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The Tenant from Staddle
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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24
Hero or Coward?

Hero or Coward?


“Well, you finally decided to return home, did you?” asked Rico Clayhanger as he accompanied his friend to the stable from the open shed where the coach had been left beside the family’s trap. “And how did your family find Bree?”

Bartolo shrugged, a bit surprised to find he didn’t appreciate Rico’s dry address as much as he usually did. “They appeared to enjoy themselves thoroughly,” he admitted as he saw the two ponies into their stalls. “Would you like to assist me, or do you intend merely to annoy others with your barbed chatter?”

The Clayhanger lawyer took no offense, for he was well enough accustomed to Bracegirdle directness and acerbic comments. “If you need a hand with the ponies, of course--” he began.

“I don’t particularly need a hand, but would certainly appreciate one,” Barti growled. “Get some of the stable toweling there, and the brushes, and we’ll get these two settled for a time. They’ve earned a good feed and rest, the pulling they’ve been doing the last three days.”

Rico turned his attention to Dottie, leaving Spotty to his master. “And what do you think of this lawyer of the King’s that was sent up?”

“Intelligent, very well mannered, and knows his business thoroughly. Name’s Alvric son of Maerdion--they don’t do family names in Gondor, apparently. He’s second to the Master of their Guild of Lawyers, and serves as a magistrate as well as advisor for those who must go before their courts and tribunals.”

“Did he meet our Travelers while they were down in the King’s city?”

“He saw them all and heard them speak on occasion, but doesn’t appear to have truly met any of them in person.”

Rico’s brows rose in curiosity. “And what would Hobbits of the Shire have to say of interest to folk there in the Southlands?”

“Well, according to him the King himself was holding up the practices of Hobbits of the Shire and the Breelands as shining examples of how legal matters ought to be dealt with--with simplicity and directness. The fact as we’re far less prone to serious wrongdoing than are Men apparently was spoken of with much regret that Men are not as temperate a race as are we Hobbits.”

“Really?” Rico was starting to smile as he rubbed down the spotted mare. “A Man who appreciates Hobbits, is he?”

“Yes. And it’s not just him--all of the King’s kinsmen appear to hold a good deal of respect toward us, which is why they’ve been protecting our borders for the past thousand years. Bucca of the Marish and those who went out with him to fight for Arvedui Last-king left a very favorable impression on them. The Dúnedain are given to long memories.”

“Dúnedain?”

The Bracegirdle nodded as he set aside his own toweling and began using a brush on the gelding’s coat. “That’s what they call themselves. Means ‘Men of the West,’ or so I’m told. Indicates as they’re from the Sea kings’ people.”

“And did you find out who your client is?”

Barti’s voice was stiff as he answered, “I knew that before I left the Shire.”

“Who is it?”

“I can’t say.”

Rico stopped, looking at his companion with new interest. “You can’t mean you were made to take the oath?”

Barti only shrugged in reply, his mouth set in a sour line.

“You were? Pen and ink, Bartolo--what inspired you to agree to such a thing?”

“Haven’t any of your clients ever discussed it with you?”

“A couple, I suppose. But I think I know of only two or three other lawyers in the Shire who’ve ever been made to take it.”

“Well now you know one more.” Barti leaned over to inspect Spotty’s left front hoof. “Good--no stones or bruising.”

“These look sleek enough,” Rico commented after a time.

“Yes, they were well taken care of there at the Prancing Pony. The Hobbit as works in the stable has a right hand with the beasts.”

“How come you decided to take the entire family with you?”

“Why not? Road’s reasonably safe, and we were escorted both ways.”

“The King sent an escort for you?”

“Not going out, no one did--met an Elf as was riding westward toward the Shire, and he turned and went with us--said as some of the ruffians as were thrown out of the Shire’d been hanging about in the forest surrounding the Breelands, and a few’d been caught by the Rangers and sent to the King’s Steward. Then--then a few days before we left to return home they found two more--two as had been there at Bag End itself.”

“How do you know that? I don’t remember you going anywhere near Hobbiton during the Time of Troubles.”

“I didn’t. These had stolen some jewelry as has belonged to my Aunt Lobelia. It was in their pockets when they were caught in the marketplace in Bree--come in to trade some of that jewelry for supplies, they said.”

Rico’s expression was now troubled. “So, there are still some Men out there, lingering around the borders of the Shire, who were here then, are there?”

Barti’d moved to Spotty’s other side, where he was now continuing the brushing of the gelding’s coat. “Yes, so it appears. The Rangers are on the watch for them, and if they catch them they get sent before the King’s Steward. And they tell me as most of them end up either forced into servitude for a time helping to rebuild the roads or the old capital up by Lake Evendim, or they are hung if there’s proof they’re bad enough.”

His friend shuddered. “And you were escorted back, too, then?”

Barti gave a brief nod. “A Ranger, coming back toward the Shire--rode behind us and kept a good watch. I suspect as one of the Rangers we met there in Bree arranged for it.”

“And now you’re qualified to write contracts between folks of the Shire and the new King’s people?”

“Yes--Persi and me both.” Having finished with the currying, Bartolo hung the toweling back on its loop, and hung his brush from its peg before fetching the pail to the pump just outside the stable door to see it filled. He brought it in to fill Spotty’s trough, then refilled it for Dottie while Rico went to fetch hay and grain.

Rico sniffed, “Not many Hobbit lads his age are qualified to write contracts outside the Shire before they are inside. You going to apprentice him to me soon?”

Barti checked to make certain both stall gates were firmly latched. “No,” he said slowly, “we’ve decided to allow him to accept Bernigard Took’s offer to teach him.” He gave the Clayhanger a swift glance. “Don’t know as what made him offer this chance to the lad, but I’m grateful for it. Hope you don’t mind.”

“He certainly couldn’t get better instruction anywhere in the Shire--that’s certain,” Rico commented as they left the stable and saw the doors shut behind them.

Barti nodded. He recognized that Rico was yet a bit hurt by the decision, and wasn’t certain how he ought to respond.

