Brendilac Brandybuck and Isumbard Took stood there, almost as motionless as the three figures they examined, while Fredegar Bolger simply stood, shaking his head. “You can still see the hint of a bird’s nest behind the ear of one of them, just as described by Frodo,” he commented.
Aragorn nodded. “Actually, one family of starlings seems to return here year after year and nests on one or another of them, it seems. I have found it interesting to watch them, myself. But, if you could have seen those two--” indicating Merry and Pippin, “--when they first saw them--their alarm was actually quite gratifying.”
Pippin gave him a look that was meant to be scathing, but fell short as he could not seem to stop his own laughter. “I was definitely being a fool of a Took that day, I must say.”
Finally Brendilac turned back from his examination of the three stone trolls. “They are marvelous! And they are so big!” He turned to Pippin. “You killed one of those things?”
Pippin’s smile faded. “Yes, I killed a troll, but far worse than these three. The one I killed was far, far worse. It had been bred by Sauron himself to fight and maim. Quite different from these ones. These were foolish and greedy, not bred only for evil uses.”
Diamond shuddered. “If it was worse than these, I’m glad I never saw it.”
The King’s face was equally solemn to that of his Perian Guard. “I pray no one will ever need to see such as Pippin fought ever again. It made the one we fought in Moria even look small and relatively harmless by comparison.”
Gimli looked at him and raised his eyebrows. “Considering how many blows the creature took before we finally felled it, I would never consider that cave troll harmless, Aragorn.”
Legolas gave a graceful shrug. “Yet he is right--the ones bred by Sauron were indeed far worse.”
“The one before the Black Gate was heavy enough,” agreed the Dwarf. “Took about all I had to roll it away.”
Paladin Took and Saradoc Brandybuck looked on the three figures with shudders. “I am glad Eglantine stayed there at the road,” the Thain commented. “These would shock her pretty badly, I suspect.”
Fosco and Ferdibrand were feeling the nearest one, Forsythia describing it to the two of them. Narcissa had elected to stay with Sam, Pimpernel, Eglantine and Esmeralda and the children near the road, while Rosie had come here to look at the trolls. She was standing near the Thain, looking up with awe at the size of the things. “And Sam was here?” she asked.
“Indeed, and recited a poem he’d composed about a stone troll for our amusement. Was the first time we’d seen Frodo truly smile, much less laugh, in days.”
Merry nodded his agreement. “Anything that could ease the greyness and cold he was experiencing was welcome.”
Faramir and Éowyn returned with Beregond and Bergil from circling the furthest. “Impressive,” Faramir said quietly. “And you took a rotten branch to one?”
The King nodded, grinning broadly. “Had to reassure certain terrified Halflings there was nothing to worry about, after all. Not precisely the most valiant blow I ever struck.”
“That I’d have loved to see--the looks on their faces....”
Ruvemir had his sketch booklet out and was drawing rapidly, while Armanthol was doing the same.
Shortly after they were back on the road headed west again. As they rode Aragorn described the lands about them, the settlements that once filled the countryside. Sam looked about, and pointed out where he’d first gathered the athelas plants he’d taken back to the Shire with him.
“You did well making the draught for him,” the King said quietly.
“Had to do something, Strider--he was hurting bad, and it was almost as if he was going through it again--the cold, the greyness.”
Ruvemir and Elise were relieved to find their wagon was as they’d left it, although they’d been assured that Elves would keep an eye on it while they were in Rivendell. Lord Berenion examined it with interest. “Very clever,” he commented, “although if you must leave well traveled roads I suspect it would be less easy to manage.” Now that Sestor was properly mounted, he had begun falling back himself to ride alongside the caravan, listening with interest to the stories that the artist had gathered about these with whom they traveled, about the King who’d been a Ranger of Arnor, a Rider of Rohan, a Captain of Gondor, and a wanderer in Rhun and Harad at various times in his life; of the four Pheriannath who left the security of their own land to carry the evil of the Enemy’s Ring out of it, all nearly dying as each did what he could to fight the evil of Mordor; of the ride through the darkness from Dunharrow to Minas Tirith by the Rohirrim; the fight against the great spider Shelob on the borders of Mordor; of the finding of the Ringbearers on the side of Orodruin.
