Bartolo and Persivo were at the inn when Delphie and the children returned to the Prancing Pony, as Alvric had terminated their lessons at noon for Highday. Tomorrow at noon Bartolo would attend a meeting of the Bree Council at the Grange Hall on the north side of the village where Alvric would speak of the renewal of the two kingdoms and the impact that fact might be expected to have on the Breelands and the Shire. Then on Sunday Master Alvric intended for Bartolo, Persivo, and himself to ride out to the property where the tenants were digging their smial to discuss the lease agreement. Barti and Persi, therefore, sat together at the table in the parlor given to their use, working together on crafting that contract. They would resume their meetings with Master Alvric on Monday, said lessons to continue until the morning of the Highday; next Sterday it was hoped the tenants would come to Bree so that the agreement might be signed, after which they would most likely return to the Shire.
“And you, lass,” Barti said to Petunia, “how did you enjoy your day? Your mum and sister tell me you and Mistress Carnation’s niece came off into the marketplace. Did you stay out of mischief?”
“We saw a Ranger and one of the King’s Messengers,” Pet said carefully. “He wears the same uniform as does Pippin Took, the King’s messenger does. He bowed politely to us, as did the Ranger.”
“I see,” Barti commented, lifting the mug by him to take a swallow as he looked over its rim at his daughter. “The black garment with the embroidery?”
She nodded. “They met in the marketplace, and spoke of exchanging dispatches. The Ranger spoke of his Lord Cousin. Apparently he’s one of the King’s kinsmen as well as Master Eregiel.”
Delphinium considered her daughter’s report thoughtfully. “It sounds as if many of those among the Rangers are indeed the King’s own kindred. And if they guard the borders of the Shire and the Breelands, then it is obviously at his command. So, tell us of today’s lessons.”
There was little enough to tell--mostly today’s discussions had again focused on contracts for delivery of goods and services, with a few comments at the end on how wills were prepared and dealt with as a response to Ora Watercress’s comment that it was likely he’d be spending much of his afternoon working on a will for one of his clients, a Mannish farmer who worked land a couple miles toward Archet.
Another invitation arrived as they were finishing their tea, and Barti and Delphinium and the children found themselves dressing for dinner with the family of Mister and Missus Ora Watercress. The Watercresses had a comfortable hole on the eastern side of Bree Hill, where they lived with their son Basso and his wife Orchid and their two small children.
They were greeted warmly by Ora’s wife Stevia, who proved to be extraordinarily substantial for a Hobbitess. “It’s so good of you to come,” she assured them in her rather deep voice. “Ora has been speaking of little else for the last two days. And your own folk sent you out to learn from Master Alvric? Where is it you live within the Shire?”
Dinner was almost ready to go upon the table when they arrived, and soon they were seated in the dining room with a large roast of pork before them. Once they were past the prescribed period of quiet comments about the quality of the cooking and appreciation for the invitation, Ora asked, “How was it that your folk learned that this new King of ours was sending a lawyer of the realm here to Bree to offer this teaching?”
Bartolo shrugged. “I was so advised by our deputy Mayor.”
“Deputy Mayor?” asked Basso, intrigued. “What happened to Master Whitfoot? He’s been your Mayor for years, hasn’t he?”
Barti nodded. “Yes, but he’s not been strictly well since the Time of Troubles, although he’s much improved in health by now. Those Big Men who took over the running of the Shire threw him into a gaol of sorts they made out of the old storage holes in Michel Delving, and on the orders of the Chief they took about everyone else they found who appeared likely to give trouble there, too.”
“We were among those who joined the fight against the Big Men as tried to take over here,” Ora said after sharing a look with his son. “Our cousin Willie Banks was one of the five as died in the fight, and Taro Underhill, who came from Staddle sixteen years ago to set up a market stall for his family’s produce--he died, too. We hear that you didn’t fight, there in the Shire.”
Barti colored, while Persivo went pale and stiff, his cheeks quite pink. “At first,” the lawyer said, laying down his fork, “most folks in the Shire weren’t aware anything was going on. Suddenly the rumor flew through the Shire that Lotho Sackville-Baggins had declared himself Chief Shiriff, now as he’d bought Bag End from his cousin Frodo Baggins and had moved into it. We all laughed--who would believe that? Why, he’d tried to join the Shiriffs years ago, and they’d never have him--not him, as much a Bracegirdle as he was. We Bracegirdles aren’t exactly Shiriff material, for we don’t tend to be the kind of folk as most Hobbits want to laugh and joke with, you know; and anyone as tries to just order a Hobbit who’s drunk to go home and sleep it off is likely to end up with a punch to the nose. Those as become Shiriffs tend to be the hearty kind, those who don’t mind tramping about the Shire for days on end or searching out strayed cattle and sheep, and who can jolly a fellow into realizing he’s had two or three too many and it’s time now to go home. Lotho simply wasn’t the sort who could do such a thing.
