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The Ties of Family
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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17
Visits with Tooks and Brandybucks

Visits with Tooks and Brandybucks

At the Free Fair Fosco again danced with those performing the Husbandmen’s dance, and both he and Forsythia took part in the rest of the dancing as well. Forsythia found herself partnered during the Springlering with Alumbard Took, a younger cousin of the Thain’s, and enjoyed herself thoroughly.

Later in the day the children gathered around the ale barrels which had been carried out of the ale tent, where this year Meriadoc Brandybuck sat waiting for them. “I understand,” he began, “that you are accustomed to hearing tales told here. Well, it was suggested that since the tale to be told this time happened to me, I perhaps ought to tell it myself. Not, of course, that I was the only one who took part, mind you--my young cousin Pippin was there, too. However, as he was just married this morning, I regret to say he is more than a bit distracted at the moment, so it falls to me to tell it. So, if I should make myself a bit more heroic sounding than I do him, we shan’t tell him, shall we?”

The children giggled while those older lads and lasses and the adults who stood to listen laughed outright.

“You know,” he said, his voice becoming more solemn, “that the one his folk called Sharkey sent his Big Men here to the Shire to help Lotho Pimple take it over, causing the Time of Troubles. I’m not certain what all names Sharkey had, but the one he was best known by in the outer world was Saruman, Saruman the White.” And so began the story of the descent of one sent to oppose the will of Sauron into madness, envy, and corruption. He told of the coming of the Wizards, sent from the West to aid the free peoples to stand against Sauron’s will, the disappearance of the two Blue Wizards into the East, the calling of the White Council by the Lady Galadriel of Lothlorien, the choice of Saruman over her suggestion as its chief, the appointment of Saruman as the White, of his growing but hidden jealousy of Gandalf the Grey, also known as Mithrandir, the Grey Pilgrim, whose wisdom was deeper and who had the respect of those whose regard was worth having, moreso than did Saruman.

The children listened with interest, and as Merry began to describe how Saruman began to envy and emulate the Dark Lord, they began to look at one another with knowing nods. When he described the betrayal and imprisonment of Gandalf when Gandalf had come to him to ask for advice in how to direct the Ringbearer, their eyes bored into him. When he told of the rescue by Gwaihir the Windlord they cheered.

“The Fellowship of the Ring traveled down the Great River Anduin from Lothlorien in three small, light silver boats given us by the Lord Celeborn and the Lady Galadriel. Eight of us traveled in those boats--Aragorn son of Arathorn, who had been introduced to us in Bree as Strider, who had been caretaker of the Sword that was Broken since he came of age at twenty--”

“Twenty!” interrupted a young Sandybanks lad. “You aren’t of age when you’re twenty!”

“Not among Hobbits, but they do among Men, for Men come to adulthood sooner than Hobbits do, and also die at a younger age for the most part,” Merry explained. “Not that this is likely to be true of our Lord Aragorn, however--he is not a common Man, after all, for he is the Dúnedan, the heir of the Sea Kings through Elendil and Isildur and their descendants. The Dúnedain live often twice the time of common Men, and it is likely the Lord Aragorn will live to be over two hundred years of age, if he is not slain in battle.

“I was beginning to name those who rode in the boats down the River. Our leader from the Bridge of Khazad-dum on had been Aragorn, who now carried the Sword Reforged, no longer called Narsil but named now Anduril, the Flame of the West. With us was also Boromir son of Denethor, Captain of the Hosts of Gondor and Heir to the Lord Steward of Gondor as well. Then there was the Elf Legolas, whose father Thranduil was King of the Elven Kingdom of Mirkwood, and the Dwarf Gimli son of Gloin of Erebor and the Iron Hills, craftsman and warrior of his people. And there were the four Hobbits, Peregrin Took, Meriadoc Brandybuck, Samwise Gamgee, and the Ringbearer. The ninth of our party, the Wizard Gandalf, known better in the Southlands as Mithrandir, was no longer with us, for he had fallen in Moria, dragged off the broken bridge of Khazad-dum by the whip of the Balrog. We believed he had fallen to his death, which was true--and yet he was sent back by the Creator and the Valar to finish his task, which remained to bring all to stand against Sauron, to work and fight together that his will not be imposed on all of Middle Earth.

