Aster Sandheaver hugged her mother with her free arm as she entered the house. “Where’s Da?”
“In the kitchen, sitting at the table.”
Aster gave a great, relieved sigh. “At last--at last he’s free.” She shook her head. “I was so afraid that Lotho’s Big Men would kill him or something.”
Bucca Sandheaver came in carrying food from the farm, food they’d hidden from the gatherers and sharers. Their sons Dorno and Cando were carrying even more food, bags of taters and carrots and turnips and a couple large squashes. “We were able to put a good deal in the hidden cellars,” Bucca said as he went past them toward the kitchen. “Lotho’s folks didn’t get anywhere near as much as they’d thought to. Dianthus is bringing in the eggs.”
Aster was carrying the large lidded basket in which the family usually brought their extra clothing. “Which room do you want me to put these in?” she asked.
“You and Bucca will stay in your old room, of course, while the children will stay in the rooms they usually sleep in.”
“But what about when the deputy Mayor comes back?” Aster asked as she and her mother made their way back toward her old bedroom. “Isn’t he staying in one of them?”
Mina shook her head, her expression uncharacteristically solemn. “No, dearling.”
“But that only leaves--only leaves....”
“Yes, he sleeps in Fenton’s old room when he stays over.”
Aster stopped stock still just inside the kitchen and turned to her mother in shock. “What?”
“It’s not the same as it was, Aster. Lotho’s folk went through it, through everything. They tore the room apart looking for anything they could steal.”
Aster’s face was white with shock. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
“How, Aster? Lotho’s extra Shiriffs were taking all the letters and giving them to Lotho. He or his Big Men--the ones what could read--were reading them all. They were looking for any reason, any excuse, to go through folks’ places, to steal everything they could. Called it fines and such, when they weren’t calling it gathering and sharing.”
“Then they stole Fenton’s shirt studs, his silver shirt studs?”
“And your da’s, too. And my marriage bracelet.”
Aster’s teeth clenched. “If Lotho Sackville-Baggins is ever found alive, I’ll kill him myself.”
“You’ll be standing in line,” advised her father, who sat with one leg up on a footstool. “You can’t believe all we’ve heard in the last two weeks.”
“That Sharkey said that Lotho’s dead, though,” Mina said.
“What about him--Sharkey?”
“He’s dead, too. Tried to stab Frodo Baggins, but he was wearing his Uncle Bilbo’s Dwarf mail shirt what used to hang in the Mathom House, and it turned the blade and Frodo wasn’t hurt. Frodo was still going to let him go, but he told them Lotho was dead and that he’d told his Worm creature to kill him. The Worm creature was so angry he killed Sharkey himself, and some of those with bows shot him.”
“So, they’re all dead?” asked Aster, stunned.
Her mother nodded, her face sad. “Frodo told Will about it, his face just blank with shock. Sam Gamgee was there, too; said the same. Then when he came, Peregrin Took had exactly the same story, as well as young Tom Cotton and any number of others what was there.”
“Where’d they go, the four of them, and why?”
Will shook his head. “Said they had to get something dangerous out of the Shire, and that they were being chased by Big Men, but not Lotho’s Big Men--big riders all in black. Took it all the way to Gondor, apparently.”
Bucca looked out of the cool room where he’d been placing the meat he’d brought in. “You mean as there really is a Gondor?”
“Apparently,” Will said. “I’ve certainly received enough dispatches from it.”
“What kind of dispatches?”
“From the King.”
Will seemed to take a special amazed pleasure in stating, “The King what’s come again.”
Dianthus, who’d stopped just inside the kitchen door gave a squeak, while one of her brothers dropped his bag of taters. All turned to look at Will, their mouths open. Bucca got his voice back first. “You sayin’ as there’s a King again?”
Will nodded. “That exactly what I’m telling you, Bucca. And our four lads have all seen him.”
“Frodo sat right there at the table and wrote a letter to him,” Mina added.
“How do you know as it’s not a big prank?” Bucca asked. “Them Brandybucks is well known for their pranks, as is Pippin Took.”
“What he wrote in that letter didn’t sound like no prank to me,” Mina said decisively. “No, what he wrote in that letter was to someone real, someone he knows well.”
“He let you read it?”
“No, I’ll admit I was reading over his shoulder.”
“How’s he goin’ to send it?” Bucca demanded.