“What did the lasses and Ricki do all this time?”

“Made friends with some of the Bree Hobbits. On the way home Gonya must have writ at least four letters to Aggie Sandheaver. Ricki met some of the local lads and played a good deal of roopie and even a game of golf. Delphie met the local garden guild ladies as had heard tell of our gardens here, and spent a fair amount of coin on fabric and having some clothing made. We had a couple meals with Master Alvric and his landlady, and a couple with the Watercresses. Ora Watercress studied some with us. He and his family have a very nice smial in Bree Hill.”

“It’s going to seem deadly dull, coming back home to the Shire,” suggested Rico as they stopped at the basin set on the table outside the back door of Garden Place to wash their hands, faces, and feet.

“Dull, you say? Have to get a contract copied out, then run about half the Shire getting all the copies signed and properly witnessed and the payment protocol worked out, then go out and have the party outside the Shire sign it and have it witnessed there, too, and then file it both here and there. I’ll have to keep in contact with this Lord Steward Halladan to find as when he’ll be back in Bree so as to have him register it. It’s proving to be far more than I’d looked to doing at first.”

“Did they say anything about--about the Travelers, out there, I mean?”

“Who?”

Rico waved his hand rather impatiently. “Who? Anyone!”

“Well, I told you basically what Master Alvric remembers of their stay in the King’s city. The folk in Bree tell of the disturbance the four of them caused--seems that the so-proper Frodo Baggins ended up singing and dancing atop a table--only it fell over on him and caused quite a stir.”

“Baggins got drunk?” Rico was very surprised, even perhaps a bit impressed. “What possessed him?”

Barti shook his head. “That night the Breelanders had their first bit of problems with outsiders--someone broke into the stable and turned all the horses and ponies out of doors, and one of the rooms was broken into, I understand. The Travelers had to buy a new pony to carry their supplies before they could leave. When they came back a goodly number of folk went to the Prancing Pony to catch a glimpse of them but were skeptical of what they said. They’re coming round now, though, what with more of the King’s messengers coming and going, and Master Alvric and several Rangers and one of the King’s Messengers addressing their guild of lawyers and the Breeland Council and all.

“The Rangers all seem to think as we of the Shire must all be as marvelous as the Travelers, and they speak of all of them with respect bordering on awe.”

“I see.”

“Indeed.”

“And you’ll have to go out again--and probably more than once?”

“Yes.”

“I hope you’re getting properly paid for all of this.”

“I am.” Something in Barti’s tone of voice appeared to convince Rico that the subject was closed, but the Clayhanger was obviously intrigued as they went into the kitchen where Angelica was sitting at the set table, watching Delphinium with interest. That look on his wife’s face convinced Bartolo that Delphie, too, had been questioned and had begun feeling pressed to reveal information she had no intention of telling. “Ponies are taken care of, dearling,” he informed her as he paused behind her, laying a hand on her shoulder, and then, in a rare public display of affection, leaning forward to press a kiss into Delphie’s hair.

She turned to look at him, both surprised and pleased, he noted. Perhaps he ought to do such things more often? “Tea will be on the table shortly, Barti dear,” she informed him. She turned to look at their guests. “Will you join us? We need to eat up what was in our food chest so it doesn’t go bad.”

Shortly afterwards all of them were settled about the table. “You have all your things properly sorted out and the dirty clothes in the laundry hampers?” asked Delphie, looking at each of her five offspring in turn.

“Yes, Mum,” Persi said, “or at least Ricki and I do.”

“We do, too, Mother,” Begonia added with a sidelong look at her sisters, both of whom nodded their agreement.

“And you have all you took with you and brought back with you put away as well?”

Alyssa announced, “I do, although I have my new book on the table by my bed. Is that all right?”

“Certainly, lovey. And, morsel,” she added to Begonia, “you have all your new fripperies and linens in the proper drawers and chests?”

Gonya smiled. “Oh, yes, Mummy.”

“Good enough.”

“And how did you enjoy your time in Bree?” asked Angelica of Begonia.

“I enjoyed it very much, and I have a friend to write to now who lives there. There were two letters waiting for me from Aggie when we got home.”

“We met several Rangers, and one let me see his long knife,” Ricki told her. “And someone tried to hurt Pet, but Mr. Greenwillow took care of him, he did--hit him with his stick. He was one of the ones as was in Hobbiton--one of Lotho’s Big Men, that is, the one what tried to hurt Pet.”

Both Rico and Angelica looked shocked. Barti groaned internally, for he’d not intended to tell anyone about that detail. “It seems as some of the Big Men as were here in the Shire have tried hiding out in the forests about the Breelands or just beyond our borders. Those as get caught by the Rangers are taken in hand immediately. The son of one of the Rangers we had to do with saw two odd characters hanging about near the gates to Bree, and came in to fetch a former Ranger as lives there now--they arrived just in time to catch one of the two of them threatening Petunia. Both were immediately captured and go to the Steward for questioning and punishment. The one as threatened Pet will probably end up being executed.”

“Executed?” Angelica looked a bit green.

Barti gave a reluctant nod. “What he threatened was--was bad. And what we’re told of his particular kind by the Rangers, they’re very nasty characters.”

It was enough to close that part of the conversation, at least. Petunia, after a few minutes of awkward silence, said, “He didn’t hurt me, and I was able to talk to Mr. and Missus Greenwillow, which was what I wanted to do anyway. Mr. Greenwillow used to be a Ranger, but now he and his wife live in Bree, and they’re ever so nice. He’s going to translate a scroll we found, Ronica and me. That’s Ronica Sandheaver, Agatha Sandheaver’s cousin. Ronica’s Uncle Ned has it, the scroll, I mean. It’s like a family book, and it’s very old.”

“You were talking to Men?” Angelica asked, shocked.

