By the beginning of November the quick post was fully functional again. By the middle of November Frodo had called all Shiriffs into Michel Delving and questioned each individually, dismissing most of them and reducing the force back to its traditional numbers and purposes; bounders were questioned about what movements they’d seen of outdwellers around the borders of the Shire, before the sale of Bag End, during the time the Travelers were gone, and since their return; several lawyers who’d dealt with Lotho Sackville-Baggins were questioned closely as to why they had assisted in some highly questionable acquisitions and how they’d managed to convince others that their shares in the pipeweed plantations were worthless; all of the Shiriff houses had been totally dismantled, and work had begun on rebuilding homes and redigging smials.
In a few of the sheds built in Bag End’s gardens were found the bulk of the furnishings, doors, carefully preserved windows, and even paneling taken from the holes that had been in the Row, and Sam saw a chance to redig them into the face of the Hill as close to the original as possible. The number of folks who turned out to assist in the work was heartwarming; and many of the bricks from the various constructions raised by the Big Men now went into providing pleasant facings for the new structures as well as serving in the flooring and even in some of the internal walls. By February the reconstructed smials were finished, and all declared they were as comfortable as the originals. In every other area where smials had been dug out and houses dismantled it was the same--throughout the Shire people were turning out to rebuild, redig, refurnish.
It was found that the majority of those who had been dispossessed and displaced in this manner were closely tied or related to Frodo, the Master, or the Thain in one manner or another, or were the Heads of families. Long envious of what he saw as power over others, Lotho had sought to demean those who had earned or inherited authority and responsibility while forcing his own power over all; that he had failed to appreciate the difference between power and responsibility was painfully obvious to the entire Shire, looking on the results of his machinations.
Isumbard Took continued to assist Frodo the three days a week he spent in Michel Delving, and as the days passed he was seeing an improvement in his cousin’s appearance. Frodo’s color began to improve, and although the haunted expression never completely disappeared, he was definitely beginning to look more present and aware, and his native sense of humor was showing signs of returning. He finally began putting on weight again as well, although not a great deal of it. He could now be heard humming softly, singing under his breath, or sometimes even whistling quietly as he finished up the reviews of the documents. What he was singing Isumbard was not always certain, for he rarely seemed to sing familiar Shire ditties. A few seemed to be songs Bilbo had written and taught to his younger kin; others mentioned Elbereth or Manwë or Ulmo a great deal, it appeared.
Frodo had never appeared before to think much of the law, and now at first he seemed to mutter repeatedly that the presence of a body of law appeared to be mostly designed to keep the lawyers busy in drawing up sufficiently complicated paperwork; but after a couple weeks he began identifying errors in the documents he was reviewing, noting unusual clauses, spotting deliberate attempts to slip extra rights or responsibilities for one side or the other into the contracts. Instead of relying on the lawyer’s evaluations he was now directing them. He was also doing the same for those documents that were beginning to come across his desk day by day as the normal business of the Shire began to resume fully.
The first time he found himself having to perform a wedding he was nervous, yet he handled it well enough, relaxing markedly as he went through the ceremony. Sitting at banquets seemed more onerous to him, although he did well enough. His words were short and to the point, although at times they could have quite a bite to them if one took the time to reflect on them. He still did not eat anywhere near enough to meet Hobbit expectations, and he inadvertently insulted more than one cook who took the barely touched plates as reflections on their skill within the kitchen. The fact was, Frodo Baggins could not stomach full meals, as Isumbard realized one day. Mina had cooked a wonderful meal and a squash pie for dessert, and although he rarely touched desserts any more Frodo had not only accepted a large piece of this but had eaten it all. However, as they were walking to the Council Hole suddenly his color vanished, he appeared to be trying to control his stomach through sheer will power for some moments, and then suddenly he was hurrying for the bushes, where he was quite ill. Isumbard followed him, found himself kneeling by Frodo as he lost the entire lunch, was supporting him through it, wiping his forehead. He realized Frodo was weeping in frustration.