“It’s already sent. Brendilac Brandybuck got here just as he was ready to leave back to Bywater, and Frodo gave it to him to take to Bree to send off; only some of the King’s Men came to speak to the Master and they gave the letter to them to send off instead.”
“After what Lotho’s Big Men did to the Shire, the Master’ll deal with Men what he doesn’t know?”
“These are quite different Men from Lotho’s,” Mina said. “Frodo’s told me a bit about them. And all four of them love our King, and he’s a Man.”
“How’s this Man our King?”
“He’s King of Gondor and Arnor both, and we’re part of Arnor,” Mina explained. “Frodo’s told me all about it.”
Bucca and Aster looked at one another, then at the Mayor, who shrugged expressively. “I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand it all,” the Mayor said, “but all of them say the same thing, that they went South with the one what’s King now, and saw him crowned and attended his wedding and were sent home by him.”
Dianthus, who adored storybooks, was thrilled by this idea. “You mean he was in love with a princess what lived in a great castle?”
“I don’t know what kind of castle she might have lived in. I don’t think Elves live in castles,” Mina said, shaking her head.
“You mean the Queen’s an Elf?” Dianthus exclaimed. “Like I saw in the Woody End?” No one had ever been able to convince her that she hadn’t really seen an Elf in the Woody End two years previously.
Mina looked sideways at Will. “Yes, dearling,” she said. “And I now think you might indeed have seen an Elf, for Frodo says they do indeed have a woods hall in the Woody End, and that he and Samwise Gamgee and Pippin Took all stayed in it one night, just after they left Hobbiton. And both Sam and Pippin say the same.”
Will looked at her and shook his head. “I used to not believe in Elves,” he said, “but I’m not so certain now.” He looked at the floor where the potatoes had spilled out of Cando’s bag. “You’d best get all those picked up before I have to try to do any walking,” he advised his grandson. “I don’t want to slip on them and maybe hurt the other leg, too.”
When Frodo returned the next night the Sandheavers were all gathered with Will and Mina in the parlor, Will sitting sideways on the sofa so his leg was up, the boys and Dianthus gathered in front of the fireplace roasting chestnuts, and Mina and Aster sewing while Bucca was describing one of the raids on the farm by Lotho’s folks. All paused as they heard the door open and close, and turned toward the hallway. Frodo looked in, then drew back slightly. He had his saddlebags over his shoulder. “Oh, hello,” he said rather tentatively. “Will and Mina had told me you might be here when I got back. Hello, Aster, Bucca, children.” He looked at Will. “You are looking decidedly better,” he said. “I’ll just take my things back to my room.”
“Then you come back out here again,” Will said, “for everyone wants to hear about your travels.”
Aster thought Frodo looked slightly alarmed at this, but he controlled his expression and gave a small shrug. “If you insist, Will.”
Dianthus stood up and hurried to his side. “I’ll help you, Mr. Frodo,” she said.
He looked at her for an instant, and his face softened. “If you’d like,” he said. “Your name is Dianthus, isn’t it?”
With Dianthus chattering away and Frodo listening politely, the two of them disappeared toward the bedrooms. “I have a speckled hen now what’s all my own,” she told him, “and I get the pennies from when her eggs sell.”
“She’ll be happy enough just to have someone new to tell about her hen,” her mother said.
Will smiled indulgently.
It was about a quarter hour later that they heard Dianthus’s voice grow clearer as she and Frodo returned to the parlor. “What’s your pony’s name?”
“I call him Strider, after the King.”
“Why is the King’s name Strider?” she asked.
He laughed softly. “Let me tell everyone at once,” he said. “It’s quite the story.”
Frodo was drawn into the parlor and pressed to sit down in a chair near the fire. He wore a leather water bottle slung over his shoulder. Bucca looked at that with interest. “You get thirsty a lot, Frodo Baggins?” he asked.
Frodo’s cheeks grew slightly pinker as the rest of his face appeared to go a bit paler. “Actually, I do,” he said quietly. “Sam and I had to go through a desert land, and since then I like to keep something with me to drink at all times. But, also, this is an herbal tea that the King taught Sam how to prepare.” Why he would need an herbal tea, however, he didn’t say.
Dianthus sat at his feet. “Then will you tell us why the King’s name is Strider?”
Frodo smiled. “Well, it isn’t really his name, except it is part of his throne name now, translated to Elvish.”
