At one of the public audiences three weeks after Yule the Herald stepped forward to rap his staff against the floor and announce, “Prince Legolas Thranduillion of the Elven Kingdom of Eryn Lasgalen; Lord Gimli son of Gloin of the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, both newly returned to the city of the King this day.”
Behind him the tall, slender form of the Elf alongside the squatter figure of the russet-headed Dwarf entered the Hall of Kings; and with a great smile the High King of the Men of the West rose from his seat, turned to lay his sheathed sword across the arms of the now empty throne, descending from the high dais with pleasure to greet the return of two of his Friends and Companions. Seats were offered to both until the end of the audience, although neither accepted one. When at last the business of the day was completed Aragorn descended to draw them out of the chamber and back to the Royal Wing.
“And where is the Lady Arwen?” asked Gimli.
“Ridden out to Lossarnach to examine a home for children left orphaned by the long war against Sauron,” Aragorn said. “I’m to join her tomorrow. Will the two of you accompany me?”
“Gladly,” Legolas agreed after a shared glance at his companion. “It will be good to see more of this land you’ve accepted as your responsibility.”
They stayed the night in rooms in the Royal Wing, and early the next morning they walked together down through the City to the lower stable where Roheryn was readied for the King and Arod for Elf and Dwarf, along with steeds for the King’s Guard who rode with them. They’d said little enough the previous night, for Aragorn was tired and obviously uncomfortable to be once again alone in his own chambers, without his wife alongside him.
Finally, as they rode through the renewed Rammas Echor Southwest into Lossarnach, Legolas asked, “And have you heard from Frodo or any of the other Hobbits?”
Aragorn sighed. “All too much as yet. Their land was invaded by an army of brigands apparently shortly after the four of them left the Shire, much as Adar had foreseen hints of, and as Frodo himself appears to have foreseen at least on the way back North.”
Both Dwarf and Elf looked at their friend with surprise. “Frodo indeed has the gift of foresight?” asked Legolas.
“Yes, he does. He admitted to me before he left he occasionally had visions of the rest of us while he was away from us, and had dreamt of Gandalf pacing the top of Orthanc while they were in the house of Tom Bombadil. Certainly he recognized the tower when we stopped to speak with Treebeard. Letters Arwen has received from the Lady Galadriel confirm that shortly after they parted from us Frodo confessed visions of the Shire to her in which he saw much of what he since has found indeed came to pass while they were gone.
“What is worst about this invasion is first that it was invited by a cousin of Frodo’s and Bilbo’s, one named Lotho Sackville-Baggins. Bilbo used to tell me stories of this Lotho’s parents, who were much given to envy and ill gossip. To hide the reason why he was selling his beloved home, Frodo told it about that he’d come to the end of the treasure Bilbo had brought back with him, and apparently offered it to relatives of himself and Bilbo. This Lotho appears to have learned of that offer somehow and made his own offer for the place for himself and his mother to dwell therein, his father having died some years after Bilbo left the Shire. Once installed in Bag End he began working to make himself the tyrant of the Shire, bringing in this mass of thieves and evil souls to serve as his army of occupation.
“The second great evil which led to the situation was that the one supplying this army, which apparently included half-orcs in its number--” The other two straightened, alarmed; “--was Saruman, who came himself to the Shire, arriving a month before the four of them, just after they arrived in Rivendell.”
“That craven creature went to the Shire?” exploded Gimli. “Whatever for?”
“Let me guess,” Legolas said, his eyes narrowing, “he wished to avenge himself on the Ringbearer for not allowing the Ring to be captured and brought to him in Isengard.”
Aragorn’s expression was grim. “That appears to be it. Hobbits were able to escape when his slaves sent to secure them were slaughtered by the Rohirrim; they witnessed his humiliating entrapment by the Ents and the breaking of his staff; they passed him on the road and had the temerity to feel sorry for him there. He had no desire to see their people continue to prosper. He would punish them as he could.”
“What’s this about passing him on the road?” Gimli demanded.
Aragorn repeated Galadriel’s report on the encounter with the ragged forms of Saruman and Wormtongue six days after their parting. The cold fury of the Elf was a perfect match for the fiery rage of the Dwarf when he was done.
“And after Merry gave him pipeweed?” Gimli spluttered. “He is a sick soul, isn’t he?”
“He was a sick soul,” Aragorn corrected him. “There is more to tell.”
He described the manner in which Lotho had been encouraged to destroy much of the beauty of the Shire, and to replace its water-driven mills with steam-powered ones which were then used by Sharkey to pump filth into the air, water, and soil; how proper Hobbit holes and homes were purposely destroyed and inns closed; and how Hobbits were encouraged and in some cases forced to spy on one another. The more he told, the lower Gimli’s brows fell.
When he described the final encounter with Sharkey and his death as described in the letters of all four Hobbits, Legolas pulled Arod to a stop, forcing Aragorn to halt Roheryn as well. “Frodo would still have allowed him to go after Saruman sought to stab him to death?” the Elf asked, amazed.
“Frodo had apparently divined the true nature of the Istari from the songs sung about Gandalf in Lothlorien,” Aragorn said quietly, “and sought to give him time to heal from the damage inflicted by the lust the Ring engendered in his heart.”
Legolas shook his head in disbelief. “How is it that Frodo Baggins has in his heart more capacity for compassion and forgiveness than even the Valar?” he asked. “What, my friend Aragorn Elessar, has Iluvatar wrought in this Perian?”
