Esme’s first glimpse of her son and her nephew after their return shook her deeply. First, there was the fact that both of them were so much taller than they’d been when they left the Shire. It was strange enough to see in Merry; but in Pippin, who’d been rather short even for a Hobbit before he left the Shire it seemed very strange indeed. Now both appeared to loom over everyone else, plus both appeared to find looking down at all other Hobbits in the Shire to be somewhat unnerving.
“You have to remember, Mum,” Merry tried to explain, “that for the past year we Hobbits have been the shortest ones around. When Frodo and Sam awoke and we realized we were looking down on them, it took us both by surprise, for we still had to look up to Elves, Men, Ents, and even Dwarves. I mean, Gimli was still looking down on us. We had to have new clothes made, and we grew even some more on the way home, I think. After all, we had another drink with Treebeard once we reached Orthanc.”
“You’ve been with Elves, Men, and Dwarves?” she asked a bit taken aback.
He nodded. “Oh, yes. We’ve met a spate of folks, even the Great Eagles, although I only saw the one up close, and I doubt seriously Frodo or Sam remember them at all. Pippin didn’t see them, he says, although he heard others calling out when they arrived. We’d see them from time to time flying overhead after we returned to Minas Tirith and while we were returning home--Sam said he saw one flying over the Shire just after the Battle of Bywater and a second time as we left Bag End----”
“Did you see this Sharkey fellow?”
“Yes, we did.” The joy in Merry’s face had faded completely, and there was a certain sternness that made even that of which his father was capable appear benign. “He taunted Frodo, and even tried to threaten him. I only hope that Frodo doesn’t take that last thing he said to heart. But then he was taunting the Lady Galadriel while we were on the road as well, and she certainly didn’t appear to be taking him seriously.”
She was shocked. “Then, you’ve seen him before?”
He nodded. “Oh, yes. The first time was when we visited Isengard with the Ents when they threw down his fortress and trapped him in his own tower, then closer up when we went to the foot of the tower itself when Gandalf was seeking to offer him the chance to leave his alliance with Sauron, then broke his staff. Then we passed him on the road, and the last time there at Bag End. We saw Wormtongue kill him--it was pretty horrible. Frodo was grief-stricken.”
“To see him die?”
“Oh, I don’t think that bothered him as much as Saruman refusing the offer to give him the chance for healing for his spirit. Saruman didn’t want healing of the spirit, and treated all who offered him pity the same, even me, with contempt and curses.”
“But to see someone murdered before ones eyes----”
“Do you think Frodo hadn’t seen that along the way, Mum? No, the Ring showed him that in plenty.” Merry, grief and determination in his eyes, turned away as Berilac entered the room, calling out his name in joy.
Give him the chance to talk, and Peregrin Took would appear to be no different at all than he was before he left the Shire--voluble, filled with unexpected twists of thought, veering off onto new subjects with each new sentence. “Oh, Aunt Esme,” he said, “if you could have seen what the cooks at Minas Tirith can come up with! I would never have thought to stuff a great goose with a great duck with a great capon with a game hen with a partridge, but they did it! Although I must say that Aragorn didn’t appear extraordinarily impressed. But give him a more simple dish extraordinarily well prepared and spiced, and he would wax poetic to the cook. And when they found he wished to teach them how to make certain dishes that he favored--the head cook was just amazed. It was the first I truly appreciated that not all Men learn to cook, and among them women cook more than their menfolk do. Oh, I know that when it was Boromir’s turn to cook for us along the way he could turn out some atrocious messes; but I’d put that down to simply being away from his familiar kitchen and his favorite spices. When I found out he had no idea what borage is and couldn’t identify comfrey when we came across it....”
But then his speech had tapered off, and his eyes grew distant, the smile forgotten. He murmured, “I’d promised to teach him how to prepare a capon when we reached his home, and I never got the chance.” He drifted away to find Merry.
“Did you deliver my letter to Frodo?” she asked Merry.
He gave a nod. “He thanked me for it, and he sent a note back, but he’s not had a good deal of time to write much. He feels that by insisting he serve as deputy Mayor Will has put a good deal of responsibility on his shoulders. And after speaking to Hildebrand Took about the state of the Mayor’s office when they arrived it sounds as if Frodo’s not overstating the situation at all. He says that the stacks of documents requiring review, registration, and filing literally were well over the head of even Isumbard, and that when Gordolac brought them in he must have used a ladder to place some of them. Gordo admits it’s true, too.”
“But surely he could come here for a few days....”
“Not easily, Mum. Sam’s insistent he not work more than four days a week, and preferably three. But if he doesn’t work at least three days per week the job will never get done.”
“And since when does Sam tell Frodo Baggins what to do?”
A strange look, something akin to grief she’d have guessed, came and went across her son’s face. “Sam’s always taken care of Frodo as Frodo needed it from the time Sam first met him when they were lads, Mum. That’s not changed. Realize this--if it hadn’t been for the presence of Sam at his side, Frodo wouldn’t have survived to come back. And Frodo needs him still.” He held out the letter Frodo’d sent by him.
“What does he look like, Sara?” she asked once he’d returned from the bathing room where he’d washed off the dirt of the road.
“Thin--remarkably thin, even for him.”
“And he’d only just recently begun looking a proper Hobbit, there before he left.”
“Yes, I know. Will and Mina say he doesn’t eat anywhere near enough. He’s more solemn--and somewhat wary. Yet he can laugh, and it’s as delightful as ever to hear him do it. But there’s a worry line now between his brows, and definitely some silver in his hair, mostly beginning to show at his temples. And before you ask, I did notice the missing finger--the ring finger of his right hand, right at the base of it. Whoever dealt with it was skilled, for it doesn’t look particularly ugly, and it doesn’t appear to bother him much, if at all. However, he seems to grow cold fairly easily, and rubs frequently at his left shoulder as if it aches a good deal.
“He is still a most compassionate individual, however, and even more observant than ever. All agree he can be moody, but that when he speaks of the new King his face lights with joy and pride.
“You’ll recognize him easily enough, Esme--you don’t need to worry for that.”
“But the thought of him still troubles you, Sara.”
