Bernigard Took rarely left the Great Smial any more, but he asked that the Took coach be made available to carry him to Michel Delving on the day of the legal conference Frodo Baggins had called. He intended to hear what the deputy Mayor would say, and to ask one last time for Frodo to become one of his last apprentices, plus Frodo had sent a request he lead part of the discussion. From what those who’d worked with Frodo in the Mayor’s office had told him it appeared Frodo was far more fragile than he’d been before he left the Shire, although they assured him Frodo hid it remarkably well for the most part. This he also wished to evaluate for himself.
They arrived in Michel Delving at about elevenses, and found that Frodo had seen to it a selection of bread rolls with cheese and sliced meats, a spring salad, a variety of pickles, and preserves be readied in the banquet hall for their arrival. Over the next two hours more arrived, until an hour after luncheon the meeting was to begin.
Berni watched Frodo come and go during the time they waited for the conference to begin, called away twice to the Mayor’s office for a time. Frodo was definitely thinner than Berni remembered, and his expression was very solemn. He also looked older than the old Took remembered. Always Frodo, like Bilbo before him, had appeared younger than his years; now he appeared older, his face finely etched, his hair beginning to grey, his walk somewhat stiff, a deepening furrow between his brows. His underlying joy seemed gone, and that caused Berni concern. Frodo Baggins should definitely not be so solemn.
Among the last to enter the hall were the Master of Buckland, the Thain of the Shire, and Mayor Whitfoot himself, Master and Thain accompanied by their closest aides and followed by their heirs, Will with his nephew Gordolac by his side. Last of all came Sam Gamgee, a vase of hyacinths and primulas in his hands, which he carried to the high table to set before Frodo’s place before returning to the back of the hall to sit by Will Whitfoot while the Master and Thain made their way to the head table to stand on either side of Frodo.
All quieted expectantly. Frodo wore his grey-green cloak, which he now unfastened slowly to reveal that under it he wore a silver-blue shirt under a dark blue sleeveless garment embroidered with a blue and silver eight-pointed star. All looked at him with surprise as he turned slightly to set his cloak over the arms of the chair in which he would sit. He then looked around the room, a room gone very silent indeed. "I welcome you all to this conference of the lawyers of the Shire, and I greet you not only as the deputy Mayor but in an additional capacity as well--as the individual appointed by our Lord King Aragorn Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar as his personal representative. As such and at his request, I dress accordingly this day, as I dressed for our Lord King’s coronation and for his wedding. If you will all please take your seats."
The rustle of a roomful of Hobbits sitting down and the soft murmurs that were briefly shared quieted quickly enough. Frodo watched patiently until the last one was seated, then resumed speaking. "As I believe all have now heard, although I doubt all as yet believe, while Peregrin Took, Meriadoc Brandybuck, Samwise Gamgee, and I were gone we went south at the side of the Man who now is King of both Gondor and Arnor; and of the titles applied to us I think the one that we all are most honored to bear is that of the King’s Companions and Friends.
"During the heady days following the final downfall of Sauron we spent much time with him and his counselors, many of them in discussions regarding the governance of the lands now under the King Elessar’s rule, including discussions of the laws and customs of our own land of the Shire. Our Lord King is familiar with the Shire and the Breelands, for he has overseen the guarding of our borders for much of the last sixty years when he was Chieftain of the Dúnedain of the North, the Heir of Isildur, and Captain General of the Rangers of Eriador. Some of you have made trips from the Brandywine Bridge to Bree and have found yourselves being escorted by mostly silent horsemen cloaked in silver, grey, or green, said cloaks fastened by silver brooches in the shape of stars. Those were Dúnedain Rangers and almost all the King’s own kinsmen. Or perhaps you have seen them riding the West Road through the Shire on their tall horses. A few of you most likely saw the King himself, although you knew it not. But if you had the honor to hear him sing as he rode behind you it is probable that you remember it well."
That evoked more whispered comments. Again Frodo waited patiently for them to quiet. "During our discussions, our Lord King ever held up the laws and customs of the Shire as a shining example of how all of the lands of Gondor and Arnor ought to be governed, with simplicity, with honor, with mutual respect of all citizens.
"Then we four Travelers returned to the Shire to find all in turmoil. At first the trouble seemed obvious enough--the Shire had been invaded by an army of ruffians intent on stripping it of its wealth, dignity, and integrity. Then we learned that this invasion had been invited by my own cousin Lotho Sackville-Baggins, who after I made the mistake of agreeing to sell him Bag End decided that he now had the right to make himself the tyrant of our land. Somehow he’d managed to gain title to most of the inns and all of the major mills of the Shire and far, far more of the major homes and farms than was good for anyone. One of my primary goals as deputy Mayor has been to learn just how Lotho did this, and what I have learned with the aid of the Took lawyers who agreed to assist me is that he did so by perverting our body of law.
