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4
A Message and a Bottle

A sequel to "The King's Commission" and "Lesser Rings"


~~~

A Message and a Bottle


It was late in the day of September 22 when the party from Gondor neared the South Gate into Bree. The gatekeeper gladly opened to allow them entry, for those who wore the grey and silver of Annúminas were always welcome now, as well as those in the black and silver of the King’s own service.

In the company was one small figure who wore the latter, Captain Peregrin Took, Guard of the Citadel and Knight of Gondor, whose office, when he was in the King’s company, was to guard the King’s own person. Now he rode beside the Rangers of Eriador as they returned to service in the North, one of only two Hobbits in the company, the other, his cousin Isumbard Took, beside him on his own pony, both of them glad to finally return to an inn they knew well.

As they entered the Inn of the Prancing Pony, Barliman Butterbur greeted them with pleasure. “It’s been a good long time, and I feared when the others from your party came back without you perhaps you were lost, or had decided to remain in the Southlands indefinite like, sirs. But they said you’d be due about now, and two days past Master Samwise and Master Meriadoc came out of the Shire to wait for you. They’re in the common room now, if you’d like to see them, you know.”

Putting aside the idea of seeking a bath and some rest first, they let Berevrion and those with him go on to their quarters and found their friends indeed in the common room, sitting at a table in the corner where long ago a tall figure had sat watching them when they came here fleeing Black Riders and the terrors of the unknown, hoping to find Gandalf and guidance. The table was a bit high for them, but the rest of the room was full to overcrowding.

On the table before them was a small canvas bag, a rather familiar one to Pippin, who had presented that bag and its contents annually to old Toby for some years. He looked with question at his cousin and the Mayor of the Shire, for he’d left orders that the bag was to be given back to old Toby at Midsummer, rather than waiting this time for his birthday. Toby had been ill before they left, and Pippin had been afraid the old Hobbit wouldn’t make it till his birthday this year to give it to him then.

Isumbard lifted himself onto the high stool brought there for his use by Barliman’s son and thanked him, and looked also at the bag. “Toby is dead, then?” he asked, turning to the Master of Buckland.

“Yes, two weeks after our return. He left the bottle to you, Pippin, and asked we have you open it and drink a toast to old Bilbo’s and Frodo’s and his own memory on the birthday. Of course, we weren’t certain you’d make it in time, so we came out to meet you here.”

“So, here we are,” Sam said, his face still, his eyes slightly distant with memory and the feeling of loss that still overtook him from time to time. He was fingering the silver key that hung as a fob from his watch chain. “Eight years since he left Bag End the last time, and it feels like it was just yesterday, it does.”

Pippin nodded. He looked up as a Man approached their table with several mugs of ale, and noted it was Lord Halladan, the Steward of Arnor himself. “My Lord? It’s an honor.” He bowed his head as best he could, as both knew getting to his feet to bow would have been more trouble than it was worth.

“And how was my Lord Cousin as you left him, Captain Peregrin?”

“Very well, my Lord. Happily entertaining the Prince of Harad and his family, but sad to see us leave him, of course.”

Halladan smiled. “He has found a level of comfort in your people he has with no others, I think. And how was the visit to Harad?”

Pippin shook his head. “You can be glad Hardorn accompanied him, sir, as it was full of peril. We got caught in the midst of a revolt, although all turned out well enough. Aragorn won through, of course, and he’s quite the hero there now. And wait till you meet Lord Benai of Camaloa!”

The Man’s eyebrows raised, but he decided to wait until later to question those who’d gone with the King as to what precisely had happened in Harad. He looked at the bag that sat on the table. “Lord Samwise has been saying all day you’d be here before sunset, and it appears he foresaw things aright. Of course, we were also advised by the foreriders from your party as well as Elves from Imladris that this was true, so it was decided to sit here and wait for your coming. Now, if you will tell me the story of this bag, which they insisted must be here when you arrived....”

Pippin looked at the bag and sighed, then looked at Isumbard. “Will you tell him, Bard? I knew Toby was going to leave us, but it’s still hard----”

The older Took looked at his cousin and nodded as slowly Pippin reached for the bag and opened it. Quietly he began to explain. “It’s a birthday mathom, my Lord. Thirty-eight years ago on his birthday our cousin Bilbo Baggins gave its contents to Tobobard Took, who was overseer for the farm that Pippin’s family lived on when he was younger, before the Thain named Pippin’s father his heir and insisted the family move back to the Great Smial.”