“Oh,” Frodo whispered intently as he uncorked the water bottle he still carried and used a swig to rinse his mouth, “every time I try to enjoy something, truly enjoy it, this happens.” He rinsed his mouth again, spat, sat back on the ground and pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his face. Finally he took a small swallow of the liquid in the skin, which, Isumbard noted, was not plain water; then, after assuring himself he was able to keep it down he took another, longer one. He continued to sit for some minutes until he felt completely calm, then accepted a hand up from Isumbard, who realized he was holding his cousin’s maimed right hand. Frodo didn’t appear to notice. His face was a study in frustration as he looked at his cousin’s eyes. “Oh, Isumbard, I am so tired of this. Either my stomach is so upset I can barely keep anything down, and I don’t want to eat at all; or I start feeling better, food tastes so very good at long last, and I eat too much and I lose it all again. I knew I ought to eat only a few bites of that pie, but it was so good--so very good! And now it’s all gone to waste.” He sighed, looked around. “I need to sit down.”
There was still a tree trunk left by the Big Men lying nearby, and Frodo and Isumbard made their way to it, and Frodo sat again. He sat leaning forward, looking at the ground. “I don’t know how much longer my body will be able to sustain this,” he said softly. “I try to eat as Aragorn suggested--several small meals throughout the day; but it isn’t as easy to do as I’d thought. I mean, we as Hobbits already eat more meals than Men do--I thought it would be easy to do it. But it’s not enough.”
“How long has your stomach been like this?”
“Almost the whole time since I woke up in Ithilien. They had a feast for us, for Sam and me--food all about us, and I’m there looking down at a cup of broth and soft bread with no butter, and curds and whey. Aragorn was making certain we had the many small meals, and it appeared we were getting better. Well, Sam did--but I didn’t--not completely. I’ve not been able to eat properly since then. Aragorn was realizing that regular meals were too much, so when he’d want me to attend one of the feasts he would take me first to the kitchens. Oh, you can imagine the stir that caused--the King and his pet Hobbit in the kitchens as they were preparing these elaborate meals and elaborate dishes. Here we’d be in the midst of sweating cooks and pot boys, and the King is giving me small tastes of this dish or that one--but only small tastes, for any more and I’d lose it again.
“When he was younger he spent some time in Rhun, and there they eat a magnificent lamb dish prepared with a spice called curry. It is very hot and spicy, and is served with a fine sauce. He taught his cooks how to make it, and often it would be part of the feasts. I’d get a bite of it--maybe two; and the other things as well--only a bite. Then we’d go to the feast, and there I was, watching others get plates full of these exquisite dishes--and they’d place before me a plate with rice and lamb or chicken or mild fish.”
“But you don’t even like rice!” Isumbard commented, remembering dinners when they were younger where Aunt Eglantine and Frodo would get into contests of wills over whether or not Frodo would clean his plate when she served rice--contests he remembered Frodo always won.
“I still abhor it--makes me feel like I have a mouth full of laundry starch or wallpaper paste. Aragorn and the Lady Arwen realized that I’d only eat the rice if they could break it up somehow and fill it with other things. The Lady Arwen made the most delicious sauce, a very delicate one which I could tolerate, and she would stir it and the meat and small slices of freshly cooked vegetables into the rice, and I could get it down me. Even came to like it some. And I could seem to tolerate it and digest it properly. But to sit there and watch others eat or not as they pleased while I sat toying with an invalid’s rations--it was more than I could bear at times. I’m a Hobbit, not an Elf or a Dwarf or even a Man. I was made to eat and to eat well, not pick at food like a petulant child of Men.”
It was such a shock to hear this from Frodo, who barely mentioned his journey out of the Shire at all. It certainly answered questions, though. “What caused this state, Frodo?”
