The doorbell to Garden Place in Hardbottle jangled, and Bartolo Bracegirdle immediately heard the cry of “I’ll get it!” from his daughter Begonia and the swish of her skirts as she raced to intercept the mail. She’d been corresponding with a lass from Bree, and seemed to expect a new letter every day.
Bartolo shook his head, partly amused, partly disgusted. Really! It was hard at times to remember that this was the eldest of his three daughters, for at times she seemed even less mature than Alyssa, who, at twelve, at least was expected to act a child yet.
A moment later she poked her head into his study where he’d been working on a contract for a farmer in the far reaches of the South Farthing to sell his peaches to the purchaser for the Great Smial. “There’s one for Mum from Cousin Angelica,” Begonia said as she lifted a letter from the small stack she was examining, “what appears to be the butcher’s bill and the notice for the village meeting next Monday, and one from Aunty Geli----” She paused with concern, for she knew her father didn’t approve of Aunty Geli and Uncle Sancho, who’d scandalized the Shire by behaving in a most unseemly manner in order to convince their parents to allow them to marry while still several years short of being of age, then continued. “Then there’s one from Michel Delving, and one--well, I’m not sure who this is from.” She turned it over and paused at the inscription there, her eyes going wide. “This one is from Cousin Frodo Baggins, Da.” She handed it over with a good deal of respect, for her father had never received a letter sent to him by Cousin Frodo Baggins, not in her memory.
Actually, Bartolo had received letters and notices from time to time from Frodo Baggins, or had done so during the months Frodo had served as deputy Mayor for the Shire. But the last personal letter he’d received from the Baggins had been years ago, just after Gonya was born--a letter of condolences sent when his mother had died.
“Is your mother home yet?” Bartolo asked as he accepted the letter, noting it was addressed to Master Bartolo and Mistress Delphinium Bracegirdle, Garden Place, Hardbottle, South Farthing, The Shire.
“No, not yet. She said she’d be stopping to see Aunty Lavinia on her way home from market.” Gonya set the other letters on her mother’s desk and left, clutching the one note addressed to her.
The Master of Garden Place frowned. As a Bracegirdle born and bred, Bartolo’s mind tended to be rather rigid in its thinking; and presented with a letter addressed jointly to himself and his wife, it was his preference to open it only in Delphie’s presence and share it with her immediately. The fact that this was a particularly thick letter had his interest piqued, however. He dithered in his own mind as to whether or not he should open it, at last giving in to his curiosity and slipping his finger under the flap.
The wax into which Frodo had pressed his stickpin that served him as a signet was from a green candle. The envelope held two separate notes, in fact, the thicker of which was folded over and again sealed with a blob of green wax stamped with the star signet. Noting that this packet had a further address of Personal to Bartolo, he felt relief, his conscience eased by the fact that within the initial envelope there had been something intended only for himself. He set the other sheet aside, and broke the second seal, intent on learning what had inspired Frodo Baggins to write to him. As he scanned it, however, his frown returned, deepening as he read further.
West Farthing, The Shire
September 15, 1421 S.R.
As I trust you remember, when I first approached you to engage your services to represent my legal interests before the outer realm, you at first indicated that there was only one service that you desired to offer me. I responded that I would make note of that offer in my will, and I have done so.
It appears that the time when that service will be required is at hand, and I feel duty bound to advise you of that fact. I will not hold you to your stated offer, however; and so it is that should you choose not to so serve it is unlikely anyone will take offense. After all, your dislike of me has been obvious for many years. If, however, you are still willing to perform that service, I ask that you come to Hobbiton and on the evening of October seventh or morning of the eighth, before the hour of nine o’clock, seek out either Brendilac Brandybuck as my personal lawyer, Griffo Boffin as village head for Hobbiton, or Fosco Baggins as Baggins family head (if he is able to make the trip from his home, that is), and explain I had promised this office to you.
“What’s he going on about?” Barti muttered to himself. “Fosco Baggins is years from being of age as yet. And since when is Frodo Baggins giving over his place as Baggins family head to a mere lad? Or to anyone, for that matter?”
I suspect that news of my death will come as a shock to many, including the majority of my extensive number of relatives.
Barti stopped and read that last sentence over again, not quite believing what he’d read.
