Frodo ended up not going to Buckland after all that winter. He recovered slowly from his illness in October and somehow managed to put most of it out of his mind, although he kept the square of parchment sent by Bilbo inside the small book which had been a gift to him from Sam his first Yule in Bag End.
By the first of November he and Sam had prepared gifts to send to Minas Tirith--a turned wooden jar for pipeweed and matching pipe made from cherry wood for Aragorn and similar set for Gimli that Frodo filled with Goolden Lynch leaf; a carefully carved wooden rose for Legolas; a set of lace bobbins carved of oak for Lady Arwen; a crate of apples and another of gooseberries from Bag End’s orchards and hedges for those in the Citadel; fine wooden bowls for Mistress Loren; a book of Elvish tales for Lasgon; a book of lyrics of Shire songs complete with pictures of typical Shire instruments for Master Faralion; a crate of apples for Healer Eldamir’s family. Pippin came by to pick them up and add them to those prepared by himself and Merry, and saw them sent off Southwards.
Frodo didn’t walk often into the village--indeed he often couldn’t seem to make it far from the hole. He began going down to the bench Sam had set up at the turning of the lane just above the Row, and there the children of the Row would come to hear his stories. The Chubbs had three lads, Daddy Twofoot had a granddaughter who visited him regularly from Bywater, and Pando Proudfoot had his younger sister Cyclamen--actually, a cousin, as his Uncle Sancho and Aunt Angelica had adopted him after his parents died from illness a few years earlier. The six of them and the other children who visited on the Row began coming to the turn near sunset each day in hopes Mr. Frodo would come down to meet with them, which he did with increasing regularity as the winter progressed. He also began inviting them up to the smial once or twice a week for mulled cider and biscuits, and he’d read to them or have them read to him--or teach them to read. Sometimes he’d play memory games with them, or show them maps of where the Travelers had been, or draw them pictures of sights he’d seen or creatures they’d encountered, and occasionally of individuals they’d met.
One of the Chubbs lads became fascinated with the descriptions of the oliphaunt Frodo and Sam had seen; and when Aragorn sent Frodo a book on animals of Harad complete with illustrations that had been made by an adventurer from Gondor, he would spend hours poring over it. When Pippin and Merry came they confirmed the stories Frodo and Sam had told of seeing an oliphaunt, and described how the Southrons had used them as traveling war towers in the fight before Minas Tirith; and the lad listened with his mouth open.
Many came down with colds during late November and early December, and those within Bag End weren’t proof against it. Pando and Cyclamen found themselves taking pots of chicken soup up the Hill to Bag End when Sam, Rosie, and then finally Frodo each caught one. The four days while Sam was sick Frodo helped Rosie care for him and helped with meals; one of the three days Rosie was ill he aided Sam, taking over most of the cooking that day; then he became ill and remained ill for five days, sleeping much of the time. During his recovery he spent a good deal of time on the sofa either in the study or the main parlor while Pando was at his beck and call and Cyclamen would sit telling her own stories. It lightened Sam’s heart to hear his Master laugh at these, many of which were very whimsical and some of which were poignant. Frodo would be reclining on the sofa with her on a footstool nearby, a book in her hands while she pretended to read, or holding his hand and gently rubbing the gap where the finger was missing with her thumb. Why Frodo accepted this from the child Sam couldn’t say, but somehow he found it heartening.
Three weeks before Yule Will Whitfoot announced there would be a banquet in Michel Delving in honor of the manner in which Pippin, Merry, Sam, and Frodo had aided in the recovery of the Shire.
“Do we have to attend, Sam?” Frodo asked, his face pale. “I’m not certain I’m ready to ride so far.”
Looking at Frodo’s pale features and seeing how thin he was, for he’d lost a good deal of weight during October and hadn’t yet been able to put it back on, Sam found himself also wondering about this. “You can deal with this, Master,” Sam assured him, however. He was afraid that if the issue weren’t pushed Frodo wouldn’t stir from the Hill again.
Frodo was thinking of wearing the blue suit to the feast, but found it now hung on him. He didn’t tell Sam how much this frightened even him, but sat in the study for an entire day with the door shut, not writing the story for Bilbo so much as writing out his rage and frustration at how his body betrayed him, or staring blankly into the study fire or out the window at the winter sky.
When he emerged in mid-afternoon he went out to walk down the lane to the turning, but he didn’t stay there long. That evening after eating his dinner he said, “I’ll need a new suit for the banquet. Could you ask Moro to come here, do you think?”
Sam looked at his master and slowly nodded.
