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23
Final Intelligence

Final Intelligence


Delphinium Bracegirdle stood at the door to the Greenwillow house and took deep breaths to calm herself. She couldn’t think why she was so nervous, for she’d spent time in this house yesterday, had eaten elevenses and luncheon with Master Lindor and Mistress Analisë. They’d even saved her daughter! She liked them and knew them to be kindly and honorable. So why would she feel afraid now? Steeling herself, she knocked at the door. Soon enough she heard a vibration through the house, and realized that she must be hearing footsteps from within. What a great clattering Men made with their feet! she thought. The vibrations came nearer, and then she heard the hand grasp the latch and lift it, and the door swung open.

Mistress Analisë looked first out at her own level, then downward until she met the eyes of the Hobbit matron who stood upon her doorstep. She appeared surprised. “Mistress Bracegirdle? You have come to see me? Do come within.” She opened the doorway further and stood aside to allow her guest entrance. “Your children have not accompanied you today?”

“There was an invitation to go with the Sandheavers to a place just outside Bree where they apparently enjoy picnics. They say there is a small stream, and all might perhaps fish and hunt pebbles. The children were glad enough to go, and I again am granted a day free of their company, and thought I might come to visit you here--that is, of course, if it is no bother?”

The woman smiled as she set the latch. “No bother at all. Lindor is off to the meeting of the Bree Council today where they are considering the offer to train more lawyers of the Shire and the Breelands to the laws and practices of the realm. And they have the matter of the two ruffians taken yesterday to discuss as well.”

“Then they didn’t find any others?”

“No, none. Faradir tracked the trail back into the forest and found nothing to indicate they traveled with any others. Come with me into the kitchen, for I’d but put the kettle on, and we should have tea in a few minutes. And I’ve cooked up a hearty soup, if you’d care to try it.”

Once she was settled on a stool with a bowl of soup, a mug of a mint tea she’d not tried before, two apples, several slices of bread and butter, and a plate of ginger biscuits for afters at the table where the tall woman had a covered bowl of bread dough set to rising, Delphie found herself feeling more comfortable with her situation. “You’ll eat nothing yourself?” she asked.

“Some biscuits and a glass of buttermilk when I’m done with my tea and I’ve shaped my bread,” the woman smiled as she sat in a lower chair. “But it’s not an hour since I ate my breakfast--I ate late this morning. Was there some topic you wished to discuss? You know that Master Frodo has asked his business not be discussed.”

“Yes, although I think he’s being more than a wooden head about it. No, what I really came for was--was to try to find out more of this war that happened. Apparently that’s why the Big Men came into the Shire and sought to invade Bree and the Breelands as well, isn’t that right?”

“So it is--the move to enslave the Breelands and the Shire was indeed one of the more evil deeds of this war--or at least so it is here in the northern lands.”

“But what was the war about?”

Analisë sighed as she sipped at her mug of tea. “What is war ever about? One group seeks to take by force what they cannot receive by asking or building themselves, and the other group resists and hopes to break the strength of the enemy sufficiently that it might be persuaded to return its own lands or to be so profoundly destroyed that it is no longer dangerous. Such is ever the way of it.”

“But----” Delphie stopped, unsure what she meant to say. The woman opposite her waited and allowed her to think it out. “I suppose,” she said at last, “I’m trying to understand who or what this Sauron was, and what his relationship was with that Sharkey.”

“You have chosen the hardest question to ask,” Analisë sighed. “How does one explain the likes of Sauron?”

“He’s been around for quite a long time, hasn’t he?”

The woman laughed bitterly. “Quite a long time, you say? Since the creation of Arda, I understand.”

That took the Hobbitess aback, and she replaced her spoonful of soup back in the bowl and straightened.

“You didn’t know?” At Delphie’s shake of the head, Analisë sighed. “Do you know the Elves’ story of the creation of the world? Have you ever heard it?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I see. This makes it even more complicated.” It was the woman’s turn to think how to proceed. At last she began, “It started with the Creator choosing to make children for himself, and so he created the Ainur, or great spirits of power, followed by the Maiar, or lesser spirits who are servants and messengers of Eru and his Ainur. He gifted the Ainur with the ability to sing the songs of creation, and when all had learned their parts he brought them together to sing the universe into being.” She stood so she could work her bread as she spoke, flattening it out and shaping it into a roll, then placing it on the greased metal tray on which it would be baked, finally dabbling it with whipped egg yolk before she placed a cloth over it and set it aside to rise once more and resumed her seat.

