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15
A Formal Dinner

A Formal Dinner


Alvric and Holby accompanied Bartolo and Persivo back to the Prancing Pony to check with any Rangers of Arnor who might be still in residence, reminding both not to discuss Frodo’s title or possible deeds with the others in their party. He took his leave as they passed the common room, and Persivo’s last glimpse of him was of the short Man followed by his dog working his way toward a table in the corner where some exceptionally tall Men appeared to be sitting, Men who rose respectfully as the lawyer approached.

On hearing the family was invited to a formal dinner at the residence of the lawyer among Men, Begonia was ecstatic, then immediately began bemoaning the fact her father hadn’t allowed her to bring her finest frock. At last Bartolo interrupted his daughter’s monologue. “Lass, put it by and be done with it. There’s no question that Master Alvric is indeed of quality, but his landlady is common enough, although a worthy woman from among Men. The frock you’re grieving us all over would be far too fine to wear in her home. It is, after all, a private home we’ll be visiting in, not the King’s hall.

“And what did you learn about your client?” asked Delphinium with interest.

Bartolo’s face closed up, although Delphie thought she sensed a bit of uncertainty. “About that, beloved—I’m afraid as I can’t speak much about the situation, and neither is Persivo to say much. The client has demanded his privacy be respected, and I’ve been required to take the oath of secrecy on his behalf.” There, it was out, his attitude made plain. Delphie was surprised, and she saw that her older son looked rather uncomfortable. He’d not been aware that his father had been sworn to secrecy, obviously.

After dinner Persivo and Petunia went out of doors to a covered patio on the east side of the inn where there were game tables and sets for chess and draughts. At an unspoken communication between brother and sister, Pet began to set up one of the boards for a game of draughts. After they’d made their opening moves she gave her brother a searching look. “Well,” she demanded, “what happened today?”

He shrugged. “Apparently I may not identify Dad’s actual client, although I wish he’d told me earlier. Today we mostly went over three examples of documents for leases of property granted for maintenance.”

“What does that mean?” she asked.

He sighed as he tried to make full sense of what little had been said of the subject. “There are some who are named lords of the realm, apparently usually for some great service they’ve offered; and as they’re named lord they’re granted properties for their maintenance. I’m not completely certain what that means, though, for we didn’t discuss that particularly. One of the documents he showed us was properly written, one was written to cheat the tenant, and one was written to greatly favor the tenant, only the lords who wrote the two last ones didn’t do well by it all. The one who thought to cheat his tenant was apparently murdered, and he was seen as so bad even the other lords didn’t care to find out who did it; and the other was treated awfully by his tenant, who proved to be his own brother. Apparently it’s best when writing such agreements to make the lease payments sufficiently substantial that the tenant feels he is dealing with someone who is indeed worthy of honor and who honors himself appropriately; but not so much you are seen as cheating others.”

“Oh,” Petunia said. Then she asked, “Did you speak any more of Cousin Frodo Baggins?”

Persivo felt frustrated, for it appeared neither he nor his father were supposed to speak even to his sister or mother about Frodo and his business. “Yes, some. He’s well respected out there for whatever he did, but he’s forbidden others to speak of it. He’s apparently afraid for his privacy.”

“Did he know why Glorinlas Gildorion spoke of Cousin Frodo as Lord Frodo?” Persivo shrugged elaborately. Pet pouted. “It’s not fair, not being able to speak of it, even,” she complained.

“Yes,” her brother commented. “Your move.”

“Did you have nice meals?”

“Yes. Mistress Gorse has a Hobbitess who does for her, and Missus Sandybanks is an excellent cook.”

“What is she like—the woman from among Men?”

“Enormously tall, or so it seems—just about as tall as Master Alvric. He’s not so tall as Mr. Butterbur, and is far more slender. His clothing seems odd, but becomes him well enough. She is, I think, rather pretty—she has lovely eyes, Mistress Gorse. She’s unmarried. She lived there with her brother, but he died fighting the ruffians when they tried to come here as they did in the Shire. She apparently has a suitor, but she doesn’t seem to like him, and as we were coming to the house we saw Master Alvric send him away. The Man is very tall and rather broad—built more like a Hobbit than like Master Alvric, but with a big, bushy beard and hair. He was very angry as he went stalking past us.”

“Does he know the new King, Master Alvric?”

“Yes, he appears to. The King showed him a letter sent him by Cousin Frodo, and in it he said that Dad is one of the most honest and honorable of lawyers in the Shire.”

“Did he really?” Petunia asked. Then she paused in thought. “How did Da act when he heard that?”

“It right took him by surprise, it did. I don’t know as Dad noticed, but I think that Master Alvric told him on purpose. I mean, Dad made it rather obvious he doesn’t like Cousin Frodo Baggins very much. It’s odd, you know, thinking that someone like Frodo Baggins likes our dad better than Dad likes him.”

The next day was much like the previous one, although they were now going through the documents Bartolo had brought with him to show the types of agreements and contracts commonly written in the Shire. He described the conference Frodo had called of the lawyers of the Shire, and explained how he was on the committee charged with rewriting the clauses that had been exploited by Lotho Sackville-Baggins and Timono Bracegirdle.

“In this the instruction you’ve been giving my son has been important, for I’ll be keeping much of it in mind to share with the rest when I must meet with them just before the Free Fair at Midsummers. Much of what you and Persivo said at first just went rather over my head, but I’ve been listening as much as I can, for I understand now just why it is that Baggins has insisted it’s necessary such things don’t have the chance to happen again.”

“I understand that this Lotho was your kinsman.”