The next day Moro came early to measure Master Frodo for the new outfit and was shocked at what he found. Frodo stood quietly as the measurements were taken and discussed colors, fabrics, and having pads put in the shoulders of the jacket so it didn’t appear to hang quite so badly; and was promised it would be done three days before the banquet so Frodo could have it in good time for any alterations that might be needed. After Frodo had gone to the study to work on his book and shut the door Moro turned to his brother-in-law.
“What’s happened to him, Sam?” he demanded in a murmured rage. “Why is he so thin?”
“Had a bad time of it in October, and is just over that cold as is goin’ around,” Sam explained, although it was easy for Moro to tell that Sam was as concerned as he was.
“What happened in October?”
Sam shook his head. “Was ill last October, too,” he said quietly, as if that explained all.
“He wasn’t here last October, though.”
“No, we was on our way back from Rivendell then, we was. He had some bad days then.”
“He can’t stay healthy if he has no weight to him,” Moro insisted, looking off toward the study.
Sam shrugged. Finally he said, very quietly, “Has a time tryin’ to eat when he’s not feelin’ well.”
“It’s not right, Sam,” Moro repeated as they paused in the entrance way for him to gather his cloak and prepare to leave.
“I know as it’s not right, Moro,” Sam said as he opened the front door, “but what can we do? We feed him as much as he can take, but so far he’s just not puttin’ the weight back on.”
“I’ll see as what I can do with the suit so as not to make him look like a lath,” Moro sighed. “I’ll see you soon, Sam.”
Daisy came with two new shirts a few days later. When she came out of Frodo’s room where she’d been checking the fit she pulled her brother into the kitchen. “What’s happened to him, Sam? How’d you let him get like this? He’s thin as a stick!”
“You think as I don’t know, Daisy?” Sam returned in a harsh whisper. “He can’t seem to put it back on again like he did afore. We’re tryin’, Rosie and me. We’re tryin’!”
On the day the suit was done both Moro and Daisy came. The suit was in greys and silvers, with rippling lines of embroidery that reminded Sam somehow of the ripples on the Water on a breezy day and, in an odd way, of Aragorn’s eyes. Once Frodo was dressed in it he looked remarkably fine--fine and ....
“He reminds me of starlight,” Daisy said quietly.
Sam nodded, not trusting his voice.
Moro smiled. “I’d of never thought to see such colors lookin’ so shinin’, but on him--they’d not of suited him afore, but they certainly do now.” He gave himself a small shake. “At least he don’t look as much as if a stiff breeze’ll blow him away.”
Sam nodded again. He was remembering his first impression of Frodo, back when he was a mere lad of ten--Fragile--it was fragile he looked then. And it’s fragile he looks again now, like some o’ that glass as he loves as that Master Celebrion blew in Minas Tirith.
Rosie had gone to her parents’ farm for the day, and so didn’t get to see the Master in his glory until the day of the banquet. Merry and Pippin had come to Bag End to spend the week leading up to the banquet with Frodo and Sam, well pleased Will had felt this necessary. “It’s about time the two of you received the honor you deserve for what you did,” Pippin declared as he entered and shook the snow from his cloak.
“Isn’t it for the two o’ you as well?” Sam asked.
“But you did the hard work, you and Frodo. I couldn’t have planted all those hundreds of trees, or borne with all that paperwork,” Pippin insisted. “Could you, Merry?”
“I’m learning to do it anyway,” Merry said as he hung his cloak on one of the pegs. “Dad is most insistent, although he doesn’t give me anywhere near as much as you faced when you first walked into the Mayor’s office in Michel Delving, Frodo.” He reached to embrace Frodo, and momentarily paused, feeling how thin Frodo was once more beneath the bloused shirt he wore. “New clothes again, Frodo?” he asked casually. “I’ve never seen you in a silver shirt before.”
Frodo shrugged. “Daisy appears to find the color suits me now,” he said as he stepped back and turned to hug Pippin. “It’s been so long. I was hoping you’d attend the party for Freddy and Budgie.”
“We were down by the Southern borders,” Pippin said. “Those landless folk Lord Eregiel told us of a few months ago were looking to cross over, and two were caught actually on our side breaking into a hole. Lord Eregiel accepted receipt of them. Quite a nice Man he is, too--very competent, no matter how young he is. And that hound of his can go from gentle as a lamb to on guard at a single word from his master.”
“I certainly wouldn’t expect anything less than competence from one of Aragorn’s kinsmen,” Frodo commented. “Dinner is almost ready. I have chicken baked with mushrooms in the oven right now.”