“Oh, yes--there are lots of Men in Bree--more than Hobbits, really. Most of them are just the same as meeting Hobbits here in the Shire, although the Rangers, being the King’s kin, are different. They’re rather special. Because they used to always come into the village mostly to be able to rest a bit and get a hot meal they don’t have to fix themselves over a campfire and so they can have a good mug of ale or beer--we’re told that Mr. Butterbur’s beer is especially good right now--the folk of Bree would see how dirty they’d look and thought as they were disreputable. They’re starting to learn different. Mr. Gilfileg--he was quite funny about it. He said that if we were seen talking together folks would begin realizing maybe the Rangers aren’t as awful as folks assumed.”

And so the conversation went during the meal. Afterwards the children were sent off to their own pursuits. “We’ll help your mum and dad clean up this time,” Rico assured them.

As Delphie cleared away and Angelica filled the wash basin with soap flakes and water from the steaming kettle, Rico brushed the crumbs into the bucket for the poultry and Barti straightened the chairs and benches and fetched the broom. At last Rico said, “We were hoping to learn more about what the Travelers really did out there.”

Barti shrugged as he cleaned up about the table. “Not much to tell. Folks in Bree itself know little enough except that Frodo Baggins introduced himself as Mr. Underhill, and got up on a table where he sang some nonsense that sounds as if it had been made up by old Bilbo and danced a bit until the table fell over. There was the trouble that evening I told you about--the Rangers say as it was the first time the ruffians as later attacked there and then came in on Lotho’s invitation really caused problems. No one’s certain as who broke into the room in the Prancing Pony, but no one was hurt and nothing taken--only the beds had been--torn apart. Our four went on next day with one of the Rangers, and that was all anyone knew until they came back.

“Most folks there don’t know Frodo’s right name, it appears. He told them he was writing a book, though.”

Rico’s eyebrows rose so much they were in danger of becoming lost in his hair. “A book? Since when do Hobbits write books?”

“Considering how many books as there are full of bad poetry and catty remarks about distant cousins about the Shire, obviously some Hobbits write books. And if any Hobbit is likely to write a book I’d put my money on Baggins. Remember--that Aunt Dora of his was the one what wrote that book on proper decorum and behavior.”

Miss Dora Baggins’s Book of Manners,” Angelica sighed. “My mother would read it to me all the time when I was younger. As far as she was concerned Auntie Dora was the authority on how one must behave.”

“I remember her reading off the chapter on courting to the two of us once. Now, mind you, I was already married by that time--do you remember, Angie?”

Rico shook his head. “Wives,” he murmured in low tones at Barti, whose temper had mended a bit at this turn in the conversation. Then, a bit louder he interrupted the exchange of reminiscences going on between the two Hobbitesses. “So, the folks of Bree remember the fuss of that night and them leaving the next day, and that Frodo said he was going to write a book. Any idea why he used the name Underhill?”

Barti shrugged. “Apparently because those odd black-cloaked fellows were asking about ‘Baggins’ here in the Shire, and he was trying to slip out without getting noticed and end up with them knowing where he was. Of course, that went by the wayside the moment he fell off the table.”

“I’d think he’d draw attention to himself just getting up on the table, myself,” Rico noted.

“Why all this interest in Baggins?” the Bracegirdle asked.

“I’m trying to figure out what made him change so much.”

“You get chased by huge black Men on black horses across the Shire and beyond, then get injured a time or two and odds are you’d change, too,” Barti returned impatiently. “I don’t want to speak or even think of Frodo Baggins for the rest of the evening--is that acceptable to you, Clayhanger?”

“Sorry, Bracegirdle. All right, then--once we’re done here shall we take your older son off to the inn to celebrate the two of you being accepted to write contracts with the King’s people?”

Within a half hour they were gone, and after seeing that all was in hand for supper Delphie led her cousin into the parlor. “It’s a pleasure to be home with a ceiling that’s our height for a change,” she sighed as she sat in her favorite chair. “Everything was so tall in Bree. The rooms were comfortable for Hobbits, but the ceilings were still unnaturally high even there with the round doors and windows.”

“And you all really spoke with Men?” marveled Angie.

“It’s hard not to when the innkeeper’s a Man, and the Rangers we had to deal with were Men, and Master Alvric was a Man, and Mistress Denra was a woman from among Men. A good number of the shopkeepers we dealt with were Men as well.”

“Did you find out why Frodo left the Shire, Delphie?”

Delphinium shook her head. “I mayn’t speak of it, Angie. Frodo has his reasons for not wanting it talked about, and all tell me they’re good reasons at that. All I can tell you is that he was convinced what he was doing would protect the Shire from unspeakable evil, and returning home to find out that Sharkey and his folk had come here while they were gone almost tore his heart in two. He must have felt it was all that effort for nothing.”

“Do you know how he was injured?”

“Not all of it. I only know they say he almost died--that they all almost died. That Mr. Greenwillow Pet was mentioning--the reason he lives in Bree now is because while he was fighting in a battle he lost his right hand. Now he carries a long walking stick instead of a sword and he keeps an eye on Bree from inside it instead of patrolling its borders. He and his wife both said he saved the King’s father that day, just before someone cut his hand off. His wife says we have to understand that for those who are heroes--really heroes, there’s a price to be paid. And she says that all four of our Travelers are real heroes.”

“And are Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took really soldiers now?”

“Yes, they’re really soldiers now. Merry’s a knight of Rohan, and Pippin’s a Captain of the King’s Guard. And Pippin really did kill a troll--only it fell on him once it was dead.”

Her cousin’s eyes widened with surprise. “He’s lucky he wasn’t killed, too! According to Cousin Bilbo trolls are enormous!”

“Yes--Mr. Greenwillow says the same. I guess that was when he did almost die. But he saved a few of those who fought beside him, they tell me.”

“Oh.” Angelica sat and thought about that one for a time. “How about Merry?”

“He fought against one of the largest armies there ever was, apparently, and stood by the King of Rohan and his niece when all the other Men were carried off by their horses. Everyone says that to face--to face the one who was attacking them and who was trying to kill this King Théoden was one of the bravest--and most desperate--things they’ve ever seen.”

“Is that where he got that scar on his forehead?”

“I don’t know.”