Saradoc looked down at the floor momentarily, then turned his eyes back to hers. “Yes, Esme. Whatever happened out there--it’s left him with some very painful memories.”
“I’m afraid that must have seemed terribly dry,” Frodo commented once Hillie Took had finished explaining the new system for filing documents dealing with the sales of property and homes and showing the new archive room that had been excavated to further extend the Council Hole. “Aunt Lanti was all but yawning openly.”
Eglantine had indeed immediately retreated to the privy once the tour was over, and Esme found herself glancing in that direction automatically, but she returned her attention to his face immediately. She shrugged. “Actually, I found it fascinating. Do you remember, when you were about thirteen, how you and I went through the library and reorganized it completely to make it easier for the children to find their favorite books or books on particular subjects?”
He smiled, and she was pleased to see that the smile reached his eyes. “How could I forget? Uncle Dodinas and Aunt Amaranth were so upset to see any changes made. First, it took us several days to update the catalog of books, and then another to plan what place we would put each subject. Then there was the problem of trying to figure out where a particular book fit into the categories.”
“Yes, and you decided that we should shelve Great Aunt Maida’s description of Great-grandmother Adamanta under animal stories because it was so catty.”
He laughed briefly. “I was a judgmental thing at the time.”
“Dearling, you were only thirteen. Actually, I thought it was quite clever, and so did you, if you’ll remember. But you did most of the organizing, and you decided where each book should go as well. And the only one who never agreed this was a marvelous system was Dodinas, who simply never liked things being changed about anyway.” She looked beyond him at the new archive room. “It appears your ability to find the best way to arrange documents is again standing you--and the entire Shire in good stead. I salute you.”
She could see that Frodo appreciated the praise.
After a moment she went on, “I will admit, however, that I was more surprised by your decision to have this--this gaol built. Yes, with the likes of Marco Smallburrow and Timono Bracegirdle around and considering the evil they helped Lotho wreak on the Shire we have need of such a thing--but I’m surprised you would agree.”
Frodo sank, rather heavily, she thought, into a chair at one of the tables where documents to be reviewed remained stacked. “While we were in Gondor I found myself engaging in quite a long, involved discussion on the subject with Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Prince Imrahil, Prince Faramir, Lord Halladan, and Lord Elfhelm, the emissary of Éomer King of Rohan. That we of the Shire have historically had no means of imprisoning wrongdoers that they not flee justice or continue their evil ways was a shock to all of them.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know who these folk are, Frodo,” she interrupted him.
His cheeks grew somewhat pinker. “I’m sorry--they’ve become so much a part of my life in the past year it’s hard to think those I’ve known and loved longer don’t know them also.” He gave a small sigh.
“Now, Aragorn, or Strider--he’s also the King Elessar, am I right?”
He nodded, relieved he didn’t have to explain that fully. “Yes. He’s the direct descendant of Arvedui Last-king of Arnor and Ondoher of Gondor, the latter via Ondoher’s daughter Fíriel. Fíriel’s brother died leaving no heirs, and Ondoher’s successor’s line also failed. Prince Imrahil is the Lord of Dol Amroth and the province of Lebennin, while Prince Faramir is the Lord of the province of Ithilien and hereditary Steward for the realm of Gondor, as Lord Halladan has been made Steward for the realm of Arnor, succeeding his brother Halbarad.”
“I think I understand,” she said. “So, the princes know a similar relationship to the King to what Sara as Master of Buckland knows to the Thain.”
“As best as I understand it, yes. Prince Faramir and Prince Imrahil are among the highest authorities within the realm, Prince Faramir being second only to the King. Legolas was speaking as the son of King Thranduil of the Elven kingdom of Eryn Lasgalen, Gimli as the son of one of the advisers to the king of Erebor, and Lord Elfhelm as one who has served as a commander under both King Éomer and his uncle and predecessor King Théoden.
“All at times have needed to keep suspected malefactors safe and secure, both for the safety of the people and for their own safety, until all the facts of the case against them are made known. Captain Madog, the warden for the prison for the Citadel of Minas Tirith, has told me that in at least one case a young woman made an unfounded accusation against an innocent young Man, and her father and brother became so incensed they sought to kill him out of hand; had he not been kept safe in the prison he could easily have died before the facts were made known, and the young woman’ lies would have made murderers of her kinsmen and neighbors.”
“I see,” Esme said.
“Bedro Bracegirdle has a long history of bullying that goes back many years--in one of my visits to Westhall I had the dubious privilege of observing him tormenting two children, and afterwards more stories were made known to me. I’ve received many reports on excesses he committed as one of Lotho’s Shiriffs, and considering his history of brutish violence I truly believe the Shire needs protection from him. Marco Smallburrow’s attempt to intimidate you and Uncle Sara was first reported to me by Brendi, and I’ve not only received additional reports of the same incident but reports from six other individuals who were threatened with the possibility of having their homes or barns or fields fired or violence against themselves or members of their families. As for Timono--not only did he also threaten folks, but he’s already demonstrated that given the chance he would flee the Shire and justice. You heard where and how he was found, didn’t you?”
She nodded. “Where he used to hide during that house party we all attended.”
“Yes. To be plain, Aragorn doesn’t need these self-centered fools wandering freely throughout Eriador, ready to be victimized by those worse than themselves or to help other thieves and brutes commit more crimes against others. We’re not doing the rest of the combined realm any favors by merely marking them and showing them the bounds and turning them loose. And, unfortunately, most of those in authority outside the Shire would fail to appreciate just how dangerous to others Hobbit malefactors might be--too many mistake our small size and usual lack of ambition for childishness and thus don’t give us full respect for what we can do, both for the good and for the bad.
“Lotho’s Big Men--now that the Rangers have returned they will recognize them for what they are--brigands and half-orcs and worse, and they will be treated appropriately. But if we merely send the likes of Timono out of our borders, he would only end up settling in the Breelands and encouraging folk there to seek to cheat us to avenge himself against us. He’d already planned to take the bulk of jewelry stolen in the Gathering and Sharing to sell to help buy a new life and influence out there.
