Benlo Bracegirdle approached the Council Hole from the village stable muttering under his breath. “Just like the blasted beast,” he cursed, “throwing a shoe when I was so far from Hardbottle and not close enough to here. Ought to of been here an hour back. Most like he’s gone back to Hobbiton by this time.”
Spying several Tooks exiting the door to the Council Hole, he called out, “Has Baggins left, then?”
Tollerand Took looked on the family head for the Bracegirdles with a level of distaste. Of course, the Bracegirdles were seldom a family most folks enjoyed dealing with, with their rather acquisitive nature and acerbic temperament. “The Deputy Mayor is inside, in the office.” As soon as he said it he regretted it. Frodo was doing all right, he supposed, but he was just recovering from whatever it was that had kept him out of Michel Delving for almost two weeks, and he was still rather fragile looking. However, Frodo wasn’t exactly alone--Isumbard was with him. With a muttered word which might be thanks, Benlo headed into the hole.
The Mayor’s desk sat to the left, just inside the door to the Mayor’s office. A dark head leaned forward over papers lying there, a slender hand running through the hair. The waistcoat was a dark brown, the shirt a soft gold, although a bit worn. Under the collar was a white bandage against Frodo’s neck, slightly stained as if he had a weeping sore under it.
At the sound of Benlo entering Frodo looked up somewhat warily. His face was thin and far more pale than Benlo remembered seeing it, his eyes shadowed as if he’d been ill or had been in great pain. “Hello, Benlo,” he said quietly, his eyes remaining guarded.
It took a few seconds more than he’d intended for the Bracegirdle to respond. “Hello, Frodo,” he said, his usual sarcastic tone sounding merely brusque. “Are they keeping you busy?”
Frodo shrugged. “You need to speak to me?”
“Then please take a seat. Bard and I have a few things left to speak of before he goes.”
Benlo surprised himself by doing just as Frodo had suggested.
Isumbard Took looked over his shoulder at Benlo, a look of calculation and even worry in his eye. Benlo looked back somewhat defiantly until Bard turned back to Frodo. “As I was saying, at least two of the claims here are, if not totally false, at least highly exaggerated. Goodwife Appledore’s claim for three plow ponies is definitely untrue--she and Dwermo never had a pony in their life--just that spavined donkey Dwermo brought back from Bree eight years back. And if it becomes known that you are paying any claim that comes across your desk where will that lead, do you think?”
Frodo sighed. “I know. I’d like to pay any claim tendered, but it would not do to save the Shire from learning hatred to teach it to lie.” He stretched his shoulders, then rubbed at the left one as if it were aching. For a second his face reflected pain, and then he had it smoothed, but Benlo realized it was by force of effort.
Isumbard pushed a mug at him. “Best drink some of that,” he advised, and absently Frodo nodded as he drank several swallows, then set it down and leaned back, reaching up now to his neck where he held something unseen, and the spasm seemed to ease away. He kept his gaze on the papers. Finally he stretched again, and letting go of whatever he’d been clutching he now leaned forward to go through several, then straightened them into a neat pile.
At last he sighed and looked up at his cousin. “We’ll have to form a committee to examine each claim, even those we know are honest, for all to accept they are fair.” Bard nodded. “Griffo Boffin, Reginard Took, Moro Burrows, Berilac Brandybuck, Balbo Underhill--everyone tends to trust them, and they have not only eyes to see but the ability to be forthright without sparking anger. I’m not certain how they’ll take to being asked to do this, but in the end all will trust their judgment.”
“Two farmers, a businessman, a representative of the Master, and one of the Thain--yes, I think all will accept their rulings,” Isumbard agreed.
“I’d suggest Old Tom Cotton as well, but as I’m staying there and not everyone knows him....”
“No, they’ll respect Balbo instead.”
“Berilac is coming tomorrow with Merry--I can speak with him then; and Griffo and Moro when I go back to Bywater the day after. Can you speak to Balbo and Reginard? And get Uncle Paladin’s agreement for Reginard to do this?”
“Of course, Frodo.”
There was a small smile on the Deputy Mayor’s face. “Good. One thing accomplished at least today.”
“You sorted through that mess regarding the Tunnely and Gravelly claims near Westhall. That was no small matter. We’ve been going back and forth over that for the past two weeks. How you knew about the old marker stone now lying in the creek there....”
The smile widened, and Frodo gave a single laugh. “I’ve done walking trips up that way a couple times a year for the last eight years or so. I was there just after the stream shifted its bed four years back, and we were discussing how the marker stone was now in the middle of it.”
“We?” asked the Took.
“Relatives of the Gravellies who have property up that way. One of my farm shares.”
“Well, it’s definitely been to the advantage of everyone to have an acting Mayor who is as familiar with the entire Shire as you are.”
“Don’t try to turn my head, Bard.” Frodo’s expression had again grown solemn.
“Don’t you go all dissembling again.”
Frodo shrugged his eyebrows, then reached again for his mug and sipped from it. Finally he said, “I’ll go through a few of these and make notes.”
“You’d best get back to the Whitfoot’s and get some rest.”
“I promise, Bard, I’ll not stay late.”
“Note that I’ll hold you to that, Frodo. And you drink every drop of that, and eat that bite of cake Pearl sent for you.”
“Tell her thanks, Bard. And hug your children for me.”
“I will. Take care, Frodo.”