“How about Sam Gamgee?”

“He and Frodo--they went a different way. They left the others because theirs was the worst journey of all--that’s what everyone who knows says. And we’re all lucky that they did, for if they hadn’t we’d probably all be slaves today, worse than anything that Sharkey ever thought up. No, I’m not saying anything more--I’ve already said probably more than I ought to have done. Now, come with me to the sewing room--I bought some fabric to redo the cushions in here with....”

*******


A week later and all were preparing for the Free Fair in Michel Delving. It was an election year, and Will Whitfoot was encouraging all to vote for Frodo as the new Mayor for the Shire. “I’m ready to retire,” he’d reportedly told Cousin Benlo. “Frodo’s doing such a fine job, we ought to make it permanent, don’t you agree?”

Well, there was no question Benlo Bracegirdle did indeed agree with the Mayor, and he’d been making the rounds of Hardbottle and the rest of the Bracegirdle enclaves indicating he, too, was supporting Frodo Baggins for Mayor.

As his own family readied for their trip to Michel Delving where they’d be staying with a Grubb relative for the duration of the Fair, Bartolo was considering what he’d say to the deputy Mayor. He’d not been fond of Frodo since the year of Aunt Lilac Hornblower’s house party for her granddaughter Phlox, although then he would have been hard pressed to explain what it was about this distant cousin that so upset him. Perhaps it was the way the lasses--even Delphinium, who wasn’t much impressed by a handsome face--had made over him, and he’d not seemed to even notice. Even Barti’s sister Lavinia had gone all dewy-eyed over Baggins; but when she stepped forward to speak to him after a dance he’d not even noticed, just stepped sideways to the refreshment table to get a drink and speak to his cousin Esmeralda, as if Lavinia hadn’t mattered at all. And then there was--but, no, he wouldn’t think of that! Although when someone actually got caught at it, it hadn’t been Frodo there.

How does someone tell someone else that the first someone’s hated for so long that he now admires him? Barti wondered to himself. I mean, so many are saying that if it wasn’t for him we’d have full goblins running things in the Shire instead of the half-ones that Sharkey sent in. That has to count for something. And he has seen to it that no one will do that again--allow us to use our own legal papers against one another. He put the last document he needed to deal with while in Michel Delving into the leather satchel Master Alvric had given him, and went off to add it and the box of jewelry recovered from Bree to the cases already waiting in the entranceway.

Persivo and Ricki had the ponies hitched to the coach, and Delphie had the lasses already stowing the first of the cases under the seats. Barti carried out two more of the cases and his leather satchel and gave them into Petunia’s hands, then went back for the rest, carefully dislodging Feather from where she had sat herself, on the topmost case in the stack. “Sorry, you,” he addressed the cat, “but you are staying home.”

At last they were ready, and once more he was climbing up onto the box with Persivo while Ricki joined his mother and sisters inside, he was releasing the brakes, and with a slap of the reins and a word to Spotty and Dottie they were off to Michel Delving, all of them enjoying ginger beer and pork pasties as they drove.

There were a few extra cases this time, for Persi wouldn’t be accompanying them home--instead he’d be riding back with the Tooks to the Great Smial, where he’d spend at least the next year as old Bernigard Took’s apprentice. All was arranged, and the articles would be signed during the Free Fair. As he carried out these cases full of his first-born son’s books and clothing, Barti found himself taking deep breaths. How would he manage with his beloved Persi gone for so long? Although he was growing up, and might choose in a few years to move out into a home of his own rather than bringing his bride into Garden Place. True, Persi had never shown much interest in the lasses as yet, but who knew when that might change?

They arrived at the Grubb house in Michel Delving right as sunset started, which, it being so close to Midsummer itself, was well after nine. The coach was settled alongside the low house, and Persivo was quickly leading the ponies to the public stable while Delphinium and the lasses saw to bringing in luggage and seeing themselves settled, and Barti joined Bertramo in a well-deserved ale taken in the garden.

“And how’s Auntie Alma?” Tram asked.

“Doing very well, as long as she’s not left alone with Lothario,” Barti answered, wiping his upper lip with his handkerchief. “That scoundrel appears able to talk her into almost anything.”

“Hasn’t changed any since he was a lad, then, has he?” Tram sighed. “What was he trying to do this time?”

“Rewrite her will in favor of Bester, only the deputy Mayor caught him at it and wouldn’t sign nor register it.”

Tram shook his head and took a pull on his mug. “Trust Bester to think only of himself--not that he doesn’t already have more land than he can deal with. And what’s this about you taking your family on an extended jaunt to Bree?”

“Word of that reached here?” asked Barti, surprised.

“Well, of course--you and Delphie are family, after all. What were you doing there?”

“Deputy Mayor sent me out to study with the King’s lawyer on how to write an agreement binding before the outer realm. We are once again part of the Kingdom of Arnor since the King returned, you know.”

“Then it’s true--there is a King again at last?”

Barti nodded. “Yes, so all tell me. The deputy Mayor and the Captains and Sam Gamgee all tell the same tales of him, and the King’s lawyer and the Rangers we dealt with all tell of his coronation as well as his friendship to the four Travelers.”

“So--we Hobbits of the Shire are expected to trade with the King’s folks?”

“He wants it--says as we have the best woolens anywhere, or so I’m told. Seems to like our porcelains as well. And those working on the northern capital up at Lake Evendim will be needing supplies--we can offer them as well as the folk in Bree, you know.”

“Shouldn’t be all that far from the far Northfarthing,” the Grubb said thoughtfully. “You going to the opening ceremonies?”

“Suppose so. Do you know if the deputy Mayor’s going to be in the Mayor’s office tomorrow any? Have some documents to have him sign.”

“No idea. Rather an odd sort, Baggins is any more. Very quiet--but when he has something to say, folks listen. Just seems to speak with authority. I’m wondering, though, if he might just decide not to run for Mayor after all.”

Barti straightened with surprise. “What would give you that idea? Will and Benlo are both pushing folks to vote for him.”