“But it seems as most of those Big Men as tried to take over here just went there, and were joined by others sent of a purpose to help Lotho take over. Suddenly there were Big Men all over the place, about everywhere throughout the Shire. It didn’t help that Lotho had been quietly buying up property throughout the Shire, here, there, and everywhere. He’d bought up all the mills, and most of the inns and taverns; and those he didn’t own yet he took over--closed them all down.”
“You taken this Frodo Baggins to task for letting this Lotho bloke get his head swelled too big?”
Delphie said, her voice tight with suppressed emotion, “At first we couldn’t, for he’d left the Shire. Although as soon as he returned, him and his two cousins and his gardener that went with him, they got it all sorted out. Cousin Frodo is still sorting it all out, and all say he’s doing a marvelous job of it as deputy Mayor.”
Orchid asked, somewhat carefully, “Then you, as Bracegirdles, are related to this Lotho and to this Frodo Baggins both?”
Barti and Delphinium exchanged glances before Delphie answered her. “Unfortunately, in the case of Lotho at least, yes.” She went on to outline the relationship of her family to both Frodo and Lotho, continuing on, “When he heard Frodo’d run out of money and was looking to sell Bag End and go into retirement in Buckland among his mother’s folk, Lotho made an offer for the place, somehow believing that would make him the Baggins as well, only Frodo didn’t let the headship of the family go with the smial.”
“Seems as Lotho’d made contact with this Sharkey from far down south, and most of the Big Men as came into the Shire were sent by him,” Barti continued. “With them nearby, there wasn’t a great deal anyone could do to defy Lotho and his folk, especially once he began to send out his Gatherers and Sharers. All we could do was make use of the boltholes and hidden storage tunnels, hide what we could, and hold on till help came.”
“So, this Frodo Baggins is deputy Mayor now, is he?” asked Ora. “And he left the Shire? Where did he go?”
Persivo looked at his parents, then answered, “Actually, from what we’ve heard, they came here first, then they went south themselves to Gondor with the one as is King now. They’re all friends with our new King, it seems.”
“They came here?” asked Ora, disbelieving. “When?”
“Just over a year and a half ago,” Delphie said. “He came here with Peregrin Took, Meriadoc Brandybuck, and Samwise Gamgee.”
“But no Bagginses came then--an Underhill did, but not a Baggins. We saw them in the Pony, Basso and me.”
Delphie colored again. “Maybe he wasn’t giving his right name, but I assure you it was my cousin Frodo Baggins. If he came with a Brandybuck and a Took and a Gamgee, it was Frodo.”
“But they left Bree with that awful Strider!”
“So we understand, although from what we can tell they have a great deal of respect for the Man. But then it appears we all should respect him, as he’s our King now.”
The adult Watercresses all set down their own forks and knives and stared at her with disbelief. Stevia’s eyes were all but popping. “You’re joking!”
But Bartolo was shaking his head, finding a perverse pleasure in responding, “Oh, but this Strider you knew is evidently our new King indeed. He was chieftain of the Ranger’s folks, and was descended directly from Arvedui Last-king. Carried Elendil’s sword and everything from what we’ve been told by Mr. Eregiel the other night.”
“But Elendil’s only a story!” insisted Orchid.
“That’s what we thought, too,” Delphinium assured her. “However, it appears that his was a true story.” She took another bite of potatoes and gravy, then once she’d swallowed she set her own fork down thoughtfully. “I remember when I was little more than a faunt, sitting on Cousin Bilbo’s lap when he was telling tales in the Common in Hobbiton, telling the story of how Elendil the Tall came from Númenor with his sons at the Breaking of the World. He assured us it was a true story, but my parents told me it wasn’t. Now it seems it was true indeed. Bilbo said he’d heard the whole story told in Rivendell when he was traveling with the Dwarves, and my parents used to laugh at that. Apparently they ought not to have done so.”
Ora looked at his son. “Helko was right?” the older Hobbit asked.
“So it seems,” Basso said. He looked back at their guests. “How did you folk get rid of the Big Men as came into the Shire?”
Bartolo shrugged. “It was the Captains--Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took--the Master and the Thain’s sons. Did you see them when they came back through here? From what we hear tell they stayed a couple nights at the Prancing Pony before they came rest of the way home.” At Basso’s tentative admission he’d seen them at least, Barti continued. “Were they wearing that mail of theirs when they were here?”
“Yes, and swords. We were all amazed, for we’ve not seen Hobbits with swords before.”