"I was not raised or trained to be a lawyer, and most of my experience with legal matters before I left the Shire was as the adopted heir of Bilbo Baggins and primary beneficiary of his will, and as holder to a number of farm shares and partnership agreements as well as landlord for several properties. No, I did not study the law--instead I studied languages--several languages. Bilbo taught me to translate Sindarin, Quenya, and some Adunaic. And through it all he taught me to respect the power of wording and context. The same phrase might be a compliment in one context and a gross insult in another. Translated literally a word or phrase might be thought to mean something far different than originally intended when it was actually used in the context in which it was presented.
"We remain involved in an investigation of how Lotho Sackville-Baggins, with the aid of Timono Bracegirdle and several other Shire lawyers, presented contracts in which impossible improvements were required, or in which minor changes in wording left borrowers and sellers of property robbed of the titles to their own homes and farms. Some of those who presented these crooked and inequitable contracts were coerced into doing so; some were tricked; some were eager participants in the scheme. What we do now is primarily to try to ascertain which is which.
"Timono now sits in the Lockholes himself, although it is in far different conditions than those known by Will Whitfoot, Fredegar Bolger, or Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and the others imprisoned in the old storage tunnels and rooms by Lotho and his Big Men. The cell in which he is imprisoned is lined with heavy blocks of stone, is dry and well ventilated, and contains a proper bed and furniture as well as proper privy and access to fresh water. He receives four proper meals a day. He is allowed visitors. However, he is not allowed to write any more contracts or agreements, and I will tell you plainly that those written by his visitors and those they deal with regularly will be reviewed most closely to make certain they are properly written and do not give one party to said contracts and agreements untoward advantages at the expense of the other."
All was utterly silent at that pronouncement, although there were some uncomfortable exchanges of glances here and there throughout the room.
"The King himself is most interested in seeing the results of our investigations; and it is likely that those shown to have been most deeply involved in the scheme to rob others of property, homes, farms, dignity, wealth, food, and freedom will be sent to receive the King’s justice either before Lord Halladan, Aragorn’s first cousin and Steward of Arnor, or possibly before the King himself.
"Most of the phrases and clauses used to defraud and cheat others were the result of taking standard phrases that were sufficiently vague that they are almost meaningless in and of themselves, phrases that usually indicate roofs must be sound or shutters intact and functional and so on, and then twisting the wording sufficiently to indicate these requirements must now be met literally. How many do you know who found themselves required to dig new wells and install new pumps and drains when existing ones were properly present and functional? How many seeking to sell a house rather than a smial found they were required to plant a tree on the roof to demonstrate the integrity of the hill in order to be paid? How many found themselves required to replace existing chimney pots with others that proved of lesser quality than the originals, to be purchased from purveyors at such incredible distances from the home as to be impossible to acquire and install in time for the inspection required by the buyer?"
Frodo now examined all quarters of the room, and many were now watching him with wary fascination. At last he continued, "Such perversions of our legal documents will no longer be allowed to be made. I now ask Bernigard Took, Master of the Guild of Shire Lawyers and most senior of you all, assisted by Isumbard Took, to discuss with you just what clauses and phrases were most frequently abused and changed, and how they might be amended so that in the future they can no longer be twisted."
A great slate had been set up behind Frodo, and several such phrases were already written on it. Bard rose with a felt cloth to wipe it draped over his arm, a slate pencil behind his ear, and a pointer. Those who worked with Frodo had discussed this proposed part of the program for the conference with Berni, and now the elderly lawyer rose to lead the discussion, Bard pointing to each phrase as Bernigard read it aloud and indicated just how the vagueness of language had lent to it having been twisted. As more and more participants at the conference found themselves indicating how each phrase might be better stated or should be deleted completely from future contracts Frodo now sat and observed, sipping frequently from the mug or the glass set by him, or perhaps quietly nibbling at the plate of cold meats, cheeses, and vegetables placed before him.
After an hour of discussion Frodo rose, and it was amazing how that simple act caught at the attention of all and once again the entire room fell quiet. "We have an excellent beginning," he said quietly, "although there is obviously a great deal of work yet to be done." He surveyed those phrases showing on the slate and how each had been amended. He glanced at Tolly, who had been set the task of copying down the final wording of each phrase. At the shake of Tolly’s head he turned back to his audience. "These were but the most often abused, but they certainly weren’t the only ones. It would be best that we choose several to continue this work, several who are highly skilled with the usage of language or whose contracts have always been among the best and most honestly written." He looked to Bernigard. "Uncle Bernigard, would you be willing to lead this group?" At the old Took’s agreement he looked back at the rest of those in the room. "Do we have recommendations regarding those who should serve in this group?" he asked.
