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4
Acceptance

Acceptance


Sam left the study to take the two mugs back to the kitchen, followed by the Thain, who stopped briefly at the door to the dining room to suggest Pippin and Merry join Saradoc Brandybuck and Frodo in the study before heading for the privy. He found Rosie in the kitchen, being assisted by Narcissa in preparing late supper.

Rosie was preparing the plate for Master Frodo separately from those for the others who would be present for the meal. “So little?” Narcissa asked as Rosie set a few pieces of celery and carrot, apple and pear, on it with a sprig of cress and a slice of pickled cucumber.

“He can’t eat a good deal more, Miss Narcissa,” Rosie explained. “He’ll have a small bit of the meat and hot vegetables and taters, and perhaps a half a roll; but he’ll be hard pressed to eat it all, and will take a good deal longer at it than we will. It’s the way as things of been since the four of them come back, and it’s likely to be even harder for him with all these here.”

“Perhaps Mum and I ought not to have come,” Narcissa said softly. “I mean I don’t wish to cause him ill. But what he said when I saw him in Michel Delving--it sounded as if he--as if he was expecting his health to go swiftly, and in the end Mum and I felt we ought to come in spite of himself. He truly went to see old Bilbo for their birthday?”

Brendilac Brandybuck, Frodo’s more distant cousin from Buckland, a friend and companion from their younger days together in Brandy Hall, and his personal lawyer for several years, entered with a tray filled with mugs and small cake plates used earlier by those who’d remained in the dining room as Sam took the larger kettle off the hob and began to fill the dishpan.

“Yes, so him and my Sam both say,” Rosie said. “Apparently many of the great Elves are sailin’ now to the Undying Lands, and old Mr. Bilbo’s goin’ with them. And they would of took Master Frodo if’n he’d wished to go with them, but he chose to stay here instead.” Rosie’s face was sad and a bit drawn. “You certain as your mum don’t mind watchin’ my Elanor?”

“Oh, she’s enchanted. She always wanted more, you see; but apparently she was meant only to have me and no other children. And Elanor is so truly such a lovely bairn, and so sweet tempered. She already has both Mum and Cousin Eglantine enthralled, and the Mistress equally so, I think. At least she’s proving a--a distraction.”

“Oh, she and Master Frodo--the two of them love one another dear, they do. What she’ll do when he’s gone and don’t come out of his room to give her his Elvish greeting I couldn’t begin to say.” She eyed her husband from beneath her eyelashes. “As for Sam ’n’ me--well, it will be right hard, it will.”

Narcissa, a great, great, great granddaughter of the Old Took on her father’s mother’s side, nodded, her mouth slightly twisted as she checked to see whether or not the peas were ready to serve. “I don’t know what to think. He told me his stomach had become somewhat delicate, sometime about a year and a half back, that first spring after they returned. And there have been some times when he’d walk into Bywater or Hobbiton in the past few months when it’s been obvious he wasn’t really well. But to accept....”

A few tears squeezed out in spite of her attempt to keep herself under control; she wiped at her eyes in obvious consternation and embarrassment. “I’m sorry,” Narcissa said at last. “I promised myself I wouldn’t behave this way, you know.” Her voice dropped to a near-whisper. “But I’ve loved him for so long--since we were quite young, and he’s never truly looked at me in years, not really looked at me--until now. At Michel Delving he said it was too late for him or some such nonsense, and I didn’t truly want to believe his health was failing him until yesterday. Then Mum suggested we should come anyway--come see, I mean.”

Rosie sighed as she sliced the ham she’d removed from the oven. “He’s sacrificed a good deal for us, the Master has,” she said softly, “including his yearnin’ for a family of his own. That thing as he carried stole it from him for so long, and since he come back and It’s gone now, he hasn’t felt as he’s had enough to give. He’s felt so empty, but has pushed on anyway.

“And another thing to keep in mind, Miss Narcissa,” Rosie added, “you’re speakin’ of Mr. Frodo Baggins here. When he sets out to do somethin’ worth doin’, he does it well and proper. Always has, what I’ve seen of him. If he doesn’t feel as he can do it right, he won’t begin it. And he’s not felt as he could be a husband right since they come back, he hasn’t . He’s too often not feelin’ properly hisself, has too many evil dreams as he don’t want to burden others with, too many days as he can’t eat right. You think as he wants to have to share that with someone as he loves and wants to cherish hisself?”