They watched as Pippin removed a wine bottle and set it on the table before him. He continued, “Bilbo’s parents owned a vineyard and wine press, and it produced a wine they called Old Winyards. When Bilbo was still quite a little one, only a few years old, the vineyard produced a bumper crop which made a particularly fine vintage, and Bungo put down a great store of bottles of it in his wine storage room. Every major celebration at Bag End for over a century included the opening of at least one of the bottles of Old Winyards, while special occasions got one of the bumper year bottles.

“Toby admired Bilbo quite a good deal, and Bilbo felt much the same for Toby, who was quite a character even as a young Hobbit. Once he realized that Toby liked Old Winyards, Bilbo decided to give him a bottle as a birthday gift, expecting him, of course, to open it and drink it as a sensible Hobbit would. Instead, Toby displayed it proudly and told everyone he knew about how lucky he was to receive such a gift.

“Toby’s birthday was in the early spring when Bilbo was accustomed to be at the farm, visiting Paladin and Eglantine and the children. At Toby’s next party he couldn’t think what to give Bilbo, so he put the bottle back into the bag Bilbo gave it to him in and gave it back to him. And it went back and forth for years until Bilbo went away, at which time Toby started exchanging it with Frodo, and then, after Frodo left, with Pippin.”

Lord Halladan was looking a bit confused. “But I thought Master Bilbo and Lord Frodo’s birthdays were in the fall.”

Pippin looked up at him. “They had the same birthday--September 22, today.”

“And this Tobobard had his in the spring?”

“Yes.”

“But you said Master Bilbo gave it to Master Toby as a birthday present?”

Merry laughed. “We will get some presents on our own birthdays from close family, but we make a point of giving presents to others at our parties, you see. Often the gifts will be either things we’ve made ourselves or mathoms, things which folks just give to one another, round and round again. Bilbo, however, tended to give new things for birthday gifts, and usually quite nice ones. Not many folks turned his gifts into mathoms.”

“Oh,” said the Man, beginning to understand. “It sounds as if birthdays in the Shire tend to be pleasant affairs, then.”

“Usually,” Pippin said, smiling. But as he looked back at the wine bottle his smile became sad and thoughtful again. “Toby made this bottle of wine a private mathom that went between him and one other--first Bilbo, then Frodo, and then me. It’s been going on almost all my life, you see. It’s a tradition, one that just ended. Toby was always there, all my life, and now he’s gone. It’s a bit hard to take in.”

“What are you to do with it, then?”

“He apparently asked I open it now and use it in the birthday toast to Frodo and Bilbo.” He looked up into the Steward’s eyes. “Frodo asked us in his will that we drink a toast to him and Bilbo on the birthday.”

Merry looked at the bottle uncertainly. “Do you think it’s any good any more? He’s kept that bottle in the window for thirty-eight years when it was in his hands, you know.”

Pippin grimaced. “It could be very nasty.”

Sam said nothing, just looked sad and thoughtful.

Lord Halladan asked gently, “How old would Lord Frodo be today?”

Pippin answered softly, “Sixty-one. He’s sixty-one years old today. Ten years ago today we were in Rivendell helping Bilbo celebrate his hundred twenty-ninth birthday. It was eleven years ago that we left Bag End to start on the quest. We drank the last bottle of Old Winyards Frodo had left that night, for he was determined we not leave it for Lotho and Lobelia.”

Sam said, “And it was eight years ago we met Lord Elrond and the Lady in the Woody End, and I realized he was going to the Undying Lands and not Rivendell.”

Barliman came over to their table. “You lot all right?” he asked. “Is the ale satisfactory?” Then he saw the bottle, and looked curiously at the Hobbits. “You brought your own bottle to the Pony?”

“It’s a bequest,” Pippin explained. “We were to open it today and drink a toast from it. The last bottle of Old Winyards.”

“The Baggins vintage?” asked Butterbur, impressed.

“Yes.”

“I’ll bring some goblets,” the innkeeper decided, and hurried off to get them and a corkscrew.