“But if we’re to have a prison here, let it be proper to our kind. So, I had these new Lockhole cells prepared for those times they may be needed, and the Valar grant that be seldom. And let Lobelia’s cell show what we refuse to sink to again.”
Esme thought on the contrast of the comfortable if somewhat plain stone-lined rooms, with beds, tables, chairs, and proper facilities for hygiene and meals as opposed to the bare, dark, dank alcove into which Lobelia had been sealed with only a slot for a couple pans to be passed back and forth for toileting and food and water, and shuddered.
“That was such a wonderful ceremony, Frodo,” she commented once the banquet for Sapphira and Oderiadoc’s wedding was begun. “Sara is so proud of how well you’ve officiated.”
Frodo gave a slight nod, looking away to the head table where bride and groom sat together, their hands clasped, as their fathers competed to make the most elaborate toasts. “I pray their marriage will be long and fulfilling,” he murmured.
“Has Sam asked his Rosie yet?”
“No--not until I’m settled back in Bag End, I fear. Once he speaks, though, I suspect it won’t be long before they’re married--probably a matter of weeks, if I know my Sam. Rosie’s being very patient, I must say, bless her.”
After a moment she continued, “Merry and Pippin both say that the stories Bilbo used to tell, the ones about a magic ring that made him invisible--that they were true. They say it was real, and that he left it to you.”
He looked away, at the bride and groom. His tone when he answered was noncommittal. “Yes. Gandalf made him leave It.”
“He thought It was changing him.”
Frodo shrugged, glancing briefly toward her, then away. “Why do you think,” he asked in a low voice, “he never seemed to grow any older? But he felt It dragging at him, seeking to remake him into a creature only of appetite and regrets--like Gollum. It frightened him.”
“Did you ever wear it?”
He shook his head. “Not before I left the Shire. Gandalf warned me not to do so. He didn’t know what ring It was, but was becoming suspicious of It. He didn’t wish for It to gain power over me. So I never wore It, but I did carry It--I carried It everywhere, in my pocket. I had a chain made to fasten It to loops I sewed there, inside my vest pockets, to keep It from abandoning me as It did with Sméagol.” His eyes looked very weary. “I wish I never took It out of the envelope--that I’d never touched It at all.”
He was again looking at the bride and groom, and she thought she could see longing there--longing for that joy he saw in their eyes for himself. Finally she asked, “When are you going to start looking around?”
Frodo’s expression closed immediately. “Oh, Aunt Esme--we’ve been through this.”
“And Merry’s confessed he thinks that--that Ring was to blame for how you found yourself reacting to the lasses, dearling. It’s gone now, isn’t it? Now you’re free of it, why not give yourself a chance? There are so many who’d be thrilled if you looked at them. Narcissa Boffin alone----”
She stopped, seeing how tightly Frodo was squeezing his nails into the heel of his hand, and the pain reflected in his eyes. “You don’t still react that way, do you, dearling?”
He shook his head, looking away from her. At last he murmured, “No, I don’t have those--urges any more; but they remain indelibly etched on my soul at this point. And....” He trailed off, then just sat shaking his head. Finally he turned to look at her. “Please, let it be, Aunt.”
“If you wish, Frodo.”
“Mistress Esme, you’re not goin’ to try to serve him only that, are you? Why, it’s not enough to keep body and soul together!”
“I’m going on the recommendations of Mr. Isumbard Took, who’s worked by his side for months--he says more than this and he’ll only become ill--we’ll need to keep giving him very small amounts every half hour or so for the next day, and then go to a slightly larger meal per hour until he can tolerate a more normal amount on a more normal schedule. I have the feeling he felt ill during his walk here, and that’s thrown his digestion into a tizzy. He’s much paler than he was when we were at Bag End for Sam’s wedding.”
“At least he’s back at home in his own place, and he’s back with us, he is. I was afraid as he’d not come back at all. No one ought to be forced to face such a wicked world as is out there.”
Esmeralda shook her head. “Considering what he found when he got home, it was about as wicked a place here as anywhere else he went. But he and the others are all doing their best to see things set straight as they can, bless them for it.”
His room was empty, so she went out to the Master’s garden, then up to the top of the Hall, finding him once more sitting back against the chimney pot for the Master’s parlor. “Can’t sleep?” she asked.
Frodo shrugged. “I was dreaming, and woke up--came out here fleeing the dreams, I suppose. Fleeing them, or perhaps seeking them. I don’t know.”
“What were they about?”
After a time of silence he finally answered, “Several things--looking out at the world from the fog I found myself in after I was wounded the first time; then a star--a star shining on me, guiding me. I felt I could almost make out the shape of Vingilot and Eärendil at the helm, the Silmaril on his brow. Then I was on the ship on the water, and the wind was singing in the rigging while from afar, beyond the curtain of rain, I could hear the singing of Elven voices and more. I turned around and saw----” He shook his head, his face, from what she could make out in the dim light, suddenly troubled.
At last he continued, “Then I was there at the cove on the river, and Mummy was teaching me to swim, was telling me how if I’d just relax and feel at one with the water it would buoy me up; and then it was Gandalf, and I was an adult, and he was telling me if I’d just let go the--let go the fear I would be able to float again. And the Voice was saying the same, telling me I could trust the water to hold me up, and my joy to support me once more.” After another silence he added, as if to himself, “I miss my joy.”
She somehow got the feeling he’d not realized he’d said that last aloud. Finally she asked, “There, in the King’s city, did you ever wish you could go and lie out under the stars?”
He nodded. “I’d often go, sometimes with Sam, to the gardens for the Houses of Healing, and sit there near the herb garden and watch the stars for most of the night. Now and then I’d go up to visit the White Tree--it’s such a beautiful tree, as beautiful in its way as the mallorn that’s growing in the Party Field--and often Aragorn would join me there. He often had difficulty sleeping at night, especially before the arrival of the Lady Arwen. We’d talk and walk about the gardens, and he’d lean on the wall looking down on the lower levels of the city and he’d smoke his pipe.”
“He smokes pipeweed?”
He nodded again. “He was born and raised here in Eriador, and we Hobbits have managed to pass our own love of smoking to Dwarves and Men all throughout the northern lands.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen you smoke since you returned.”