All listened with interest as Frodo explained about arriving in Bree and seeing the tall, sinister Man sitting in the corner watching them, how Butterbur had explained they called him Strider because of how fast he walked, how he’d offered to guide them to Rivendell, and how there they’d learned he was actually named Aragorn son of Arathorn and was the Heir of Isildur and Elendil and Arvedui Last-King.
There was a knock at the door, and at his grandmother’s nod Dorno went to open it, admitting Peregrin Took and his cousin Hildigard. Together they came into the parlor. “Hello, all,” Pippin said. “Berilac Brandybuck brought some of Frodo’s extra clothes from the Crickhollow house to the Great Smial, and we offered to bring them over here tonight.”
Pippin had on his mail under a green surcoat from Gondor. “You’re not wearing your livery tonight?” Frodo asked.
“I’m not on Strider’s business,” Pippin said shrugging, “so didn’t see the need to do so. Almost ripped my tabard last week chasing after ruffians through Binbole Wood.”
“You mean the King’s business?” asked Dianthus, impressed.
“Yes, I mean our Lord King Aragorn Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar’s business,” Pippin said. “Except it’s a lot shorter to call him Strider as he was first introduced to us in Bree.” Cando and Dorno looked at one another with mutually raised brows. Apparently Frodo’s tale wasn’t just a made up story.
Dianthus looked up at Pippin, her head tilted to one side as she considered him. “When I saw you at the Free Fair last time you were there and we were there,” she said, “Mr. Hildigard was taller than you. How come you’re bigger’n him now?”
Pippin laughed. “Merry and I didn’t know that Hobbits should be careful with Ent draughts,” he said. “When Treebeard offered us one and told us it would keep us green and growing for quite some time, we didn’t realize it would do exactly that. Oh, but it didn’t turn us green, but it did make us grow. It felt strange to have to wear my trousers when they now reached just below my knees and my sleeves were a bit tight and the cuff’s didn’t reach the wrists any more. After I got to Minas Tirith, my friend Beregond’s son Bergil gave me one of his shirts he’d outgrown so I could have a shirt that fit when I was off duty, but I still ended up taking my old shirt from the Shire to the battle before the Black Gate, although at the time I couldn’t say exactly why. I gave that to Frodo, though, since I couldn’t wear it any more.”
“Not that I could really wear it, either,” Frodo said, “for until your visit with Treebeard I was taller than you were, and had longer arms.”
“Well, then it was a good thing Aragorn had new clothes made for you, wasn’t it?” Pippin smiled at Frodo.
“And what about the clothes I had made for me?” Frodo asked.
“Is the Queen really an Elf?” asked Dianthus.
Frodo’s smile relaxed more. “Yes, the Lady Queen Arwen Undomiel is an Elf. Actually, she’s a Peredhel, one of the Half-Elven, for her father Elrond is the son of Eärendil the Mariner and the Lady Elwing, and is descended from Beren One-Hand and the Elven princess Lúthien Tinúviel as well as Tuor and the Lady Idril, who was also an Elven princess.”
Pippin was smiling and nodding. “She and her grandmother the Lady Galadriel are two of the most beautiful of all women of any race in all of the world. Only the Lady Galadriel’s hair is a beautiful gold with a hint of silver to it, while that of the Lady Arwen is so dark a brown it’s almost black.”
“Did she grow up in a castle?” the lass asked.
Frodo shook his head. “She grew up mostly in the Last Homely House in the vale of Imladris, that we call Rivendell. It’s not a castle, although it’s well protected.”
“Does her grandmother live in a castle?”
“No,” Frodo assured her, “she doesn’t live in a castle, either. She lives in a beautiful hall that is partially woven from the living branches of mallorn trees in the land of Lothlorien. It, too, is in a protected land--or, rather, it was a protected land.” His face had gone solemn. “Actually, neither Lothlorien nor Rivendell is as protected as it used to be.”
Frodo looked down at his hands which were folded in his lap, and finally shrugged. His expression was suddehly closed. Pippin looked at him and sighed. The young Took looked at Dianthus. “A good deal of the magic of this world is going out of it due to the last war,” he explained gently. “Because of it, the Elves can’t protect their lands as well as they used to be able to do, and during the coming generation most of them will leave Middle Earth.”
“Where will they go?”
“To the Undying Lands,” Pippin said, “where they can live in peace and not have to lose all they’ve done as they’ve had to do here.”
“How come they’ve lost what they’ve done here?” asked the lass.
“As I said--a lot of the magic in Middle Earth was lost due to the war.”
Cando asked, “What was the war about?”
