“Do you think Pippin will refuse to go with us?” Paladin Took asked his companion as they rode the way between Brandy Hall and Crickhollow. “I mean, he’d be fully justified if he didn’t speak to me ever again after the way I treated him.”
“Pippin doesn’t hold grudges,” Saradoc Brandybuck assured him. “Not his nature. No,” he continued, straightening some in his saddle, “once he realizes you are indeed sorry for what you said last time you saw him and are willing to believe him now, he’ll forgive you. And I think the willingness to meet with Lord Halladan will prove your intent.”
Pal nodded, but couldn’t give over the worry. It wasn’t three weeks since Pippin’s last visit home to the Great Smial, followed by his hasty departure two nights later after one of his nightmares woke up all along the corridor off which the Thain’s family’s quarters opened. Paladin Took had overreacted to Pippin’s cries of distress, and had called his son a coward, immature, and irresponsible. Just the memory of his words that night made the Thain burn with shame. Sara and Esme had been trying to reassure him repeatedly, in one fashion or another, since the last dinner with Frodo--which was another concern.
It had been plain to all four of them--Paladin and Eglantine, Saradoc and Esmeralda--that Frodo had little time left to him. This was a matter of great grief for all of them, for all four of them had always loved Frodo Baggins since the time he was born. How could they not, first for Primula’s and Drogo’s sakes, and then for his own, maddening Baggins that he was?
“He said he was spending his birthday with Bilbo, didn’t he?” Sara asked. Well, it was obvious Sara’s thoughts mirrored Pal’s own.
“Yes, he did.”
“But I thought this Rivendell was weeks away from the Shire, even riding.”
Paladin straightened, for he’d not thought of that when Frodo had indicated this was how he’d intended to spend their mutual birthday. “How long did the lads say it took them to ride back to Bree from there?” he asked.
“Almost three weeks,” Sara said thoughtfully. “Merry commented once it had taken them almost the same length of time riding as it had walking if not longer, if I remember correctly. Said that Gandalf refused to ride quickly, and that they’d usually camp fairly early and stop for fairly long periods for meals along the way, unlike the trip there.”
“Almost as if Gandalf didn’t want to part with them,” Pal commented. “I can’t imagine why it would have taken longer on ponies than on their feet. I mean, when they were going to Rivendell, didn’t they say Frodo was seriously ill and couldn’t walk a good deal of it--that he was riding the pack pony while the rest of them were walking?”
Pal could now see the thoughts turning behind his brother-in-law’s eyes. “I’d not thought of that,” Sara said slowly. Then he laughed. “Seems the old Wizard was reluctant to part with them indeed, and probably especially Frodo.” His face sobered. “I wonder if Gandalf realized how quickly Frodo would--would begin fading?”
The Thain shrugged, his own heart twisting in his breast at the grief he felt for his younger cousin. “Who knows with Wizards?” he responded. For a time they rode in silence before he said, “I wonder how old Gandalf is? I mean, he was friends with Grandfather for much of his life, after all.” The stories old Gerontius had told of his adventures with Gandalf were legion, from the first time they’d met while a number of Tooks were trying to wrestle a wagon out of the the flood at the Sarn Ford. His description of the Wizard on that day had certainly matched how Gandalf had looked at Bilbo and Frodo’s last joint birthday party--the Party.
Sara slowly was shaking his head. “I have no idea. I mean, he’s not appeared to change in all the times I ever saw him--not that I’ve seen him anywhere nearly as often as Bilbo and Frodo did.”
“Well, if Frodo was to be with Bilbo on their birthday, then they must have brought Bilbo back here. He’d be what--a hundred thirty-one now?”
Master and Thain looked at one another thoughtfully. Finally Sara suggested, “Do you think that they’d bring Bilbo here to be by Frodo when he--when he goes?”
Paladin grunted, “Or maybe they were just bringing Bilbo here so Frodo could be by him at the end. I mean--a hundred thirty-one? He must be inches from dying himself by now. He’s ancient!”
