Frodo spent three to four days a week in Michel Delving with the Whitfoots, and each time he returned to the Cottons' farm Mina felt somehow empty, as if part of her hope had left her. It had been a shock for her and Will to learn that Frodo had lost a finger, and after that every time she noticed the gap on his right hand she shuddered.
His third evening with the Whitfoots he sat down at the kitchen table with a steel pen and paper he’d brought with him, borrowed the bottle of ink Will kept at his own desk, and composed his report to the King. He wrote swiftly and well, pausing seldom in his writing. At one point Mina came to look over his shoulder.
The damage left by Saruman’s people is shocking, Aragorn. Most of our roads had avenues of trees on either side, and now all is bare and drear. Sam has begun the process of having the shoddy buildings Lotho had erected pulled down, and we’re saving the bricks, those that are good enough to save, that is. Some were mostly sand with little clay to them, while others were more clay than sand. How some of the structures managed to stand as long as they did we have no idea.
We arrived in time to keep the land and water from being permanently damaged, and for that we are glad. But it will be some years before the fish populations are back to what they were before we left; and Sam mourns that it will be generations before the trees grow anywhere near as tall as they were when we were growing up.
We saw Gríma Wormtongue and Saruman as we rode up the North Road from Rohan, six days, I believe, after we took leave of you. The malice Saruman showed toward me there was unbelievable. He hated me because since I had It he could not have It for himself. Do you think he realized how much of himself he lost just lusting for It? I know how much just carrying It took from me, and I cannot imagine one of his kind so willing to lose his very nature by seeking It. It tears at my heart.
I miss you so sorely, you and the Lady Arwen and your brothers. I miss Gimli’s barbs to Legolas and Legolas’s witty replies and the laughter the two of them shared. I miss riding by your side. I miss Lasgon bringing me my morning drink. and I miss arguing with you about the draughts, and Mistress Loren and her sweet cakes filled with fruit and rich cream that I so loved and that always were too rich for me. I miss watching the clear skies over the Ephel Duath and the realization that the fear which they once hid is now gone from the world. And I miss the call of the gulls. Why I should miss them I can’t say, for I know I can’t answer them, not I, a mortal.
And I so miss the White Tree, the feeling of the pulse of its life under my hand as you and I paused to greet it as we passed it; the shine of the stars through its branches when I sat beneath it at night.
It’s been very difficult for Pippin, for his father simply refuses to listen to the truth of what happened; and Aunt Eglantine keeps trying to deny he was ever in any kind of danger. They are willing to believe in you, although how they can accept the good and not the bad is beyond my understanding.
I wish I had one of the Palantiri at my disposal, or perhaps a glimpse in the Lady’s mirror to see you
At that point Frodo paused, and suddenly realized she was reading over his shoulder. His face grew white with spots of color only in the cheeks, and she knew she flushed. “I’m sorry, Frodo,” she said. “I know it’s private correspondence....”
He looked down at the letter. “No, I’ve not written anything too personal,” he sighed. “It’s all right, Mina. At least you can know how much I miss him.”
“It sounds as if the two of you know each other well, and spent a good deal of time together.”
He shrugged. “We spent what time we could together, Mina.” He looked off toward the fire. “He is a remarkable individual of any race. A Man, tall and strong and skillful and intelligent and learned, sensitive and utterly practical and yet with the heart of a poet. A Man with the soul of an Elf, yet utterly accepting of his mortal nature. Gimli says even the stones of the city rejoice to have him there, the descendant of Elros Half-elven with his Half-elven Queen at his side. He smiles frequently now, and laughs now, and it is now full and hearty and all rejoice to hear it and must laugh with him. Yet when he must judge one deserving of a severe penalty he is capable of a level of what appears to be sheer ruthlessness that is shocking--until he explains his reasoning. I’ll tell you this--I’ve seen few who’ve come before him who can continue to lie to themselves about what they have done or why.”
“Did you stay in his castle?”
“Castle? I suppose the Citadel of Minas Tirith is a kind of castle. No, we slept there only one night, the night before he married the Lady Arwen. We stayed in a guest house in the Sixth Circle.”
“Who is Lasgon?”