Pippin again looked at Frodo, and Aster could see pity in his expression. He looked deliberately away from his cousin and right into Cando’s own eyes. “It was about what wars are usually about--one person wants to be boss of all and take everything everyone else has for himself. So he builds an army to go beat everyone else so he can tell everyone else what to do--those who have lived through the fighting, at least. So, everybody else has to build an army to stop him.”
“Did you build an army?”
“No, not until I came back home I didn’t; and then it was Merry and I both who built it. But we both fought in armies while we were away.”
“To stop those who wanted to take everything from the rest of us.”
Dorno asked, “Did you all four fight?”
Frodo turned his head away, and again Aster saw the pity in Pippin’s face as he cast a quick glance at his cousin. “Yes,” he said as he turned his attention to Dorno, “we all four fought against the Enemy as we could. Merry and I fought with swords, and Frodo and Sam fought with their wills.”
“How do you fight with your will?” Bucca asked.
“I won’t try to describe how it was done,” Pippin said, “but believe me, they did it, and did it well.”
Frodo turned back to Pippin, an unspoken challenge in his eyes; but the Took wouldn’t turn his face away, looked back at him with an expression that appeared to be full of both compassion and defiance. Finally Pippin said, “Your will kept you going until you couldn’t any more, and that was enough, Frodo. That was all that was needed. And you won, and you know it.”
Frodo suddenly rose and shrugged and left the room deliberately, going back to the room he slept in.
Hildigard appeared as mystified as Will, Mina, and the Sandheavers. Pippin took a deep breath and held it, then let it out noisily as he watched after the way his cousin had gone.
“What’s got into him?” Hillie asked.
Without looking at Hildigard, Pippin shook his head. “He still thinks he failed,” he said quietly. “He made it to the worst battle of all of us, and finally his enemy took him--but while It was focused on Frodo someone else came and took over, and Frodo was saved. But he can’t see that if he hadn’t made it that far all of us would have lost, even if we won our own battles.”
Frodo could hear Pippin’s last statement as he entered the room that had once been Fenton Whitfoot’s and closed the door.
He is right, Iorhael. Had you not made it that far so that It was in the Chamber of Fire, right over the river of Fire, then all would have been lost.
If I’d leapt in, then I would have won.
As you’ve been told before, then three would have died rather than just one, two of them to no purpose.
If only I could have saved Sméagol....
In saving your Light, he found a part of his own again, Iorhael.
He wasn’t trying to save me!
No, he certainly didn’t mean to do so. Yet, in the end he did just that. Even his ill will worked to the purposes of Iluvatar in the end, and so he was saved.
But he died!
You do not need to live to be saved, Iorhael. You knew that when you purposed to cast yourself with It into the fire to see It destroyed.
Frodo sat down on the bed, buried his face in his hands. He sat that way for quite some time before there was a knock at the door. The door opened and Pippin came in, carrying the bundle Hillie had carried into the house. Frodo looked up at him, his expression distraught.
“You didn’t let us give you your clothes first, Frodo.”
Frodo shrugged. “Set them on the desk, then. I’ll put them away later.”
“They don’t understand, Frodo.”
“And you couldn’t tell them any more than I could.”
“No, not all of it--just enough to begin to explain. So far that’s about all I can really do--tell just enough to begin to explain. We tried to tell Mum and Da and Uncle Sara and Aunt Esme when we were at Brandy Hall, but it was hard. Not that Mum and Da were making it easy, mind you. Da was refusing to believe, and Mum was trying to pretend I wasn’t saying I was in as much danger as anyone else.”
Pippin placed the bundle on the desk, then sat down by Frodo. After several moments of silence he finally said, “You knew what had to be done, Frodo, but It took you and you couldn’t. So, Gollum took It from you, and he died instead, and both you and Sam lived. All three of you had to do it together, Frodo--all three of you together. Not one of you could have done it alone. Had you managed to throw yourself in there, all three of you would have died, for Sam would never have tried to have saved himself if he knew you were dead, and Gollum would have died with It. You saw Bilbo when we got back to Rivendell again, how he now really looked like he was a hundred twenty-nine. Think about Gollum--even if he’d been a hundred miles away, he’d still have died when It went into the Fire, for it was over five hundred years since he first got It.
“I don’t think the Creator wanted all three of you to die, Frodo--not then. Not due to It.”
Mina, who was listening from the hallway, tried to make sense of what Pippin was saying.