"So, you entertained guests today, did you?" Sam asked as he moved the bowl he found sitting on the dresserís top up onto the shelf where it was generally kept.
"Yes," Frodo admitted, "from a farm in which I have interests." Heíd solemnly sworn Pando to secrecy about the identity of the visitors heíd had and their business, and he knew the lad would hold his tongue around the gardener. No need to remind Sam about lands outside the Shire until there was true reason for him to remember he had such things he must inevitably deal with himself. Sam and Rosie would be marrying so soon, and he wanted Sam able to focus on that, and not be reminded of the darker times theyíd known out there.
"Not often as such actually come here," Sam commented as he looked into the drawer in which the spoons were kept and saw them properly arranged.
"True enough; but you know how much things have been changed as a result of the Time of Troubles."
Sam shrugged his agreement. All too much had been changed; but at least things were beginning to resume their usual beauty within the Shire. The sapling growing in the Party Field appeared to be a mallorn tree, and he was very optimistic at the moment, having seen how so many of the young trees heíd planted starting early in February had begun to grow up at such an unprecedented rate. "Marish is lovely, it is. And it seems as the crops is fair springiní up in the fields, intent on makiní up for the short rations and all from last year." He was pleased to see Frodo smile. "Did you come back last night?"
"No, this morning. I was pretty tired last night, and so I slept the night at the Whitfootsí and rode back shortly after second breakfast."
"Yes. Seeing the Sun again helped, I think." He laughed. "Itís almost as if Pearl were mothering me--sheís taken to having Bard carry me slices of cake lately, and yesterday she sent me a whole one and had him leave it with Mina."
"And did you eat aught of it?"
The pink spots on Frodoís cheeks grew more pronounced. "I had a small slice last night, and Mina wrapped one in a napkin and placed it in my saddlebags. I ate it on the way home, although much of it was rather squashed."
"I trust as you didnít feed it to the birds?" Sam noted the pink grew deeper once more and knew that at least a portion of that cake had indeed gone that way. "Well, Missus Maggot sent you a gift, she did--a basket of early mushrooms and a brandy cake."
"Bless her, the dear lady. A true queen among Hobbits, as Iíve said before, Sam."
"Indeed she is." Sam fetched a knife out and, after lifting the cake out of its basket, cut several thin slices and saw one onto a plate for Frodo, fetched a fork for him, and saw him settled with it and a mug of his special tea. "You been feeliní cold?" he asked with a glance at the grey shawl.
"Only a bit."
"Woodbox is full."
"Yes." Sam noted that Frodo didnít elaborate on that--the mysterious guests had evidently repaid his Masterís hospitality by fetching in more wood, he realized. Interesting. Not one of his relatives, then, most likely--gentry didnít tend to think of that kind of helpfulness.
Sam found the saucer shoved under the settle and picked it up, then paused. There were traces of grease on it. Now, why would Mr. Frodo put meat on a saucer, much less set it on the floor? Then he went on to the parlor and found what he was certain was dog hair on the narrow sofa by the fireplace. What was this? Since when had a dog been allowed entrance into Bag End? Curiouser and curiouser, he thought. He picked up the tray Frodo had left here earlier and brought it back to the kitchen. Frodo had finished the slice of cake and was looking with interest at the rest. Smiling, Sam placed a second slice on the plate and got himself one. Heíd found if he made certain the slices were thin enough Frodo would be able to eat more than one, and in the end eat more than heíd thought to be able to stomach at a time.
"Will you and Rosie be sitting for your gifts tomorrow?" Frodo asked.
"Yes, for a couple hours at least. Will you come to the Cottonís house?"
"No--I find I have business in Overhill."
His Cousin Folco, then? Sam wondered. "Will you walk or ride Strider?"
Frodo thought for a moment. "I think ride. Usually Iíd walk, but I seem to tire so easily since I felt out of sorts in March. But I intend to do a proper walking trip to Buckland after your wedding--leave you and Rosie some proper privacy for your wedding night and a few days more."