“The chasm spanned by the Bridge was very, very deep, and long Wizard and Balrog fell, and as they fell they fought, until at last they fell into the deep underground lake at the bottom of the shaft. They plunged through the water, and the Balrog sought to flee Gandalf, and found the Endless Stair to the top of Zirak-Zigal, as the Dwarves call it, where there stood a Dwarf tower atop the peak of the mountain. There Wizard and Balrog fought long until at last Gandalf was able to cast the demon down to its final destruction. However, the battle cost Gandalf all that was there in his mortal frame, and his spirit fled to the West until it was sent back, and his body awakened there in the snow atop the mountain.

“Again Gwaihir the Windlord found him newly awakened, and bore him to Lothlorien after we left it, and the Lord and Lady of that land rejoiced to know he was now returned and had been named by the Valar as the White in place of the fallen Wizard Saruman. But this none of us in the Fellowship knew as yet.

“Aragorn was uncertain what path Gandalf had purposed to follow, whether to go to Gondor and its capitol of Minas Tirith, or to turn Southeast to Mordor that the Ringbearer might complete his task with our assistance, or if we were to split up and part go the one way and the rest the other. Certainly Boromir had no intention of traveling East to Mordor at that time--his duty was to return to his city and again take command of the armies of Gondor. Aragorn had thought to accompany him there, for the time was now come for the Heir of Isildur to proclaim himself openly; but with the fall of Gandalf he felt he must now accompany the Ringbearer and guard him as he might, so he felt honor-bound to go to Mordor with Frodo.”

Now he described the breaking of the Fellowship, of the Ringbearer’s decision, in the wake of the threat by Boromir, to go alone to spare the others and to draw the Evil, he thought, away from them, and of the refusal of Sam to allow him to go on alone. He told of the arrival of the army of Uruk-hai sent by Saruman, ordered to capture the Halflings and to slay the rest, of them finding only two Halflings on the slopes of Amon Hen, of their slaying of Boromir and the taking of Merry and Pippin prisoner with the intent to bring them not Southeast into Mordor but back West to Isengard at the Gap of Rohan. He described the horrors of regaining consciousness to find oneself so tightly bound one could not move hands or legs properly, the stench of the orcs, the burning of their draught, the promised tortures recited by those who watched over them in the brief and infrequent moments of rest, the burning of the wound on his forehead when the salve was rubbed into it, the numbness that came on the minds of the two Hobbits as they were alternately hauled along like sacks of potatoes and made to run among their captors, constantly receiving lashes to motivate them to run longer and faster. And he described the cleverness of Pippin, the ruse of the loops, the sacrifice of the Elven brooch, the leaving of clear footprints at the cost of a severe lashing, the leadership in the eventual escape.

The assault by the Rohirrim under the command of Éomer brought another cheer, as did the escape by the Hobbits into Fangorn Forest.

“Beyond the High Hay that marks the eastern borders of most of Buckland lies the Old Forest, whose trees are among the most ancient and most aware in all of Middle Earth; but the trees of Fangorn are even more aware and more limblithe; and they are guarded by the Ents, the great shepherds of the Trees. Never had Pippin or I thought to meet them, not that we even knew of their existence within Middle Earth; but meet them we did.

“The anger of the Ents was growing due to the increasing assaults on their trees as Saruman, dismissing the Ents from his thinking, sent his slaves, orcs and Men both, to cut down Fangorn Forest to feed his machines and furnaces. The news that Saruman was also betraying the land of Rohan and that meant that he would need ever more fuel which would increase the attacks on their trees sparked the Ents to war against the Wizard. The forest erupted, and Treebeard, the eldest of all the still-active Ents, carried us on his shoulders as he marched at the head of their line, South and West to the Gap of Rohan and the Ring of Isengard.

“It is amazing how poorly the minds of bullies and thieves work. They threaten and take, and as long as those they threaten, steal from, and hurt allow the bullying to continue unimpeded, the bullies will convince themselves they are the strong ones. When at last they push too far and the ones being abused and threatened retaliate, usually they are taken by surprise, for they take lack of action by others as signs of weakness. Saruman proved he was not truly wise when he failed to even consider the fact that the Ents, whose existence he definitely was aware of, might fight back. It was an amazing sight to see.