Delphie sat and listened enraptured as the tale unfolded, the soup cooling unregarded before her, although at one point without thinking she reached first for an apple and ate it automatically, then took a ginger biscuit.

“And Sauron and Morgoth are the same?” she asked after a time.

“No, although their aims apparently are. Morgoth was intended to be among the greatest of the Ainur and Valar, and Sauron was a Maia corrupted by him--although one of the more powerful of his order. He was Morgoth’s lieutenant, his second-in-command, for much of Morgoth’s period of supremacy here in Middle Earth. Soon after Morgoth founded his great fortress of Angband far to the north, he began being challenged by Elves and Men. The forces of the Noldor who’d returned from Aman to the Mortal Lands blamed him for the strife he’d awakened in the Undying Lands, knew him for the monster he’d become, and sought to recover the Silmarils he’d stolen from Fëanor’s family. The Sindarin Elves resented his attempts to dominate them and the evil they sensed in him. Our furthest ancestors, having learned that both Morgoth and Sauron were liars and betrayers and sought only domination by whatever means they could find to use, fled here west of the Misty Mountains and allied themselves with the Elves, as did many amongst the Dwarves as well. How long precisely Morgoth's chaos reigned we have no idea; but after the arrival of the Noldor in Middle Earth all struggled for well over half a millenium, Morgoth and those who opposed him; and in the end Eärendil the Mariner, one of the Peredhil or half-Elven, sailed westward to beg the Valar themselves to come to the aid of those who would live freely in Middle Earth. Only Fëanor’s remaining sons, having heard that the one Silmaril wrested by Beren One-hand from Morgoth’s iron crown rested now in the keeping of Eärendil’s wife Elwing, came upon the keep where Elwing and her twin sons, then but very young children, lived and entered in, blindly slaying those who opposed them until they came to the room where Elwing and her sons were in the tower. Elwing, who was gifted as a shapechanger, seeking to break the madness of those who broke into her quarters, threw herself out the window, taking the Silmaril with her. As she fell she shifted into the shape of a soaring seabird and flew over the Sundering Sea, carrying the Silmaril until she found her husband’s ship.

“There she lighted, and gave the gem into the keeping of Eärendil. He used it to set his course for Aman. The Valar received him and granted his plea; but neither he nor she could return to Ennor, Middle Earth, to the comfort of their people or that of their sons. Instead they set his ship to sailing the Seas of Night, and placed the last Silmaril in a circlet that he must wear, and he sails now ever as the Gil-estel, the star of evening and morning, the sign that first presaged the coming of the Valar to fight their evil brother and that since has ever given heart to those who have felt hopelessness.

“Morgoth was defeated, but at great cost to the earth itself as well as loss of life by those who opposed him. Many of the Maiar who had followed him repented and were allowed to return to Aman; those who had taken the shapes and identities of greatest horror and destruction and lost themselves in them, however, were imprisoned beneath the roots of mountains. Sauron himself hid in the waste places, and although he’d sent word he repented his former evil, he would not return to bow himself down and openly acknowledge his crimes and know atonement. Instead, as time passed he returned fully to his old ways, and he determined that if it were possible he would see Morgoth freed to return into Eä and to Arda where he would be avenged upon those who’d conquered him and thrust him beyond the Gates of Night.

“So he took a fair seeming, and representing himself as Annatar, the Lord of Gifts, he began traveling in the western lands seeking to learn what he could and find ways to betray all. To Eregion he came, the great Elf kingdom that lay outside the western gates of the ancient Dwarf kingdom of Khazad-dûm. There dwelt Celebrimbor of the Noldor, greatest Elven smith remaining within Ennor; and to Celebrimbor and his artisans Annatar taught the making of Rings of Power. Three were made to be gifted to the greatest of the Elven Lords and Ladies; seven for the Dwarves; and nine for the greatest kings of Men. Having helped in the crafting of the Seven and Nine and having set his seal of corruption on them, Sauron left Eregion to return to his own fortress-land of Mordor where he threw off all disguises. He awoke the volcano of Orodruin, or Mount Doom, and within a cavern looking down on its heart he crafted the One Ring, set to dominate the other nineteen Rings of Power and whoever might wear them. Only the Elves heard as he spoke the spell that sealed the greater part of his own power and evil will into the Ring he himself crafted, and so they removed their rings and hid them.

