"You didnít come home last night," a voice addressed him as Frodo dismounted in the yard for the Ivy Bush.
"No, I didnít. I was very tired after a day of long considerations, and decided staying at the Whitfoots was preferable to trying to ride home and possibly falling asleep on Striderís back and most likely falling." Frodo turned to face his young cousin Pando Proudfoot, who lived with his young aunt, uncle, and little cousin Cyclamen in Number Five. "I begin to understand just why Aragorn had to get out of the Citadel as often as he did. Having to consider documents and reports and to go through endless discussions on how food should be transported from here to there and back again and deputations from the South Farthing regarding on how this person was diverting most of the leaf crop while others from the North Farthing are certain their concerns about how the loss of trees there allowed the banks of a stream to collapse are far more important to bring to the attention of Thain and Mayor--itís enough to drive a Hobbit mad! Itís far more exhausting, I find, than walking through Eriador was."
The lad took Striderís reins and walked alongside the pony into the stable. Frodo removed bridle and headstall and unfastened the saddlebags and cinch, and with the aid of the stable lad they soon had Strider groomed, fed, and watered, and contentedly in his stall. Frodo gave Strider the last of the sweet bun Mina Whitfoot had pressed on him before he left and half a carrot, and watched as Pando scratched the geldingís ears and stroked his neck as the pony nuzzled at him. Pandoís uncle Sancho was a carter, and Pando loved ponies dearly; he and Strider had befriended one another immediately, once Pando overcame his awe at the beauty of the Rohirric steed.
As they walked from the Ivy Bush up to Bag End Pando said, "One day Iíll go to Rohan and see their herds of ponies and horses for myself."
"At least when you grow up it should be safe to make that journey easily, with proper patrols of the roads and growing settlements and safe inns along the way."
"Why isnít it safe now, Cousin Frodo?"
"Oh, itís much safer now than when we went south, for without Sauron to goad them on orcs, trolls, and wargs will do more hiding and less attacks on Men, Elves, Hobbits, Dwarves, and other creatures; and wolves will once again go back to preying mostly on small creatures and the sick among the herds of deer and other grazing beasts they were created to eat. But with the loss of Sauron and the changes in government, lawless Men must find new places from which to attack travelers; and so they swarm the roads and the lands surrounding them, looking for waste places where they believe the Kingís Rangers wonít pursue them in which to hide. Some of the Rangers who accompanied us northwards left us for a time as we approached Tharbad to follow such reports, and found a nest of them, similar to those who invaded the Shire, hiding in the foothills to the Misty Mountains. They rejoined us a dayís ride north of Tharbad, and had left those theyíd taken in Tharbad to receive the justice of the place. I donít think they fared well there, but that doesnít appear to deter those intent on following them. We had much discussion of such Men as we came further northward, Lord Halladan, Sam, Merry, Pippin, and I."
He looked off, shaking his head. "Long ago Men, Elves, Dwarves, and the Valar themselves united to finally bring down Morgoth, the Bringer of Darkness and Discord and Hatred. He was cast out into the outer darkness, beyond the Gates of Night; but his servant Sauron regretted his initial dissembling before the might of the Powers and fled into the wilderness until the rest of the Host from Aman returned again to their place, vowing not to return as so much in Middle Earth was lost when they must come in their wrath. Once he was certain it was safe for him to seek to take his Masterís place, he made his own bid for power, setting up temples in the shadowed lands whose rites were intended to weaken the bonds set upon Morgoth to allow his return. Aragorn tells me that those rites in the end did not accomplish their goal; instead after his defeat by the Last Alliance they strengthened Sauron himself and aided him to return as he had been before, even if he lacked his--his greatest weapon. And so he crept out of the wilderness about the time our ancestors came over the Misty Mountains into Eriador and founded a new fortress in the southern reaches of the great Woodland Realm ruled by Thranduil, my friend Legolasís father, until he was driven forth by the White Council while Bilbo was on his journey and returned to Mordor.
"Yes, he has been utterly defeated and cannot return; and none of the other powers who followed Morgoth can hope to rise as he did, for they have lost much of their nature, Iím told, by accepting the shapes taught them by him. But Morgothís words can still be heard in our hearts, if we will listen to them. They spur us to selfishness, self-centeredness, envy.... They incite us to take that which we desire at the expense of others, and seek to convince us that we have the right to order the lives of others according to our own conceits and supposed wisdom."
Pando looked up at his cousin as they approached the gate to Bag End and saw the older Hobbitís jaw was set, his eyes stern. Before he left the Shire Frodo Baggins had never looked so, and this disturbed the lad, realizing the one Hobbit heíd always hero-worshipped had seen things to cause such changes in his moods. He found himself trying to reassure Frodo, "But Hobbits donít act that way."
Frodo paused with his hand on the open gate. "We donít? Then what do you call what Lotho did, or that Ted Sandyman has done, or Timono Bracegirdle, and those like Marcos Smallburrow who aided Lotho and Timono? We still havenít found all the things taken by Lothoís Gatherers and Sharers, and weíre still missing a number of people who disappeared during the Time of Troubles. Did they run away like the Chubbs brothers from Buckland, or were they killed because they didnít do what the Big Men told them to do, or did Lothoís own followers kill them or sell them away into slavery or some other such evil? I doubt Iíll learn the stories of all of them in my lifetime."
He led the way up the stairs to the stoop, and reached into his pocket to retrieve the key, then paused to look at it lying in his hand. Finally he murmured, "When Bilbo lived here we rarely locked the door, even when both of us were gone and the Gamgees were off to the Cottonís farm for the day. Now I lock it behind me as I leave, and must unlock it when I return. Sam will have it no other way, for he worries for my safety when he is not able to be by me." He fitted the key into the lock and opened the door, then turned to take the saddlebags Pando had insisted on carrying for him. "He worries for me, Pando. He worries for me, having seen what evil can do." He looked away. "Heíd do better, perhaps, to worry for what I might do myself," he whispered so softly Pando had to strain to hear him. "Certainly Iíve heard the urgings of Morgoth spoken in my own heart often enough--It saw to that." He looked back at Pando ruefully, gave him a nod, and went in, softly shutting the door behind him.