“Saruman had sent off the total of his forces against the people of Rohan, leaving few of his servants, slaves, and orcs within the Ring of Isengard. When the Ents began their assault they were taken totally by surprise. In the end, the Ents prevailed, trapping Saruman alone in his tower, filling the vale surrounding it with water to hold him there. And all this we saw, Pippin and I.

“Then we heard the sound of hooves, and a white shape veiled in a grey cloak approached, and for the first time Pippin and I saw Gandalf returned, now Gandalf the White. Treebeard agreed to keep Saruman penned within the Tower of Orthanc, and to put his agent Gríma Wormtongue with him should he come to report to his master; and Gandalf left again with the loan of a number of Huorns, the half-aware trees of Fangorn who accompanied the Ents to Isengard.”

Briefly he told of the defeat of Saruman’s army at Helm’s Deep and the destruction of its remnants by the Huorns sent by Treebeard, then the arrival of the King of Rohan, his nephew Éomer, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and Gandalf at Isengard. He described the parley, and the decision to leave Saruman under the guard of the Ents.

“The Ents declared they would hold Saruman prisoner; but when the Ring was destroyed and Sauron fell in Mordor, the Ents came to believe that Saruman was now powerless to cause further harm, and Treebeard allowed him to leave. After the wedding of our Lord King Aragorn Elessar to the Lady Arwen Undomiel, we finally set out to return to the Shire, in company with most of the surviving Rangers from Arnor who had gone south to fight alongside their Lord Captain and Chieftain Aragorn, and the Elves of Lorien and Rivendell. On the way we came upon Saruman, now ragged and beggarly, still followed by the craven remnant of Gríma Wormtongue, and we pitied them both, so far had they fallen. I even gave Saruman some of my pipeweed, although all he did in return was to offend us, and particularly Frodo, who did nothing to cause anyone offense--unless it was to make certain that the Enemy’s Ring would be capable of tempting no one in the future. No, all that Saruman would do was to offend us and to steal from me openly my pouch. Frodo grieved for him, and we did not understand fully--not then, not until we saw Gandalf leaving Middle Earth--then and only then did I finally begin to understand the beginnings of the Wizards and their true nature, and then and only then did I begin to understand why Frodo had wished to allow time for Sharkey to find healing that perhaps he might have been able to return to his brethren.

“They would not hurry us more than necessary, and at the time again I did not understand fully why this was so, although I was loath to lose the fellowship of the Northern Dúnedain and that of the Elves, particularly the Lady Galadriel. So it was that we returned October twenty-second, to find that Sharkey had gotten here before us and had had Lotho killed and buried and had ordered the destruction of as much of the beauty of the Shire as possible. He looked on us and particularly on Frodo with hatred and satisfaction, and was angry and even unwillingly respectful when Frodo would not return evil for evil, when even then Frodo wished to give him the chance to heal and find himself again. To spark respect in his heart was, in the depths to which he had sunk, the worst offense of them all, so he sought to strike out at Frodo and to kill him, only Frodo was still wearing the mithril shirt beneath his clothing, and the blow did him no real hurt, only snapped the blade of a good knife to no purpose. And even then Frodo still offered him the gift of time to find forgiveness, and so it was to his own he offered his last offense, and it was poor Wormtongue who finally gave him what he desired--hatred, anger, and release.

“I’d not realized that the immortals could truly find in life a great weariness, that they might themselves wish to be relieved of the burden of it in the end, but so it was with Saruman, who had been intended to know the most blessed of existences but who had lost that ability by coming to desire power instead. And so it was he found the same end as did Sauron himself, but to a far smaller and more petty scale. The Valar would receive neither back among themselves, and the last rising of their spirits was shivered to nothingness as in each case their seemings were blown apart by a West wind.”

One of those sitting nearby was the Thain himself. He looked at Merry and asked, “One thing I still don’t understand was why you didn’t return home the faster.”

Merry looked at him, his gaze sad but level. “As I said, I didn’t fully understand then why, but I finally did when we reached the Grey Havens--for Frodo’s sake. Until he embraced me in farewell I did not truly appreciate how ill he was, Uncle. They sought always to take the way as easily as possible to avoid causing him stress.”