“Well, from what little Merry said on the subject it was obvious Bilbo was quite fragile when they were with him in Rivendell. Said he couldn’t keep awake for long at all, and his thoughts seemed to be wandering. Said Bilbo indicated he was giving Frodo that sword of his, forgetting he’d already done so.”
“I wonder,” Pal said, the pain obvious in his voice, “if we’ll be facing--facing a double funeral. I doubt either would long survive the other at this point--Bilbo for age, Frodo for--for how weak he himself is.”
“I know,” Sara said, his own voice taut with grief. “I know Bilbo’s been gone from the Shire for so long it’s been easy not to think of him at all; yet the idea the old Hobbit himself is dying just tears at me. Especially since--since Frodo----”
Especially since Frodo is dying, too, Paladin Took finished the thought in his mind, knowing Saradoc Brandybuck was doing the same.
They rode in silence for a time, finally turned toward Crickhollow and the Hedge beyond it. Finally the Brandybuck broke the quiet. “I wonder if we should forego meeting with Lord Halladan right now, Pal. Maybe we ought to just bring the lads back to the Hall, collect Esme and Lanti, and head for Hobbiton now. If we hurry we could be there tomorrow evening. I don’t want--don’t want----” Again he couldn’t finish, and Paladin could see his sister’s husband was openly weeping.
“You don’t want him to die alone?” Pal asked gently. At Sara’s wordless nod, Pal turned his eyes back to the track they followed, not really seeing it. “Merry and Pippin--they’ll want to say goodbye, too, I know.”
“He’ll hate it, though,” Sara managed. “Hates saying goodbye. Hates leavetakings. Will want to just slip away alone.”
“Again,” Pal said, surprised at the amount of bitterness he felt.
“He’ll want--want the dinner to have been our goodbye.”
Paladin took a deep breath, then gave a nod.
They were quiet again for the rest of the ride. Both felt relief when they spotted the hedges which surrounded the house where their sons lived. Merry had suggested selling it to Frodo when he indicated he was leaving Hobbiton and retiring to Buckland because of the privacy it afforded. The high hedges surrounding the property hid a small meadow and spring-fed pond as well as the house, its grounds, and the byre and paddock for the ponies. A small creek ran from the pond below the hedge on the Western side off to the Brandywine. It was a self-contained world there, once the gate was shut....
But the gate wasn’t shut--was hanging open, in fact. The two fathers looked at one another in alarm, then turned to hurry their ponies through it into the property.
There was about the house a blankness both found ominous. No smoke rose from the chimney; no twitch could be seen at the curtains, which were closed. Paladin was even more alarmed, for Pippin hated having curtains drawn in the daytime, he knew.
The door was properly shut, and Paladin tried to think where it was Pippin had said they hid the extra key in case it should be locked. Sara slipped off his pony and tied it to a rail on the paddock fence and hurried to the door, and Pal scrambled to follow suit. Sara was trying the knob as Paladin joined him on the stoop, noting the place where woodwork had been obviously replaced on the jamb, there near where the lock would be. The door swung inward, and the two Hobbits squeezed inside.
The house was utterly silent.
The grey-green cloaks they’d all four worn back from their journey weren’t hanging on the pegs in the entranceway, nor were their swords hanging there or lying on the bench where Pippin seemed to prefer leaving his. Saradoc looked at the empty rail at the end of the wall. “They’ve taken their saddlebags,” he said.
Paladin led the way to the kitchen. Someone had begun slicing a loaf of bread and already had sliced cheese; both bread and cheese had been abandoned on the work table and were hard as granite, while the butter crock lay open to the air. Sara picked up the kettle and examined the firebox for the stove. “Fire burnt out days ago,” he said, “and the kettle boiled dry.” The tea caddy sat there, open and tipped on its side, spilled tea leaves littering the counter and the floor. One plate had been set before a chair on the table, and the other just sat beside it with mugs and utensils lying on it. The candles on the table had guttered out, and the oil lantern suspended over the workspace was dry and its wick burnt down to the reservoir. One of the larder doors had been so hastily shut it had fallen open again; a spoon lay forgotten on the floor under the table.
