Frodo and Sam had both been asked to go to Buckland for Pippin’s birthday party, but Frodo had begged off, which proved a good thing as the weather had gone truly nasty, with driving rains and winds which became a sleet storm two nights before First Yule. Ferdibrand and Pimpernel Took came back from the party through the storm and stopped to see Frodo before returning to the Great Smial for Yule.
“Oh, I don’t know if I’ll ever truly be warm again,” Pimpernel said as she shook out her cloak before the fire. “But you still ought to have come, Frodo, Sam. The party was marvelous. Snowed food and rained drink. And Da was shocked not to be asked to pay a farthing for it.”
“Pippin had told me he’d use his Guard’s pay for it,” Frodo said, smiling. “He’s far from penniless, you’ll find. Plus for my gift for him I arranged for Barliman Butterbur to ship in a barrel of his ale, for Gandalf put it under a spell of special excellence and I thought Pippin would be particularly glad of it at his birthday.”
Sam smiled. “I didn’t want to leave folks here without me, so close to Yule. And, unlike some Tooks as I know, I don’t find I like travelin’ through cold no more. Learned better’n that tryin’ to go over Caradhras, I did. Don’t want no more chilblains.”
“Chilblains?” asked Ferdi. “And what’s Caradhras?”
“One of the peaks in the Misty Mountains,” Frodo said. “There’s a pass there called the Redhorn Gate, and we tried to cross it, but were stopped by a terrible snowstorm and an avalanche. We were all about to freeze to death before we managed to get back through the snowdrifts.”
“I thought you could go down around the bottom of the chain to get to the East side.”
“Yes, you can, through the Gap of Rohan; but that wasn’t something we wanted to do, with Saruman and his folk there in Isengard. You saw what he did here in the Shire before we could get back--imagine if he’d managed to capture us with me having It on me at the time.”
“Who’s Saruman?” asked Pimpernel.
“The name Sharkey was best known as outside the Shire,” Frodo explained. “He lived in a fortress called Isengard at the South end of the Misty Mountains, and he and his folk controlled access to the Gap of Rohan at the time. He knew what I carried and what our mission would be, and he would have stopped at nothing to get control if It himself. And, had he been able to get It, he would have then seen to a most--most uncomfortable ending for those of us who took part in the quest.”
“I didn’t think as there was anyone anywhere as I could hate more than that Gollum,” Sam growled, “until we got back here and seen what Sharkey’d done to the Shire. Now I know I hate him the worse.”
“There’s no point to hating either,” Frodo sighed, “as both are dead now.”
“And good riddance to both,” Sam muttered. Frodo gave him a long look which Sam returned defiantly.
Ferdi sensed the unspoken contest between his cousin and his cousin’s gardener, and sought to change the subject. “I wish you were coming to the Great Smial for Yule.”
Frodo shook his head. “No, I’m going no further than here until it’s time to return to Michel Delving. I’m not up to another confrontation with Uncle Pal and Aunt Lanti at the moment, for I’m certain they’ll start asking me to explain again, and then insist I change details again so as to avoid the unpleasant truth.”
“I tried to speak with Uncle Paladin myself, but he wasn’t willing to listen to me, either, Frodo. I finally suggested he read some history and left him alone in his study to stew on it all.”
“I thank you for trying. No, it’s easier at the moment to remain in charity with them by avoiding them, I think. They’ll come around one day, I’m certain; but for now I need some peace of mind.”
“You sound tired, Frodo.”
“I feel tired, Ferdi. Gandalf had told me that before he left the Shire Bilbo complained of feeling stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread. Well, I’ve been feeling much the same lately. I’m hoping that spring will help me feel less strained.”
“Well, I certainly hope so, too.”
The two joined the Cottons and their other guests in a simple meal, then donned their warmed cloaks to finish their trip home. Frodo hugged each and accompanied them to the door, then retreated to the chair closest the fire where he wrapped himself in a shawl offered him by Lily Cotton until he went to his bed.
That night he dreamt of the attempt on the mountain pass again, but now there was a goblin cavern inside the overhang where all had clustered for warmth around the fire they’d kindled using the faggots of wood Boromir had insisted they carry. Orcs of all kinds threatened them from the mouth of the cave, and Boromir, Legolas, and Aragorn fended them off with their swords, while Gandalf aimed his staff at each as it showed its head and turned it into a goldfish. But behind them was a great glow of heat rather than warmth as the Balrog came closer and closer; and even he could hear Saruman’s voice on the wind chanting spells to cause Caradhras to waken in wrath toward them.