Bartolo’s face again clouded with anger. “Not that I like admitting to it. Yes, Lobelia was my own aunt, and he was my first cousin. And a totally unpleasant fellow as he was. Ambitious, you see—far too ambitious for a Hobbit. I asked Baggins why he sold Bag End to him—after all, that was part of why old Bilbo adopted him as his heir, to keep Lobelia, Otho, and Lotho out of the place. He said it was because he had to get out of the Shire quick, for he had something he’d thought was a treasure that turned out to be otherwise, and he tried to sell the hole to his older cousins who’d probably have sold it back to him when he came back, only Lotho found out and that was that. Made an offer in cash for what Frodo’d asked of Ponto and Iris, then went on to try to cheat Ponto and Iris out of their place, too, Lotho did. Nasty one, Cousin Lotho, and we’re well rid of him. Benlo, who’s Bracegirdle family head, struck him and Timono both out of the family book, and that was too good for either of them, far as I’m concerned.”

Persivo had gone pale. “He didn’t! Cousin Benlo couldn’t of done such a thing!”

“He right well did, Persivo Bracegirdle—first Yule after the Travelers left the Shire. It was already apparent Lotho’d gone as bad as bad, and Timono with him.”

“I don’t understand,” Alvric began.

“The greatest punishment we can offer is to strike someone from the family book and deprive them of the benefits of family ties. Only thing worse is to run them out of the Shire and banish them, although that usually follows being stricken from the book.” Bartolo’s face was very grim. “And if Lothario doesn’t straighten up he’s likely to follow next. Benlo’s been mighty patient with him and his brother Bigelow, but the two of them will insist on keeping on with their foolishness.”

“And Lotho, in spite of having a different family name, was yet in the family book for the Bracegirdles?”

“For his mother's sake. And the Sackvilles and the Bagginses. He was family head for the Sackvilles, you see, and wanted to be family head of the Bagginses as well. Got that idea from his mum and dad, both of whom thought it would be wonderful to see such a thing. Not that being family head of the Sackvilles was much, as there’s only a couple left of the name at this time. Family’s been getting smaller and smaller for years. Same with the Bagginses. Still some Bagginses here and there, but most are older or were born daughters. Most sons of the Baggins name have been born dead or sickly for the past generation, it seems, and there’s not more than four or five males other than Frodo all over the Shire I’d hazard. Who will follow Frodo as family head if he doesn’t marry and father a child I have no idea. In the usual run of things Ponto, as the oldest Baggins living now, would be next, but he’s been bedridden much this past year, and isn’t up to it, neither Ponto nor his wife Iris.”

Bartolo sighed, took a sip of the small ale Carnation had provided as a drink, then continued his explanation. “Lotho’s grandfather was old Bilbo’s Uncle Longo. He married a Sackville lass, the only child of old Perdo Sackville, as was family head for the Sackvilles. There were three other Sackville males then, but none of them was suitable, Perdo felt, to be family head after him, so he agreed that if Longo were to take Sackville as part of his family name when he married, he’d name Longo next family head for the Sackvilles after him. Well, Longo died before Perdo did, so Perdo named Otho to follow him, Otho having come of age before his gaffer died.

“As next closest relative to Bilbo, Otho Sackville-Baggins was his natural heir, since Bilbo’d never married or fathered a child. But once Otho married my Aunt Lobelia any good feelings Bilbo might have held toward him were lost, for Aunt Lobelia had as poisonous a tongue as anyone could have. So Bilbo decided to adopt an heir instead, and brought Frodo back to Hobbiton as where he’d been born to live with him in Bag End, and properly adopted him. Frodo’s own parents had been close to old Bilbo, after all, and died of an accident when Frodo was just a child. Bilbo, as family head for the Bagginses, had the responsibility for seeing to it as the lad was raised properly; but he let Frodo stay in Brandy Hall with his mum’s family for years before settling on him.

“Aunt Lobelia told it about as Frodo had been quite the rascal as a young one, always in some scrape or another. I don’t know as how true that was, for Frodo wasn’t in much trouble ever there in Hobbiton. Aunt Lobelia, Uncle Otho, and Cousin Lotho all hated him on principle from the moment word came as the lad was coming to stay with Bilbo. But the lad was able to pay back Lobelia in her own coin, and she never truly got the better of him, no matter what she said.

“When he bought Bag End from Frodo, Lotho thought as he’d become family head for the Bagginses, too; but it was Lotho himself as failed to read the sales agreement this time, for Frodo’d written into the contract the headship for the Bagginses went to Ponto next if he died or left the Shire and didn’t return within two years. Lotho was wild with anger, and he targeted all as had been close to Bilbo or Frodo, and Ponto and Iris in especial, along with the Thain, the Master, and Frodo’s tenants in the holes along Bagshot Row, down the Hill from Bag End. Frodo says he didn’t sell those smials to Lotho, but Lotho just sort of took them over anyway and moved the Hobbits as lived there into these ugly brick hovels as he’d had built the other side of Hobbiton. It was right ugly for a time.”

“Lord Frodo wrote his own agreement for the sale of his home to this Lotho?” Alvric asked.

Bartolo’s face twisted into a mixture of disgust and superiority. “Write a sales contract--Frodo Baggins? No--not him--never had time for study of the law until now. No, had his personal lawyer, that Brendilac Brandybuck, write it up, he did.”

The Man was startled. “Lord Frodo has a personal lawyer--someone other than you? Then why--?” He didn’t finish.

The disgust in the Hobbit’s face became more notable. “Oh, now as it’s safe again for Hobbits to travel to Bree and back, we’ll be having more as will wish to be qualified to write contracts between our own folk and those from here in Bree and probably your folks, too, once as all realize there’s an honest profit to be had from it. But as it was--it’s not been safe, what with reports of ruffians and footpads along the road, for many to come out, and most wouldn’t travel out on their own. Last ones as have been qualified to write contracts with folks in Bree have been Timono, Balco Hornblower, and me. With Timono in one of those new Lockhole cells of Frodo’s and Balco on house arrest for changing crop sales agreements to send crops out of the Shire instead of to those as needed them at home in the Shire, Frodo didn’t have much of a choice to write this lease maintenance agreement of his, did he?

“Although I suspect as the Master will be having Brendi and perhaps another lawyer from Buckland as part of the next party to come out to learn from you, and most like the Thain will send out a few of those from the Great Smial, perhaps Isumbard or Tolly. After all, as the Brandybuck and the Took, Saradoc and Paladin have the greatest reason to have their own lawyers trained to write proper contracts out here.

