Two weeks later a general meeting was arranged in Michel Delving for the major farmers and millers in the Shire. Embilard of the North Tooks had come from the Long Cleeves in the Northfarthing with representatives of the other major farming families such as the Banks and Sandheavers; the Goolds, Longbottoms, Bracegirdles, and Hornblowers had come from the Southfarthing; the Maggots and a few other families from the Marish had sent representatives, as had the Underhills, Bolgers, Gravellies, Boffins, and Cottons of the Westfarthing, plus the Thain and Master. Frodo had requested this meeting to discuss how farmers might work together to deal with loss of equipment taken and destroyed by Lotho’s gatherers and sharers, and how all would deal with the shortage of mills.
The three days of meetings had gone well, and those who’d been able to retain, repair, or reclaim their equipment had readily agreed to share with those who were in need; meanwhile the Gravelly smith who fabricated the best farming tools in the Shire had agreed to coordinate with smiths and other toolmakers to see wagons, harrows, and heavier plows made available as soon as possible, many of them paid for through Lobelia’s reparations fund.
After the rest of the convocation left to return to their own farms and properties, Saradoc and Esmeralda Brandybuck accepted the hospitality of Paladin and Eglantine Took, and on their first evening were joined by Will and Mina Whitfoot for a formal dinner.
The Thain’s private dining room was well lit, mirrors and silver brightly polished. Merry and Pippin had gone out to Bree accompanied by Merimac Brandybuck and Reginard Took to meet with some of the Rangers of Arnor regarding a buildup of landless Men noted South of the Shire, and so were not with their parents, although Isumbard was there with Pearl, Ferdibrand with Pimpernel, and Pervinca with her husband Maligar Bolger, a nephew of Freddy’s father Odovacar. The children weren’t in attendance this night, having all been invited to a birthday party elsewhere in the Great Smial. At first the discussion centered on the meeting which had just been completed, but eventually it shifted to focus on Frodo.
“I don’t understand why Frodo didn’t dance at Sam’s wedding,” Pearl said with regret. “After all, that’s one of the things that he’s always loved most to do.”
Mina was shaking her head. “I don’t think as he can dance any more--or at least not anything strenuous or for very long.”
“But why not?” Pearl demanded.
“I think,” Mina answered slowly, carefully choosing her words, “that Frodo was too badly hurt out there.”
“Hurt?” Pearl was disbelieving. “Who would hurt Frodo Baggins?”
Mina shrugged. “From what Bucca, Aster, and I can piece together, it was those Black Riders as chased them out of the Shire. Certainly Frodo has the scars to show for it.”
Esmeralda straightened. “Scars? What kinds of scars?”
“All kinds. Bucca says the ones on his back are from him being beaten; and the one on his shoulder looks to be painful.”
“Someone beat him--Frodo?” asked Pervinca, her face white with shock. “Why?”
“We don’t know it all, for no one will tell us all of it. He was stabbed in the shoulder a couple weeks after he left here, and almost died of it--that they all admit to. He was beaten and bitten, and went without proper food and water for a time. They all say as he almost died more than once, and that both he and Sam were almost dead when they were finally found after the win over Sauron. Sam has almost completely recovered, but Frodo does his level best to hide he’s not really well, too.
“Frodo is dedicated to finding out what happened here so as to make certain as it won’t happen again. He’s helped examine every contract, marriage contract, will, certificate of birth or death, partnership agreement, article of apprenticeship, deed, sales documents, and so on as was brought or sent once Will was imprisoned. He’s been investigating just how Lotho and Timono started with their odd contracts and agreements to get control of so much property. He’s found when Timono and then Lotho met first with the Big Men as got him involved with that Sharkey. He’s found how Timono and Lotho managed to get others to present Timono’s contracts as their own work so as folks wouldn’t read them too closely and realize they were being cheated. He’s seen to it the worst of them are imprisoned, and with comfort, so as they can’t hurt others. I can’t say as how many letters he’s written to the King telling him what he’s learned and how things are being set right.”