“And so war was resumed, with Sauron seeking to dominate all and with those who could opposing him ever.”

The story of the founding and foundering of Númenor was at least familiar, for Delphinium had heard the tale before from her older Baggins cousin, Bilbo. “And these were your ancestors who went to this island given to Men by the Valar?” she asked.

“Yes, my ancestors, led by Elros, one of the twin sons of Elwing and Eärendil. To these two youths was granted the choice to live as mortal Men or immortal Elves, and Elros chose mortality while his brother Elrond chose to live as an Elf; and so they, too, were sundered from one another. But when the island foundered due to the lies and blandishments of Sauron convincing the last King of Númenor to seek to wrest immortality by force from the Valar--not that they have the authority to confer such a thing--Elendil and his two sons led the Faithful back to Middle Earth, their ships driven eastward by storms caused by the destruction of the Star Isle. Elendil was a direct descendant of Elros, and so it is that the Dúnedain to this day are all descendants of those who’d first fought Morgoth and then fought against the growing power and influence of Sauron after him.”

“Why didn’t Sauron die when the Star Isle sank if he was there at the time?”

“He wasn’t a mortal, and had left the greater part of himself safely within his great Ring, here in Middle Earth, hidden somewhere within Mordor. That being true, he could not lose himself completely; his spirit survived and returned at last to the Mortal Lands and found its Ring, at which he could begin to build himself a body once more; but no longer could he form one that was pleasing to the eyes of others.”

She told now of the Last Alliance, and how Elendil and Gil-galad had both died in the battle felling Sauron, allowing Isildur to take up the haft of his father’s broken sword and use it to cut away the Ring from Sauron’s hand. “But he would not give It over and see It destroyed while he was there, right at Orodruin. It is said by some Elrond himself led him to the Sammath Naur where It was forged to see It destroyed, but Isildur would not do so. Instead It took him, and he claimed It for his own, although he managed to retain sufficient wit not to place It upon his finger there, where Its power and will were strongest.”

Now she told of how Isildur had gone first to Gondor to set his brother’s son upon the throne there as King of the southern kingdom, after which he set off northward to claim the kingdom of Arnor as his own, although he would be High King over his nephew. “Only he never made it to where his wife and youngest son waited in Imladris--orcs waylaid his party, and all but two died, himself the last of them when the Ring betrayed him, making Itself larger to slip from his finger while he sought to escape by swimming across the River Anduin. It abandoned him, betraying him to his death; but It waited too late, until he was in the River, and It was lost for twenty and five centuries in the mud at the bottom of the Anduin until it was found by one of the River folk.”

“What are the River folk?”

She sighed. “They were those of your kind who returned back over the Misty Mountains to the Anduin Valley to again seek to dwell there. The one who found the Ring had a companion, Sméagol, who murdered his kinsman to take the Ring for his own. Sméagol we now know was cast out of his grandmother’s hole to wander houseless, until he sought to hide himself from the light of day and the title of murderer by crawling into the darkness of caverns beneath the Misty Mountains, where he found a hidden place to dwell by a darkened lake, surviving on blind fish he caught within his lake and such orcs--or goblins as you may know them--he managed to trap. And so it continued until Sauron again began to stir and sought to call his Ring to him, and It abandoned him one day, managing to fall out of his belt pouch or off his finger when he wore It to make himself invisible so as to sneak up on a goblin. And there another of your kind found It----”

“Are you saying that the story Bilbo told is--is true?” Delphie felt more than a bit faint at the thought. “And this--Sméagol was Gollum’s right name?”

“Yes.”

“And Bilbo brought that Ring back to the Shire?”

“Yes, although he knew not which Ring it was. He thought it merely a trifle he’d found.”

