Frodo Baggins huddled more into his cloak as he reached for the next document he must review. He wished the fireplace for the Mayor’s office were on his side of the room, for he felt chilled to the bone. How the weather could be so changeable as it had been in the past two weeks he had no idea. The last of March had been grey and damp, but warming; the first few days of April the sky had cleared and the temperature raised, until on the sixth it had felt like late spring. Then that night a storm had hit, and since then it had remained cold, almost as if winter were making a bid to return.
Noting a questionable clause, Frodo reached for his stick of graphite to mark it so Tolly and Isumbard could find it more easily and evaluate it further. If only it would warm some, he thought, he could think perhaps a bit more clearly. Then he remembered something from a year ago....
"I asked, Frodo, if you’d like a cup of warm tea this time? It might help you stop shivering."
Frodo looked up, startled, into Bard’s face. "I’m sorry," he said, "but I was just remembering what Master Faralion told me last year, that as it was April, if I didn’t like the weather I should just wait a bit and it would change."
Bard laughed. "Wisdom indeed," he said. "And who is this Master Faralion?"
"A minstrel of Gondor. We met him first in Ithilien. A wonderful musician and singer. He rather thrilled Sam, actually."
"A song he wrote and performed, one Sam had hoped would be written and performed just before...." Frodo stopped, dropped his eyes and shook his head. At last he continued, "Anyway, he sang a song Sam had hoped to hear sung. Sam was rather overwhelmed."
Tolly brought over a fresh mug filled with a spicy tea, and Frodo took and held it gladly between his hands, cherishing the warmth. Bard looked at his cousin holding the cup and wished he wouldn’t do as he’d just done once again--start to say something about what had happened out there and then stop just short of it. He was certain they could make far better sense of it all if only one of the four would actually open up and tell what had happened.
Frodo at first didn’t look that different from what he’d looked like before he left the Shire, except----
Except his fair skin was now so pale he looked almost ghostly at times.
Except his beautiful blue eyes with their finely arched brows and long lashes were now deeply shadowed so much of the time, and tended all too frequently to look at others somewhat sideways, with a wariness he’d not shown since he left Buckland for Hobbiton as Cousin Bilbo’s ward back when he wasn’t yet twenty-two years of age.
Except his temples were beyond grey--were actually going white.
Except he was so thin. Frodo had never had a proper Hobbit’s build until the last two or three years before he left the Shire; but what had been slenderness was now far more than that, for he’d not been able to eat properly, he admitted, since the previous spring, although he’d made that admission only when the subject couldn’t otherwise be avoided.
Except for the missing finger on his right hand, the gap over which an apparently highly skilled surgeon had neatly pulled the skin and stitched it so there was barely a hint of scarring, a gap Frodo nevertheless tried to hide and hadn’t to Bard’s knowledge explained.
Except for how he would shiver unexpectedly even when the fire was hot and he was warmly dressed.
Except for his tendency to tire easily, and to openly express his barbed wit toward those who said something utterly thoughtless where before he’d suppress his thoughts out of courtesy--or his expression would just go thoughful, sad, and pained, and he'd reach for the gem he wore, and whomever he fixed with that look would feel as if they were lower than the dirt below their feet.
Except for the filled mug that must be ever near to hand now, and the water bottles he carried filled with a tea he didn’t deny was medicinal in nature.
Except for the fact his basic joy seemed almost stripped away, or perhaps merely almost totally overlaid by care and responsibility and a level of pain. Frodo had always been caring and highly responsible; but now those attitudes were almost to the point of being driven in their intensity.
Except he often moved slowly and carefully, as if he were an old gaffer instead of one in the prime of his life.
Except for how he’d often clutch at his left shoulder as if it pained him, or rub at it absently as if it were aching, and then would grasp the pendant gem he wore on a fine silver chain until the pain apparently receded.
Except for the aura of otherness so clearly hanging about him almost like a mantle about his shoulders. Frodo had always carried a hint of this; now it couldn’t be denied.
Except for that deepening line between his brows where his face had always been smooth as that of a tween....