As he returned back down the lane to New Row, Pando pondered on Frodoís words. How could someone as wonderful as his older cousin have known Morgothís words in his heart?
A half hour later a wagon rumbled into the Row as Pando and his foster sister were taking logs from the wood pile to carry inside. Pando paused in the act of laying a single log in Cyclamenís arms to look as the one driving the wagon set the brake, got off the box, and approached their gate. "Do you know if Mr. Baggins is home yet?" the stranger Hobbit asked.
"Yes, heís been home about a half an hour," Pando answered. "He was away in Michel Delving."
"So I understand," the Hobbit said. "Good enough, then. At last we caught up with him. Thanks."
Pando looked curiously at the wagon as the Hobbit got back up on the bench again and released the brake. There was a lad with him a few years older than Pando, and in the back a lass about his age and one a couple years older than Cyclamen--and a dog! The older lass was holding a small ratter in her arms, and the younger one had a doll on her shoulder. He smiled--once he had the woodboxes filled, heíd go up and spy on his cousin and his guests.
Frodo was in the study when he heard the bell ring, and sighed. Uninvited guests on the doorstep? It wouldnít be Sam, for Sam would have come in through the kitchen door after only a cursory knock, having finally been convinced it wasnít improper years ago. He wiped the point of his steel pen, set it aside, capped the ink, and went to see who had come to call.
Boboli stood nervously on the step, and made what he suspected was a pointless attempt to smooth down the hair on top of his head. What if Frodo Baggins was cracked as old Mad Baggins was said to have been? Yet, surely theyíd not have allowed anyone who was cracked to serve as deputy Mayor, would they? But, then, the Hobbits inside the Shire were strange folk compared to those of the Breelands--everyone knew that. Maybe only folks as was a bit cracked would be considered as Mayor.
Stop it! he told himself, realizing he was working himself into a fit of upset. There was no point, he guessed, to counting the cracked eggs in the basket before they were all taken out and examined.
Then he heard the doorknob turn, and it opened....
The Hobbit who stood inside the hole, framed by the green door, was tall and almost painfully thin, Bob realized. His hair was close-cropped curls of very dark brown, save for those at his temples that were silver-white. He was dressed as the Hobbits heíd seen at the Council Hole dressed, in a shirt of a pale cream color with a grey-green waistcoat over brown trousers, with a huge shawl of fine pearl-grey wool over his shoulders as if he felt uncomfortably cool. His face was pale, with high cheekbones, a finely made nose, a firm chin with a decided cleft to it, and eyes of a remarkable blue surrounded by lashes Thistle would have died to possess.
"May I help you?" The voice was clear, the accent definitely that of an educated Hobbit from the Shire.
Boboli felt terribly rustic. How could he expect this Hobbit to take him seriously, what with his farmerís accent and his rough clothes?
Frodo was making his own evaluation. The Hobbit facing him was at least three-foot eight or nine, certainly taller than average; he was built much like Sam was, with hands callused by honest labor and a trace of dirt no scrubbing had been able to remove from beneath his nails; and his skin was darkly tanned even though it was only mid-April. A farmer, and from Bree, considering the cloth his vest and cloak were made of. Uncle Rory had purchased several bolts of such fabrics at a time to provide for many of his dependents within the Hall, and even Frodo had even been drafted into carrying them from the wagons newly returned from the Breelands to the storage rooms where such things were kept until the seamstresses and tailors were ready for them.
"Ifín you please, sir," the stranger began, then cleared his throat and began again. "Ifín you please, sir--are you Mr. Frodo Baggins?"
"Yes, I am, and at your service, sir. And how may I help you?"
The farmer took a quick glance over his shoulder, and Frodo noted that a wagon pulled by a single pony stood in the lane, with what appeared to be at least three children in it. The visitor took a deeper breath, and came to the point. "I was told, sir, as I must come into the Shire and meet with the Lord Iorhael----"
Boboli saw the look of shock in the tall Hobbitís face at the use of the name. However, he kept on. "I was told as I must get this Lord Iorhaelís permission soís me and mine could continue constructiní the hole and farm as weíve been puttiní together where weíve been doiní it. Theyíve said as the land as where weíre buildiní our farm is his, you see."
Boboli paused. Mr. Bagginsís mouth was working slightly, his eyes were a bit distant, and his right hand where it touched the rounded door frame was trembling a bit. Was Mr. Baggins given to fits? he wondered. Well, there was nothing for it but to continue. "Only problem is, Mr. Faradir, the one what told me as I must get this Lord Iorhaelís permission, never told me which oíyou four is the one the Rangers call Lord Iorhael. Is it you, sir?"
After a moment Mr. Baggins appeared to find his voice. "Well, I must say that this was unexpected," he said. "That is your wagon, with your children in it?"
"Yessir, Mr. Baggins, sir. Me younger son, ye see, and me two lasses--and our dog. Lister refused tí be left ahind, you understand."
Mr. Baggins looked down at the wagon with a look of apprehension, Boboli judged, until he saw the small dog Lilia held close to her, at which he relaxed some. He took a deep breath. "I see. Youíve come all the way from the Breelands?"
Bob shrugged. "Not precisely the Breelands no more, sir. I was lookiní tísettle some land as has always been vacant, near the Brandywine, you see. Itís well off the road and far from Staddle where weíre from--rich land, it is, with a good ridge for a fine hole high above the bottomland asíd be best for the plantiní of crops. Rich soil, and good pasturage as well as haviní a fair crop oítimber. No oneís ever settled there, you see, or so Iíd thought--íceptin weíve found ruins there--ruins as Mr. Faradir and his son and Mr. Eregiel all say as was the Kingís farmstead from the days when there was the kingdom oíCardolan in these parts."
"Faradir--you met Faradir," Frodo murmured. He looked back into the farmerís eyes. "And you say he sent you into the Shire?"