"I donít like the thought of you maybe pressiní yourself too hard, Master, if you take my meaning."
"Oh, Iíll take it slowly enough," Frodo promised. "But for now, if you feel up to it perhaps weíll both have another slice of that cake."
Delighted, Sam fetched his friend a third slice and cut a slightly more substantial piece for himself.
"I cannot believe just how easily the Travelers dealt with Lothoís Big Men," Dremma Chubbs commented.
Rico Clayhanger nodded solemnly but held his tongue. It appeared that everyone was still on about the Time of Troubles, although what could be said now that hadnít been rehashed to death since November he couldnít imagine. Bartolo, he noted, wore that disgusted look he always got when the Travelers--in his mind mostly figuring Frodo Baggins--were mentioned. Rico suppressed a smile.
Largo Longbottom was smiling. "The fields Lotho had fired on our first estate are already leafing out, far more so than weíd looked to see. And I canít believe how quickly the plum trees are growing at Cousin Lilacís place. And itís hard to think the Summer Garden in Lesser Grace was covered with those atrocities of Lothoís last summer--the daffodils and narcissi and hyacinths are especially lovely, and it looks as if the iris and tulips will be particularly thick this year. As for the decorative rhododendrons and quince--youíd not believe they were little more than dead-looking sticks before Sam Gamgee came with his helpers and they cultivated around them. And the new camellia he planted in March is at least a foot taller than it was when it went into the ground."
Angelica Clayhanger, Angelica Baggins the elder as was, sought to explain. "Sam was telling my mother that heís certain itís due to the grains of dust he was given during his journey. Seems an Elf queen gave them to him, and he thinks she somehow laid a spell of special growth on them. Heís been putting a grain under every tree he plants, and digging pinches into the gardens he works on. My parentsí place certainly looks especially lovely, and my dad is doing much better in the last few weeks."
Daisy Boffin nodded. "And itís hard to believe that Bag End is almost totally restored now, it and its gardens. After what the Big Men did there...." She shuddered, as did several others, both gentlehobbits and their ladies.
Her husband Griffo put his arm about his wifeís shoulders. "Well, at least Cousin Frodo is back where he belongs. Bless Lobelia for that. It was a terrible way for her to learn just how much evil Lotho brought about, though, for her to come out of the Lockholes and see how much devastation he and Sharkeyís folks left in their wake."
"Has Baggins said more about what they did out there?" asked a Chubbs relative.
"No--Iíve barely seen him save when heís come to visit Ponto. He didnít come to the last meeting of the family heads--was very tired after the weekís work in Michel Delving."
"Poor, dear Cousin Frodo," Delphinium Bracegirdle said softly. Rico noted the sour look Bartolo gave his beloved wife.
"I heard the Captains went out on another patrol up to the North Farthing, there near Long Cleeve," commented Largo.
"So Bartolo and I were told while we were in Michel Delving the other day," Rico answered him. "Something about a nest of Big Men possibly having been seen there."
The Chubbs relative gave a delicate shiver, an affectation he was much given to. "Save us from more dealings with Men," he muttered.
"They apparently intended to do just that," growled Bartolo, "Merry and Pippin, at least."
There was a ring at the bell, and after a few minutes Dremmaís maid Bella came in, giving a bit of a curtsey to the company. "Beg pardon, Mistress," she said, "but thereís an unexpected caller. Itís Mr. Frodo Baggins."
"He wasnít sent an invitation..." began Dremma.
"Oh, heís not here about the party, Mistress--says as he needs to have a word with Mr. Bartolo rather. I put him in the formal parlor, Mistress."
All looked at the Bracegirdle with openly expressed curiosity. "With you, Barti?" asked Angelica Clayhanger. "Now, what on earth would Cousin Frodo wish to discuss with you? You werenít in on Lotho and Timonoís schemes, were you?"