“Oh, I know--but every time someone talks of it he goes even quieter, and starts rubbing at his shoulder or his neck. You know anything about him being injured or something?”

Again feeling rather uncomfortable with a subject so close to his oath, Barti merely shrugged and sought to change the subject. “Is he still only coming in three to four days a week?”

Tram nodded. “That he does. Not that anyone minds--he works hard when he works--gets the job done, and done well. Managed to get through all of the documents that had backed up while Will was in the Lockholes--I visited there a few days after he took over and saw the office then--documents almost to the ceiling, there were. Will and Gordolac are truly impressed, for not only are all signed and properly registered, but he’s had the files rooms expanded and a new system put in place so filed sales documents can be found more easily. Plus he and those Took aides of his have been through every document that lay in that room looking for irregularities, and have located some filed two-three years back that show how Timono and Lotho got started on this business. And they all say he’s the one who suggests what to look for and where to look for it first. He’s proved a canny one.”

There wasn’t much that Bartolo felt he could add to that.

A late supper was ready for them, and they gathered in the small dining room for the meal. Bertramo’s wife had died six years earlier, and none of their children remained in the White Downs region. A niece of his late wife’s looked in on him daily and helped him with the cooking and cleaning from time to time, and had seen the guest rooms made ready for Barti’s family. Tram examined Lyssa’s new doll and book of poetry with interest, was pleased to hear of Persi’s luck at having been granted an apprenticeship in the Great Smial, expressed an interest in seeing the translated Baggers scroll Petunia told him about, was properly impressed by Gonya’s correspondence with a lass from Bree, listened flatteringly to Ricki’s description of his game of golf and his plans to play a game this week, possibly, and generally was a most genial host. After the meal he and the two older lasses did the washing up while Barti and Delphie sorted out the children’s things to the appropriate rooms and saw all readied for the morning, and Lyssa and Ricki were both shunted off to bed, each grumbling rebelliously as they nevertheless followed their parents’ instructions. But it wasn’t very long before the rest of the household followed them, for the first day of the Free Fair was usually a busy one.

Early in the morning Barti was up and dressing, hoping to find Frodo in order to speak with him quietly without the Took lawyers to overhear. The Fair officially was to open at ten o’clock, and considering how busy the day could be Barti didn’t wish to have to possibly hunt all over the fairgrounds to find the deputy Mayor. Finally, with case and carved box in hand, he headed out toward the village commons and the Whitfoot house.

“He’s already gone to the Council Hole,” Mina Whitfoot told him, “hoping to finish some last-minute tasks before he leaves for Hobbiton this afternoon.”

“Hobbiton?” Barti asked, surprised. “Isn’t he going to stay for the banquet for the family heads this evening? After all, he’s family head for the Bagginses as well as deputy Mayor.”

“He’s let it be known as he’ll open the Fair this morning and do what he has to for now; but he’s been fighting headaches much of the last week and has no intention of sitting in on a noisy banquet. He also reminded Will that considering how small the family of Baggins has become he strongly suspects his family won’t be terrifically disappointed if he doesn’t represent them tonight. He’ll be back for Midsummer itself, of course. Would you like a scone?”

Barti had to admit that Missus Whitfoot made excellent scones, and the cherry jam spread on it was particularly flavorful. “That’s the last of the jar sent by the King,” Mina sighed as she examined the small pot. “I’ll have to ask Frodo if he’d like it or if we might keep it here. My granddaughter Dianthus would be thrilled to have it, I think, a pot as came from the King’s own city.”

“The King sent a pot of jam here?” the lawyer asked.

“Oh, yes--although the Travelers put it up themselves while they were there, Frodo says. Seems as young Pippin Took took it into his head to fill the bathing tub with fruit one day as a sort of joke on Frodo, so Sam Gamgee set them to making jam of it all, and when the King came to call he found himself helping. For Yule he sent Frodo a crate of fruit from the south of their land and two pots of the jam as they’d made, and this was the last of it. I must say as it’s been very good. I suspect as had it been entered into the fair as it would have won first prize.”

Barti finished his scone and accepted a damp towel to wipe his hands and face, and taking up his burdens again gave his thanks to Mina and set off across the square this time for the Council Hole. The door to the Mayor’s office was ajar, and he looked in, noting a stand of candles lit the desk where the ink bottle stood still uncapped, the pen lying on a penwipe. Frodo, however, wasn’t sitting there--it took a moment of searching the room to spot him sitting on a chair turned sideways to one of the tables where Everard Took had been sitting the last time he was here. Frodo’s face was markedly pale, and he was rubbing at the back of his neck with his right hand while his left was pressed to his upper chest, the crease between his brows quite noticeable.

Barti entered fully, pausing near the Mayor’s desk. “You not feeling well, Baggins?” he asked.

Frodo’s eyes turned toward him, their expression almost blank at first. “Feeling well? Oh, just a bit of a headache. It’s nothing, really.”

With a snort of disbelief Barti set box and case on the desk, then came to stand over the deputy Mayor, briefly setting the back of his hand to Frodo’s forehead, much as he’d do if it had been Persivo there. “No fever,” he commented after a brief moment.

Frodo’s cheeks flushed. “As I said, it’s but a headache. I’d finished with the last of the requests for reparations, and was leaving them on Everard’s desk that he might pass them on to Whippoorwill Smallburrow and Oridon Goodbody for payment--then felt I ought to sit down--just for a moment. It ought to pass quickly enough.”

Barti stepped back slightly. “I see. Missus Whitfoot had said as you’ve been fighting headaches this week.”

“I do from time to time.” He dropped his hands to his lap, then looked up into Barti’s eyes. “You are up early.”

“As are you. The Rangers caught a couple more of them as had been here in the Shire, and found some jewelry on them. One had Aunt Lobelia’s promise necklace--must have taken it from Bag End itself. They asked I bring the rest to you so as it can be checked against the lists. And I have the lease agreement finished, and thought as you’d wish to see and review it before you signed it. Oh, and I brought the indentures apprenticing my Persivo to old Bernigard Took.”