I suspect that news of my death will come as a shock to many, including the majority of my extensive number of relatives. I’ve done my best, after all, to conceal my worsening condition. However, my swiftly approaching demise will be one turn of events I cannot look to hide successfully. I expect there will be a good deal of confusion.
I regret I cannot forewarn you as to how matters will go forward from the point of my leaving, and am only glad I won’t have to take part in making all of the decisions. If I were to have my own way with the situation, all would be as simple, straightforward, and unadorned as possible. However, due to the fact I am first cousin and former ward to the Master and second cousin to the Thain as well as my abiding friendship with their sons and heirs, the fact I served as deputy Mayor and my relationship by marriage to the Mayor of the Shire and village head for Hobbiton, not to mention my position in the outer realm and personal friendship with our Lord King Aragorn and his northern Steward, Lord Halladan, I suspect each party will demand a say in what is to be done. Indeed it is probable Aragorn or Halladan (or both) as well as authorities of other lands and peoples will each send someone to represent them and the outer realm in whatever ceremonies should take place; and knowing my Uncle Saradoc there will undoubtedly be a good deal of ceremony to the affair. I hope you can forgive me whatever elaborate observances you might be called upon to take part in at the time. Again, I rejoice my own involvement will be limited to mere physical presence and nothing more.
I grieve I must go with the antipathy you’ve ever felt toward me unresolved. I have always found you to be markedly honest and possessed of the highest levels of integrity, painstaking in seeing to the interests of your clients (even when you loathe them on a personal level), and from all reports and the evidence of the love all relevant individuals show you a marvelous husband and father. I have so envied you that love and regard, although I now understand all too well why it is that I do not share such depths of fortune. I only hope that now that I must be away you will allow that long-held resentment toward me to fade, and that you will know peace now that in my absence from Bag End and the Shire I can no longer remind you of whatever slights have fed it over the years. I only hope your long dislike of me is buried with everything else so that it does not continue to plague you for the rest of your life.
Please assure Delphie of my continued love for her, and offer my final greetings and respects to your children. I regret I never had much chance to come to know them personally. I believe I would have rejoiced to do so, as I would have rejoiced to know a level of companionship with you.
Bartolo dropped the two sheets on which this had been inscribed on the contract upon which he’d been working when this remarkable missive had come to him, staring at them in consternation. In the little personal contact he’d shared with Frodo Baggins in the last two years he’d become aware Frodo had been seeking to hide the fact he knew less than perfect health; but he’d seen and heard nothing to indicate he was fading. And how could any individual be so certain of his impending passing from this life that he could predict when his funeral might be expected to be held?
He heard the front door to the smial open and close. “Begonia,” he could hear Delphie call, “is the sauce I asked you to make ready?”
“Yes, Mother,” he heard his daughter answer from the depths of the hole. “It’s covered and sitting on the work table. And there are letters for you. Da has them.”
“Thank you, morsel,” Delphie called as she came down the passage toward the study. “Please see to it these parcels are put into the kitchen immediately.”
Barti hastily folded the note sent him by Frodo, andlaying it on the desktop crossed his hands over it.
“Hello, dearling,” his wife greeted him as she entered the chamber and crossed to him, dropping a kiss on the top of his head as she took her seat at the lower desk that was hers. “Did you hear? Rico and Angelica have suddenly left for Hobbiton--left this morning in all haste, apparently. Angelica appeared quite upset about something. I hope it’s not her father--Cousin Ponto has never fully recovered from the Time of Troubles, after all.” She was going through the stack of missives, and slit open the butcher’s bill. “Hmm. Edvardo’s insisting we still owe him for that roast I sent back to him last month--the one that had so very much fat to it, do you remember? Will you speak to him about it tomorrow, love?”
Barti found he had to clear his throat before he could speak clearly. “I--ahem--I don’t know if I can, Delphie--not tomorrow, at least. A client--a client has asked I come meet with his representatives tomorrow night in the West Farthing.”
She looked at him with surprise. “What clients do you have in the West Farthing, Bartolo? I mean, now that Aunt Lobelia is dead? There aren’t other Bracegirdles there, are there?”
He shrugged. “There’s Bigelow and Bedro in Westhall, at least.”