“And he took It away when he left after his last Party?”

“No.”

Delphie sat as if stricken at that. “He didn’t--didn’t leave It, did he--there in the Shire where It could cause evil?” But this time Analisë didn’t answer. At last Delphie understood. “And now you aren’t supposed to tell me, even though--even though I’ve figured it out now. That’s why Frodo had to leave--and why--why he had to go to a fire mountain.” She took a deep breath. “No wonder he’s changed from how he was.”

“You see him as different than he was?”

“Yes. He’s so solemn now. He’s lost weight, and it's more than just being slender again as he was as a tween. According to Rico, my cousin Angelica’s husband, he often looks worried, distracted, and defensive. He’s always been too responsible by half, and now it’s worse. He was a happy person, and the best dancer in the Shire; but they say he didn’t even dance at Sam Gamgee’s wedding--that he looked as if he was ill, in spite of him obviously being happy for Sam and Rosie. He works as the deputy Mayor, and he goes between Hobbiton and Michel Delving, and he does hardly anything else. He’s not gone to a party or banquet unless he must as deputy Mayor. He didn’t go anywhere for Yule or to the Planting Ball in Overhill--he’s always gone to the Planting Ball. He went to Buckland once, but my sister says he was obviously not too well when he got back. She says he rubs at his shoulder a good deal, as if he’s frequently in pain.”

Analisë sighed and bowed her head. “From what we’ve been told of what he went through--he’s fortunate to even be alive,” she admitted, her voice soft and sad. She looked up to meet Delphie’s eyes. “To hear the adventure tales tell it, those who are heroes are dashing and daring--they need only draw their swords and take a swing and all fall before their onslaught; and if they are wounded it is never anything serious. Yet the reality is so much different. My husband lost his sword hand; Lord Arathorn and so many others their lives. If the four who returned to your land are heroes--and I assure you they are, each and all of them--then they paid the cost for that heroism; and it is likely that--that your cousin Frodo Baggins will continue to pay for the rest of his life, however long that might prove.”

After a time of thought Delphie asked, “Since his Ring is gone, Sauron can’t return?”

“No--there is not enough of him left, with what was in the Ring lost to him, for him to do any such thing. And the Valar and Maiar of Aman would not allow him to return to them. What was left at the last was torn apart by strong west winds, and Manwë, chief amongst the Valar, has ever been known as the Lord of the Winds.”

“Then what about this Sharkey?”

The woman shrugged, her face more concerned. “We know less of the Istari’s origins, for all they have been with us most of two thousand years. Saruman was the first of his kind to be noted to arrive here in Middle Earth. It is said he came in a small boat to the quays of Mithlond, the Elves’ Grey Havens, there west of the Shire. He was followed some years later by a second, then two more, then last of all Gandalf, who is known by the Elves as Mithrandir, the Grey Pilgrim. It is said that they were sent to oppose Sauron, but sent in the guise of elderly Men, although they have not grown appreciably older since they arrived here so long ago. The two who came together have disappeared into the east, and none know where they went or why none has heard from them since. The second to arrive, Radagast, lives east of the Misty Mountains, although from time to time he returns here to Eriador to assist in the healing of blasted lands. Saruman, who was known to the Elves as Curunír, came seldom here to Eriador, spending most of his time in the southlands or wandering through the lands east of Mordor and Mirkwood.”

“Then Sharkey was a Wizard, like Gandalf?”

“Yes. Several hundred years ago the one who was then Steward of Gondor gave Saruman the tower of Orthanc at Isengard to dwell within. It was built by Elendil and his sons, and appears to have been used mostly by those among their followers who sought most knowledge of the world and the stars. Then, I believe before the Kings of Gondor failed, the tower was mostly left empty until the gift of its residency was made to Curunír. Now having a home of his own, he became more withdrawn from the world of Men and Elves and Dwarves and Hobbits; instead he devoted himself wholly to study and devising; then appears to have somehow developed his own will to power over others. He began gathering servants to himself, mostly from among the people of Dunland; then somehow he captured some orcs and took them as slaves and--and breeding stock. He became more arrogant and delusional, but managed to hide it from most. None realized, apparently, that he was building himself an army behind the walls of Isengard.

