“Well, he can’t drive over from Bywater every day he’s here,” Mina pointed out. “It will be best if he has some place to stay while he’s here in Michel Delving the three or four days a week he’ll be working as deputy Mayor, and what better place than here with us?”
Her logic was, she knew impeccable. And with a sigh Will agreed. “But for you to suggest he stay in Fenton’s room....”
Fenton’s room had remained unchanged since his death, a shrine to his memory. Or, at least it had stayed that way until the Time of Troubles. After Will’s imprisonment they’d come, Lotho’s folk, and had ransacked the house, looking for anything of any worth they could take. They’d gone through the entire place and had taken everything of value they could find--her few pieces of jewelry, Will’s silver shirt studs, Fenton’s shirt studs, Will’s cloak brooch, Fenton’s feather quilt. There’d been little else of any real value in the house, save for certain of the books, which had all been gifts from Bilbo Baggins; but at that time they’d not come for any books. They had probed the mattress on Fenton’s bed, looking for hidden treasures, or so they said. The place was full of feathers and straw from the mattress afterwards, and it had taken several days to clean it all up--once she was past her initial state of shock. They’d missed the silver spoons and a few other such items that had been in the hidden closet off the kitchen; she’d managed to get them and the books out of the smial to the secret storage holes at the Tunnely’s place on the edge of town where they’d remained ever since. She was to go over and see to their retrieval tomorrow.
Mina looked at her husband where he lay in their bed. “It’s not like it was, Will. They went through it. They went through everything, every single room.”
The realization of what that meant to both of them hit him. “Even Fenton’s room?”
She gave a small nod. “Yes, even Fenton’s room. The mattress there now came from the Rumble’s place just after Columbine’s death. She left it to me after she learned what--what they did here. She left me the linens, too. I lent them to the healers who were working with all of you who were rescued from the Lockholes, and this morning they returned them.”
Will Whitfoot shook his head. “It’s so unbelievable, that any Hobbits would ever act that way, that any would bring Men here into the Shire.
Mina nodded again. “They knew how to deal with them, the Travelers.”
Will looked again into her face. “Yes, that they certainly did. That’s why I want Frodo to be deputy Mayor now, Mina. He knows how to lead. He knows how folk ought to be treated. He’s always known; and now he knows for real.”
“He’s not the way he was, though, Will. I don’t know for certain what he did out there, but he’s been bad hurt--very bad hurt.”
“That may be, but he’s back and knows what needs doing. I want him to be Mayor. The Shire needs him.”
The offer was made when Frodo came to Michel Delving the next day, and he’d agreed. “That will make it much easier,” he’d said quietly. “I--I’m not up to riding in from the Cotton’s place every day. To come here one day and go back when I’m through here in Michel Delving for the week will be much better for me, I think. I appreciate the offer. What would you like for board?”
“You don’t need to pay board, Frodo Baggins,” Will had insisted. “After all, you’re doing me and the entire Shire a great favor. It’s going to be months before I’ll be in any condition to do much of anything. It’s not as if you’re putting us out, after all.”
“If you say so,” Frodo said quietly.
“That was some odd lantern you used to search the tunnels with, Frodo,” Will said.
“It’s not truly a lantern,” Frodo said. “It was a gift to me. A light for me in dark places, she said.”
Will smiled. “You have a lass interested in you, do you?”
Frodo gave a small smile in return. “She was our hostess for about a month. And, no, she’s not interested in me, not that way. I think had she been so her husband would have had a great deal to say about the situation, instead of aiding us as he did.”
“You met them in Bree?”
Frodo’s face grew solemn again. “No, not in Bree--quite a ways South.”
“How far South did you go?”
“All the way to Gondor, to Minas Tirith, the City of the King.”
“You say that there is really a King again?”
The smile on Frodo’s face was truer, more due to happiness. “Yes, there is. The realm of Arnor is reconstituted, and the heir of Isildur is King again in truth. I was there when he received the Winged Crown and when he received the Sceptre of Annúminas as well. He’s reunited Gondor and Arnor both. I’ll be writing to him tonight, if I have time.”
“You know him?” The idea a Hobbit of the Shire would know the King Returned seemed awful queer to Will Whitfoot.