She gave a snort of disgust. “Don’t tell me they’ve ever used you to see to their legal interests, or that you’d even consider accepting them as clients. After all, Bigelow can call upon his brother at any time, even from his disgrace there.”
Bigelow Bracegirdle had brought shame upon the family name by gambling with weighted dice, dosing ponies intended to race within a day or two, and other crooked gambling practices, ending with the banishment of himself and his lout of a son to Westhall on the northwest borders of the Shire. Lothario had managed to escape the censure visited upon his elder brother and nephew, but it was no great secret he’d probably been complicit in more of Bigelow’s enterprises than could be proved.
Barti merely shrugged.
Delphie, however, was going through the stack and had come upon the letter from her sister, also named Angelica. Angelica Baggins the Younger, as she’d been known before she shamed her parents and did what she’d done to force them to allow her to marry Sancho Proudfoot, was many years younger than Delphinium. There had been four bairns born between the two sisters, all lads; but none had long survived. Only one had managed to survive infancy--little Albro, who’d died yet a faunt of four years. Always a delicate child, the tike had caught the catarrh one year and had died within a week. One of the tiny lads had been stillborn, and the other two had died very shortly after their births.
It struck Barti, suddenly, that ill luck had followed the males born to the Baggins line for decades--Frodo was the only one of four lads reportedly conceived by Primula Brandybuck Baggins who’d lived, and even the one lass born to Primula and Drogo had come so prematurely she’d not lived more than a half hour after birth; Ponto and Iris had lost two lads, and none of Porto’s sons had managed to pass on the family name, either. Certainly Frodo’s uncle Dudo had retired from society following the loss of his first wife, Camellia, and their newborn son not many years following Frodo’s own birth; and his son by his second wife, Emerald Boffin as was, had not only been born late in Dudo’s life, only a few weeks before Dudo’s death, in fact, but had been nearly blind all his life according to the few reports Barti had gleaned on the lad and his twin sister.
All this went through Barti’s mind as he noted the smile of gentle gladness on his wife’s face as she examined the writing on the envelope she held, then slowly and with deliberate anticipation turned it to break the unadorned wax seal apparently spilled from a pale pink candle. Due to Bartolo Bracegirdle’s obvious disapproval shown toward his wife’s sister, Geli had written infrequently at best, although Barti suspected she received far more frequent missives from Hardbottle than Delphie received from Hobbiton or Overhill where the two of them had been born and raised.
The smile began to widen as Delphie read, then faded abruptly to be replaced by an expression of shock and horror. “No!” Delphie said, suddenly, then turned to look at her husband. “Barti--Barti, Frodo--it’s about my cousin Frodo--he’s dying!”
Her hands were shaking as she set the missive on the desktop and smoothed it. “She writes, Dear Delphie, I thought as you should know. As you may have heard our cousin Frodo as lives here in Bag End in the Hill has known somewhat uncertain health since his return from foreign parts, which led to him refusing to run for Mayor at the Free Fair a year and a half gone. Last fall and early winter he was quite ill from a bad cold as made its rounds hereabouts, and apparently had some malady last spring, for we didn’t see him out and about for some weeks after mid-March. Pando, who loves spying on those as lives in Bag End, told me as he rarely came out of doors for weeks, and was quite pale when he did so following Fredegar Bolger’s visit there. Since then he’s been remarkably quiet and absurdly thin, as you may have seen if you were at the Free Fair last Midsummer.
“A week or so back he and Sam went off on their ponies for several days, and while they were gone his Took and Brandybuck and Boffin relations began to gather. Sam apparently spoke to the Gaffer, who admitted as Master Frodo had been feeling poorly. We sent him up some pies by way of Cyclamen and Pando, and Pando was most upset when he returned. He says as Frodo’s very pale indeed and walks heavy, as if it’s difficult for him. The Widow Rumble went up with a dish, and returned with the news that Frodo is indeed failing.
“The Thain and his lady went back to Tuckboro for a few days, and returned last night. It appears it’s only a matter of days.”
Delphie straightened slowly, a tear making its way down her cheek. “He’s too young, Barti--too young to die. He’s only fifty-three,” she said softly.