"Yes--said as the landís Lord Iorhaelís, and I must make an agreement with him to keep on there."
Frodo took a deep breath and let it out. "Oh, Aragorn--what have you done to me this time?" he said distantly. He looked down again at the wagon, then around before again fixing his attention on his unexpected visitor. "Can your son drive your wagon?"
"A course, sir. Heís a farmerís son, after all."
"Good enough, then. Please pardon me." Frodo stepped out past the farmer onto the stoop and looked down toward the lower lane of the Row. "Pando!" he called out. "I know youíre there, looking to come up and spy. We need you!"
A bit shamefacedly the lad Boboli had spoken to below stepped out toward the field beneath the Hill, across the lane from his dooryard. "Yes, Cousin Frodo?"
"Tell your mum I need your help, and come up. Oh, and ask if itís all right for you to go briefly into Bywater to the stable at the Dragon."
"Yes, Cousin Frodo." The lad named Pando disappeared into his smial.
"Heís a cousin?" Bob asked.
"Third cousin once removed. He can go with your son into Bywater and see your pony stabled and the wagon stored for the night, then walk back with him."
"He spies on you?"
Frodo smiled gently. "Oh, yes, heís done so since he was quite tiny." He straightened. "You may as well call your children inside, for this may take a time. Iíll go put the kettle on again."
"About Lister--the dog--isít all right with you tíbring him inside? Heís a goodíun."
There was a look of concern briefly to be seen on Frodo's face, quickly masked out of courtesy, Bob realized. "I suppose so." He sighed. "Iím sorry--my parents never kept dogs, nor my uncle, although there were enough in the Hall when I was a child. But Iíve simply never spent time with them and Iíll admit I have no idea how to act around one."
"Weíll keep íim on a string, then."
Boboli went down to the wagon. "You lasses--put the string on Listerís collar and go on in, but keep íim close tíyou. Have a feeliní as Mr. Baggins isnít particular comfortable with dogs." Lilia nodded. "Go into the parlor, sit near the fireplace and get warm. Heís puttiní the kettle on for us." He turned to Teo. "You stay here, ín his cousin as we saw down thereíll ride with you into Bywater where we stayed last night. Arrange stabliní and mayhap a room sameís last night, ifín they have room."
"Does he know whoís Lord Iorhael?" asked Anemone.
"Iím not certain, but it may be as heís the one." The child nodded. Bob continued, "I suppose as we ought tíbring in the hampers--share out what we have left with íim."
"Does he have any childern of his own, Dad?"
"I donít think so--there was no one else here last night. But the lad ín lass as we saw belowís his cousins--third cousins, once removed." The lad Pando was now on his way past the turn in the lane. "Off with you now, Teo, and you may look tíchange your shirtín vest afore you come back. These is terrible spotted."
"Iím sorry, Dad--itís hard tíeat without spottiní while the wagonís moviní."
"I know, son, but as you have time tíchange, do so."
Lilia tied a length of heavy cord theyíd cut from the line for the canvas to Listerís collar and made a loop on the other end sufficient for a hand to hold onto and gave the end to Anemone, then quickly slid the large hamper toward her father. Teo helped his younger sister and the ratter down, then Lilia, then fetched the smaller hamper from under the wagon bench and gave it to her. Lister examined the gate and marked it, and as the two lasses began going up the steps he ran ahead, almost dragging his small mistress after him.
"Lister!" she protested, pulling on the cord. He stopped, and looked about at her as if a bit surprised.
Pando ran up past them and, after pausing briefly at the open door, shrugged and went in, disappearing down the hall, calling, "Cousin Frodo?"
The two lasses went inside, and seeing the bench and hooks quickly divested themselves of Liliaís hamper, and saw their cloaks hung up. They were closely followed by their father who set his larger hamper by the other, removed and hung his own cloak by theirs, shut the door behind him, and looked up to examine what could be seen. Overhead was an obviously new fixture holding five candles suspended by a chain. The wooden bench had been lovingly polished, but showed signs of it having been deeply scarred. Lilia looked at the scratches with interest. "Mebbe when he was a littleíun Mr. Frodo was naughty," she suggested.
"Cousin Frodo, naughty?" asked Pando, who was returning toward the door. "No, not that naughty, not that I know of, at least. Those was done by Lothoís Big Men, not Cousin Frodo. And he didnít live here when he was little--he lived in Buckland then. Didnít come here to Bag End until he was over twenty, he didnít. Is this your dog, then? He looks like a nice one." And reaching down he briefly patted Lister on the head, then opened the front door and went out again.
The floor was of black slate, and appeared to have been recently laid, the white grout in the gaps obviously fresh and so far free of any sign of dirt or staining. Beyond the entranceway the floor was carpeted with a thick, heavily woven and tufted material such as none of them had ever seen before.
The parlor fire obviously hadnít been burning all that long, but was cheerfully warming the room. The walls had all been freshly painted, and the mantel had obviously been repaired. Yet the things that stood about the room and on the mantel all had a feeling of each belonging in the particular place in which it had been set, even though it was plain at least some of the walls had been replastered before they were painted, and some of the visible support beams had been replaced or spliced.
The floor here was laid planks, definitely new, with a well-worn but cheerful area rug over it. The Masterís chair was obvious, but there was no sign of one for a Mistress for the hole. On the mantel was a Dwarf-made clock with a fine stone casing; on either side of it hung portraits of a Hobbit and what must have been his wife; on one end was another portrait in a standing frame of brass of a clever-looking Hobbit with a smile that looked positively mischievous. A narrow sofa stood beside the fireplace, and at a nod from their father the two lasses sat on it, Lister jumping up to sit between them. Boboli sat opposite them on a wooden settle.
Over the back of the Masterís chair hung a fine if faded laprug; a folded blanket lay over the chest that stood beside it, with an unlit lamp and a book and pad of paper and partially wrapped graphite stick on top. There was another chest in the corner furthest from the fireplace, and a new wall-shelf held a small line of books between two large slabs of polished malachite.
