Sam, newly come from a bath in the Whitfoot bathing room, sat upright in the chair near the fire in the parlor, dressed in clean clothing, a towel still over his shoulders as he sipped appreciatively at the mug of ale brought him by Mina. “So, now most of the avenues along the Road have been replaced, and the orchards in the Marish and along the Brandywine, as well as the groves the other side of the Woody End. We’ve set sixteen trees there in the orchards area the other side of the Hill, and replaced those along the New Row and the edge of the Water. The oak grove nigh to Overhill’s been replaced, and the ash trees along the Bywater Road. I’ve planted a new oak tree top of the Hill, and that silver nut from the center of the Lady’s box I planted by where the Party Tree stood.
“Down in the Southfarthing we’ve replaced six cherry orchards, two of apples near the first Hornblower plantation, and four of plums near where Largo Longbottom’s smial was redug. We was able to replace the dogwoods along the borders of the Goold’s leaf plantation, and all the poplars on the approach to the Grubbs’s pony farm.”
Sam continued, listing sites around the Shire where he and his helpers had been, replacing individual trees, orchards, avenues, copses, woodlots, groves, and windbreaks; where they’d dug a few grains of the precious dust from the Lady Galadriel’s gift into the soil of burned fields, trampled gardens, uprooted vineyards, hacked hedges, and denuded banks before allowing others to replant them.
“Don’t know for certain, o’ course, just what the dust from the Lady’s gift’ll do for the trees and gardens and such,” Sam said, after taking another sip of his ale, “but I’ll swear as some of the trees I planted here around Michel Delving and along the road from Hobbiton and Bywater’s already bigger now than they was when they went into the ground. It’s a lot like watchin’ the new White Tree grow, Frodo. You member as how it would seem to grow several inches each night, soon as it was planted where the old one had stood.”
“How many of the burned houses and dug out smials have been replaced?” asked Paladin Took.
“Almost all of ’em,” Sam said. “All in the region about the Hill is done, save for Bag End itself. Almost all of them belonged to family heads, or to close relatives of Mr. Frodo’s or the Thain or the Master. Budge Hall for the Bolgers, the smial as Folco Boffins lived in with his mum in Overhill, that of Ned Boffins as is family head, those of Largo Longbottom and Maiser Hornblower in the Southfarthing, a few Tooks and Brandybucks as lived in the Marish, the ones along the Row, o’ course, quite a few in Hobbiton and Bywater as was friends or relatives of Frodo’s, again in especial the family heads o’ the Chubbses and Grubbses. Still have about six to complete in the Eastfarthing, I understand, two in the Northfarthing, and four in the Westfarthing. Pretty fast work by all, I think.
“Freddy and Estella Bolger have finally been able to return to Budge Hall with their folks. All had thought as they’d of been able to return in January, but turned out two of the back rooms had been all but collapsed, and had to be redug and shored up afore the family could move back in. And we hope to have Bag End completed the end of March, first of April.”
“Why is it taking so long?” asked the Thain.
“Well, Mr. Frodo’s insisted as we work first on those homes for those as lost their places entire; and second--we’re findin’ as it’s far easier to replace things completely than it is just to have to piece things together. O’ course, the visit of Gimli this last week helped a good deal, for he helped with a lot of the stone work. There was no time to have tiles made to replace those as Sharkey and his folk broke, so we went to slate; and he helped redo the fireplaces in many of the bedrooms as well as helpin’ to place the new stone floors. I’m just glad as the Lady Galadriel sent up those new carpets, for there’s no way as we could of replaced all of them otherwise.”
Brendilac Brandybuck spoke next of the searches through the places the Big Men had stayed throughout the Shire, the evidence of perversion, fetishes, and theft. “They often stole animals out of herds and flocks and would butcher them, cook them, and eat them all in a single day or evening. We learned many lost any animals they didn’t take up into the hills or deep into the forest glades. It may take years to rebuild the flocks of fowl taken. Fortunately, they don’t appear to have eaten ponies.
“We found eighteen major caches of confiscated goods in the Southfarthing, most on farms and plantations Lotho held. We found five places there the Men appear to have stayed, and in such places we found evidence of the animals taken and butchered.”