“You are cooking tonight?” Pippin said, his features brightening. “Ah, we are being fully honored, Merry my lad. How wonderful it is. Well, my dearest cousin, you’d best get in there and make certain it doesn’t burn, and we’ll follow behind you.”
Once Frodo disappeared back to the kitchen Pippin turned back to Sam, his face serious. “He swore you to secrecy, did he?”
Sam looked down the passage, then turned back to the two cousins. “Yes--had a bad patch, and was terrible wrought up, he was. Then that cold come through and he caught it. First time as he’s been laid up by a cold in years, it was. But he’s gettin’ better.”
Merry’s face twisted with his concern. “He doesn’t deserve this,” he said decisively as he turned to follow Frodo to the kitchen.
Pippin laid his hand on Merry’s shoulder. “He’ll be all right, Merry,” he murmured. “He always comes through.”
Merry gave a sad smile at his cousin. “I hope so, Pip.” He sighed and followed after Frodo.
A couple days before the banquet, however, Frodo began to grow restless. “I’m not certain I should go to the banquet,” he said.
Merry looked critically at his cousin. “You are not backing out of this, Frodo Baggins. You deserve the recognition. You worked hard to help put the Mayor’s office back into order, helped get the investigations going, and saw some of the most wonderful weddings in the history of the Shire celebrated. You helped the Shire recover, you know.”
“It’s not that....”
Pippin now waded into the discussion. “My dear Lord Frodo Baggins, if Aragorn were here, would he allow you to back out of this banquet?”
Frodo’s cheeks grew pink against his white face. “This is hardly a comparable situation, Sir Peregrin Took.” His voice could have chipped stone. He withdrew to the study and closed the door, and when Sam slipped in to bring him his tea, which he’d accepted faithfully since the night on top of the Hill, he was locking the drawer on the stationery box and his expression was still fixed.
“They mean well, Mr. Frodo,” Sam said quietly.
“They didn’t even give me a chance to explain why I didn’t feel I should go,” Frodo growled.
“Well, explain to me then, and I’ll see if’n I can get through to them.”
But Frodo’s anger was still roused. “They think that they understand me and what I want and how I feel. Well, they don’t. And if you think I’ll even bother trying to explain when they won’t even listen----”
Sam decided the best thing to do was to gracefully withdraw.
On the day of the banquet Freddy arrived from Budgeford with the Bolger carriage shortly after luncheon. Frodo hadn’t been eating much for the last two days, and Merry and Pippin were certain it was due to his unwillingness to accept the honor due him. He came out of his room wearing his new suit, and all paused, for he walked erect and with that defiant pride which had become his own over the last two years, and he looked magnificent. Budgie, who was serving as driver, looked at Frodo and gave a sharp intake of breath, for he did indeed shine like a star, beautiful and remote. Sam looked at him, and smiled. “Today, Frodo,” he said, “you’re goin’ to wear that lords’ mantle of yours. Let all them as comes see you as you are in the eyes of your friend the King.” He quickly disappeared back into Frodo’s room and into the shallow dressing room to bring back a mantle of honor that Aragorn had given Frodo shortly before they’d left to return to the Shire.
Budgie’s eyes widened even more as he saw the sleek and obviously very expensive mantle laid over Frodo’s shoulders and the brooch, which was a jeweled, eight-pointed star, pinned to it. This mantle was of a sort worn only by the highest of Lords of Gondor; the fabric was of the finest silk double woven, a thick brocade that in spite of its weight flowed like water over the skin, the White Tree of Gondor subtly worked across the back of it and lines of stars down its front. As with the fabric for Rosie’s wedding dress, it was difficult to say precisely what color the material was, for it appeared green, silver, or turquoise depending on the angle of the light falling across it, and occasionally seemed to glow with a royal purple.
Rosie, who was herself garbed in a very lovely new gown that Frodo had commissioned for her, paused as she came out, looking at Frodo with awe and delight. “Did the King give you that?” she asked. At his dignified nod she smiled. “It couldn’t of been given to anyone as deserves it better, you know, or become them better.”
Frodo’s reserve finally slipped a bit. “It would fit Sam better, though, I think. The tailor never quite fit it properly to my shoulders. I think he’d secretly wished to make it for Aragorn himself.”
Rosie giggled, and accepted Frodo’s hand up into the carriage. Sam stood by to assist Frodo to enter, but Frodo managed to climb in with a minimum of fuss and seated himself with that degree of grace that was still on him. Sam entered next and sat beside Rosie while Freddy sat on her other side. Then Merry and Pippin entered and sat flanking Frodo. At last Budgie chirruped the ponies into motion, and they were on their way.
“Where’s Viola?” Frodo asked.