Barti looked at the folded sheet that had remained untouched on his desk, picked it up with one hand and held it out to her. “I’ve not read this yet,” he said solemnly.
She took a deep breath and accepted it reluctantly, unfolding it and reading aloud: “Dear Delphie and Bartolo, I send my greetings and farewells to you. It appears I must leave soon--far too soon. What I endured out there has taken its toll of me.
“I pray you continue to know a happy and contented life, and that you will remember me as well as you can.
She set it down on top of the note from Geli, then looked at the letter from Angelica Baggins Clayhanger. She picked it up carefully, opened it methodically, and read it quietly to herself. She finally set it down atop the others and looked up, past the desk top, ignoring the picture of a lass and her mother feeding ducklings that hung on the wall there. “This says the same. They’re off to Hobbiton, hoping to be able to find out what’s happening, and so--so she can bid him farewell, if there’s time.”
Delphie turned to search her husband’s eyes. “Why him, Barti? He’s never wished anyone ill--not seriously so, at least, in his life! Even when Aunt Lobelia treated him so poorly and said such awful things about him, he did no more than pay her back through harmless practical jokes, although I always felt those were more aimed at that horrible son of hers rather than at her or Otho. Why, when Otho was ill there at the last he sent her words of encouragement and as much aid as he could--he even paid for Drolan Chubbs, who’s a far better healer than Modo Brownlock from Bywater who was the only one who’d work with them for years, to come to see to his condition and offer what he could to ease Otho there at the end; and even Lobelia admitted the letter of sympathy he sent was markedly sincere and filled with his own grief.
“He’s never wanted anything but the best for the entire Shire!”
Barti found himself nodding. “Yes,” he said, his own voice rough. “Yes, I know.”
He slowly lifted his own hands, and the letter that lay there, written on the same golden stationery shot with green threads as that his wife had read from slowly loosened and partially unfolded itself. “He sent me this.”
She looked at him, shocked. “Frodo wrote to you--personally?”
It was some time before he could bring himself to answer her. He looked away. “Remember when he came to Malco and Dremma’s place when we were attending their house party? I--I made a remark to him, and he said he’d note my request in his will. It--it appears he did so, and I’m to help carry his body at----” He swallowed. “At his funeral,” he finished, and finally looked back at her.
Delphie’s face, which had paled as she’d read the letters she’d received, now began to flush. What he might have said to Frodo was obviously going through her mind. “You--you said you wished him dead?” she finally said accusingly.
He shrugged and looked down at his hands, now lying again on the desktop. “Not exactly that, but....”
She gave a sigh of exasperation. “Bartolo Bracegirdle! When will you ever learn to temper your antagonism? I don’t have any real idea why you hate him so, for I’ve never known him to ever treat you badly. Is it from something said at that house party when you were both lads, the one at Aunt Lilac’s place? Can’t you forgive him for what was done over thirty-five years ago?”
He couldn’t think of a thing to answer her.
Finally she asked, “Well, are you going to do it--serve at his funeral?”
He gave a small shake of his head. “I don’t know,” he said quietly.
“Then you’d best make up your mind. But if you don’t, you’d best note I’ll lose whatever respect I hold for you.”
He looked into her eyes and noted she meant precisely what she’d said. Bagginses didn’t make such statements lightly, he knew.
They took the coach to Hobbiton. They were directed to the Party Field, and the ponies taken by a very quiet and subdued Pando Proudfoot to an improvised paddock on the south end of it while the coach was pulled into a neat line along the hastily erected pole fence that marked one side of the paddock and along which traps, wagons, and now a few coaches were arranged neatly.
Angelica Proudfoot was there to meet them. “There’s no room in either the Dragon or the Ivy Bush,” she warned them. “You’ll have to stay with us, although we have plenty of room for you and the children.”
“It’s true, then?” Bartolo asked.
She gave a solemn, somewhat reluctant nod. “He died last night. Terrified everyone, he did. Suddenly let out with a great scream of pain--fair wailing, he was. It went on, on and on, before the Elves came--and the Dwarf, and the Man.”
“A Man--here in the Shire?” Barti asked, shocked as Sancho joined them. “I thought as that King of theirs wouldn’t let any Men come in here any more? What’s this about?”