Several names were suggested before Rico Clayhanger called out, "If it’s cleverness with words you’re after, I’d suggest Lothario Bracegirdle."
As several others agreed, Frodo and Tolly and Everard exchanged looks. Lothario was indeed clever with words--perhaps just too clever with words, in fact. But to object would be to perhaps tip their hand prematurely--or perhaps to prejudice the Shire against a potentially innocent Hobbit, although none of those who worked in the Mayor’s office truly believed that. Frodo gave a slight nod of decision. "Well, that would be well enough, I suppose; but to balance that we should have one working beside Lothario who is known for the consistent honesty of his contracts. Bartolo, would you be willing to work alongside your cousin?"
Persivo, who’d accompanied his father, was delighted with the deputy Mayor’s recognition of his father’s honesty; but Bartolo thought he sensed irony in the Baggins’s suggestion and was bristling. But he, too, felt that if Lothario was to be in this committee he would be needed to keep his errant cousin in line. He glared at Frodo. "You think to honor me?" he demanded, and the antipathy he expressed could be missed by none. "I’ll do it, but don’t think it’s for your sake."
A Bolger lawyer interrupted, "Well, if it’s honesty you’re after, then Brendilac Brandybuck is your Hobbit."
Frodo exchanged looks with his cousin and personal lawyer, then looked back at the Bolger. "In this case I think not. Brendi is already one of those investigating claims for reparations as well as one who’s been actively checking out the reports of abuses by Sharkey’s folk in the South Farthing. As he has his own regular clients to serve as well as the service he offers the Master of Buckland, to add yet another duty at this point would be to stretch his already extensive duties past what is right for any one individual to carry. But how about you, Eligar? Would you be willing to serve?"
Eight in the end were chosen, including Bernigard, Eligar Bolger, and the two Bracegirdles. Once all were agreed on the makeup of the committee, those attending the conference again began exchanging looks. At this the Thain rose and all gave him their attention. "I’ve been exchanging correspondence with both our Lord King Elessar and his northern Steward Lord Halladan. As of this time they have no concerns regarding our laws or customs, although the manner in which Lotho and Timono were able to pervert our legal system has caused them concern. That we immediately began investigating how the situation got so quickly out of hand and how it was that Lotho was able to amass so much power so swiftly has impressed both of them, as have the constant reports sent them by our deputy Mayor, who has taken it upon himself to keep both apprised of our progress. The most recent letter I’ve received arrived three days ago with the suggestion we do precisely as we have been involved in doing today--that we launch a review of statutes and wording and revise those we find are too easily twisted from their intent. Indeed, apparently this very process is going on in both Gondor and Arnor as well as the King seeks to make certain the laws of both realms remain in line with one another.
"It is their suggestion also that we begin to choose candidates to study the laws of Arnor in addition to our own laws, so that we might better deal with situations when our folk cooperate with those in the outer realm. That we’ve already qualified some to write contracts and agreements with folk of the Breelands has impressed them."
Frodo gave a small smile to his older cousin. "The first of such individuals has already been chosen, Thain Paladin," he said, "and I hope we will be able soon to send out more to study under the realm’s lawyers. At this time there are only two who are free to assist in our business with Bree; it is to be hoped more of our Shire lawyers will now seek to expand into these studies, now that it is at last becoming safer once more to travel freely to Bree and beyond and our business dealings will undoubtedly begin to follow suit."
There was considerable comment on that amongst the participants in the conference. At last Frodo rapped with the Mayor’s gavel on the table, and all instantly again went quiet and gave their attention to him.
"As you look around you today," Frodo said solemnly to the lawyers of the Shire, "you will notice that there are also attending a number of the most prominent family heads and their heirs. Unfortunately, the majority of those involved in Lotho’s takeover were Bracegirdles or closely related to them, which places that family in a highly embarrassing position, and I hereby apologize to all within the family who remained honest for the difficulties this situation has placed you under. I know that several such as the families of Benlo as family head and Bartolo as one married to a Baggins were targeted as heavily by Lotho’s folk as were the Bolgers, many of the Boffins, Hornblowers, Longbottoms, Gamgees, Whitfoots, and many others associated with those Lotho carried grudges against for decades.
"Most of the lawyers who presented Timono and Lotho’s twisted contracts we’ve investigated so far were coerced. To speak to this I’ve asked Algenon Grubbs of the East Farthing to speak to you of how he and others associated with him were forced to present the contracts they did."