The ride back to Bree was relatively quiet and without great incident, save when Elanor slid down the steep side of one of the hills near Weathertop and cut her leg badly on a jagged rock. Alumbard and Levandoras Took had been climbing the steep slope with Bergil and Fosco, and Elanor had set out to follow them when she lost her footing in the scree. They camped there, though it was yet early in the day, but they did have fresh water nearby and shelter, and decent grazing for the horses and ponies.
Alumbard came back to the camp after taking a walk up the road carrying a shirt stud he’d found, and showed it to the party.
Sam looked at it with interest. “So, there it is, after all this time,” he said. “Frodo realized as it was missing--must of been a day east of here. Sleeve kept unrolling, it did, and was getting to be quite the nuisance. Glad as I’d thought to bring an extra pair--at least they stayed with him to Amon Hen.”
“Do you have the other one?” asked Levandoras.
“No.” The gardener’s expression was solemn. “I’ll admit I carried it a good distance--but I let it go in Mordor, there when I dumped all as wasn’t needed down the crack in the ground. Thought as we’d not have no need for such fripperies as shirt studs no more.”
Master Saradoc took it in turn and looked at it, and his face became sad as he examined it and then held it out to Esmeralda. “I remember the Yule we gave them to him. He’d just turned nineteen.”
She nodded. “Yes, the shirt studs and a new shirt to wear them in.”
Sam said softly, “He treasured them, Mistress. When we got here--must of been a half day after he was stabbed on Weathertop--he couldn’t move his left arm, and the shoulder was cold and pained him a lot, it did. He was still trying to do things hisself. Strider’d took the studs out, loosening the shirt and sleeves, trying to see if there was any other wound than the stab wound, or if there was any infection, then was called away from him for Mr. Merry thought as he saw something below us. Frodo tried to put them back in hisself, but it’s not as easy with but one hand working and he couldn’t raise the left arm to get at it right. Must of lost it not long after, and he didn’t even notice. He was in such pain, but wouldn’t speak of it, for we was all miserable. He didn’t notice till the next day, and I couldn’t find it anywhere.”
“He kept them for almost thirty-one years,” Eglantine commented as she took it to examine it. She held it out to Paladin, who looked at it briefly and gave it back to the Master, who at a nod from the King placed it in an inner pocket of his jacket.
That evening after Elanor’s leg was checked again and pronounced doing well and she and the children were bedded down, the older lads and Forsythia asked for a story. “Tell us a story that happened when you dwelt in Minas Tirith,” asked Piper.
The three Travellers looked at one another. Sam looked at Pippin. “You think of one,” he said.
The Took shrugged, then smiled. Taking a breath, he began, “Once in a time not so terribly long ago there dwelt in a guest house in the Sixth Circle of the White City of Gondor four Hobbits, a Wizard, an Elf, and a Dwarf. Now, they need not have dwelt there, for they were offered housing in the Citadel itself, but two among their number would not hear of that, were aghast at the idea, insisted on a level of privacy. Not, of course, that there is a great deal of privacy in the city of Minas Tirith. But had they accepted rooms in the Citadel they’d have had guards at the doors of their rooms at all hours, maids in and out all day and all night, which might have been interesting....”
A significant look from Diamond made him laugh, then his face grew more solemn. “Particularly for the sakes of the two Hobbits who’d been made Lords of the Realm, they were granted the use of the guest house in the Sixth Circle instead. For they desired some distance in which to--to find themselves somewhat. They’d managed to survive their ordeal, and still at times were struggling to understand quite how and why this had happened. Not, mind you, that the other two had remained unscathed, for at the end all four had managed to face and survive evil and injuries they’d never thought of in their darkest imaginings before. Each of the four had recurrent nightmares and would awake calling out for one or more of the others, and then others still. One does not face the darkness of Mordor itself and come away unscathed. None truly wished to have countless unknown guards and chambermaids overhearing those cries and being startled.
