“Greetings, Ringbearer,” the Man said solemnly.
Frodo turned about with surprise and some embarrassment. Somehow he’d passed the individual without even noticing him, although how he’d managed it he couldn’t say. Certainly he ought to have noted the red tunic and golden cloak the Man wore. “Good morning, sir,” he said politely as he bowed, a move he immediately regretted as it set his shoulder aching. “I fear you have the advantage of me. Frodo Baggins at your service.”
The Man bowed in return. “Faralion son of Farathor of Lossarnach, bard and minstrel of the realm, at yours, Lord Frodo.”
Frodo first paled, then reddened. “I prefer not to be referred to as Lord Frodo, sir.”
Seeing how uncomfortable the Pherian was, the minstrel made haste to apologize. “I am sorry to cause you distress, Master Baggins. You are not a--a notable among your own people?”
Frodo’s laugh was without humor. “I’ll not say I’m without note, exactly, but Hobbits of the Shire do not recognize nobility and titles such as Lord among themselves.”
“Then how are you governed, my----?”
The Hobbit examined the Man carefully. He appeared to be a fairly young Man, perhaps five to ten years into adulthood, his face sensitive and rather serious, his eyes kind. Then he placed the voice. “You are the one who sang the lay when Sam and I first awoke.”
“Yes, my--Master Baggins.” His own face reddened. “I beg your pardon, sir, for I’m not accustomed to leaving off titles when addressing those whose ennoblement has been so publicly acknowledged.”
“Well,” Frodo responded, rather shortly, he realized, “I suppose I’ll be your first such individual. I am but a Hobbit, and I find such titles to be pretentious when given to me. I admit to being the family head to the Baggins family, which is quite enough responsibility, thank you very much.”
“But I’d been told you were not married.”
Frodo again reddened. How much of his business had been told to this one? he wondered. “I’m not. However, my Uncle Bilbo, who is in truth my first and second cousin once removed each way and who adopted me as his heir, inherited the position from his father, and I inherited it from him. Being family head merely gives me the responsibility for keeping track of the members of our family who are of the name or who make claims on family ties and resources, makes me the keeper of the family Book, and gives me the responsibility to see to business within the family and between the family and the rest of the Shire.”
“Then, family ties are indeed quite important within the Shire? Certainly Sir Meriadoc indicated such was true.”
It was so odd to hear his Merry being referred to as Sir Meriadoc--it made him wish to look to see who it was wearing his cousin’s clothing. “Yes, family ties are the basis for Shire society, Master Faralion. The larger the family bearing the name, the more important it tends to be among us and the more authority the family head tends to wield. However, the Baggins family has been diminishing through the past three generations or so, and so I must admit I’m not seen as particularly important among our people. I’m basically recognized because what is left of the family is related to so many other families, including the Tooks and the Brandybucks as well as the Proudfoots, Bracegirdles, Grubbs, Chubbs, Boffins, Bolgers, and so on. Most of these families are quite extensive, and certainly being a second cousin to the Thain and first cousin to the Master of Buckland tends to enhance my visibility. Although I suspect my major claim to fame among my own people is that I was chosen as heir by old Mad Baggins and am considered to be as eccentric in my own way as Bilbo himself.”
Master Faralion saw the self-deprecation in the Hobbit’s wry smile, heard the half tolerant, half resentful feelings toward his folk in his voice, and saw the weariness in his eyes that at the moment he failed to completely mask. “Then your own folk think little of what you’ve accomplished?”
Again the humorless laugh. “And what have I accomplished, Master Faralion? Almost gotten myself and my kin and best friends all killed? As for those at home in the Shire--they know nothing of the Ring and care less for the doings of those outside our lands. Most likely when I get home I’ll be badgered by my older cousins to find out what in Middle Earth possessed me to sell the family home and leave the Shire and allow Merry and Pippin to accompany me; and Sam’s father will probably give me an extensive lecture on the impropriety of saying I was taking him to serve as gardener and caretaker for the house at Crickhollow when in reality I was simply going off on an adventure.”