“Just before your cousin left the Shire Saruman captured Gandalf and sought to hold him as a prisoner to keep him from interfering with his plans. He intended to destroy the land of Rohan where the horselords live, and then he would march with his army from the west while Sauron and his armies and allies from Harad, Rhun, Umbar, and Angmar came from the east, and between them they would destroy the capital of Gondor and, with that gone, enslave all of that kingdom. Then they would march northward and slay all in their path until they killed the last remnant of the Dúnedain of what was once Arnor. And with that done, the dark days would come again, and all would lie under the control of Mordor; none living for themselves, but all as slaves to the Shadow. Whether or not Sauron continued in his belief he could release Morgoth back into this creation we know not; certainly all he has done in the past age appears more intended to build himself back up rather than to assist his former master.”

“Sharkey--or Saruman--captured Gandalf?”

“Gandalf thought him still devoted to the purpose for which the Wizards were sent to us; once he learned of the treachery of Saruman he found means of escape and returned to warn all. He arrived in Buckland a few days after your cousin fled it, and after the Black Riders had been there within the house where Frodo was supposed to now dwell. He hurried then for Imladris; but since he had now a horse he’d taken from the horselords of Rohan while the Hobbits and Aragorn went afoot, he arrived there first.”

“But it was said that when they disappeared five ponies belonging to Merry Brandybuck went with them.”

“They were lost when the stable at the Pony was entered and all the horses and ponies within were driven off, out of Bree altogether. The Prancing Pony itself was attacked, and the room where the four Hobbits were supposed to sleep was entered and the beds hacked to pieces. Fortunately Aragorn was with them by then and had them sleep elsewhere, although Nob has proudly told me how well the beds were arranged to look as if each held a sleeping Hobbit.”

“So, Gandalf knew Saruman had gone bad?”

“Yes.”

“And they did nothing to stop him?”

“Who was to be sent so quickly to stop him? Gandalf had sought to warn Théoden of Rohan who ruled the land closest to Isengard; but although Théoden’s nephew Èomer believed him, not so the King. Not until Théoden realized how he himself had been caught in Saruman’s webs did he believe and seek to do aught to protect his land and people. But that was months later, just ere spring began.”

“Where is this Isengard?”

“Far, far to the south, at the southern end of the Misty Mountains, perhaps a ride of twenty to thirty days.”

“How did he get from there to the Shire?”

“Captain Peregrin or Sir Meriadoc could tell you fully, although I doubt I know it all. Apparently there is a race of the Children of Iluvatar that woke in the forests of Middle Earth--the Onodrim is the name in Sindarin, although they are called the Ents in the common tongue. I’d only heard of them in ancient fireside tales and thought them the children of imagination before those who went south to aid Aragorn returned, for they saw them as they returned past Orthanc and Fangorn Forest, and Aragorn spoke easily and respectfully with them, or so they say. These are the Shepherds of the ancient forest, watching over and tending to the trees given to their care.

“In his seeking for power Saruman had been creating great furnaces for the smelting of metals and the forging of weapons of war and tools of destruction. Forges require wood and charcoal; and having depleted the orchards that once bloomed within the bowl of Isengard he began sending his slaves further afield, and they’d begun wantonly cutting the trees of Fangorn, not even taking all for the fires. Once Captain Peregrin and Sir Meriadoc got there....”

Delphie sat listening, totally fascinated. In time the woman rose and took the bowl of cooled soup and saw it dealt with, and together they saw the dishes washed and put away and the bread in the oven as the story progressed. They’d retaken their seats at the table with more tea when at last Analisë explained how the Ents had reportedly allowed Saruman and his servant Wormtongue to go free, now that the war was over and Sauron’s power destroyed; and how they’d hurried to come northward that they might enter the Shire to its destruction before the four Travelers might return home and halt their doings. “Such Halladan has explained to us, at least,” she said at last.

“But if he lived so far south of us, how did he learn of the Shire?” Delphie asked. “Why would he send the Big Men to help Lotho?”

“That we aren’t certain,” the woman admitted. “Probably he was aware of the Shire through Gandalf, although we aren’t certain how he could have realized that perhaps the Ring might lie hidden there.”