“Brendi is much of an age with Frodo, and apparently when they were lads together in Brandy Hall after Frodo’s parents died they ran in the same gang. They’ve not been the friends Frodo ever was with the Master’s son and the Thain’s, but they’ve always worked well together. And Frodo wouldn’t have agreed to sign any contract Lotho brought him--he trusts Brendi, and with reason. Was taught in the Great Smial by old Bernigard Took himself--Berni’s the head of our Guild of Lawyers, you see. I suppose as Berni’s also qualified to write agreements outside the Shire, but as he’s too old to do much in the way of traveling he’s not written any such contracts for years now. But he’s offered to take my Persivo as an apprentice after Midsummers, and I can’t think of a better teacher for writing contracts and agreements within the Shire.”

Persivo’s eyes began to shine. “You’ll let me go to the Great Smial, then, Dad?”

“Well, your mum hasn’t agreed as yet, but I’m all for it at this point. You deserve the best preparation, you wish to become a lawyer of the Shire. You deserve the best of everything, son.”

Alvric saw the pride reflected in Bartolo Bracegirdle’s eyes as he looked at his son, and realized that the taciturn lawyer loved in his son probably the very qualities he disparaged in Frodo Baggins.

Early that evening the Bracegirdle family walked sedately through Bree to the home of Denra Gorse, Enrico keeping up a running commentary on how bored he expected to be all along the way. “They’ve not even a lass to talk to, much less any lads,” he groused to Persivo. “What kind of dinner is it to be for me? You know Lyssa--she’ll be glad to have any new person listen to her carry on, especially if’n they’ll tell her she looks pretty in her frock and that her ribbons are nice colors, and Gonya’s about the same. And you’ll have both Master Alvric and Petunia to talk to--at least Petunia’s able to carry on a decent conversation. And Mum and Da will be talking to Master Alvric and Mistress Gorse and all--but for me? I’ll just be left out, again.”

“Didn’t the lads we saw let you play at roopie?” Persivo asked.

“They did yesterday ’cause they were a player short; but their pal was back again today and all I got to do was sit on a stoop and watch them. None of them was wanting to play at conkers or nothing like that.”

“I’m sorry, Ricki,” his brother told him. “I’ll do my best to remember to talk with you, too. Is that all right?”

Ricki nodded, but it was plain he was resigning himself (with a level of resentment) to an evening of boredom.

Mistress Gorse met them at the door, obviously somewhat nonplussed. “Oh, so here you are at last. Welcome, welcome. Master Alvric’s there in the first parlor with Master Eregiel, who’s here to represent the King’s Men. Oh, but I never dreamed….” She was shaking her head as she accepted the wraps of her guests and ushered them into the first parlor, then went back to hang the cloaks and shawls on the pegs in the entrance hall.

The room was set for a combination of Hobbits and Big Folk, they realized, for there was a low sofa and a number of low chairs and cushions of a proper height to accommodate Hobbits or children from among Men, as well as a taller sofa and three chairs intended to be used by adult Big Folk.

Master Alvric and the other Man who were already there rose courteously at the arrival of the Hobbits, as did the gentlehobbit and lad already in the room. “Ah, Master Bartolo and Persivo--greetings,” Alvric said. “And this is the rest of your family? Wonderful. I’d like to introduce Mr. Helko Sandybanks, who is husband to Mistress Carnation, and their son Bedlo. It was thought that Enrico would enjoy the evening better if he had someone near his age with whom to speak and possibly play during the evening. And this is Eregiel son of Miringlor of the Dúnedain of Arnor to represent the King’s folk here within the northern kingdom.”

Bartolo and Persivo bowed politely at the introductions, followed (after a pointed nudge from Pet) by Enrico, after which the Shire lawyer introduced his family and offered their services to the company.

Eregiel son of Miringlor was quite the tallest individual any of them had ever seen. He was tall with hair nearly black in color, falling cleanly to just above his shoulders. His eyes were a clear, discerning grey; his cheekbones high, his body well muscled. Unlike many of the Men they’d met so far he was beardless, and the skin of his face was as smooth as that of any Hobbit they’d ever met. He was dressed in dark riding trousers and a shirt of a dark blue under a sleeveless knit garment of dark green embroidered in white with an eight-pointed star. But what caught their attention was the fact he was armed, the black leather sheath for a long knife thrust behind his belt. By his chair lay a great hound of a red-gold color, and beside him Holby, who had obviously given over his own suspicions of the bigger dog. A cat lay across the back of the larger sofa, lifting her head to examine the newcomers before returning her attention to the two dogs, her paws working at the fabric of the sofa's cushions.

“Mistress Carnation is in the kitchen, finishing up the meal, and has been refusing all aid other than that of her daughter Freesia, who is with her now,” Alvric informed them as Denra joined them. “Dinner should be served shortly.”

“Thank you,” Delphinium answered him as gracefully as she could manage. “I understand you came all the way from the King’s city?”

“Yes--our Lord King Aragorn Elessar sent me here to assist in the review of the laws of Arnor as is being done to the south in Gondor, and to serve the needs of the people of the Breelands and the Shire at the request of our beloved Lord Frodo.”

Delphie exchanged a startled glance with her husband. “My cousin Frodo is loved, there in Gondor?”

“All four of those who came out of your land to the succor of all of Middle Earth are deeply honored by those who know how we have benefited by what they did. I regret to tell you that Lord Frodo has requested--strongly--that I not give you the specifics of what he did or why, for I believe it brings back memories of such darkness that he would rather not inflict them upon the folk of the Shire. I can tell you that what he and Lord Samwise accomplished could have been done by no others, and served to bring down the power of Sauron of Mordor, while Captain Peregrin and Sir Meriadoc each saved countless lives with little thought to their own safety. Their deeds will live on in song and story throughout Middle Earth for all times.”

“Except,” noted Delphie with a good deal of irony discernible in her voice, “within the Shire itself, where they actually live.”