“It seems as this Strider saw them trained to use those swords of theirs, and that all four of them fought in the war down in this Gondor and Mordor. Although from what I’ve heard of Frodo Baggins he doesn’t like using his own sword. While the rest were besting the Big Men, Frodo was seeing to it as they didn’t hurt any of those as laid down their own weapons. Insisted they just be shown the gate at the Brandywine Bridge as Lotho’d had raised and thrown out, those as gave up. The next day they all rode for Michel Delving and opened up what the Big Men called the Lockholes and freed all those as were imprisoned there.
“Old Will Whitfoot was thin as a lath, he was, with a cracked kneebone. He’s about ready to take back over now, but he wants to retire and has let it be known he’s nominating Frodo as his successor as proper Mayor. Although I’m not certain as Frodo feels up to continuing on.”
“Whyever not, Barti dear?” asked Delphie, surprised.
Bartolo shrugged again, not certain if he’d said too much. “Frodo was apparently sick in March--stayed in Bywater for two whole weeks, you know, there just before Sam Gamgee finished with the restoration of Bag End so as Frodo could move back in.”
“Did Baggins buy the hole back from this Lotho?” asked Basso, intrigued.
“From what that Sharkey told everyone, Lotho’s dead,” Barti admitted. “We’re not certain, for no one’s found his body yet. But it seems Sharkey had this odd fellow as came with him kill Lotho in his bed or something like, and the Worm creature hid the body somewhere. Probably someone will find it sometime--we just have no idea when. Aunt Lobelia heard tell of Lotho being killed, right there in Bag End, and she couldn’t bear the thought of going back there. Was nowhere as grand as she’d imagined all those years as she and Otho’d dreamed of what it would be like to live in the place and be the Bagginses as well as the Sackvilles. So she had me, as her lawyer, reconvey the property back to Baggins. Took a gold coin off him for it, I did.”
“What was he doing with a gold coin? Many gold coins there in the Shire?” asked Ora.
“Well, certainly the Thain and the Master control enough in the way of gold to see to the needs of their own folk in the Tooklands and Buckland,” Barti allowed. “But from what I’ve learned this particular coin was sent Frodo by the King himself. First coin struck of the new King’s coinage, we’re told by Isumbard Took. Had a black seal on it and all. Almost hated to see it go back to Baggins, but old Lobelia wrote it in her will as she wished it returned when she died. Hear tell as he carries it wherever he goes, right there in his pocket. He was certainly shocked enough when I took it out of his hand when I threw the deed to Bag End on the Mayor’s desk--I’ll say that.”
“Why did the new King send him a gold coin?” persisted Basso.
“How do I know? All I know is that the King and Frodo like one another full well--or at least Frodo Baggins loves the King enough for both. You can hear it in his voice, he just speaks of the Man.”
“Strider the Ranger--the King?” asked Stevia, still apparently not having taken in that fact.
Persivo suddenly was rummaging through his pocket, finally pulling out one of the larger copper coins of the new coinage. “Here--I got this yesterday on the way home as I bought a new steel pen in a shop off the square. It’s one of the new King’s coins, they tell me.” He passed it to Master Watercress, who examined it curiously then focused on the face of the King. He paled once more, and passed it on to his son.
“It can’t be!” Basso insisted. “It can’t be Strider the Ranger!” He looked up in shock and turned his gaze from his father’s face to Persi’s.
“Let me see,” Orchid said as she took the coin from her husband. She looked carefully at the face depicted, then whispered, “Hills and valleys, Basso--I’ll swear as it is Strider.” She looked at it again, then finally reluctantly handed it to her husband’s mother.
Stevia now examined the coin closely, shaking her head throughout in disbelief. “Him’s the King now? But how?”
“However it was done,” Persivo said quietly as he finally claimed the coin back from his hostess, “our Cousin Frodo Baggins was apparently involved. But Mr. Eregiel wouldn’t tell us the details, nor will Master Alvric. All they’ll tell us is that all four of the Travelers were involved in fighting the Enemy, and all four almost died, and that the folk of Gondor and the King’s kin here in Eriador all honor all four of them.”
“But why would Cousin Frodo Baggins not use his right name when he came here?” Begonia asked.
“You say you two were there, the night they came through Bree and stayed in the Prancing Pony?” Bartolo asked Basso and Ora.
So Basso described the night there at the Prancing Pony and the dance on the table, and the sudden, inexplicable disappearance of the mysterious Mr. Underhill and his reappearance by Strider and his insistence he’d just fallen under the table and crawled away. “But he couldn’t of done so,” Basso continued. “I mean, he was falling when he went invisible, like, and he was falling forward. The table fell over, and he was falling in front of it. Couldn’t of lit under it, he couldn’t. A flash of gold there was, and then we couldn’t see him at all. He’d pulled his hand out of his pocket, for he’d had it in there just before the table fell over. Don’t know if he’d had a gold coin himself, but I saw it clear as clear--that flash of gold, and then no one could see him at all. Gone, he was.”