He was afraid Frodo wouldn’t answer, but waited to see if he would. Frodo sat, quietly shaking his head and rubbing at the empty place on his right hand where the knuckle ended before the finger which ought to have continued on. Finally he did make an answer--of sorts. “We’re not completely certain. Perhaps the fact I barely ate for the last month of our journey. I vaguely remember telling Sam I had no memory left of food or water--or the touch of grass, there at the end when I was still certain I would die to complete the task. Maybe it’s the spider’s poison and its effects. Maybe from breathing in the reek of the Mountain for so long, day and night, after he awakened it to make the darkness for his armies of trolls and orcs. Maybe from the effects just of carrying It so very long. Who can say?”
“He awoke the Mountain?”
Frodo, staring off into the distance, nodded. “Yes, it was always the sign by which those of Gondor could tell when he was at home in Mordor, active--by the reawakening of his forge. He tortured the very earth itself, as well as its creatures. As we traveled by night the darkness would be lit by the Mountain’s torment, the sky itself bleeding fire. During the day he had it pumping out clouds of ash and smoke. That ash covered everything. Sam and I were filthy with it at the end. Doubt you’d have known us. It would get into our clothing, between my skin and the chain, add to the sores there.
“When we came to Gondor, the ash lay on everything, making all look dusty and somewhat grey. There was a glass blower from the Fourth Circle, however, who collected it, as much as he could find. He swept the walls behind the guest house where we lived, and the walls all over the upper reaches of the City. I could not understand why, but he assured me he could bring beauty even out of this sign of the devastation of Sauron. And he did. He would mix it with his fine sand, and would heat it in his furnace, and would blow from it the most beautiful of bowls and beads and vases and ornaments, sparkling with subtle colors. They were such as to seize your heart with their beauty and delicacy. I bought a great bowl he blew of it, to gift to Aragorn and the Lady Arwen ere we left.
“He had a daughter, a fascinatingly beautiful girl named Linneth. She reminded me of Pearl, of Pearl and Narcissa Boffin and Rosie Cotton and my mother as I remember her, all four. She minded his stall in the market place, and sold his smaller items. There was a youth who loved her, and he would buy a string of beads from her before every Highday, then hang it about her neck when he came to see her on the Highday. I wonder if she ever accepted him?”
Suddenly Frodo shook his head. “This is not getting any work done. Let’s go in.”
Frodo hung his cloak in the hallway with the water skin, and went to the desk now his to see to the documents which had been set there since they left. Isumbard went to get the mug of water for him and set it to hand. Frodo, already studying an indenture of apprenticeship for an orchardman, nodded his thanks almost automatically. Isumbard advised him he would be back shortly, went to the inn and purchased a light meal which they placed in a covered basket for him, then stopped by the Whitfoot house to beg one more slice of the pie for Frodo. He stopped at the downed tree and cut it in half and set one part aside. The rest he took into the office and set it by Frodo, who barely noticed at the time. But during the rest of the afternoon he would eat a bit and then a bit more until all was gone, including the pie. Before they left at the end of the day Isumbard gave him the second half of the slice, and he saw a look of surprise and gratefulness in Frodo’s eyes as he thanked him. Warmed by his cousin’s pleasure and humble thanks, Isumbard was reminded why he had looked forward to the coming of Frodo Baggins to the Great Smial when he was younger, before he’d become a rival for the affections of Pearl.
A few days later Merry and Pippin swept into the office, both looking frustrated, Merry sad, Pippin furious. “You wouldn’t believe it, Frodo--Mum is treating me as if I were still a young tween.”
Frodo set aside the document he’d been reviewing and gave his younger cousin his attention. “You must remember, Pippin, that you are a tween--not a young one, admittedly, but a tween.”
“Well, she’s treating me again as if I’d only just passed twenty, which was quite a long time ago. Do you know whom I’m to invite to my birthday party? Levandoras Took! He’s barely eighteen himself, and wouldn’t know the business end of Troll’s Bane if his life depended on it!”