“Then you are a kinswoman to Master Frodo?” asked the other Man, Eregiel son of Miringlor.

“Yes, we are third cousins. My grandfather Bingo was younger brother to Bungo Baggins, who married Belladonna Took, dug out Bag End, and was father to old Bilbo. Granda Bingo married Camellia Chubbs and took on her family name, making his children Chubbs-Bagginses, but my dad Fando didn’t like the hyphenated name the way his older brother Falco did, so reverted to just Baggins. So, I’m first cousin once removed to Bilbo and third cousin to Frodo on the Baggins side, and more distantly related on the Chubbs side, while Bartolo is a cousin by marriage through his Aunt Lobelia to Bilbo and more distantly related to Frodo via the Hornblowers.”

Eregiel looked rather confused by this information, and Delphie could see the lawyer had noted it and was amused. She decided she rather liked Master Alvric, and her awe of the other Man was ebbing somewhat. She examined him closely. “You are one of the King’s kinsmen, I believe?”

“Yes--I am one of his distant--cousins. He and my father both entered the service of the Rangers at the same time under Lord Berenion, and Ada was one of his lieutenants serving along the border of Angmar. My grandfather served under his father Arathorn, and was present when Lord Arathorn died.”

Enrico was examining the Man curiously. “Do you always have a knife with you?”

Eregiel shrugged. “All of us tend to go armed at almost all times. I rarely put my knife from me, I’ll admit. It is difficult for one raised to be a warrior, living so close to enemies such as orcs, trolls, and wargs or invaders from Angmar all my life, to think that times of safety will remain so long enough not to have a weapon at hand. And it is my duty, as one of the Rangers of the Dúnedain of Eriador, to be ready to protect others at any time.”

Bedlo’s ears perked up. “Are you really a Ranger?” he asked. At the Man’s nod, he said, “I thought that all Rangers had beards.”

Eregiel laughed. “I am still rather young, being only twenty-two. Most Men begin growing beards around the time they are sixteen, but that isn’t always true of many of our people. Aragorn’s beard didn’t start growing until he was about twenty-six, he told me a few years ago, and it grows very slowly. He shaved not long before he met the Hobbits in early October, he told me in his last letter, and his beard wasn’t fully grown back in until he was crowned King in May. He tells me things like that to reassure me that in time my beard will probably come in, too. Although there are some Dúnedain who never grow beards. Maybe it’s because we have Elven blood--most Elves never grow beards, either. In fact the only Elf I know of who has a beard is Lord Círdan of the Grey Havens.”

“But, if you’re only twenty-two----” Begonia began. “You’re almost the same age as me, and there’s no way I'm an adult.”

The Man again shrugged. “Men mature more swiftly than Hobbits do,” he explained. “We tend to reach our full growth by eighteen at the latest, and are judged adults among our own folk when we are twenty, although from what Aragorn tells me the age of majority differs by a year or two in different lands, usually between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one, apparently. Most Men will marry between the ages of sixteen and thirty; among the Dúnedain of Eriador we usually wait until we are between forty and sixty, as we tend to live longer than common Men. Although Lady Gilraen, the mother of our Lord Aragorn, was in her twenties when she married Lord Arathorn. Most Men will live nowhere as long as you Hobbits might be expected to live, although we of the Dúnedain tend to live longer than even Hobbits do. Again--it’s the Elven blood we carry.”

“Have you ever killed any enemies?” Enrico asked.

“Yes,” Eregiel answered him, his face more solemn. “I found myself involved in my first battle when I was eleven. A troupe from Angmar located our village and sought to kill us all, and I found myself on the walls with a bow. I believe I killed at least four of those who were attacking us. Killing enemies isn’t something to be particularly proud of, I think; it’s just something that must be done from time to time to protect others.”

Enrico and Bedlo were exchanging glances. The idea that a warrior wouldn’t be particularly proud just of being a warrior was something new to consider. Petunia asked, “How long have you known the King?”

“All my life,” Eregiel answered. “In fact, he was there when I was born. My naneth lost her first two children, so my father insisted that Aragorn attend for the third birthing, hoping I would be born safely.”

Denra Gorse appeared scandalized. “Your father would have a Man attend a birthing?”

“Aragorn is probably the greatest healer among Men living in Middle Earth today,” Eregiel explained. “When a woman keeps experiencing difficulties in carrying children to term or in giving birth, often having a healer present who truly knows how to assist can assure the child will be born safely. Lord Elrond began training Aragorn as a healer from his earliest years, after all.”

“It was due to the aid our Lord Aragorn was able to give to those hurt near to the death in the Battle of the Pelennor that led to his recognition as the rightful King of Gondor,” Alvric added. “He was called by Mithrandir to attend on our beloved Lord Faramir, and he was able to call Faramir back from the Gates themselves, or so it is told. He then went on to call the Lady Éowyn of Rohan back to herself--she had nearly succumbed to the Black Breath; then Sir Meriadoc, and then many others. Once this became known within the capital of Minas Tirith all began to acclaim him as our King.”

“Sir Meriadoc? Do you mean Merry Brandybuck?” Persivo asked. “He was hurt in this battle?”

Alvric and Eregiel exchanged looks before Alvric turned to the Hobbit and explained, “Know this, Persivo--all four of the Pheriannath who came south to our need nearly died as a result of their determination to aid as they could. Our Lord Aragorn Elessar drew all four of them back from the Gates of Death. Sir Meriadoc came to the Battle of the Pelennor riding before the Lady Éowyn, who disguised herself as a Rider of her people that she might follow her uncle and brother to the defense of the West against the might of Mordor. Captain Peregrin was inside the city, where he’d taken service under our Lord Steward Denethor. Both acquitted themselves far better than anyone had expected.”

“And my cousin Frodo Baggins?” demanded Delphinium. “How about him and Sam Gamgee? What did they do?”

“As I stated, Mistress Bracegirdle,” Alvric said carefully, “Lord Frodo has specifically requested his part in the affair not be discussed or revealed. But you can be assured their role in bringing down Sauron is the most greatly honored, for they showed the greatest willingness to do all that was necessary to see their service rendered. I do not believe either thought he would return home again, alive or dead.”