Frodo smiled. “The page Aragorn assigned to us, and Mistress Loren was the housekeeper assigned to care for the place. We did mostly for ourselves, but we were often busy elsewhere and thus needed help from time to time. Aragorn was determined that Sam wasn’t going to do everything for us, after all. Aragorn would often call for me to be beside him when he had to meet delegations, and I often went to the Houses of Healing with him.”
“Is he sickly?”
“Aragorn?” He appeared puzzled by her question, then laughed. “No--he’s not sickly--far from it. No, he was trained as a healer from his youngest days as well as having been trained as a warrior. The Houses of Healing are in the Sixth Circle at the South end of it, and he often assists the healers there.”
“Why did you go?”
“He said it helped raise the spirits of those who were ill and wounded to speak with me.” For some minutes he looked down at what he’d written. “I used to wonder what it would be like had the other babes my mother bore lived, to have brothers and sisters of my own. With Aragorn and Sam I suppose I have some idea of what it would have been like.”
“I was going to get some of the nut cake I made earlier. Would you like some, Frodo?”
He looked up at her. “Yes, but please, only a very small piece.”
It was always the response he gave her. She wondered why.
He finished the letter, folded it into a packet, and after pulling out the stick pin of a star he wore on his collar he took up the candle standing on the table by him and carefully spilled a drop of wax over it to seal it, pressing the pin into the wax as a signet, then accepted the piece of cake she’d cut for him. He didn’t eat much of it--certainly didn’t eat the entire piece. Yet he appeared to appreciate it, accepted the cup of buttermilk which she offered him, drank half of it. Then he went to bed, carrying the letter with him.
That week Frodo stayed four days. On the last evening just as Frodo took up his saddlebags to return to Bywater, Brendilac Brandybuck arrived from Buckland, his pony ridden almost to the point of foundering. Brendi leapt from his pony and hurried forward to where Frodo stood on the Whitfoot doorstep and wrapped his arms around his cousin. “Frodo! Frodo! You are back, and alive!”
Frodo’s face lit up. He was plainly tired, but he was also obviously glad to see his cousin and lawyer. “Yes, Brendi--I at least made it back to the Shire. It is wonderful to see you! Have you seen Merry then?”
“Yes. What happened to him? How did he grow so much at his age? You haven’t grown, though.”
“Ent draughts. Merry and Pippin were allowed to have some in Fangorn Forest, and you should have heard Sam go on about it when we woke and saw them for the first time.”
“What is an Ent draught?”
Frodo shook his head. “Very long story, Brendi. Ents are creatures that live in Fangorn Forest, far to the South near the end of the Misty Mountains. They are the shepherds of the forest, and Merry and Pippin made friends among them. They are quite marvelous beings, actually.”
“The--the thing you had to see gone--you took care of it?”
Frodo’s face grew grim. “It’s gone now.”
“And you’re home at last.”
Frodo shrugged and looked away.
“You don’t appear any too happy about it.”
Frodo appeared to be choosing his words carefully. “It was a very difficult journey, Brendi, and I was not--not always proud of what I did.” He looked back at his cousin’s eyes. “I went hoping to draw all the evil after me, but instead although the evil we were aware of did follow us away, other evil crept in anyway, and largely because of me--or at least it used me as its excuse. But had I dreamed of what Lotho would do I’d have never sold Bag End to him.”
“It was one of the more foolish things you ever did, Frodo.”
But Frodo didn’t smile.
“Has the inn been reopened yet?”
“No, although we hope it will be soon.”
Mina asked, “Would you like to come back into the house for a time and visit?”
Brendi flushed. “I’m sorry, Missus Whitfoot--I’ve been terribly rude. I thank you, but I really need to see to it Thrush is cared for, for I’ve treated her badly, riding her as I did.”
Frodo smiled. “Then come with me to the village stable, and we’ll see to Thrush and Strider both.”
“My pony I rode back home.”
Frodo turned to his hostess. “Thank you, Mina, for everything. I’ll be back three nights from now. And when he wakens, thank Will for me, also.”
“I’ll look forward to you returning, Frodo. Now, you watch yourself on the road, you hear?”
He smiled. “I will.”