Will nodded. “He’s still the most responsible Hobbit the Shire’s ever produced, I swear. He really cares for folks, and wants to see to it all are properly restored to what they need. I’m nominating him to stand for election as Mayor this summer--I’m ready to retire and let him take over in his own right. He’s thoughtful and knows how to ask for the help he needs and to appoint the best ones available to doing what needs doing as he can’t see to himself. And even those as don’t particularly care for him will still do their level best not to disappoint him.”
Esmeralda said softly, “I don’t understand just why he’s so weak and can’t eat properly.”
Bard sighed. “The last month before the victory over Sauron, Aunt Esme, Frodo and Sam were separated from the others. They were mostly living on some kind of waybread the Elves gave them, for that was the most they could find to eat. They had a time finding water, too. It affected Frodo’s stomach, and he’s not been truly able to eat properly since. He can’t eat food that’s too rich, and he can’t eat a lot at a time. He often feels nauseous and just doesn’t want to eat. Apparently the King is a healer and advised him that he should eat just a bit at a time every hour or two. When he does that he starts feeling better generally pretty quickly, and then after a day or two he’ll be able to eat more at a time and at longer intervals. But about every time he gets sick or really upset he seems to have to start all over again. It makes him terribly frustrated.”
Mina nodded her agreement. “I’ve seen the same with him. I try to make certain he has a bag of food he can eat with his fingers with him when he returns to Bywater or Hobbiton, but I’m not always certain he eats it.
“And he’s not strong enough to dance any more, but he can still draw and sing and tell his stories. He did a picture of the King to show Dianthus what he looks like, and there’s no question Frodo thinks the world of the Man, and that the King thinks the world of Frodo as well.”
“They all think the world of the King,” Eglantine said. “Pippin even mentions him and he’ll straighten right up.”
“Where is Frodo tonight?” asked Paladin.
“He’s performing a wedding at the Council Hole for Polo Boffin and Pansy Longsmial,” Mina said. “I suspect Pansy’s mother will be complaining tomorrow ’cause Frodo didn’t eat that much.”
“Peridot Longsmial was born to complain,” Will sighed.
Saradoc asked, “Have you asked Frodo if he wants to stand for Mayor, Will?”
“He’s the best Mayor the Shire has known, and he wasn’t even elected,” Will answered. “Of course he’s going to stand for Mayor.”
“You haven’t asked him, though?” Sara persisted.
“Well, no, but he’s got to stand.”
The next week Frodo rode with Isumbard, Rosie, and Sam to the Cotton’s farm for Marigold and Young Tom’s wedding. Sam stood by Young Tom, and Rosie by Marigold, and Frodo led the ceremony. There was a wonderful feast afterward, and by the time the guests began leaving all were replete with excellent food and joy.
Afterward Frodo went into the room in which he’d stayed to collect the last of his things he’d left there, and finally Lily was able to corner him. “Hello, Mr. Frodo,” she said as she closed the door behind her, and he turned from where he’d been fishing a book of Elvish poetry out from under the bed.
“Hello, Missus Cotton,” he answered, finally managing to get the book into his hands, rising slowly to his feet, and turning to sit on the bed. “You wanted to speak with me?”
“Yes, I did.” She considered what she wanted to say, and at last commented, “It was a wonderful weddin’, as was Sam’s and Rosie’s.”
“When will it be your turn?”
He didn’t answer, but she wouldn’t look away. Finally she said, “You are one of the most wonderful of gentlehobbits as I’ve ever known, Mr. Frodo. You are caring, thoughtful, intelligent, giving. Once you could of had the pick of any lass in the Shire, and you know it. I don’t think it’s that you--you prefer lads, for I’ve never seen any sign of that. Yes, you’ve always been close to your younger cousins and Sam--but never have I ever seen a sign as you’ve ever----”
His face had gone totally white except for the bright red spots on his cheeks. “No,” he said with a very definite tone, “I’m not drawn by lads, and I’ve never touched any lad in that way, and never will.”
“After seein’ how for years you was drawn to Miss Pearl, I didn’t think it likely.”
He just looked at her, lifting his chin a bit.
She sighed, for he wasn’t making it easy. Finally she decided to be as direct as she could be. “For all you’re thin as a lath, you’re still one of the most--handsome--of gentlehobbits as ever was in my memory. And for all you’ve shown not the slightest interest in any lass since old Mr. Bilbo left, you still draw the eyes of the lasses and the ladies both.”