“Yet the King would not hear of us being totally unattended, for he knew that we would have nights of sleeplessness and perhaps pain as well. Both Merry and Frodo suffered from times when the pain and darkness associated with the Black Breath, Morgul wounds, and too close an encounter with the Lord of the Nazgul would make their shoulders and arms ache. The lungs of both Frodo and Sam were still clearing themselves of the ash they’d breathed crossing the plain of Gorgoroth and climbing the Mountain, and for much of the first month they’d suddenly go into coughing sprees sufficiently bad to require basins to be laid by them so that they could cough up blackened phlegm, and the King would not allow them to smoke their pipes.” Several of the listeners looked shocked at such an idea. “Nor would he allow me to smoke, not for the first six weeks, for my own lungs had been badly bruised by my time under the troll, between its weight and exposure to its stench and the amount of its blood I’d managed to breathe in. I needed exercises several times a day to strengthen the muscles about my hip where it had been dislocated from its socket so that it would bear my weight properly and not pull out again.” Ruvemir of Lebennin was nodding in sympathy.
“All of us would awaken in the night with our dreams of terror, and we found we could bear the comfort of one another, but not that of others we didn’t know. Frodo’s hand where the finger was lost would ache with the memory of how it had been first burned by what it had briefly borne, now fully awakened and intent on consuming him completely, then with the agony of when the finger was lost as Gollum wrested It from him. All of us had known the whips of orcs, and there were times the weals would ache, particularly Frodo’s, for on him the whips had bitten particularly deep. My arm had been broken as well as ribs, and changes in the weather would make the bones ache. And all of us had been on short rations, and needed to regain our proper weights--not that Frodo ever did so properly.” All shared looks of grief.
“But we also found ourselves full of an unexpected joy and at times giddiness, which would express itself in unexpected ways. One day the market was flooded with cherries and strawberries, both of which had apparently benefited from the ash of the Mountain, for more such fruits were harvested in the lands south of the city, we were told, than had been seen for years. We saw them and bought them in quantities which must have amazed those who tended the produce stalls in the markets. Strawberries and cream we consumed in amounts that even those here who enjoyed them in 1420 cannot imagine, and needless to say, our bodies did not always appreciate the abundance. Yet still, one day I devised a plan. Poor Frodo had been heard to comment that he was surprised I hadn’t as yet tried to bathe in them, so I went out while he was up in the Citadel with Aragorn and bought as much as I could lay hands on, then filled the bathing tub with them--and remember, this was a bathing tub intended for Men, so was much larger than what we would ordinarily use in the Shire. He returned, pleased with what had been accomplished but cold as he often was when tired, and went into the bathing room to warm himself with a bath.... Healer Evamir and his wife in the house next door must have heard the cry of surprise!
“The next day we began making jam with the fruit, and it was Sam who was scouring the markets for sufficient pots and jars, sugar and apple peel. Mistress Loren and young Lasgon were pressed into assisting us, and when Aragorn came down to find out why he’d not seen us all day he was pressed into helping us as well.”
Alumbard looked at the King in surprised. “Is this true, my Lord?” he asked.
The King was laughing. “True? Oh, I must say it was true indeed. Poor Hardorn there even found himself assisting. And I’m certain that to this day he doesn’t quite understand how he came to lay down his bow and instead work at sorting out moldy cherries and strawberries and taking them out to the compost pile. There are still jars of the jam in the storage cellars of the Citadel from that day. It was the first time I ever aided in making cherry and strawberry jams.”
The Queen was laughing also. “You mean, my love, that you helped to make the jam that was served with such abundance at our wedding feast?” At his nod she laughed the more. “I must say the jam we’ve eaten over the past few years has always been uncommonly good. Must be the touch of the King’s hand which aided in its preserving.”
“We found a small corner of the Sixth Circle where mushrooms grew, and they, too were very abundant that year,” Pippin continued. “Sam and I would sneak into the empty yard every day to gather some to cook with our meals. There was a trickle of a small streamlet that ran through the property that kept the soil nicely damp, and a young tree gave them shelter, and they seemed to delight to grow there. One evening when Frodo had been refusing to eat all day I cooked a meal where everything had mushrooms in it. He didn’t eat a great deal that night, but at least we got him to eat small portions of everything, and he was smiling and even joking, and he slept well that night.”
Gimli snorted with amusement. “And I’m here to tell you this happened, also. I’d never have believed how mushrooms could find their way into so many dishes, and were even made into a dessert of a kind.”
Sam’s face was full of the memory. “He couldn’t turn down nothing with mushrooms in it, even when it was hard for him to eat at all.”