"Certainly not!" Bartolo spat out. "Lotho Pimple was never more than a lout and an embarrassment. Best thing Benloís done since he was made family head was to strike him and Timono out of the Book, and I was glad I was there to see it done."
"And the Sackvilles followed suit," noted Griffo.
"Although I doubt Frodoís done so from the Book of Baggins," Daisy said.
"Not," added Malco Chubbs, "that anyone except the Bracegirdles would ever claim Timono. Was he in the Longbottom Book, Largo?"
"No, thank the stars," Largo said with relief. "My dad never thought to include him under any circumstances, not after the row his father made when he was born, what with his mother being so ill and dying and all, and his dad insisting that we Longbottoms were failing our obligations to her by not sending a healer along with the midwife--even though he was the one who summoned the midwife himself and heíd not notified the family sheíd come to her time--nor that she was ill."
Tiercel Bracegirdle had been prone to odd thinking for years before his son Timonoís birth. Alternately suspicious and expansive, heíd confused many whoíd tried to like him for his wifeís sake. His insistence that Gardeniaís death in childbirth was the fault of her Longbottom relatives had confused everyone, and had led to much bitterness. Aunt Lilac Hornblower had tried to make Timono a part of the family and had constantly invited him to parties and treats; but when not even Frodo Baggins, who could get along (if quietly) with about everyone, hadnít been able to abide him during a house party when the two were teens sheíd given up on the lad. Perhaps it was only to be expected he and Lotho would make an alliance--not that it could have been considered a friendship.
Rico cast a sideways glance at Bartolo, evaluating the Bracegirdleís response. Bartolo was glowering into his ale mug, obviously just holding down his fury.
"Well, Barti," Angelica persisted, "are you or are you not going to find out what he wants?"
"I donít see," Bartolo said, glaring at her from under his eyebrows, "that I need to be in any hurry about finding out. After all, heís given me no warning that he intended to interrupt my enjoyment of the party."
Dremma snorted. "Enjoyment, Bartolo Bracegirdle? And when was the last time you truly enjoyed anything? You shuffle around, perpetually bored and suspicious, the absolutely typical sullen Bracegirdle."
Malco shrugged. "You may as well go find out whatís bothering him--unless youíve been writing odd contracts or something like."
Delphie colored and bristled. "Iíll have you know, Malco Chubbs, that my husband does not write inequitable contracts. Heís as honest as the dayís long, if not more so."
Rico could sense just the slightest lightening of his friendís glower indicating he was pleased by his wifeís championship as Bartolo finished off his ale and slowly unfolded himself from his chair. "I may as well," the Bracegirdle allowed, "see him and send him on his way." He set his empty mug down on the table and, nodding to Bella to precede him, followed her out of the room.
"You donít suppose Frodo found any problems in the documents you two took in the other day, do you?" asked Angelica.
"I donít see how," Rico said. "I was the one presenting the sales contract, not him. He only had two wills."
Bartolo just heard that exchange as he allowed Bella to lead him to the door to the second parlor. He could see Frodo through the open door, wrapped as he so often was any more in that foreign cloak of his, his eyes fixed somehow on his own thoughts. Frodoís face had always been extraordinarily expressive; now it was rather closed off. After dismissing Bella with a negligent wave of his hand, Bartolo stopped just inside the doorway, his head up, examining his caller, the distant gaze, the pale countenance, the growing number of silver hairs in the dark curls, rubbing at his left shoulder with his right hand, a definite look of pain momentarily showing on his face.
"You hurting, Baggins?" he asked as he closed the door behind him, realizing his voice sounded decidedly cold.
Frodo looked up, apparently startled to find he wasnít alone, and his expression becoming guarded. "Itís good of you to agree to see me, Bartolo," he said, his voice studiously neutral.
"Nothing good about it. Whatís this about? You canít have found anything wrong with either of those wills. And it was Rico who wrote and presented the sales document, not me...."
"There was nothing wrong with either will, or with Ricoís sales contract from what I could see."
"You havenít gone through the rest of it?"