He shrugged, rose, and looked off westward, leaning on the chimney pot. She rose and came to stand beside him, looking across the width of the lands given Hobbits by Argeleb the Second.
“It looks so peaceful,” she sighed. “Hard to believe a few months ago we were besieged by Lotho’s folks.”
“I know.” His face was thoughtful. “One evening as we stood looking out over the Pelennor Aragorn and Pippin and Gandalf were telling me what it looked like when the Enemy’s forces filled it with his troops and the Oliphaunts and his weapons of war and siege engines. It was so quiet and peaceful--oh, you could hear singing from an inn down in the Fifth Circle, and now and then a bark from the dog who lived in the house there by the ramp up to the level of the Citadel; and once I heard a Guardsman singing a marching song as he came up from the barracks in the Sixth Circle to take up his duty. Trying to imagine the smoke and chaos only three months earlier, and the fires in the lower city and the crashing of the Enemy’s great ram upon the great gates--it seemed so ludicrous that Aragorn and I could now attend the birth of a child in a city so recently under such attack and over which they swooped on those horrid beasts they now rode.”
“They?” she asked.
His answer again was delayed. “The Black Riders. They went back to him, and he gave them these--these beasts to ride--like a cross between great bats and lizards, huge beyond imagining. Bilbo says that from their description they were not dragons, but some great dumb beast such as oliphaunts are.”
“What was it like in Mordor?” She wasn’t certain what possessed her to ask--but they’d all said that Frodo had been to Mordor, and she wanted to get a feel for this place that appeared to have changed him so.
“Drear. Very drear. Dry, and dusty, and--and the air was difficult to breathe. Rocks and ash and dust; old campfires from when his armies camped near the pass from Minas Morgul; fouled places. But I don’t remember a lot of it--so much of it was the same--rocky and dead--there’s not a good deal special about it to remember, I suppose.”
Then she couldn’t keep the question inside: “Why you, Frodo? Why did you and Sam have to be the ones to go there?”
When his answer finally came it was so soft she barely heard it. “I chose to go. I couldn’t bear even then to let another take It from me. I couldn’t bear to think of another touching It. And I could feel It--what It was doing to----” He didn’t go on.
She had no idea what he was speaking of.
They remained in silence for over an hour, and at last she took his hand. “Come inside and eat a bit more, sweetling, and see if you can get some more rest.”
He looked at her, and she seemed to see the face of the young Hobbit who’d just learned he’d lost his parents, searching her own face for the answers that never truly came.
“Why didn’t he accept the nomination to serve as Mayor?” Eglantine demanded of her husband as she paced the private parlor of the Thain in the Great Smial. “What happened?”
Pal shook his head. “How am I to know, Lanti?” he asked. “Frodo hardly ever speaks of himself. But I was certain he’d stand up and accept the nomination, too. To have him announce that he was giving the responsibility back to Will----” He continued to shake his head, looking toward Saradoc.
Sara had accepted a glass of brandy, and took a sip before he shrugged, setting the glass on the table by him. “He barely speaks of himself at all, and I haven’t the slightest idea as to what’s going through his head any more. However, I doubt he’d have given over the job if he didn’t believe he had good reason. It’s simply not like Frodo to just do something on a whim.
“Except to drag our lads off on a particularly dangerous adventure with no word,” muttered Pal as he lifted his own glass.
“You said that you got the letter Pippin sent you,” Sara said, suddenly stern.
“Well, yes, but you can’t convince me that the lad decided to go without discussing it with Frodo.”
“Well, that’s what Merry and Pippin have both told us, that they’d decided to go without discussing it with him at all--that they didn’t spring it on him that they knew what he was planning on doing and why until that one night they spent in Crickhollow. And Frodo and Sam say the same--that Frodo hadn’t intended to take anyone with him at the beginning, and wouldn’t have agreed to take Sam if Gandalf hadn’t insisted.”
“Frodo certainly behaved irresponsibly, selling Bag End to Lotho!”
“How was anyone who wasn’t close to Lotho to have any idea what he’d planned?” Esme asked, exasperated with her brother. “Be reasonable, Paladin Took! I doubt anyone other than Timono and Marco Smallburrow and perhaps Ted Sandyman had any idea of Lotho’s plans ahead of time. And I’ll bet that they didn’t know all of it. That idea of capturing Thain, Master, and Mayor and making examples of the three of you, whatever that meant, I suspect came to him only after he realized you Tooks and we Brandybucks refused to allow his folk into our own lands. Nor do I think he had any plans for Frodo until after he realized he’d not been made Baggins family head. I’ll bet that’s why he targeted Ponto and Iris so with that Gathering and Sharing--because he knew that Ponto was the most appropriate one to be named that should Frodo fail to return.”
There was a knock at the door, and Isumbard and Pearl entered, followed by Ferdibrand and Pimpernel. Bard sprawled in an armchair, his handsome face troubled. Ferdi, who sat beside his wife on one of the narrower sofas, merely looked thoughtful, while the two sisters both appeared sad.
“I was afraid he might not agree to run in the end,” Bard said. “He’s been pretty thoughtful for the past few weeks.”
“Did he discuss it with you, Hillie, or Tolly?” asked Paladin.
Bard raised his eyebrows and gave a brief shake of his head. “No--I fear Frodo Baggins isn’t much of the confiding type any more--not that he ever talked that much about personal matters.”
Pimpernel asked, “But why didn’t he say he didn’t want the job weeks ago, instead of allowing Will to do all that talking with everyone as he has?”
Bard shrugged. “I don’t think he’d fully made up his mind until the last minute. Although he’s found a good deal about the job to be stressful, yet he’s also found a degree of satisfaction to it, managing to find ways to make a difference for folks and carefully following the trail of Lotho and Timono’s activities.”
Ferdi commented, “Has Frodo been well lately?”
Bard thought for a moment. “He’s not appeared to have much wrong with his digestion in the past few weeks. Indeed, he’s been eating rather well compared to the times his stomach has been decidedly off.”
Esme considered his words for several minutes. “That’s good, for after Sam and Rosie’s wedding he seemed able to handle only very small amounts at a time.” She looked toward where Ferdi sat. “Why did you ask if he’s been well lately?”