In Pippin’s room the bed was perfectly made, which made a lump come up in Paladin’s throat, for he’d obviously not slept in it since the linens were changed; but drawers were left half open and with clothing hanging out, indicating things had been hastily grabbed and stowed in his saddlebags, and a shirt lay on the floor, half under the bed. Merry’s room was little better.
They returned to the entranceway where Paladin slumped onto the bench. “They can’t have done it again--just up and disappeared again like this,” he moaned, a feeling of emptiness in his heart.
Just as it looked as if Saradoc would join him in dejection on the bench there was a knock at the door, and Sara answered it, accepting the two letters the messenger from the Quick Post held out, indicating they were intended for Merry and Pippin. “They’re from Frodo,” Sara commented as he handed the one intended for Pippin to his wife’s brother. They shared a look, gave a mutual nod of decision, and each slipped a finger below the wax seal to open the envelope and read what Frodo had written.
Oh, my dearest little Pippin--not that you are little any more. No, you haven’t been little for quite some time, even before you met Treebeard and accepted your first Ent draught. I cannot tell you just how much I love you and how very proud I am of you. I have looked forward for so long to being by you when you come of age, but now I find I won’t be able to do so.
I’m leaving, Pippin. I have to. I don’t particularly want to, but my choices have become quite limited. Even if I were to stay, I wouldn’t remain long, and I think you understand what I mean. Healing can’t come to me here, Pippin, not for my body or for my spirit, which was almost destroyed by the Ring.
I’m so sorry I’m running away, but I can’t take any more partings. Each one I’ve been forced to face has torn at me until I feel frayed. I’m going with Lord Elrond as he leaves Middle Earth, and I will not be able to return. The Lady Arwen sought this grace for me, and in the end the word returned that it was indeed granted--but to Bilbo and Sam as well as myself, for what the Ring did to all of us. Bilbo goes now, with me. If we don’t go now--well, then there won’t be another chance for us, simply because we won’t be able to endure for the next ship. I don’t want Sam to come now, though, so I’ve not told him yet. He knows I’m leaving the Shire, but thinks I’m going to Rivendell. He’ll learn the truth only when he has to accept it.
Please stay by him. Please help him endure. He isn’t meant to have his heart torn in two any more, for he’s meant to have the full life I’ve been robbed of.
I wish I were as strong as you three have been. And stay by Merry for me--I’ve betrayed him so badly by not telling him earlier. He needs you so, Pip; the entire Shire needs you and the foolish wisdom you’ve garnered. Aragorn intends to make the three of you permanent members of his Council, you must realize. He’s a wise Man, choosing to accept wise counsel from whatever sources he can find.
I love you, Peregrin Took. Please forgive me.
A wave of pain went through Paladin Took as he read this, and he realized it was equally for Frodo and his son. Well, maybe a bit stronger for his son as he found himself exploding, “The thoughtless little fool! After all the four of them have been through together, he wouldn’t tell them he was leaving? That stubborn--Baggins! This will tear their hearts in two, not being allowed to say goodbye to him!”
Sara’s face was equally stricken, and he was weeping openly, whether or not he realized it. It must be worse for Sara, Pal realized, for after all Frodo had been as a son to him for so long. But when the Brandybuck answered his voice shook only a little. “He has been very close to dying, Paladin. I suspect he has chosen this way so that none of us will have to deal with his funeral.” He looked about the room, as if to seek confirmation of what he now suspected, then spotted it. On the floor lay a green leaf wrapped around something. Leaf and contents had been trodden on in the hurry and left lying. He bent down and lifted it up, found it contained a type of bread he’d never seen before. He broke off a corner and ate it, then smiled, did the same for Paladin and offered it to him.
The Thain was surprised at how delightful the taste of the stuff was. He savored it, then looked at his companion. “Elven?”