Frodo shook his head. "They wouldnít let me take it with me--said I needed the days off. No, Bard or one of the others will go through the rest of it, not me."
"So, youíre good at delegating responsibility, are you? Or has the great, responsible Frodo Baggins become uncaring in his advancing years?"
Frodo refused to be goaded, and his expression was again closed off. "Uncaring? If only."
"Then why are you here? If thereís nothing wrong with the documents I tender...."
"I need your services."
Bartolo looked at the Baggins with disbelief. "Need my services?" he asked. "And how on earth is it that Frodo Baggins needs the services of a Bracegirdle? Do you need one to carry your shrouded corpse to the grave or something like? Thatís the only service Iíd wish to offer you."
He was pleased to see that Frodoís jaw was clenching. It was almost a full minute before Frodo answered, and it was plain he was modulating his voice. "I need a special contract written--a property lease agreement."
Bartolo started to turn away. Frodo stood and asked, his voice so reasonable it stopped the Bracegirdle more surely than a hand grasping his shoulder would have done, "Why are you leaving, Bartolo? Isnít that what you, as a lawyer of the Shire, do--write agreements and contracts?"
Bartolo turned about, his expression suspicious and angry. "You already have a lawyer, Baggins. Or have you forgotten that Brendilac Brandybuck serves you as personal lawyer? Canít he write a lease agreement for you? And what are you going to do--lease Bag End to that gardener fellow of yours?"
Frodoís face was still closed, closed and almost utterly drained of color. His voice when he spoke was again utterly reasonable. "Not this agreement he couldnít--not that I would wish him to do so."
For the first time the Bracegirdle lawyer felt honest curiosity stir him. "Why not? This something youíre ashamed of, Baggins?"
"No, not ashamed. I do find it somewhat embarrassing, perhaps; but itís nothing to be ashamed of."
The idea that Frodo Baggins could feel embarrassment took the lawyer by total surprise. "You mean youíre secretly married or something? Need a lease agreement to deal with providing for a hidden child or the outcome of an assignation?"
Frodo gave a brief laugh that seemed to surprise himself as much as it did Bartolo. "No--again, if only...."
"Why canít you have someone else write this contract, then?"
"There are only three within the Shire qualified to do so, Bartolo, and I donít trust the other two."
Bartolo paused. There was only one type of contract only three within the Shire could write. "You have business with Bree, then?" he demanded.
"The other party to the contract is originally from the Breelands, from Staddle, to be precise. But...."
"If heís moving here to the Shire you donít need me to write a contract for you."
Frodo waved away the interruption. "Heís not moving to the Shire."
"Since when have you owned property interests in Bree?"
"To my knowledge I donít have any property interests in Bree, although considering how little I know about what properties I hold title to outside the Shire so far I suppose it may prove possible."
The Bracegirdle lawyer looked at his companion with shock. He didnít think heíd goggled, but he couldnít be certain. It took a time to find his voice again. "You do own property outside the Shire?"
"What did you do--find some fantastic treasure and buy up a great deal of property hoping to sell it one day or something like?"
Frodoís face was pale again, save for bright pink spots on his cheeks. "I left the Shire hoping to lose what I learned wasnít a treasure after all but a threat. I certainly didnít find any along the way, Bartolo."
"Then how did you end up with property outside the Shire?"
The pink spots grew more intense. "Aragorn settled it all on me."
"Whoís this Aragorn?"
"My friend." Bartolo noted how Frodoís chin was raised as he said that.
"You have a friend who just for a lark settles uncounted property titles on you?" Bartolo demanded.
"Not just for a lark...." Frodo didnít finish what he had apparently intended to say. At last he said, "One of the plots of land lies north of the Shire along the northeast side of the Brandywine, apparently. It once was a farmstead, although itís not been worked for a very long time. A Hobbit farmer from Staddle decided to settle there, but was advised heíd have to arrange an agreement with me to do so."
"By Aragornís kinsman."