At that moment a Hobbit lass came out of the kitchens. “Mistress Denra,” she said deferentially, “Mum says that the supper is on the table.”

With an obvious feeling of relief, Denra rose from her chair and led the way into the dining room. Two tables had been pushed together, one designed for Hobbits and a taller yet smaller one for Men, set at the moment for three individuals. Denra took the chair at the far end of the taller table, with one of the Men at either side; the rest took their places on either side of the lower one, with Carnation taking the end. All stood uncertainly, watching Master Alvric. He looked rather embarrassed as he explained, “I hope you don’t mind if I indulge in the Standing Silence--it is commonly practiced in Gondor. It will only take a moment….” So saying he turned toward the west, followed by Eregiel, and stood quietly before turning back to the rest, murmuring, “Thank you,” as he pulled out his chair, then paused as he eyed Denra for permission before all of them sat down.

Bartolo had noted this practice over the last two days as Alvric had joined them for luncheon. “What is this Standing Silence?” he asked. Alvric explained the practice of showing honor to the inhabitants of the Undying Lands and beyond, and Persivo nodded his head.

“So, probably the Captains began practicing the Standing Silence while they were down south, then?”

“Well, I saw the Pheriannath mostly only at feasts, where our Lord King Elessar himself always led the Standing Silence, and of course they observed it with the rest of us. Do they still do so?”

“They and Cousin Frodo did so at the banquet for the lawyers of the Shire, didn’t they, Dad?” Persivo asked, turning to his father.

At Bartolo’s nod, Delphie looked up at Eregiel as she shook out her napkin and set it in her lap. “And you observe it, also, Captain Eregiel?”

“I’m a mere Ranger, Mistress Bracegirdle, and no captain at this time. Yes, I tend to observe it--Aragorn introduced its observance after his earlier service in Gondor, and many of the northern Dúnedain practice it.”

“Earlier service in Gondor? Our Lord Aragorn served in Gondor earlier in his life?” asked Alvric, obviously surprised to learn this.

As Carnation and Denra began the service of the meal from opposite ends of the tables, the Hobbitess gave Alvric a look of disapproval at this discussion, feeling it inappropriate at the beginning of the meal. As Denra didn’t interfere, however, she felt herself constrained from expressing her feelings in any more forceful manner. Alvric failed to notice.

Eregiel spread his own napkin neatly as he answered, “Yes, long ago, a few years after he returned to us. He appears to have foreseen it would be advisable to learn more about both Rohan and Gondor, for he indicated to his Council here in Eriador he intended to serve in both lands, and then perhaps to visit the lands of our enemies as well. He traveled first to Rohan and took service under their king at the time, Thengel, grandfather to their current king Éomer. He served under Thengel for some years, coming in time to lead an eored or armed company, before deciding the time had come to go to Gondor where he offered his service to Lord Ecthelion, who was then Steward of the realm.”

“I was unaware of any northern lord coming to Gondor,” Alvric said as he sipped absently at his soup. He paused, his spoon stopping halfway to his mouth. “Unless….”

Eregiel smiled with amusement as he swallowed some of his own soup. “Of course, he did not identify himself plainly, serving under an assumed name. I understand that both Thengel King and Lord Ecthelion held him in great respect, although he became somewhat estranged from Lord Ecthelion’s son.”

Alvric straightened, his spoon clattering as he returned it to his bowl. “Our Lord Aragorn was the Lord Captain Thorongil?” he asked. At the other Man’s nod, he laughed with delight. “How rich!” he exclaimed. “It is no wonder, then, that he was somewhat familiar with our laws and statutes, as well as with the archives of the city. Why, as a member of Ecthelion’s Council he helped to draft some of our laws.” He shook his head. “It is probably as well, though, that Lord Denethor died when he did, for I do not believe he would have welcomed the return of the one he thought of for so long as his rival. I wonder how our beloved Captain Boromir got along with him? Certainly Prince Faramir and he have become close friends and associates, as is true of his ability to cooperate with Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth.”

“Lord Faramir has become a prince of Gondor?”

“Oh, yes--during the first week or two of his reign our Lord King raised our new Steward to the rank of Prince of Ithilien, and so Faramir remains a peer to his uncle.”

“He will not seek to dwell in Minas Morgul, will he?”

Alvric shuddered. “Indeed not. Too long have the Enemy’s creatures dwelt there--our Lord King has indicated the place will be torn down, stone by stone. Nay, Prince Faramir builds his new keep in Emyn Arnen, or so it is rumored about the White City.”

Eregiel sighed as he looked down into his bowl. “Alas, that the city of Isildur should have come to such a state.”

Helko Sandybanks looked up at the two of them. “You sayin’ as there was an Isildur?”

Bartolo looked at the two Men out of the corner of his eye, then looked across at Carnation’s husband. “From what I can tell, many of the old stories we have heard all our lives really happened.”

Eregiel raised an eyebrow. “Indeed. Aragorn was the heir of Elendil, Isildur, Valandil, and Arvedui. After his father’s death, Aragorn was fostered in the House of Lord Elrond of Rivendell for eighteen years, until he came of age when he turned twenty years. He is the Dúnedan, the Man of the West, and now at last King of both Gondor and Arnor. And so Middle Earth is renewed as the King reunites the ancient kingdom, taking to wife the daughter of his ancestor Elros Tar-Minyatur’s brother, Arwen Undómiel.”

Helko and Bartolo exchanged unbelieving looks before the former demanded, “And how is it as he can marry ’is ancestor’s brother’s daughter? I mean--this brother’s dead, i’nt he? Bein’ an ancestor, after all.”

“Elros Tar-Minyatur was one of the twin sons of Eärendil the Mariner and the Lady Elwing, both of whom were descended from marriages between Men and Elves. To the sons of Eärendil was granted the choice of the Peredhil, to choose the life each would lead, either as a Man or in accordance with the life of the Eldar, and Lord Elrond chose the latter while his twin brother chose the former. It is over six thousand years since Elros Tar-Minyatur became the first king of Númenor, and his brother has lingered in Middle Earth all of this time. And now the Lady Arwen has made her own choice, and will linger here in Middle Earth with her mortal husband to know a mortal’s life, and a mortal’s death also when that is granted to her.”