The feet of the Masterís chair just fit worn spots in the parlor rug, as did the legs of the narrow sofa; but this settle obviously wasnít part of the original furnishings that went with the rug, and Bob was willing to wager that the original table that had sat in one place had been round rather than the square one that sat in that spot now.
Anemone was also looking about her, holding tightly to Listerís collar. "This roomís been fixed a lot, Dad," she said.
"Yes, it has," Frodo said from the door as he entered with a tray of mugs, two pots, two jugs, and a large plate of seed cakes. "The entire hole was almost destroyed when we returned, and had to be repaired."
"They hurt your hole while you was gone?" asked Lilia, scandalized.
As he nudged the book on the chest aside so he could place the tray on it he shrugged. "I sold the smial to a cousin before I left, so I had no reason to complain when we returned. But my cousin died while we were gone, and his mother gave the deed back to me. Itís still a bit odd--the table that sat here was broken to bits when we got back, and the mantle was hanging at an odd angle. Only a few of the pieces of furniture I sold to Lotho and Lobelia were salvageable--the rest had to be burned. Fortunately the best pieces were in Buckland while we were gone, for I didnít sell most of it to the Sackville-Bagginses."
"Is it the same Lobelia what got a purple stripe on her bum when you painted her wagon seat?" Anemone asked. The story had made a huge impression on her.
Frodo looked at her, his face going absolutely white save for two spots of red on his cheeks. "How did you learn of that?" he asked. "It was a long time ago--I was only twenty-four at the time."
Bob felt his own face flushing. "We had tea yesterday with Mistress Amanda Grubb," he explained, "and she was telliní us...." He stopped, embarrassed to admit further just how much gossip they might have heard.
Frodo sighed as he poured from one of the jugs into two of the mugs, presenting one to each lass along with seed cakes. "Trust Amanda to tell that story. I wasnít sorry at the time to have caught Cousin Lobelia, but I was truly hoping that Lotho would sit on the paint and stick firmly. He was such an insufferable lout at the time--not that he ever got any better."
"Whyíd you sell your hole to him then?" Anemone asked.
"I didnít mean to--Iíd intended to sell it to my cousin Ponto and his wife Iris, but Pontoís sister spilled the details to Lobelia, and Lotho came with the money I was asking first. It was very embarrassing. My cousin Angelica who lives now in the South Farthing wrote me quite a scathing letter about it once she heard tell of it, for sheíd much rather her parents had purchased it than seeing me let Lotho and Lobelia have it." He lifted one of the pots and poured. "Milk? Sugar?" he asked Bob.
"Only a spot oímilk," Bob assured him, "and but one lump oísugar."
Frodo nodded and complied, presenting a mug of excellent tea and another cake to his guest, then pouring some from the second pot for himself without bothering with either the milk jug or the sugar bowl. "Now," he said as he took his seat, "perhaps some introductions on your part would be in order."
"Sorry, Mr. Baggins, sir," Bob sighed. "Boboli Hedges originally of Staddle, at your service. The bairns hereís my daughters, Lilia," the older lass bobbed her head, "and Anemone." The younger child mimicked her older sister. "Itís me younger lad Teoro as took the wagon to the Green Dragon; we left the elder, Holdfast, back at the smial to care for things while weíre gone."
"I see," Frodo said. "And your wife?"
"Dead," Boboli said, his expression grim. After a moment he continued, "Itís like this...."
Frodoís expression was intent as he listened, and grew more compassionate as the story unfolded. When at last the tale was done and Bob had gone quiet his gaze shifted to an indeterminate point, while his own expression became stern. "And they only targeted Hobbit-held farms, bypassing those held by Men," he said softly to himself. "Then either they were afraid they couldnít hold out against the defense other Men might make, or--" his expression became sterner, "--or they were under Sarumanís orders. And Sarumanís orders would have been based on his perceived quarrel with us, and particularly me." He shook his head. "That one such as he should have fallen so low----"
"Whoís this Saruman?"
Frodo looked back at the farmer. Finally he answered, "He was another Wizard like Gandalf, the White Wizard. The Valar sent five to help teach all of us within Middle Earth to stand against Sauron, but Saruman fell to the lure of the--to the lure of power over others, and betrayed all. Once he was exposed as traitor, he was held captive for a time until the war was over, and then those who held him allowed him to leave, believing he had no power left to harm others."
He gave a bitter laugh. "If only that had been true. But instead he came north, seeking power here in the Breelands and the Shire. His folk called him Sharkey. Apparently once he became aware that Bilbo might have brought the--what heíd found--back here to the Shire he sent agents north to find where it is and to make contacts within it. Timono Bracegirdle, we think, was the first Hobbit of the Shire they contacted, but Timono hadnít the connections or the land our mutual cousin Lotho had as a Sackville-Baggins. So he arranged a meeting between Lotho and the agents. They fed Lothoís vanity and his own desire for recognition and personal power, and began purchasing foodstuffs and later leaf from him, arranging for him to sell them increasingly larger and larger amounts and increasingly encouraging him to betray our people and arrange for their folk to enter the region to seek--to seek for me and what Bilbo had entrusted to me. My selling Lotho Bag End was the chance he felt to make himself the tyrant of the Shire with the support of the ruffians Saruman had sent; but apparently they had orders to search the properties of Hobbits within Bree as well, perhaps to see if It might have somehow come there."
"Well, itís not nothiní as any could lay at your feet, Mr. Baggins, sir."
Frodoís face as he searched Boboliís eyes was painfully blank, the farmer felt. "Itís not? If Iíd tried harder to befriend Lotho instead of allowing myself to loath him, or if Iíd indicated Ponto had the first claim to Bag End before him, of if Iíd paid attention to anything else within the Shire beyond my own concerns and pleasure and studies, perhaps the entire Time of Troubles might have been avoided both here and in the Breelands, Mr. Hedges, sir."
Bob felt himself flush. "Itís not for the likes oíyou to Ďsirí me, Mr. Baggins."
"You think not? And what makes me better than you, sir?"