Frodo woke in the night shuddering with terror and cold, rose, and stirred up the fire on his small hearth, then sat in the chair before it and drifted back to sleep there.
Yule was a joyful holiday there at the Cottons’ farm. Frodo didn’t go to the Party Field where the Yule bonfire was lit, and was found asleep before the rekindled fire on one of the sofas in the parlor when they returned home, a letter to the King half written on the table. He blinked himself awake as the rest came in, stamping their feet clean of the snow which had fallen that day. By dawn, however, the snow was beginning to thaw as a surprisingly warm sun rose over the Shire. Sam was exceedingly pleased with his gifts, and embraced both Rosie and his Master for the pictures. The Gaffer was happy with the gifts he received of several shawls, liniment for his joints, a new mug Sam had brought him from Gondor, and a bag of seed potatoes Frodo had purchased for him to plant once he was in the new Number Three. Rosie proudly wore her strand of glass beads Frodo had brought her from Master Celebrion’s shop and the lace shawl Sam had commissioned Marigold to make for her. Frodo sighed to realize the promise bracelet hadn’t yet been given her, but Sam refused to meet his eyes. No, until he was back in Bag End Frodo realized that Sam wouldn’t speak. He hoped Rosie could continue in her patience.
It was clear and cold when he again rode Strider to Michel Delving. Bard made certain he had warm drinks by him throughout the day, and that the food he was offered was warm whenever possible. Frodo was both grateful and amused. Considering how many years Isumbard Took had been envious of Pearl’s attentions toward Frodo, it was a marvel that Bard could now be so solicitous.
As he went to the Whitfoot home for the night Frodo found Bucca, Aster, and the children were visiting again. All were glad to see him return, and Dianthus had made him a scarf and mittens as a Yule gift. They were done in green wool and were quite heavy yet supple. “My gaffer says as you could use these when you ride between Bywater and here,” the lass told him. “I made them special for you. My mum taught me how.”
Frodo’s smile lit up his pale features. “Thank you, Dianthus,” he said quietly. “I’ll be certain to wear them while it’s cold. I think I could have used them today on my way to Michel Delving, in fact.”
“And you have a box from far away, too,” Dianthus told him. “It arrived the day before First Yule. The letter with it said to keep it in the cool room but not to let it freeze.”
Cando rose hastily. The possible contents of this box had intrigued him to the point he was itching to know what it might contain. “I’ll go and fetch it,” he offered.
Frodo looked up at him. “Thank you. If the directions said to keep it cool I might know what it is, but it’s better to be certain rather than guess, I suppose.”
In minutes Cando was back carrying a small crate and a hatchet. Frodo leaned over the crate and sniffed deeply, smiling with satisfaction before he signed for the lad to remove the lid. Using the back of the hatchet blade Cando knocked the nails loose, and in moments the lid was off. Frodo was delving among heavy paper, and brought out what appeared to be a bright orange ball. His smile had broadened. “Bless Strider,” he said. “He remembered his promise.” He held it to his nose and again gave a satisfied sniff, then held it out to Cando. “Here--smell it.”
Cando gave a deep sniff, surprised at the tart scent, then handed it to his brother, who in turn handed it to his mother. Frodo brought a second one out and gave it to Dianthus to smell. “Is it a fruit?” asked Mina.
Frodo nodded. “Yes, from far to the South, down near the far coasts of Gondor, from Dol Amroth where Prince Faramir’s mother was born and where his uncle Imrahil is Prince. It is called the orange fruit. There are several that are similar to one another.” He rummaged through the heavy paper again, then said, “Yes--here’s one of the others. It’s called a lemon, and there are green ones called limes and larger, sour ones called grapefruit, although I learned I can’t eat those. There’s still another called a citron.” He looked at the two lads. “Do either of you have a pen knife I can use?” he asked. He used the knife to cut into the skin, then pulled the peel and much of the whitish membrane away. “They grate some of the peel and use it to flavor some dishes and breads and cakes in Gondor,” he explained to Mina and Aster. Once it was peeled he broke it into segments and offered each one. “I hope this is a sweet one,” he said. “Prince Imrahil warned me if the fruit sits too long it can begin to harden and the segments will taste dry and almost woody.” He popped his segment into his mouth and closed his eyes in pleasure. “Ah, this is a good one.”