“That song as you tell of sounds like some of old Bilbo’s nonsense,” Barti sniffed. “Frodo could dance, of course--no one better than him at dancing, you know. And his voice was fair enough, I suppose.”
Delphie gave her husband a disdainful glance. “Really, Bartolo Bracegirdle. Frodo’s voice was excellent, although he was best at dancing. But I never heard tell of him dancing on tables as a regular thing. I mean, he liked a good ale, although he always tended to drink more wine than ale, from all I ever heard of him. But he never had a reputation as one who was drunken often. I doubt as I’ve heard of him being drunk more than five times since he first was allowed to go to an inn by Cousin Bilbo, and that’s been well over twenty-five years back now.”
“Well, we all thought as he was well into his cups when he got up on that table, interrupting the tale as the young one was telling,” Basso said. “Mayhaps he wasn’t, not really; but there’s no question he was a good dancer. Far more graceful than what one usually sees from one what’s got up atop a table, you know.”
Delphie nodded. “Oh, but he’s always been an excellent dancer. He was several years younger than I, but I danced with him a few times over the years, and watched him more. You saw him dance, then you had a real treat, for he’s not danced publicly in about ten years, I think.”
“I still can’t take it in,” Ora sighed, his attention back on Persivo. “When we heard tell of the attack on the Pony that night----”
Delphie and Barti exchanged glances. “The inn was attacked?” Barti demanded. “Why? Who did it?”
“We aren’t certain. There were strange folks about, there were--big, big Men all got up in black, plus a number of rough folks come up the Greenway from the south. Whether it was the Black Riders or the brigands from the south we don’t know; but we’ve heard tell as the room that the strangers from the Shire were supposed to sleep in was broken into and the beds cut to ribbons. Only they weren’t there, see? Slept in a parlor, they did; and next morning they were supposed to leave quietly with that Strider, but couldn’t leave at once, for the ponies and horses in the stable at the inn were all gone, too. Had to look all over to find a pony as they could buy to carry their supplies and luggage. Bought that wreck of a pony as Bill Ferny kept. He’d not had it all that long, and he’d almost starved it to death, what we could see as they left. But I’m certain as it was far better off with them headed north-aways than it had been with Ferny.”
Getting somewhat excited, Basso continued, “Then the end of October they came back. None of us had wanted to go out for months, not since the brigands come. Suddenly word went through Bree that the bad times were over, and that those Shire Hobbits that had gone with that Strider were back, and Gandalf the Wizard with them. I think it was the first time I’d been to the Prancing Pony of an evening for months, it was, just to see them. We couldn’t believe the changes in the two--Mr. Brandybuck and Mr. Took, you understand. The one had been so short before, and now the two of them were both so very tall for Hobbits. And they had their swords and wore them. They were all dressed quite fancy-like, they were, especially those two. And the way they held themselves--it was so different. For all they were laughing and all, it was plain they’d--seen things--done things. And that Mr. Underhill that had danced on the table the last time--he was the quietest. Sat watching the others while he stayed in the common room, although he was the first to go to bed. Ben Mossybanks started calling for a song, but everyone just stared at him. Mr. Underhill, his face got very white save for spots of pink on his cheeks, and one look at his face was enough for me to know no one would talk him into doing what he’d done the last time--not that anyone else wanted strange things happening in the Pony again, mind.”
“Except he’s not Mr. Underhill,” his father reminded him. “His real name is Baggins, as these have taken pains to tell us.”
“He was ever so nice,” said one of the little lads, “the one what dressed most like a Hobbit and had the darkest hair. He stopped in the marketplace and bought some horehound drops before they left, and gave some to Dek and me. And the others were watching out for him, all of them.”
“Horehound drops?” asked Delphie, a reminiscent smile on her face. “Frodo was always bringing horehound drops when he visited in Overhill. My little sister always looked forward to his horehound drops and his stories.”
“He didn’t give me any when we went to the Council Hole and the Mayor’s office,” Alyssa commented.
“And where was he to get them?” Persi asked. “They’d only just got the inn reopened by then. The sweet shop wasn’t open yet.”
“He’s always loved children,” their mother reminisced. “I can’t think why he never married.”
“When Pearl married Isumbard Took----” began her husband.
“You saw him at the Party, Bard,” his wife answered. “He danced with about everyone, and was finally looking back at Narcissa. He was finally over Pearl and looking to see who was seeing him.”
“Frodo Baggins has always been a bit odd,” Bartolo shrugged. “But what else can one expect, brought up first in Brandy Hall, wrong side of the river, and then by old Mad Baggins himself?”