"This kinsman is keeping watch of the properties this Aragorn gave you?"
"He was to do a survey of them...."
"A survey?" Bartolo was feeling well out of his depth.
"Yes. When he found a Hobbit on one of them he felt duty bound to tell him he needed to make an arrangement with me."
"So, what am I supposed to do?"
"Youíre one of only three qualified to write agreements and contracts between a citizen of the Shire and one from outside it."
"Yes--with someone who resides in the Breelands. But what youíve said indicates this isnít inside the Breelands."
"But who needs a contract when settling land outside the Breelands? Itís not as if it belongs to anyone...."
"This land has belonged to a specific family for a very long time, Bartolo, and has now been settled on me."
"If they owned it, why didnít they farm it?"
"Absentee landlords?" Frodo suggested.
"How can you be a landlord when no oneís living on the property?"
Frodo shrugged and shook his head. "This property has been left to lie fallow since its former managers left it. I donít know if they were called away northward, if they fled enemies, or if they were killed on the property--only that Aragornís family has claimed it since its former lords died, and probably with reason--the memories of his family are long."
"Iíll need to see the deed and title documents...."
"Theyíve not been sent to me as yet."
"Then how do you know for certain this is yours?"
"I know only what Faradir told the tenant, and that he identified property markers the tenant recognized."
"And how do we know no oneís moved those property markers?"
"Well, as they include two great standing stones to the north and a line of rock slippage to the south, Iíd say the property markers would be rather difficult for a mere farmer to shift." It was growing obvious that Frodo was beginning to tire as he suddenly sat back down, his features looking a bit grey as he closed his eyes and grasped at the pendant he wore. "Iím sorry--please, may I have a drink?"
Surprised and even a bit shaken, Bartolo went to the door. Bella sat on the small chair in the hall where she was often stationed during Dremmaís parties, reading. "Bella?" he called.
She looked up, shoving the book into her apron pocket as she stood, automatically straightening her skirts. "Mr. Bartolo?" she asked, "How may I help you?"
"A small glass of wine and a second of water, please; and perhaps a couple slices of chicken with cress between bread--and a mug of light ale."
Once she was gone on her errand, he returned and grasped Frodoís left wrist. His pulse was rather quick, and his face a bit damp with sweat. When he finally opened his eyes it was to find Bartolo Bracegirdle examining him, his expression rather accusatory. "Tell me, Baggins, how long has your condition been this fragile?"
Frodo shook his head and looked away. "Iím well enough," he insisted in a low tone. "As long as I can do what needs doing, Iíll do what I can."
Bartolo let out a deep breath. "I see. Then your Took relatives who work with you in Michel Delving are a bit more than mere delegation of responsibility, eh? Are you really well enough to serve as deputy Mayor, do you think?"
"Do you want the job, Bartolo? Most of our folk are already convinced all it involves is officiating at banquets and weddings, you know--oh, and filing documents, of course. But then they have no idea of what else goes on there. Iíd be glad to have you finish the investigations of what Lotho and Timono did, and how Marcos Smallburrow was involved, and the likes of Beasty Bracegirdle, and whether or not Lothario understood his part in the presentation of documents, and whoís to blame for Ferdibrand Tookís blindness."
"I never said as I wanted the job, Frodo."
"Unless youíre willing to shoulder it, I suggest youíd best not question my handling of it, then--unless you think Iím shirking it."
After a moment the Bracegirdle admitted grudgingly, "Everyone who counts says as youíre doing a fine job."
"Thanks for that."
Bella returned with the tray and knocked at the door. Bartolo went to take it from her, then rudely shut the door in her face. He turned to see an expression of marked distaste on the face of the Master of Bag End. The lawyer paused, then said, "Unless youíre up to taking the tray, perhaps you should just let me do it." He carried it to the table by where Frodo sat. Bella had brought three crusty rolls filled with chicken and cress, and a fourth filled with ham and pickle such as Bartolo himself preferred. He now felt a bit sorry for the way heíd treated the maid, but not sufficiently so that heíd open the door again to apologize, not that apologizing was something he did regularly anyway. He believed he was now in a position to satisfy his curiosity about why Frodo had felt impelled to make the mad decision to sell Bag End to Lotho and leave the Shire as he did.