Finally he turned his head away slightly, looking at the corner by the door. Lily saw that he wasn’t bothering to try to hide either his tiredness or the grief he felt--and that grief was deep. No, he was still drawn by the lasses, she realized with a sense of relief.
“You always wanted to marry when you was younger, Mr. Frodo.”
In a very soft voice he admitted, “Yes, I did want it. I wanted it more than anything.”
“And the day as Mr. Bilbo left you was finally lettin’ yourself look at the other lasses without the upset over Miss Pearl. You was startin’ to smile into Miss Narcissa’s eyes, and seein’ what’d been right afore you for years--that she loves you with all her heart.”
Slowly, reluctantly, he nodded.
He turned to her, and she saw not just grief, but raw, bleeding pain in his eyes, and a level of suppressed fury that would have terrified her if it hadn’t been obvious that its object was definitely not her. When he spoke it was plain he was holding that anger in check with difficulty. “You know that--that I left the Shire to try to protect it?” he asked.
“Yes, Sam’s told us as you had to get a dangerous thing out of it.”
“Yes, I did. A Ring Bilbo left to me, one Gandalf insisted he leave behind him for he was convinced It was causing him to change, was holding off proper aging, was causing him to begin losing himself.”
“I’ve never seen him--or you--wear a ring.”
He gave a short, bitter laugh. “And if either of us had been foolish enough to put it on when we were in your presence, you’d not have seen us wearing It then, either. For if we’d put It on, we’d have gone invisible.”
“The ring of invisibility as he found in Gollum’s cave?” she asked. “It was real?”
He shivered. “Real? Oh, yes, It was real. Very, very real. Thank the Valar It’s gone now.” He gave a deep, gasping breath. “It’s gone.” He looked back at the corner. “Sam didn’t tell you what we learned It was, did he?”
“Not really; just that it was somethin’ as Sauron wanted.”
He glanced back to meet her eyes, then gave a sigh. “Yes,” he said softly as he turned back to look again at the corner. “Sauron did want It; oh, yes he did. And Sharkey wanted It, too.” He looked down at where his right hand lay on his knee, where they both could see the gap where the ring finger was missing. Suddenly she understood.
“You put it on, and someone found your hand in spite of the fact you was invisible, and cut it off you?” she asked.
Very slowly he finally nodded. “Except,” he said, “except he didn’t cut It off me--he--he bit It off me.”
“Sweet sunshine!” she said, startled.
He continued looking at the gap for a moment, then slowly raised his head to look into her eyes. His expression had a degree of blankness to it she’d never seen in him before. “Have you ever heard the tale of the first defeat of Sauron, when Gil-galad died, and Elendil the Tall?”
She thought, then nodded. “I member hearing old Mr. Bilbo tellin’ that when I was a lass; and then when Sam was learnin’ to read he brought a book about it here and read it to the bairns. Was right proud as he could read it, and that Mr. Bilbo trusted him with that book. Read it to all of ’em, he did. Nibs was but a babe in arms, he was.” She smiled, and then stopped as the story went through her mind, for there’d been something about a ring in that story. Then she remembered. She looked again into his eyes. “The King’s son, Sildur or what was his name--he cut a finger off Sauron’s hand, didn’t he?”
Frodo nodded. She thought he looked considerably older at the moment than his fifty-one years. “Yes, he cut a finger off Sauron’s hand, the finger on which he wore the Ring of Power he’d forged to rule the other nineteen--the nine for Men, the seven for Dwarves, and the three for Elves. He cut the Ring off Sauron’s hand, and instead of destroying It there in the Sammath Naur, Sauron’s own place of power within Mount Doom, he was taken by It and claimed It for his own. He carried It away, and had a locket made for It, carried the Ring in that locket about his neck, realizing too late he ought never to have touched It.