Sancho, whose eyes were deeply shadowed with exhaustion and grief, said, “It is the King. He came--came to help as he could. He helped with the attack that was killing Frodo, but Frodo was left too weak. He died not long after.” He pointed upwards, toward Bag End.
A small tent had been erected up on the Hill, in a portion of the gardens there. “The Elves had the tent with them, and what might be needed by the King. He’s tall, and commanding. Looked disreputable last night, he did, but you could see the Light to him--we could all see the Light to him, Frodo, and Samwise Gamgee all three. He’s inside, now, bathing, I think, and helping see to--to the body.”
Barti was feeling great unreality enclose him. “I need to see Brendilac Brandybuck, or Griffo Boffin, or--or Fosco Baggins.”
“They’re all inside Bag End, with the Thain and the Master and the Mayor--and the King.”
The day was crisp and cool, but it appeared all of Hobbiton and Bywater and half of the rest of the Shire besides were gathered there in the Party Field. There were a good number of Brandybucks and rather more Tooks about; the Boffins were to be seen as well as the Chubbs and Bolgers. Odo Proudfoot sat near his great-granddaughter Cyclamen, whose face was white and whose eyes were filled with incomprehension. “But I didn’t get to finish my story as I was telling him, Great Grandda,” she was saying as they came even with them. “I didn’t get to finish.”
For once the irascibility for which the old Hobbit was famous was gone. “Sweetling,” he said solemnly, “when it’s time to go, it’s time to go. And your cousin--he knew as it was time to go. Didn’t have time to listen to more story’n he could snatch, not and be ready.”
“He hurt, he hurt bad, though,” she said. “I could hear it--worse than when Pando stepped on a nail and it went through his foot, it was.”
“I know--your dad’s told me, lovey. It did hurt when the seizure was on him, but then it stopped. Pando says, when the King came, it stopped. And he wasn’t hurtin’ none when it was time. Just smilin’ at those as was about him, he was.”
Odo looked up, his eyes hardening some as he looked at Bartolo. “So you come, did you?” he asked. “Come to gloat over him as he’s lyin’ there dead, did you?”
Instead of feeling anger, Bartolo Bracegirdle felt shame fill him. Instead it was Delphie who answered the old Hobbit. “You’re a fine one to talk, Odo Proudfoot, you with your talk of how he was too good to accept the Shire’s pay for serving as deputy Mayor and all.”
Odo flushed and muttered something, just as a blurred shape hurrying toward them from near a cluster of Tooks resolved itself into their son Persivo, who had been studying law in the Great Smial under the tutelage of old Bernigard Took, the master of the Shire’s Guild of Lawyers.
“Mum, Dad, you came? We’re staying in the Green Dragon, although I’m certain as--that Master Berni will let me come stay with you. Where is that?”
“With your Aunt Angelica and Uncle Sancho, Persivo,” Barti told him quietly. The lad’s face was filled with surprise, then he smiled. “I have to go up into Bag End,” Barti continued. “Need to speak with Frodo’s Brandybuck lawyer and Griffo Boffin.”
Persi nodded. “I’ll give a hug to the lasses and Rikki, and I’ll go up with you. Master Berni says as I’m to listen to what’s discussed today, and as--that it’ll be important for me to remember when I’m a lawyer writing wills myself. He’ll come up later, he says, when he’s certain as--that it’s calmed a bit.”
He came forward slightly and whispered just loud enough for his parents to hear, “They say as the King’s here--rode all the way from Gondor, fast as he could come, on that horse there,” and he indicated a great silver-grey animal that was grazing on the far side of the field alongside a sorrel, a bay, and a white.
Delphie looked and gave a gasp of surprise. “How could anyone ride one of those things? They’re tall as mountains!” she exclaimed.
Cyclamen nodded. “Gandalf was here, and he had a real horse, too, just like the one they say is the King’s. It stayed mostly here in the Party Field, it did, and we’d all come to look at it. Wouldn’t let us come too near ’ceptin’ when he was here, too. Then he would let us pet it, and lifted me up so I could sit on its back, once. I’d of been scared if Gandalf hadn’t been holdin’ me. It was so high!”
Barti looked at the child. So, Gandalf had been here, too? He shook himself. “I need to go in,” he said, finally. He looked behind him--Begonia, Petunia, Alyssa, and Enrico were speaking with their aunt, then saw Rico Clayhanger and his wife approaching.