Soon the others were also sampling it. Dorno was soon eyeing the smaller lemon fruit. Frodo explained, “The lemon is much more sour, and its juice is often squeezed out and mixed with sugar and sometimes water to make a refreshing drink. You don’t need to add sugar to the juice of the orange fruit, though. And again the juice and grated peel are often used in baking, as is true of the green fruit called the lime as well. Then there are smaller fruits than the orange fruit which are often even sweeter than the orange fruit is, although I don’t know what their name is. I have seen and purchased them in the marketplaces, though.”
“Do they have the type of fruits we have in Gondor?” asked Dianthus.
“Oh, yes--strawberries, cherries, apples, plums, grapes, pears, and others. They also have two kinds we don’t have here called peaches and apricots, for they need longer and warmer summers than we have to fully ripen. Their fruit has an almost furry skin to it. Pippin truly likes them, but I don’t care for them unless they are peeled.” He smiled. “They told us that this year, in spite of the war, the gardens and orchards and fields were especially fruitful wherever the ash from Orodruin fell. How the Enemy would have hated that thought, that his ash assisted crops to grow.”
“Why?” asked Dorno. “Why would he care?”
“The Enemy has hated the rest of the world, has hated us ever, those of us who never bowed down to him or allowed ourselves to be enslaved by him. He caused Orodruin to pump out ash to make it easier for his armies to travel, for his orcs have ever hated the Sun, while his trolls cannot bear its light either, and will turn to stone if it shines on them.”
“But that’s just a story!” objected Cando.
“Oh, you think so?” Frodo asked. “Did you never hear the story of my Uncle Bilbo and the Dwarves with whom he traveled and the three trolls they met?”
“Yes,” Cando said, “but that’s only made up.”
Frodo shook his head sadly. “No, it’s not made up, and you’d best not say such a thing to Peregrin Took or Meriadoc Brandybuck, for the two of them were quite embarrassed by those stone trolls, they were.” He suddenly laughed. “You should have seen their faces when they came running back to us with the news they’d seen trolls, or the face of Aragorn as he knew what it was they’d truly seen and went to show them. They’d run ahead, you see....”
Soon all were laughing, and Aster was asking, “You mean it is true, Bilbo’s old story?”
“Oh, yes, for I’ve seen the three stone trolls myself. We stopped for a time to rest in the midst of them and Sam recited a humorous poem he’d written about a troll. As for Strider--Aragorn had seen them often, of course, over the years since Gandalf had tricked them into arguing past sunrise. Merry and Pippin wanted to stop at them as we returned from Rivendell, but Gandalf just harrumphed at them and reminded them they were the ones who’d been protesting we’d been gone quite long enough. But I’ll never forget Aragorn picking up that rotten branch and casually swinging it at one of them there in the sunlight, and the branch breaking--much less him pointing out the bird’s nest behind the ear of one of them. Pippin turned pinker than ever Sam thought to turn that day.”
“What is Orodruin, though?” asked Dianthus.
Frodo’s face went solemn. “Orodruin is the proper name of Mount Doom, the fire mountain of Mordor where Sauron forged his cruelest weapons, including--including his Ring of Power. The name for such fire mountains is volcano. Heated rock from deep under the earth comes to the surface through them, heated to the point of being liquid, much as sand is heated by glassblowers until it becomes molten before they blow it into bottles and tumblers and vases and such. They could tell when Sauron was most active and ready to attack the outer world again by watching the activity of Orodruin, for when he awakened it and it began to pump out lava and smokes and ash that was always the sign he was readying for yet another assault.
“This time he was intent on destroying the land of Gondor, whose people dwelt closest to him and who had always withstood him most strongly. Vast armies had he gathered, armies of orcs and trolls and Men, Men from Harad in the South and from Rhun in the East and Angmar from the far North, and Dunland from just North of Rohan and from Umbar South of the Mouths of the Sea. But the greatest part of his armies were of orcs and trolls who do not love the Sun, and who needed to be protected from it. So he woke Orodruin to pump out vast clouds of ash, causing a brown twilight to fall over the lands.”
“We could see such brown clouds, far to the South of us,” Aster said. “They built up through much of March.”
“Yes, that was when the war raged,” Frodo said sadly. “Sam and I, after we left Captain Faramir, saw the clouds of ash creeping across the sky, driven high in the air and carried abroad by the winds from the East to cover over the lands of Men. Then came the day with no true dawn, after which all remained dark until the Men of Gondor, Rohan, and the Dúnedain of the North together vanquished the armies sent to besiege the capitol of Minas Tirith. But there were yet more armies still gathered in Mordor, and ever Sauron tormented the mountain to keep the ash spewing that his orcs and trolls not have to hide from the light of Sun and Moon. So it was until Aragorn led the Army of the West, comprised of Men of Gondor, Rohan, and such of Arnor as had been able to join him, three Elves, a Dwarf, and Peregrin Took to challenge Sauron’s might before his own Black Gate. I cannot imagine the courage that march took. But they had to draw Sauron’s forces Northward to the gate of his land, away from Orodruin.”