Frodo nodded and watched Isumbard out of the office. He then shifted the pile of papers before him to the left side of the desk and turned to Benlo. “Now, how may I assist you?”
Benlo rose and shrugged, came over to the desk, unslinging the bag he carried over his left shoulder. He pulled up the chair Isumbard apparently usually used and sat down in it carelessly, setting the bag in his lap.
“I’m here to help you, really,” he said. He opened it and pulled out several thick documents and set them before the Deputy Mayor.
Frodo examined them briefly, although he didn’t reach out to take them. Finally he looked back up at the Bracegirdle. “Property deeds?”
“Yes. Cousin Lobelia had several properties, as you know.” Frodo nodded. “Since she left her estate to the purpose of making reparations for the Time of Troubles, that means her properties are now to go to that as well. How we’re to use them as her will specified....”
Frodo sighed. Finally he asked, “Is this all of them?”
Benlo shrugged, feeling anger at the question. “No, not all. You so eager to see all of them?”
Frodo pulled back somewhat, his face reflecting pained surprise at Benlo’s response. “Benlo, I don’t want any of them. It’s more than I can handle right now just trying to sort out my own properties and business dealings. But these--” he indicated the pile of papers on the edge of the desk, “--are all claims for reparations. How it became known so fast that Lobelia had left her estate to that purpose I have no idea, save that this is the Shire, and in the Shire there is almost no privacy at all. Forget the quick post--merely tell something to the grocer’s wife in confidence and you can count on it being known from Buckland to Greenholm before nightfall.”
Benlo sighed and reluctantly nodded his acknowledgment of that truth. “We’re still sorting out all of it. Before Lotho and Timono began their little spree of writing inequitable contracts, she and Lotho owned seventeen sizable farms and pipeweed plantations, mostly in the Southfarthing. These are nine of them. The other eight Lotho appears to have entailed about five years ago to obtain money to start his acquisitions of the taverns and inns. They also owned about fifteen cottages and smallholdings they rented out throughout the Shire. Until we get all the details of the deeds and contracts and leases sorted out on the rest of their properties, I won’t present the deeds.”
“Fair enough.” Again Frodo reached out to take up his mug and sipped at it, then set it down, leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. It was very obvious he had been--scoured--by whatever he’d been through during his absence from the Shire. “Oh, Lotho,” he said as he finally opened his eyes again and straightened, focusing his attention on the pile of deeds, “what a mess you made of things.” Benlo was shocked to see the grief in Frodo’s face.
“What’s this about you staying with the Cottons? Lobelia returned the deed for Bag End to you months ago.”
“Yes, but it is still being restored. Saruman’s folk all but caved much of it in. Sam is seeing to the restoration, but I insisted he see to the redigging of the smials of the Row first. Those folk have been living in abject misery in those shacks Lotho had put up.”
“But they are substantial houses....”
“Houses? Have you been in them, Benlo? Certainly they are brick--but he told those working the brickworks to skimp on the clay--many of the newer bricks used are little more than barely held together sand, and the Men who put them up were no masons. Most of them are poorly laid, and they used substandard grout. Inside they put up no inner walls, so the wind whistled through the cracks, and all the heat of the insubstantial fires the hearths are capable of escaped out almost immediately.
“Doors were poorly hung, window casements weren’t caulked, cupboards were never put in place, floors laid right on the earth with no sand beneath them. Some of the floor tiles just sank right down into the ground during wet weather. And as for the roofs!” He shook his head. “So many became ill. Then Saruman had his folk cut down all the trees of the Shire they could get to, but to forbid any to use them for firewood!”
“Who is this Saruman?”
“Another of Sharkey’s names. It’s how most in the outer world knew him.”
“You heard of him there?”
“Yes.” Frodo’s eyes had become distant. “He was great, once. He fell so very far.” Again pain and grief and--fear?--could be seen in his face and posture.
Frodo looked up into Benlo’s eyes. He looked so tired, Benlo thought, and for the first time he realized Frodo Baggins was finally going grey at the temples.
“Frodo, why in Middle Earth did you ever sell Bag End to Lotho?”
Frodo closed his eyes and shook his head as he took a deep breath. “I keep being asked this,” he finally said softly. After another pause he opened his eyes and looked at Benlo. “I needed to leave the Shire, and I needed to do it quietly. I decided that I would pretend I’d spent all the treasure Bilbo left me--not that there’s been much of that for years, of course. Bilbo was pretty lavish with his parties and gifts, after all. But he’d inherited a good income from Uncle Bungo and Aunt Belladonna, of course, and had invested wisely--and taught me to do the same. And my own parents didn’t exactly leave me destitute--just an orphan.
“I offered Bag End to Ponto and Iris at a good price I thought they could handle, knowing that if--when I returned I could purchase it back from them. They made the mistake of telling Peony, who of course told Lobelia. The next day I had Lotho on the doorstep with cash in hand. I insisted Brendilac Brandybuck write out the bill of sale and transference of the deed and all, and so I managed to end up one of the few individuals to do business with him and not be cheated.” He gave a ragged sigh. “They’d wanted Bag End for so very long, Benlo, so very long. I truly thought they would care for it.” His eyes as they searched Benlo’s were haunted. “Why did he let them gut it? Why did he let them destroy the garden?” The pain was plain to see, and Benlo Bracegirdle felt an unfamiliar lurch in his heart to see it there, that raw pain.