Frodo continued, “The lists of what was found in the caches and what has been described as missing have been compared, and there’s not a great deal that has been left unclaimed or remains missing. Only one Hobbit appears to have realized that gold, silver, and jewelry had great value elsewhere and collected a good deal of it obviously in preparation for trying to make a life for himself outside the Shire, and that was Timono Bracegirdle. Most others took such things either for their own use or to serve as gifts to those close to them, as Marco Smallburrow appears to have done for his mother. Most of what is still missing involves small items of jewelry or utilitarian items which are difficult to differentiate from appropriately acquired ones.
“The most distressing losses are the thirty-seven Hobbits across the Shire who disappeared and are unaccounted for, two of them infants. We’ve even forwarded descriptions of the missing ones to Bree to be sought there in the Breelands. Two of those who went missing were the Chubbs brothers who fled to Bree but who returned to the Shire in late November. They’d been threatened by Bedro Bracegirdle, who’s been quite the piece of work for many years. He was the bully of Westhall on the borders of the Westfarthing as he was growing up.
“Six remain in custody in the new Lockholes, while a number of others are on house arrest under the supervision of their family heads. The worst, however, appears to have been Timono Bracegirdle, who not only helped come up with the schemes to defraud individual Hobbits and families across the Shire, but who also directly took part in the ‘gathering and sharing’ and targeted items of value in the outlands.”
Paladin and Saradoc sighed. Their own lands had been less damaged than most of the other regions of the Shire, although they’d seen some houses, barns, fields, and copses burned; but realizing how little they’d been able to help the rest of the Shire protect themselves against the depredations of Lotho’s and Sharkey’s folks was still distressing.
Merry and Pippin sat side by side, apart from the rest near the entranceway. All turned to them. After a look at one another, Merry reported, “No more Men have been found within the Shire since December, and only three Men have approached our borders from any direction save Bree, and they were easily turned back. The King’s messengers have been bringing messages as they arrive from Aragorn or Lord Halladan or their folk, and so far have been approaching the Bridge at least once a week, where incoming and outgoing messages have been exchanged. Gimli took a couple barrels of pipeweed with him when he left yesterday. One will be shared with those Rangers who patrol the borders of the Shire and the Breelands, and the other will be sent South to the King, who will be glad to receive it for himself and his kindred from the North, and such Dwarves as are now aiding in the reconstruction of Minas Tirith.”
Pippin added, “I’ve been delivering messages from Lord Halladan and the King as they arrive, those that are official. Aragorn is pleased with how we’ve been able to care for our own affairs, although he’s requested that Halladan restore the patrols on our borders to what they were prior to the war in the Southlands. He’s set a temporary ban on Men entering our borders without strict examination and the agreement of our folk as represented by Thain, Master, and Mayor; once he receives our last reports on our investigations on how things got to the point they did he will decide whether or not the ban becomes permanent.”
“This King seems a sensible sort,” sniffed Paladin.
Will asked, “But do we want to rely on those patrolling our borders to remain outside them? What’s to keep them from entering themselves?”
Frodo was shaking his head. “Have any of those who in the past wore the stars of Arnor on their cloaks ever left the road or accosted any save in the few rare cases where their interventions aided those who met with them? I remember hearing only three stories. There were a couple of travelers on the road back when I was in my late twenties who’d tried to steal Hobbit ponies and were thwarted by the owner; when they struck and hurt him Rangers intervened and took the thieves away, after offering aid to the injured farmer--I wonder if one of those was Strider, in fact. Then there were two cases of Men who’d broken into holes where folks were visiting elsewhere, and they were found by Rangers trying to get the goods out of the Shire and made to return them and then taken out of it again. Oh, yes, and the time Milo Maggot fell off his pony and broke his hip--a Ranger gave him aid and then returned him to his home. You remember that, don’t you, Uncle Sara?”
“Yes, Frodo, I do,” the Master answered. “I have to agree I’ve never heard any complaints about those wearing a star brooch who’d traveled the Road. They have always been honorable, and when they’ve had to camp within our lands have brought their own food or have bought it and paid a fair price, have used fallen wood for their fires, and have left their campsites far nicer when they moved on than they were when they arrived. I do not believe they will break the King’s ban themselves.”
“What if they’re pursuing someone who crosses our borders?” Will asked.