Pippin continued, “The next day Frodo got up early and slipped down to the fish market in the Fifth Circle. There was a fish that they caught in the river that had become more abundant that year and that I liked very much, and he bought a goodly amount, and he managed to talk our neighbors into allowing him to prepare our luncheon meal over there so I’d have no idea what he was doing. Now it was fish that was in every dish, including a stone figure of a fish in the jelly prepared for the sweet after.”
Legolas was laughing now. “And the next day it was nuts saved from the last harvest that were included in everything. Merry had found a merchant in the Fourth Circle who had them hoarded.”
Merry added, “And the next day all the dishes had eggs in them.”
“It was rather fortuitous that the Queen’s party arrived the following day and we found ourselves attending the feasts, or the competition to make meals with one particular ingredient might have gone on for weeks more.” Pippin was shaking his head at the idea.
He smiled. “At the feast of welcome for Lord Elrond and the Lady Arwen and the Lady Galadriel and the Lord Celeborn, one attending was a rather dense fellow from Dunland. How he ended up attending the feast I have no idea. He came to the city not in any embassy, but on his own, having convinced himself that he was a master at strategy, and he’d arrived at much the same time as the Elves’ party, and the Minister of Protocol apparently assumed he must be someone important and included him. Aragorn had had special chairs made for us to use, with higher seats and steps up and footrests so we could sit comfortably at the table with the rest and not look like children. For Frodo’s he’d had special cushions made so that he could sit more comfortably, for he was still quite thin, although he was looking better. This fellow decided for some reason that he ought to sit in that chair. The servant who’d led him in was not able to explain this was intended for one of the Pheriannath, and he sat up in it looking most foolish. Frodo looked up at him with surprise, shaking his head, and asked simply that extra cushions be brought for the chair intended for the fool, explaining that this had been all he’d needed in Imladris. So they brought cushions to place under and behind him, and someone found a footstool also for him. Aragorn was so disgusted with the Dunlending he let him sit in Frodo’s chair throughout the meal and made a point of ignoring him. He must have been most uncomfortable, sitting so high and on such a shallow seat, with the footrest cutting into the back of his shins. But he did have a cushion under and behind him, which for some reason he’d decided he deserved.”
“Ah, yes, Morigon of Dunland,” the King sighed. “He’d learned to wield a sword and was certain he’d figured out a move which, if he could teach it to me, would make me invincible. I listened to him explaining it to me at length at dinner, and early the next morning when I’d have rather been preparing for my wedding I took him to the practice field. I allowed him to demonstrate it three times, then quickly disarmed him thrice and thanked him for the lesson. He did not attend the wedding feast, and I sent Evamir down to see to it the bruises were properly poulticed. He then offered to teach him some secret healing skill which his family had used for some generations, and I fear Evamir was rather short with him. Last I heard, he’d referred Morigon to the herbmaster in the Houses of Healing, who is quite as longwinded and ineffective as Morigon himself.”
All were laughing.
Pippin finally concluded his story. “Frodo went to bed the night of the wedding looking content, but apparently had some of his dreams and woke. Sam walked out with him, but the Lady, Lord Celeborn, Lord Elrond, and Lord Glorfindel were walking about the walls of the city, and took him over, sending Sam back to his bed. I went out an hour before dawn, as I was preparing to take up my duty for the day, and found them all seated on the grass around the White Tree, Frodo sleeping with his head pillowed in the Lady’s lap, she gently rubbing the scar where his finger was missing. It was the last time I’m aware of that his hand bothered him like that. They told me quietly that he’d been reassured to sleep out under the stars, and Lord Elrond had wrapped him with his own cloak. I think it might have been then they first considered asking for the grace to allow him to go to Elvenhome.”
Soon after all were in bed, but Sam and Rosie and the King and Queen themselves lay themselves in bedrolls under the stars, looking up at the brightness of the heavens and speaking quietly amongst themselves for a time before they, too, slept. And when Pippin woke an hour before dawn to prepare to take his duty, he found the King sat alone, smoking quietly and looking up at the dawn. Pippin relieved Gilfileg and took up his guard, thoughtful as he listened to the King singing quietly a song Frodo had especially liked to sing during the walk through Eriador.