Ferdibrand was rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. “Well, considering it’s Frodo we’re speaking of, I can think of only one reason why he might decide at the last minute not to pursue becoming Mayor in his own right.”
“Which is?” asked Paladin.
It took the blind Hobbit a moment to decide to answer. “If he were to realize there was a good chance he might not be able to fill an entire term in office.”
“You think his health is impaired?” asked Esme, her heart beating fast.
“Consider, Cousin Esme,” Ferdi suggested. “One, he cannot eat normally much of the time. Two, although none of them speak of it, he’s not smoked any that I’m aware of since his return--I’ve not smelled it on his clothing or his hair any of the times I’ve been about him, and the others, when they do smoke, always do so where the smoke won’t blow on him, as if this is something they’ve accepted as needful. Three, he’s not only thinner than he was when he left--well, from what folks tell me they were all four thinner when they returned than they were before they left, although none of them like him; but where they’ve either developed muscle or have begun to put it back on again, Frodo hasn’t, and, from what I saw of him at Sam’s wedding, had lost even more compared to what he looked like when he was here in the Great Smial the last time. Four, all tell me that he seems to rub a good deal at that left shoulder of his, and Pimmie tells me she’s seen grimaces of pain when he didn’t realize anyone was looking. Five, there are times when he gets downright snappish, which certainly wasn’t true of the Frodo Baggins I remember. Six, he doesn’t dance now, and when I saw him at Yule he told Estella he didn’t have the stamina for it any more.
“Now, you tell me what you think about the state of his health.”
“And he had a bandage on the back of his neck again, there at the Free Fair,” Bard added. When the others all looked at him in question he shrugged as he poured himself and his wife each a glass of wine. “It’s happened at least once before, in March or April, I think. Merry came in quietly and was demanding to know why Frodo hadn’t told him it had happened again--why he hadn’t admitted he was going through another bad patch.” He looked at Pimpernel and Ferdi. “Would you two like some wine or brandy?” he asked. “And there are some deviled eggs to your left, Ferdi.”
“Wine for me, please. You were listening in?” Ferdi asked as he located the plate of eggs and carefully took one of them.
“I’m not exactly deaf, and I wasn’t too far from the Mayor’s desk, after all. Pimmie?”
“You’re not even going to ask me?” Pearl asked with a twinkle in her eye. But as she looked back to her aunt all thought of humor fled. “It’s not fair, that he should have to have ill health,” she sighed. “He always tries so hard to make things good for everyone else.”
Sara gave her a slight nod as he took another sip of his brandy. “Will is devastated. Feels Frodo’s the best thing the Shire’s known in centuries.”
Esme looked at the letter she’d just finished writing. She wasn’t certain she ought to post it, much less how soon she might expect an answer--or even if she should expect a response to it at all. However, she felt she needed to at least try, for the request never made is not likely to be answered at all, she knew. One last time she read it through.
From Esmeralda Took Brandybuck, Mistress of Brandy Hall
To Lady Arwen Evenstar, Queen of Arnor and Gondor
Dear My Lady Arwen,
You do not know me, of course, although I must suppose you have heard at least my name given you. I am the mother of Meriadoc Brandybuck, whom you know as a knight of Rohan, I understand, and as one of your husband’s former companions during their long journey to the Southlands. I also am second cousin to Frodo Baggins, who I understand bears the title of “the Ringbearer,” although I confess that I do not fully appreciate what that entails. I am told that among other things he traveled to Mordor, of which he has spoken freely only once, when he told me it was dark, drear, and full of ash.
It is due to Frodo that I am writing at all. You see, after the death of his parents my husband and I served as his first foster parents, and certainly I think of him as being as much mine as is Merry, for all I continue to love and honor the memory of Primula and Drogo. Both were very dear cousins to me in spite of the fact I was several years younger than both; they supported Saradoc and me when we were courting and attended our wedding, and comforted me when I lost the bairns I carried first. It was an honor to be asked to accept their son as our fosterling, and both Sara and I tried to do well by Frodo while he lived with us.
At the time his parents died, it became known to us that Frodo’s heart had a whispering to it, and my mother, who had training in the healing arts and was herself a competent and experienced midwife, feared for his health--perhaps too much so. In the winter especially, seeking to protect him, she forbade him to take part in any endeavor that might cause him to overexert himself, and he did not respond well to such precautions. Over time he grew increasingly pale and listless, slowly losing his hope and natural joy. At last our mutual cousin Bilbo Baggins exercised his right and duty to provide for his best welfare and took him to Bag End to become his ward, protégé, and adopted heir, and we saw our beloved lad returning from the ashes. Again he began to smile, to thrive, to bloom before our eyes.
Now he has returned to us, but in many ways it is as if I were seeing him in the years when he began failing before. He seeks ever to honor his duty and responsibilities; but the ability to embrace joy appears to have been mostly withdrawn from him. And, although he will not admit to it, it appears his health is indeed affected and that he knows a good deal of discomfort.
Is there anything that I should know, or that I could do to help him recover? I love him dearly, and Merry, if possible, loves him the more as the older brother he’s adored all his life.
Thank you for your patience in reading this. I just thought that as a woman who has seen and reportedly honors our Frodo as much as we do, or at least so Merry, Pippin, and Frodo have all reported, I hoped you could perhaps help shed light on the situation and help me to support Frodo as I can. It would be such a grief to all of us should we lose him.
Esmeralda Took Brandybuck
She reread this missive twice more, and finally folded it and stuffed it hastily into the envelope she’d already addressed:
The Citadel of Minas Tirith
The South Kingdom
She forced herself to apply the sealing wax and impressed it with her personal signet of a key, then, fetching her bonnet and a light shawl, set out to the stables to see her pony saddled for a ride to the Brandywine Bridge. There she entrusted it to one of the Bounders on duty to be given to the King’s messenger when he came.
She awoke early the morning after Frodo’s fifty-second birthday, and wandered into Bag End’s kitchen to see to preparing first breakfast. She found she enjoyed those times she found herself in a private dwelling where there was a kitchen adequate for a single person to work rather than trying to cook a small meal for consumption by her family and private guests in the midst of the kitchen staff preparing food sufficient to feed the greater part of the residents of Brandy Hall.