“She’s at the Council Hole already--volunteered to help prepare and serve the feast,” Freddy explained. “You do indeed catch the eye, Frodo.”
“I’d rather be staying home,” Frodo muttered. Freddy looked questioningly at Merry, who gave a cautious shake of his head to discourage further questions.
During the ride Frodo relaxed some, and eventually dozed, leaning against Merry, who put his arm around him, his face tender. Freddy watched, then murmured to Sam, “Do you think he’s fully recovered from that cold?”
“Oh, he come out of that all right,” Sam assured him. “But he’s often tired at times.”
“Has he had more of his nightmares?”
“Has had a couple,” Sam admitted. “Not as it’s all that unusual or nothin’.”
Pippin sighed, looking sideways at Frodo and Merry, then across at Freddy. “I’ll admit that at times we all have nightmares. Not everything we faced out there was--entertaining.”
“Then maybe you ought to have stayed here in the Shire,” Freddy said.
“I’m glad we didn’t,” Merry said softly. “It was worthwhile in the end, and we’d not have met Aragorn if we hadn’t.”
“One day I swear I’m going to have the chance to meet him, and I’ll take that chance.”
“You’ll find he’ll show you the greatest respect. He knows what you sacrificed staying here, and you’ll find he’ll honor that greatly.” Merry’s voice was quite certain.
It took longer going by coach, for there were here and there icy patches that had to be carefully passed, and they had to go by the roads and not the bridle paths Frodo had used when he rode Strider. It was nearing five in the evening when they arrived before the Council Hole. Pease and a couple of helpers greeted them and set the steps out to help them dismount. Frodo woke and seemed uncertain of where he was at first, then allowed Merry and Sam to assist him out of the coach. Sam produced a comb and quickly smoothed Frodo’s curls, then shared it with Merry, Pippin, and Freddy, and taking Rosie’s arm over his own he led the way into the banquet chamber.
All eyes were drawn to Frodo as he followed Gordolac Whitfoot to the head table and accepted the place to Will’s right, Sam and Rosie beyond him, Merry and Pippin to Mina’s left. Tonight both Merry and Pippin were dressed as gentlehobbits of the Shire, although they wore their cloaks from Lothlorien as did Sam. Yet the dark green jacket worn by Pippin had the White Tree on one side and seven stars in a circle on the other, while Merry wore a brooch in the shape of a horse’s head, and both wore their swords.
“One thing, Mr. Frodo,” Sam whispered, “at least none here knows of those circlets and is insisting as we wear them.”
Frodo gave Sam a sidelong look and grinned briefly.
Will’s speech was a bit long and wordy, and there were a few who’d voted for Will at the Free Fair who found themselves now wishing that Frodo had been elected instead, as his speeches at banquets had been renowned for the way in which they came to the point quickly and with a remarkable economy of words. Frodo was thanked for having accepted the role of deputy Mayor, and for having done so well at appointing others to help in restoring the Shire and to seeing the Big Men swept out of it, and for his work in getting the investigations started on how things came to be as they were. Sam was thanked for his role in seeing trees replanted, the eyesores left by Lotho’s folk torn down, the restoration of houses and smials, the restoration of the Quick post, and the coordination of efforts to see the mills restored. Merry and Pippin were thanked for their leadership in standing up against the ruffians and for seeing the Shire kept clear of more incursions. The Tooks were thanked for their assistance to the deputy Mayor in seeing the backlog of work cleared from the Mayor’s office and their continued assistance in the investigations, Brendilac Brandybuck and the others who’d personally checked claims of atrocities and strange doings throughout the Shire and who’d taken part in the reparations committees were thanked for their services....
“Is he going to thank the children who folded the napkins for the table settings for the banquet tonight?” Odo Proudfoot whispered sufficiently loudly to Largo Longbottom that most throughout the room could hear him. Titters and giggles could be heard from all sections of the banquet hall.
Will gave a sigh and looked reproachfully at Odo, who ignored him. “Mostly, of course,” Will continued to audible groans from a few quarters of the room, “this banquet is to thank Frodo Baggins, who has given a great deal of his time and energy and leadership skills to helping the Shire return to normal, who has seen businesses reopened, farmers cooperating, family heads and village heads informed of all that has been learned, reports forwarded to the King and his Steward regarding our situation, goods restored, food shared, those who were ill or otherwise in need given proper aid, documents reviewed, and generally has done all he can for the welfare of our folk. We are all sorry he chose to forego proper election as Mayor, and hope he does well as he returns to private life.”