“Then, after he left Gondor to return here to the North to go back to Imladris to fetch away his youngest son and his wife, his company was attacked by a troop of orcs near the Gladden Fields. His oldest son Elendur counseled him to put the Ring on his finger, become invisible, and escape to the Elven fastnesses. Elendur and his next two brothers and most of his Men sacrificed themselves to give him time to escape. But the tracking orcs followed him by his scent, all the way to the River Anduin. There he dove into the water to swim away--except as he hit the water the Ring made Itself bigger and slipped off his finger. The orcs saw him in the River once he became visible again, and shot him with arrows. But the Ring couldn’t be found immediately.
“You know our people came to Eriador and the Shire from East of the Misty Mountains?” At her nod, he continued, “Our ancestors didn’t all come at the same time, you know. And the Stoors were those whose descendants settled finally along the Brandywine. But not all the Stoors came over the mountains at all. A few families apparently lingered in the valley of the Anduin.”
After a moment of silence he told her of Sméagol and Déagol and the fishing accident on the river, the finding of the Ring by Déagol, the murder and theft by Sméagol, the transformation by the Ring of Sméagol into Gollum. She listened, fascinated, convinced by the greyness of his complexion, the obvious pain and grief the recounting caused him, the way he rubbed at that gap. Finally she asked, “He had It how long, this Sméagol?”
“Almost five hundred years.”
“And he dropped It, Gollum did, there in his cave? And Bilbo found It? He found It and--and wore It, and then brought It back--back here to the Shire?”
He nodded. Finally he spoke. “Bilbo told me once there was a lass he loved, but she died of an accident. He never married her. But afterwards, it was like when Pearl--when Pearl threw me over, and it was years before he began to look at lasses again. But before he could do anything about it, Gandalf brought the Dwarves here and next thing he knew he was off on an adventure with them, and then he found the Ring and brought It home. He never showed It to me, although he finally told me about It.
“I ought never to have touched the Ring, probably. Maybe if I’d left It in the envelope in which Bilbo left the Deed and his Will and all I would never have come under It’s power. But I did, and I put It in my pocket--and--and after that I always kept It there. I had a fine chain made so It couldn’t fall out of my pocket, and sewed loops inside the pockets of my vests to attach the chain to.
“The first time I saw Narcissa Boffin after--after I had It in my pocket, It wanted me--wanted me to--wanted me to rape her. Same with other lasses I saw--wanted me to hurt them, take them by force, threaten them, terrorize them. I’d never had such thoughts before, but I thought it was all me. I started avoiding them....”
She listened, horrified, as she let him tell it all. She saw the tears pouring down his cheeks, the shame remembered, the grief at what he’d lost. He whispered, “I never told anyone, never until--until after I woke up again, there in Ithilien. Gandalf understood. After a while, when the Ring couldn’t get me to hurt a lass, It just--just sort of shut that off. I think I made It angry. It wasn’t fully awake, but It could still--still be angry I wasn’t doing what It wanted me to do.
“Gandalf and Aragorn both told me that It did similarly with Gollum, and the reason the Ring was on the floor of the cavern wasn’t because he dropped It, but because, like It did with Isildur, It abandoned him. It was running away from him, and fell in a place where It sensed goblins walked. If a goblin were to pick It up, It could have made the goblin take It to Mordor, take It back to Its Master. But once Gollum settled in his cave and it was obvious he couldn’t be cozened into leaving to go to Mordor, and the Ring sensed Its Master was waking, It tried to get away from him--only a goblin didn’t find It--Bilbo did.”
“Who bit your finger off?” she finally asked.
“Gollum did. He had gone in search of the Ring once Bilbo took It away, but didn’t know where Bilbo had taken It. He went East first, and at last he came back to the Misty Mountains.”
“How do you know as he went East first?”
“Aragorn found him--caught him--near Mordor. Gandalf was trying to find out for certain where Gollum got this ring Bilbo found, and Aragorn went looking to try to find him. He searched for--I think he searched for years. He found him in the Dead Marshes. He caught him and took him to Mirkwood, and let Gandalf know. Gandalf went there and questioned him, and finally learned the story. He felt sorry for Gollum--he’d not even touched the Ring and It still caught him, and made him kill his best friend to take It.