The fire had already been stoked and built up sufficiently the stove would soon be ready to begin cooking, so she set out to explore the cool room and larders, soon gathering enough for all who’d stayed the night. She was cracking eggs when the door from the garden opened and Frodo entered.
“You’re up already?” she asked.
He shrugged as he slipped his cloak off and draped it over his chair at the table. “I never quite got back to sleep last night,” he admitted. “Once the storm was over I decided to go up atop the Hill and watch the sunrise. It was very lovely--a gentle one indeed.”
“You’ve always loved watching the sun rise and set,” she noted as she cracked the last two eggs into the largest bowl she’d found and began whipping them. “Would you mind preparing some cheese and ham to be stirred into the eggs, dearling?”
“Gladly,” he responded. He fetched a small knife and a cutting board, and sat at the table to begin slicing from the slab of cheese she handed him. She watched him for a few minutes, realizing she was this time indeed seeing the gap where his finger was now missing. It wasn’t a particularly ugly wound, she thought, and although his grip on the knife was different from what she remembered he handled it deftly enough. Finally she asked in as casual a tone as she could manage, “Who was it who closed the wound after your finger was lost?”
He paused, and his face went pale, although his cheeks reddened. She could tell he had to force himself to continuing his work. “Aragorn, or so I understand.” His voice, when he at last answered, was as studiously casual as her own, she decided.
“I see. He appears to be a skillful healer and surgeon.”
“Yes. Lord Elrond and his twin sons, all of whom have inherited the gift of healing common to the descendants of Eärendil, saw to it his own healing gift was fully trained and supported by whatever skills they might give him.”
“Was it difficult to--to do things with your right hand--afterwards?”
“For a time. I had to practice to learn to write and draw again, and Aragorn came to our guest house, or would send one of his Elven brothers, to see to it I learned how to wield a knife and other utensils in the kitchen again, as he knew that as a Hobbit I should suffer greatly should I have to depend solely on others to prepare food for me.” He sighed. “He would watch me at meals and advise me how to adjust my grip to compensate for the missing finger or to keep from bumping handles against the scar during the time it was especially sensitive. Is this enough for all of us, do you think?”
“I think but two more slices as thick as you did the first two. I’m grateful he offered you such caring, best beloved.”
“So am I,” he murmured as he prepared to cut the amount she’d suggested. She was measuring out sufficient softened butter to mix with the flour and other ingredients to make scones. “I’ve come so to love and honor him as a friend and companion and guide, and then as King as well. That he was able to continue to devote time to us as well as to serve the people of both Gondor and Arnor was well as he did was something I’d never have believed possible if I hadn’t seen it day after day. He has to be the most competent mortal I’ve ever met.”
“No more so than you, I’d wager, Frodo Baggins,” she responded.
He looked up to meet her eyes. “I doubt Odo Proudfoot agrees with you.”
She shrugged dismissively. “Odo Proudfoot has made a habit of disagreeing with everyone for years. Do you think I take his opinion seriously, Frodo?”
He gave her a small smile, then a chuckle. “You are right. If you exclaimed how blue the sky was he would find the one small cloudlet to be seen to comment on to suggest it was ready to rain.” Having finished with the cheese he set down the knife and handed the cutting board to her; she poured the cheese into the bowl and set the small ham she’d brought on it and handed it back.
She asked as she stirred the cheese into the eggs, “How did you come to meet the Man who is now King?”
“He saw us come out of the Old Forest onto the Road, heading for Bree, and followed us there.”
“Then, he’s the one who was Gandalf’s friend Strider?”
He paused and looked at her, obviously surprised. “How did you learn that?”
“Farmer Maggot spoke of him, Gandalf named him to Garthfast when he came through in search of you, and one of Mayberry’s cousins from Bree commented you’d taken up with the Ranger Strider when he slipped into the Shire to assure himself she was well, considering what rumors were reaching there.”
“And what does Farmer Maggot know about Aragorn by any of his various names and titles?”
“He has so many?”
He grinned and nodded. “I think I’ve counted about twenty so far. He’s very close to ninety years old now, which is very old for common Men, although as the Dúnedan he tells me he can expect to live at least at least another century; and he’s wandered through many lands and accepted whatever names and titles they’ve given him here and there.” He considered for a moment. “I still must wonder how it is that Maggot knew we’d been followed by him before he introduced himself to us at the Prancing Pony.”
“He said his friend found you and got you out of a spot of trouble, although he understood it wasn’t too serious, and that after you stayed with him a couple nights you managed to protect the others from another, more serious danger.”
His mouth had opened slightly with surprise, and she got the distinct feeling he wasn’t certain whether to be amused or appalled. “Old Man Willow--but a spot of trouble? Sweet Yavanna--only Tom could consider that one but a spot of trouble! Well, he did indicate he was familiar with Farmer Maggot after all. But he’d indicated he wouldn’t be going far from his home again until spring, when he comes along the Withywindle to gather bulbs and flowers of water lilies for his wife Goldberry.”
“She sent him to speak with Maggot--she apparently felt we should know you four were all right when you left them.”
He gave a nod as he turned his attention back to the ham he was cutting into small cubes.
“I’m glad you weren’t left with no word whatsoever,” he murmured. “You must have worried.”
“Oh, yes, we did.”
As she accepted the cutting board back and stirred the ham also into the eggs Sam came out, settling his second brace’s strap over his shoulder as he yawned. “Mornin’, Mr. Frodo, Mistress Esmeralda,” he said.
“Good morning, Mr. Samwise,” Frodo responded, a gentle smile on his face.
Sam gave him a thoughtful look. “Did you get any sleep last night?”
“Not a good deal--but then, that’s not unusual.”
“Not with a storm comin’ on,” agreed Sam. “Let me do that, Mistress.”
“No, I have it,” Esme said. “Why don’t you set the table? Did you have more of that brambleberry jam you and Rosie put up?”
“Wish we had some of the cherry preserves Aragorn helped us with in Minas Tirith,” Frodo said.