He and Brendi turned away to the village stables. Old Pease, who took care of the ponies boarded in the common livery stable, sat near the carefully shielded fireplace in the corner, reading, a mug of ale by him. Barrels of ale had been found in the storage tunnels, and until the inn could be reopened and its brewery properly restarted Frodo had ordered a careful dole from the stored barrels so that folk could enjoy a couple mugs a day but not drink it all up before more could be made.
Pease looked up from his book as they entered, and his face lit with pleasure. “Mr. Frodo, sir. Good to see you. Your Strider is about ready now, he is. Been lookin’ for you, he has been. Good ponies like him--they knows when they’ll get to do a bit of a ride.” Then his attention was arrested by the state of Brendi’s pony. “What in Middle Earth?” he began, then fixed an accusing eye on the lawyer. “Mr. Brandybuck, sir, what you been doin’ with that pony o’ yours? You shouldn’t never treat a beast like this!” He set his book carefully back down by the mug of ale on the battered table, and rose to come forward to take the pony’s bridle. “You’ve almost foundered the dear girl!”
Brendi colored. “I’m sorry, Pease. I was afraid I might miss Frodo, so I hurried her more than I ought, I know.”
“You ought to of come a mite slower so as not to of winded the beast.” The stableman examined the pony carefully. “Don’t think as she’s taken terrible harm, but still....”
Pease led Thrush to an empty stall and swiftly removed the saddle and bridle, set the blanket to air, pulled up a twist of clean straw to begin wiping off the lather.
Frodo walked to a stall where a bay stood looking over the gate, watching with interest and whickering softly as the Hobbit approached. “Yes, here I am, boy, and we’ll be off soon enough. But hold yourself yet in patience, Strider.” Frodo settled his saddlebags over the rail, and pulled a small apple out of his pocket and held it out to the pony. He then turned back to the stall where now both Pease and Brendi were working over Thrush. He fetched a pail of water and set it by the stableman, then brought the low stool over and set it down and sat heavily on it.
Pease allowed a bit of water, but no more, and continued rubbing down the pony. Finally he belted a large blanket over Thrush and put a lead rope on her. “Now, Mr. Brandybuck, sir, you take her out and walk her about a bit, cool her down proper, like. And don’t let me ever catch you treatin’ a pony so, or I’ll tell the Master of it and he’ll be sortin’ you out.” Thrush was allowed another small amount of water, and with a glare the stableman chased Brendi out to the paddock to do right by the pony.
Frodo pulled his Elven cloak about him and followed Brendi out into the gathering dark. “I do believe,” he commented, “that you have been properly chastised.”
Brendi smiled. He let out the lead rope and got Thrush walking in slow circles about them. “That’s quite a cloak you’re wearing.” He could just see Frodo’s nod. “You got it on your travels?”
“Yes. It was a gift from the Lady Galadriel. We were all given them before we left Lothlorien.”
“Lothlorien?” Brendi’s eyebrows raised. He’d heard Bilbo’s stories about Elves, and Lothlorien was said to be a hidden land somewhere near a great river, if he remembered properly. “When were you there?”
“Last winter. Late January and early February, I think.”
“So you were able to be among the Elves?”
“Sam must have been thrilled.”
He could see the smile. “Yes, he was.”
“Are they as mysterious as it’s said?”
Frodo shrugged. “Elves appear mysterious to us because they don’t experience time as we do; and they’ve learned there is little in the way of real simplicity in this world.”
“Sounds as if you’ve had the chance to study them pretty closely.”
Frodo shrugged again, looked up at the sky which was partially obscured by scudding clouds. “We spent a fair amount of time with them.”
“Where did you go?”
“We left through the Old Forest on our way to Bree.”
Brendi looked at his cousin in surprise, completely forgetting about Thrush. “The Old Forest? You truly went out that way? That wasn’t just a story Fatty made up, then?”
“No, it wasn’t just a story, Brendi. We thought if we went that way we’d do better at losing our pursuers.”
“You were being chased? By whom?” He coaxed the mare back into her steady circling.
“We didn’t know at the time. Big folk in black cloaks, riding black horses. Hissing voices. They had reached Hobbiton and were asking after me before we were properly out of Bag End, even. Fortunately the Gaffer told them I’d already left and they headed down the road to Buckland. Almost found us once, but a group of Elves led by Gildor Inglorien were coming to one of their woods halls in the Woody End and were singing a hymn to Elbereth. The Black Riders couldn’t bear the name of the Star Kindler, and they fled. Sam and Pippin saw their first Elves before we left the Shire.”