Obviously annoyed, Delphie snapped, “Would you rather deal with Cousin Lotho? After all, he was born and raised right there in Hobbiton, center of the Shire, and was half Bracegirdle! And for all he was eccentric Cousin Bilbo was one of the canniest folk as you could hope to deal with. As for Frodo--he’s always been the most decent soul in the Shire.”
She gave a disgusted sigh. “You don’t trust him because he swims? You yourself pointed out he grew up near the Brandywine. His mother was the Master’s sister, after all. Of course he swims. And he’s as graceful in the water as he is on the dance floor--or at least he was. They tell me he didn’t dance at his friend Sam’s wedding.” Her expression had gone sad and thoughtful.
They’d resumed their interrupted meal, and for a time they ate quietly, Basso and Orchid’s little lads eyeing their guests curiously. Then the talk turned to a discussion between Ora and Bartolo on differences between how contracts were written in the Breelands and the Shire, while Orchid, Stevia, and Delphinium eventually began comparing Midsummer festivities. By the time they were ready for their puddings the subject of Frodo Baggins had been largely forgotten.
They didn’t stay late, and Persivo was glad enough when they returned to the inn. He and Petunia went off to play another game of draughts, and she told him quietly about the meeting earlier in the day with the Ranger and the King’s Messenger. He beat her handily that evening, and they returned to the parlor to find their father had gone to the bathing room with Rikki, and their mother was combing Alyssa’s curls dry, their two sisters having gone to bathe just after they’d gone out.
“But how could Cousin Frodo Baggins just disappear, falling off a table?” Lyssa was asking. “Did old Cousin Bilbo Baggins leave him his ring what made him invisible?”
“Oh, sweetling, that was but a story,” Delphie assured her.
“That’s not what Cousin Frodo Baggins said at the Free Fair time before last when we went, Mummy. He said that old Cousin Bilbo Baggins really did go with the Dwarves to get their treasure back from the dragon, and you know Mr. Glorinlas said the same.”
“But I’ve never seen Frodo ever wear a ring, not even the one that used to be his dad’s,” her mother pointed out.
“But if it was a ring to make you invisible you wouldn’t see it, would you?” Lyssa pointed out with the straightforward logic of a child who has it all worked out in her head. “I mean, if it was a ring of invisibility you wouldn’t see either it or him if he put it on.”
“And that’s not the type of thing one would show off, is it, Mum?” Begonia added as she brushed her own hair.
“And maybe that’s what they were looking for--the ones who wanted jewelry--that ring that made you invisible,” Lyssa continued. “No one as had rings taken ever got them back, did they, Mum?” she asked, looking up into her mother’s face.
Delphinium paused, a lock of Alyssa’s hair caught in one hand, the comb held still in the other. “Not that I’ve heard tell,” she finally admitted. “But, morsel, there aren’t rings to make folks invisible.”
“You didn’t used to think there were things like dragons either, did you, Mummy? Dragons or Elves?”
Persivo noted that his mother had colored at that. “No, dearling, I don’t suppose I did.”
“Then if there are dragons and Elves, maybe there are rings of invisibility, too. And they do call Cousin Frodo Baggins the Ring-bearer as if that’s something important as he did. I’ve heard the Rangers who was here call him that.”
“You’re certain they were talking about my cousin?”
“Yes, Mummy. One said he had a letter to the King from Lord Frodo Baggins, the Ring-bearer himself. I heard him telling Mr. Eregiel, only I didn’t know as it was Mr. Eregiel then, for we hadn’t had dinner with him yet.”
Persi and Pet found themselves exchanging glances. Their little sister was proving very perceptive indeed, they thought.
Sterday was a market day, and once Bartolo had set off for Mistress Gorse’s house to accompany the Mannish Lawyer to the Council meeting, Delphinium and her children set off for the market square. Bored after a time with examining bolts of fabric and ribbons, Persivo, Petunia, and Enrico received permission to go off on their own for a time as well as sufficient pocket money to get themselves a couple pasties to tide themselves over to tea. They’d settled themselves at a table designed for Hobbits near the stalls that provided freshly prepared food when a group of Dwarves settled themselves at the next table, very obviously leaving one place open for a companion the children must assume was fetching some refreshment for the rest.
The older Hobbits had been ignoring the Dwarves until Rikki suddenly punched his brother’s arm. “Persi,” he hissed, “they’re talking about us. They’ve figured out we’re Hobbits of the Shire, and not from Bree.”
The attention of Persi and Pet immediately fixed on the Dwarves, and it was obvious Rikki was right. Three of the five were examining them directly, while the other two were giving them sidelong glances. One of them, a somewhat shorter Dwarf with dark hair, rose and approached their table. “Orin son of Bofur at your service,” he said with a most polite bow. “You three are Hobbits of the Shire?”