He took the ham roll and the ale. "Tell you what, Baggins--you answer some questions, and Iíll think about it."
"I wonít promise to answer every question, but at least Iíll allow you to ask some."
The two exchanged serious looks, and at last Bartolo shrugged. "Take a quarter of a roll and the wine, Baggins." Then when Frodo had done so, he asked, "Why Lotho?"
"He came first with the price Iíd asked of Ponto and Iris."
"You never ran out of money, did you?"
"I didnít lie--almost all of the treasure Bilbo had left me was indeed spent."
"But considering you have farm shares and business partnerships spanning perhaps a good quarter of the Shire and Buckland, you certainly werenít hurting for money."
Frodo didnít answer, merely shrugged as he sipped at the wine.
"Didnít you realize that allowing Lotho to have Bag End would put the final coat of paint on his fantasy that he was the most important and smartest Hobbit as ever lived?"
"How was I to know this was more true of him than every other Hobbit thatís ever been born, Bartolo? Iíve found itís also a common fantasy among Men and even Wizards as well as among Hobbits. Even I have been subject to it. That he not only believed it but would act on it to try to take over the entire Shire was something I would never have imagined."
"Heís always had such dreams, Baggins. Always wanted to be King of the World, he did."
"Considering Sauron and Saruman--or Sharkey, if you prefer--shared the same ambition, Iíd say he was in good company."
"You met Sharkey out there?"
"We all heard a great deal about him once we got to Rivendell, although none of us save Gandalf had known him before it became known heíd tried to betray all of Middle Earth. I suppose that Aragorn and Boromir might have met him, but not to do more than exchange courtesies, Iíd think. I didnít meet him personally until we were on the way home, at which time he was intolerably rude to all of us and stole Merryís leaf pouch. He hurried to arrive here before we could do so."
"How come he hated us in the Shire?"
"He hated everyone, Bartolo; but he didnít believe we Hobbits could stand up to him, even after heíd destroyed his life elsewhere. And he was furious because Pippin and Merry had witnessed his defeat and captivity while Iíd evaded capture by his Uruk-hai and been allowed to hold for a time the one thing he believed he truly wanted." Frodo shuddered. "Iíd hate to have seen what heíd have come to had he actually found It. Gandalf could perhaps have controlled It for a time, but even he saw It would destroy him in the end; and Gandalf proved far more powerful than Saruman ever appreciated."
"How did you get this thing this Man wanted?"
"He wasnít a Man--he was a Wizard."
Finally realizing Frodo wasnít going to answer the question heíd asked, Bartolo went on. "Did you intend to leave the Shire from the start?"
"To protect it."
"From evil--from greater evil than you can imagine."
"Did those Big Folk on horses catch up with you?"
"We realized they were pursuing us before weíd made it to the Woody End. We kept eluding them until we were well out of the Shire. But, yes, finally they caught up with us." He set the remains of his roll and wine back on the tray.
"Were they trying to kill you or something?"
Frodo was clutching at his shoulder as he nodded, and for the first time Bartolo realized the rumors were right--Frodo Baggins had lost a finger. "Or something," Frodo was whispering.
"Too bad they didnít succeed," Bartolo said bitterly.
Frodo shook his head and looked away. At last he replied, "Itís not from lack of trying. And--" he turned back toward the lawyer, "in the end they might just succeed."
"So, youíre not truly well."
Frodoís voice was toneless as he answered, "Iíll do what I must for as long as I can. Iíll do what I can to see the Shire healed."
After a few minutes of quiet, the Bracegirdle continued, "Howíd you get these lands?"
"I was granted them."
"Aragorn said itís customary."
"To give away family property?"