"Iíd think the fact as you was made a lord for what you did."
"And what did I do, Mr. Hedges?"
Bob thought for a moment, then admitted, "I donít know, sir, although Mr. Faradir said somethiní aí destroyiní a ring; but I knowís Mr. Faradir and his son and Mr. Eregiel all think the world of you; and the King must also, or heíd of not give you lands for your maintenance, although Iím not completely certain as tíwhat that last means, not really."
That last comment managed to elicit a true laugh. Frodo Bagginsís laughter was remarkably sweet and delightful, and the lassesí faces lit in response to it. "Maintenance is a practice among Men to offer support to those whose work is not necessarily the working of the land or raising of animals or crops or running of a business. Those who offer special services to the realm, and particularly those who are leaders of armies and who hold rule over others, are granted the income that comes from certain lands to cover their expenses and to help pay for those who offer service to them. A portion of whatever crop or product or profits are made goes to the lord who holds title to the property, and he must pay a portion of the expenses faced, especially if improvements made work to his benefit. Aragorn granted Sam and me some of the lands heís held title to, as well as a few lands whose traditional lords died in the war." His face grew more solemn. "But he told me that the lands he granted me here in Arnor were far to the north, near Annķminas. He didnít indicate any were so close to the Shire and Bree."
"So you are Lord Iorhael, then?"
"Whatís that mean?" Anemone asked.
"Itís--itís just Sindarin for Frodo."
"But Frodo must mean somethiní for íem to say it different in their talk, right?"
Bob was amused to see the same slightly haunted look on Mr. Bagginsís face he had on his own too often as a result of his childrenís questions. Lilia added to it by asking, "Yes, what does it mean?"
Frodo looked away. "Wise one," he said softly. "And Samwise and Perhael both mean Ďhalf-wiseí--as if he werenít far wiser than I am."
"A fine joke on those as thinks no gardener could be a lord," Bob commented. "Does the King know as heís a gardener?"
"Oh, yes, Aragorn has no question as to Samís primary interest in life," their host assured him.
"And Aragornís the King?" asked Lilia, making certain.
Frodo nodded, a small smile on his face. "Yes, Aragornís now the King--the King Aragorn Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar. Heís quite a wonderful person."
"So, tell me, doesnít Mr. Faradir know your right name?" Bob demanded.
With a sigh, Frodo answered, "He certainly does, but always made a point of calling me Lord Iorhael instead of Master Frodo or even Lord Frodo the way most of the rest of the Rangers did on our return journey. Trust Lord Halladan to send him and not one of those with a less romantic turn of mind. Halladan and Aragorn both tend to have an odd sense of humor at times, but then theyíre first cousins."
"You mean as the King has a sense of humor?"
"Oh, yes, or he wouldnít have made Sam and me lords of the realm--heís said as much."
A ring at the bell, and Frodo rose to admit Teo and Pando. Lister pulled away from Anemone to hurry forward to greet Teo, yapping shrilly. Frodo stepped backwards in alarm, obviously taken by surprise as well as uncertain as to how to react properly, and managed to back right into the bench below the pegs on the far wall, onto which he collapsed.
"And what is it as youíre sayiní," crooned Teo as he knelt to put his arms around the small dog, "that Iíve been away far too long, is it? Hush, now, ye daft dog, ye!" as Lister tried to lick his ear. "Heís always one tíactís if Iíd been away a hundred years instead aí lessín an hour," he commented to Pando before he realized Frodoís distress. He straightened, contrite, with the ratter in his arms. "Iím sorry, Mr. Frodo, sir," he said as Pando and Boboli hurried forward to help Frodo back to his feet and see to it he was unhurt. "He meant no harm, ye see...."
He stood uncertainly in the doorway as Frodo was assisted to stand. "Iím all right," Frodo said, pulling away from the attention of the others. "I was only taken by surprise is all. Iím afraid I have far too little experience with dogs. Please forgive me." His face was again very pale with decidedly pink spots on his cheeks. He carefully straightened the shawl about his shoulders as he gave himself time to recover from his brief fright. He sighed. "Youíd think Iíd not take alarm at a little thing such as a small dog thatís obviously happy to see its family after all Iíve seen and been through," he said, repeating, "I was only taken by surprise, you see. I assure you Iím not hurt. Let me only return to my chair."
In moments he was seated again and was drinking deeply from his own cup. When he straightened he looked decidedly better. Bob now sat with Lister firmly held in his lap. Pando and Teo had hung their cloaks on the hooks in the entranceway and were just coming into the parlor when Frodo set his mug down again, then paused, again paling. "Sweet Valar," he said, his eyes fixed on the embroidered garment Teo was wearing over his shirt. "Iíd not thought to see that again," he said.
Lilia was almost bouncing in her seat with excitement. "Then youíre the one as didnít want it no more?" she asked. "Why not? Didnít you like it?"
Frodo looked at her with mixed confusion and embarrassment. "Oh, I did like it indeed, and it was a gift to me, after all, from Legolasís father. But with the way so many in the Shire already think Iím cracked, I decided not to bring many of the garments proper to Gondor home with me." His color was slowly returning. "It does look particularly fine on you," he assured Teo. "Iím glad Nob realized you could wear it." He sighed. "It appears that today itís been decided Iím to be fully reminded of the entire journey south and east."
He looked at the younger lad. "Can you stay for luncheon as well?" he asked.
"Mum said as I could, Cousin Frodo, if I was invited."
Frodo smiled. "I put a dish apparently Marigold left for me into the oven, and she also brought me fresh seedcakes and new bread and butter while I was still gone. Samís set her to see to it I donít have to cook all meals for myself while heís away in the Marish, and he obviously gave her a copy of the key to the back door." He looked at his guests. "It should be warm shortly. Shall we go to the kitchen, then?"