“You think he knew?” Delphie asked, then stopped again. “So--so that’s why they took rings and none came back to us--they were looking for that­ one--Sauron’s Ring!”

“They took rings?”

“Yes. They took almost all the jewelry they could find, and most of it’s been found and returned, but no rings. About all who have rings now are those who lived in Buckland beyond Kingsbridge and those who lived in the Tooklands, and those who buried or hid their jewelry before the Gatherers and Sharers got to them. But Frodo was gone before Lotho’s folks got there, so there was no way they could have found the one they wanted had they taken every piece of jewelry in the Shire!” She found she was shaking her head. “Foolish souls.”

Analisë Greenwillow nodded. “Those who are greedy for power or wealth are usually very foolish once you look closely at them,” she agreed. “I know you were distracted the first time, but I’m ready now to eat my luncheon. Do you think you’d enjoy another bowl of that soup?”

Realizing she felt near famished, Delphinium smiled. “Yes, it was quite good, what I actually tasted of it. You are an excellent cook, Mistress Greenwillow.”

“Please--just call me Analisë.”

*******


On Sterday morning they left the Prancing Pony, Persivo driving and Enrico sitting beside him on the box, Bartolo inside facing across at Delphinium who sat with Petunia on one side of her and Alyssa on the other. Begonia sat beside him to his left, a letter from Aggie Sandheaver already in her hand. He looked down at the brown leather satchel that lay on the seat to his right--a gift to him from Master Alvric; a second in oxblood below it that had been gifted to Persivo. “He’ll make a fine lawyer once he’s through his apprenticeship,” the Mannish lawyer had predicted, a wide smile on his face as he peered through that crystal lens of his at where Persi had stood taking leave of Carnation Sandheaver and Denra Gorse in the neat garden before Mistress Gorse’s house. “You’ve every reason to be proud of your son, his intellect, and his capabilities. He’s a wonderful reflection on the upbringing you and Mistress Delphinium have given him.”

Within the brown leather case were gathered model contracts and agreements for sales of goods and services as well as marriages (“One never knows,” Master Alvric had commented), apprenticeships, partnerships, leasing of equipment, the purchase and sale of property, rentals and leases for homes and businesses, as well as the completed lease agreement between a lord of the land and a tenant (and a simpler model they’d worked out afterwards to keep in his files in case such a situation might come about again). So much time had been given to the copying out of other model documents that his file of such things be complete, that there had been no time to make all the requisite copies of the one between the Hedges and Frodo Baggins, but there wasn’t a big rush on that. Once they were home he and Persivo between them should be able to see that done within the next week, after which Persi would be set to copying out each of the models for his own working files. There was a rather strange satisfaction to be had, Barti thought, to knowing his son had been qualified to write contracts between folk the Shire and the King’s own folk before he was qualified to do so within the Shire itself!

“I wonder if an Elf or a Ranger will ride alongside us this time?” Alyssa asked.

“I must suppose we’ll need to wait and see,” her mother answered.

It was a Ranger who joined them soon enough, one they’d not met yet. He approached their carriage, and Persi slowed it sufficiently to allow him to speak. “Master Bracegirdle? I was asked to follow after you and see you to the Brandywine Bridge.” He then fell behind them allowing the carriage to go ahead. When they stopped for a meal at the place where they’d stopped before he nodded to them. “I’ll leave my horse here,” he said, “and scout the forest for any who might be lingering about.”

They never learned his name or anything about him, but as he appeared to prefer it this way there wasn’t a great deal else they could do.

It was as they were replacing things back in the coach after their meal that a glance at the box stowed under where he’d been sitting reminded Barti of his interview with Lindor Greenwillow. Shortly after his return to the Prancing Pony, while Delphie and the children had gone out to fetch three shirts their mother had had made for Persivo, Greenwillow had knocked at the door of the private parlor they’d been given and asked permission to enter, carrying this box, neatly carved of fruitwood, decorated with the face of an enigmatically smiling woman surrounded by extravagant blossoms.

“How do you do, Master Bracegirdle?” the Man had said with a courteous bow. “They know me here as Lindor Greenwillow, although among our own people I am known as Lindor son of Elindor. Were you advised of what occurred today in the marketplace, when two ruffians approached your daughter, recognizing her as a Hobbit of the Shire by her dress?”