Frodo seemed surprised anyone would ask such an obvious question. “Know him? Of course I know him! I met him over a year ago in Bree. He was one of our guides, and now he’s our Lord King. Pippin will be delivering the King’s dispatches to you soon, I’d think. There hasn’t really been time to do so before now, you understand.”
“How do you know he’s the rightful King?”
Frodo gave a small laugh. “Elrond of Rivendell himself has spoken for him, fostered him through his childhood even, after his father died, as he has fostered all of the heirs of Isildur and Valandil to this day. He carries the Sword of Elendil reforged and the authority of it. He wore the Ring of Barahir until he was affianced to she who is now his Queen--she’s carried it as his promise gift for years. She returned it to him just after they married, now that the promise has been fulfilled. The Palantiri answer to him. He’s served as chieftain of the Northern Dúnedain since he came of age. He went through the Paths of the Dead and commanded the Oathbreakers and then freed them from the Bounds of Arda. He has the Hands of the Healer. He replanted the White Tree in the Court of the Fountain. Believe me, Will, Aragorn is the rightful King. The people of Gondor--they were skeptical, but they aren’t now; and the Northern Dúnedain are thrilled he’s finally been recognized.” He smiled. “I was there when he produced the Roll of Kings of the North and it was laid alongside that of the South and he wrote his own accession into both. Sam and I were both there. And all four of us watched as he was accepted as King of both the Northern and Southern realms. We know his Stewards, attended his wedding, have walked the streets of Minas Tirith.”
“Why do you carry a sword?”
Frodo looked at him, all the pleasure that had been in his face stripped out of it again. “We all do. This was Bilbo’s sword he brought back from his adventures. But until we’re certain the Shire is free of Lotho’s Big Men, the others insist I keep wearing the mithril and carry Sting. They say they don’t want me endangered again.”
“Bilbo took his sword and the mithril shirt with him when he left the Shire, Frodo.”
“You think I don’t know, Will? Who do you think gave them to me? Bilbo gave them to me in Rivendell. And it was the King who insisted I wear them on the way home. The mithril shirt saved me again the other day, when Saru--when Sharkey tried to stab me.”
“Why did he try to stab you?”
Frodo shook his head and closed his eyes. “It’s too long a story--far too long a story, Will. I don’t have time to tell it now, not if I’m to try to put the Mayor’s office back into shape.”
“This Sharkey saw you down there in the South?”
Frodo again shook his head. “No, he never did. First time I ever saw him or he saw me was as we were returning from Gondor. We saw them on the road, Saruman, as they know him most places, and Wormtongue. It was a shock to see them here when we arrived, and to realize what they’d done while we were still on the road and had stopped in Rivendell.”
“Why did you go there?”
“I had to see Bilbo, Will, had to make certain he was still all right.”
Frodo’s eyes were fixed on the table top, the grief on his face plain to see. “No, but yes. He’s as all right as any Hobbit who’s just turned a hundred twenty-nine could be. It’s just that--that since It went into the fire he’s aged so much. He’s old now, old now at last.” He rose. “I need to go to the Mayor’s office, Will. I need to see what needs to be done.”
Pippin arrived not long after Frodo went to meet Gordolac, who had the keys to the Mayor’s office, carrying dispatches from the King. His face was solemn with a strong hint of suppressed anger in it. Mina looked at him with interest, for he was dressed as she’d never seen anyone before. His trousers were black and of excellent material and make, but not of a pattern that was common in the Shire. They had silver buttons on them, each impressed with the sign of a tree. He wore silvered mail under a black tabard carefully embroidered in silver and white with a flowering tree and seven eight-pointed stars over it. He wore a belt of linked silver leaves enameled in green from which hung a black leather sheath on his left side decorated with flowers picked out in silver and gold and copper wire. The hilt of the sword he carried in the sheath was also wrapped in dark leather and silver wire. Over his shoulder hung a black leather dispatch case embossed with a tree done in silver similar to that on his tabard and again seven eight-pointed stars.