“Did you find out who these Black Riders were?”
Even in the dark he could see Frodo’s shudder. “Yes,” he said quietly.
After a moment Brendi asked, “You going to tell me?”
There was another delay before Frodo finally answered, “I don’t want to speak of them, Brendi. They pursued us through the Shire, then apparently assaulted the house in Crickhollow from what Freddy tells us. They lost us when we went into the Old Forest, not that we didn’t face peril there, too. We were such innocents, and so foolish.” Again he shuddered. “I almost got all of us killed so many times, Brendi. I wouldn’t blame Pal and Lanti or Uncle Sara and Aunt Esme if they never allow me back into the Great Smial or Brandy Hall again. I was so irresponsible, not leaving the others behind, although they were needed--they were truly needed. If Sam hadn’t been there I would never have made it at all; Merry helped kill the Witch King, and Pippin saved Faramir and helped save countless lives other times, too.”
“Merry killed the what?”
“He and the Lady Éowyn between them killed the Witch King--the Witch King of Angmar.” Frodo was shivering almost uncontrollably, and was clutching at his left shoulder.
“But he’s just a story, about the Last King!”
Frodo’s eyes were dark holes in his pale face in the dim light. “No, he wasn’t, Brendi. He was real--all too real. He was a Nazgul, Brendi, one of Sauron’s Ringwraiths, their leader.” Again he looked away. “And after I told you I didn’t want to speak of them--I had to go and name him.”
Brendi dropped Thrush’s rope and came to stand beside Frodo, placed his hand on Frodo’s shoulder, and was shocked to feel how cold it and his left arm were. “Frodo! What happened to you?”
Frodo rose abruptly and pulled away. “What didn’t happen to me, Brendi?” he said softly. “Don’t waste your time feeling sorry for me--I’m not worth it.”
He shouldered past the lawyer and went back into the stable. Thrush came to Brendi and pushed against him with her muzzle, and without thinking the Brandybuck scratched her ears, then he led her back inside. Frodo was at the stall where the bay gelding stood, had the gate open and was removing the warming blanket and placing it over the side wall. Brendi went into the stall, but Frodo avoided looking at him.
He turned and pulled an exceedingly fine saddle blanket from the saddle tree and placed it over Strider’s back, then, after adjusting it he turned for the saddle. He lifted it preparatory to settling it, too, and then all but dropped it. Brendi made a wild grab and caught it, felt the weight and the solidity of the piece, saw the beauty of it, the delicacy of the silver inlay, the fineness of its lines, the richness of its stirrups and pommel.
Thrush had followed him to the stall door, and Pease was approaching as well, concerned for the mare as well as the deputy Mayor.
“What’s goin’ on?” demanded the stableman, eyeing Frodo with a worried expression. “He looks as if he’s taken a turn o’ some kind.”
“I don’t know,” Brendi answered. “I need to find out.”
“I’m only tired,” Frodo insisted, but neither of the others was convinced.
“He needs a proper sit down,” Pease advised. He gave the mare a brief examination. “She’ll do well enough now. You go on through the rear door, into my place. There’s a settle in the kitchen. Stir up the fire and make him sit down and maybe put his head down for a bit. Till he settles out some he’s in no shape to be ridin’ no pony to Bywater.”
“Let me get mounted,” Frodo insisted, “I’ll get there all right.”
Brendilac shook his head. “No way, Frodo Baggins, am I letting you go alone. Pease is right. Now you come along and let Pease settle your Strider there, get your breath back and tell me what happened.” He gave the saddle into Pease’s hands and forcefully drew Frodo toward the rear door.
Pease’s cottage was dimly lit by the kitchen fire. Brendi settled his cousin onto the kitchen settle and went to stir up the flames and add a couple logs. Once he was certain the logs would catch properly he turned to Frodo, who was fumbling under his grey-green cloak at the water bottles he had slung over his shoulders. Brendi was surprised, for it appeared Frodo carried at least four of them. As he checked each one, Frodo’s face became increasingly frustrated.
“What is it, Frodo?”
“I need a drink of Sam’s tea, Brendi, but the bottles are all empty.”