The smial was definitely the grandest any of the Hedges had ever seen as they followed him down the hallway to the kitchen, peering into rooms along the way--the very formal second parlor that looked unused; the study that was as obviously used a good deal, the first storage room, the formal diningroom, the kitchen with its comfortable trestle table, bench and chairs. Lilia was carrying the smaller hamper and Teoro the larger one, and they soon had both set on the table. Bob and Frodo between them emptied both and determined what would be appropriate to add to the meal, then set the table from the dresser with Liliaís help. The children were then sent on to the privy and bathing room, returning freshly scrubbed and ready to eat, Listerís leash fastened to the settle. Frodo was pulling the warmed dish from the oven and set it on a ceramic trivet decorated with a starburst. He fetched a spoon from the dresser with which to serve the shepherdís pie the dish contained, and they all stood at their places, waiting for a sign from their host it was all right to sit down. Instead he turned toward the kitchen window for a moment, then finally indicated they should all sit down and took his place at the seat nearest the window.
"Lilia--thatís your name, isnít it?" he asked. At her nod he asked, "Could you cut the bread and see it served? And Anemone, would you like a bit of sliced apple with your shepherdís pie? Pando, please start the butter around the table."
He proved a genial host indeed, even putting a small serving onto a saucer and indicating Teo might offer it to Lister if heíd accept it. They were about midway through the meal when Lilia noted something odd about Frodoís hand, then gently nudged her sister and pointed it out to her. Boboli noted it next, and finally Teo. Pando realized the rest had gone quiet, and paused himself, looking between the others and Frodo, who noting the attention the rest were giving his hand had set his fork down, placing his hand in his lap. He looked around at all of them.
"Iím sorry, Mr. Frodo, sir--we know as itís not polite to stare none," Bob said somewhat warily.
Frodo gave a quick glance around the room, then fixed his own attention on his lap. He shook his head. "Once youíve noticed, what can I expect?" he finally answered, looking at last back at the farmer. "Iíll say only this about it--I was--wounded while I was gone from the Shire. This is only the most visible scar is all." He forced himself to take up his fork again.
Teo asked tentatively, "Was it awkward to hold your fork after?"
Frodo examined the fork, then shrugged. "At first--but you get used to it after a while. At least it doesnít ache and spasm as it used to do, and usually it doesnít hurt any more." He reached up with his free hand and adjusted the shawl he still had over his shoulders.
"Are you cold?" Anemone asked.
He made a slight face, then gave the child a twisted smile. "A bit," he admitted. "I canít eat as much as I used to, so I get cold easily." He looked down at the shawl he wore and smiled more naturally. "My cousin Estella made this for me for her birthday a few years ago, when she was first learning to knit. She soon picked up the trick of knitting and purling, but doesnít appear to have learned how to cast off anywhere as early as one would expect. I found it when I was unpacking the extra blankets, and so I tend to keep it in the study to put around my shoulders when I feel a bit chilled. Would you like some more jam?"
"You have lots of relatives?" asked Lilia.
"Oh, perhaps more than my share," Frodo admitted. "Gimli once commented after one of Pippinís endless discussions about family trees that it appeared I must be related to half the Shire, to which Merry responded he feared it was rather more than that. After all, Iím first cousin to the Master of Buckland and second cousin to the Thain, and am at least third cousin to a full half of all the family heads who regularly attend the meetings for such, and fifth or greater to half the remainder."
"Are there lots of Bagginses?" asked Teo.
Frodo shook his head. "No, not many. There are only five males of the name left in the entire Shire, and Ponto and I are the last here in Hobbiton."
"You could have sons some day," Lilia suggested.
Frodoís face had gone distant as he shook his head again. "No," he answered softly, "Iíll not marry now." His voice was sad. "And Ponto is too old and ill to have any more children. I think once he wondered if I might marry his Angelica, and I think most once thought my cousin Pearl and I might marry. But they both chose differently. And after...." His voice trailed off. Finally he said with a tone to indicate the subject was finished, "Iíll not marry now."
He ate sparingly, although he sipped frequently at his goblet of water or his cup of tea. Talk had shifted to the smial under construction, and he was fascinated by the reports of walls and floors found by Boboli and Holdfast as they dug into the ridge. At the report of the long knife found his curiosity was thoroughly roused. "Iíd like to see it, and see if it looks much like the ones we were given," he said. "The blade of mine was broken just as we were reaching Rivendell, and Merryís was destroyed in the battle he fought in; but Pippin and Sam still have their original swords. Bilbo gave me his sword Sting he brought back from his own adventure to replace the one that broke, and …omer King and his sister …owyn from Rohan gave Merry the one he uses now."
"You all fought with swords?" Teo asked, fascinated and shocked by the idea.
"Yes, we had to learn while we were gone. I was never much good at it, but Merry and Pippin are now both expert, and practiced a good deal while we were in the Kingís city before we finally were able to return home."
"How did you meet Mr. Faradir?" asked Lilia.
"Faradir is one of the Rangers of Eriador, all of whom are descended directly from the followers of High King Elendil of Arnor and Gondor as they came back to Middle Earth from Nķmenor. Heís also one of Aragornís kinsmen. When word went out amongst the Rangers that Aragorn needed as many of his folk as could come to him swiftly, he went with the company southwards toward Rohan in search of their chieftain. Almost all of them were at least fifth cousins to one degree or another to Aragorn, we learned. Faradir went with one of his brothers. His brother Baerdion remained in Gondor in Aragornís personal service. I understand he was seriously wounded in the final battle, but was almost fully recovered by the time we traveled to Minas Tirith to Aragornís coronation.
"Faradir tended to treat all four of us with a good deal of awe, which was very embarrassing; and he refused to do as most of the others did at our request and use no more than the title of Master, which is used in the outer kingdoms in preference to Mister."
"How come as none oí the folk here in the Shire seem to know as youíre a lord now?"
Frodo looked appalled. "I know that Aragorn has tried to explain to Uncle Paladin and Uncle Saradoc and Will Whitfoot as Mayor this is true, but nobody else in the Shire really needs to know. I mean, it doesnít change who I am in the Shire. Try to understand, Mr. Hedges--Iím not changed from what I was--Iím still only Frodo Baggins, once again the Baggins of Bag End, and thatís all I want to be."