Fifteen minutes later the bottle was open, and Pippin was carefully pouring small amounts into the six goblets, for Butterbur had included himself in the toast. “I’m promising nothing,” he warned. “Toby kept it in the sunlight, so it’s likely not much more than very well aged vinegar at this point. But if he wanted us to drink our birthday toasts to Bilbo and Frodo and our farewell toast to him with it, I’ll do it.”

Finally he set down the bottle. He took up his own goblet and looked at it, then finally declared, “To Bilbo and Frodo on their birthday, and in memory of Tobobard Took!” The other five lifted their goblets in honor, then closing their eyes drank from them.

Merry opened his eyes and looked at his glass in surprise. “It’s good!” he exclaimed. “I can’t believe it--it’s good!”

Barliman Butterbur savored his wine with great satisfaction. “Now, I’m not much of a one for wine,” he said, examining the color of that in his goblet with interest, “but I declare, this is the best I’ve ever tasted.”

“If this is a sample of what Old Winyards is like,” Lord Halladan said with conviction, “then if the vineyard ever produces again I’ll order fifty bottles and send half south to my Lord Cousin.

Sam was smiling, although quiet tears were slipping down his cheeks. “It’s just now fully recovered after being burnt to the ground by Sharkey’s folks. We had a small harvest in 1420, and I’ll allow the wine was good, what little we got out of it. But I’ll send you a bottle of it along with fifty bottles from this year’s pressing. Old Mr. Bilbo--he’d approve, I think.”

The goblets were filled again, and a proper toast drunk this time, and carefully Pippin worked the cork back into the bottle, a plan growing in his head.

Pippin wasn’t there when Merry awoke, and he didn’t appear until well after first breakfast, a large toy wooden boat and a small pot of paint and a fine brush in his hands.

“What’s that for?” Merry asked.

“I’m fixing something,” Pippin answered.

“You missed first breakfast.”

“I ate in the marketplace. Go get me a mug of ale.”

“A mug of ale?”

“Yes. Please go get me a mug of ale.”

By the time Merry got back Pippin was tamping the lid back into place on the pot of paint. On the bow of the small boat was written, To Frodo Baggins from old Toby.

“What are you planning on doing, Pippin?” he asked.

“I’m putting the rest of the bottle in this and setting it free on the Brandywine.”

“Why?”

Pippin looked at him, defiance in his face, his chin raised. “I’m sending it to him. I want him to know.”

Merry shook his head, his mouth open in astonishment. “You expect that to cross the Sundering Seas and somehow find the Straight Path to Tol Eressëa? Are you taking your name seriously, Peregrin Took?”

“If we don’t try, then how can we know what’s possible, Merry?”

A tear slipped from Merry’s eye. “How will we know if it makes it or not, Pippin?”

Pippin was exceptionally solemn. “Maybe we won’t ever know, Merry. But I will try.”

Merry looked at him for some minutes, then gave a single nod. “You’re right--doesn’t matter whether or not we know if he gets it. But if we don’t try, he has no chance at all of receiving it.” He sighed. “I’m going to include a note.”

“A note? Now who deserves the name of Took?”

It was late that evening when they crossed the Brandywine Bridge, and they headed directly for Brandy Hall. Sam, having been apprised of what was to be done with Pippin’s small wooden boat, stayed awake that night trying to write his own note, finally scrawling only a couple lines. At dawn the three of them went out together to the river, and after carefully secreting the messages inside the cover Pippin had nailed over the bottle, Sam and Merry stood back as they watched Pippin advance to the river’s bank and gently set the boat down in the water.

“Lord Ulmo,” Pippin said, “I know we can’t go there ourselves, or at least maybe only Sam, and even him not now. But we ask that you take this to Frodo, if it is allowed. We miss him, you see.” He let it go and stood up. They watched as the small craft paused by the riverbank, then slowly slipped toward the middle of the stream and the current. They watched it as long as they could, until at last it could no longer be seen.

A child of Men stood by the Baranduin some leagues South of the Shire, and watched as a large toy boat made of wood was carried by him by the river. A fisherman checking his weir saw it upon the waters. An Elf on an errand Southward from Mithlond noted it, read the inscription on the side of it and shook his head in wonder. And so it came to the Sea.