Frodo sighed. “It’s made with special herbs Strider showed him, apparently. Really it’s medicinal. We’ve found it helps when I’ve--when I’ve made myself upset.”
“And what do you have to be upset about?”
Frodo shook his head. “About everything, or so it seems at times, Brendi.”
“Let me see if I understand--your pony’s showing Samwise Gamgee medicinal herbs, and Sauron’s Ringwraiths are real, and they were chasing you?”
“Not the pony--Aragorn. The pony’s name is for him. And as for the Nazgul--they were real, Brendi, and yes, they were chasing us.”
“They were real, but aren’t now?”
“They were destroyed.”
“How? When? Why?”
Frodo’s face in the steadying light was pale, his eyes shadowed. He shook his head again.
“Frodo, you have to tell me!”
Frodo kept shaking his head. “I need a drink of something, Brendi,” he said in a low voice. “I can’t bear to be without something to drink.”
Brendi looked about, saw the shelf on which a few mugs stood, and the stone water jar. No hand pump here for water for the basin, he realized. He filled one of the mugs from the water jar and pressed it into Frodo’s hands. Frodo’s left one was still cold, cold and unnaturally pale compared to the other hand, the one---- He paused in shock, for he saw the gap where the ring finger had been lost. He captured that hand, forced Frodo to hold it steady so he could examine it, see where the skin had been carefully drawn over the wound to cover what must be a horrid scar. Brendi held that hand between his own, and pulled it to his face, his tears streaming.
Frodo clumsily set the mug down on the seat beside him, slopping water over the wood. His face was almost totally without color, save for two small spots of red on his cheeks. “Brendi, please, please let me go. Please don’t look at it! I can’t bear to have folks look at it, Brendi. Please, let it go!” He tried to pull it free. “Please, Brendi!”
Brendilac looked at Frodo through his tears. “What happened, Frodo? You have to tell me!”
“You’ll never believe it.”
“You’ve never lied to me, Frodo Baggins.”
Frodo looked away, stopped trying to free his hand. Finally he spoke. “The--the thing I told you about, that Bilbo left me, the dangerous thing--Gandalf was right about what It was and how It was wanted. It was Sauron’s once, Brendi. He lost It long ago, at the end of the Second Age. He lost It and he almost lost himself. But It wasn’t destroyed, and so he could come back. Until It could be destroyed, he could come back and his Ringwraiths continued to exist and served him.”
“What was it?”
“Sauron’s Ring of Power.”
Brendilac Brandybuck felt his scalp crawl and the goosebumps rise on his arms. “Bilbo found Sauron’s Ring of Power?”
Quietly and quickly Frodo told how the Ring had been taken and then lost by Isildur, then explained the story Gandalf had learned from Gollum, how Gollum had killed his cousin to take the Ring for his own, how he’d come to hate light and went into the darkness under the mountains to hide from it and to seek secrets, and how It had abandoned him only to be found by Bilbo.
“Bilbo had no idea what it was, only realized it was a magic ring that made him invisible when he wore it. Used to wear it to hide from the Sackville-Bagginses, in fact. But that was why he didn’t seem to age, and why--and why I haven’t appeared to age, either. It’s why a lot of things, Brendi. It’s why I stopped being interested in lasses, and why I gradually stopped dancing.” He sat, shaking his head.
Brendi finally let go the hand, and Frodo took up the mug and drank deeply from it. “How did it make you lose interest in lasses?” the lawyer asked.
He waited quite some time for the answer. “Every time I looked at a lass I might have once fancied,” Frodo finally whispered, “It put thoughts into my head, Brendi. Nasty thoughts--cruel thoughts. Thoughts of--of forcing or hurting her for my pleasure. I couldn’t bear those thoughts, so I taught myself to ignore the fact the lass was a lass and lovely.”
Brendi shuddered. “Everyone wondered....”
Frodo suddenly took the lawyer’s hand forcefully. “Brendi, what I’m telling you now you are not to tell anyone else, do you understand?”
“Don’t you think Sara and Esme have the right to know?”
Again Frodo paled. “No, Brendi, you aren’t to tell them--not that they’ll understand if you tried. You’re my lawyer. You can’t tell anyone, not even Sam.”
Reluctantly Brendi agreed.