She showed Pippin to the bedroom where Will lay propped up in bed, and he came to attention and gave a salute of right hand across his breast accompanied by a brief bow. “Captain Peregrin Took of the Guard of the Citadel and the King’s Guard, sir, to present the King’s compliments and his dispatches.”
Will looked at him with surprise, then looked to Mina, who shrugged, not knowing precisely how to respond, either. “I’m sorry I can’t rise, Pippin,” he said.
“I know, sir, for I was there when they brought you out of the Lockholes, you’ll remember.” His eyes were solemn. “We had no idea that Saruman’s folk were here doing all they did, although if we’d known for certain I suspect Frodo would have pushed himself to come home the quicker.” He pulled the case from his shoulder and opened it, sorting through it carefully until he found a number of thick envelopes and set them on the bedside table. “The King will be most upset to learn of this, I think. Gandalf commented Saruman could do some mischief in a mean way, but I doubt even he anticipated all this.” As he straightened his face continued solemn.
“Why did you four leave the Shire, Pippin?”
“We had to, sir. One of the things Bilbo brought back from his own adventure that he’d left to Frodo turned out to be very, very dangerous, far more so than you can imagine. Word came through Gandalf the Enemy was searching for It, and that he’d learned It might have been brought here. Frodo had to get It away. We left just in time, for if we hadn’t what Lotho and Sharkey and their folk did would be but a pittance compared to what the Enemy would have done. If he could, he’d have blasted the Shire from the face of Middle Earth.
“Frodo had to get It away from here, and he hoped that if he left with It the evil would all be drawn after him. We couldn’t let him go alone, so Merry, Sam, and I went with him. If he’d gone alone as he’d planned he would have died; he almost did anyway.”
Pippin drew himself straight. “He feels responsible, Frodo does. He’s certain that only because he remained so long here that Sharkey was able to corrupt Lotho, and then come here before we managed to return. He’s certain he’s to blame.”
“Who’s this enemy you spoke of that was worse than Sharkey?” Will asked.
Pippin’s face went pale. “Sauron, sir, the Lord of Mordor.”
Will almost laughed, except the young Took’s face was so very pale and serious. Finally he said, “You are joking, aren’t you, Pippin?”
Peregrin Took, Guard of the Citadel, shook his head. “I don’t joke about such things, sir. One doesn’t joke about Sauron and Mordor.”
“What’s to keep--Sauron--from coming after whatever it is now?”
“Oh, It’s gone, sir--Frodo destroyed It. Sauron can’t do anything any more, for with It gone there’s not enough of him left to do anything.”
“It’s an empty land now, sir. I understand that some of Sauron’s slaves live there now in the Southern reaches near Lake Nurn, but Sauron is gone and the worst of his creatures with him. There might be some orcs and trolls lingering in the mountain fences, and perhaps a few wargs here and there; but Sauron and his worst servants are gone.”
“Who were the Black Riders who came through the Shire?”
Pippin was slow to answer. “His worst servants, sir, the Nazgul. They’re destroyed now. All are destroyed now.”
“Why did they come here?”
“Looking for Frodo and It, sir.” Pippin looked pointedly at the dispatches. “May we discuss those now, Will?”
Then the Took lawyers started arriving to aid Frodo in the Mayor’s office. Tolly came to tell Will and Mina they were going to be busy quite late on the sorting of documents which had piled up during Will’s imprisonment, and Mina fixed up some food for tea for him to take back with him. Later she prepared more food for supper and took it to the office herself when no one came to fetch it, and found the room a hive of activity.
Isumbard Took and Frodo were sitting at a table with a number of contracts before them, examining them while Bard explained why things were written this way. Tolly and a number of other Tooks were checking documents and moving them about the room. Frodo had a mug beside him, from which he’d drink on occasion. Seeing Frodo Baggins there beside Isumbard Took she began to realize just how thin and solemn he’d become. He’s so serious, she thought. So very, very serious. He leaned back and began kneading at his left shoulder, then held the gem he wore on a silver chain that hung about his neck. After a moment he straightened, then turned a page, pointed to something on it and asked a question of Bard.