Brendilac Brandybuck, who’d lost his wife to a growth in her stomach not long after they’d married, and who’d sat himself in the settle in the corner, now spoke up, his tone filled with sadness and even some bitterness. “And this from the one who counseled Merilinde and me to know what days of happiness we could know in the time granted us. I’m so glad he did, Mistress Rosie; but why can’t he see it applies to himself as well?”

Rosie turned to him, her fork and carving knife forgotten in her hands. “Ye’ll find, Mr. Brendilac, sir, as it’s a sight easier seein’ what’s best for others than for yourself. And since that thing took him, there just afore he lost his finger, he don’t feel worthy o’ true happiness for hisself. Feels as if he betrayed all of Middle Earth, he does, and it don’t matter how many has told him as it was all he needed to do, to get It there to the Fire.”

As Sam took the pan in which the ham had been cooked to wash it, Brendi and Narcissa turned to look at him. “Is she right, Mr. Gamgee?” asked Narcissa.

Sam turned away to the dishpan. “Is she right?” he repeated. “Course she’s right. Didn’t they all tell him that, our Lord Strider, Lord Elrond, the Lady, Lord Celeborn, Lord Glorfindel, Lord Gildor, Gandalf hisself? No one could of stood against It there, for that’s where It was made. It was strongest there of all places in Middle Earth, and it don’t matter just how stubborn anyone was--there was Its place and It was Master there, even of Frodo Baggins. But until now his heart hasn’t been able to accept it, no matter how much his mind’s known it was true.”

Brendi caught Narcissa’s eye. “He’s told me the same himself.”

Sam glanced briefly over his shoulder at them. “He did? That time as you come and he was up there, up on top of the Hill?” At the lawyer’s nod, he sighed and turned back to his work. “He admits it hisself, yet his heart still couldn’t quite believe it.”

Narcissa pulled a lacy handkerchief from the pocket of her skirt and wiped her eye as Eglantine Took came in from the dining room with a cake plate and a sheaf of used forks. “If there’s anything I can do to help you both, Master Sam, Mistress Rose?” Lanti asked, setting her burdens on the table by Brendi’s tray of mugs and small plates.

Sam looked over his shoulder to see the flush rise in his wife’s cheeks. “Oh, it’s not for the likes of you to help, Mistress Took,” Rosie began.

The Thain’s Lady sighed as she rolled her shoulders. “Nonsense, Mistress Rose. Before Pal became Thain I was just a farmer’s wife, you know; and as the Thain’s Lady I’ve had to do my share of unexpected hosting of friends and relatives come at word someone beloved was failing.” Her lip began trembling. She straightened and lifted her chin. “I just never expected to have to--to farewell Frodo. And to have him try to hide it--to try to slip away....” She couldn’t control herself anymore, and lifted her arm to press her eyes against it. “Esme is almost torn in two. She’s loved him like a son since his parents died.”

Rosie met Sam’s eyes. It was obvious that these had indeed come in love. Sam turned toward Eglantine. “Just know this, Mistress,” he advised her, “he may not be as strong as he was, but he’s not leavin’ us yet--not this moment. Don’t go a’diggin’ his grave until he’s actually dead, or you’ll drive him to it early.” He felt his own chin trying to tremble, and turned away to hide it. In the reflection in the window he could see Narcissa Boffin move forward toward the Mistress of the Great Smial and embrace her.

Shortly after, Rosie indicated all was ready to bring to the dining room, and Eglantine and Narcissa went first to advise the others, each carrying a bowl to set on the table. Having dried his last mug, Sam dried his hands on a rough towel, and rolling down his sleeves he went to the study to call those gathered there, Brendilac following.

Pippin was standing by the fireplace, tear tracks still to be seen on his cheek. Saradoc and Merry sat on the study sofa in almost identical poses, and Gandalf sat on the floor between the sofa and Frodo in his desk chair. “And the Rangers said there weren’t any signs of any others threatening the border on that side,” Pippin was saying. He stopped as Sam appeared in the doorway, apparently glad of the distraction.

“Dinner’s goin’ on the table, sirs,” Sam said rather formally. “If’n you’ll come.” He looked at Frodo. “Unless you’d prefer to eat in here, Mr. Frodo. I could bring you a plate. Rosie’s been fixin’ up one special for you, if you want.”