The creatures of Lord Ulmo told him of its presence, and he came forth to examine it, again read the inscription and the intent of it, and laughed, but gently. And if it should have received a small push onto the Straight Path by him, none of the rest of the Valar would be likely to criticize.

*******


He was south of the city, walking along the beach when he heard his name called. “Iorhael! Iorhael! Come and look! The Sea has brought you a gift!”

He turned and saw young Livwen, who had befriended him during his first years here while she was yet an elfling and he still overwhelmed by the experience of being indeed in the Undying Lands. She was hurrying toward him, her face alight with the joy of seeing him and the reason for calling him. He stopped until she came up to him.

“Oh come, Iorhael! Come and see! It has your Westron name upon it!”

Intrigued, he came. “What?” he asked.

“A boat. A small boat. We will soon be there and you will see it for yourself.”

She led him to a small cove just South of the wharves, and there, washed up upon the white sand, lay a small wooden boat. It had been much battered by wind and waves; but somehow it had come here. He approached through the crowd of Elven children that encircled it, and finally knelt by it, not caring that sand was clinging now to the knees of his robe. He reached out and touched it, examined it. There, written in red paint, was most of his name in Westron lettering:

o F odo Ba g ns fr m old To y

Suddenly he was aware of Olórin joining the group, and he turned to look at the Maia. “What is it, Iorhael?” he who had been known as Gandalf asked.

He shrugged, and turned back to pick it up.

It was a common enough design for a toy boat--common to Buckland and Bree, he knew. He’d had one similar to this when he was a child, made for him by Uncle Rorimac. But over the gunwale had been nailed a cover of sorts, something obviously not put on it by its original builder. He slid his finger under the cover as well as he could, but couldn’t dislodge it. Finally an older child brought him a slender yet still strong branch, and using it he finally managed to lever off the added board. Under it were two small bundles wrapped tightly in oilskin, and in a stained canvas bag, a wine bottle.

How could he not recognize it? How often he’d seen Bilbo pull it from its wrapper and thank Tobobard Took effusively, and how often he’d seen Bilbo slide it back into its canvas bag when the birthday rolled around to return it to the farmer. Then it had been his turn to slide it out of and then back into its wrappings. Nineteen times he’d done it.

And now it lay one more time in his hand, and he examined it carefully, then held it to him, realizing what its presence meant.

“Toby’s dead now,” he said quietly.

“Who sent it?” asked a small ellon.

He examined the writing, and smiled. “Pippin.” He held the boat out to Olórin, who took it. He still held the wine bottle in one hand, noting it was only half full. Carefully he broke the seal on one of the oilskin packets, and realized it was a short note.

Hoping you’re well, it read. We drank your birthday toast from it. We miss you something terrible. Sam’s writing, he realized.

Aragorn is well and happy, and he and Arwen have two children now. Estella and I have one now, as do Pippin and Diamond. Sam and Rosie have five now, and Frodo-lad is a pip. As for Elanorellë--she’s becoming so beautiful it would make you weep with pleasure.

We miss you terribly. MB


Frodo smiled, his face alight with joy.

*******


Meriadoc’s son Periadoc was twelve when Merry decided to take the family West to Mithlond to see the memorial to the Riding of the Elves there, done some years previously by Ruvemir son of Mardil, a sculptor from Gondor, with the assistance of his friend Bergemon. After spending a good deal of time examining the sculpture group itself, they camped north of the city, and spent the next day walking along the beach before heading for the Western Marshes the following day.

They were headed back for their camping place when Periadoc found a corked bottle washed ashore by the tide. The glass was sand scoured, and it had a patina to it. Young Perry smiled with pleasure at his find, and brought it to show his parents.

“What did you find, dearling?” his mother asked him.

“A bottle,” he said, holding it for both of them to see. As Merry held out his hands, Perry set it in them, and his father examined it carefully. The lad continued, “I wonder what part of Middle Earth it came from? I wonder who threw it into the water?”