After a glance at his sister and brother, Persi rose, bowing himself. “Persivo Bracegirdle son of Bartolo Bracegirdle, at the service of you and your family. And these are my sister Petunia and little brother Enrico. And, yes, we are from the Shire--from Hardbottle.”
“Then you possibly don’t know the Ring-bearer--Frodo Baggins, then?”
Persi felt himself flushing with mixed excitement and a surprising amount of embarrassment. “I’ve seen Cousin Frodo Baggins a few times over the years, mostly at the Free Fair at Midsummers, although the last time was a few weeks ago at the Mayor’s office in Michel Delving. But I have to admit I don’t really know him well.”
Orin looked back at the others with an expression of triumph. “I thought that perhaps you might know him. I’ve not properly met him myself, although I saw him a few years back while we were traveling through the Shire. Dorlin pointed him out to me as the nephew of the Esteemed Burglar Bilbo Baggins. You do resemble him, you must understand; and you are obviously Hobbits of the Shire, and not those from here in Bree.”
“Come, join us, if you’d like,” Persivo asked politely. “Would you like a partridge pastie? We have an extra few.”
Orin son of Bofur agreed, and they were quickly seated together as a sixth Dwarf joined the other table bringing a platter of pasties and mugs of ale. “I’m a sculptor among us,” he explained, “and our group has decided to go south to Minas Tirith to assist in the reconstruction there. I’m told there’s a fair amount of damage done to statuary and wall carvings as well as to homes and guild halls and businesses, especially in the lower circles of the city, that needs repair, and Gimli has purposely asked Dorlin and me to assist in that. I’d hoped to perhaps meet Lord Frodo or Lord Samwise or one of their companions while we went through the Shire; but it appeared that we were at least a day behind them all along the way as we traveled the Road.”
“Then you’ve heard about what they did while they were away.”
“Well, of course. Gimli shared a great deal with our council when he returned to Erebor for last winter. I came from Erebor to the Iron Hills earlier in the season to speak to my grandsire and granddam about the decision to go south, and they are in agreement I should follow Gimli and afterwards perhaps settle in the new caverns he’s discovered in Rohan and help open them. It will be a mighty enterprise, and to know that both the Lord Elessar and Lord Éomer are as eager to see them opened as are we Dwarves is heartening. I’ve never met the King of Rohan, myself; but the few times I met Lord Aragorn I was most impressed by him. A most worthy soul he is; and it’s a matter of pride to know that my Cousin Gimli assisted him to win his Crown at last.”
Rikki asked, “Why do you call Bilbo Baggins ‘the Esteemed Burglar’?”
Orin laughed. “When my father joined Thorin Oakenshield to seek out the Lonely Mountain to help find a way to perhaps steal the Arkenstone of Erebor back from Smaug the Dragon, Gandalf indicated that what the enterprise needed was a professional burglar to creep in and scout about, and perhaps actually find the gem and bring it out to them. Plus my father was very superstitious, and didn’t like the fact that as only twelve Dwarves agreed to go with Thorin that made a party of thirteen. You must understand--we Dwarves don’t like the number thirteen. Not a good number, you know. Now, twelve--that’s a good number--divisible by one, two, three, and four as well as six; a very good number, twelve. But thirteen? I ask you--what use is it? Too large to be particularly useful of itself, and not divisible by any other proper number. So when Gandalf suggested they take a burglar my father was all for it, for that would make fourteen, which is at least divisible by two and seven. A far more propitious number than thirteen, you see. And Gandalf suggested Bilbo Baggins.”
The three young Hobbits didn’t begin to see at all, but were too polite--and astute--to admit they didn’t begin to understand what the problem might have been. “But why do you esteem Bilbo Baggins?” asked Rikki.
Orin smiled behind his dark beard. “Why shouldn’t we? He was clever and resourceful, did all that was expected of him and more, and had enough personal integrity to shame Thorin Oakenshield for allowing himself to become infected with the Dragon sickness. And if he hadn’t seen the weakness in Smaug’s armor and let the thrush know, Bard the Bowman wouldn’t have known where to aim his black arrow so as to bring the Dragon down. We all esteem Bilbo for his part in returning the Kingdom of Erebor to us and helping to see to the Dragon’s demise as well as for his attempts to remind us that quarreling with the Men and Elves nearby was destructive to all in the end. Why, he even attempted to aid in the defense when the wargs and orcs came out of the Misty Mountains to assault our folk, even though he’d never had training in how to wield his sword. My folk were shamed to realize that a Hobbit showed far more integrity and courage than they’d displayed to date, and it helped cool and clear their heads.”
“And you respect our Cousin Frodo Baggins, too?” asked Petunia.