“When I met with Lord Halladan two weeks ago at the Bridge when he brought the message about the ban, he said his folk would send messages to the Master as swiftly as possible so as to alert us to danger. He said none of his folk would enter the Shire without the King’s permission as well as the permission of Master, Mayor, and Thain.” Pippin’s voice was quite certain.
“The mills?” asked Will.
“All the new mills have been torn down or restored,” Frodo reported. “Four were never touched to begin with; six were easily refitted with proper stones and water wheels and the boilers removed; nine still need to be redone across the Shire.”
“And those horrid Shiriff Houses?” Mina asked.
“All were down within three weeks of our arrival. None was fit for any proper Hobbit use,” Merry told her.
All looked to one another. Saradoc Brandybuck smiled. “Well, it appears the Shire is well on the way to being back to normal. I personally am glad we’re having this feast tonight to honor all who’ve worked on the restoration. Are we ready to go to the Council Hole?”
All indicated they were ready indeed. Mina took the towel from Sam, and by the time she returned the rest stood waiting near the door, Will leaning on a cane and Frodo having helped Sam to don his jacket. They were quickly on their way to the banquet hall, the four Travelers walking together with Brendi .
Paladin peered back over his shoulder at the younger Hobbits. “At least Frodo’s put on some weight at last.”
“His color’s looking better as well,” the Master agreed.
Will nodded, “Yes. And he’s not been having as many nightmares, from what we can tell.”
“Nightmares?” asked Saradoc.
“Yes. Guess he had a pretty hard time of it out there from what Mina and Bucca have been able to get out of him.”
“What kind of nightmares?” asked Sara.
Will shrugged. “You’ll have to ask him, I think. He and the Took lads have done a wonderful job clearing up the Mayor’s office so far. We had documents filling the room when they rescued me, according to my nephew. Gordo says over two-thirds have been taken care of and filed so far, and new contracts and wills and so on are being taken care of as they come in. Hillie’s been dealing with complaints and reports on abuses by Lotho and his folk, while Bard, Tolly, and Frodo examine the specific contracts initiated or written by Lotho, Timono, Marcos Smallburrow, and some of the others who worked hand-in-glove with them. Isemgrin and the other Tooks are doing full reviews of each incoming document looking for any irregularities, and Frodo expects to have a conference of lawyers from all over the Shire and Buckland in April dealing with keeping the profession honest within our borders.”
“Bard has been keeping me advised about much of the work here,” Paladin said. “Eldred is pretty pleased with how things are going as well. Thinks that he and Semi may not be needed that much longer.”
“Just over four months,” Will continued, “and they’ve done so much, the four of them.”
Saradoc nodded his agreement, and Paladin finally did the same. Paladin glanced back at Frodo and the others. Pippin was speaking eagerly, his face alive with humor, and the others were laughing--no, not all the others--Frodo was smiling, but not laughing. Was he rubbing at his shoulder again?
Will made Frodo sit in the Mayor’s place again, and sat at a lower table with Mina and several from Tookland and Buckland. Sam sat at the head table beside his Master, Rosie Cotton sitting beyond him. The other Cottons sat at another table with Sam’s brothers and sisters and their spouses, all of whom had worked in the rebuilding and replanting and restoration. Folk who attended tonight had come from all over the Shire and Buckland, and all had helped in cleansing the land of the memory of Lotho and Sharkey’s evil.
Frodo stood. “Tonight,” he said, “we wish to thank all of you present not only for coming, but for doing. When Sam, Merry, Pippin, and I returned from our journey we were shocked at the changes we saw. When we realized how deep the damage was, how widespread it was, how many had lost so much, it hurt deeply. At first it seemed humorous, the idea that Men would enter the Shire and try to take over its running and try to enslave our people--and then it struck home.
“Well, that is over now, and the Shire is once again our own. No Men remain here, and by the King’s decree they may not enter our land again without his permission and ours. And so much destroyed by Lotho’s orders and Sharkey’s has now been restored despite all they tried. Almost all whose homes were destroyed have had them restored; where Sharkey sought to hack, burn, uproot, and poison the natural beauty of the Shire, hope for its return has again been planted in our soil. And we thank you--all of you--for helping to bring this to be. And we honor you for what you have given of yourselves to restore the Shire.”