The Man sighed, his own face sad. “He yet blames himself, Legolas, for having claimed It at the end, and will not blame any other for how It affected them.”
Legolas’s denial was intensely controlled. “Yet, once the Ring was destroyed Frodo did not go on to punish all who might have coveted it. He never sought to breed twisted souls to serve as his army. He never sought to coerce others to his will, or to lead others to corruption--or further into corruption. Saruman did all this and more, seeking to hide his own search for the thing for centuries and to convince all others that It was beyond finding. And he was created to stand before the face of Iluvatar Himself!” he added in Quenya, a language Aragorn had never heard him use before in conversation. “Yet,” he continued again in the Common Tongue, “here we have a simple Perian who is the soul of compassion. How is it that such a fragile-seeming mortal is yet better proof to Its corrupting influence than one of the Istari? Even Mithrandir feared to touch It.”
Gimli added, “Obviously not all Hobbits are good as Frodo is. This Lotho--he was in many ways the twin to Saruman himself, filled with envy and the desire for power over others, certain he knew better than the rest of his folks what they needed. It is hard to believe such a one was kin to Frodo and Bilbo.”
Aragorn shrugged. “I know not what Iluvatar has wrought fully--only that I love him and Sam as brothers. Let us go on, friends.”
The guards were watching them with concern, and seemed relieved when they at last continued on the way.
Much of the rest of the ride they made in silence, each intent on his own thought. Once they were deep into Lossarnach they followed the leader of their guards until they reached the village of Wenda. As they approached the village they were met by a mounted deputation of village Master and other notables of the place; these turned to accompany them through the village itself until they came to the open gates of an estate on the other side where children stood waiting for them. They dismounted, and older children came forward to take their horses while they turned to the steps into the main house, at the top of which waited the Lady Arwen, her arms around the shoulders of more children.
The awe all felt at the presence of the fabled King Returned soon fell away, and soon many particularly of the younger children were leading Aragorn by the hand to show them their rooms and spots they’d found that were of particular delight to them. Legolas, once his bow was remarked upon, was shown the butts that stood upon the South side of the house where older boys might practice skills of defense and hunting, preparatory to them reaching adulthood. Gimli was shown the weaving and sewing rooms and the woodpile, the last by a young boy who appeared certain such as he would be eager to see. All were brought to see the small byre where the sheep and ponies for the place were sheltered at night and where their own horses were given the chance to fill themselves before they must go.
Toward the evening the children gave a performance of songs and dance for their guests, and at last King and Queen reluctantly took their leave of them, promising to return in a year’s time to see how they continued to fare. All clustered about them to bid them farewell, and most followed after them to the gates once they’d reclaimed their mounts and seen them saddled and bridled.
The village Master greeted them as his guests for the night, and once again they were shown grave courtesy and hospitality. Aragorn and Arwen were gracious to their host and his family; and by the time the evening was over Aragorn was speaking at length with the Master’s older son about the youth’s ambition to enter the King’s service, Arwen was admiring the daughter’s embroidery, and Gimli and Legolas were listening to the stories of the youngest child as he brought out his collection of toy horses and described the accomplishments of each.
Early the next morning Lord and Lady and their party broke their fast with the family, then finally departed with the combined forces of guards and the Lord of Lossarnach and Lothiriel of Dol Amroth who served as Arwen’s lady in waiting at this time. They discussed the major crops of the lands they rode through, the charcoal burners and lime kilns of the northern reaches of the land where forests clothed the lower slopes of the mountains’ feet, the losses of Men in the long war, the craftsmen of such places as Bavarin and Peternostin.
At last they saw ahead of them the gate to the Rammas Echor, and all were once again within the townlands for Minas Tirith. Many were lining the road to see King and Queen and their company return to the capitol, and they were looked on with curiosity and growing love and delight. The barrier had been drawn aside, and they rode into the First Circle and dropped to the street as they approached the lower stable, finally, reluctantly surrendering their horses and preparing for the walk back up through the city, receiving the sprays of greenery and berries given them by those they passed.
King and Queen paused with their guests to greet the White Tree, and shared a look ere they entered back into the Citadel. Letters awaited them from the North, young Lasgon holding them out on a silver salver for Lord and Lady to take. Aragorn paused, noting the boy’s expression. “Did you also receive a letter?” he asked.
“One from each of them,” Lasgon answered with satisfaction. “They saw Master Bilbo and have arrived home safely, and Sir Pippin sent me some sweets of their people from his home of the Great Smial.”
It was after dinner that night, after Lothiriel had gone to her bed, that Gimli and Legolas were told the news brought by Gwaihir. “Then, not only are Frodo, Sam, and Bilbo all granted entrance to the Undying Lands, but me, too?” asked Gimli, his expression indicating he was overwhelmed. “But why? I don’t need healing of that kind!”
He turned to Legolas to ask his opinion, then paused. Almost never had he seen the Elf anything but fully controlled. But now he saw hints of tears in Legolas’s eyes, and signs the sylvan Elf was himself overcome by surprise and delight. “At least,” Legolas said quietly to his friend among Men, “at least when you have gone your way and I prepare my small ship for that voyage I will not go alone. I will not leave all my friends among mortals behind me. You and Arwen will have undoubtedly both have left the Bounds of Arda; and surely none of the three Hobbits will linger at my destination, for such as they cannot linger so long. But I will have Gimli by me as I leave Middle Earth, should he agree to accompany me. I will not go alone.”
“And Gandalf will await your arrival,” Arwen added, smiling. “No, you shall not be or remain alone.”