“I don’t know,” Benlo finally said. “I don’t know. We Bracegirdles aren’t exactly popular--never have been, after all; but we’ve never been outright thieves before.” He looked at Frodo. “We struck him out of the Book of Bracegirdle, you know, Frodo, if it brings you any comfort.”
The look on Frodo’s face, however, was anything but reassured by this statement. He looked totally horrified. “You can’t have, Benlo--to have lost his family ties----”
“He forfeited that when he destroyed the family honor by making such contracts. Him and Timono both. First we realized it was when Alyssum Sandybanks from Pincup came to me with this second mortgage contract in hand, about a month after you and the Took and the Brandybuck all disappeared. Wanted to know how she’d managed to lose the deed to her smial when she’d only thought to take a small loan on it for seed for her smallholding. I called Lotho in to question him on it, and he defied me--he defied me! Said he didn’t have to answer to me, as he wasn’t even a Bracegirdle by name, but a Sackville and a Baggins. Acted as if he were the Baggins family head, he did, for all we both knew that wasn’t true.”
“No, I didn’t give him that.”
“Who did you leave that to?”
“My younger cousin Fosco. He’s the closest to me.”
“Fosco Baggins? Thought that was your grandfather’s name.”
“His father named him after our grandfather.”
“Never knew there was another Fosco Baggins.”
“Few do--but there are so very few of us Bagginses left, and we’re no longer all living here around Hobbiton any more.” He looked into Benlo’s eyes. “Just how much do you know about those Bracegirdles who live in the Marish?”
“Personally? Almost nothing. Just their names, our relationships, and their ages.”
Frodo shrugged. He continued to look stricken. “I still can’t see how you could do that to Lotho.”
“We did it at Yule, that first Yule after you left. He and Timono left us no choice.”
“Yes. When I asked him what he was doing, he told me that there was going to be a new order in the Shire--and family heads wouldn’t mean sand in it. Said that a new age was coming, and Lotho was going to make certain that the Shire was part of it all.”
Frodo, he realized, was shivering. He reached out again to his mug, and wrapped both hands about it. It was then that Benlo realized Frodo had lost his ring finger from his right hand.
Trying to break the tension, Benlo commented, “Some hospitality you offer, Baggins--you sit there drinking tea and offer me none?”
“It’s all I have left for today, and--and it’s--medicinal.” Frodo sounded as if he could barely bring himself to admit this. His blue eyes looked up from under his brows, his face white. “You’re welcome to the cake there,” with a look to indicate the plate lying nearby.
“The Took said his wife sent it for you.”
Frodo almost whispered, “I can’t eat it now--not now. I’d just lose it.” A tear escaped to roll down his colorless cheek. His eyes squeezed shut and he turned his face away. “Oh, Lotho--Timono--why did you listen to Saruman’s lies?”
Benlo stayed at the reopened inn, and the next day sat waiting for Merry and Beri Brandybuck to ride into Michel Delving. He followed them into the stable, then sought to corner Merry. Merry looked at him warily, but told Berilac to go on to the Council Hole and he’d be along. “Don’t tell Frodo whom I’m with,” he added. “Don’t want to worry him.”
“Doubt as it’d worry him any,” Benlo said. “He was polite enough when we met last night. We didn’t fight or nothing like that.”
Once he was certain they were alone, Merry, now very much the Master’s heir, asked, “What is this about, Benlo?”
“I want to know what’s wrong with him.”
“With whom? With Frodo?”
Benlo nodded. When Merry didn’t answer, he went on. “He’s never looked like this, Brandybuck.”
“Like what?” Benlo realized Merry was himself concerned.
“Thin as a rake, going grey, eyes all shadowed, finger missing, what looks like a boil on his neck, weeping over Lotho.”
Merry looked stricken. “Weeping over Lotho?”
Benlo took a ragged breath and shook his head. “Told him we’d struck Lotho and Timono out of the family Book--the Yule after you left, it was--and he looked as if I’d done it to him. Kept on about Sharkey--except he called him Saruman or something like--how he’d been at fault, at how far he’d fallen.”
Merry looked around toward the direction of the Council Hole. Finally he looked back at Benlo. “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you--if I could tell you, Benlo. But he’s not certain he ought to have come back to the Shire. It’s going to take quite some time for him to recover.”
“If he ever does,” Benlo pointed out.
Merry went white and made no comment, his gaze dropping to the floor. After a long silence he finally said, “He’s still the most responsible Hobbit in the entire Shire--one of the most responsible individuals in all of Middle Earth.” He finally looked up into Benlo’s eyes. “It almost destroyed him. He almost didn’t come back at all.”
“Whatever happened to him, it about scoured the heart right out of him.”
Merry sighed. When he spoke, his voice was tight with grief. “Yes, it about did that.” He straightened. “I have to see him, Benlo. Sounds as if he didn’t let me know he’d had a bad spell or something--not that he’d admit it anyway. Stubborn Baggins.”
Not long before the Free Fair many of the family heads met as usually happened in the village hall in Hobbiton. Griffo Boffin came in for the family from the region around the Hill and greeted the rest as he accepted a mug of ale from Largo Longbottom, whose turn it was to provide the drink for the gathering. “Frodo won’t be able to come. Just got back from Michel Delving, and Samwise says he was quite tired looking and went to bed early.”
Isumbard, who was standing in for the Thain, was concerned. “He looked well enough when I left him earlier this afternoon.” He looked as if he were reviewing the order of the day. “Now that I think about it,” he said with a sigh, “he didn’t eat a lot today. That’s not a good sign with him.”