“I think so. I suspect someone came to tell them, to give them word so they could get there in time to say goodbye anyway.”
“What is this, do you think?”
“I suspect a travel bread of some kind. Someone brought them supplies of food they can eat along the way that will keep and is light to pack.”
Paladin examined the leaf, then smiled tremulously. “It is from the type of tree that Sam planted in place of the Party Oak, Sara, and it’s like their cloak brooches. This is from the Elven Lands, then!”
“Maybe that lembas Merry’s made mention of,” Sara responded. Both felt surprisingly soothed and reassured, their hearts now calmed and certain their lads weren’t taken from them again, only given the chance they needed to take proper leave of one they’d loved so deeply they’d followed him to unknown dangers in the attempt to keep him safe.
“So,” the Thain continued, “either an Elf or Gandalf was sent to bring them word, and they brought this. Apparently they feel the way we do--or at least the way I do--that our lads deserve the right to say goodbye.” He realized he was weeping tears of grief for Frodo’s going, but that these tears were healing. “Oh, Frodo--you can’t keep trying to spare others the way you do,” he murmured.
Sara carefully nodded his head, wiping his eyes with his sleeve. “I suspect he’s about as torn as they are. I only hope they were given sufficient warning to make it to the Elven Havens before the ship sails.”
Then the two fathers found themselves holding one another, both weeping with mingled loss and relief.
Merimac, Merimas, Berilac, and their wives had joined Esmeralda and Eglantine in the Master’s private parlor by the time they returned to the Hall. Esmeralda held out the letter sent to Master and Mistress of Buckland, and Sara took and read it without comment, handing her the letter addressed to Merry as Pal gave the one to Peregrin into Eglantine’s hands. All looked shocked and equally in grief.
“We each received one, too,” Mac said solemnly. “He thanked me for what I’d taught him over the years and wished me well.”
Beri scrubbed again at his eyes. “He asked me to stand by Merry as he’d let me. Oh, Uncle, you know I will. But--but why didn’t he tell us?”
Merimas answered him in a strangled voice, “Because he’s the most stubborn and private of Bagginses as ever was, that’s why, lad.”
Eglantine asked, “Where are they?”
Sara answered slowly, “We think they’re on the way to the Havens themselves so as to be there to say goodbye to him. Someone came to Crickhollow to warn them and to bring them supplies so they could travel quickly and lightly. We suspect either an Elf or Gandalf was the messenger, for there was a leaf from a tree like that Elven tree Sam planted there in the Party Field, wrapped around a sweet bread, lying on their floor.”
“He’s apparently taken Sam with him to the Havens, but didn’t tell him ahead of time that was where they were going,” Paladin added. “He’s let Sam think he was going to Rivendell to retire with Bilbo among the Elves. He intends for Sam to stay here.”
Esmeralda’s face was white. “Our lads won’t try to go with him will they?”
“No,” Sara said, shaking his head, “I don’t think so. Mortals can’t go that way, not without a special grace granted by the Powers. Only Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam have been offered this grace, and obviously from what Frodo’s written Sam doesn’t have to accept the invitation now.”
“But where is Frodo going?” demanded Beri.
“To the Elven lands, West of the Sundering Sea,” his uncle answered him. “Where the Powers themselves can offer him healing.”
“But he wasn’t sick----” Beri began, but the Thain cut him off.
“He’s dying, Beri. He’ll die if he doesn’t accept this, and he knows it. We could see it in his eyes when we had dinner with him at Bag End that last time.”
Sara looked at his brothers and nephew. “Is Brendi in the place?” he asked.
“He’s been mostly in Buckleberry meeting with Oderdoc’s family for the past few days,” Mac said. “I don’t know if he’s back yet from today’s session.”
“There was a letter for him, too,” Esme said, picking up another envelope from the table by her chair and displaying it. “I asked Horto to keep an eye out for him and let him know I have it.”