Finally Frodo continued. “We had a dark time in the Old Forest, but were saved when we met Tom Bombadil. He saved us again later. We were such fools. I was such a fool. He finally had to lead us to the Road himself. Once we were on the Road we finally turned toward Bree, not realizing we were now being followed by someone else.
“In Bree we found Gandalf hadn’t been seen in months, and we were approached by a Man, quite the tallest Man I’ve yet seen, who insisted on serving as our guide. He all but told me who he really was, but I couldn’t accept it. You know those Men we used to watch who’d ride on the Road through the Shire? The ones in grey and green and silver?”
Brendi nodded. “The ones on the tall horses? The ones with the stars on their cloaks?”
Frodo nodded. “They’re called the Rangers. They’re really the descendants of the followers of Elendil and Isildur, the Northern Dúnedain. Their chieftain since the death of Arvedui Last-King has always been Arvedui’s heir, and the heir of Elendil and Isildur. We’ve not realized it, but they’ve been protecting the borders of the Breelands and the Shire for generations. Only reason Saruman’s folks could get in here was because the call came for them to go South to fight in the war, and the ones they could gather quickest were those who served here around the Shire and Bree, and many of those who still lingered around the ruins of the King’s cities of Fornost and Annúminas to the North, around the region of Lake Evendim.”
“You seem to know a good deal about them.”
“I traveled South with Aragorn, you see, and came back North with his Steward, Lord Halladan. We had a good deal of time to discuss matters.” Frodo sighed. “The tall Man was called Strider in Bree, because he can walk at a tremendously fast pace. His real name was Aragorn son of Arathorn, the Chieftain of the Northern Dúnedain. He’s now the King of Arnor and Gondor both.”
He straightened. “The night we spent in Bree we didn’t go to our room--slept instead on the floor of a private parlor. We fixed the beds up to look as if we were sleeping in them. Next morning we found the room had been broken into, and the beds and the pillows and bolsters and blankets had been hacked to pieces. Strider led us out of Bree and we made for Rivendell. We--we were attacked on the way, and one of the Nazgul--the Witch King himself--stabbed me with a Morgul blade. I was almost lost, Brendi.”
Frodo spoke for close to an hour, mostly about the interactions with Aragorn, and Brendi didn’t interrupt any more. By the time Frodo was done he looked drained. The lawyer rose. “Is there anything I can do for you, Frodo?”
“Not much. Just don’t tell anyone--not anyone--what I’ve told you.”
“You can’t have told me all.”
“I didn’t.” Frodo shuddered.
“You didn’t tell me how you lost your finger.”
“It was when the Ring was destroyed. That’s all I want you to know about it.”
“But you survived.”
“I shouldn’t have, Brendi. I should have died. I should have leapt in with It, but It took me and I couldn’t do that.”
Frodo looked down at the mug. Then he looked back up. “I just remembered--in my saddlebags, in the left one, is a silver flask. Could you go get it for me? Aragorn put the last draught he made for me into it, and I never drank it.”
“Would it still be good?”
“If anyone else had fixed it, other than an Elf, I’d say no. But since he fixed it, it probably is fine.”
He went back to the stable. Thrush was now settled in a stall and was quietly eating from the manger. Strider was waiting in his stall, now with saddle, bridle, and headpiece in place. Brendi stopped to look at it in awe. “That is the most beautiful tack I’ve ever seen,” he said.
“I agree,” Pease said. “Mr. Frodo appears to of picked up some real quality tack, I must say; and the gelding is a beauty.”
Brendi unfastened the cover to the finely tooled saddlebag and found the flask, another item of exquisite workmanship, he realized. The clothing he saw was also quite good stuff, and wonderfully finished, Shire styles but foreign materials. He shook his head.
He undid the lid of the flask as he walked to the kitchen door for the cottage and took a sniff. It smelled fresh and clean. He could identify the scent of at least two of the herbs used, but couldn’t tell the main one. He brought it to Frodo, who thanked him and took a sip, nodded as if reassured, and then drank the rest down. In a few minutes he straightened and smiled. “I think I’m ready to go now. I must, or they’ve threatened to come drag me away--Sam made them promise. He insists I can’t work more than four days a week, preferably only three, or he’s certain I’ll make myself ill.”