“What’s wrong with his appetite?” asked old Odo Proudfoot.
“His appetite is fine--it’s his stomach that’s the problem,” Bard said. “Not been right since he returned to the Shire.”
Odo shrugged. The door opened and Will Whitfoot entered. He had finally begun to regain his weight, and his color was almost normal. His gait was much recovered, and he’d managed to at last discard the cane he’d used for a few months as his knee healed. Odo brightened. “Well, if you don’t look like a new Hobbit, Will. Look, all--our Mayor is ready to go back to work!”
“Not if I can help it,” Will said. “I told you before, Odo--I intend to retire. Frodo’s been doing a crack job of setting things to right, and I intend him as my successor. I’ve been pushing everyone to support him.”
“I certainly intend to,” Benlo Bracegirdle said, surprising everyone. All looked at him. Benlo raised his chin. “He did well by our folk and is doing a fine job of making certain Cousin Lobelia’s estate goes as intended to rebuild what Lotho destroyed through his greed and foolishness.”
“What’s been done about Timono?” asked Dormo Gravelly.
“He’s being held in the storage holes in Michel Delving,” Will said. “They’ve constructed a proper place for him to stay in--proper bed, table, chairs, bathing room, toilet facilities and all. Has everything except freedom.”
“What about the family?” asked Largo, turning to Benlo.
“He’s been struck out of the family Book for a year and a half,” Benlo said. All were impressed.
“You didn’t tell me!” exclaimed the Mayor.
“Lotho was already making it hard for us in Hardbottle to communicate with anyone else,” Benlo pointed out. “And since when does all family business have to be reported to the Mayor’s office anyway?”
“But to strike him out of the Book--that ought to be reported to someone.”
“Well, this is the first time we’ve done such a thing for over at least two hundred years,” Benlo explained. “When was the last time anyone struck anyone out of a family Book?”
They all looked at one another and shrugged.
“Will Frodo accept running for election?” asked Dormo Gravelly.
“Of course he will,” Will said with certainty. “He’s done so well since he took over for me. Got all the documents that piled up during my time in the Lockholes all cleared out; reorganized the filing for property deeds; has worked on the investigation of what Lotho and Timono did and all; cut the Shiriffs back down to their proper size and functions; delegated the rebuilding and reforestation to Samwise Gamgee and the guarding of the borders to Merry and Pippin--they’re actually teaching the Borderers how to protect themselves and others, and seeing to it that Took archers are patrolling with them. The quick post is back in order and is doing better than ever; he’s established regular communication with the King's messengers and the Rangers that patrol the outside of our borders----”
“Why do we need to deal with outsiders, and Men at that?” demanded Odo.
Saradoc Brandybuck sighed. “The Rangers are the new King’s folk, and have been watching our borders for centuries, in case you didn’t know. Only reason Sharkey’s Big Men got in here was because most of those who worked in this area went South to his aid--didn’t have enough then to keep up the patrols any more.”
“That’s what that lad of yours told you?” Endero Tunnely asked.
“That’s what the King’s letters have told me.” The Master’s voice was very firm. “We have a King again at last, and you’d best get used to the idea, Endero. And I’ll tell you this--the lads all think the world of him, and he thinks the world of our lads, and particularly Frodo Baggins.”
When at last the meeting was over, Benlo walked to Bag End to deliver some more of Lobelia’s deeds. The garden looked so strangely new. Hedges had been broken down and were just starting to recover; bushes had almost all needed to be replaced; flowers were only beginning to regain their lushness familiar to all who’d ever passed by. He climbed the stairs to the gate, opened it and noted it had new palings to it and had new hinges and latch as well. The front door had been lovingly smoothed and repainted the familiar green.
The bell rope looked brand new, which proved to be true. He pulled at it, and after a few minutes the door opened, and inside stood Sam Gamgee, dressed much as he’d always done, although the quality of the fabric for his shirt and trousers were much better than they’d been before. He held a letter in his hands which he’d obviously been reading. “Master Bracegirdle? What can I do for you?”
“I’ve come to see Mr. Baggins,” Benlo said. “Had some more documents for him to take with him when he goes back to Michel Delving. More for the reparations....”
Sam sighed and gave a brief nod of understanding. “Come in, then. He’s just got up again, he has. He’s in the kitchen havin' some tea. This way.”
As he was led through the smial Benlo could see that the place had indeed been almost completely redone. Most of the wainscoting was new; the tiles that had covered many of the floors and the entranceway had been replaced with slate; walls were freshly plastered and painted; curtains new; rub rails and picture rails had obviously been replaced. Here and there support beams and braces had been clearly filled and painted or restained, and the lighting fixtures all had at least new ropes, if they hadn’t been replaced completely. Even the carpeting was new. Seeing Benlo examining that, Sam commented, “The Lady herself sent that as her gift, once she learned what Sharkey’s folks did to the hole. Old Gimli brought it from Gondor. Guess as she’d had it sent from Lothlorien to Minas Tirith or somethin', care of the Lady Arwen. Sharkey’s Men--they’d ripped the old carpeting to shreds; hacked at the woodwork--looked like both swords and axes they used. Don’t know as what exactly they used on the walls, but they was a right mess. Had to completely redo the fireplace in Mr. Frodo’s room--looked as if they’d used mallets and a splittin' maul on it.”