Frodo glanced at his cousins on the sofa, then returned his attention to Sam. “No, Sam, I won’t need that. I’ll come to the table with you.” So saying, he rose and led the way from the room, Sam stepping aside to allow the others to go first.

The four Travelers and Gandalf remained on their feet to observe the Standing Silence, then sat as Rosie started the serving of the meal. They were all quiet as they ate for quite some time, all of them giving Frodo quick glances as if reassuring themselves he was still with them. His plate was nowhere as full as those of the others, and on it sat mostly fruits and vegetables, they noted, although a bowl of mushrooms fried with bacon sat by it. Frodo ate slowly and somewhat deliberately, although he was noting the glances cast his way.

Gandalf finally broke the silence. “I’ve never known a gathering of Hobbits ever to be this quiet. Usually it is difficult to make oneself heard.”

Frodo looked deliberately around the table, then answered with a marked tone of irony, “Well, it can be difficult to speak when the object of everyone’s concern is sitting before them all.”

The Wizard laughed. “You’ll not go until you have to, you most persistent of Bagginses. And it is good to see you eat somewhat fully.”

“I’ve been slowly building up my appetite again, although I doubt it’s as good as it was there in Minas Tirith, even.” After a time he said, “I think I will miss you as much as will Aragorn.”

“My time in Middle Earth is over, Frodo. Although I’d not counted on you reaching the West before I did.” His expression was solemn. “I’d so wished you to go with us and know peace and healing once more. Not,” he sighed, “that you won’t find that anyway. You are as deeply beloved there as you are here, Iorhael.”

Frodo looked down at his plate. “I wish I could feel that more fully true, but am comforted by your words, Olórin.”

Gandalf gave him an intense look, and Sam noted a hint of a satisfied smirk at the corner of Frodo’s mouth. “Trust you, Frodo Baggins, to have learned that of my names. And how long have you known it?”

“Captain Faramir told us, there in Henneth Annun,” Sam told him. “Said as you told him years ago, when he was a lad.”

Gandalf looked between the two of them, and gave a laugh. “Another of the brighter ones I’ve been allowed to mentor,” he said, giving a slight shake to his head. “So many of the brightest souls of mortals I’ve known live now, at the end of my time here in your lands. I grieve to leave you as much as you and Elessar grieve to see me go. At least I will have Bilbo by my side, or so I hope. I was almost surprised not to see the two of you supporting him into Bag End.”

“I didn’t wish him to remain, and he agreed to go to represent the folk of the Shire.”

“Bless the old fellow.”

“Indeed.”

Frodo looked at the wine decanter sitting on the dresser in the corner, and Sam rose hastily to fetch it and set it before him. Frodo opened it and poured a small measure into his wine goblet, then passed the bottle to Saradoc on his left. When all had poured themselves some, Frodo rose and took a deep breath. “I hadn’t intended to host such a gathering again, and am sorry that you have felt bound to come to my side now. I recognize that you have come out of love for me, and I am surprised to realize how glad I am you’ve done so in spite of me. Please forgive me, and bear with me as you can.” He took another breath, then lifted his glass. “To Bilbo and those who accompany him. May he shine brightly there.”

Gandalf rose, and all looked up as they also stood up. “To the Ring-bearers,” the Wizard pronounced solemnly as he raised his own glass.

With a glance at the ring Gandalf wore, Sam added, “To all of the Ring-bearers, then.”

Gandalf gave another smile and laughed. “Oh, all right--that I’ll accept. To all of the Ring-bearers.”

All raised their glasses, and with a murmured “Ring-bearers” or “to Bilbo” they all drained their goblets, although few enough present understood the interplay.

Frodo drank his wine and sat down, looking at the empty goblet. “Círdan gave you the Ring of Fire, then?” he asked with a brief sidelong look at the Wizard.

“You are a discerning one, aren’t you?” Gandalf responded. “When did you first see it?”

“As I awakened in Imladris. I didn’t see it--or rather I didn’t truly notice it much--most of the time after that, but I knew it was there. But I never thought about it until--until I saw it flaring there on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm as you faced the Balrog. I’d noted the ring Lord Elrond wore from the first I saw him after I awoke, but I didn’t realize its significance until I spoke with the Lady over her Mirror. Only when she admitted she wore Nenya did I finally understand you wore Narya and Lord Elrond Vilnya. She told me I could only see her ring because I had worn It.” He looked curiously at Sam. “When did you first see Gandalf’s ring, Sam?”