The Thain looked down at his hands in consideration, then looked back at his nephew’s eyes with a small nod of understanding. “I see,” he said quietly. “And thank you for more fully explaining Sharkey’s nature to us.”

*******

Narcissa this year took Forsythia and Fosco to the Great Smial and Brandy Hall, and then through much of the East Farthing. At the Great Smial those who remembered Emerald Boffin with fondness and concern found themselves thrilled to meet her son and daughter, and the Thain was certainly glad to come to know them better at last. He found his attention drawn back repeatedly to the resemblance between young Fosco and his cousin. Eglantine had taken one look at him and automatically given him the room that had always housed Frodo when he came to visit. And everyone seemed drawn to Forsythia, her obvious intelligence and good sense.

It had been years since the Thain had worked the land at the farm at Whitwell; now much came back to him as he found himself discussing the Gravelly farm in Westhall and Griffo’s in Overhill, both of which these two knew well.

Ferdibrand Took found fascination in trying to understand Fosco’s vision. “I had the chance to speak a good deal with Master Ruvemir’s ward Ririon while he was here. He had good vision until last fall, when he developed the children’s pox, which appears to have scarred the front of his eye. He was finding ways of cutting the glare by wearing brimmed hats which allowed him to see detail better, and I showed him how I’d begun using a walking stick to feel the ground in front of me so as to avoid tripping over items or stepping off into dips, and to find the harder way of the paths and roads.”

Fosco considered this with interest. “I see best over to my right side, and with my right eye. I see almost nothing with my left eye. I can read if I hold the writing near to my face. I enjoy reading those books which Iorhael copied for Uncle Bilbo, for it is usually clear and sufficiently large I can make it out easily, but at the same time the letters sufficiently small I can see most of the word at a time. Uncle Bilbo’s writing, on the other hand, is hard for me to make out.

“I’d never thought of using a cane or a staff to feel the way before me. Always I’ve walked with my sister or Mum or Da. I’ll definitely have to consider it, for I can’t always lean on them, can I?

“How did it feel for you to go from seeing normally to not seeing at all?”

Isumbard found himself comparing lives and experiences with Narcissa Boffin, for both were the great grandchildren of Isembold Took, a generation further from the Old Took than the twins for all they were far older. Narcissa found Pearl far different than she remembered, quieter, more approachable, less likely to convey that level of self-centeredness that had been so obvious when she was younger. The marriage was a good one, and they were clearly devoted to one another on both sides.

The third night of the stay Narcissa and Pearl sat in the Thain’s parlor after the rest had gone to bed, Pearl embroidering a waistcoat she said was intended for young Piper, Narcissa mending a given seam in Fosco’s trousers. At last Narcissa asked the question that had bothered her for two and a half decades: “Why did you pull away from Frodo as you did, Pearl?”

Pearl sighed, and put down her needle. “First Sam, and now you,” she said.

“Master Gamgee has asked you?” Narcissa asked, surprised.

Pearl nodded. “Not long after Frodo left the Shire, in fact. I think he had his own suspicions and wished to see if they were accurate. When I told him, he certainly nodded as if it were about what he’d expected.” Narcissa waited. Finally Pearl continued, “It was Lobelia--Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and her gossip. Told me Frodo had a weak heart, and that he could die easily if a shock were to be great enough. Told me our children could inherit it. I talked to one of the healers at Brandy Hall, and he told me that it was true, that as a child Frodo had shown the signs of problems with his heart. That was when I stopped listening. We have enough Boffins in the family, after all, to know that weak hearts can be passed through families.”

Narcissa nodded in her turn. “Both my father and Folco’s certainly died suddenly from heart problems,” she commented.

Pearl looked at her cousin. “Yes, I know. But as I said, I had stopped listening. Last year a number of healers came here for a conference about the Healer’s Garden near the Three-Farthing Stone, the one commissioned by Frodo, and of course they began discussing Frodo himself and his condition there at the end. Drolan Chubbs, whose family saw to the needs of Bilbo and Frodo for years, discussed the records his grandmother Laurel left in which she explained she’d examined Frodo extensively during the time he was so sick, there just after he went to live with Bilbo at Bag End, and she was convinced that he’d outgrown the whispering of his heart. Several others discussed how often it is that children born with such manage to grow up strong and healthy. Budgie Smallfoot said that he was indeed ill and suffering from failure of the heart at the end, but that considering how badly hurt he was during the quest, he was more amazed he’d survived at all. Just the starvation Fredegar had been through had caused him to suffer seizures of his heart; and what he survived was nothing compared to what Frodo went through, from what he would admit to.