Carnation’s face was totally disbelieving. “But Elves--they’s just stories!”

“I’m sorry, but they’re not,” Petunia said. “We met an Elf on our way from the Shire to Bree--Glorinlas Gildorion, and he knew all about our Cousin Frodo Baggins.”

Eregiel smiled with pleasure. “You have met Lord Gildor’s son? A great leader of his people he will prove for what time he chooses to remain here in Middle Earth. I doubt his father will linger much longer, for it was his vow to remain until Sauron was cast down, and that is now accomplished. I suspect he will sail for the Undying Lands soon enough.”

“He had a bow and a long knife like yours, only curved,” Enrico informed him.

“I was sixteen the one time I met him,” Eregiel said. “He allowed me to try his bow. I was not strong enough then to properly bend it.”

Carnation gave the Bracegirdle children a politely dismissive look, and rose to fetch the next course. Freesia started to rise, too, but Petunia smiled at the younger lass and said, “I’ll go with her. I’m older and can carry more. I’ll be glad to assist your mum.” Uncertain, the younger child cast a questioning glance at her mother, who gave a shrug. It was a courteous offer, after all. Freesia sat back down by Alyssa, and Petunia followed Carnation into the kitchen.

As Carnation, with a sniff, carefully lifted the fowl onto platters and gave two of them to Petunia, Petunia said apologetically, “I’m sorry to have contradicted you, Missus Sandybanks. I realize as I ought not to have done so, and especially not in front of your children and guests. But we did meet an Elf on the way here--he insisted on accompanying us, for he said as four ruffians had been taken by the Rangers hereabouts and he didn’t wish for us to be in any danger. And he said it was little enough as he could do seeing as what our cousin Frodo Baggins and the other Travelers had done for all of Middle Earth.”

“Frodo Baggins--he’s the one what’s a Lord o’ the realm now, as Master Alvric tell it?” Carnation asked, pausing in her work of taking a fourth fowl and placing it on a separate platter.

“Apparently so,” Petunia said, “although we don’t know as why he’s that.”

“Did something’ terrible dangerous, I think,” Carnation said in low tones with a cautious look at the doorway to make certain no one overheard. “Somethin’ as only a Hobbit could do, it ’pears.”

Petunia looked over her shoulder, her own fair brow furrowed in thought. She looked back at Carnation. “But what is it as a Hobbit can do as a Man or an Elf or such like can’t?” she wondered. Carnation shrugged, then shooed her off with her platters, coming quickly after with a couple large bowls of mashed taters and one of beans cooked with bacon and mushrooms.

Talk had now shifted to safer, more mundane subjects--the excellent quality of the meal, Persivo and Bartolo’s lessons with Master Alvric, the Bracegirdles’ impressions of Bree, and in time how the Time of Troubles had affected the Shire. Bartolo described the realization that their lives were no longer their own and how the ruffians had seemed to be everywhere, and then the additional realization that they and Benlo, of all the Bracegirdles, were being particularly targeted because they’d stated publicly that Lotho had no right to do what he’d been doing. Delphie recounted the theft of the family jewelry, Timono’s pretense at commisseration, and how in the end her promise necklace had been found with him in a drying shed on a leaf plantation. Enrico told how he and other lads had hidden themselves to watch out for the coming of the Gatherers and Sharers and would warn the villagers when it was time to send their valuables and prettier lasses to the bolt holes.

“We hid the door to our root cellar,” Lyssa explained proudly. “Dad and Persivo and me, we did it, and they couldn’t find it and take all our food.”

“And as soon as Lords Frodo and Samwise and the others returned, it was over, like that?” asked Alvric.

“Apparently,” Bartolo admitted grudgingly. “Although Baggins doesn’t appear to have done much--was insisting they not kill the ill-begotten wretches.”

Alyssa was impressed, and looked at her mother. “What does ‘ill-begotten wretches’ mean, Mum?”

“Shh!” Delphie told her youngest daughter, her face flaming.

Eregiel, however, was nodding with approval. “Indeed a wise one, Master Frodo,” he murmured. “He doesn’t wish for your people to learn to let loose a desire for vengeance, which is all too easy to do and can lead to its own horrors. Aragorn had written me that Frodo was a worthy one, and I see he is correct. How does he do assisting the rulers of your land?”

Bartolo was taken aback. “Don’t know about rulers--he’s serving as deputy Mayor, and is doing a fine job of that, from what all can tell. Never was interested in learning about law or such like, but he’s proven a deft hand at recognizing when someone’s written a contract to take advantage of another.”

“He’s had no training in law? What has been the focus of his interests, then?”

“Elvish. He studies Elvish and history and poetry, and he translates things, and copies books and papers for folks. Never has needed to do anything useful, of course--too much money and not enough drive.”

Eregiel’s lip twitched. “It sounds, then, as if he’s had much the same education as our Lord King, for he, too, was trained in the histories and languages of Middle Earth, as well as diplomacy, poetry, music, and the use of weapons as well as the policies and creatures of the Enemy.”

Bartolo’s face paled, then flushed some. Eregiel continued, “Who was it, then, who led the revolt against the Big Men?”

“The Captains, as we call them--Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took. And Sam Gamgee got the Quick Post up and running smoothly again, and has helped in fixing up all as the Men and Lotho and that Sharkey did to ruin our land. Has been replanting trees and fields and gardens, redigging smials and rebuilding homes and businesses and all. He just married a few weeks back.”

“So Halladan told me. He sent some blankets my naneth and his own wife wove to them as a wedding present. He thinks highly of all four of them, of course; and he’s enjoyed Master Bilbo for years during his infrequent visits to Imladris, of course.”

“Who is this Halladan?” asked Helko.