"Itís more--more than family property. It was Crown property."
"Aragorn son of Arathorn is the name given our King when he was born, although heís carried far more names than you might believe."
"What happened to the ones who tried to kill you?"
"Or something? They are finally destroyed. Merry and the Lady …owyn of Rohan between them managed to destroy their chieftain; the rest fell with Sauron."
"And how was Sauron destroyed?"
"Because his Ring was destroyed. Heíd put too much of himself into his Ring--he couldnít survive Its destruction."
"And how did this Ring get destroyed?"
Frodoís face again was totally without color. He barely shook his head, his jaws clenched, his mouth tightly closed, his pale lips thin. The lawyer thought his eyes looked haunted.
It was some time before Frodo reached for the cup of water, and Bartolo saw his hand was trembling as he picked it up and drank from it. Finally he put it down and held his hands clenched together in his lap. He spoke softly. "You are qualified to write a contract between one in the Shire and one in Bree, but not yet qualified to write one for Arnor in general. I wrote a letter to Lord Halladan, who is Aragorn's Steward here in the North Kingdom, last night and sent it to him on my way here. I donít know how long it will take to get the answer back, for Iím not certain where in Arnor he is--he could be anywhere between Annķminas and Tharbad, or between Bree and Rivendell. Iíve asked him to have one versed in the law of Arnor meet with you in Bree to instruct you as to how such contracts are written. I doubt Iíll be up to leaving the Shire again for some time, if I ever do." He looked up at the lawyer from beneath his brows. "You may yet get your wish to help carry my body to the grave, Bartolo. Iíll try to remember to see that noted in my will."
"Iíll look forward to it, Baggins," the Bracegirdle replied. "Sounds as if you might have problems getting an heir, though."
A bit of color was finally returning to Frodoís face. He took up the wine goblet again and sipped at it before replacing it on the tray to take up the water again and taking a deeper draught. He shrugged once more as he held the glass between his hands. "Actually, I have an heir or two--or more. Not of my body, perhaps, but I have heirs." He lifted the glass once more and finished the water it contained. After setting it back on the tray, he reached inside his jacket to an inner pocket and brought out a sealed envelope. "This contains the names to be used in identifying the parties to the contract. And Iíd best be leaving soon if I am to see my cousin Folco before I return to Hobbiton and Bag End again." As Bartolo reached for it, however, Frodo pulled it closer to his chest, shaking his head. "First," he said, "you need to affirm youíll take me as client for my legal dealings outside the Shire and agree on the fees youíll accept; and then youíll have to take the Oath."
Bartolo felt himself go pale, and then flush. "And why do I need to take the Oath?" he demanded.
"Donít feel this is something special I demand only of you. Brendi has taken it, as have my bankers of discretion."
"Youíve made your own kinsman take the Oath?" Bartolo asked, his brows rising.
"If the Thain himself were my lawyer or my banker of discretion Iíd make him take the Oath of secrecy, Bartolo Bracegirdle. All my life Iíve been the subject of rumors, gossip, and speculation, starting when I was small when Lobelia was insisting my own mother was unfaithful to my father, and that Bilbo was involved. Itís gone on ever since. Iím a Baggins, Iíll have you remember, and we Bagginses have never done well living in communal situations, for we like our privacy. Having to stay in Brandy Hall and hear all the murmurs of Ďpoor lambkiní and Ďthe orphan whoís the Masterís heirís wardí and Ďodd questions heís given toí and Ďisnít expected to take on a proper teenís responsibilitiesí for ten years gave me a marked distaste for having those who must know my business feeling free to share it with whomever they please. Iíll not give the Shire stones to throw at my head by letting folks in general know the details of what I do privately."
"But if the King himself has gifted you with property----"
"Itís not just property, Bartolo. I donít want the details of what I went through out there generally noised through the Shire by those who donít have the experience to understand what it was all about. I donít want to have to deal with constant questions as to Ďwhy donít you use your titles here, Cousin Frodo?í and similar twaddle. I donít want the Shire in general to have to understand just what I now know of the evil I tried to save it from, or how I came to that knowledge.