Faralion was shocked by the bitterness he sensed. “Do you truly think bearing the Enemy’s Ring was nought but an adventure?”
Frodo’s face was almost totally colorless. “Of course I don’t consider it a mere adventure; but most of the folk of the Shire know nothing of Mordor and fail to believe in Sauron. They won’t give credence to our stories when we get back. What do they know of Black Riders or who is rightful King of Gondor? Most are going to be totally shocked to learn that Arnor is again considered a realm and that Aragorn is the King. In fact, most don’t believe there ever will be a King again. And had you told me two years ago I’d come to this, I’d have laughed at the idea, also.”
Faralion considered the Pherian’s words. He could see that the Lord Frodo was certain what he’d just said was true, and certainly Sir Meriadoc and Sir Peregrin had indicated similar misgivings as to how they would be welcomed on their return to their own lands and people, although at the time the minstrel had discounted their opinions. “It’s hard for me to understand, Master Baggins,” he said quietly.
Frodo shrugged. “Our land is rather isolated, and our people insular in nature. They are good folk--do not misunderstand me about that; but--but what has happened here in the outer world is beyond their experience, and they aren’t going to understand it at all for years, if then.” He shivered.
The minstrel was immediately concerned. “Are you cold, sir?” he asked, surprised, for the morning was most fair and already warm.
The Pherian reluctantly nodded. “Yes, a bit. I seem to grow cold more easily now. I was going to the kitchen tents to get some broth if they have it to spare.”
“Shall I accompany you, then, Master Baggins?”
His companion shrugged. “If you wish,” he said quietly.
As they walked, Faralion could see that he was rubbing at his shoulder. “Your shoulder pains you, Master?”
Again Frodo shrugged, but after some moments of silence he answered reluctantly, “Yes. It and my hand both are throbbing particularly today. I wonder if the weather is going to change again?”
The minstrel looked up at the sky. “It is but April, and so it is possible.” He smiled into the Hobbit’s eyes. “That is one thing regarding the weather of April--if you find you don’t care for it at one moment you need but to wait for a time, and it will change.”
At last he saw an answering smile on the Hobbit’s face. They reached the kitchen tent and went in. One of the cooks looked up, a smile lighting his features. “Master Frodo--we have some broth and hot water and the leaves for your tea ready for you on the Lord Elessar’s instruction. Sit you down there at the small table and I’ll bring both to you.” He indicated a table with a few chairs about it in the corner near the doorway.
The Pherian gave his thanks and moved to one the chairs that was equipped with several cushions, hitched himself onto it and leaned back, his eyes closing as he clutched again at his left shoulder. He remained silent until the cook brought a mug full of herbs and a small pannikin of steaming water and poured the water into the mug, then took it away, returning with a pot of honey and a small spoon. At last Frodo opened his eyes and thanked him, pouring a liberal amount of honey into the mug and stirring it thoroughly as the smiling cook grunted a reply and returned to his work. Faralion sat down to the Hobbit’s right and contemplated the right hand.
He’d not truly seen it before, of course, for when he’d been allowed to view the Ringbearers as they slept the hand had been heavily bandaged as well as hidden at that time by blankets.
It was a shapely hand, the fingers long and tapering, a callous still visible on the third finger--a writer’s callous. The gap wasn’t unsightly--the healers had done a good job covering it with a flap of skin, and the scar was even, in its way, attractive. The finger had been lost at the joint itself, and so there was no hint of useless bone--merely a gap. A writer’s hand. A poet’s hand, save for the bitten nails.
Frodo finally sipped at his mug, then drank deeply from it. Then he sat with his hands on either side of the mug, holding it closely to him. Finally he spoke again, his voice low and gentle. “I beg your pardon, Master Faralion. Today I find myself as querulous as any grumpy old gaffer who wishes for nothing more than the chance to warm his aching old bones and joints in the sunshine who finds that instead he’s expected to watch the bairns and deal with their endless questions. Please forgive me my shortness of temper.”