They passed by the study door, which was open. The desk stood there and a vase of flowers atop it shone in red glory. All the rooms had flowers in them, Benlo noted.
Frodo sat on the settle in the corner of the kitchen, wrapped in a striped blanket. His face was pale and puffed with sleep. He had a mug of tea in his hands, and a plate of biscuits beside him. He looked up and smiled at Benlo. “Good to see you,” he said, and it sounded heartfelt.
“We missed you at the meeting.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to come,” Frodo said, setting his mug down beside the plate. “Not, of course, that there’s much to the family of Baggins any more.”
“Had five more of the deeds for the larger properties to give you, two smallholdings, and one smial Whitfurrow way.” He held them out.
Frodo reached for them with both hands, and the blanket fell back from his shoulders. Again Benlo noted the missing finger, and realized Frodo wore a pendant on a fine silver chain about his neck. Then Benlo noted something else--a scar about Frodo’s wrist, as if a rope had been tied tightly about it, possibly cutting off the circulation. He found himself glad Frodo was focused so on the deed he’d opened he didn’t realize how close an examination Benlo was giving him.
Frodo looked up at last and thanked him, his smile strangely sweet and vulnerable. “I’ll take them back to Michel Delving with me next week,” he said.
“You do that, Frodo,” Benlo told him. “And I’ll see you at the Free Fair. Intend to see you voted in as the new Mayor, you know. You’re doing a fine job.”
Frodo’s face paled with surprise and perhaps shock. “New Mayor?”
“Make it official, you know.”
“Would you like some ale or a mug of tea, Mr. Benlo?” Sam’s wife Rosie asked him.
“I thank you, but I’d best not. Had far too much at the meeting, and have a fair way to ride tonight.”
He finally accepted some biscuits to take with him, and he left, shown to the door again by Sam. As he left the kitchen he glanced back and saw that Frodo was clutching the stack of documents in his lap, his face troubled. At the front door he turned and addressed the gardener. “Doesn’t he want to be true Mayor?”
Sam glanced over his shoulder back toward the kitchen. Turning back to his guest he sighed. “I don’t rightly know--not for certain. I know as he enjoys it, and I know as he feels he don’t deserve it. But--” his face was filled with concern, “--there’s another thing--he’s not truly well. I’m not certain as he’s made up his mind yet--but I’ll tell you this--once he does, it’ll be made up hard. He’s a stubborn Baggins.”
At the Free Fair almost everyone was set to vote Frodo Baggins officially in as Mayor of the Shire. When he asked to speak first when they had the candidates come forward to give their campaign speeches, all nodded with satisfaction--until he introduced himself and explained he was there that day to return the office of Mayor back to Will Whitfoot, how proud he’d been to assist such a marvelous gentlehobbit and to serve the Shire as he’d been allowed to do; and how proud he was to explain he was supporting Will’s candidacy for another seven year term. How proud it had made him, he explained, discussing Will Whitfoot’s leadership with the King, how much he’d done for the Shire in the many years he’d given to its people.
The speech was a marvel and a shock. When at last he was done, old Odo Proudfoot shouted out, “You mean you aren’t running for Mayor after all?”
Frodo’s face was pale but politely firm. “I never said I was running for Mayor. You see, no one asked me what I wanted.” The growing growl of frustration almost drowned out what he said next. “I would run if I could, but--but I am not ready at this time to serve a full term.” Then, realizing hardly anyone could hear him, he gave a sad smile and a bow to his audience and stepped back to his place. After Will started his own speech, he disappeared completely. Benlo saw him just as he was slipping away, saw that a tear was again running down his cheek.
At the voting table a large sign had been posted, with FB and WW on it. As those voting came to cast their ballots, they were handed a square of paper and a pen and instructed to write the one if they were voting for Frodo Baggins, and the other if they were voting for Will Whitfoot. Many who were literate, of course, wrote the full name of the candidate of their choice, and a few wrote a good deal more.
After the votes were counted, Griffo Boffin gathered the ballots up and sorted through them one last time, tossing away those that were marked only with initials, examining those who’d written more, and finally placing most of those back in the ballot box, giving it to Will Whitfoot at the end of the evening, after the singing.
Benlo Bracegirdle saw Frodo sitting there while the Elven Lords sang in his honor, saw the tears running down the faces of the four Travelers, saw the confusion in the eyes of many who didn’t understand what had happened that day any more than they understood what had happened during the time the four of them had been missing. He hoped no one noticed that he was weeping that night.
Early next morning he joined Will Whitfoot in the breakfast tent. Will and his wife were eating their meal and looking at the ballot box that sat between them as if it might leap up and strike them on the head at any moment.
“What’s that there for?” Benlo asked.
“Griffo said we might find some of the ballots--enlightening,” Will sighed.
Having finished his eggs and sausage at last, he reached to open it, and pulled out a ballot, then another. Several had lines of indignation about that ungrateful Baggins, some extending to both sides. A couple of these were identifiable by handwriting and style, and Will shook his head as he handed them to his wife. Then he found one whose writing he recognized easily. "Will Whitfoot, the best Hobbit for the job, with my prayers you will understand." Frodo had clearly written that one. Another was inscribed, “I don’t understand, but as he wishes it, WW.” That, he thought, was by Samwise Gamgee. Then he found still another, written in a stiff, angry hand clearly identifiable as that of the Hobbit sitting at the table with him, “I vote for the one who’ll do the best for the Shire, no matter what he says--FB.”