There was a knock at the door, and Horto, who was door warden for the day, led in a Bounder Sara recognized as one of those who guarded the gate at the Brandywine Bridge. “Beg pardon, Master, Mistress,” Horto said, “but Garthfast here’s come with a summons from the Bridge. From a Man, I understand,” he said, his distaste obvious.
Garth was a steady lad originally from the Tighfield area in the Northfarthing. He knuckled his forehead in respect, his eyes worried. “There’s a Man, sir,” he explained. “Come to the gates today and stopped. Tall, ridin’ a tall bay horse, he was. Silver cloak about him, with a star on the shoulder like them Men as come afore to send word to you. The one with the black glove is with ’im, and the young one with the hound, too. Tall one on the bay’s the one as come to the gate this time. Says as he’s the Lord Halladan or somethin’ like, sir, and that you met with ’im there in Bree, sir. Says as he’s come to bring you word about Lord Frodo. Who’s this Lord Frodo, sir? He don’t mean Frodo Baggins, do he?”
Saradoc took in a deep breath, then let it out. “Yes, I think he does,” he said. “Frodo and Samwise Gamgee are considered Lords of the Realm in the outer world, you see.” He looked around the room at the others, then turned back to Garth with decision. “Go back to the bridge, and bring the three of them across and into the common room at the Bridge Inn. And if they try to give you any argument about the King’s edict, tell them this is my order, as the Bridge Inn is under my jurisdiction and Buckland isn’t specifically part of the Shire--not exactly. See to it they get the finest wine or ale or whatever they please that’s available. Tell them that we’re coming, but need to speak to one of our own before we can leave the Hall.”
Garth nodded reluctantly. “As you say, then, sir,” he said. “I’ll leave now, then. Into the common room at the Bridge Inn, you say?”
“Yes.” Sara’s voice was definite.
“Will do, then, sir.” Again Garth knuckled his forehead and went out, his duty clear in his mind.
It was another fifteen minutes before another knock at the parlor door heralded the arrival of Brendilac Brandybuck. “Horto told me there was a letter for me,” he began, then stopped, seeing their faces and obviously realizing the import of the attention all were giving him.
Sara received the letter from Esmeralda and brought it to place in the lawyer’s now reluctant grasp. “We know it’s from Frodo, Brendi,” he said. “Did you know he’s leaving the Shire?” he asked.
Brendi retreated inside himself, behind the mask of his profession as a lawyer of the Shire. “I can speak of nothing until the eighth of October,” he said formally.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Merimas asked.
“I can speak of nothing until the eighth of October,” the lawyer repeated.
“Why not?” demanded Berilac.
“I can speak of nothing until the eighth of October,” Brendi again repeated, almost desperately.
“Leave it, Beri,” Mac said, placing a hand on the younger Hobbit’s shoulder. “He’s telling you all he’s allowed. I take it,” he directed at the lawyer, “he’s made you swear the oath?”
Brendi nodded, then looked down at the envelope in his hands. They all could see as a tear splashed down on the vellum. Brendi was obviously as full of grief as the rest of those in the room.
“Open it and read it,” Sara suggested, almost gently.
The lawyer did so with fingers that were almost steady, finally unfolding the paper inside and reading silently. He then folded it again, and held it to his breast. “Oh, Frodo,” they could hear him say softly. “Oh, Frodo.”
“Where are we to be on the eighth of October?” Sara asked finally.
“At Bag End. All are to be at Bag End.”
“For the reading of his will?” Sara’s voice was only just steady. Brendi just looked at him, barred from speaking further by his oath. “I see,” the Master said quietly. He gave another sigh. “Lord Halladan’s come to the Bridge along with Lord Gilfileg and another Ranger. Do you want to go with us to speak with him?”
“It’s best I don’t. I can’t break my oath, you know.”
“We understand, Brendi,” Sara answered him. “We won’t devil you further about it, then.”
With a wordless look of thanks and relief Brendi retreated.
“Who’s with me, then?” Saradoc said heavily, looking about the room. Within minutes he, Esmeralda, Paladin, and Eglantine, accompanied by Merimac, were on their way to the Bridge Inn.