“I asked Pippin, and at last he started listing all Frodo had been through, and I began to understand why Budgie said what he did.”

“What was it?”

“Are you certain you really want to know, Narcissa? It was very lengthy, and was quite brutal.”

Narcissa did not hesitate. “Yes, I want to know, Pearl.”

“If you are certain. The worst woundings were on October sixth, March thirteenth, and March twenty-fifth. October sixth was two weeks after they left Bag End. The Nazgul--the Black Riders--caught up with them in the wilds of Eriador, between Bree and Rivendell. Five of the Nine circled the camp where they rested the night beneath Amon Sul or Weathertop, a hill which had once held a watchtower built by Elendil. One of them stabbed Frodo with a Morgul blade, a knife with a brittle, bespelled blade, designed to break off in the wound. The splinter was bespelled to work its way to the heart, at which time the victim would cease to live properly, but would become a wraith like them, but under their domination. If Frodo had been as tall as a Man perhaps they would have finished the job that night, but instead the blade caught him high in the left shoulder, just below the collarbone. The splinter appeared to have traveled more slowly in Frodo than in others, for he bore it for seventeen days. They had to make two tries to get it out--the first time they had to stop--he was too weak, and Aragorn, who was assisting Lord Elrond, collapsed from weariness. They had to wait a few more days for Frodo to strengthen before they tried again, and this time they got it out and melted the shard. They told Sam, Merry, and Pippin it was almost to the heart itself, and had they waited even three hours more it is likely it would have been too late. Although once it was out Frodo appeared to recover very rapidly, Merry was advised by Lord Elrond that Frodo would never truly recover from it, that the wound could not properly heal, not as long as Frodo remained in Middle Earth. After that whenever the Nazgul came within sensing distance Frodo would clutch at it in pain; as time passed and their Master came closer and closer to his goal of total domination they became stronger and those in the Fellowship could sense their presence from further and further away. Sam said that whenever one flew overhead as they approached Mordor it was the same--Frodo would relive the stabbing, again and again, he’d go pale, he’d break out in a sweat, and clutch at the wound. The Ring Itself would work on him then, seeking to force him to put It on and reveal himself and It to them. Sam said he often had to take hold of Frodo’s hands to help him fight It.

“Exactly what happened on the thirteenth and the twenty-fifth I’m not certain, for they all choke up on it, still; except that the Ring was destroyed on the twenty-fifth, and somehow in the doing of it Frodo lost his finger. I think my parents know, but even they just shake their heads, saying it was very bad. Something wounded him on the back of the neck, and I know he was captured briefly, and he was tightly bound. Sam found him and rescued him, I’m told.

“After the Ring was destroyed, Sam was able to somehow bring Frodo away from the Mountain and onto a knoll of some kind, and they could talk for a moment, then they passed out, overwhelmed by the gases and heat and weakness. Gandalf and the Eagles found them there.

“Between times, they were both apparently beaten by orcs, but I’m not certain of the details. It does appear, however, that Frodo was hurt worse than Sam--perhaps because he was weaker. Another time Frodo was hit by a spear, only the mail shirt turned it. Then one of the others in the Fellowship, the Lord Boromir, tried to take the Ring. Much of the time Frodo was only a step from total exhaustion. Both he and Sam fell repeatedly as they went through Mordor, and both had cuts where they fell or crawled over sharp stones. And there was a deep scar, Uncle Saradoc says, around Frodo’s neck where the chain the Ring hung from cut into his shoulders and neck, for It became heavier as they went deeper into Mordor.

“There, I think that is it. Pretty awful, isn’t it?”

“How do they know what days these things happened on?”