Bob examined what he could see of his host. "That may be," he said slowly and shrewdly, "but it canít be denied as ye ainít quite as ye was afore, Iíll be bound, and Iíll wager as it goes far deeperín just your finger beiní gone."
His host shrugged. "Perhaps that is true. But Iíve always been seen as different since the death of my parents when I was a child, far more so than any other Hobbit Iíve ever known. Must I remove all question from the minds of those whoíve always considered me as cracked as theyíve judged Bilbo to be? And must I bring darker knowledge into their minds than theyíve ever dealt with before? They must all wrestle now with the realization there is a King again, and that he not only knows all about the Shire, but he knows several of us within the Shire intimately and counts us his personal friends. They will come to realize that not only Dwarves but even Elves know the four of us well and will visit us from time to time. They will see the Kingís Men cooperating with the Bounders and Shiriffs and quick post messengers, and communicating regularly with Master, Mayor and Thain.
"Must I force them also to realize that there are far darker forces out there--that what happened to our land in the Time of Troubles is almost nothing compared to the evil those in the outer world have faced every day for millennia? Must they realize that many of the so-called Big Men who entered the Shire and the Breelands and committed the worst atrocities were actually at least half orc? That orcs and trolls and wargs have been kept out of the Shire and the Breelands and other settlements of Elves, Dwarves, Men, and Hobbits only because of the vigilance of those Elves and Men who have dedicated themselves to patrolling Eriador since before the death of Arvedui Last-king?
"Iíve seen the absolute worst there is out there in the outer world, and have seen what could have happened here, too--here and in Bree, if it werenít for the sacrifices of Men, Elves, Dwarves, and other creatures of Good none of us were aware of before we left the Shire--or if weíd heard of them, it was only on the margins of the old stories as we Hobbits have existed only in the margins of the oldest stories of Men until now. Iíve seen lands blasted to nothing but waste in and around Mordor, the memories ever of evil, death, and purposeful destruction made visible in the Dead Marshes north of the walls of that land, plants twisted into evil shapes within it, simple creatures grown into great monsters and filled with evil purpose. Iíve seen those who glory in murder, thefts, and perversion. Iíve been pursued by the Enemyís own darkest servants and saw Gandalf give himself to defeat a demon you cannot imagine--that I want none able to imagine. Iíve been taken by Evil itself--and was saved by other evil.
"I used to think the Shire needed an invasion of dragons to waken it to the dangers of its complacency. Well, my wish came true, although it was in the form of Lothoís betrayal and the invasion of Sarumanís folk. Now as deputy Mayor I must deal with the aftermath of that invasion, and I find I donít like it at all, Mr. Hedges."
All were silent after that for the remainder of the meal. Frodo ate but little, and Boboli was aware of that fact and found himself concerned by it--concerned, but unaware of what he could do to change it.
Teo, Lilia, and Pando took over the cleaning up after the meal, and Bob recognized both the surprise in Frodoís eyes that the three of them would just set to with no direction, and that he was grateful to them for it. Teo looked up at the older Hobbit seriously. "Yeíre the Lord Iorhael now, and must agree with me dad as to what we must do in return for the right tí set up our farm on your land. We can do this, ye know. Go off and figger out whatís tíbe done out there."
And so, with a nod of deference to the lad, Frodo led Boboli Hedges into his study, and the two of them talked agreements until it was time for tea, which all took again in the kitchen, Lilia having found and boiled some eggs and Teo gathering the seed cakes and other treats left from lunch and Pando having seen to the making of tea and the pouring out of cider and milk for the younger ones. Frodo appeared more light hearted now, and during the meal described what it was like to travel through the wilds of Eriador.
"We had no true idea who this Man was. All right--I take that back--I had an idea, but couldnít bring myself to believe it. Bilbo used to tell me regularly about the ending of the final battle of the Last Alliance, how the High King Elendil led armies of Men alongside Elven armies led by the great Elven King Gil-galad, and how a personal attack by Elendil and Gil-galad on Sauron himself brought the Dark Lord down to where his Ring could be cut from his finger to destroy his power, although it cost both their lives; and how Isildur himself took up the hilt of his fatherís sword Narsil and cut the Ring away with that part of the blade that remained attached to it; how the shards of Narsil had been gathered and saved so they might one day be reforged into a single blade, when the time was right. So here this strange Man was, having shown me the shards of a sword he carried in an ancient sheath. The Last Alliance was three thousand years ago. Was I to believe that Narsilís shards continued to be carried about to this day?" He shook his head in the wonderment of it.
"And now this Man who carried a broken sword was our guide. Heíd told me his true name was Aragorn son of Arathorn, but we kept calling him Strider as heíd been introduced to us in Bree. I knew what the AR at the beginning of his name meant--again Bilbo and Gandalf had both told Sam and me how it was the syllable that indicated lordship amongst the Men of the West. But as with the sword I couldnít bring myself to quite believe it--not until I heard Elrond himself name him Isildurís Heir in the Council."
"Whatís he like?" Anemone asked.
"Aragorn? He can be terrifying and teasing by turns. At first he was quiet much of the time, letting us do most of the talking; but he began to loosen up as we traveled. Heíd hum as we walked, and would be singing softly in Sindarin and Quenya without being aware of it. Heíd look up when we must travel at night and steer by the stars, and would tell us stories of them when we camped. But we found he knew the Enemy and his creatures well, and finally realized he was not just aware of how to make draughts for pain but was a properly trained healer of some skill. And no mortal is a better warrior than he is."
"Did you get to fight?" Teo asked.
Frodoís face grew solemn. "We keep being asked that, and were asked it in Gondor as well. Itís not that we were allowed to fight--itís that we had to fight at times just to survive. And if you think itís wonderful, well, itís not. Itís the most horrifying thing you can imagine, having to fight. Aragorn didnít learn to be a warrior because it was glorious--he learned how to fight because he must. As the Heir of Isildur heís been endangered by Sauronís creatures since before he was born. Have you heard tell of how plagues of diseases have swept over the land, killing thousands and causing women of Men and Hobbits to lose the children they carried?"