“We respect all four of those who left the Shire the last time. Again, they gave an example of courage, integrity, and willingness to spend themselves for the safety for all of Middle Earth beyond what others had thought of, and we were moved to cooperate with others, even the Elves of Mirkwood, to fight against the Enemy and his folk from both Mordor and Dol Guldur. Between their example, that of Lord Aragorn Elessar, and that of Gandalf and the wisdom all shared from Elrond of Rivendell, we were prepared this time to fight together. And now that the great war is over, we are finding ourselves cooperating with the Wood Elves of Mirkwood in the restoration of Aragorn Elessar’s southern capital, and will undoubtedly assist in its time with the restoration of the northern capital as well.”
He examined them closely. “And why are you here in Bree, Hobbits from the Shire as you are?”
“Our dad and I are learning how to write contracts binding to the outer realm,” Persivo explained. “Our dad was the first to be sent out for this training. Cousin Frodo Baggins chose him for the training, you see.”
Orin smiled. “Excellent,” he said. “I think no people should think to remain isolated from now on. And certainly Lord Aragorn has indicated we will all benefit from increased trade.”
At that moment the rest of the Dwarves rose. “Orin,” one called, “if we don’t get our supplies now we won’t be able to leave at dawn tomorrow.”
“Coming,” Orin called back as he rose. “I thank you for sharing your pasties, but as Dorlin indicated we intend to leave early in the morning. I wish you success in your studies, young Hobbits, and a good journey back to your home. And if you see the Ring-bearer, convey our respects.” He gave a deep bow and turned to hurry after his fellows.
“See!” Rikki said. “He called our Cousin Frodo Baggins the Ring-bearer, too.”
Petunia nodded absently as she watched after the Dwarves. “Yes. Maybe Alyssa is right, and Frodo Baggins did have a magic ring.”
“Maybe,” Persi agreed.
Alvric was straightening his surcoat as he approached the front door, where he found Carnation peering out through a crack. “What is it?” he asked.
“Another of Miss Denra’s suitors,” the Hobbitess hissed. “That Delric Safflower this time.”
He moved to the window to the side of the door, and could see a Man of medium build headed their way, carrying a rather ragged bunch of flowers in his hand. Alvric personally thought the flowers appeared to be rather an afterthought, and as if they’d been snatched up from the verge and along garden walls as the Man walked through the village. “Does she like this one?” he asked. “I mean, should I allow him to knock on the door?”
Carnation shrugged. “He’s been here but the oncet,” she murmured, “and was polite enough, I suppose. Not as she’s truly keen on him, what I can tell.”
Alvric went back through the house to the still room where Denra was preparing a simple involving, from what he could tell, dandelion flowers. “Mistress Denra,” he informed her, “I understand that Master Delric Safflower appears to be coming. Shall I allow him to knock, or would you rather I sent him on his way?”
She looked up with a sigh. “Actually, he’s been one of the milder ones,” she said, “although I’m rather busy at the moment. Perhaps you should suggest he return somewhat later in the day?”
“Gladly,” he returned with a bow, and he returned to the front of the house where Carnation was opening the door to the caller’s knock.
“Yes, Master Safflower?” Carnation asked.
“Mistress Sandybanks, a pleasant Sterday to you. I was wondering if Miss Denra was free.”
Alvric moved into the gap in the doorway. “Greetings, Master Safflower,” he said courteously. “I’m sorry, but Mistress Gorse is involved in her still work. She asks if you would consider calling back later in the day?”
Safflower appeared to be taken aback, and looked between the Hobbitess and the Man. “I--beg your pardon, Master. I had no idea she was already in company.” Alvric merely gave him a polite smile, until at last the visitor recalled himself, and found himself considering the bunch of flowers he held. “I see. Well, Master, if you will--will see to it that she receives these.” With that he shoved the flowers at the lawyer and retreated rapidly and with a degree of confusion.
When Alvric returned to the still room with the flowers, she gave a quick glance and a shake of her head. “Mistress Mugwort will have his hide,” she predicted, “once she realizes he made off with some of her snapdragons and pinks. She’s terrible proud of her snapdragons, she is.”
“So I gathered from what Carnation has had to say. Shall I put them in water?”
“If you will,” she said, and indicated where a vase sat on a shelf. “I suppose you could place them in the parlor. And when will you be leaving?”
“Master Bracegirdle ought to be here any time now, and we intend to leave immediately on his arrival.”
“I don’t believe you will encounter any difficulties before the Council,” she commented as she saw the bottles she was working with corked and set upon the proper shelves. “And I do thank you for reseating the stone for the stoop.”
“I’m grateful to Master Helko for the aid he gave me in seeing it done--but it proved far simpler than I’d expected.”
“He commented that you didn’t need very much direction, as if you’d done such work before.”
“It wasn’t much different than laying paving stones at my uncle’s estate, I found. I used to assist him when I was younger, with tasks about the place and with the skeps. He kept bees, you see.”