For some time Will looked at it, then looked at Benlo. He rummaged through the box until he found his own ballot, pulled it out, and handed both to Benlo. Benlo colored as he realized that Will had recognized his writing, but he looked at both dutifully--and as he read Will’s own ballot and realized it read the same as his own, he took a series of deep breaths, doing his best to keep from letting more tears escape. He looked at Will with his chin raised, and saw that Will was having a bit more difficulty trying to marshal his own tears than he was.
On the 30th of September of 1421 Benlo Bracegirdle received a letter from Hobbiton, written by Frodo Baggins.
I wished to thank you for the concern and expressions of support you have shown for me and my well being. My relationship with your cousin Lobelia, as you know, was never close, much less mutually respectful until it was almost too late for us to truly appreciate one another, at which time we simply were not close enough to one another to truly get to know one another.
I am sorry I could not run for Mayor last year. However, what I feared then has since become fully true, and I can no longer remain in the Shire if I am to survive, spiritually or physically. During my last trip out of the Shire I went through too much for me to remain now. I therefore leave that I no longer cast the shadow of my guilt and pain on all for whom I care.
It was told me that along the way I should find unexpected friends, and this has proven true. Certainly to find I have your friendship has been both unexpected as well as heartening. I thank you for it, and bless you for it as well. Please forgive me for not expressing before how much it has meant to me.
I still grieve that you had to strike Lotho and Timono out of the Book of Bracegirdle. However, I’ve had to strike one out of the Book of Baggins as well, and understand the great pain it must have caused you to do so.
Please accept my wishes for a more pleasant future, and again, thank you for all the caring you have shown me.
Frodo the Traveler
The third week of October he went to Hobbiton to deliver the last of the deeds for Lobelia’s properties, and found himself greeted by Sam Gamgee, and informed that he had been made the Master of Bag End, and was to carry on the distribution of the reparations to the rest of the Shire. The gardener was pale but dignified, and there was no question he was dressed now in keeping with the role.
“But where did Frodo go?” Benlo asked, only to receive the shake of a head. Sam left the door and retreated further inside, clutching the deed he’d just been given to him, his face working. He was replaced at the door by his wife.
Rosie looked after her husband with concern, then came out onto the stoop and pulled the door closed after her, a shawl pulled tightly about her shoulders against the grey weather and wind that blew about the Hill that day. “Master Frodo’s gone with the Elves,” she explained. “He was so bad hurt, and it had become almost all he could bear, day after day. It was offered him, and he took it. But where old Mr. Bilbo just didn’t come back, Master Frodo can’t come back--not ever. If he hadn’t of gone, most like he’d of died--most like he’d of died by now. He knew it and we knew it. But it’s been right hard.
“Master Frodo always feared he was tearin' Sam’s heart in two, him and Sam bein' like brothers as they always was since Master Frodo come here as he did. He didn’t wish that to happen no more, so he chose to accept the right to go to Elvenhome, give Sam the hope he’s finally able to recover. But to have him gone at all, that’s still tearin' at my Sam’s heart, and always will, I suspect. They went so far together, after all, all the way to Mordor and back----”
“To where?” Benlo was flabbergasted at the assertion.
“To Mordor, Mr. Benlo, sir. The two of them--they went to Mordor--and 'cause they did, now Sauron’s gone. Almost killed the both of them then, but the King called them back. But Master Frodo was hurt too deep, couldn’t heal all the way as my Sam and Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin have. Not, I suppose, that they are all the way healed, neither. They all three still have nightmares and some pain, too--just not as bad as Master Frodo. They was all four helpin' to fight the evil of Mordor, each as he could. They all almost died, but Master Frodo--he was the only one as wished as he’d done it.”
Still reeling from this, Benlo went into Hobbiton to see Frodo’s cousin Daisy, who was married to Griffo Boffin. Perhaps she could help him work it out. The Boffins, however, already had houseguests--Daisy’s young half-sister and brother, twins, he realized. He looked at young Fosco and realized at last whom Frodo had intended to serve as family head for the Bagginses. Brought up in Westhall? Almost unknown until a fairly short time ago to anyone who was anyone in the Shire? That explained it.
They were pale but composed. He learned that they’d seen Frodo frequently through the years when he’d visited Westhall, usually at least twice a year until he left the Shire. Since the return he’d not been well enough or free enough to come see them--they’d seen him only at the Free Fair and once in Michel Delving, and once from a distance as he left the Shire the last time. But they’d seen he was fading, realized he had to go when he did or be lost.
Then the bell rang again, and on the stoop stood Brendilac Brandybuck, Ordo and Oridon Goodbody, and Will Whitfoot, carrying a small chest. The four of them looked very solemn. Daisy looked at them with concern. “It’s not another death or leaving or something, is it?”
“No,” Will said. “Just a last bit of business for--for Frodo--with the twins. We decided to wait until they came here rather than traveling up to Westhall. Lilac and Emro--they’d be totally at a loss. I’m about at one, myself.”
“Come in, then. They’re here.”
The four filed into the parlor and settled themselves about the room, all looking uncomfortably at one another. Finally Will cleared his throat. “Apparently while he was on his way--to the Havens, Frodo realized as he’d forgotten to include Fosco and Forsythia in his will. He wrote--or rather, dictated--a separate codicil concerning them and your cousin Narcissa Boffin. The Elves who accompanied him witnessed it, as did old Bilbo, who apparently was going with them also.”