“So, I’m told, sir; and that I have you to thank as she wasn’t hurt by them. And I do thank you. My children--they mean the world and more to me. Do sit down,” he’d added, indicating the chair Delphinium had thought to ask Nob for earlier in the day.

Once his Mannish guest was comfortably seated with the box settled in his lap and an ale beside him, Bartolo had examined him. As was true of the rest of the King’s kindred he’d seen so far Lindor Greenwillow was quite tall, slender, well muscled, with dark hair going grey and grey eyes and an intelligent expression--and then he’d realized that the right arm ended just short of the right wrist. He’d looked away, feeling a bit sick, and had heard the Man’s almost mirthless laugh. “I saved my Lord Arathorn from an orc’s blade; a second orc paid me back by removing my sword hand. I regret that just the sight of it causes you distress, as I’ve learned to do well enough without it in the intervening years. My Lord purchased a house here within Bree for my wife and me to live in, and we listen to the tides of gossip and information, watch for troubles to show themselves, and report to those of our Rangers who come through. Now and then one of our own will need to rest quietly and unobserved for a time and so will abide with us; or one found in need of succor will be brought to us to take under our protection temporarily. It is a good life, we’ve come to realize, and we have even been accepted by our neighbors--at last.”

“And you helped organize the defense when--when the Big Men came here--am I right?”

“Your folk called them that?” Lindor had examined him with amusement in his eyes. “Yes, I suppose that compared to the folk of the Shire they are big enough, although we’ve found none as tall as ourselves. And the two taken today appear to have been among those who assisted in the taking of your land and the torment of your people--which, of course, is why I am here.” He shifted to hold out the box toward Bartolo, who stood uncertainly to accept it. “Barliman knows of no jewelry taken from folk in the Breelands, while the list of that taken from the Shire is, I understand, extensive. We therefore ask that you and those who might have known Mistress Sackville-Baggins sufficiently well to possibly identify any more pieces that might have been stolen from her examine these, and that the remainder be forwarded to Lord Frodo for his continued efforts to reunite individuals with stolen items. And this box--it is a gift from my wife to yours, for Analisë admires both Mistress Delphinium’s intelligence and good sense and how she has managed to pass on these attributes on to your daughters as well. It was carved for her by her brother. We had no children of our own, and it pleases her to think that this will go to someone who will appreciate the gift of it.”

There had been little Barti might have said in answer to that offer besides to tender thanks on the part of Delphinium. He remembered opening the box and being surprised at how many pieces there were inside.

Lindor had responded, “They weren’t carrying all of this on their persons. We found some buried in a cache there where they had been camping. Apparently one or both had been putting aside stolen items to take with them should they leave the Shire--most likely the one who is wholly of Mankind.”

“I’m still surprised that Men and goblins could--marry.”

“Not marry--they were possibly forced to mate. Such is an abomination against the Creator and the Valar, of course. Yet orcs themselves have been an abomination against the Creator from the beginning, since the days Morgoth first began torturing captured Elves until they lost themselves and came to delight as much in evil as Morgoth himself.”

That statement had given Barti pause. He had no idea who or what Morgoth was--perhaps another name for this Sauron? So many of these outsiders appeared to sport a number of different names for themselves, after all. “I see,” had been all he had said. In the end he had changed the subject. “I do wish to thank you again for what you did to save my daughter. In many villages there were some of these as would--paw at the lasses and prettier wives. We were more fortunate, there in Hardbottle, although the thefts of food and goods were common enough.” He’d thought for a moment, then asked, delicately, “And it’s true that your folk have guarded our borders--secretly?”

Lindor nodded. “We have done so at least since the days when Bucca of the Marish led out archers to the needs of Arvedui’s army of defense against the forces of Angmar. Not only were those of aid in protecting Aranarth, the heir of Arvedui, but the rest of your folk within the Shire aided in bringing Aranarth, his mother Fíriel, and a good number of his folk across the Shire by secret paths to the Western Marches where they were met by Elves from Lindon and Mithlond and protected until the coming of Eärnur’s armada. It is said also that your folk so riddled the West Road with pits and holes that Angmar’s horsemen could not pursue ours. That final assault by Angmar nearly defeated us, and it was by the aid of your people we were saved. Then when the armada arrived and Eärnur’s forces were ready to march against our enemies to help put them to rout, your people restored the road so swiftly that we were able to take Angmar by surprise. His army was defeated, and when the Witch-king’s horse was slain beneath him--it is said by a Hobbit arrow, and that a second tipped with fire caught in his robes ablaze, he fled shapeless and the war was finished.”