“They was good, wasn’t they, Master?” Sam answered. His expression was somewhat bemused. “Wonder if’n he knows as yet as we’re expecting?” he said. “What with his gift o’ foresight and all.” He looked at Frodo and grinned. “Just think--I’m goin’ to be a dad, and Rosie a mum as of the spring. And you’ll have a nephew--or maybe a niece--one as’ll always love you as Uncle Frodo.”
“I look forward to the day this one will address Aragorn as ‘Uncle Strider.’ Now, that will be a wonderful thing to hear and to see him respond to.”
Sam laughed outright. But when he went off toward the bedroom with a mug of tea and some dry toast for Rosie, Esme could see the look of longing Frodo didn’t manage to mask.
6th October, second year of the Fourth Age by the King’s Reckoning
To our esteemed Mistress Esmeralda Took Brandybuck, Mistress of Brandy Hall:
I send you greetings from the White City of Gondor and the household of my husband, who serves the lands of Gondor and Arnor as King.
I have heard far more of you than but your name. Mistress, for all of the Hobbits currently of my acquaintance, from Master Bilbo to young Peregrin Took, have spoken highly of you, of your integrity, and your love and caring expressed toward the younglings entrusted to you since you came to maturity. Certainly our so well beloved Frodo Baggins has fond and joyous memories of his time as your ward when he was a child and youth, although there is no question that in the end it was best he came under the care of Master Bilbo when and as he did.
Unfortunately I cannot tell you all that you wish to know, for it has been requested of us by Frodo we not share all there is to know of him with others. We have found him to be an exceedingly private individual, and particularly concerning matters that he feels may disturb those he loves or that he fears will not be fully understood and appreciated by others.
Merry and Pippin have both informed us that they have sought to tell your family and that of the Tooks the nature of the quest--that it was learned the gold Ring found by Master Bilbo during his own adventure was in fact the One Ring wrought and lost so long ago by the Dark Lord himself, filled with his evil nature and purpose; and that it was necessary to send It to Its destruction in the heart of the Enemy’s own land.
The changes you see in your son and in the other three are the results of the journey made, the sacrifices offered, the benefits received. Each has, in his own way, faced the evil of Mordor and its dread Master and has prevailed, but not without cost. Each came at least within sight of the Gates of Death and was called back to this life by the power and authority granted to the King, and each has grown mightily in wisdom, compassion, and purpose as a result of his experience. But know this--that none of them came through his ordeal unscathed. Each bears his own scars on body and soul; but not all scars truly heal.
You ask what you can do for Frodo. You can do no more than you did before--to love him both in the cherishing and in the letting go.
Know this--at my birth a Gift was offered me, one I might accept at any time. However, in accepting my own Hope to me, I have sacrificed the promise of that Gift for my own benefit; but I begged to be allowed to offer it on to Frodo for his fulfillment. He has been advised the Gift is now offered him, and if he wishes he may seek and receive it. There is, however, a cost to be borne in the acceptance of it, and he still contemplates that cost and weighs it in his heart. However, it has long been said among my people that a sacrifice truly offered is never lost or consumed or destroyed, but fulfilled; and so we know hope that in time our beloved Frodo will find again his capacity for joy renewed.
It has also been said that in the case of those who have been given much, much is expected of them in return; and the more they have been given the more responsibility they will know. In the end, however, they will find each sacrifice made, no matter how great, no matter how small and insignificant, will be found to be worth it. So we pray it will prove with Frodo and Samwise even as my beloved husband now knows.
Convey my deep respect to each of our four, and may you come to fully appreciate how full worthy of honor each has proven himself.
Yours under the Valar,
Arwen daughter of Elrond and Celebrían,
now Queen of Arnor and Gondor
“I still don’t understand why you decided to celebrate your birthday in July--you were born in June!”
Merry sat over her bed, holding her hand. “But I was so sick that whole week of my birthday, and Pippin had to call off the party. So we’re going to celebrate it next week instead, and even Frodo has agreed to come.”
Esme found herself coughing mightily, finally managing to clear out a great wad of phlegm. Once she was able to speak she asked, “Are you certain it’s wise, dearling? He looked so ill when we saw him at the Free Fair.”
“Sam says he has apparently rallied fully and insists he will come.”
Sara, sitting opposite his son, blew his nose. “Well, you make certain that you don’t bring Frodo anywhere near here while this summer cold it making the rounds of the Hall. But will he sleep happily there in Crickhollow? Seems to me he was refusing to stay there before.”
“We’ve changed bedrooms--he won’t be in one they entered before. And it has a blanket for the bed woven by the Elves that arrived a few days ago--he ought to find that helps counter any lingering effect from the Black Riders. I certainly find the one they sent for me comforting. And we’ll certainly be watching how much he eats and drinks.”
Esme lifted her handkerchief to block a sneeze. “Well, it sounds as if you’ve done all you can do.”
“Other than the fact he won’t be able to make over little Elanor for several days, he ought to be perfectly content and taken care of.”
As the coach drew up in front of the Hall, Esme looked on the inviting front door with pleasure and relief. “We’re home, Mantha,” she said to her companion.
“Never again,” Adamanta vowed as she gathered her things, “will I agree to travel to the Southfarthing in summer on such short notice, particularly when I’m just recovering from a cold. It’s been a most miserable trip, Esme.”
Esme nodded as she stowed the woolwork she’d been doing as they traveled back in her bag. “I must agree. I wonder if Sara’s back from Bree as yet.”
The door was opening, but it wasn’t Sara who came out but instead Merimac, hurrying to the coach, calling greetings to his son on the box as he came, then was opening the door and pulling out the stool that served as a step for those who rode inside. Mantha exited first, accepting her husband’s embrace and hearty kiss of welcome, then turned to accept the hampers Esme was passing out. “So,” Mac asked, “how are Phlox and her new son?”
“Doing very well indeed. And it’s another child born golden-haired, if you’ll believe it. She is so relieved and happy to have a child born alive this time! As for Resco--you’d think he’d carried that child instead of her! And he’s constantly counting its fingers and toes as if making certain none have gone missing in the past ten minutes or so.”
They all laughed. “And the two of you haven’t been further sick?”