Frodo laughed. “Two years ago you didn’t know the business end of Troll’s Bane--you yourself had to be taught by Boromir, Aragorn, and Legolas. Teach him.”
“But he picked it up by the blade!”
Frodo now looked concerned. “Knowing how sharp you keep the blade, that was flatly dangerous. He’s lucky he didn’t lose a finger or two, then.”
“That’s what I told him as I took him to the healer to have the gash checked. Needed three stitches, and Olimbard is nowhere near as gentle as Aragorn when it comes to doing that.” Pippin sighed. “As for Father, he’s becoming the bane of my life.”
Frodo was more concerned--never had Peregrin Took referred to Paladin as Father. Obviously this was becoming serious. “What is he doing?”
“He wants me to wear my old clothes, for one thing--not that they’d fit no matter what I did to them. He wants to know what it is I shout about at night.”
“Shout? Is he referring to the nightmares?”
“Apparently. And he wants me to look at finding a bride.”
“Now, that sounds as if it could be pleasant.”
“Pleasant? Can you imagine what it would be like for any lass unlucky enough to marry me? I have one of my nightmares, cry out and waken her in the night, and then she gently touches me to waken me from it, and I automatically take Troll’s Bane and run her through. No, at this point I wouldn’t push myself on any lass in the Shire, even if I hated her through and through.”
Frodo’s expression, Isumbard realized as he watched them from across the room, was very serious. Frodo gave a small nod. “Yes, I can see the difficulty.”
“He’s asked me at least a hundred times why I left as I did, and won’t accept the explanation. I’ve tried and tried to explain that if I hadn’t, we’d all be Mordor’s slaves now, those of us still left alive, that is, but he won’t listen.”
“It does sound far-fetched from his point of view.”
“From his point of view? Sweet Valar, Frodo--you know all too well I’m putting it mildly!”
“Yes, I know--I know, but he doesn’t. He never saw the Black Riders, or what I looked like from Amon Sul onwards. He never heard the cries of the fell beasts of the Nazgul overhead, and the worse ones of their masters. He never saw the clouds over Mordor lit up by the fires of Orodruin. We have to keep telling him until it sets in that we are not overstating the situation.”
“Telling them? When just to think of it makes our insides squirm? You can’t even name It outright, and I can barely do so.”
Frodo turned his face away from that of Pippin, his expression pale again. Finally he said in a low voice, “Point taken.”
Merry sighed. “My mum and dad are better than the Thain and Aunt Eglantine, but are still so careful with me it is driving me to distraction. I know now why you used to become so frustrated with them, Frodo--it’s as if they want to wrap me up in fresh-sheered wool and store me in my room. I can’t talk of it yet, and even just now, when you two mentioned--them, my arm went numb and cold again.”
Frodo sat back in his chair and gave a sad laugh. “A right trio of walking wounded we are.” He sighed. “Let me think.” He closed his eyes and laid his head back against the spindles of the back of Will’s tall office chair. He was still for so long Isumbard wondered if he’d drifted off to sleep--that had happened a time or two. But at last he opened his eyes, smiling. “Crickhollow,” he said, as if that were all the explanation they needed.
“What about Crickhollow?” asked Pippin.
“I’m not staying there--couldn’t bear to do so at this point. You two can have it for as long as you need.”
“But it’s full of your things....”
“Do you think I’m worried about that, Pippin? You two need a place apart to put yourselves together, while I don’t dare go off on my own as yet. I find I need the reassurance I’m not alone. And, after learning they--they broke in the door as they did, I couldn’t bear to stay there at all.”
“They are gone, Frodo.”
“Tell that to Merry, Pippin.”
After a moment of silence, Pippin gave a small nod and responded, “Point taken.” He looked back at Merry. “Do you think you could bear to go there, Merry?”
Merry nodded slowly, commenting, “I even think my parents will understand.”