“The Men knew what day it was when the Ring went into the Fire because they were outside Mordor fighting Sauron’s army when It was destroyed, and suddenly all the orcs and trolls turned and ran away, and the Men in Sauron’s army found themselves abandoned. All saw the Tower of Barad-dur collapse, and the shape of Sauron rear into the sky, where it was blown apart by a West Wind. The earth itself opened up and swallowed up all other signs of Mordor’s might--the Black Gate, the Towers, much of the armies.... Pippin said it was the most amazing thing anyone could see, from what he was told. He didn’t see that part, for he’d stabbed a troll which fell on him as it died, crushing him and a few others beneath its body. Gimli finally found him and brought his broken body to Aragorn. Gandalf apparently was able to work out when the other wounding happened from what Sam and Lord Faramir told him.

“And on the anniversaries of those three days Frodo would have assaults of the memories, so strong it was as if he were reliving them. And he could barely eat at all.”

“Yes, he told me about that--and I could see it, too. We shared a table in the Green Dragon, and all he could get down was half a pastie, a small mug of light ale, and a cup of tea.”

“The few times he came here it was the same, not that Mum and Da were making it easy for him. They were not wanting to really hear what happened, and every time anyone tried to tell them, they’d twist the questions and answers all around and drive them crazy. No wonder Pippin had to move into the house in Crickhollow with Merry. Merry’s folks were willing to believe them--what they could tell of it, at least--but they were then trying to baby Merry after.

“All had horrible nightmares based on what they’d been through. It was very hard on all of them.”

“And,” Narcissa said quietly, “especially Frodo.”

“Yes, exactly,” Pearl agreed. Finally she added, “It is so odd to see these two now, so very like him and yet unlike him at the same time.”

“I know. It’s almost as if they were his children, you know. But, then, they are his cousins, after all.”

Pearl smiled. “New cousins that no one knew he had--save Frodo himself--the sly Hobbit.”

After a time Narcissa asked, “Do you regret having thrown Frodo over, Pearl?”

Pearl considered for some moments. “I’ve never stopped loving him, I think, but it’s not the same as what I know for Bard. I can’t imagine now actually having married Frodo instead, and I know I’d have felt out of place at Bag End and in Hobbiton. It would have felt terribly out-of-the-way, I think, being hours away from the Great Smial and my family. To not have Pansy and Isumbrand, but to have other children instead? And I know I’d have been mortified to have the neighbors in and have them discover Frodo and the children had filled the windowsills with jars of his water worms and boxes of caterpillars and leaves.”

“But you grew up on a farm....”

Pearl shrugged. “Yes, I grew up on a farm, but I came of age here in the Great Smial. I find I rather like feeling elegant more than I like raising chickens and milking cows.”

Suddenly Narcissa found herself doing something she’d never in her wildest dreams have imagined--she was giggling along with Pearl Took.

From the Great Smial they went to Budgeford, and then on to Buckland and Brandy Hall. Always the three of them were greeted with courtesy and curiosity. They were greeted at Brandy Hall by the Master and his wife and heir and heir’s wife, attended by Brendilac Brandybuck as well as the Master’s brother and closer cousins.

“I understand,” Estella said once they’d been settled in their rooms in the guest wing and had returned to the library, “that you have just come from seeing my parents and my brother and Melilot.”

“Yes,” Fosco replied, “and they send their greetings. They all appear happy and well, and were very welcoming to us.”

“It does feel very familiar,” Master Saradoc said, “welcoming a Baggins here--for our side of it, at least. We’ve all seen you, after all, over the past two years dancing the Husbandmen’s Dance at the Free Fair. I suppose Frodo himself taught you?”

“Yes, he did.”

“And Forsythia, you were fantastic in the Springlering.”

She flushed slightly. “Thank you, Master Saradoc.”

“We are having a party in three days’ time, and I hope the two of you will join in the festivities. How did you enjoy our jaunt out to Bree last year?”

“It was most interesting,” Fosco said. “The Gravellies were able to commit to a fair amount, but our Baggins family has little enough to trade now that there are so few of us--only four other males of the name throughout the Shire, one of them a babe in arms, his brother and grandfather, and Uncle Ponto and me. But Forsythia and I were able meet some of those of whom Cousin Frodo had told us, and see how the Shire is now coming into awareness of the rest of Arnor and Gondor.”

“What was your impression of the Lord Steward Halladan?”