“I see.” She smiled at him, and he found himself smiling back at her. “Did you help extract the honey from the combs?”
“Oh, yes--I’d prepare the smoke smudges and help smoke the skeps, and even helped with the removal of the combs. Once I helped capture a swarm and see it settled in a new skep. I felt very excited. Bees are actually very peaceful, you see, unless they feel threatened. I found I liked working with the bees. Now, hornets--that’s a completely different matter.”
They both laughed. “Yes, quite different from bees, hornets are,” Denra said, smiling. “If you ever choose to give up lawyering, you might look to keep bees hereabouts. I don’t know of anyone as keeps them at the moment. The Heathertoes family used to keep them, but when Mat died in the defense of Bree itself they gave it up.”
Alvric’s expression became more solemn. “I grieve that such troubles came upon the Breelands and the Shire. And to learn that Curunír betrayed these lands as he did Rohan and Gondor was such a shock! The Wizards, after all, were all sent to succor all of Middle Earth, not to seek to take power over its lands and people.”
He took out his lens, polished it on his surcoat, and examined the room through it, nodding his approval of the careful lines of bottles and jars. “My mother used to work diligently in her still room,” he said quietly. “She would brew the most delightful cordials, as well as certain draughts for when we were ill. She’d be delighted with yours, I think.”
Denra flushed a bit at the compliment. “I do some brews, and then certain draughts for the use of the local healers.”
He smiled as he met her eyes. “That is wonderful. I suspect the King would have enjoyed purchasing certain medicaments from you when he needed them, had he been aware you prepared them. Did you ever sell to any of the Rangers?”
She shrugged. “A couple times to the Scribe, and once or twice to Strider----” She stopped, and colored even more as she looked more deeply into his eyes, a delighted smile on her lips. “Then--if Mr. Eregiel is correct, then I did sell to the King!”
He laughed. “He will most likely recognize your name, then.”
She washed her hands in the basin nearby and dried them on the linen towel that lay there, then took up the basin to take it out to empty over the flowers outside the back door. He followed her. “I wonder if he’ll remember Fell’s name?” she said as they walked through the kitchen. “I know he used to purchase honey from Mat Heathertoes and that several of the Rangers bought apples from the Appledore orchard. But as Fell didn’t die here in the village itself it seems his name keeps getting left off the lists.”
“Where did he die?”
“He’d been visiting in Combe--seeing Agatha, the girl he’d come to fancy. Her family raises sheep, and she spins and dyes wonderful yarn, you see, and they bring yarn, threads, and mutton into Bree about four times a year to the market here. He was on his way back home when he saw the forces massing against our village. He knew the lands better about here than they did, so he slipped into Bree to give warning, then after seeing to it as I was safely taken to the Prancing Pony in case they broke through the West Gate and fired any of the houses hereabouts, he slipped back out with three other Men to keep an eye on the ruffians. They were spotted and attacked, and I understand as he was hit over the head with a club. The other three got away, but not Fell. They didn’t find his body for three days. They’d treated it awfully, they had.” She leaned against the doorway, the now emptied basin almost forgotten in her hands, her eyes bleak.
He sighed. “I see. So many I knew died, also, in the war. My cousin Garaldorn was a warden for the docks in Pelargir. Some of the scout ships for their armada fired a warehouse, and a wall fell on him and crushed him. And a friend marched on the Black Gates along with our Lord Aragorn Elessar and Prince Imrahil and Éomer King of Rohan. He died there, I understand. Captain Peregrin Took marched also with the Army of the West, and managed to kill a great troll. They say he saved a friend from among the Guard of the Citadel as well as at least two others, although he was almost lost himself when the troll fell on him as it died.
“As for what the Enemy had done to cause consternation and grief amongst the defenders of Minas Tirith--the Master of the Guild of Merchant Adventurers tells of finding the head of the son of a friend cast over the wall by Mordor’s catapults. The enemy was vicious and merciless in its assaults on Gondor’s lands and people; while what Curunír did in Rohan--never have I heard the like! The King has been most disturbed to hear he sent villains and half-orcs here to the Breelands and the Shire, and his pride for the courage all showed in casting them out is great.”
Her eyes brightened and she straightened. “The King is proud of us?” she asked.
“Indeed,” he assured her as he slipped his lens back into his pocket.
Just then they heard Carnation calling from the front of the house, “Master Alvric--Master Bartolo is coming!”
He hastily filled the vase with water from the pump, then drying his one hand on the leg of his trousers he hurried off to the first parlor to set the vase of flowers on a table and then went to the front door, Holby rousing from his place by the fireplace to follow after, his stump of a tail wiggling rapidly as Alvric greeted the Shire lawyer.