Tolly looked up and saw her and the basket of food and smiled. “We’ll be glad of that, Missus Whitfoot,” he said as he rose to meet her and take it from her. “We’ll have a long night of it, I suspect. We’re glad of all that’s been brought to us throughout the day by the ladies of Michel Delving, for it’s helped a good deal.”
One of the younger Took lawyers came back with the basket a time later, thanking her. Then he went off again, back to the office. After midnight Mina heard the door to the house open and went out to see Frodo coming in, his face pale in the light from the lamp left lit for him in the entranceway. He looked at her. “I’m sorry, Mina,” he said quietly. “I didn’t mean to rouse anyone.”
“I have a late supper for you.”
“I don’t know if I could handle it, Mina. What I need is to sleep. But thank you.”
“You need to gain some weight back, Frodo. You are far too thin.”
He shrugged and turned away. “Perhaps,” he said. He went into the kitchen and ate a couple of swallows of the fruit and cider she had ready for him, ate a half a slice of cheese. Here where the light was better she could see how pale he was. Finally he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Mina, but I’m so tired I can’t eat any more, and I don’t want to lose it. Thank you for your thoughtfulness.”
She accompanied him to the room and opened the door. He looked about it. There was a window looking out at the night sky, for which he was grateful; a narrow bed with comfortable looking blankets over it, a bedside table with candle and lamp, a small desk with a chair, an empty book case. “The books were brought back today,” she said. “I’ve not had the time to put them away.”
The small dresser was now empty; the wardrobe held a couple of old outfits. “Were those Fenton’s?” he asked. She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. “I’m sorry, Mina, sorry to bring back the memories for you.”
“It’s not as hard as it once was, Frodo. And it’s long past time to let his memory go, I think.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “It was years before mentioning my parents stopped hurting,” he said softly. “But it happened. Perhaps it can happen again.” He looked at her. “Good night, Mina. One thing--do you mind if I keep a pitcher of water and a glass in here at night?”
“That’s certainly no problem. I set your saddlebags there over the back of the chair.”
“I saw. Thank you again.”
She went to the kitchen and set out a small tray and filled a small covered pitcher with water and set it there with a glass. Frodo came, surprised to see her already getting things ready. He gave a brief bow. “Thank you, Mina.” He took the tray and retreated to his room and shut the door.
An hour before daybreak she awoke, looked to make certain that Will was indeed by her on the big bed that was theirs, and smiled in relief. It hadn’t been but a dream, then. She rose and went to the door to Fenton’s old room, cracked the door open and peered in. Frodo had left the curtains open, and she could see him lying in the bed on his side, his left hand near his face, his face seeming to shine in the dim light. She smiled, relieved to have someone in that room once more after so many years, even if it wasn’t Fenton. She went to the kitchen to stir up the fire.
Meriadoc Brandybuck knocked at the door to the Whitfoot house early, bringing with him a pair of waterskins. “They’re full of his special tea,” he explained. “He should have them by him all day. Helps him get through things.”
He wore a leather vest of some kind decorated in golds and browns over mail, a belt identical to that which Pippin had worn, and a sword with a brown leather sheath stamped with the outline of a rearing horse, its grip wrapped in twisted copper wire over leather to match the sheath. On a baldric over his shoulder he wore a small horn bound in silver. His trousers were a green so dark as to be almost black, again of exceedingly good cloth.
“You look good, Merry. It’s been so long since we saw you, you know.”
He smiled ruefully. “I know.”
“What are you doing up so early?”
“We found a nest of the Big Men a few miles West of here yesterday, and it took a time to get them to surrender. Regi is seeing them out of the Shire with my cousin Beri seconding him; I stopped by the Cottons to see if Sam was indeed off to see his brother, and to get some rest, and Rosie gave me these to bring to Frodo when I came away this morning. Sam left them for him.”
“Frodo’s lost a good deal of weight.”
“Is he going to be all right, Merry?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know, Mina. If not, it won’t be for lack of trying.”
She nodded. He gracefully declined her offer of another breakfast and left again, easily mounting his pony as if from long acquaintance, and rode out Eastward in the dawn light.
Mina sighed as she watched Merry ride away, then turned back into the house to get a breakfast ready for her menfolk. Her menfolk, she thought. Now, that had a nice ring to it.