Frodo said, “Yes, I think they will. They’ve learned something from their experience with me, after all. I’d give you the keys, but I understand they have nothing to work on at this point.”
“I can change the lock myself. I learned a lot of odd things in my own dissolute youth,” Merry said, suddenly laughing. “And Dad said he had the jamb repaired already.”
“Then it’s settled. You will take care of the desk, won’t you, Pippin? If I find one mar on it, I’ll have your ears on my belt.”
Later that day as Isumbard and the three lawyers who’d remained on the project were discussing the need for a new means of filing property acquisitions and sales, there was a knock at the door as a member of the quick post came in. He walked up to Frodo and gave him a salute which he’d thought up himself as appropriate for the new deputy Mayor, and fumbled in his bulging bag. “There’s a bundle for you, Mr. Baggins, from foreign parts. They brought it to the gate at the Brandywine Bridge.”
“Who brought it?”
“A rider in a grey cloak with a star holding it closed.”
“Oh, a Ranger of Arnor.”
The post man shrugged as he finally managed to lift the bundle free of his bag and held it out to Frodo. “Here it is, then, sir. I hope it’s not bad news.”
“I rather doubt it. Thank you.”
Frodo took the bundle and nodded a dismissal, then set it on the table beside which he now stood. “If you will pardon me for a second.” He examined the black seal on the package and laughed. “Oh, it’s from Strider!” He seemed quite pleased as he slipped a finger inside the fold of the finely woven cloth wrapped around it and pulled the seal free. In a moment he was lifting out a letter, a purse of black leather tied with a silver cord, and another bundle wrapped this time in paper. He untied the cord about this bundle, and lifted out several garments. “Oh,” he said, “he sent me more clothing. He knows I don’t need that.” He held up an exquisitely fashioned vest, then shook his head in awe. “This is the Queen’s work.” He looked up at Isumbard’s face. “She is one of the best embroiderers there has ever been.” He handed it over to his cousin, who took it carefully and examined it. It was done in silver grey, and was embroidered with fine stitches with meticulously detailed eight-pointed stars in a silver only a shade different than the material of the vest itself. The trousers were of a darker shade of silver grey, while the jacket which went with it was the same shade as the vest, with a border of the silver stars around the collar and down the front panels, under buttons and button holes. With it was a soft shirt of a delicate blue color, also decorated with stars on the placket and about the neck.
“I have never seen anything so beautiful for a gentlehobbit to wear in all my days,” Isumbard said, finally. Frodo nodded as he carefully, tenderly folded them again and returned them to the wrappings, retied the silver cord. “I’ll wear them for Sam’s wedding,” he said, smiling.
“Oh, is he getting married?”
“He doesn’t accept it as yet, but yes, he and Rosie will decide soon enough.” He then turned to the letter, which consisted of several sheets of paper folded over one another, sealed again with black wax. Frodo opened it slowly, as if savoring the moment. At last he was reading it, his face alight with pleasure. “They are well and happy, and Gimli will be heading our way in a month’s time to bring my clothes press and other items we left behind as we couldn’t carry them on our pack pony. Queen Arwen has won the hearts of the people of Minas Tirith, and they hope in a year’s time to restore the old name of Minas Anor.” His face became more solemn. “Aragorn has already had to fight one more battle with some of the Southrons, and won easily but hated the need. Their Farozi had not wanted them to fight, but they went against his desires.” He read further, and beamed again. “Healer Eldamir’s child is doing very well, as is his wife.” Again he looked up into Isumbard’s eyes, smiling. “They almost lost both when the bairn was born, for the labor was long and he was poorly turned in the womb. Aragorn himself called them back, helped the child to breathe.” He went on with his reading, and smiled and once laughed gently. At last he appeared to finish with the letter from the King.
Folded inside was another missive written on a different paper, fine and thin. Frodo opened it, and read it, and his face became quite still and intent. At last he carefully folded this letter and slipped it into the inner pocket of his jacket. His expression was odd, excited, disturbed, grateful, saddened--all at the same time. Finally Isumbard could bear it no longer. “What was that one?”