“When I woke up in Ithilien with him standin’ over me, laughing so. And when the great Elves arrived in Minas Tirith with the Lady Arwen, I saw that on Lord Elrond and the other as Lady Galadriel wore, and I realized then they’d been there the whole time. Rather muddling, if you take my meanin’, realizin’ what the little wearing of Sauron’s horror’d allowed me to see.”

“So much for millennia of secrecy,” Gandalf sighed.

“And actually,” Frodo said as he toyed with a slice of carrot, “I learned your name in Lorien, hearing the laments sung for you. I couldn’t understand all that was sung of you, but it appears those there knew who and--and what you are, and have known for quite some time.”

“Ah, yes. Well, you see, I arrived in Middle Earth at about the time your ancestors were coming across the Misty Mountains from the valley of the Anduin where you apparently awoke, for it was there I had always found you before....”

Esmeralda Brandybuck sat up straight. “Before you came you’d found our people there? How is that?”

Frodo had a slight smile on his face. “He’s more than he seems, Aunt Esme. Always has been.”

Narcissa asked, “You mean that you’re an Elf?”

Frodo gave a slight laugh. “No, more than an Elf, also. Not many of his kind have visited the Mortal Lands and allowed themselves to be seen and known, but five were sent to us in the guise of Wizards, although two have become lost to knowledge, and one has fallen.” With that last his face lost its laughter, and great grief could be seen there. “That he could have fallen so....”

“You did all you could to offer him the chance to awaken again, Frodo. However, even in defeat and following the fall of Sauron himself when his atrocity was destroyed, Saruman still desired to take power over someone, and had too much thought for vengeance to grasp at the great line you threw his way. As it has been your choice to remain here or sail, so it was his choice whether or not to grasp that lifeline offered through you. He did not, and so he sank and was lost, his hands folded over his chest to the last, unwilling to accept any grace to the end.”

“And you mourn him?”

“And I mourn him.”

“And before you came to Middle Earth as a Wizard you had visited it before?” Paladin Took asked, his eyes as fascinated as were those of his son.

Gandalf gave a great and rather ostentatious sigh. Pippin laughed. “Remember, Gandalf, I told you I wished to know all the history of Middle Earth and the stars and the Sundering Sea and all. Well, it was from my own father that I inherited my curiosity. We’re all descended from the Old Took, you realize.”

Gandalf threw back his head and laughed with the merriment and joy and humor that Pippin and Sam had seen so often bubbling just under his skin, and soon all were laughing with him with abandon, although Frodo appeared to be keeping his hold on sobriety a bit more surely than the rest, his eyes remaining fixed on the Wizard’s face. At last Gandalf drew out of his robes a great kerchief and wiped his eyes. “Ah, yes--to have a room filled with the progeny of Gerontius and so much natural Took--and Fallohide--curiosity! I was lost before I’d even begun!” He straightened as he stowed the kerchief, smiling fully at Paladin Took, who flushed like a lad, but didn’t quail in the face of Gandalf’s revealed brightness. “Yes, I’d visited Middle Earth before, and in several guises and seemings, and saw the Fallohides in their woodland home where they frequently kept company with Elves,” he turned toward the Brandybucks where father and son sat side by side, “and I visited in the smials of the Stoors where they lived along the banks of the Great River and traded with Men,” now he turned toward Rosie and Sam where they sat together with Elanor’s high chair between them, “and I would sojourn up the slopes of the foothills of the Mountains of Mist to the abodes and fields of the Harfoots where they lived in fellowship with the Dwarves. And all within this room are such a delightful mixture of all three of the original strains--yes, even you, Samwise Gamgee! Even you are taller than average for a Hobbit, and with your hair tending toward the dark gold so often seen amongst the Fallohides, even if you are not descended from the first to bear the name of Tûk you nevertheless have your fair share of Fallohide, as does your lovely wife and the daughter you’ve produced between you.”