He sipped again and sat back. “I suppose I’m feeling a bit abandoned today. Aragorn had to send my evening draught via Lord Elrohir as he had other calls on his time; and Gimli was there this morning with the one for my rising.” He looked up, his small smile twisted. “That’s what my days seem to run to now--from one draught to another throughout the day, and too oft without the comfort of Aragorn’s caring. Now he’s busy dealing with those lords who don’t want the enemy wounded traveling with our wounded, Merry and Pippin are attending on their respective lords, Sam is off with the cooks’ foragers seeking herbs for the next few meals, Gimli’s been called away to work with the cartwrights and smiths about replacing two wheels and an axle, Legolas is out with the scouts checking out reports of orc activity near Minas Morgul--” Faralion could see the unconscious shudder Frodo gave, “--the wounded are busy packing their gear and helping one another, and I’m of little use there at the moment, and so here I sit in the kitchen tents feeling quite superfluous and unnecessarily ill used.” He sighed. “Of what use is a scholar and copyist who can’t even write again in the midst of an army?”
“Copyist? That was your profession?”
The Hobbit gave another sigh and small shrug. “If you can call it a profession. My uncle and parents left me with a steady income, so I’ve had little enough to do with my life save what interested me. I was trained to be a copyist and bookbinder, not that there’s a great call for such in the Shire, where book learning is all too often looked on as a waste of time. Nor is there a great call for those who can and do make translations from Sindarin and Quenya. About the one good thing I could do for my extended family was to take my younger cousins off their hands from time to time and give them something to do.”
“What cousins were those?”
Frodo laughed, a proper laugh this time, sweet and musical. “Merry, Pippin, Fredegar, Folco, Berilac. I was always the cousin in the middle, you know--too young to be a friend to Esme and Saradoc, Paladin and Eglantine--I’ve always called them and Bilbo my aunts and uncles, for all we’re but cousins of various degrees. Then I was too young to be considered an uncle to the younger ones.... I suppose I’m but the surrogate big brother for all.” He again sipped at his drink thoughtfully.
Faralion was shocked. He looked more closely at the finely featured face, saw what appeared to be a young individual, not far beyond adolescence; then looked into the eyes which had seen more than any ought to see, and felt that there was a painful old age to be seen overlying the Hobbit’s youthful features. “How old are you?” he asked.
“I’m fifty. I came of age seventeen and a half years ago.”
The Man considered. “Pheriannath come of age at thirty-three?”
“Yes. Aragorn and Boromir told me that Men come of age between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, usually. You mature more swiftly than we do, I understand.”
“Then Sir Meriadoc and Sir Peregrin and Lord Samwise are also in their fifties?”
Frodo looked at him aghast. “Certainly not! Sam is thirty-eight--no, he just turned thirty-nine--must have been the day we awoke. Merry will be thirty-seven soon, and Pippin’s still only twenty-eight. It will be five years before he comes of age.”
Faralion still considered him closely. “Yet you appear--on the surface, at least--to be no older than any of them, save the eyes.”
The Pherian looked away. “I received the Ring the day I came of age. Gandalf has told me that the reason Bilbo still looked to be in but his fifties when he was a hundred eleven was because he carried It for so long--sixty-one years. He was the same age as I am now when he found It in Gollum’s cave; and Gollum himself carried It almost five hundred years.” His eyes were once again haunted when he looked into the musician’s. “The Ring held off aging, although given long enough It would transform--transform Its bearer into something else. Gollum started off as a Hobbit, you see; but when we finally saw him, he wasn’t any more.” He looked away, and his voice when he finally spoke again was very low. “He--he was in many ways like a frog when we saw him, pale, his fingers and toes now webbed, his eyes grown bigger than they must have been when he was--was still proper to--our kind. And he couldn’t die--not as long as the Ring remained. He apparently told Sam that when the Ring was destroyed he’d die with It, die into the dust.” Again he shuddered, and his hands tightened convulsively around the mug.