“So, you’ve come, too?” Rico said. “It was pretty dreadful for a time--a great shrieking. Seems as if Frodo was in a right state of pain, until the one they say is the King arrived.” He looked around him, his eyes concerned. “What in Middle Earth the King would want to come here for, I can’t begin to imagine.”
“For Iorhael’s sake,” said a lass who stood nearby. “Our cousin Frodo and the King are friends.”
There was definitely a good deal of Boffin in this one, and probably more Took. But the expression on her face, identical to that Delphie had sported the preceding day, was all Baggins. Although he’d never met her before, Bartolo had no trouble identifying her. “Forsythia Baggins?” he asked. At her nod he sighed. “Bartolo Bracegirdle at your service, and this is my wife Delphinium of the Overhill Bagginses, and your cousin Angelica Clayhanger who is daughter to Ponto and Iris Baggins, and her husband Rico....”
She listened to the introductions almost warily. At last Delphie asked, “Who is Iorhael?”
“It’s Frodo’s name in Elvish,” Barti told her.
The lass’s eyes lit with surprise. “How do you know that?” she asked.
“He told me, in my meetings with him,” the lawyer told her. “I’m one of his personal lawyers. I represent his business outside the Shire.”
Delphie’s eyes were wide with surprise. “Then--then Frodo himself was your mysterious client you’ve had to go to Bree so often about?”
Her husband nodded.
The lass looked at him with those wise Baggins eyes of hers. “Then that makes you Fosco’s lawyer now, I suppose.”
A feeling of being held captive by fate took Barti, and a portion of his usual resentment felt toward Frodo Baggins returned as he realized he was, indeed, bound to serve as lawyer before the realm for a half-blind lad for the next few years, at least. “Apparently so,” he said stiffly.
The lass--Forsythia Baggins--gave a nod. “Then you’d best go and speak to him.”
With this dismissal she turned away to the three lasses who were now approaching with their aunt and some of their lesser cousins. Barti could almost see the spark of friendship that passed before a single word was spoken between her and his Petunia, his sensible, sensitive, beloved Pet. He could see, all too well, that from now on the foster children of Emro and Lilac Gravelly and cousins of Frodo Baggins were going to be all too strong an influence in his home.
He turned and almost fled up the steps to the green door of Bag End, Persivo following.
An unknown Hobbitess opened the door before he had a chance to ring. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but the Master and Mistress aren’t receiving visitors at the moment. There is a good deal of business to be done today.”
“I’m to speak with Brendilac Brandybuck,” Barti explained, adding, “as directed in the last letter I received from Frodo Baggins.”
“About?” she asked.
“I’m--I’m to take part in the--funeral. Frodo said he made mention of it in his will.” He felt as if his cheeks were burning.
“I see,” she said thoughtfully. “Well, Mr. Brendi would know, wouldn’t he? Well, come in and have a seat in the formal parlor, and I’ll speak with him.”
He and Persivo were led to a room that obviously was used very rarely. There was not a speck of dust to be seen, and a vase of white roses perfumed the air--undoubtedly among the last of the season, Barti thought. But the mantel over the hearth was pristinely clean, the tables without a single mar, and the cushioned chairs devoutly uncomfortable.
They weren’t kept waiting long, however. “I’m to give you a drink of ale or wine each, and take you back to the bathing room,” she said. “Lord Strider is--is doing what needs doing.”
The bathing room was remarkably large for its kind. A high worktable had been brought into it and set alongside the fixed bathing tub, and over that table leaned a Man. Around it stood a number of Hobbits--Meriadoc Brandybuck, Peregrin Took, their mothers, a white-faced Narcissa Boffin, and Brendilac Brandybuck. The fire under the boiler was lit, and scented steam rose from the tub. And on the table----
On the table lay the body of Frodo Baggins, quite naked. And on that body could be seen, all too easily, a number of scars that seemed livid against the colorless skin. Without volition Barti and Persivo both pulled back, back where it was more difficult to see.
The Man was very gently washing the body, dipping his cloth into the steaming tub and running it gently over the cooled skin. He was singing softly as he worked, a song of grief reaching to the stars, of promises offered, loved ones missed.