He smiled at them all. “I’m not certain when your ancestors awoke, but when the dark years were over, there you were to be found, there in the valley of the Anduin, the smallest of the mortal Children of Iluvatar, but no less dear than were any of the others. We were aware of you, of course, and I at least was as curious about your people as you have been about me tonight. But I’ve ever been drawn to the Children of Iluvatar, which is a great deal of the reason why I was sent to Middle Earth as one of the Istari.”

“You were sent--you didn’t choose for yourself?” asked Frodo, as if this was important to him.

“Only one offered himself freely when the decision was made to send such aid to the Free Peoples, Frodo. Each of the rest of us was asked if we would accept this mission. And I was not the one who offered. But I did not come because it was asked of me in the end, but because I felt I was meant to be here--that it was right and proper that I should stand against Sauron, just as Manwë stood against Melkor.”

“And you were the last to arrive,” the pale Hobbit sighed. “I found the records in Imladris, although I read it first in the copies Bilbo made of Lord Elrond’s journals for his own library.”

“They obviously saved the best for last,” Merry observed, earning him a twinkling smile from the Wizard. “And I’m glad all of Bilbo’s books were sent to Crickhollow--once the Brandybucks realized the nature of the new order of things and sabotaged the ferry and the Bridge, and made the roads all but impassable, the Gatherers and Sharers never made it to there to find those books to bring to Saruman.”

Narcissa asked, “Your things weren’t gone through by Lotho and Sharkey’s people, then, Frodo?”

“No--nothing that was sent to Crickhollow was lost. Most of Buckland they couldn’t get into, you see. It was that injustice that led me to seek to have all goods returned as I could. What Sharkey was seeking I took away with me, and the knowledge he wanted was partly in the books Bilbo copied from the library of Lord Elrond. It wasn’t fair that you should have had to suffer due to what they wanted from the possessions Bilbo left to me.” He sighed, then after taking one more bite of his mushrooms he rose and went to the dresser and opened a drawer, bringing back to the table a painted porcelain salt cellar with a lid to it that he set before Gandalf before returning to his seat. “We weren’t certain what to do with this--one of the few recognizable things we found when we--when we cleared away what was left, there after Wormtongue killed him. No one really wanted to deal with it, the remains, so they sat there until the next morning, although a Bounder and a Shiriff were set to watch them that none seek to--to do anything too awful with them. Then Pippin and Merry saw to the--the removal themselves. We buried it near the Three Farthing Stone, as close to the center of the Shire as possible, that the joy of life of the Shire might counter whatever malice might linger. Wormtongue and the Men who died were buried in an old sand pit, but with such respect as we could offer them. I felt so sorry for Wormtongue, you see, and so wish those who shot him hadn’t been so swift off the mark. And I don’t care he was a murderer perhaps several times over,” he said to Sam in what was clearly intended to head off the remarks he knew the gardener wished to say publicly. “None of those I had hoped might find easing and redemption lived to receive it--save for Lobelia.” He gave a soft, truly sweet smile. “She did learn at the last.” His face saddened. “But to have her finally understand only after Lotho betrayed us all, including himself, and after learning he’d died so--that was more than any ought to have borne.”

“Indeed, Iorhael,” Gandalf said gently. “Were you able to see her again after her release?”

Frodo shook his head. “No, for neither she nor I was able to do much in the way of traveling. It was all I could do many weeks to make the journey on Strider from Bywater or here to Michel Delving and back, much less to Hardbottle; and her health had definitely suffered as a result of her imprisonment. Hyacinth did well by her, though. She had comfort and love by her, and the one letter I had from her I’ve saved.”

Brendi smiled sadly. “Rico Clayhanger told me she did the same with your letters to her, Frodo, and would have Hyacinth read them to her daily.”

Frodo appeared surprised. “Did she really?”

Saradoc Brandybuck smiled. “Benlo Bracegirdle had told me the same. He said your letters to her seemed to give her a great deal of comfort.”

“How odd,” Frodo murmured. He looked back at Gandalf. “I remembered what you told at the Council of how Saruman had boasted he was now a maker of Rings as well. The only ring we found was that one, the one he was wearing. Is there really any power to it?”

Gandalf looked at Frodo with some concern. “You haven’t handled it yourself, have you?”

Frodo gave a shake of his head.

“Young Pando fetched it to me after they carried away what was left of the body,” Sam explained. “He had a grimace on his face like he was holdin’ somethin’ awful, so I brought that out of Bag End to have somethin’ to put it in so none would have to touch it. The salt cellar must of been one of Missus Lobelia’s, for it’s not one as I recognize.”