He remained quiet for some time, and sipped sporadically at the contents of his mug. Finally he pushed it from him and straightened. Again he looked into the Man’s eyes. “I may not look my age, but believe me, Master Faralion--I feel it. The Ring kept me looking much the age I was when I received It, but I suspect I shall begin aging swiftly enough now It is gone. Gandalf says that is part of the nature of the Rings of Power.”
He sighed as the cook returned and set a mug of broth before him, and again he looked up and expressed his thanks, and the cook beamed down at him. Slowly he drained it, then ate the buttered roll set quietly beside him by one of the baker’s assistants. Someone quietly set a tray of dried apple slices by them, and Frodo with a look invited the minstrel to help himself.
The Pherian looked better, Faralion thought, his color improved, much of the discomfort eased away. He accepted a mug of light ale that was given him, and drank it as he watched the Hobbit eat one more apple slice.
He spent much time at Frodo’s side the next few days, and at times brought his lap harp and played for him. Pippin, during his hours not on duty, listened with interest, then sang some of the Shire songs that he’d known since his youth. Faralion picked up the cadences of the songs of the Shire and some of the tunes, and began considering how he might work them into his own compositions.
They often discussed Frodo’s youth, the deaths of his parents, the years he’d felt lost, being fostered by his cousins he still spoke of as aunts and uncles, of his joy when Merry was born. That there was genuine love between Frodo and the others was so obvious, and again and again his two cousins would conspire to make him laugh. When he did it was as if a grey day had suddenly burned away to show a joyfully blue sky and shining sun, and often when he smiled quietly it reminded Faralion of the moon and stars illuminating a dark landscape.
That Frodo loved his Uncle Bilbo who’d adopted him as heir was so obvious, and the anxiety he might come again to him too late was palpable.
Faralion found himself speaking of his own growing up, his apprenticeship, his journeyman years which had only recently been completed, of his pride at being asked to compose the Lay of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the concern he was not worthy of the honor. He described the research he’d done, how he’d spoken with this and then that member of the Fellowship, of what the Lord Mithrandir had been able to tell him of what appeared to have happened during the time Frodo and Sam were separated from the rest.
Frodo himself could tell little enough of what had happened--one evening when the four Hobbits and Gandalf were together Sam told much of what he remembered of the capture of Gollum and the vow wrung from him, of the careful journey from tussock to tussock across the Dead Marshes, of the horrors of looking on the Morannon for the first time, of the retreat to Ithilien and the relief there. Frodo himself told of the meeting with Captain Faramir and the need to hide the nature of the errand from him and his Men, and of the retreat to a Ranger keep neither he nor Sam would describe. At that point another joined the group lounging near the small river which ran by the camp, and Frodo looked up and smiled openly, but didn’t halt his tale. He told of the moment when at last Sam had let slip the nature of the Burden, and Sam was flushing.
“I oughtn’t to of said nothin’ of it, Master,” the gardener sighed.
“It worked out well enough, Sam,” Frodo said, shaking his head. “Even Faramir felt that it was the right thing to do, as now he had a full realization of what danger we sought to protect him and his folk from. I doubt he’d have done as much for us as he did had you not.”
Sam answered with a lift of his eyebrows and the shrug of a single shoulder. He was carefully sewing a rent in a sleeve of a shirt. At last he held it up. “Well, I think as you’ll be able to wear this now if you choose to go back to our proper Shire garb--certainly Pippin’ll never be able to wear it again.” He looked again at where Pippin leaned against a tree eating an apple brought from last fall’s stores. “That Ent drink must be somethin’, being able to make ones their ages grow as they have.”
Pippin finished the apple and smiled smugly as he tossed the core into the moving stream. “Well, at least we’ll have something for the folk back home to gossip on, won’t we? No longer will the Bagginses be able to hog all the attention, you know.” Merry just laughed from where he was sharpening the dagger Éowyn had given him as Sam bit off the thread and secured the needle in the shoulder of the sleeve of his surcoat.