At last he finished his labor and his song at the same time. “Bring me a towel, please,” he murmured, and Esmeralda immediately handed him the one she’d been holding in her arms throughout. He gently lifted the body, and at a nod a second towel was laid under it. Once the body was dry, clothing was brought him, and very gently drawers, undervest, trousers, a shirt of silver-blue, and at last a blue garment, some kind of overshirt, clothed it.
The door opened, and Samwise Gamgee entered carrying a bag of blue-black velvet. “You said as you wanted this, Strider? He’d of been most upset, you know.”
“Oh, yes, we do know,” the Man said, and for the first time Bartolo could see his face--lean, with high cheekbones and a short, well-trimmed beard, eyes grey, dark brown hair with silver at the temples hanging to his shoulders, not curly but not completely straight, either. An intelligent face. A discerning face. One capable of great sternness, and at the moment filled with a carefully controlled grief barely lit by the sad smile he shared with the gardener. “I know he hated to have his rank made plain, but it befit him so very well, you know.” Sam nodded, carefully opening the bag, allowing the Man to reach inside it and bring out a great silvery ring, one which he gently placed against Frodo’s curls.
Now at last all drew back, and Frodo’s body could be seen again, now decently clothed, those horrid scars hidden, save for his right hand having been laid over the left, allowing the gap where his ring-finger was missing to be clearly seen.
The face was quiet, a definite smile still to be seen on it, even in death.
“His hair and the King’s,” Persivo whispered into his father’s ear, “they’re the same color.”
And that was true, both a rich dark brown, almost black; both with temples gone silver; both with silver threads elsewhere as well. And as the Man looked down on the Hobbit’s remains, it could be seen even their smiles were similar. The eyes had been closed, adding by the hiding of the vivid blue Barti knew Frodo’s eyes had been to the similarity between the two faces.
“He lost so much weight again,” the Man said quietly. “It is almost as it was when Gandalf and the Eagles first brought the two of you out to us, how very thin he is, how light.” He examined Sam carefully, then smiled, and as had been true of Frodo Baggins this smile lit up the room. “Now you,” he continued, “look a proper Hobbit indeed. How very glad he was to report that, Sam.”
Sam nodded, smiling involuntarily. It was clear that he’d been weeping, and that he was likely to weep again, and soon.
“How proud he was of you, of your Rosie, of the work you’ve done--all of you, of little Elanor. It’s been years since I rode through the Shire, but I can see how many trees were wantonly cut and how lovingly new groves have been planted. The Lady Galadriel must be most proud of how well you used her gift to you.”
Sam’s lip trembled, but he managed to keep his dignity as he answered, “She told me that, there when we met with those as was goin’ to sail.” Then his reserve broke down and he reached forward, accepted being folded in the Man’s embrace. “Oh, Strider, why wouldn’t he go with them--accept the healin’ as he was offered? And how could we not--not suspect as what was there, in that bite?”
The Man was clearly weeping along with the Hobbit, doing so without any hint of shame whatsoever. “How was anyone to know, Sam? I doubt even my adar had the slightest idea. To find such a thing, and to realize she was--was draining him! No wonder he was fading! My brothers and Legolas--they were almost sick with the loathing of it when I brought it out of the wound!”
“First Sauron’s Ring, and then that Sharkey, and then--then that--that horrid thing!”
Merry spoke softly. “He seemed to know, there at the end. Told you it wanted removing.”
The Man looked over his shoulder and nodded. “Yes, he did.”
Merry continued, “I’m so very glad you got it out. Just think what--what the Shire might have become had--had that thing managed to get loose here. But to think of him--him possibly carrying such a thing there....”
“They’ve faced her afore in the Undying Lands,” Sam said, bringing out a handkerchief and wiping his eyes. “I think as they’d of had her number, all right, if you take my meanin’.”
“You’ve heard of her before, Sam?”
“Who’d you think as killed the Trees of the Valar, Mr. Merry?”
Merry and Pippin exchanged glances, and at last Merry said, “Let’s get something straight, Mr. Samwise, sir. We are no better than you are, and we won’t stand being ‘Mistered’ by you--do you understand, my Lord Panthael? You’re Master of Bag End now, and are our better in the outer realm. I’m Merry, and he’s Pippin. You want to ‘Mister’ my father or his, feel free. But not us.”