“You’ve accepted the offer? Excellent.”

“You knew of it?” Barti felt suspicious.

“I was told of the opening--I am family, you know, and have been working in the midst of Took lawyers for months now,” Frodo responded, gesturing briefly at the room about him. He sighed, a twitch of pain visible on his face, and again his hand reached up to his neck to rub at it briefly. “I could definitely do without the headache,” he commented, then looked up under his brows. “Would you mind helping an old Hobbit to his feet?” he asked, holding out his hand.

Bartolo felt himself stiffen--Frodo, after all, was several years younger than himself. “You are so old now, Baggins?”

Apparently realizing he’d somehow managed to unwittingly touch a nerve, Frodo looked dismayed. “I meant nothing by it save that this morning I’m feeling positively ancient--twice my years, I swear. If it weren’t for the headache....”

Feeling somewhat mollified, the Bracegirdle clasped Frodo’s hand and helped pull him to his feet. Frodo nodded his thanks, stretched slightly, and turned toward the Mayor’s desk, moving far too slowly, as if his joints were stiff, Barti thought. He reached his goal and sat down heavily, then reached for his mug, drew it to him, and drank deeply. Setting it down he closed his eyes for a few minutes, again raising one hand to his breast. At last he opened his eyes, relaxing some.

“So, you’re still not really well?” Barti asked as he pulled over a chair from the table and sat himself across the desk from the deputy Mayor.

Frodo’s face became somewhat closed, paling a bit again, although his cheeks had gone rather pink. He dropped his hand, then reached out to flip closed the cap to the ink bottle and lift up pen and wipe to see the former polished before setting it rather precisely on the pen rest. At last he said, quietly, “No, I’ve not truly been well since Ithilien, if not before.”

“What’s Ithilien--a holiday down south-aways?”

Frodo gave a slight shake of his head, wincing as if that set the ache off again. “No, a region east of the River Anduin. Most of it’s been forested and largely abandoned for generations, although it used to be one of the primary orchard and wine-producing areas for Gondor. We spent some time there after--after the war was over.”

“Why?”

Frodo gave another slight shake of his head and frown. At last he said, “There were many wounded in the last battle--wounded or killed. They wanted to give most a chance to recover before we returned to Minas Tirith for Aragorn’s coronation.”

After a time of consideration Barti commented, “They tell me all four of you almost died fighting in this war.”

Frodo shrugged.

Finally realizing Frodo wasn’t going to give any more answer than that, the lawyer asked, “Why don’t you want folks here to know you were made a lord?”

The Baggins gave him one of his more icy examinations. “What is the average Hobbit of the Shire going to understand about lordship and lands, Bartolo? And it’s not as if I managed to do anything of worth, after all.”

“They all say as we’d be having goblins for masters if you hadn’t done what you did.”

Frodo looked away. “And what did I do? So I made it to the cursèd mountain? So what? Was I the one who accomplished the task in the end? No! Oh, no--not Frodo Baggins. I couldn’t do it in the end, you know--someone else had to do it, someone I’d cursed with death!” He looked back at Barti, his face grey yet intense with pain and loathing. “He died and I lived, although a good part of me died there and then. And yet they praise me--the tainted one--the one who ought to have died instead. And they keep telling me that it’s better this way, and I couldn’t be expected to do more than I did, and no one else could have done it--except it wasn’t me who got us there, even--it was Sam! He got us there--had to carry me when I couldn’t go any more.

“Oh, they know this--they all know this, Aragorn and Gandalf and Imrahil and Éomer and Faramir and Elrond and Galadriel and the rest--they all know how it all almost failed because at the last I gave in to It! Yet they call me a lord of the realm when they ought to have put me in the darkest, deepest dungeon and left me to rot.”

He closed his eyes tightly. “Oh, Aragorn--why did you call me back? Why call me back only to feel as if death would be a relief, leaving this hole in my soul burned through by It?”

Again Bartolo Bracegirdle felt himself go stiff with shock. “You mean it’s all a fraud?”

Frodo only shook his head. At last he opened his eyes, pulled his mug to him and emptied it, then pushed it aside. He examined the box. “The jewelry you told of?” he asked.

Not trusting himself to speak around the rage and confusion he felt, Barti merely nodded.

Frodo pulled the box to him and managed to fumble it open. Carefully he reached in and pulled out a bracelet, having to untangle it from a gold chain. He set it down to his left, then reached in and pulled out the chain, from which a small pearl drop hung, carefully unwrapping it from a stickpin. Item after item he pulled out of the carved box, setting them in a line across the desk. Then, when he had most of it pulled out, he stopped, again going pale, carefully lifting out a cloak brooch. “This was my dad’s,” he whispered. “Bilbo gave it to him, and Uncle Rory gave it to me after they died. I have the box still, but the brooch went missing years ago--after a visit from Lobelia to Bag End. It was after she stole Aunt Esme’s locket. And they stole it from her, apparently.” He set it in front of him, then reached in again. This time he brought out a silver shirt stud, then searched through the other items to find its mate. “And these were Ponto’s--he said they were on his dressing table near the window for his bedroom, and someone reached in through the window and took them. See the iris flowers etched on them? Iris asked Bilbo to commission them for her to give him one year for her birthday, and Bilbo had just received them from the Elves of Rivendell and showed them to me at Brandy Hall before he went back to Hobbiton to give them to her.”

He looked back up into Barti’s eyes. “They’d steal things, Lobelia and Lotho and Ted Sandyman--I’m sure Sandyman stole money and my knife and other things from my pockets when I was swimming in the Water. I caught Lotho once with a silk scarf he’d stolen from Nat Boffin, and a silver striker set Bilbo had given the Gaffer. The Gaffer never wanted to use it after I returned it--said that knowing Lotho’d taken it made him feel sick to touch it afterwards.”