“He is our Lord Aragorn’s first cousin, and is now the Steward of the northern kingdom since his brother Halbarad’s death in the Battle of the Pelennor.”

“Then if we have anything as we needs to bring to the attention o’ the King----”

Eregiel finished, “You need to bring it to our Lord Steward Halladan’s attention.”

“Where does we find ’im?” asked Helko.

“His rounds at the moment bring him here to Bree every couple months. You know him as Slowtalk.”

Helko, Denra, and Carnation exchanged startled looks. “Slowtalk?” asked Helko in shocked tones. “Slowtalk is this Lord Halladan? But he’s a Ranger!” It was obvious that it had taken this long for the realization to finally hit home as to the nature of the Rangers he'd known of all his life.

“As am I,” Eregiel pointed out reasonably. “That’s what the Rangers are, you must realize--the remnants of the King’s protective forces here in the Northern Lands. And it is likely, as you know Halladan, you knew our Lord King Aragorn Elessar as well, for he, too was a Ranger who often patrolled the lands surrounding the Breelands and the Shire. He was known here as Strider.”

Helko stood up, his face gone pale. “No!” he insisted.

Alvric gave Carnation’s husband a compassionate look. “I’m sorry, but it appears it is true. After all, we have Rangers in Gondor as well, serving mostly in the waste places between our lands and the lands of our traditional enemies. Even our beloved Lord Prince Steward Faramir served among the Rangers of Ithilien--indeed, he was their captain.”

“As here in Eriador my cousin Aragorn son of Arathorn, now Aragorn Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar, served as chieftain of the northern Dúnedain peoples and captain general of our Rangers,” Eregiel explained. “Do sit down, small master, and be at ease.”

“You’re really a Ranger?” Helko repeated as he at last sat once more. “But Ranger’s in’t nothin’ but vagabonds….”

Eregiel sighed. “So we’ve been seen by many not of our own people,” he admitted. “However I assure you we are in truth highly respectable.”

“But that Strider--he went off with them Hobbits from the Shire, and never come back again!”

“Although they did return with Mithrandir, and went on, back to the Shire to its relief,” Alvric pointed out. “After all it is because of Lord Frodo I was sent here by our Lord King Aragorn Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar--and, by the way, Telcontar in Westron means far-strider.”

Denra Gorse suddenly began laughing with abandon. At last she choked out, “How very funny--the very folk as we here in Bree has always thought to be wanderers and dangerous is the King’s own folks! And Strider--the most dangerous o’ the lot--he’s the King?”

“Indeed!” Eregiel replied, his own eyes alight with amusement. “The Heir of Isildur has at last reunited the two realms, and brings full dignity back to both.”

The rest of the meal progressed with a good deal of quiet amongst the adults, although Begonia, Alyssa, and Freesia were soon discussing their favorite shops and walks about the region, while Bedlo and Ricki eyed one another. At last Bedlo said, “My friend Odo says as yer a fair roopie player.”

Ricki straightened, surprised. “He did? Then why didn’t he ask me to play today?”

The Sandybanks lad shrugged. “Suppose as it’s ’cause I come back today from the visit me da ’n me made to Coombe. I always play with the lads, after all. He says yer better’n Trask, though. He’s headin’ off to Staddle, though, t’see ’s aunt. Leavin’ tomorrow, he is. Want to play with us then?”

Alvric watched Bartolo’s younger son with satisfaction as the child’s eyes became alive with pleasure at the thought of being included.

The dinner was finally proving a success, apparently, with Helko surprised to find himself talking of farming with Eregiel. “Oh, yes,” Eregiel admitted, “most of us who are of the northern Dúnedain are fair farmers--we’ve had to be, you see, for we’ve needed to support ourselves. My ada would come home from a campaign against orcs along our eastern borders, and would often take over the guiding of the plough from his uncle. Said he preferred ploughing to fighting any day. And we’ve always bred excellent horses and hounds on the lands we administer.” He glanced over his shoulder at his own hound, who’d come to the door of the chamber and laid himself across the entrance, watching his master with interest.

“How about that Strider?” asked Helko.

The young Man laughed. “Ah, Aragorn was never given much to farming himself, but he is a gardener of note, believe it or not. Because a true healer must be aware of herbs as much as the manner of easing stomachs or stitching wounds, he was tasked with assisting in the gardens of Rivendell from his earliest years, often working alongside Lord Elrond himself.”

Alvric found himself grinning. “Indeed--he’s had an herb garden created behind the Citadel of Minas Tirith, and he and his bride work it between them whenever they find themselves with the time at hand. I am told also that the two between them involve their ministers and counselors and even at times guests in the caring for it, and often judge the nature of the Men by their willingness to dirty their hands with honest labor.”

“That’s my kinsman Aragorn indeed,” chortled Eregiel. “Yes, he’d do that in a heartbeat, perverse soul he is.”

“He and Lord Samwise often worked on it together during the stay of the Pheriannath in the city,” Alvric continued, “and Lord Frodo often worked beside them. There were many tales told, and much amazement to find our new Lord is one who does not put himself above such pursuits. As for Lord Samwise--he was ever finding plots of land to tend whenever he found time on his hands, and together with the King assisted in the refurbishment of the herb garden for the Houses of Healing. It quite put the Master Herbalist of the Houses out of countenance, for he had ever held himself aloof from the labor necessary to keep them growing.”

Eregiel laughed aloud. “Oh, Aragorn told us stories of when he served as Thorongil and his encounters with the Herb Master’s assistant at the time. I can see him turning the whole of the Houses upside down with his insistence on cleanliness above all other considerations, with gentleness insisted upon with those who must dwell there for a time. And the Valar aid any who fails to prepare a draught as directed when he is there--I thought once I’d never survive to face the enemy in a few days when I was aiding him in treating one of our Men who’d been swept from his steed when it swerved under a low limb, and who’d suffered a bump to his head and a sprained knee. I did such a botch at the preparation of the poultice Aragorn had set me to make. He made his displeasure at my incompetence most obvious.”

