; partly because Pippin and I saw the destruction of Isengard, and witnessed when his staff was broken; partly angry because Frodo took It away and he couldn’t get his hands on It. We can’t be sure. For all we know Sauron may have told him he was to take care of the Shire for him. I only wish I’d choked him on my pouch when we met on the road north.”

“You met him on the road?”

“Yes, when we were coming home. But he beat us here.”

Paladin Took looked with a level of anger at his nephew and his son. “You certainly weren’t hurrying home, then.”

“We went the pace set by our company,” Pippin said defensively.

“What company?”

“When we left Minas Tirith there were a large number we traveled with, and as we came north different groups would ride away when we came to where our roads parted. Finally it was just us and Gandalf, and then just us.”

“Couldn’t you have come faster?”

“Maybe, but that would have meant the four of us alone, and that we’d not have seen Bilbo on the way back.”

“Bilbo? You saw Bilbo?”

“Yes. He’s in Rivendell--has been there for almost but not quite the whole time.”

Esmeralda looked at them in shock. “But how is it he’s still alive?”

Merry shrugged. “He had It for a very long time. But he’s also the Old Took’s grandson. Wants to pass him up, you know. We were with him on his birthday.”

Again there was silence. Pippin was not eating, which was totally uncharacteristic. Finally Paladin, not looking at either, asked, “What happened to Frodo’s hand?”

Merry turned away. Both he and Pippin showed grief in their eyes. At last he said to the tabletop, in a very quiet voice, “He lost his finger.”

“I know that!” Paladin snapped. “I could see that! How did it happen?”

Both just shook their heads and would not say. Saradoc and Paladin looked at one another while Esmeralda and Eglantine looked at each of the menfolk in turn. Finally Merry whispered, “Be glad he lost it, Uncle. Be glad. We almost lost all of him--he almost lost himself.” He put down his fork, then said, “Please forgive me--I can’t eat any more.” He stood up, bowed formally, and left. Pippin rose, his face pale, murmured something, and followed him.

Their parents looked after them in shock. “Be glad he lost his finger?” Paladin finally spluttered. “What in Middle Earth did he mean by that?”

“What finger?” Esmeralda was asking.

“Pippin never leaves the table like that!” Eglantine Took protested.

The Master of Brandy Hall looked after his son and nephew with concern. “What happened to them out there?”

Finally they began looking to one another. Paladin Took took a deep breath. “Let’s start with these Riders. What were they about?”

Saradoc Brandybuck sighed. “Just after they disappeared, there was a disturbance at the house at Crickhollow, the one Frodo bought. Fredegar Bolger apparently was staying alone there after they left, and was supposed to convince folks as long as possible that Frodo was indeed still there. The house was attacked. Freddy had locked and barred the door after becoming certain something evil was approaching the place. He said he’d peeked out and saw at least three black shapes creeping through the front garden. Once he got the door secured, he said a feeling of dread worse than anything he’d ever felt struck him. He slipped out the back of the house and ran for his life. He was gibbering with fear when he made it to the nearest place, Marvo’s orchard place about a mile toward the Hall. Marvo blew the Horn Call, and we all gathered. The door--the door had been blasted open, and the bar was reduced to splinters. It was a stout oak beam, Pal, I’d just seen it installed new when I sold the house to Frodo. It was shivered to nothing; and there was a smell of burning. The door jamb was also damaged, the metal of the lock twisted. I’ve never seen anything like it. Frodo’s old cloak lay on the threshold. And the feel--They were already gone, but we could feel the evil after. It was awful. We found hoofprints all around--prints from horses, not ponies. We lost the bounder on duty at the bridge--horsemen rode him down. Had hoofprints on his body and all about him.

“The next day Farmer Maggot came to see me. A few days before he’d found a Big Folk riding across one of his fields and into his lane, a Black Rider. His dogs were wild with terror, and he said he felt pretty much the same. This cloaked stranger had a strange, hissing voice, and was asking for information about Baggins, demanding it, offering gold. Maggot ordered the stranger away. Shortly after, Frodo, Sam, and Pippin showed up, also having crossed his fields, but from a different angle. They said they’d been pursued by at least two Black Riders all the way from Hobbiton. They were calm enough, but were still obviously deeply disturbed. Maggot loaded them into his wagon and drove them to the Buckleberry Ferry. Said that after he left them, as he was driving home he felt a feeling of horror, looked back, and saw another Black Rider near the bank, heading for the Brandywine Bridge. He said Frodo had said he thought these Riders came from Mordor.”

“Mordor again,” the Thain commented.

“What about Mordor?” demanded Eglantine.

“They keep mentioning Mordor and Sauron. From what Sam said, it sounds as if he and Frodo may have gone there.”

“Nonsense,” his wife protested. “No one could go to Mordor!”

Esmeralda, on the other hand, wanted to know about the missing finger. “You say you saw where it’s missing?”

“Yes,” Paladin said. “The ring finger of the right hand--it’s gone, and the skin has been neatly drawn over the knuckle. He uses his right hand still, but hides it away under the table if he catches you looking at it.”

“What happened to it?”

“You saw them, Esme. None of them will say anything about it. Sam told me only Frodo should speak of it; but Frodo just glared and hid it away when I saw him.”

Eglantine looked horrified. “I don’t understand,” she said.

“Face it, my love--none of us do,” the Thain said with a sigh.

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