Bard sighed. He’d come to care deeply about his cousin, and was now very protective of him. But Frodo never spoke of what had happened to him, and had never agreed to explain why he’d sold Bag End and moved to Buckland beyond the fact he’d needed to leave the Shire, or why he and Sam Gamgee had then left the Shire through the old Forest. When asked why he’d taken Merry and Pippin with him he’d only shake his head and state they’d insisted they accompany him, that they’d figured out what he intended and why and had prepared themselves and refused to be denied the right to go with him.
Pippin and Merry were different, too. At four foot one, Isumbard Took was exceptionally tall for a Hobbit, an inch taller even than Frodo, who’d always been accounted tall. Merry had been about three foot ten, the same height as Samwise Gamgee, and Pippin had been three foot seven. Neither Sam nor Frodo had changed in height, but now both Merry and Pippin were about four and a half feet tall, an unprecedented situation.
The two of them now wore mail and swords as if the arms were a part of them, and each rode with shield and helm fastened to their saddlebow. Their expressions had more gravity and maturity, and they devoted themselves to--well, not to pleasure, but to joy, or so it seemed. They sang as they’d always done, but their songs were as likely to be a soldier’s marching song from Gondor or a riding song they said was from Rohan--those could be truly haunting--or an Elven lay or hymn as they were a Shire drinking or bathing or walking song.
As for Sam Gamgee.... Isumbard, looking at Frodo sipping at his tea and setting it beside him and then examining the contract once more, tried to isolate what it was about Sam that was different. He’d not grown in height, was leaner than he’d been when he left, still was most watchful of Frodo as he’d always been. But something in the way he held himself spoke of a new appreciation for his own capabilities; and when he spoke he did so with a level of quiet authority appropriate to the Thain himself--indeed, he spoke now with such authority Uncle Paladin himself was likely to respond as automatically as any other Hobbit and didn’t notice he was deferring to a gardener.
All four had returned to the Shire and--and just looked at how the ruffians had taken over, and with no conferring to speak of had taken charge over the situation. Merry and Pippin had led the martial activity; yet when Frodo ordered them to hold their blows in the case of those ruffians who surrendered their weapons, although Merry had protested he’d nevertheless complied; and had later cautioned others who’d questioned why Frodo Baggins had felt he had any say in the matter that Frodo had his reasons and that he’d been proven right. Proven right? How had he been proven right? And of what had he been proven right?
And now Merry and Pippin lived together in the Crickhollow house Frodo’d bought from the Master of Buckland, both apparently needing the privacy it afforded. Frodo and Sam had stayed with the Cottons of Bywater until first the New Row was completed and Sam returned to live once more with his dad, old Gaffer Gamgee, and then the refitting of Bag End was finished and Frodo had returned to live there once again. Yet things were still upside down, what with Frodo traveling here to Michel Delving to stay three to four nights a week with the Whitfoots so he could serve as deputy Mayor and Sam off traveling all over the Shire seeing to the replanting of trees and gardens and the reconstruction of damaged homes and inns and the removal of the atrocities Lotho’s Big Men had left in their wake like abandoned children’s building bricks scattered over the face of the Shire.
Oh, the four of them had changed mightily. They spoke of the new King with total familiarity and even a shake of the head as they described his habit of chewing on willow twigs to clean his teeth while he stood watch, how he kept thread and lacing in a small metal box in his personal satchel and would mend tears, cuts, and given seams in his clothing by the light of the fire before finally sleeping during their journey south, and his habit of humming under his breath while searching for edible plants or fishing the few times they had time for such; yet spoke with utmost respect of his justice dispensed and the clarity of his thought and the deviousness of his nature when dealing with those capable of treachery.
They commented in passing of having declined the chance to stay in the King’s house, preferring a guest house lower down in the King’s city. They would offhandedly describe a lord who appeared to have worn the same outfit for years but who saw to it his granddaughter had a new gown for each and every feast, each far more elaborate than the last. They laughed about the children of the city who’d come up to spy on them from beyond the wall to the yard about the guest house in which they’d stayed. They’d speak with fondness of the housekeeper and page assigned to their service, or comment on the constant, pleasant bickering of the Dwarf and Elf who’d accompanied them from Rivendell on the road south. They spoke of those caught spying for the enemies of Gondor--or at least, Merry and Pippin would; Frodo would only shake his head and say nothing when asked to comment.