He and the others at the head table rose, and bowed deeply to those who filled the room. Then he, Peregrin Took, Sam Gamgee, and Meriadoc Brandybuck remained standing and turned briefly West, then sat, and the signal was given for the food to be served.
Eglantine Took and Esmeralda Brandybuck were in the kitchens where they’d helped in the preparation of the meal and now oversaw the serving. Esmeralda looked out at her younger cousin and former fosterling with a lurch in her heart. “He’s so very thin. What has happened to him?” she asked.
Eglantine shook her head. “I don’t know for certain, but he’s gained weight since he visited us a couple months back. Believe me, Esme, he looks much better.”
“I wish he would take enough time to visit us,” Esme said.
“Would you like for us to visit with him tomorrow? We can come back from the Great Smial if you’d wish.”
“Yes,” Esme said with decision. “I’d very much like that.”
Merry and Pippin were staying at the inn in Michel Delving for the night with Sam, while Rosie Cotton stayed with the Whitfoots in Aster’s old room. Frodo was to spend much of the next day showing them what was going on in the Council Hole, much as he’d done for Will, Brendi, the Master, and the Thain today. Esme and Lanti decided to join the younger Hobbits at midmorning, and quietly let Frodo know this during the banquet. Frodo found himself anticipating this with mixed feelings, pleased at being able to see Esme while concerned that his cousin Eglantine would once again begin badgering Pippin and himself. Noting Frodo’s quickly masked look of apprehension, however, Sam determined he and Rosie would stand interference.
The foreseen problems, however, didn’t manifest themselves. Perhaps it was merely Esmeralda’s presence that helped restrain her brother’s wife; but Eglantine kept her questions about their time in the outlands in check, and listened courteously as Frodo, Bard, and Hillie explained the new filing system being developed for property acquisitions, the separate system they’d put together for questionable contracts, the investigations of Lotho’s and Timono’s own works, and so on.
They accompanied the party into the storage tunnels and were shown how many of them had been cleaned up and given new walls and vaulted ceilings to better protect grain, foodstuffs, and other excess goods to be stored in them; and they looked at a few of the cells which had been left as they were while under the reign of Lotho’s Big Men so that folk could see for themselves how those held prisoner there in the Time of Troubles had been housed. As closely as possible the wooden beams which had been nailed over Lobelia’s cell had been fitted together as they’d been so that visitors could see how she’d been kept imprisoned; and the same for the cells in which Fredegar Bolger and two others had been kept. They then looked into one of the new Lockhole cells, and could clearly see the difference between how this prisoner was kept compared to those held by Lotho and Sharkey.
Frodo was quiet during much of this tour, letting Pinto Longsmial and those who kept the storage tunnels describe what had been done and show how things had been compared to what had been updated and improved.
They then went to the Whitfoot house for lunch, and after Frodo and the other Travelers returned to the Council Hole to complete reports to be sent jointly to the King, his nominal aunts remained there with Rosie to visit with Mina, Will having gone to the inn with Gordo and a few of his Whitfoot relatives who’d come for the banquet the preceding evening.
“Will looks much improved,” Eglantine commented.
“Oh, he is,” answered Mina. “Almost back to his proper weight, although the Healers don’t want him to gain quite as much as he was before--they say it would be too much for his knee. He’s now able to get around with just the cane where before he was having to use crutches. He doesn’t have to take as many naps, and is beginning to putter in the garden.”
She turned to Esmeralda. “You wouldn’t believe the condition he was in when he was found,” she explained. “Little more than skin and bones, his face totally without color, in a good deal of pain, had a good deal of trouble with his digestion. That’s much better, and he’s now able to eat proper meals. Frodo, also, seems able to eat more regular meals as well.”
“More regular meals?” asked Esme. “Was he not able to do so before?”
Mina nodded. “At first he’d barely eat much of anything. In fact, he was the one to advise me how to feed Will at first, and said that the King himself had advised him this was how those who’d been deprived of proper meals should be treated that they be able to return to proper eating.”
“Was Frodo deprived of proper meals or something?” persisted Esme.
“I’m not certain, for he won’t speak of it, but it appears likely. He and Sam Gamgee were separated from the rest for a couple months, and appear to have not been able to get a good deal in the way of food and drink during that time. From the little Sam and Pippin have told us, all four of the Travelers willingly entered danger to assist others, and all four were seriously injured and came under the King’s own care.”