Merry smiled at his son. “We may never know, son.” He looked at it with interest. “It’s apparently been a good long way--see how the sand has scoured it? And----”

There was an indentation at the bottom where it had pushed against the mold it was blown into, and that looked familiar, somehow. It wasn’t as scoured by long exposure to the sea as the rest of the bottle, and he could see somehow beyond it. “I think there’s something in it,” he said with surprise. Then, suddenly he said, “I know you’ll want to open it up now, but I think we should wait till we get back to the Shire. We’re to spend a few days in Hobbiton, and if you think you can wait that long, I’d like to open it there. Mayor Samwise will have the proper tool for taking out the cork and for getting out whatever’s inside without damaging the bottle more. Do you think you can handle that, Perry?”

Disappointed, Perry said, “If you think so, Dad.”

Estella looked at her husband with curiosity to match that of their son, and saw the look of hope that was on it. “You know something about this bottle?” she asked. He just shook his head.

All the way back to the Shire the children speculated as to what might be in the bottle, and Perry’s younger brother Roridoc was all for “accidentally” dropping it on a handy rock as they rode back through the Marches. But Perry, looking at his father as he rode ahead with their mother, shook his head. “No, Dad thinks we need to open this with the Mayor there, and I think Uncle Sam will want to see it, too.”

All were pleased when they reached Hobbiton, some days later, to find Uncle Pippin and Aunt Diamond were there at Bag End waiting for them with Cousins Faramir and Wynnie. They heard Mayor Sam’s laugh from the garden as they walked up the steps to the gate from the lane, having left their ponies at the Ivy Leaf’s stable. “Well,” he said, “it’s about time, you know. We was about to decide that you’d begged leave to ride on one of Lord Círdan’s Elven ships, maybe sailed back for the Mouths of the Sea and up to the Harlond to see Lord Strider and all!”

“There you are,” the Thain added, coming forward. He reached out his arms to hug his favorite cousin to him. “I was thinking of riding out to find you, you know. Was afraid you’d been taken by footpads!”

Melody was hugging her cousin Wynnie and the girl Gardners. “Oh, you should see the memorial. Uncle Frodo was so small and so beautiful, and old Uncle Bilbo was so frail looking. And Perry found something--he found a bottle with something in it!”

“Did he?” asked Pippin. “Did you really, Perry?”

Perry nodded. “But Dad didn’t want us to open it until now. He said Uncle Sam would have what we need to get the cork out of it so we can see what’s inside.

“Uncle Pippin, did you and Aunt Diamond really go see the memorial unveiled?” Melody demanded.

The Thain laughed. “Yes, we did, and your da and mummy and the Mayor as well. Master Ruvemir made certain we’ve made it to the unveilings of his monuments.” And they walked back through the garden past the miniature Hobbit house that was the pride of the Gardner children, whose thatching they saw to each spring, back to the table where they all were gathered for tea.

Mistress Rose had plenty for all--she seemed to have a foreknowledge of when extra guests were expected; and soon they were all sitting here and there in their favorite places about the gardens with plates of scones and deviled eggs and cups of cider, milk, or milky tea.

Tea was over and the sun beginning to lower in the sky when Perry brought his prize to the table where the grownups sat. Pippin looked at it with interest. “You found this on the beach, lad?”

“Yes, and I wonder where it fell into the water. Da says there’s something in it, and he wanted to wait to open it till we were here. Can you really open it without damaging it, Uncle Sam?”

“I ought to be able to,” Sam said. “It’ll most like need a corkscrew, and maybe some fine tongs. I think as there’s some of those in the box as Mr. Frodo left his tools in for working on books and all.”

“I thought those went to the library,” Merry commented.

“Most of ’em did, but I kept a few as there was duplicates of,” Sam answered. He had Frodo-lad go with him into the smial, and within fifteen minutes they were back with the required tools and a long, bent pick that Master Ruvemir had given him some years previously, one which Sam now used in some of his repair work when he had to clean a drain.

Pippin had been running his hands over and over the bottle while Sam was away, then stopped and examined it more closely, looking with curiosity at the cork and the mold mark on the bottom. As Sam was coming back he looked at Merry, and obviously saw something similar in his cousin’s eyes.

“I wonder if someone in Anfalas dropped it into the water there,” Faramir said. “That’s where Pando Proudfoot went to train as a sculptor of clay and to do castings.”

“I think I’ll pretend Lady Melian dropped it into the Anduin,” Rosie-lass decided, “and finally it’s come all the way here.” She looked to Pippin. “That could happen, couldn’t it?”