“He is a very courteous and intelligent individual, and I certainly wouldn’t wish to lie to him. I have the feeling he’d see right through it. And if he is the King’s cousin, I find myself wondering what the Lord Aragorn is like to meet in person. Certainly Iorhael had only good things to say of him.”

Merry smiled. “He didn’t speak, then, of Strider’s tendency to insist we not indulge our sense of comfort or curiosity at the risk of safety? Of how annoyed he’d become when Strider would ask Pippin to take on himself some duty which Frodo was certain was inappropriate to one not quite of age as yet? Or when Strider would question the rest of us but not him when gathering information when a decision needed to be made? Of course, when he got to that point Frodo was pretty ill, but it would still annoy him.”

“No,” Forsythia said. “He never spoke of things like that, but then after his return we saw a good deal less of him--he simply wasn’t up to traveling to Westhall.”

“I know,” Mistress Esmeralda said, her eyes sad. “The few times he came here it was almost more than he could do.”

“I can imagine,” Fosco said. “He was so weak when we saw him at the Free Fair that last time. Is it true that Pando Proudfoot has gone to Gondor?”

“You’ve met young Pando?”

“Yes, in Hobbiton during one of our visits with Daisy and Griffo. We met Pando and his sister Cyclamen.”

“Yes, he’s gone to study working with clay. Master Ruvemir appears to believe he is quite gifted.”

“Which reminds me,” Merry said, “I intercepted a letter to you from Folco, Narcissa.” He left the room, and returned shortly with a packet which he handed to her. “Otherwise you’d not have received it until you returned home,” he said as she examined the address.

The packet contained a lovely light shawl which was beautifully embroidered with flowers. “Ah, Mistress Miriel’s work,” said Esmeralda as she received it to examine it. “How wonderful. Now almost all of us have samples of her embroidery.”

Under the shawl she found a large folded leather frame containing a portrait of Folco and a second of the mannikin woman she’d seen at Yule. Yes, she could see what Folco had meant about her lovely eyes, for they were that. And no question both faces in the portraits appeared happy. She examined them closely, then passed them around. Under that was another of a woman, her eyes shining with delight, dressed as a bride with bridal wreath on her brow and a sheaf of flowers in her arms, in a beautifully embroidered cream-colored gown, her long hair loose around her shoulders. With it was another portrait done by another hand of the mannikin Man himself, in a blue mantle over blue shirt and surcoat and black trousers, with a green wreath on his head, his face alight with joy.

These were now being passed around, and Estella examined the portrait of Ruvemir and smiled. “So, Mistress Miriel is able to do portraits as well as flowers and greenery. This is an excellent depiction of Master Ruvemir, is it not, Merry?”

Merry took it next and smiled. “Oh, no question, my love. So, finally we get to see the face of the Lady Elise. How happy she appears.”

Master Saradoc laughed. “She’d best be happy, if she’s married to Master Ruvemir. He’s a delight to know--there can be no dissension on that matter.”

“I hope when they return north once the monument is done they will come here again,” Esmeralda said. “Ah, yes, she’s a lovely thing indeed. No wonder his face lit so when speaking of her.”

There was one more portrait, of King, Queen, and infant daughter, the King seated holding the child, wife standing beside him, their faces alight with tenderness.

“No question,” Narcissa said quietly as she looked at the picture of the Queen, “that she is of Elvish blood.” She handed it to Brendilac.

The lawyer examined it closely. “Strong resemblance to the Elves who sang here that time.”

Merry nodded. “She is their sister, after all. Lords Elladan and Elrohir are so deeply caring of her as well. I am glad they were allowed to linger after their father’s going.”

“Why do you suppose the Valar allowed that?” asked his wife.

He shrugged. “I suppose it must have been for Arwen’s sake,” he finally said as Brendilac handed the portrait to him. “When the time comes for Aragorn to die at last, it will be quite a shock to her, I fear. For all she’s embraced mortality, that’s going to be extremely hard for her to deal with, the loss of the one to whom she’s finally given her heart.” He examined the infant. “But it appears that the Lady Melian will be as beautiful as her mother and great grandmother.”

“The Queen’s grandmother is still alive?” asked Forsythia.