“What kind of person is this King?” asked Lanti.
“He appears to be quite warm and to hold a great deal of love and respect for all four of our lads,” Mina said. “Certainly when they speak of him their eyes light up and they’ll usually speak freely, even of the times when they first met him and had no idea he would be the King if all went well in the war. I understand that when they first met in Bree he looked quite rough and much like a scoundrel; but he served in the patrols in this region himself and often spent months at a time mostly on his own in the wild. At first he didn’t speak a great deal about himself, although as they journeyed further he began to open up.
“They were shocked to reach Rivendell to find he was good friends with old Bilbo. They’d begun to realize he was a loremaster along the way from Bree, and that he had quite the singing voice. But once he finally was made King, Frodo said that he began singing regularly, far more than he had during their travels; and now that he’s married to his queen the two sing together frequently.
“Both Frodo and Pippin have also spoken of his intense skill as a warrior, while Merry speaks of his cleverness as a strategist and administrator and Sam of his love of gardening and growing things. All speak of how great a healer he is as well. Frodo says that it’s very difficult for most people to lie when he asks questions, and he’s only seen a few who can continue lying to themselves about what they’ve done or their motivations during audiences and trials he observed. He says that at times the Lord King Aragorn has quite the Elven light about him, and it’s obvious he is indeed descended from the Sea Kings and Eärendil the Mariner.”
“But Eärendil is an old story,” protested Eglantine Took.
“Apparently many of the old stories are not so much just stories as much as they are history,” Mina said. “We’ve been getting quite the education, Will, my daughter and grandchildren and Bucca and I.”
Esmeralda commented, “I’m certainly glad of the hospitality you’ve shown my younger cousin.”
Mina smiled sadly. “Don’t forget that Primula and Rory were my own cousins as well, Esme. Frodo’s family to me, too, you know. And he’s the age Fenton would be, if....”
“Yes, I know,” Esme said gently. “I wish the two of them had been able to be closer. I think they would have been good friends.”
Mina looked down at her hands. “Yes,” she said quietly, “I think they would have been so. It was my great hope they would once Frodo came here to the center of the Shire.”
Rosie sighed. “I barely member your Fenton,” she said, “but then we Cottons didn’t come here all that much save for the Free Fair. He was a well spoken lad is about all I member.”
Mina nodded, smiling at the younger lass. “As is your Sam. Has he spoken yet?”
“No, although Mr. Pippin and Mr. Merry tease him somethin’ awful about it. Master Frodo, though, he says as Sam’s not likely to speak till he’s back in Bag End and Sam’s certain as he’s took proper care of.”
Eglantine smiled. “Sam’s done quite the job helping to get the new trees planted and the holes and houses redone and the Quick Post reestablished.”
Rosie nodded. “He’s been away almost all the last month, and will be goin’ out again tomorrow. It’s always so quiet about the farm when he’s gone. He’s supposed to of moved back into Number Three with the Gaffer and Marigold; but he still stays a night or two at the farm each time he comes back to the area. My brother Tom’s spoken, and he and Goldy intend to marry in May, and they’ll be returnin’ to live on the farm. I suspect as Sam’ll speak as soon as his Master’s back in his own place, and I doubt as he’ll want to wait so long, myself. Probably we’ll stay there in Number Three and see to the Gaffer and Master. Frodo both once we’re married.”
“He does seem very devoted to Frodo.”
Rosie nodded, smiling solemnly. “Always has been, my Sam. Even more so as they’re back now. But then, they went a long way together, the two of them--a long, dark way. They’re as close as brothers. And the new King Aragorn Elessar--and a fine lookin’ Man he is, for Master Frodo’s done a picture of him for Sam to keep, he has--the new King loves them both, loves them both very much. Made them both Lords of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth, he did.”
“Who? Merry and Pippin?”
“Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin? No--they’ve both been made knights and soldiers. No, it’s Master Frodo and my Sam as been made lords, not Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin.”
“But why?” demanded Eglantine.
“For what they done to fight the Enemy. Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin learned to fight with their swords, and learned to fight well, they did. Master Frodo and my Sam--well Mr. Merry says as they fought the Enemy with their wills, and managed to bring him down.”
Esmeralda Brandybuck and Eglantine Took looked at one another, not understanding at all what Rosie had just said.