Peregrin nodded distractedly as he handed the bottle to Sam, who examined the cork carefully. “Yes, small Rose, that could happen. The Anduin goes through the Mouths of the Sea to the Sundering Sea, and then one of the currents might have brought it here.” But he was more intent on watching Sam.

Sam paused. “You can tell as this cork’s been pulled out afore and replaced,” he commented. “Good glass, it is. And the size is smaller’n what I’d see used by Men.” He started to use the corkscrew, then stopped, and decided to use Ruvemir’s long pick instead. Carefully he inserted it, twisted, and began to pull. It took some time and effort to keep the cork from disintegrating, but finally he had it eased out, and he peered in through the neck.

“What’s inside?” asked Elanor for all the children.

“Can’t tell yet.” Sam lifted it up and peered through it at the sun--then stopped. “It’s Shire glass, it is,” he said with decision. “Never saw quite this shade of green for glass anywheres else.” He held it to Merry, who peered through it, growing more tense with anticipation. Merry didn’t speak as he handed it on to Pippin, who looked at it in his hands for a few moments before he, too, lifted and peered through it. Pippin’s smile was strange as again he shared glances with his cousin. Pippin handed it back to Sam.

Sam had to use both the long pick and the fine tongs to get hold of the contents, which seemed to be rolled paper of some kind. He had to use the tongs and pick to tighten the roll again until it was compact enough to pull out of the bottle’s narrow neck. He was intent on what he was doing, working it carefully, and finally with a grunt of satisfaction he lifted the tight roll out and spread it on the table’s top.

There were two sheets, the first one a drawing of an older Hobbit sitting in the sunlight, smiling, roses and other unnamed flowers twining around him. Rosie went still, as did Estella, their eyes locked to the portrait. Rory laughed. “Maybe Pando did this, then.”

Rosie shook her head. “No, Master Rory, Master Pando didn’t do this picture. Only one could of done this one.”

Sam’s hands were shaking as he softly smoothed the drawing. “It’s old Mr. Bilbo, it is. Much as he was when we seen him last, but awake.”

Merry was searching the picture, then laughed, and touched a dragonfly resting on the leaves of the plant that lifted flowers over the old Hobbit’s head. “There it is, Sam.”

“I see it, Merry,” the Mayor said gently. “I see it.”

“See what? Merry, see what? Is it...?” Pippin’s voice was tight with anticipation.

“Yes--there’s his signature sign, the dragonfly.”

Sam’s fingers trembled as he lifted the precious portrait, and they looked at the second sheet. It was done broad side up this time, and he turned it. It was of the three of them, many years previously, as they’d stood on the quay in the light of Círdan’s lamps, eyes filled with tears, but tremulous smiles apparent as they watched easing finally begin to find one they’d loved dearly.

Periadoc Brandybuck stood peering under Sam’s arm, and his face was still with surprise. He looked up at his father, saw the tears beginning to form. “Who did that one, Dad?” he asked. “Who did that drawing?”

Sam found the dragonfly this time, lit on the arm Merry had placed over Pippin’s shoulder. “There it is,” he said, his voice soft.

Elanor said quietly, “Then--then Uncle Frodo did them, didn’t he?”

Her mother smiled, her own eyes swimming. “Yes, he did, Lovey.”

“I never thought we’d know if it got to him,” Merry said quietly. He picked up the bottle and turned it again to look at the mold mark. “But we do know.” His face was suddenly split by a wide grin of triumph. “We do know!” He ran to the garden gate and out of it, then down the steps to the lane and over into the Party field, all hurrying after him as he danced and spun with excitement. “We KNOW!” he was shouting. “We KNOW! Frodo got it! Frodo got Pippin’s bottle! And he sent it back again!” And the children watched with awe as their fathers clasped shoulders and turned in constant circles until the three of them collapsed into the grass under the mallorn tree about the bottle.

*******


Lord Ulmo looked up as the thought of Yavanna reached him. My Lord Brother, she asked, amusement and delight obvious in her communication, what is it you have done for Hobbits of the Shire? There are a number under the mallorn tree that grows there that are invoking your name with thanksgiving!

She shared the image of grateful Hobbits there, and he smiled in satisfaction.

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