“Nor I,” Frodo agreed.

Gandalf lifted the cover and looked down on the ring within. It was made of gold, but with a more silver sheen to it than one usually saw in the metal. There were engravings of serpent shapes upon it--not, however, anywhere similar to those on the Ring of Barahir, but instead sinister shapes that wound together and almost formed recognizable symbols. He used the tip of his knife to turn it, and spat out something in Adunaic. “The fool!” he finally said in Westron. “It is a spell to enhance his speech to make it even more persuasive, but he drew some of the serpents reversed--in the end the spell worked to his own undoing. I must assume he had it from his chosen master, and ignored the fact that one of Sauron’s titles was ever the Liar.” He looked up to catch Frodo’s gaze. “Celebrimbor would have disdained it, Frodo.” He dug the point of the knife into the metal, and nodded with relief. “The metal is quite soft--a blacksmith’s forge could be used to flatten it and undo it. I will see to it in the morning. It will do no further harm to lie here one more night, I think. And before I leave the Shire I will visit his grave and see what I can do to add to the protections placed on it by your people.”

“Thank you,” Frodo said. He sighed and leaned back, his hand lifting to rub at his shoulder, a grimace of pain on his face. “I will bathe and go to bed,” he murmured. “I grieve to leave you all, but I have ridden further today than I have done at one time in several months.”

“I’ll see to him,” Brendi said swiftly to forestall Sam’s rising. “I have a few things I wish to say to my client and cousin this evening.”

Frodo looked into the lawyer’s eyes, and nodded. “Very well then,” he said as he rose. Brendi set aside his napkin as he, too, rose, and placing himself firmly by Frodo’s side he went with him out of the room.

All watched after them for a moment before Gandalf cleared his throat. “You were wondering, Sam, how it was my name was known among the Galadhrim.”

Sam gave a nod as he returned his attention to the Wizard. “I think as I might understand the way of it, though. The Lady--she was born there in Aman, right? Back in the time of the Trees?”

“Yes.”

“Then she’d of recognized you once you come here, then.”

Gandalf smiled his agreement.

Esmeralda Brandybuck at last looked away from the door to Gandalf’s face. “He isn’t as--as troubled as he was when he came to Brandy Hall, or even as he was when we had dinner with him last.”

Paladin glanced first at Gandalf, then back to her. “He doesn’t feel as burdened with guilt as he was, Esme. Gandalf was able to reassure him earlier that--that all ended better for that Gollum creature than he’d thought, and that the curse he uttered wasn’t his originally, but had come first from Sauron, and was put into his mind by the Ring.”

She let go a pent-up breath. “I’m glad for him,” she said softly. “He doesn’t need to bear needless guilt and griefs now.”

“Agreed,” Gandalf assured her. “If my coming has done no more than bring your sons here and accomplish that--and rid Arda of such abominations as this--” with a pointed glance at the covered salt cellar, “then I cannot count my delay in rejoining the others wasted.”

“Where’s Shadowfax?” asked Sam, suddenly realizing he’d not asked that.

“I left him in the Party Field, although last I saw he was going into the woods at the bottom of the Hill, perhaps to get a drink from the stream there. He appears to enjoy wooded areas, which is an odd preference for one of his kind; but he also seems to appreciate there are few large predators in your land likely to stalk him there.”

“I see,” Sam said. “A wonder he is, Shadowfax. He goin’ all the way with you?”

“Yes. He has distant relatives there who are eager to be reunited with those of their kindred who lingered here after the War of Wrath.”

Rosie rose and went to fetch the afters, and Narcissa went with her to get the stack of cake plates and sheath of forks Sam had cleaned earlier, and all finished their meal. When Sam looked into Frodo’s room as he carried his slumbering daughter to her crib in the nursery across the passage from the master bedroom he saw Frodo propped up on the extra pillows he’d been gathering to his room, still talking quietly with Brendilac Brandybuck, Brendi holding his cousin and employer’s hand. When he came out after seeing Elanor changed and tucked into her crib he found Eglantine and Esmeralda standing at the door exchanging a few words with Brendi before they went in to speak with Frodo themselves. Narcissa and Ivy Boffin were helping Rosie in the kitchen.