Lindor stretched slightly. “And this time all of your four faced the Ring-wraiths and the power of Sauron’s direct will and managed to prevail--whether it was by their own native integrity and strength or with aid from without. So many among Men are totally lost to reason and thought at the sight and sound of them, for ever their primary weapon has been terror; to see Hobbits stand firm when Men would be expected to fall temporarily witless has increased our respect for you.

“And it has pleased us to be allowed to think that throughout most of this time Mordor has remained unaware of your land and the great strength at the core of your beings. Even most of those here in Bree who dwell with Hobbits amongst them are fooled by your small stature and lack of interest in the doings of those other than yourselves into thinking Hobbits harmless and unlikely to protect your own. It is always amusing to watch their expressions when they realize their misconceptions.” And something in the pride with which that was said managed to fully convey to the Hobbit lawyer that Lindor meant precisely what he’d said.

Now he looked back at the box, the line between his brow slightly deepening. He’d have to bring that to Baggins; once its contents were ready to be identified and returned to whatever Hobbits scattered throughout the Shire had lost them then he could take the box back to Hardbottle and give it to Delphie as Lindor had indicated his wife wished done. It was a fine piece of workmanship, and he was glad that his Delphinium would be able to own such a thing.

He was musing on this when he heard Rikky comment, “I’d still like to explore over there.”

“No,” Persi said with a definite tone to his voice. “Remember what Mr. Glorinlas said--that’s a dangerous place even the Elves won’t enter, and that the King himself had some difficulty in escaping. From what I’ve learned of the King’s folk and the Elves while we’ve been outside the Shire, I’d take their warnings seriously. They don’t seem to speak lightly of such things.” Barti found himself smiling at the good sense his older son showed, and turned to see equal pride in Delphie’s eyes.

Once they were ready to go, Persi again driving and this time Petunia beside him, Delphie commented, “Should we wait for the Ranger?”

Barti eyed the woods about him. “Perhaps, although I doubt as there’s much to worry about between here and the Bridge.”

The wait didn’t prove particularly long. Their guardian appeared out of the woods, undoing his bowstring and shouldering the bow itself. “Nothing more dangerous than a red squirrel seen,” he commented with a slight smile. He had quickly checked bit and cinch, mounted, and was ready to fall back behind as he’d done before.

It was not long past sunset when they made the Brandywine Bridge; just short of it their escort stopped, gave them a deep brow, and with the request, “Bear the respects of the Rangers of Arnor to the Ringbearer,” he waved them on.

Lyssa and Rikki were craning their heads out the windows to watch him as thy drove on; then the gate was opening as a Bounder stepped forward. “If’n ye’d identify yourselves?” he said courteously enough.

“Bartolo Bracegirdle and family from Hardbottle, returned from Bree on the deputy Mayor’s business,” Barti said after pulling his daughter away from the window.

“Mr. Bracegirdle, sir? Then it’s an honor to have you home again. Garthfast Gamwidge at your service, sir.”

“Thank you, Mr. Gamwidge.”

“Shall I send a lad to the Bridge Inn to advise ’em as ye’ve come, Mr. Bracegirdle?”

“Yes--that would be most satisfactory. We stayed there on our way out, so they are aware of the accommodations we would prefer.”

“So it shall be, Mr. Bracegirdle, sir.” And at a gesture a young Hobbit disappeared toward the Inn as the gate was fully opened to welcome them back to the Shire. Barti felt some muscle he’d not realized had been tense between his shoulder blades the whole time they’d been gone relax, and in moments they were driving into the inn’s yard and they were being greeted with the familiar accents of the Shire; and none of the buildings were over a sensible two stories in height, not even the Bridge Inn itself.

They were home.

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