He looked back down at the pile, then sighed and reached into the box. This time what he brought out caused Barti to gasp, “That was mine!” It was a silver stickpin with two Bs intertwined. “My granfer had it made for me when I came of age! It disappeared at a wedding in the Southfarthing--I’d spilled some ale on my waistcoat, so went to take the waistcoat off to clean the stain. I didn’t notice the stickpin was missing until that night, and thought it had fallen off when I was cleaning the waistcoat.” He met Frodo’s eyes as the deputy Mayor held it out to him. “Lotho was at the wedding, too, and came in while I was working on the waistcoat in the dressing room.” He felt his expression harden. “It would seem Timono wasn’t the only thief in the family,” he said bitterly.

Frodo nodded, looking back at the few things that remained in the box, pulling out the last of it and adding them to the line. “Aunt Esme herself caught Lobelia wearing her locket. I understand it wasn’t a pretty scene. My mum caught her trying to steal her spoons, and the day after the Party Merimac removed a number of items that had managed to fall into her umbrella. She just couldn’t understand how a ladle from the dining room had managed to find its way into it. And she was always taking tableware, Lobelia was. Bilbo made certain that the places around her seat at the Party were set with the cheapest pewter--and Aunt Esme said she watched Lobelia take as many settings as she could reach before she and Otho and Lotho went stalking out of the tent.” He sighed. “May I have the copies of the lease? We can sign the indentures after the opening of the Fair, if you wish. Berni’s to be here, and we should have enough to witness it properly.”

“Maybe I ought to have Will sign it instead....”

Frodo was shaking his head. “He won’t do it--he says that as I’m standing in for him I must do everything. But at least he agreed to sit in at the banquet tonight.”

“You won’t stay for it?”

“I need to go home--get away for a few days. Sam was right--I can’t bear more than four days at a time--look at how the headache is plaguing me! And to sit at a banquet and have the ladies glaring at me when I can’t eat it all, as if I’m insulting their cooking, and have all the noise about me, then have to make excuses not to take part in the dancing. I’m already wishing I could have gone back to Bag End yesterday. I’d most likely not last the evening, and there’s no way in Middle Earth I’d wish to collapse or become ill in front of all the family heads.” Again he rubbed at his forehead and eyes.

Barti felt the anger rise in him again--anger mixed with several other emotions--pity, uncertainty, frustration, other feelings he couldn’t put a name to. “So, you’ll be a coward and return to Hobbiton and let others talk about you as they will?”

“They do that already, Bartolo,” Frodo said, his expression once more closed. “It’s nothing they haven’t done all my life, and to Bilbo before me. And if you think wanting to go home to rest in my own bed with a cool, damp towel over my eyes is being cowardly then go ahead and think ill of me. I’m not required to answer to you for it.”

“And you never did what they think you did?”

“They know what I did, better than I do. I don’t remember a good deal of it, Bartolo. I only know that at the end It took me and I failed, and to this day I want It back, that I’m empty inside where It used to sit in my awareness and heart. I know he died when I ought to have done so, and he died precisely the way I said he would when I cursed him. That he took It with him into the fire wasn’t anything he’d planned, much less It Itself. Is it right I’m made a lord not because I did what I was supposed to do, but because my curse took someone else and that was why It was destroyed and Middle Earth saved?” He took a deep, shuddering breath and closed his eyes again, resting his elbows on the desk and his face in his hands. At last he said, his voice muffled, “Please leave the lease agreement here, and let me be, Bartolo. Please. I will see you after the opening ceremonies, in the banquet hall.”

His own hands shaking, Bartolo slipped the stickpin into his jacket pocket and managed to open the leather case Alvric had given him. Extracting the thick folder holding the copies of the agreement, he slapped it down on the desk as he rose. “There it is, then,” he growled before taking case and box, then turning and stalking toward the door where he stopped and turned back. At last he said, his voice barely controlled, “My lad--my Persivo--he thinks as you’re a hero. Oh, I told him nothing, but we had an Elf and Dwarves and Rangers and a King’s Messenger we met, all of whom almost worship the ground you walk on. They told us if it weren’t for you the Shire’d be enslaved worse than Sharkey, if it weren’t blasted off the face of Middle Earth itself. I won’t tell him what you just told me--that it was someone else instead who saved us. I’ll let you do that--if you’re brave enough, Baggins!” So saying he left, his last sight of Frodo being the deputy Mayor looking at him over his hands, tears streaking his now colorless cheeks.

As he left he was passed by the sturdy form of Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s gardener friend, as he came down the passage toward the Mayor’s office. Sam pulled aside with a courteous, “Mr. Bracegirdle, sir,” as Bartolo stalked by him, then turned back toward the Mayor’s office. He noted that Sam had a water bottle hanging from his shoulder. Barti went out into the bright sunlight and back across the village to Bertramo’s place, barely noting those he passed.

*******


Delphie wasn’t certain what had happened while her husband was off consulting with the deputy Mayor that morning, but he returned in a towering rage, and on coming into the guest room where she was dressing he crossed to the dresser and pulled out something, throwing it down on the top of the chest. She rose and realized it was a stickpin Barti had used to wear constantly until he lost it at a wedding. “You found it? Where was it?”

“Baggins gave it to me,” he growled, spitting out the name as if it left a sour taste in his mouth.

“But how would Cousin Frodo come by it?” she asked, but he was shaking his head.

“Don’t ask--I don’t want to talk about it at all,” he said. He set the box down more carefully and he sank onto the bed, resting his face in his hands. And she could get nothing more out of him.

Frodo was a bit late appearing for the opening ceremonies. Sam Gamgee and Isumbard Took were by his side, their attitudes protective. He walked stiffly, his face pale and his eyes shadowed. His words were short and to the point: “I now declare the Free Fair open and bid you enjoy yourselves.” He then disappeared back toward the Council Hole, leaving buzzing speculation in his wake.