“I’m not certain just why I came,” Ivy was saying, “save my lass here needed to understand just why Frodo never looked at her seriously after the Party.”

“He couldn’t,” Brendi said as he followed Sam into the kitchen and again sat out of the way on the corner settle. “The Ring stole that ability away from him while he kept It in his pocket.”

“And this was Sauron’s Ring?” Ivy asked. “How on earth did It end up here in the Shire, and in the keeping of Frodo Baggins? I take it somehow Bilbo was involved?”

Brendi looked an inquiry at Sam, and briefly Sam explained about Bilbo’s fall in the darkened cavern beneath the Misty Mountains and how he’d managed to put his hand right on the thing.

“So, he did find a magic ring that made him invisible, then? And it wasn’t just a story?”

“Definitely not just a story, Missus Boffin,” Sam assured her. “Gandalf convinced old Mr. Bilbo to leave It to Mr. Frodo, you see, after the Party. Was certain as It was to blame for Mr. Bilbo not agin’ proper and his restlessness and all, and was all for Mr. Bilbo gettin’ well away from It. But he counseled my Master not to put It on at all, no matter what, or so it seems.

“Then, after him and Strider’d finally tracked down that Gollum and he’d been to the archives in Minas Tirith, Mr. Gandalf come back here and told my Master he’d best leave as quick as he could, but to do it so’s no one’d realize as he was fleein’ with the Ring; so Mr. Frodo arranged to sell Bag End to Mr. Lotho and Missus Lobelia and we took off for Buckland. Only us three wouldn’t let him go alone--we’d been spyin on him, like, and knew what it was he’d been carryin’ and that he needed to get to Rivendell with It. So we insisted as we was goin’ with him, and we left through the Old Forest.”

“Only you didn’t stop at Rivendell?”

“No, we didn’t end it there.”

“And you two went--went to--to--Mordor?”

Sam reluctantly nodded his assent.

“How awful! And he was carrying It with him the whole time? No wonder he’s not been properly well since you came back. And you say the two of you didn’t get proper food?”

“Nor water, Mistress. Not for ever so long.”

She sighed. “I’d heard the gossip that when he was small his heart wasn’t strong, although children born that way often seem to grow out of it. But now I see perhaps in this case that Lobelia was, for once, telling the truth. But I don’t see how it could have been so bad, as fine a dancer as he was and as much as he traveled on foot around the Shire, with old Bilbo or by himself or with the rest of his lad friends.”

“I don’t think as it was so bad, not until we was on our own journey. Lord Strider and Lord Elrond both said as it would of been bad for anyone’s heart, havin’ to deal with that thing for so long on so hard a journey. And he was bad hurt so many times along the way, you see. His scars aren’t as obvious as the ones the rest of us have, but they’re there.”

“I see,” she said, looking down into the dishpan. Narcissa’s face was white and strained.

After Narcissa had wiped the last pot and Sam had seen all put away, Brendi sighed. “He agrees now, Narcissa, that he ought to have opened to the possibility of a love between you earlier, when he first returned. But he was at first in shock still at the state of the Shire when they got back, and then working at seeing things set right. Then he was recovering from that first spring bout of the memories and uncertain what that meant. He never truly recovered from the last one, last spring, and there’s--there’s no question now his heart is indeed failing.”

She sighed, then nodded her understanding.

When Sam wandered out to find the rest of the menfolk, Brendi followed after him once more, and they found the rest gathered on the pavement outside the front door, smoking and talking quietly in the starlight. Sam fetched his own pipe out, as did the lawyer. They weren’t discussing Frodo now, but instead how the Shire would open up to the outside world.

“I’m very impressed with this Lord Halladan who’s in charge of the kingdom here in the north,” Saradoc commented. “And if the King’s anything like him we’ll be well enough served. After all, I understand they are cousins.”

“They’re wonderful folk, Aragorn’s kin here in Eriador,” Merry sighed. “We all spoke a good deal on the return trip, especially once we parted from Aragorn there at the Gap.”

“Strider wants to trade for potatoes and other root vegetables that grow better here than there in the southlands, Da,” Pippin continued, “root vegetables and our cloth and porcelains as well. We have a ready market.”

Gandalf sat on the ground, his elbows on his knees as he smoked and listened to the talk amongst the Hobbits. As he caught Sam’s eye he winked and smiled, his head nodding reassuringly.

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