Benlo was shocked yet again. “You mean old Mad Baggins is still alive?”
Brendilac nodded. “Yes. Merry tells me he’s been living in Rivendell with the Elven lord Elrond Peredhil all this time. Perhaps that’s part of the reason he’s survived this long, for Elrond has been the greatest healer living in Middle Earth for many hundreds of years. Both Frodo and Bilbo were granted the right to go to the Undying Lands for their contribution to the defeat of Sauron. Merry has--finally--explained that they both carried the Enemy’s Ring.”
Brendi sighed. “It’s too long a story. Short version--Sauron made a Ring of Power to control the world, but lost it three thousand years ago. On his own journey Bilbo found it, and when he left the Shire left it to Frodo. In order to defeat Sauron, once the Ring was identified it had to be destroyed, and Frodo volunteered to carry it to Mordor to see it done. But it proved far more difficult than our folk could imagine, and it almost destroyed him.”
Will and Benlo looked at one another, neither truly understanding what Brendilac had said, while Daisy and Griffo, who’d grown up hearing the tales of Bilbo Baggins, looked at one another as if the story were finally beginning to come together in their minds. The twins simply nodded their heads as if one more piece of the puzzle had been granted to them.
Finally Fosco asked, “What does the codicil say?”
“Mostly it confirms what was indicated in his original will he wrote just before the four of them left the Shire. He did change his primary heir from you two to Sam in his new will, and adopted him as he’d been adopted by Bilbo that there be no dispute as to his right to inherit Bag End. In the codicil he explained he did this knowing that you and your sister were already well provided for, and knowing that Sam will be important for the Shire in the future. He also explained that while he has always loved the two of you, he has come to realize the feeling of being a brother to Sam is far deeper and has a meaning beyond the bounds of Arda, although we aren’t truly certain what he meant by that.
“He did lay claim, however, as family head for the Bagginses, to seeing to the needs for your future, and named an independent guardian for the two of you, if she will accept the role when the time comes, to oversee the travels within and without the Shire in accordance with the fostering agreement he had arranged for your benefit; and to serve as physical guardian if anything happens to your current folks.
“Secondly, the money due to his father for the sideboard in the banquet chamber in the Council Hole was to be split in two and half to go to each of you when you marry. It was to have gone to him on his marriage, but as he never married, it still remains in trust.
“He also has appointed you, Fosco, as the family head for the few Bagginses who remain within the Shire, and the keeper of the family Book. Until you come of age you’ll have to do your family business under the supervision of either the Mayor or the Thain--or both; but as of now you are the keeper of this.” He lifted out of the chest a great book bound in deep blue leather and handed it to Fosco.
Fosco accepted it, opened it to the back, then began flipping through it backwards until he found pages which had writing on them, then began going through them page by page, asking his sister to help him decipher the entries when the writing was too unclear for him to read. They found the entries made by Bungo Baggins, then those by Bilbo, the indication he’d adopted Frodo Baggins as his heir and appointed him to be next family head, and the disposition of all the Bagginses at that time.
Then came the firm writing of Frodo, first indicating that he’d become family head when Bilbo Baggins chose to leave the Shire permanently, leaving no heirs of his body. Then followed the description of the diminishment of the Baggins family, as fewer daughters made any claim on their Baggins kinship and fewer and fewer sons were born. There were a number of indications of miscarriages and stillbirths of sons here and there throughout the Shire until the final number had sunk to so very, very few.
Among the last entries was the indication that he was appointing Fosco Baggins to be family head as of Midsummer Day, 1421, after which was a curious entry that neither of them could understand.
The rest of those within the smial watched the two young Hobbits exploring the Book of Baggins, and smiled as they identified various entries of births, comings of age, marriages, and deaths that they recognized. But finally, after the two of them had gone through the pages written by Bilbo several times, making comments to one another in low tones, growing obviously increasingly more frustrated, Fosco looked up at them. “I don’t understand it,” he said. “Here’s where Frodo came to Bag End, where he was adopted by Bilbo, where he came of age and into his inheritance and became family head; and there are all the entries he made. But we can’t find the entry of his birth.”
“That’s curious,” Will commented. “Bilbo would never have let that slide. Do you see the entries regarding his parents’ deaths?”
“Yes, and their marriage and the babies they lost, too. There are four of them....” Forsythia read off the four dates, leafing over several pages as she did so.
Daisy nodded. “Yes, that’s right. Frodo ought to be in the midst of all four, for he was their third. September 22, 1368.”
After going over the pages between the loss of the second and the third again, Forsythia shook her head. “No, he’s not there. There are several blank spaces as if waiting for expected marriage dates or such things for some individuals, but nothing for Iorhael.”
Benlo Bracegirdle suddenly felt fearful. “When did he mark you as family head, Fosco?”
“That was several months ago.”
Benlo took a deep breath. “What is the last entry?”
Forsythia sighed. “I’m trying to read it, for it isn’t Westron or any of the other Elvish he ever taught us. It seems to say “Struchen est,” followed by his initials and the day of Midsummer.”
Griffo’s face paled, as did Brendi’s. “He didn’t!” the lawyer said.
Griffo, Benlo, and Brendi all three descended on the two young Bagginses, crowding around them. Benlo said, “Look for a blank spot where it looks as if the surface of the paper has been scraped off.”