Alvric considered as he finished the compote presented as a pudding. “He himself works hard to see to it he is ready to serve those he protects as well as possible, whether it is in practicing with his weapons or making certain the herbs he uses when he aids in the Houses are fresh and of the highest quality or studying the laws of the realm. I was amazed to learn he is as fluent in Haradri and Rhunic as he is with Westron and Sindarin.”

“I’m not certain how many languages he speaks,” Eregiel agreed, “but it is definitely beyond the norm. He is also fluent in Quenya and more than one of the Silvan tongues, and some of the languages of the folks east of the Misty Mountains as well. He indicated in the letter he sent me he found Bilbo and Frodo Baggins both kindred spirits, with their shared love of languages and poetry and music. He speaks also of Master Frodo’s skill and extraordinary grace in dancing, and how he danced at the wedding feast for himself and the Lady Arwen. Although he also expressed grief, for he saw that perhaps Master Frodo might not agree to ever dance again, for he has not the endurance he once had.”

“He’s not danced at the Free Fair for many years,” Bartolo commented.

“And Daisy noted he didn’t even dance at Sam’s wedding, although he’s danced at other parties even when he was no longer being invited to dance at the Free Fair,” Delphinium noted. “He was always one of the best in the whole of the Shire.”

“Why’d they stopped askin’ ’im to dance at the Free Fair?” Carnation asked.

Delphie colored slightly. “Had to do with some of the lasses,” she admitted, then added hurriedly, noting the housekeeper’s expression, “Oh, he was never less than proper with them, not Cousin Frodo. But every time he’d dance more and more lasses would just be swept away--he is, after all, an extraordinarily handsome gentlehobbit; and when he dances it lifts your heart so. But once old Bilbo left the Shire it was as if he just didn’t notice lasses any more; and many of the lasses’ mothers were wanting to protect their daughter’s from having their hearts hurt when he wouldn’t look at them after.”

Helko listened, amazed. “Not interested in lads, was he?”

Delphinium’s face flushed markedly, and Bartolo felt himself compelled to set the Bree Hobbit straight. “No, he’s never been that sort. Never been any impropriety in his life--not since he come of age, not Frodo Baggins. Was head over heels in love with Pearl Took when he was younger. She fell in love with him after seeing him dance at the Free Fair, first time as he danced the Husbandman’s Dance there, and set her cap for him, she did. Took a couple years to wear him down and get his interest in return, but once he give his heart he did it thoroughly--always has done all as he’s done thoroughly, Baggins has--it’s his way. Then Aunt Lobelia managed to have at Pearl during a trip by her family to visit in Hobbiton, and that did it for their romance. She threw him over, and ended up accepting the suit of a Took cousin--married Isumbard and that was that. Frodo never looked at another lass.”

“He was looking back at Narcissa during the Party,” Delphinium corrected him. “Was finally seeing she’s loved him as long as Pearl has--but after that--well, that appears to have been the end of romance for him.”

He shrugged, his face dour. “He was a strange one, but our children have always been safe enough with him,” he murmured as he picked up his water goblet. He drank from it, and said no more after he set it down.

The younger children went off to play and Delphie insisted on aiding Denra and Carnation clean up after the meal; Begonia went out to watch Enrico, Alyssa, and the two Sandybanks children; and once Pet indicated she’d assist the ladies and began clearing away the table the menfolk retired to Alvric’s parlor. Eregiel had brought a map of Eriador with him, and now they examined it together as he explained where the various lands that had been mentioned were in relationship to the Shire and the Breelands.

Helko was impressed. “Didn’t realize as how large the Shire is,” he commented. “Much bigger’n the Breelands, it is.”

“Yes,” Eregiel confirmed. “And it’s a lovely and fertile land, much as the Breelands are as well. Now that the King’s peace will be known throughout Middle Earth we’ll be looking increasingly at trade, which is another reason we are glad your lawyers are eager to accept Master Alvric’s instruction. Aragorn looks to see fruits such as the orange fruits, lemons, limes, citrons, and grapefruits sent to the Shire from such places as Dol Amroth, and in return would love to see more potatoes and pipeweed shipped south to Gondor. And all look to improving their horse herds by adding stock from Rohan. Plus he’d love to have more fine woolens available in Gondor, and indicates he feels the best he’s ever seen come from this region.”

He produced a second map, one of most of Middle Earth this time. “Now,” he said, “this shows how all our lands join on one another….”

An hour later all met again in the dining room for tea, juice, and rolls and fruit to soothe the stomach before all returned to their quarters for the night. Bartolo noted that his wife was now completely comfortable with both Denra Gorse and Carnation Sandybanks. Delphie smiled at their hostess. “I thank you for such an interesting and pleasant evening,” she said. “I’m sorry we must leave as soon as we must; but I’ll ever be grateful to Cousin Frodo for affording this chance to learn more about Bree and the chance to meet you all.”

Bartolo looked about the room before adding (with a bit more reserve), “Yes, I feel as we’re learning a good deal now. Thank you both, Master Alvric and Mistress Denra, and of course you, also, Missus Carnation. You’re certainly among the finest cooks I’ve met.” He was surprised to see how the Bree Hobbitess’s face glowed at the compliment.

Soon they were leaving. Alvric waved away Carnation’s offer to stay long enough to help with the final clearing away. “It’s little enough--I can assist Mistress Denra. And it was a wonderful, delightful meal, after all. But you’re not usually away from your family during the evenings, and you’ve been working hard all day, for which I can never thank you enough. Now, off with you and enjoy your husband’s company.”

Eregiel accompanied the Bracegirdles back to the Prancing Pony, agreeably answering Enrico and Lyssa’s questions as they walked, although it was obvious he was keeping a portion of his awareness on the streets and homes about them. At last Persivo asked, “What are you watching for?”

The young Man sighed. “As I told you, I’m a Ranger of Eriador. I’ve been trained to watch for enemies everywhere, and I’m on watch right now. The worst ambush I ever experienced occurred on the edge of one of our own fields, you see.”

It was a sobering thought to take with them as they turned into the Pony’s doors and sought their rooms in the north wing.

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