Merry smiled up at her. “Alive? Ah, but the Lady Galadriel has been alive for a very, very long time. I’m so glad she was there at Frodo’s side when they left. Her presence must have made it easier for him. Plus, it would mean a good deal to him to be present at the time her banishment was finally officially over, to see her welcomed back to Aman at the last. And she must have been delighted to be reunited not only with the kin she left behind when she came to Middle Earth, but with her daughter as well, and to see Celebrían reunited with her husband.”

Under all was the letter.

Dearest Narcissa,

It has been a time since I could write before. We had more of an adventure traveling South to Lebennin than we’d thought to, for our party was being sought for, we learned, by parties intent on disrupting the peace between Gondor and Rhun. I am told the King himself left the fighting in Rhun to go to Umbar with his cousin Hardorn to deal with the one at the heart of the problem, and I hope that the situation is at an end. Now, if he can settle out the problems between Rhun and the Wainriders with as little bloodshed as possible, I think he will be happy.

The farm here is beautiful, and the soil deep and rich. I am already happy here, and Rupter, the herd bull, follows me about like a puppy.

There are four dogs here now, a guard dog and one to give tongue when problems are about, Ririon’s dog Joy, who has learned to guard his steps for him, and now a small lapdog named Bella given to Miriel by Master Faragil as a wedding gift. Bella is a small, fluffy dog with a warm and loving disposition who follows Miriel everywhere and gently abides the attention heaped on her by small Lanrion.

Lorieth and Lanrion are such lovely children, and appear to be very happy. Lorieth has fallen in love with one of Uncle Bilbo’s songs, the one about “Around the corner there may wait / A standing stone or secret gate.” She sings it often, and between her and Miriel and Elise on our way south made up a game in which we must imagine what stands behind the secret gate. “When we open the secret gate we will see...” has become quite the game played here. She and Ririon will play it by the hour as he is shaping one of his figures. The object is to remember all the other items to be found there that have already been said, and to add one more. Both have good heads for the game, and can get to quite lengthy lists before one or the other makes a mistake and must start over again.

We are told that Ruvemir is finally working in earnest on the monument once more, although he’s been much distracted by his other new duties. He’s now taken over the workshop of the former master for the apprentice Celebgil plus his apprentices and current commissions, said Master having been imprisoned for shocking improprieties. Master Faragil has returned to the capitol, for it appears he is attracted to Mistress Idril, grandmother to Ruvemir’s wife Elise, and finds it difficult courting her by letter. He is assisting with the workshop and the apprentices, allowing Ruvemir more time with the King’s commission. As for my father-in-love, he, too, is pursuing a courtship, and with Elise’s mother who was widowed when Elise and her sister were small by an accident in the First Circle. As for Dorieth, Elise’s sister--she has caught the interest of young Celebgil, and I would not be in the least surprised, once Celebgil has been accepted as a sculptor in his own right, to see the two of them wed. It appears the entire family is drawn to those of artistic temperament.

Anyway, the monument is progressing once more. Will you and the twins consider coming for the unveiling when that time comes? I hope you will, and I think you will find it very heartening. I suspect that Merry, Pippin, Sam and their brides will be prevailed upon to come for it. And believe me, Ruvemir will capture them for certain.

I send pictures so that all can see my bride and Ruvemir’s and the new Princess Melian. She is a delightful infant, and is so well beloved by her parents.

What is the name given to Sam and Rosie’s new child? I am told the King has seen that it is a daughter.

My love to all, and may the Valar protect and guide you ever.

Your cousin,
Folco


Narcissa read this aloud, and all listened with interest. “How would the King have seen that Sam and Rosie’s child is a daughter?” asked Esmeralda.

Merry laughed. “Probably through the use of one of the two Palantiri he has. The last two remaining in Middle Earth, from what we know. I suspect that after Melian was safely born he slipped away and checked to see whether or not Sam’s child had been born yet. Or it might simply be the result of his or the Lady Arwen’s family gift of foresight. Both are given to it, after all.”

Narcissa considered the letter that night. Would she wish to go south to see the unveiling when the time came? Or would the pain of seeing Frodo’s image in stone be such that it would bring back the overwhelming feelings of loss she’d known? She’d have to think on it, she decided.

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