Most were appalled at the threats made against the families of Algenon Grubbs and some of his associates. Then a Sandybanks rose and described how he’d accepted gifts from Timono, only to realize afterwards the items given him had been stolen from the Underhill family in the West Farthing, and how he’d been threatened to be branded a thief unless he agreed to present his share of crooked contracts and agreements. Then the Hornblower family head rose to explain how it had been learned Balco had been altering sales documents after the fact to send food and leaf southward instead of to their proper purchasers within the Shire.
"But where did it all go?" demanded Odo Proudfoot.
At that Peregrin Took stood up from where he sat behind his father. "Merry and I can speak to that, for we found Hornblower leaf in Isengard at the southern end of the Misty Mountains." He described the finding of the storeroom near the ruined gate to the vale of Isengard, and how afterwards in the rack and ruin of the fortress he and Merry had found other signs of goods brought thousands of leagues south from the Shire.
"What were you two doin’ in such a place?" Odo asked.
"We accompanied the Ents of Fangorn Forest there and saw the walls of the place destroyed and Saruman imprisoned in his own tower."
"And who destroyed these walls you tell of?"
"The Ents did. I’ve never seen such a thing before, and I doubt I’ll ever see such a thing again. I will advise all here that they never seek to anger an Ent. They make deadly enemies."
"But why," asked Dormo Gravelly, "did this Saruman want all that food and leaf?"
It was Frodo who answered that. "He needed food--a great deal of food--to feed his army. He betrayed all in Middle Earth, and all among whom he had served, and sought to make himself either Sauron’s ally or his replacement; and in order to do either he must build an army. Armies must be fed, and in his madness he had taken his own people from their former cultivation of the land and turned them instead to the construction of weapons and armor and the--the raising of those he would have fight for him. Therefore he turned to other sources for food."
"But weren’t there those closer he could get food from?" Dormo persisted. "Why send all the way north here to the Shire?"
"No one is completely certain why he first sought out the Shire," Pippin explained. "There was a good deal of debate as to that question in the meetings of Aragorn’s Council, and no one appeared fully capable of saying why the Shire. We know there was a prophetic dream that a number of people had advising folk to seek Rivendell, and it had something about us Hobbits in it." He gave an involuntary glance sideways at Frodo. "But, as for why he was buying leaf--no one understands that, for he never smoked a pipe like Gandalf does, or not that anyone’s ever heard about. Unless he was thinking to use it to make poison. If you soak leaf long enough you can get a poison out of it that kills insects that harm crops. That’s what most folk in Gondor do with it. But if it’s concentrated enough it can weaken or even kill someone who eats or drinks it."
Saradoc Brandybuck snorted. "Maybe he was just trying to make certain there wasn’t any left for Gandalf to smoke--you’ve told us before this Sharkey was jealous of Gandalf somehow."
Frodo sighed as he eyed the Master of Buckland. "You very well could be right, Uncle Sara. However, none of us is in any position to find out for certain, as both Sharkey and Wormtongue are gone now." His shudder was clearly seen throughout the banquet hall. He took a deep breath, then looked again out at the room. "One thing that needs to be remembered is that from this time forward all contracts and written agreements and articles submitted to the Mayor’s office will be thoroughly examined before being accepted, and those found submitting documents intended to give one Hobbit an unacceptable advantage over another will be caught and dealt with. And you can be certain," Frodo added, "that you will be caught. Perhaps not immediately--but you will be caught and investigated. I wouldn’t suggest anyone try such tactics in the future."
"What about Timono?" called someone from the left of the room.
"He remains in his cell in the Lockholes until our investigation is complete. So far we have found eighteen property sales agreements which were presented or originally written by him but presented by others under coercion in which tops of smials were required to be thatched or tops of houses needed either roof trees or resodding. We’ve found eight in which the seller was required to replace items such as shutters or chimney pots, purchasing materials from specific dealers on the far side of the Shire or even Bree and installing them by an impossible date. We’ve found seventeen contracts in which property deeds used as collateral for loans reverted to Lotho’s or Timono’s possession within a matter of a few weeks or a month, the borrower was refused the right to repay the loan for a year and a day, and he must pay an exorbitant monthly rent on his own property in order to retain the right to make that repayment within a year and a day. We’ve found eight situations so far in which owners of mills or inns were threatened with physical violence toward themselves or their families to force them to sell their properties to Lotho before he took possession of Bag End and named himself Chief Shiriff, and sixteen such cases shortly after he named himself Chief Shiriff. We have found four cases where others seeking to purchase inns or mills were threatened to make them back out of their intended purchases and in which case Lotho and Timono came in immediately after the other sales failed to pick up the pieces."