When Delphie walked with the rest of the family into the banquet hall to see the articles of indenture signed for Persivo’s apprenticeship to Bernigard Took, it was to find a rather cold reception by the Tooks and two Brandybucks who were already there with Frodo and Will and old Bernigard himself. Merry Brandybuck’s eyes were examining Barti’s face so closely she was almost surprised not to see lines of blood begin to flow from her husband’s cheeks; and Pippin Took’s expression was one of fury. Frodo himself was sitting at a table, his face still pale but calm, his expression carefully neutral. Bernigard was looking between the deputy Mayor and the Bracegirdle lawyer as if trying to divine what the problem was between them, and Will looked wary. Then the door from the kitchen opened, and Sam Gamgee was crossing the room to Frodo, a steaming mug in his hand. “Here, Mr. Frodo, sir--a willowbark draught. Now, you drink it and don’t argue.”

Frodo looked up at his friend and sighed, “As you wish, Sam.” He accepted the mug and sipped from it. It was some moments before he finally drank the last of it down, at which time he set the mug on the table and sat back for a moment before taking a deep breath. He looked up at Bernigard. “The articles of indenture for apprenticeship are acceptable to you, sir?”

“Well written,” Berni acknowledged, “although I hope I don’t regret them in the end. Bracegirdles are often--rather stiffly constructed.”

Persi flushed. “I have no intention of proving stiffly constructed, Mr. Took,” he returned. “If you wish to terminate the agreement before it’s begun....”

“No, I don’t, for all speak well of you, including the reports from this Master Alvric sent by the King himself. Nay, forgive an old Hobbit’s bluntness. I don’t know what passed between your father and young Frodo here earlier, but it obviously wasn’t particularly pleasant. However, we shall not allow it to impede your education, if you still wish it.”

“Everyone says as you’d offer me the best instruction and training, sir, even Uncle Rico,” Persi answered as the Clayhangers came in to join the party. “If you can have patience with a Bracegirdle, I believe I could do the same with Tooks.”

Berni’s wrinkled face smiled. “Well answered. Yes, I think you’ll do well enough, lad.”

The other lads who would be apprenticed at the same time, including a Goodbody and two Brandybucks, were entering now with their families. Frodo and Will watched as Bernigard signed each indenture then passed it to the relevant apprentice, then to the parents, then to the witnesses. Paladin signed as a witness to all of them, as all would come under his responsibility once they entered the Great Smial as Berni’s apprentices; Merimac Brandybuck signed most of them as the Master’s steward; Rico Clayhanger signed Persi’s proudly, then hung back a bit, wary of Barti’s expression.

At last all were done and laid before Frodo, who gave Will one last glance before dipping his own pen into the red ink to countersign each one, and then to mark them all into the registry. He pushed the stack at Isumbard. “If you will please see to it that they all are distributed properly,” he inquired of the Took lawyer. “Master Bracegirdle, if you will come over here?” He rose a bit unsteadily, waving away Sam’s hand. “I’ll be all right.” Accompanied by Merimac Brandybuck and followed by Barti and Delphie he walked to another table where the folder containing the lease agreement sat. He picked it up and opened it briefly, then closed it and tapped it against his other hand before proffering it to Bartolo. He said quietly, “I’ve reviewed this and find it all in order from what I can tell. I have signed each copy with my cousin Merimac witnessing my signature. He’s agreed to keep the details confidential, and will stand for now as my proxy to see the rest of the witnesses signatures obtained, and to see Mr. Hedge’s signature written as well. He will also tell you how the rents are to be presented. That this must be finalized and confirmed in thirteen months’ time is a concern--but we shall plow that field when the proper time comes.”

Then he said more loudly for all to hear, “Master Alvric sent an excellent report regarding the progress you and your son showed while under his tutelage, and has affirmed that you are confirmed as ones accepted as able to write contracts for the realm, and sent these.” He lifted an envelope of stiff silver silk. Barti handed the folder to Delphie so as to diffidently accept the envelope. Inside were certificates made out to himself and Persivo affirming what he’d just been told by the deputy Mayor, signed by Alvric son of Maerdion, Halladan son of Halbaleg as Steward of Arnor, Faradir son of Rahael, Barliman Butterbur as head of the Bree Council, Paladin Took as Thain of the Shire, Saradoc Brandybuck as Master of Buckland, Will Whitfoot as Mayor of the Shire, and Frodo Baggins as deputy Mayor. “Congratulations, and it is an honor to witness this achievement in the name of the King and as a representative of the Shire.”

Delphie could see nothing but straightforward honesty in her cousin’s eyes, and saw him stand up to Barti’s scrutiny. At last Barti looked away, apparently embarrassed. “Thank you, deputy Mayor, sir,” he said rather formally, giving an abbreviated bow.

“Now,” Frodo said, his hand rising again to rest on the gem he wore pendant from the silver chain he had about his neck, “if you will excuse me, I must return to the Whitfoot house to fetch my things. Good fortune to you, Master Bracegirdle.” So saying he walked away toward the door out to the entrance hall.

As they turned to rejoin Persivo and the children Sam Gamgee came toward them. “If I might have a quiet word, Mr. Bracegirdle, sir?” Barti gave a wary nod, and turned back toward the table again. Delphie was just close enough to overhear what the gardener had to say.

“I don’t know as what went on in the Mayor’s office this mornin’, sir, for my Master won’t say. I know as he was already in pain, havin’ had a ragin’ headache for some days now as comes and goes. But I did hear one word from you as I entered the Council Hole as I think as you’d best reconsider. I don’t know what you think as Mr. Frodo’s done as would make him a coward, but I’ll tell you this--if he’s a coward then that’s the kind of cowardice as we’d best all work for. What he’s done taught him to look inside hisself and face the worst as hides in the corners of his heart and soul, and few can do that and hold their heads up after.

“He went through the worst darkness as is to see to it as the Shire’d be safe, if I might say it as perhaps shouldn’t; and I was there by his side through almost all of it. Be glad, Mr. Bracegirdle, sir, as it wasn’t none others as had to face it, as I can’t think of any other as would have done nowhere as well--and it almost destroyed him. It was no coward as offered what he did at the Council of Elrond.”

Sam kept Barti’s eye for a moment longer, then turned with ponderous dignity to return to where Merry and Pippin stood, said a quiet word to the two of them and then left.

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