A great snort was heard from Odo Proudfoot over that one, and Saradoc Brandybuck fixed him with a glare which had more impact on him than Will’s had earlier. Bartolo Bracegirdle could be heard muttering, “He’s come off all right, after all--back in his own hole and didn’t lose a single farthing in regaining possession of it.”
Will paused, and Isumbard Took gave Bartolo a scathing look. “I seem to remember you taking money directly from Frodo for the deed to Bag End, and of far higher value than you’d looked to take, and in the King’s coinage at that.”
“But he got it back....”
“As the return of the sum taken for the reconveyance of Bag End’s deed was a personal bequest from Lobelia Sackville-Baggins to Frodo, and as most of the furnishings sold to Lotho with the smial had to be replaced as well as the hole and property needing extensive, often expensive repairs, I wouldn’t exactly say Frodo lost nothing in the transaction. Nor did he make out extraordinarily well from his service as deputy Mayor, as he insisted on returning his salary to the Shire’s treasury, and paid for some improvements out of his own funds that the Shire not be burdened at a time when much was needed to see many returned to their homes and regular sources of income. Also, he was the last Hobbit in the Shire to return to his own place.”
Several exchanged glances, for the fact that Frodo had returned his salary and had personally paid for the construction and fitting of the prison and a few other repairs and improvements hadn’t previously been known by more than a few individuals. Frodo’s face had gone white and the spots of color on his cheeks quite pink as he found himself the object of general scrutiny. “You too good for the Shire’s coinage?” asked Odo.
Sancho Proudfoot, highly embarrassed by the old Hobbit’s rudeness, elbowed him quite hard in the midriff. “You stop that, Grandfa,” he ordered. “Frodo’s only tried to assist the entire Shire, and all you can do is criticize? Shame!”
Several of those who ordinarily would have agreed with Odo found themselves impressed by young Sancho’s championship of his Baggins cousin. Sancho was surprised to note that Benlo Bracegirdle, who sat at the next table, was nodding at him with approval.
Will realized things were close to getting completely out of hand. He glared again at the family head for the Proudfoots. “Could you have done better, Odo? Could you have taken the hundreds of documents that had piled up in the Mayor’s office and examined and approved each one, and found which showed folks out to take advantage of all the rest of us? Could you have realized Lotho had the brains of Timono Bracegirdle beside him, helping figure out devious ways of stealing properties off everyone else? Would you have helped in the rebuilding of homes for Hobbits as you didn’t even know personally? Would you have seen to it that those who must be held prisoner for what they did were housed comfortably rather than just dumped in a damp hole in the ground as happened to me, Freddy Bolger there, or old Lobelia herself?” At the abashed expression the old Proudfoot now sported Will straightened. “I didn’t think so.
“Do you realized how many hundreds of pounds of malt, wheat, barley, and other grains Frodo helped see distributed, or how he met with innkeepers, brewers, millers, farmers, and so on just so we could get the Ivy Bush and the Green Dragon opened for you to get your evening half pint again? Do you realize how many hours he spent poring over lists of objects found on one hand and items stolen on the other, matching them up and seeing clothing, furniture, jewelry, candlesticks, and so on returned to their rightful owners? Do you know as how many imaginary tales of woe he had to listen to as to what might have happened as well as the true stories as made him weep? Frodo deserved every penny he would have earned had he accepted a salary for what he did, but he felt the Shire needed it more.” Many were looking at one another now, ashamed and embarrassed. Will looked around again.
“Frodo Baggins didn’t have to come back to us again, you know--he could easily have stayed in Gondor with the King, whose friendship he knows. But he and the others returned, and because they did the Shire is well on its way back to being healthy and strong as well as free of ruffians again. I think it’s time to thank these, and those like Fredegar Bolger who during the Time of Troubles did their best to stand up to Lotho and his Big Men to help the rest of us as they could.” He gave a gesture, and folks around the chamber began to rise to their feet, some applauding. More and more rose, and more and more were clapping, and finally all stood proudly, and now stamps and cheers and whistles of appreciation were added to the applause. And those who were watching Frodo closely saw that he was fighting to keep his tears contained.
When the music began after the banquet was finished and the floor was cleared for dancing, Mina approached Frodo. “Frodo Baggins,” she said quietly, “will you do me the great honor of dancing the next dance with me?”
He searched her eyes. “I’m sorry, Mina,” he said, “but I--I can’t dance any more. But I’m the one who is honored.” He rose to his feet, and she was suddenly embracing him.
“You know, Frodo, how proud of you your mum would be tonight, don’t you?”
“Thank you, Mina,” he murmured. Many who watched the two embrace were reminded of just how deeply Primula and Drogo Baggins had loved their only living son.