“Gollum escaped, though, and fled to the Misty Mountains, and appears to have entered Moria through the East Gate. He began following us while we were there, and followed Sam and me after we left the others. He caught up with us in the Emyn Muil, a crest of black rocky ridges between the river and the Dead Marshes which lie before the Black Gate of Mordor. Sam and I realized he was following us and we captured him, and forced him to serve us as guide.
“He finally betrayed us, tried to have us killed. That we survived must have been a shock to him. We lost him for a time after we went into Mordor, but he finally found us as we were ready to enter the Sammath Naur. Sam held him off while I went in. I was going--was going to kill myself to destroy it, jump with it into the volcano. But It could read my plans, and It took me.”
“You put It on--there?”
“Yes. Sam had followed me when he thought Gollum had given up; but Gollum followed him, hit him with a rock. Gollum saw me put the Ring on my hand, and knew where I was standing. He leapt on me before I could move. He could feel my hand, caught it, drew it up, bit the finger with the Ring on it off me--and then he fell in himself.
“Sam carried me again--carried me out of there. I came to enough to crawl onto a knoll, and then--then we both lost consciousness. It was too much----”
His head fell back, and he looked up at the ceiling. Lily looked at him thoughtfully for some minutes before she asked him, “When you look at lasses now, do you still want--want to hurt them?”
“When Miss Narcissa was leavin’ Sam’s wedding you looked after her....”
She nodded. “Why don’t you give her a chance, Mr. Frodo? She still loves you.”
“And what can I give her now, Lily? What can I give her? I was scoured right through the center of my soul! I can barely eat, and get sick at nothing. Every two months my neck becomes infected. I have nightmares the horror of which I can’t begin to express. I can go from cheerful to despondent in a trice, but have a difficult time going the other way. I can’t dance for more than a couple minutes at a time without becoming exhausted. I am so weak! I doubt--doubt I could consummate a marriage at this point.”
It was the first time he’d admitted to her he wasn’t well. She watched as he began rubbing at his shoulder, and could see he was in real pain. She reached out to him, and held him to her. “Oh, my poor, poor lad,” she said, sitting beside him and rocking him gently. “My poor, poor lad.”
Finally he whispered, “Please--please don’t tell anyone else. Please!”
“I promise, Frodo.”
She barely heard his whispered, “Thank you.”
Will had taken the pony trap from the public stable to Whitfurrow to visit with Aster and Bucca when Frodo returned to Michel Delving. There was something in Frodo’s expression that kept Mina from discussing what she wanted to say to him the first couple days. She saw his neck was draining again, and Sam, who was staying in the inn while he continued working on replacing trees around the grounds where the Free Fair was held, came morning and evening to tend to it. Frodo didn’t appear to be as concerned as he’d been the last time about her knowing about it.
He stayed a fourth day that week, and had a formal meeting in the private meeting room in the Council Hole with Gordolac, the Thain, the Master, Merry, Pippin, Benlo Bracegirdle, Roto Sackville, Bobwhite Smallburrow, and a few others regarding what had been learned to date about the activities of Lotho, Timono, Marcos, and the others; Hillie, Tolly, and Bard helping to display the evidence and describe what they’d learned during the interviews they’d conducted.
The meeting had been long, and the discussions complicated. Sam came in at noon with a meal he’d obtained from the inn for those attending, and in the afternoon described what he’d learned about when the worst of the damage was done to the trees, fields, and so on.
At last the Thain asked, “Do you have enough evidence to be certain which of the lawyers and farmers who appeared to be collaborating with Lotho and Timono were doing so of their own free will, and which were coerced?”
Frodo answered, “Some were plainly coerced, including Algenon Grubbs and Beldo Goodloam. But there are three we are still investigating, for although they appear to have been coerced initially, they were shortly in the thick of it with Lotho and Timono.”
Minto Tunnely sighed. “What about the Shiriffs who was collaborating?”
“Bedro Bracegirdle appears to have been one of the worst along the Brandywine, but a few of those who were surrounding the Tooklands, especially Forden Sandybanks and Rory Treegarth, were far worse than he. Bedro seems to have been more into it to be a bully, which was what he has been like in Westhall for years. But Forden and Rory truly appear to have allowed all the times they’ve been bested by those in the Tooklands to have festered, to the point they were targeting particular Tooks. Rory’s been furious with Ferdi since Pimpernel said yes to him, and we’ve finally established he’s the one who identified Ferdi to the Big Men as a Took and encouraged them to torture him to learn the Tooks’ ‘secret’ plans.”