“Why?” demanded Cando.
Frodo didn’t answer for quite some time. Finally he said, “Only at Orodruin could it all be stopped.”
Dorno asked, “How?”
Finally Frodo said solemnly, “His Ring of Power, Sauron’s Ring of Power, the one that could command all the rest, was forged there, and only there could it be destroyed. Those carrying It had to be allowed to approach the Mountain unseen so that they could bring It there to Its destruction, for only with It gone could they hope to destroy the might of Sauron and Mordor forever.”
“Did they do it?”
Frodo nodded, reluctantly. “Finally, when it was almost too late. And then--and then it was almost for nought after all. And in the end it was--it was treachery that led to the Ring actually going into the fire. It was--it was ironic--the Ring of Power, in the end being destroyed almost by accident.”
“Did that kill Sauron?”
“The Maiar cannot truly be killed; but he has been reduced to nought but a spirit of evil will and has been thrust out through the Gates of Night with his master Morgoth, as is, I suppose, also true of Sharkey as well.”
“But Sharkey was a Man....” began Bucca.
Frodo shook his head. “No, Saruman was no proper Man. He was sent to Middle Earth to help teach the peoples here to stand against Mordor and Sauron, but he became corrupted by the thought of the great power which could be his should he find the Ring of Power. He told the rest It was gone beyond finding, taken by the currents of the River Anduin through the Mouths of the Sea itself and lost in the depths of the Sundering Sea where It could not be found; but he knew this was a lie, and sought It for his own purposes. He learned enough from others to finally make a guess at who had found It and where It dwelt for a time, and he learned of us, and sent his folk here to pretend to serve Lotho. They were to seek for It; but by the time they came It was already gone and carried away.”
“You mean the Ring of Power was here in the Shire all the time?” Cando wondered.
“No, not all the time, but for about seventy-eight years It was here.”
“But how...?” Dianthus asked.
Frodo, however, was shaking his head. “No, that is enough of the story.” He gave a deep sigh, looking at the small crate of fruit. Then his face grew somewhat stern. “He sought to use the ash of Mount Doom to destroy the lands of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth, but instead where the ash fell when the winds ceased blowing it Westward it blest the fields and orchards.” His expression softened, and he gave a small smile. “The city of Minas Tirith was grey with the ash, but a glassblower gathered as much as he could, and mixes it with his sand to make the most beautiful glass you can imagine. One day if you meet Rosie Cotton, ask to see her beads she received from me for Yule, for they are made of volcano glass.” His smile broadened, and he added, “And the increase in fruit led to the most odd filling of a bathing tub you can imagine. Pippin was filled with a madness to pull a prank on me, and filled the bathing tub in our house with cherries and strawberries. I was going to bathe and found it full to the rim. And the next day we were all kept busy making cherry and strawberry jam!”
He looked up at Mina. “Have you a bowl we can put the fruit in?” he asked. Aster went and fetched a large bowl intended for salads, and soon Frodo and the three children were busily filling it from the small crate. Suddenly Cando gave a small cry of triumph, bringing out a pair of small ceramic jars, and Frodo laughed. “Aragorn sent us some of our own jam!” he said. “Bless him!” He looked at the runes drawn on the cloth tied tightly over the tops of the jars. “This in the brown jar is cherry, and that in the blue one is strawberry.”
The three children shared looks of surprise. Were Frodo’s stories true, then?
Not long after Frodo bade them goodnight and went to bed while Mina and Cando took the bowl and pots of jam to the kitchen. “I don’t understand all this about enemies and armies,” Will said quietly. “But clearly the four of them saw strange things out there in the outer world.”
Aster was shaking her head. “He says that the story of Bilbo and the trolls is true. I always thought it was just a story.”
Bucca and Dorno, however, were looking at one another. “If the Ring of Power was here for seventy-eight years....” Bucca began. He looked at his wife’s father. “When did Bilbo leave the Shire with the Dwarves? How long ago?”
Will shrugged. “I don’t know--maybe eighty years ago.”
Bucca looked toward the back of the house where the bedrooms were. “Almost eighty years?”
Dorno said slowly, “Seventy-eight is almost eighty, Da.”
Bucca nodded. The conclusions he was coming to were disturbing.