Those warm, greenish-grey cloaks they wore with the delicate green leaf brooches had come, they said, from Lothlorien, the Elf realm known also as the Golden Wood, given them by the Lady Galadriel herself. Sam and Pippin’s swords were said to have come from the Barrowdowns along the Road between the Shire and Bree. Merry and Pippin insisted they’d grown as a result of drinks of what they called Ent-draughts, brewed by the treeherders of the forest of Fangorn. Sam and Merry both had scars on their foreheads--in fact, Sam had two, one overlying the other; and the earlier one he’d simply said shortly he’d gotten from an orc he’d killed in Moria, but would say nothing of the other or the one near his temple, any more than Merry would speak of the one he sported. Bard had noted scarring on the wrists of Merry, Pippin, and Frodo, as if each had been tightly tied. Pippin said that his black tabard he wore over his mail was part of his uniform from Gondor where he said he was part of the Guard of the Citadel, and he acted as if it were the greatest honor possible to be such a guard. Merry admitted he’d received his mail and the leather gambeson he wore over it and the sword he carried from the King of Rohan and his sister, and once had commented he’d been told the mail and gambeson had originally been made for Théoden King when he was a boy. At times all had worn a different type of garment over their shirts they’d said were called surcoats, and explained these had been made for them in Gondor, where such garments were commonly worn.
But none explained their wariness or the grief they’d suddenly and inexplicably show, or answer questions as to why they’d gone other than, "We had to in order to protect the Shire."
Whatever they’d sought to protect the Shire from, they’d still not managed, apparently, to spare it what had been done by Lotho’s Big Men or on Sharkey’s orders. They knew about Sharkey--who and what he was and where he came from. They would refer to him among themselves as Saruman and seemed to usually speak of him in a manner that made it plain he was somehow associated with Gandalf--although it was plain that in comparing the two of them they saw Gandalf as taking precedence and being much the better of the pair.
And there were the recurring references to a Ring and Mordor, always involving watchfulness toward Frodo as if merely mentioning these might set him back somehow. And through it all Frodo plowed straight ahead, explaining so little, apparently intent on seeing to it that he make all right within the Shire as he could. The only one of the four who wanted to talk about it at all was Pippin, but the tale he told was so fantastic, who could believe it? However, the more Isumbard Took saw of his Baggins cousin, the more prone he was becoming to believing Pippin’s insistence that Frodo had gone to Mordor no matter what Uncle Paladin said about how absurd the whole thing was. Something drastic had, after all, happened out there!
The door opened to admit two lawyers bearing yet more documents, one of them Bartolo Bracegirdle. Bard sighed inwardly. There was no love lost between Bartolo and Frodo, particularly since Lobelia had first utilized Bartolo’s services to convey the deed for Bag End back to its former owner and then to rewrite her will leaving the bulk of her property as well as that left by Lotho to provide reparations for those who’d suffered as a result of Lotho’s mad behavior during the Time of Troubles. Everyone knew that Bartolo had been furious at these actions, for as Lotho and Lobelia’s closest relative he would have inherited their estates had Lobelia not taken it into her head to do such unusual things, and it was no secret that Bartolo had coveted Bag End and a few of Lobelia’s other properties for years--since long before Bilbo had left the Shire, in fact. Now in his late sixties and married to the former Delphinium Baggins, Bartolo Bracegirdle was as acerbic as only a full Bracegirdle could be, although he’d never, to Bard’s knowledge, followed in Lotho’s wake and had even advised Lotho more than once to turn away from his path toward domination over the entire Shire. How he’d managed to stay out of the Lockholes no one knew, although Bartolo and Delphie’s house had been a frequent target for the Gatherers and Sharers, as had been true of those who’d ever been closest to Frodo.
Frodo looked up from his contract at the two new arrivals. "Bartolo, Rico," he said.