“After what I’ve seen today I suspect he may be right, Frodo.”
Frodo gave a soft sigh. “Not you, too, Brendi.”
They went back to the stable, and Brendi was able to hire the use of another pony and a fresh saddle blanket for four days, although Pease threatened him with dire consequences should he treat the animal as he had Thrush. The pony was quickly saddled and bridled, and the two Hobbits thanked Pease and set off for Bywater. While they rode Brendi asked about Sharkey, and Frodo told him a good deal about what he knew of him.
“He wanted It, although whether he wanted It for himself or to buy favor from Sauron we don’t know--probably mostly for himself. He sent a troupe of fighting orcs, what they call the Uruk-hai, to find us and to bring me back to him in Isengard. Only they didn’t get me--they caught Merry and Pippin instead. They didn’t make it back to him--near Fangorn Forest they were found by the Rohirrim, the Riders of Rohan, who are fierce warriors who fight from horseback and raise horses in the grasslands North of the White Mountains and West of Gondor, South of the Misty Mountains and Eriador. They attacked the party of Uruks and common orcs who’d joined them, and in the confusion Merry and Pippin escaped into the forest where they met Treebeard or Fangorn, the oldest of the Ents, and their chieftain, or the closest to such as they have.
“What they were able to tell the Ents of Saruman’s treachery convinced them to lead an assault on Isengard, and from what I can tell they tore the Ring of Isengard literally apart. They diverted the rivers and filled the vale with water to drown any lingering orcs or soldiers of Saruman’s, and to trap him in the tower of Orthanc. Merry and Pippin got to watch the entire assault, and were there when Gandalf came and later when he returned with the King of Rohan and Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli.
“The Ents promised to keep Saruman as a prisoner there, but when the war was over and Sauron’s power destroyed they let him and this one they called Wormtongue go. His power was destroyed. They left with nothing, but had apparently sent the Big Men Lotho thought served him here. They hurried to come here before we could, and so had apparently about a month to do as much destruction as they could. Had Saruman not been cast out of his order and his staff broken, it’s probable that the damage to the Shire would have been far deeper and perhaps even permanent; as it is the beauty of the Shire will most likely not be restored in our lifetime. Sam is devastated with the loss of the trees, as are we all. Had Treebeard realized Saruman would do such things he’d probably have squashed him flat.”
“Where did you come by the pony?”
“It was a gift from Aragorn and Éomer of Rohan--that and the tack. Aragorn asked Éomer to choose a pony for each of us. Actually, Merry already had one, Stybba, that King Théoden had given him; but now he has all new tack with Rohirric horseheads all over it. They put stars on my tack, sun symbols on Sam’s, and images of the White Tree on Pippin’s. The horses and ponies of Rohan are among the finest in the world, although Éomer was bargaining for the loan of Aragorn’s stallion Roheryn as a stud as we headed home through Anorien and Rohan.”
“The saddlebags aren’t the same workmanship.”
“No, they were made in Dol Amroth and gifts jointly from Aragorn and Prince Imrahil. And our bedrolls were given us by Prince Faramir, who is now Steward of Gondor.”
“Elven cloaks, steeds from Rohan, clothes from Gondor--doesn’t appear to be much in the way of possessions from the Shire that any of you have still.”
“Save for the others’ pipes. Although the ones Pippin and Merry use now were given them by Bilbo, and those were made for him in Rivendell.” Again Frodo’s voice was grim. “We lost everything we took with us, or almost everything.”
Brendi stayed the next few days with the Cottons, helping to cut and stack wood and care for the animals in return for his welcome. He heard the story now of the assault on the house in Crickhollow from Fatty himself, along with the description of the group which had gathered around the young Bolger to assist in raiding the stores gathered by Lotho’s folks; and Young Tom described the Battle of Bywater with great detail, and the confrontation with Sharkey and his death.
“Never seen nothin’ like it,” he declared, when he’d described the smoky figure that had appeared to rise from Sharkey’s body. “Pathetic it was, if it thought to threaten us. West wind just come along and blew it to naught.”
Brendi was surprised to see that the looks of satisfaction and relief seen on the faces of the Cottons and Freddy weren’t mirrored on Frodo’s--he, instead, appeared to be filled with grief.