Sam looked straight back at him. “You know as just how hard it is for me to change what I call folks, once I’ve got started. You might just have to put up with it for the rest o’ your lives, you know. I mean, he’ll always be Lord Strider to me, and we all know it.”
And all found themselves inexplicably laughing in spite of their mutual grief, the Man loudest of all. “And how much I look forward to hearing you always call me that, Master Samwise.”
Then they were looking back at the form on the table. “Now,” the Man sighed, grief and solemnity taking him once again, “there is the question of what is to be done. What I had wished to do was to bring his body to the Barrow Downs, cleanse the place and see him properly buried there, the last Prince of Eriador. Such would be more than fitting, for him to be buried in what was the royal cemetery for the realm. But I sense such would not be seen as the honor it is by your people.”
Esmeralda Brandybuck was shaking her head. “No, even if you managed to chase all the wights there beyond the Sundering Sea we couldn’t let that happen, sir. He’s a Hobbit of the Shire, and was happiest here within the Shire and nowhere else. He even chose to die here when--when he might have gone--there and possibly been healed. Please let his body rest here, somewhere near here or Brandy Hall, where we know he was loved.”
“You have loved him all his life?”
“We’ve both known and loved him all his life, Eglantine and I. His mother was my husband’s father’s youngest sister, and her death was such a grief to us all. And then Frodo was as our son, Sara’s and mine, and was always as older brother to our Merry, and later to Pippin as well, once he was born. It was such a wrench to let him go to Bilbo--but Bilbo was right--we were killing him slowly with our stifling love. Here he became so much more than we were letting him become, until....”
“But, then, you never met Bilbo,” Eglantine Took said softly.
The Man smiled. “Never met Bilbo, you think? Oh, but I did, for he was my first friend among Hobbits. I’ll never forget the first time I saw him, there in the gardens of Imladris--I’d been playing at boar hunting, and he caught me at it. I was only ten at the time, I think--much like a lad of fifteen, if you will. He was very polite to me. You see, that’s where I grew up, in protective hiding from the Enemy and his creatures. When I came back to Rivendell as a Man grown and discovered he now resided there, I was so pleased. He told me much of you, although I’d forgotten most of it, not having faces to tie to the stories. But he never gave up his love for all of you, and particularly his love for his lad, his beloved boy.” He looked back to the still form lying there. “I’ll carry him back to his bed, if you will.”
Merry stepped forward. “Please, Aragorn--please let Pippin and me do it. We’ll not be able to--to do anything for him again for so long.”
The Man drew a deep breath, then released it, and nodded.
And so Merry and Pippin came to the table, gently lifting the form there and carrying it out of the room between them.
Brendi looked about the room. “It might be best, my Lord King, if we were to return to the dining room where we can talk more easily.”
The King nodded and turned, noting the two newcomers. “And you are?” he asked.
Bartolo Bracegirdle felt as if he were naked, much as had been true of Frodo’s body so shortly before. Those eyes looked into him and saw him thoroughly, he realized. “Bartolo Bracegirdle of Hardbottle, sir,” he said, his voice a bit strained, he was ashamed to notice. “And this is my oldest child, my son Persivo.”
The Man nodded. “Yes, Master Alvric has told me of you in his reports. He speaks highly of both of you, as did Frodo of you, Master Bracegirdle. Always he praised your integrity.”
Again Bartolo felt he was flushing--either flushing or going completely white--he wasn’t certain which. “Not his tact, though,” commented Eglantine Took in a low voice. When the Man turned to her she flushed. “I’m sorry--sir--my Lord....”
Esme sighed. “It’s just that he is a Bracegirdle, and unfortunately tact isn’t the strongest attribute of Bracegirdles.”
The King gave a wry smile. “So I’ve been advised. But it is a great honor to find myself meeting one renowned for his honesty and dedication.”
Suddenly Bartolo Bracegirdle felt it, the regard of the King, the honest respect offered him. And without realizing it he’d become the King’s man--or Hobbit, if you will. And the long-held anger he’d felt toward Frodo Baggins for over thirty-five years let go of him unnoticed.