Frodo finished telling of their leaving Faramir’s retreat. “They found Gollum in a forbidden place, fishing. I think Faramir would have ordered him killed had I not spoken for him, and so they just took him prisoner and tried to put the fear of the Powers into him, although I suspect all they did was increase his resentment. I felt much better as they took the blindfolds off of us and let us go near the road--they brought us back, I think, a different way, and we were pretty far south of here. We went on till we reached the Crossroads and made good time, and it wasn’t till we were beyond that that the Ring started--started making Itself heard again.”
Sam told of the hiding beneath the mat of brambles, the trip down the Eastern road; then reluctantly described how the combination of the sight of the haunted city and bridge and the Ring together almost overwhelmed Frodo, how he and Gollum together had to drag him onto the hidden path to the pass to Cirith Ungol, just in time to avoid being seen by the marching of the Nazgul’s army. Frodo’s face had gone pale, but he listened as closely as the others.
“I remember only the interminable climbing, until it hurt to move any more,” he finally said.
Sam nodded. “It was that bad, Mr. Frodo--no question.”
“How long did you spend going up the stairs?” asked Merry.
Frodo shook his head. “I’ve no idea. I remember that at the time it seemed as if it were forever. I think--I think the Ring was making each step echo in my mind, as if each one were five or six.”
Sam shrugged. “It might do that. I think we spent more than a day goin’ up it, myself. I member the one time as I think it was night as we stopped on the ledge, when that Gollum disappeared.” He went on to tell of waking up to seeing Gollum leaning over Frodo, that odd look on his face. He looked at Frodo, his face solemn. “You can’t know, Master, how very beautiful you looked there, the Light shinin’ from you. It was one of the rare times as you was truly resting, truly eased. Most of the time the Ring was workin’ on you; but that time It couldn’t touch you, and I was so glad. And when Gollum come back, I--I now think he was as taken by the shinin’ of you as ever I was. Then I was only feelin’ guilty ’cause I’d fallen asleep alongside you, and I called him a sneak. Maybe if I’d not of done so he’d not of betrayed us to old Shelob.”
Sam told briefly of the trek through the reeking tunnel and finding the web of shadow spun by Shelob.
“That doesn’t sound exactly like the webs done by the spiders of Mirkwood,” Legolas commented. The rest were surprised, for none had realized the Elven prince had joined them.
Faralion was very much surprised, and looked up and to his left to see who else it was who’d joined them, and found that the Lord Elessar himself was sitting on the rock slightly behind himself while Gimli leaned on his axe nearby. He started to scramble to his feet, but the new King shook his head. “No, do not worry for protocol here, Master Faralion. Right now I am with my friends, not merely my subjects.” He turned his attention first to Legolas and then back to Sam. “I agree--the web sounds to be of a different quality than those spun in Mirkwood, at least from my own experiences there, which I’ll admit are not as extensive as those of Legolas. It appears that this Shelob is of far closer lineage to Ungoliant than are those in the great wood.”
Again Frodo shuddered. Sam shrugged. “I have no idea, of course.” He looked at Gandalf. “I used to think as Mr. Bilbo was exaggerating his stories--but after what we’ve been through, I suspect he wasn’t tellin’ the whole thing.”
After a moment the Wizard gave a single nod. “You have the right of it, Sam.”
Pippin asked, “How did you get away?”
Frodo looked down. “I remember using the Lady’s gift, calling on Eärendil, seeing the spider coming up on us. I think I used Sting on her.”
“You cut off her claw, and then you used Sting on the web of shadows as well. My sword finally cut a single thread of one cord, but that took forever.” Frodo looked at him, nodding. Sam went on to describe the rest of the story through to finding Frodo waking in the tower, but he did so in few words and not looking at anyone, as if there were too much he didn’t want to remember of that time.