Paladin Took’s face was set, and he looked at Saradoc, who nodded back. “We’d considered the possibility of such a thing,” the Thain said, “but couldn’t quite believe that Hobbits of the Shire would do such things.”
Frodo shook his head. “The potential for evil actions is always there, Uncle Pal,” he said. “Most of us just keep it pushed down, for our society frowns on such things. But let those in leadership appear to accept such behavior, and some you’d swear were the most moral individuals you’ve ever known will just do things you’d never dream they’d do simply because it’s now allowed. Aragorn, Lord Halladan, Prince Imrahil, and Lord Faramir got into quite an involved discussion on just this subject one day, and the tales they told were beyond belief.”
It was late afternoon when the meeting broke up and Frodo returned at last to the Whitfoot house to get his saddlebags for the return to Hobbiton. Sam was to meet him at the inn, where they were to have a small meal together before making the ride home.
Mina had been steeling herself to this all day. She looked up from where she sat by the hearth with her mending as he came into the kitchen. “Hello, Frodo,” she said.
“Hello, Mina,” he responded, realizing she had something she wanted to say as she began stowing the shirt she’d been working on back into the basket.
She stood and clasped her hands together at her waist. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you since Sam and Rosie’s wedding,” she said rather diffidently.
Suddenly he felt both tired and wary. “About what?”
“About how you keep avoiding the lasses who’d have you in a trice if you’d only give them the least encouragement,” she said.
“Like Narcissa Boffin?” he asked.
“I saw as how you looked after her when she was leaving, before she looked back at you and you’d forced yourself to look as if you didn’t care.” When he didn’t respond, she continued, “She’s cared for you for years, you know, and you didn’t even ask her to dance.”
“I didn’t ask any lass to dance,” he responded, his voice stony.
His face had gone very pale. Finally he answered, “Because I couldn’t, Mina. I couldn’t have danced that day if my life had depended on it. It was all I could do to get through the ceremony. It was my Sam’s wedding, and I couldn’t even join in the marriage feast properly, much less dance!”
“Yes, I sang--after I hid out in Bag End for a time and drank a glass of wine and listened to the heavy beating of my heart finally slow and grow steady.”
She continued to look at him, then her expression melted. “Oh, Frodo--I had the feeling it was one of your bad days.”
“Are they so obvious, Mina?”
She looked at him sadly. “Probably not to most folks, but I’m coming to recognize them, I think.”
He sighed, and turned one of the chairs from the table about so as to sit down on it, rather heavily, she noted. “I didn’t want Sam to worry--not on his wedding day. He worries far too much about me already. If he’d realized how--how tired I was, he’d not have allowed me to go to Buckland. He and Rosie, though--they deserved privacy on their wedding night.”
“And you did all right in Buckland?”
He shrugged. “Got sick after Pippin and Merry’s party, but I ought to have realized it was too soon to try to eat a normal amount. Nothing serious. So they had me ride Sam’s Berry home. Now he has both his ponies in Hobbiton.”
“Well, Frodo, you should still not keep up the brave front before Narcissa. You deserve some happiness now, you know.”
He sat looking down on his hands which he’d folded in his lap. Finally he looked back up to meet her eyes. “Do I, Mina? Do I really?” He rose, suddenly stepped forward and gave her a small kiss on her forehead. “Sometimes, Mina, you look so much like my mum, you know. Thank you for caring, but....” He didn’t finish, just turned to his room, went in and got his cloak and saddlebags, went to the cool room to fetch the water skins. A few moments later he was gone, and she was looking after him, still feeling the kiss he’d given her.
So much for hiding how you feel, Iorhael.
So I see. So I see.
Yet that kiss pleased her.
It’s nice to know that someone cares enough to notice--as my mother would.
Your mother is fully proud of you, and rejoices her cousin serves for a time in her place.
Frodo felt somehow heartened by that thought as he joined Sam at the door to the inn and the two of them turned toward the dining room.