"I donít know how long I have left. Youíre right--Iím not particularly well, and I havenít been so since--since the last time I was wounded. I can barely eat sometimes. I have times I canít sleep. When I faced Saruman--Sharkey--before Wormtongue killed him, he told me Iíd not know either a long or a happy life, and whether that was a foretelling or a curse or just ill wishes on his part I donít know; but the fact is itís turning out to be true."
Bartolo considered for a time. Finally he said, "Annual fees to be paid on the winter quarter day--twenty silver pennies a year for seven years."
Frodo shrugged, then countered, "A single gold piece of the Kingís coin, and I agree to the term of seven years."
"But thatís more than I asked!"
"I know. But you are protecting not only my interests and privacy but those of my heirs as well, and it will help cover your expenses when you must travel outside the Shire."
It was exceedingly generous, a fact Bartolo had to admit. "All right," he said. "I accept."
"Now, take the Oath."
For a few moments the lawyer faced his new client, but at last spoke the Oath, knowing just how binding this was. At last Frodo nodded and handed him the envelope. "Here," he said. "But no others are to see its contents save the heirs to my titles and lands outside the Shire. Nor are you to discuss what Iíve told you today about my health or wounds or my concerns for my privacy."
"Not even with that gardener of yours?"
Frodo gave a twisted smile. "Who knows--in time he may find himself using your services to see to the administration of his own holdings in Arnor. But he doesnít need to see whatís in the envelope, for he already knows."
"I donít wish you telling anyone Iím working for you, Frodo Baggins."
"That Iíll agree to, Bartolo. Only Lord Halladan and whomever he sends to instruct you and those who become my tenants on my holdings in Arnor will know, besides my heirs should it come to that. Iíll draft the agreement when Iím back in Michel Delving and see it properly filed, and a copy of it and the first fee forwarded to your home in Hardbottle."
Bartolo felt a bit dizzy. Heíd learned a great deal more than heíd looked to learn about Frodo Baggins, and now he was bound from discussing what he knew with anyone, including his wife Delphinium. He looked at Frodo, and saw he was looking to rise. "Eat at least half of one of those rolls, Baggins, or most like youíll not make it to Boffinís place. Did you walk?"
"No, I rode. Malcoís groom took Strider to the stable."
"Then Iíll have him brought around."
"Thank you, Bartolo." Frodo stood up and took a deep breath, then at the lawyerís meaningful gaze he reached down for the discarded quarter of a roll and finished it. Then he held out his hand to shake that of the Bracegirdle. Bartolo paused only a moment, then took it, and found that in spite of the missing finger Frodoís grasp was firm.
The lawyer gave a nod of his head as he pulled his own hand free, then suggested, "Remember, you should eat at least another quarter roll before you leave."
Frodo gave an amused smile, saying, "If you insist." He took up another quarter roll, and watched after as Bartolo turned to the door and quitted the parlor.
Bartolo spoke briefly with Bella, and then returned to the other parlor, keeping his mouth firmly shut. After a moment Frodo appeared in the doorway with a brief bow. "Iím sorry to disrupt your house party, Malco, Dremma," he said quietly, "but I had business I must discuss with Mr. Bracegirdle. I thank you for the courtesy shown me by your groom and maid, and will now be leaving." He turned to the rest of the guests, acknowledging each by name.
"Itís good to see you, Frodo," Delphinium said with genuine warmth in her tone. "I was so relieved when we learned youíd returned safely from wherever you went."
"Thank you, Delphie. Griffo, Daisy--Iíll be seeing you both at Sam and Rosieís wedding, will I not?"
"We wouldnít miss it for the world," Daisy promised him.
"Good, then," Frodo said. "Now I must go. Thank you again, Dremma, Malco." And with a more courtly bow than heíd given the first time he turned and left, leaving the rest to look after him.