Frodo shook his head, but finally said, “It was from the Lady Arwen herself. They will allow me to----” But he would not say more, shook his head again. “No, I don’t belong there. This is my home. I’m a Hobbit, not an Elf.” He took up the bundle of clothing and slipped it back into the bag in which it had been shipped, slipped the King’s letter in with it.
Finally he looked at the black leather purse. With a sigh he opened it, poured it out. From it fell seven gold coins. One had a small black seal on it. Frodo looked on them solemnly, picked up the one with the seal and examined it. He picked up another and handed it to Isumbard to examine. “The King’s new coinage--he swore I would get the first three coins struck. Two of the others are for Sam, and one each for Merry and Pippin.”
Isumbard Took examined it with interest, looked at the bearded profile of a Man, one who appeared proud, capable, and regal at the same time, his stern expression softened by the hint of a smile on his bearded lips. Frodo was looking with an expression of pride and the hint of his former expression at the same time.
On the reverse side were a tree and a circle of seven stars. Frodo was examining the stars with interest. “The Stars in a circle are the symbol of Arnor, while the Tree and Stars are the symbols of Gondor. He used the Stars of Arnor here, so is proclaiming this the coinage of both realms.” He gently ran the index finger of his right hand over it, around the circle of stars.
At that moment another person entered through the door the post man had left open as he went out on the remainder of his rounds. Frodo looked up, and his face went carefully neutral, and when he spoke his voice was courteous but not welcoming. “Hello, Bartolo,” he said. “What brings you to Michel Delving? May we help you?”
“Help me? Hmph. I am here to help you, Baggins. Do you have a coin?”
Almost automatically Frodo held out the coin with the black seal he held in his hand. Bartolo had pulled a thick folder out of the inside of his jacket, handed it to Frodo as he took the coin, turned to leave. “There you have it, then. May you rest well in it.” He was gone before Frodo could say another word, and the deputy Mayor looked after him with a shocked expression on his face. Isumbard and the other three immediately were reaching for the folder.
Frodo continued to look after with a look of shock. “He took my coin,” he said stupidly. “Bartolo Bracegirdle took my coin!” He turned to Isumbard. “Why did he do that?”
Isumbard had taken possession of the folder first, had opened it with shaking fingers. He knew what the need for the coin was--transfer of a title to anyone but an heir could not be legal if no coin were exchanged, after all. He examined the document’s first sheet, then looked up in triumph at Frodo. “She did it!” he whispered. “She did something right, for the first time in her life. She’s returning Bag End to you.”
Frodo looked at him, shocked for the second time that day. “Lobelia is giving me back Bag End?”
“Yes, she’s giving it back to you. She says she ought never to have agreed to accepting it to begin with, that it belongs to you in heart and soul, and she could never agree to living there again with the memory of Lotho’s murder always coming back to her.”
Frodo took the document and sank onto a stool which sat nearby, read it through, running his fingers at intervals through his hair, making it stand up from his brow. Finally he looked up at Isumbard again. “She’s done it--she’s really done it.” He shook his head. His face was pale and his expression indefinable. “She’s done it--Bag End is mine again.” He suddenly was weeping.
Isumbard helped him back to the desk and settled him into the chair. He looked at his cousin Tolly and sighed. “Will you go over to Hobbiton and fetch Master Samwise? I think we may need him.” Tolly looked at Frodo and nodded, set out with no other word. Isumbard went back to the table and gathered up the other five coins and the purse and the bag, and brought them to set on the Mayor’s desk, then set down the coin he’d still been carrying beside the rest. He then took the mug that sat before Frodo and took it out of the Council Hole to throw the contents out into the day’s rain, came back and collected the water skin on the way, poured some of its contents into the mug as he came, finally set the mug before Frodo Baggins with the suggestion, “I think perhaps you ought to drink that.”