Teo looked up uncertainly at his father. Bob glanced at the lad, then looked back at his host. "Me mum and gammer told me of such things."
"Well, the Enemy himself apparently sent many of those diseases sweeping over the land, trying to keep Aragorn from even being born. It was this generation that it was foretold that would see his ending if it could be done, and so Sauron did his best to try to slay Aragornís entire family. Orcs and trolls multiplied madly in the Misty Mountains, leading to more and more attacks on the villages of the northern Dķnedain and their patrols; and shortly before Aragorn was born apparently one epidemic of a disease that caused miscarriages caused women both among the folk of Men and Hobbits to lose children all across Eriador. Two years later there was another epidemic, this time of another disease that not only caused miscarriages but that caused widespread deaths. Aragornís father Arathorn rode out on patrol against reported orc activities east of them, and was killed; Aragorn and his mother both became seriously ill. Aragorn apparently lost consciousness, slipped into a coma, and appeared to be dead; and the Elves who had come to aid mother and child through the illness decided to have it put about that the child born to be Heir of Isildur had indeed died, and secretly carried him off to Rivendell to raise him there. Lord Halladan, who is Aragornís Steward here in Arnor, told me his parents were among the few who knew this was done, and who came to see the child regularly as he grew up as if he were the son of Lord Elrond.
"He was trained as a warrior by those among Elves who are the greatest of warriors in all of Middle Earth--by Lord Elrond himself, by his sons, by Lord Glorfindel of the House of the Golden Flower, by Lord Erestor. He has the hands of healing associated with the line of Kings sprung from Lord Elros Tar-Minyatar, the first King of Nķmenor and twin brother to Lord Elrond, and Lord Elrond saw him trained in healing also from his childhood. He was educated in languages and in the histories of all races and peoples within Middle Earth. His gift of singing was encouraged. He was taught how to lead and rule, how to hunt and track and guard and protect. He once told me he saw protecting others as the only reason any individual should ever wish to become a warrior.
"By the time he came of age in the reckoning of Men and returned to his fatherís people, Aragorn was already the greatest swordsman among Men. He recognized in the youngest son of his uncle a talent with weapons, and so he sent him to Rivendell for five yearsí training similar to that heíd experienced in the use of weapons, and so Lord Halladanís younger brother came back almost as accomplished with sword and knife as Aragorn, and even moreso with a bow. Heís been Aragornís personal bodyguard and personal aid most of their adult lives, during those times they could afford to have the two of them together. Most often each must serve as leader of separate patrols, however.
"Lord Halladan and his elder brother Halbarad were both educated in administration and rule, and first Lord Halbarad followed his father as Aragornís Steward within Arnor, and now Lord Halladan, for Halbarad died by Aragornís side fighting on the field of the Pelennor before the walls of Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor.
"Secretly the Rangers of Eriador have guarded our borders, those of the Shire and the Breelands, for generations, and we never knew it until most in this region went south to aid him."
"And now this Aragorn is King?"
"Yes, he is. We saw him crowned King before the walls of Minas Tirith, and we saw the Sceptre of Annķminas also given him indicating he is King now of Arnor as well. We attended his wedding when he married the daughter of Lord Elrond, the Lady Arwen Undůmiel, last summer on Midsummerís Day. Weíve all attended him as he received delegations of lords and simple folk from all over Middle Earth. Weíve ridden out with him to see the lands nearest Minas Tirith, and he accompanied us on the first stage of our journey home.
"Most of the Elves remaining in the mortal lands will now leave us, sailing to Elvenhome and beyond to the rest of the Undying Lands. It is the beginning of the Age of Men now; and at least with Aragorn as High King of the West we will make a blessed start of it. He manages to bring out the absolute best in those he deals with, and Iím so very proud to have been allowed to come to know him. Heís a good Man, and is already proving a good King."
"And him made you a lord."
"Sam and I were both made lords of all the Free Peoples of Middle Earth, although he assures me it wasnít his idea originally."
All at the table looked at one another. "Whose idea was it, Cousin Frodo?" asked Pando.
Frodo shrugged uncomfortably. "Aragorn tells me it was suggested by Gwaihir, the Lord of the Great Eagles."
"Eagles? You mean a bird?" Is he as cracked as so many seem to think? Boboli wondered.
"Not common eagles," Frodo assured him, "but the great Eagles of the Misty Mountains, those the Dķnedain and Elves see as the messengers and servants of the Valar. Long ago their folk helped rescue Gandalf and Bilbo and the Dwarves they were accompanying from an attack by the great wolves, then later came to help fight at the Battle of the Five Armies. This time they arrived during the final battle of the War of the Rings, the one held at the Black Gates of Mordor themselves, and afterwards Gandalf came with three of them to find--to find Sam and me within Mordor and to rescue us. I donít really remember that, I fear."
"Why not?" Pando asked.
"Sam and I lost consciousness there at the last. In fact, I remember most of what little I do of that last week or so only because Samís reminded me. I was in a pretty bad way at the time."
"And what was the two oíyou doiní in Mordor?" asked Bob.
Frodoís face went blank. "What we had to do, to see the war over at last. We managed, but not quite as weíd thought to, and not without--assistance."
Bob realized this was all Frodo was prepared to say on the subject.
"Have ye agreed on what we must do to stay on the land?" Teo asked at last.
"Mostly, although Iíll have to send someone to Lord Halladan to make certain all is written properly to meet the laws of Arnor," Frodo said. "Iím not certain whom to send, actually, as I know of only three in all the Shire right now admitted to write contracts in the Breelands as well as here, and Iím not precisely on the best of terms with any of them."
"Why not?" asked Teo.
"Well, one is under indictment for treachery to the Shire, one I donít really know personally, but it appears he also may have been complicit in Lothoís activities, and the third hates me because Cousin Lobelia gave the title for Bag End back to me. Heíd hoped to inherit it from her himself, you see."