Obviously confused, Forsythia turned to the relevant pages and examined the blank spaces carefully. Finally she stopped, then held the book out to her brother. “Here, Fosco, feel here and tell me what you think.”
Fosco ran his fingers over the page, then paused at one of the two blank spaces it held. He felt the rest of the page, then the second blank space, then the first one again. “This doesn’t feel the same.”
He handed the book to Benlo, who examined it carefully. “Why did he do that, Will, Griffo?” he asked.
“Do what?” asked the Mayor.
“He struck himself from the Book of Baggins.”
On Midsummer, 1436, a special ballot was held at the Free Fair in Michel Delving. It was explained to the folk of the Shire that seventeen years earlier all of the rest of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth had honored the one they knew as the Ringbearer for the great sacrifice he had made in carrying the Ring of the Enemy from the Shire to Mordor for its destruction. Were they willing to ratify that ennoblement of Frodo Baggins as the Lord Iorhael? Many laughed, not understanding if this was perhaps a joke; but most attending went to the voting table and filled out their ballots, all but eight marking YES.
After the singing, Fosco and Forsythia Baggins, their sister Daisy, the Thain, the Master, the Mayor, and all identified Bagginses in the Shire, as well as several relatives from the families of the Boffins, the Tooks, the Brandybucks, and the Proudfoots, the Gamgee family, one Bracegirdle, one Dwarf, one Elf, and several curious individuals who wished to understand what it was all about, all gathered in the Council Hole near the great sideboard with the Book of the Bagginses.
When all were quiet, Fosco Baggins, now of age and unquestionably the head of the Baggins family, began to speak. “We are gathered together today to right a great wrong done to one of our own fifrteen years ago. In a fit of self-hatred fired by pain, loss, guilt, and illness, Frodo Baggins was stricken from the Book of the Bagginses by he who was then family head. It must be the only time in the history of the Shire someone has stricken himself from his family book.
“Today we undo that striking. We hope he is now healed and can accept that what he did to himself then was a great injustice.”
He brought out the knife that he’d been sent as a Yule gift by the King, and went to the last entry made by Frodo Baggins, and carefully scraped off the entry, eradicating it from the page. He then flipped backwards to the page where Frodo had done similarly with his own birthdate, and dipping a pen in green ink, he carefully wrote in the date and time of birth as Master Meriadoc Brandybuck read the relevant information from the book of the Brandybucks, the names of the parents, the names of the witnesses. Some of the lines bled into the material of the page, but when it was done it was legible. He then signed it, Fosco Baggins for Bilbo Baggins: first noted September 22, 1368; re-entered Midsummer, 1436. The notation was then initialed in red ink by Peregrin Took as Thain of the Shire, Meriadoc Brandybuck as Master of Buckland, Samwise Gamgee as Mayor of the Shire and Frodo’s principal heir, Brendilac Brandybuck as his personal lawyer, and all whose names were noted in the book.
He then turned to the newly-blank space, and once again using the green ink he made a different notation there: Frodo Baggins honored as a Lord of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth on the Field of Cormallen, Ithilien, Gondor, April 6, 1419. Again he signed it as before. He then handed the book to Pippin, who wrote under it, Ratified by the folk of the Shire by special election at the Free Fair of 1436, and signed it as Thain of the Shire, which was countersigned by the Mayor of the Shire, then by Legolas Greenleaf and Gimli son of Gloin.
Then Fosco took it again, and inscribed: Frodo Baggins, worn by physical and spiritual pain, purposed to leave the Shire on this day: September 22, 1421. His next entry: Frodo Baggins, the Lord Iorhael of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth, left Middle Earth this date in company with Bilbo Baggins and many of the Great Elves who had remained among us, sailing for Tol Eressëa, to find rest and healing. May we never forget his gentleness, love, and dedication. September 29, 1421. Here he signed it.
His next entry was regarding Bilbo. Bilbo Baggins, son of Bungo Baggins and Belladonna Took Baggins, believed to have died sometime in the Spring of 1422 on Tol Eressëa. Ringfinder, Adventurer, Riddler, Rider of Barrels, Elf friend and Dwarf Friend, Confounder of Dragons, Author, Scribe, Creator of Books, greatly beloved Uncle and Cousin and Teller of Tales.
After signing that and leaving a space in case somehow there might be one day an indication of a date of death for Frodo, Fosco made his final entry. He who struck himself from the Book of Baggins has been restored this day, by the will of all of the name, with the goodwill of Thain, Master, Mayor, and all who knew and loved him throughout the Shire and Middle Earth. He fathered no children, but cared for all the Shire and Middle Earth as if we were all his kindred. He gave much for all in the struggle against the Enemy, and we pray he now has found the delight he so well deserves. He signed and dated this also as family head, then handed the pen to Forsythia. Hobbit and Hobbitess, adult and child, Baggins, Boffin, Brandybuck, Took, Proudfoot, Bracegirdle, Gamgee, onlooker, Dwarf, and Elf--all signed the book.
Finally, he wiped the pens used, sealed the bottles of ink, and with great reverence laid the book open to this page on the sideboard crafted by Drogo Baggins for all who that evening and the following day might wish to look on it. At a sign from the Mayor, all turned to the West, making a special Standing Silence in honor of Frodo Baggins.
Benlo Bracegirdle took part in the Standing Silence for the first time, finally realizing he at last understood what it was about.