Merry’s face was white when Sam was done. “Here we’ve been telling so much of our part of the story to you, and it was little enough compared to what the two of you went through.” He looked at Frodo. “So, it was one of the great spiders that bit you.”
Frodo’s answering nod was barely perceptible.
“How did you feel when you woke up?”
The answer was soft. “I was sick and confused--had no idea where I was, what was happening to me, what had happened to me. The first time I stood up after Sam freed me my skin was burning, and where they beat me was like lines of flame. But it was the terror of thinking It had been found and was on Its way back to him that drove me mad, worse, even, than waking and seeing them standing over me with their knives and whip and all.” He was trembling, and Sam, who sat beside him, set his hand on Frodo’s shoulder.
Pippin said, “Then, you don’t really recommend being bitten by giant spiders as a leisure-time activity?”
The apparent insensitivity of the remark made Faralion livid, until he looked at the tall young Hobbit’s face and saw how terribly white and drawn it was. Combined with the fact no one else acted as if the statement was out of line, the minstrel realized this was apparently a fairly normal tactic among the Pheriannath. Frodo looked at his younger cousin and smiled, although his face was quite grey. “No, Pippin, I can’t say I do, nor being--being captured by orcs. I think Bilbo and I are agreed on that.”
The trembling almost stilled, then began again, and then Lord Elessar was rising, crossing hurriedly to Frodo and kneeling by him, placing one hand on his shoulder and the other on the opposite temple, murmuring softly in Sindarin and then Quenya. Frodo wouldn’t look into his face at first, but finally did, and at last the trembling stilled completely. He answered gently, shook his head in response to a question. The hand at his temple dropped to his shoulder, and Frodo sighed and closed his eyes, his face dropping toward his lap. At last he stretched and straightened, then opened more determined eyes and looked into his friend’s grey ones, and said quietly, “I’m well enough, Aragorn.”
The new King sighed, and finally reluctantly rocked back on his heels, pulling his hands away from the Pherian’s shoulders. “If you say so, small brother.” He rose gracefully and resumed his seat on the rock. “We will leave here the day after tomorrow at dawn. Frodo, I’d prefer you rest, for even though you will do little enough on the sail back to the Harlond I fear the voyage on the river, as short as it will be, will still be stressful. The camp should be ready for us on our arrival, and you and Sam shall sleep in my own tent.”
Sam asked, “None of the lords is questioning your right to be king, are they?”
The tall Man shook his head. “No, they are not. This time the entire realm of Gondor is ready for the King to return, while Arnor has been ready for centuries, although it is only now we will begin to have sufficient folk to consider ourselves again a nation.” He smiled. “We will have new garb for all of you--save you, Pippin. You’ll have to make do with the livery you’ve worn since the feast.”
“I wish you’d been able to save the first set. To know that it had been Lord Faramir’s when he was a child meant a great deal to me.”
The King nodded his understanding. “I am sorry, but we did have to cut it off of you after Gimli found you. Nor could we have ever removed all of the troll’s blood from it. However, I don’t believe my new Steward will regret its loss, as glad as he’ll be to see you again.”
He turned then to Faralion. “And now, Master, if you would play and sing us a tune. How about one of the dances from Lamedon?”
Frodo shook his head. “No, Aragorn, let him play something that you can sing. We’ve heard little enough of you singing since Weathertop, save the little you sang in the Hall of Fire.”
It was the first indication Faralion had that the King did sing, and when they had decided together at the King’s suggestion on a tavern song which had been popular in Minas Tirith many years previously, he realized that the Lord Elessar had a most gifted voice, and that he knew this song very well indeed.
When they were done he commented, “That was excellent. It is said that that was written by the famed Lord Captain Thorongil.”
The Lord Elessar looked at him with raised brows. “Was it?” he asked, and smiled oddly.
For a moment the minstrel could have sworn that the Elf was smirking, but then he was certain that he must have been mistaken, as the face of Legolas was indeed as serene as it ever was.