“No--other than the discomfort of riding in the coach when it’s been so deucedly warm, we’ve been well enough. I’m glad that the worst of the heat was over before we left the Hall, though. Any news here?”
“Well, other than the fact Frodo turned up in a trap he rented from the Green Dragon a few days back----” Mac had no chance to finish.
“Frodo? Back here in Buckland again, and so soon? But the last I heard was that he was all but prostrated from the ride from Crickhollow to Budgeford.”
“So he admits. But he says he had business that came up suddenly that he must see to, and he spent much of yesterday conferring with Brendi.”
“How does he look, Mac?”
Mac sighed. “It’s hard to tell. Thin as ever, but he has that stubborn Baggins expression to him.”
“I see.” She stood still for a moment, then asked, “Where is he now?”
“In his room, I believe.”
She thanked him and went on the Master’s quarters and saw her luggage put away, then into the Heir’s apartments and peered into Frodo’s room there, and found he was sitting as he’d often sat as a young Hobbit, looking rather obliquely out at the world, his face sad. “Frodo?”
He turned, obviously startled. “Aunt Esme? I thought you weren’t to be home until tomorrow.”
She smiled. “We traveled more quickly than we’d planned, and didn’t stay in Stock. What brought you back to Buckland so soon?”
“Business,” he answered. “Unfortunately, I must leave today.”
“You weren’t planning on staying to see us?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, looking away. “I’d thought to go straight back, but decided to--to revisit some of my old haunts. It’s so long since I saw so many of them. I wish I’d come earlier in the summer. There used to be a dingle, not far from Haygate Farm, that was full of woods violets each May.”
“Yes, I remember it, also. I found one of your drawing sticks that Bilbo gave you there once. I found the dingle, and thought how you would have loved the place, then saw the stick on the ground and knew you’d seen it already.”
He was looking at her, smiling gently. “The youngest daughter, there on the farm, she used to love it, too. I’d find her there, sometimes, and she’d tell me about the stories she made up about how the fairies loved the place, and once she was pretending I was the prince of the fairies, and wove me a crown of violets to wear. She was a very sweet lass, I remember--she must have been about eleven the last time I saw her there. I remember seeing her here again after Bilbo left, at one of the spring festivals. I don’t think she remembered me at all--she only had eyes for Berilac.”
They shared a soft laugh, and his expression as he looked back out the window was less sad. He became pensive. “For all the grief I’ve known here at times, there was so much joy here, too, and I found so much beauty to rejoice in.”
“I was thinking of going down to the river to wade out in the water the way I used to do. Would you come with me?”
“That’s right--one way you never truly became a Bucklander--you’ve never been at home in the water as one born by the river.”
She shrugged slightly, smiling ruefully. “You’re right there--even Pippin is more at ease than I am in it. But you didn’t answer me.”
He shook his head. “No, I’m not up to swimming right now.”
“Beldir and Markos both used to swear it was among the best exercises for you, Frodo--that and walking.”
The last vestiges of a smile fled, and his face was sad again. “I used to love to swim.”
“And you used to love to dance as well. You inherited so much of the Baggins grace at dancing, and in movement altogether. Bilbo was always more of a Took than you in looks and the ability of his mind to slide from subject to subject; but he inherited the dancing, too. Between him and Drogo it was only to be expected, I suppose, that you were among the most celebrated of dancers ever.”
“Until I couldn’t see the lasses any more.” His tone was now regretful.
“Well, let’s not remain here, dearling--come with me, down to the parlor for a proper chat. I’m just glad you didn’t catch that horrid cold I was suffering from when you came for Merry’s party. And it’s good you didn’t see him on his real birthday--it was all he could do not to say ‘Thag you bery much’ as we brought him some cake, and no one wished him to blow out the candles himself.”
He smiled again softly as he rose and let her take his hand and draw him out of his childhood room.
Dearling, we stopped here last night as we drove eastward toward Buckland, and I’ve found I can’t truly sleep. Oh, Frodo, how much I love you, and how I fear to lose you once more. But I recognize you need so much more than I can give you--than it appears the entire Shire can give you. I almost wish that you’d chosen to remain in the King’s city that you might have remained by your Aragorn’s side and known his caring and his skill as a healer. It is obvious from the letters we’ve had from him and from his lady wife that they care most deeply for you and grieve at how far from them you must be.
Just remember, my so beloved oldest lad, no matter what happens or where you must wander in spirit or body, we will never cease loving you. You will always be our little Frodo--the one who greeted us in joy, who used to send those looking for Sara and me off in different directions so we might have a few more minutes of privacy to be certain of our love for one another, who carried the flowers for our wedding, who made us proud as you swam and ran, who could light up a room simply by smiling. You were the one who saw to it our Merry was properly greeted into this world and that he became a proper Bucklander, feeling as free and confident in the water as you yourself. You’ve always brought out the best in all who came near you and opened themselves to your warmth and the sheer Light of you.
We are so very proud of you, Frodo Baggins--so very, very proud of you, no matter what you might think of yourself. And we thank you for telling us what Merry’s not been able to say, for it will help us as we prepare to learn the rest he can and must tell us that he can more fully heal.
I love you so much, my sweet one, and how much I feel that your mum and dad love you, too, and are shining with pride at your accomplishments. Just remember, dearling, we will always be here for you, and our love will always be there for you to touch, even when we must be far apart.
The Queen has told me that she had begged a gift for you, one that had once been hers to claim but that she turned from as she accepted her own Hope, or so she put it. If it can help you find your joy again, Frodo, I beg you to accept it. We almost let you fade before. Don’t allow yourself to fade now, stubbornly forcing yourself to be the Baggins of Bag End when first you must be your own Frodo.
And if, as I suspect, it’s Bilbo you’ll see on your birthday, give the old dear a kiss from me, please, and tell him how very glad I am he overrode Mother Gilda so long ago.
your second Mum
Frodo read the letter he’d received that morning once more, and a tear rolled down his pale cheek as he folded it carefully. Almost he packed it in his saddlebags, but at the last moment he changed his mind, and stowed it in his waistcoat pocket, the one in which he used to carry a small gold Ring. This he would keep by him as he went aboard the grey ship prepared for his own renewal.