Rico Clayhanger set the three documents he carried on Frodo’s desk where he found a cleared space. "Deputy Mayor," he said with a returned nod, turning to take the two documents Bartolo carried and setting them on top of the three he’d already placed on the desk. "Bartolo here has a couple wills for his clients to see signed and registered, and I have a sale of a property outside Hardbottle, a marriage contract, and an apprenticeship to file."
"I see," Frodo said quietly. He reached for the topmost document and opened it. "Bettina Goold?" he asked after a moment. "I’d not heard from her for at least five years." He scanned the will quickly, reread a couple sections, then nodded, and pulling his inkstand toward him he uncapped the bottle of red ink. He signed it, pulled out his register and made the notation required to indicate he’d countersigned a valid will, and returned it to Bartolo, then opened the second one. He paused as he started scanning it, then looked up to search the Bracegirdle’s eyes, then looked down soberly, read through it, and signed it, registering it without further comment before returning it, too, to Bartolo.
He then went through the apprenticeship agreement, accepted the proper register for such documents from Tolly, and after signing all three copies saw it registered and gave one copy to Tolly to see filed and returned the others to Rico for distribution back to master and apprentice’s family. The marriage contract was next, this time only the one copy for registration and filing, since he’d not performed the marriage. Then he opened the contract for a sale of property, and this time he began reviewing it carefully, his piece of graphite at hand. After going through four pages Frodo stopped. "All right," he said. "We’ll finish reviewing this over the next three days and will contact you if we find any irregularities."
"Bartolo and I will be in Overhill for the next week," Rico advised him, "attending a house party at Malco and Dremma’s place." Rico and Delphinium were both related to Dremma Chubbs, who’d been a Clayhanger. Frodo was related more distantly to Malco Chubbs, so he nodded in recognition.
Frodo registered the receipt of the property sale document, issued a receipt to Rico, and stood to bow briefly to each. "It’s good to see both of you again," he said quietly. "I’ll walk out with you."
Bard watched Frodo accompany the two lawyers to the door to the Council Hole, courteously listening to Rico along the way, then turn back to the privy once they’d exited. No unpleasantness between Frodo and Bartolo, who’d kept his mouth determinedly shut during the visit. Well, that was to the good, he thought.
At the end of the day Frodo was plainly tired. "You’re not riding back to Hobbiton tonight, are you, Frodo?" Bard asked.
"I was planning on it," Frodo answered, "but at this point I think I might go back in the morning instead. I’m feeling pretty exhausted. I’m of the opinion that going through documents is even more difficult than riding all day."
"Sam won’t be worried if you’re not home tonight?"
"He’s working in the Marish this week, and isn’t due home until tomorrow night anyway."
"Then I’ll let Pease know you’ll not be needing your pony until morning."
"Thanks, Bard," Frodo said. He looked at the pile of documents still lying on his desk, but Bard and Tolly shook their heads.
"Oh, no you don’t, Frodo Baggins," Tolly said decisively. "If you’re too exhausted to ride to Bag End tonight, you’re too tired to take any of those things with you. Sam was right to insist you not work more than three to four days a week--you’d work yourself into an early grave, given your druthers. Off with you, and I’ll have you know Pearl had Bard bring you an entire cake of your own and he left it with the Whitfoots this morning so none of us would be allowed to take more than our shares of it. Go enjoy it."
Shaking his head but smiling, Frodo at last allowed himself to be fitted out with his water bottles and sent off across the square to the Whitfoot place. Hillie joined Bard and Tolly by the door to the Council Hole, watching after their Baggins cousin. "He’s starting to look better again," Hillie commented.
Tolly nodded. "Too responsible by half, Frodo is. Takes all this too seriously. Needs a good laugh."
Bard smiled. "Well, he’ll get that in spades the first of May when he finally gets to see Sam married to Rosie Cotton. Not that Sam’s been hurrying things until now. But now he’s gotten Sam to make the commitment, Frodo’s not going to let him back out of it."
The three of them shared a quiet laugh, then went back inside to finish tidying up before heading home themselves.