"What tactics did he use on you to purchase Bag End?" asked a Goodbody lawyer.
"He learned I was selling Bag End and came forward with the asking price in cash while those I’d intended to sell it to were still only considering the deal. But he then failed to tell them he’d already purchased the property out from under them and loaned them the money they’d been told I wanted under one of the agreements in which they lost the deed to their home, although the loan agreement was so written that the deed passed to him once he was firm owner of Bag End."
"But you weren’t cheated?"
"Had I not insisted my own personal lawyer write the sales contract and transfer of deed it is likely I would have been cheated. I certainly returned to find my cousins were living in their own hole on sufferance only, and that almost all their possessions had been stolen from them. However, if I’d intentionally offered Bag End to Lotho and Lobelia you can be certain I would have asked a far higher sales price."
"Why did you sell him the holes of Bagshot Row?" asked old Odo.
"I didn’t. Once Lotho was convinced he was the ruler of the Shire and he had his army of ruffians behind him he’d simply given up the pretense of respecting property ownership."
"He’d already given up on that nicety," growled a lawyer whose brother’s inn in Frogmorton had been confiscated within a month of Lotho naming himself the Chief Shiriff.
"At least five of the disappearances of individuals from the Shire have been shown to be directly connected with the transfer of titles for property of some kind--in two cases each a mill or an inn, and in the last case a leaf plantation in the South Farthing."
All looked to one another.
Frodo continued, "In most cases that we can tell Timono was involved as well. Once the investigation is complete you can be certain Timono, Marco Smallburrow, and other conspirators will be held accountable before a tribunal of Hobbits of the Shire, and those found most involved will most likely be sent to receive the King’s Justice before Lord Halladan as Steward, or possibly sent south before the King himself."
Again there was an exchange of looks and comments between those gathered for the conference.
At last when all had fallen silent Frodo asked, "Is there any other business or question any would wish to present to the company?"
The Goodbody lawyer asked, "For those who wish to write contracts and agreements outside the Shire--you say the King will provide teachers to teach the proper statutes to be referenced and wording to be used?"
"According to the last letters I’ve received from the King and his Steward, yes."
"How do we make it known we want such teaching?"
"Everard Took right now is keeping a roster of those few who have indicated they wish such teaching or who wish simply to be allowed to work between the Shire and Bree. Feel free to consult him to have your name added to the list."
Then, after it was plain no others intended to ask anything Frodo nodded. "If that is all, then I thank each and all of you who have attended and declare the meeting over. If you will vacate the banquet hall so that those who have prepared the tea to be offered can ready things within the room, I’m assured that tea will be served within twenty minutes."
The speed with which the room was emptied was marvelous to see.
Frodo sought to leave the room as Tolly and Everard removed the great slate, but Bard and the Thain between them steered him toward Bernigard, who alone remained in the hall. "Hullo, Frodo," he said quietly as he looked up into Frodo’s eyes. "I’ve not seen you in a great long time."
"I know, Uncle Berni, but then many haven’t seen anywhere as much of me as they’ve expected for a great long time it seems, unless they’ve been frequenting the Mayor’s office over the last few months, of course."
"I’m told you won’t accept my offer."
Frodo sighed. "I’m sorry, Uncle Berni--truly sorry. But I can’t."
Bernigard Took examined the Baggins’s face and noted that Frodo was fingering a pendant he wore hung from a finely finished silver chain. "That’s a beautiful pendant, Frodo. Where did you get it?"
Frodo’s smile was pensive. "I was given it by one of the most beautiful women in all of Arda, Uncle Berni."
The old Hobbit smiled. "A love interest at last, Frodo Baggins?"
Frodo dropped his eyes and gave a most gentle shake of his head. "It wasn’t given to signify that kind of interest, for she was already married when she gave it to me. No, not that interest. If you will pardon me, Uncle Berni--I find a headache is threatening to overwhelm me and I want only to go back to the Whitfoot place, drink some willowbark tea, and lie down for a time."
"You’ll miss the tea?"
"Uncle Pal will have to officiate for me, I find. Please forgive me. But know that if you accept young Persivo Bracegirdle you won’t be disappointed."
"A Bracegirdle?" Berni was shaking his head.
"His mother is a Baggins, remember, and he has a good deal of Hornblower and even Boffin and Grubb in his family. He’ll do you proud, Uncle Berni--of that I’m certain. Now, if you will excuse me...." And Frodo decidedly broke away and left the hall, leaving the rest to look after him.