“What was that about?” asked Sam as he entered the Mayor’s office. “What was that about you not bein’ brave?” But then he stopped as he took in the fact Frodo’s face was buried in his hands and his shoulders were shaking. He was beside Frodo immediately, his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I’m here, Master. You’re not alone, Mr. Frodo.” He knelt by Frodo’s chair to comfort him as he could. “What did that awful Bracegirdle say, Mr. Frodo? He’s got no right--no right at all as to consider you a coward!”
Frodo was shaking his head as he finally lowered his hands. Seeing the tear-streaked face, Sam was producing one of his clean handkerchiefs for Frodo’s use (Bilbo’s constant references to how he’d not thought to take any with him when he hurried off to follow the Dwarves on his own adventure had long ago made quite an impression on the young gardener, and he always had two or three clean ones about his person). Once Frodo had wiped his eyes and his face he finally managed to say, “You are not to berate him. I provoked him, Sam, and he did not understand what I said.”
“He’s still got no right, Mr. Frodo,” Sam insisted stubbornly, but noting the expression in the older Hobbit’s eyes he sighed. “I promise, sir, not to tell him as he’s naught but a ninnyhammer, but I can’t promise as I won’t think it of him.”
Frodo gave him a watery smile.
Sam examined his face, noting the crease between Frodo’s eyes. “Headache still?” he asked. “It’s not gone away from when you was home, then?”
“Oh, it goes away, then comes back again,” his Master admitted. “And that’s made it the harder--the harder to remain properly pleasant with Bartolo.” He sighed and blew his nose. “It would be so much easier if it didn’t feel as if an oliphaunt with a war tower on its back were dancing within my skull.”
Sam nodded, remembering the one they’d seen the day of Captain Faramir’s ambush. “At least you won’t have to deal with him again today,” he said consolingly.
But Frodo was shaking his head. “Unfortunately I will--I have his son’s indentures to sign later. However, he’ll behave properly then, I think you’ll find.” He sighed again, then winced as another wave of pain hit. “Oh, Sam--I can’t wait to get home and lie down with a cool, damp cloth over my eyes. This is most distressing.”
“I’ll ride back with you, then.”
“But there’s the banquet for the family heads tonight, and as you’re----”
Sam, however, was now shaking his own head. “There’ll be years yet to attend such banquets, and at the moment I doubt as I’d be that welcome. No one knows me hardly save as the gardener on the Hill, after all. Give ’em a few years, Mr. Frodo, to accept as I’m a resident of Bag End first and to see me at some o’ the other meetin’s and they’ll welcome me right enough. But as Uncle Andy’s never bothered to come to none o’ these banquets, they won’t expect it of me as yet.”
“But I want them to realize you are important, Sam.”
“They will, Mr. Frodo, just you wait and see. But I’ll let ’em take their time gettin’ used to the idea, like.” He looked at the line of jewelry across the desk top. “More things found from when the Gatherers and Sharers was busy, then?”
“Much of it appears to have been items Lotho and Lobelia stole from others,” Frodo sighed, looking at it. “Most of this appears to have been stolen from Bag End itself. Barti said that Lobelia’s own promise necklace from Otho was in it. I didn’t think to ask what he did with it--I hope he passed it on to Hyacinth, as it would mean the most to her, I’d think.” He fingered the cloak brooch. “This was my own dad’s--I’m reasonably certain Lobelia took it years ago. It’s good to have it back.”
“Who brought it to you?”
“Bartolo--from Bree. A couple more of the ruffians were caught there, it seems, and they had these with them.”
Sam gave a low whistle. He looked over the items with interest. “Didn’t old Nat Boffin used to wear that?” he asked, pointing to the first stickpin Frodo had removed from the box. “And that I’m certain belonged to the Widow Rumble.”
Frodo was nodding. “From there in Hobbiton and the Southfarthing, then, probably, most of this--and what was left was probably Lobelia’s, Otho’s, and Lotho’s own.” He straightened some, then turned to search his friend’s face, smiling slightly. “I’m with Gandalf and Aragorn and Gimli, Samwise Gamgee--the Gaffer definitely misnamed you, my beloved Lord Panthael.”
Sam flushed deeply, but smiled to see Frodo’s mood lightening. “Master...” he began to object, if half-heartedly.
But at that point Isumbard arrived and could tell at a glance that Frodo was in pain, as could Merry and Pippin when they came in shortly after Isumbard.
“He’s upset as well,” Merry noted to Pippin and Sam, having pulled them aside as Frodo discussed how they might seek to learn the original owners of the items sent back to the Shire via Bartolo Bracegirdle. “I’m not certain Bard’s caught on yet, but I can certainly see the signs.” When Sam nodded his agreement, he continued, “Any idea as to what might have upset him so?”
Sam quickly described what he’d overheard from Bartolo Bracegirdle as he’d entered the Council Hole and approached the Mayor’s office. “Of course, I had no idea as he was upset until I come in, or I’d of not been anywheres as polite to Mr. Bracegirdle as we passed each other. And I’ve a good mind to speak with him later, although I know as Mr. Frodo wouldn’t want me to.”
“He dared accuse Frodo--our Frodo--of cowardice?” demanded Pippin in low tones. “How dare he?”
“My Mr. Frodo said as he’d provoked Mr. Bartolo,” cautioned Sam. “He won’t allow you to tell him off for sauce.”
“I’ll bet Frodo provoked him,” Merry muttered, looking off toward the door. Then he looked back at Sam and smiled slyly. “But even Frodo won’t think to tell off the Lord Perhael for speaking to him, you know.”
Sam shrugged and glanced briefly in the direction of the town square. “I’ll sort him out,” Sam said with quiet determination.
On Midsummer Day Frodo returned to Michel Delving, accompanied by Sam and Rosie. The spider bite on the back of his neck had opened that morning, and with the pressure of the infection finally relieved Frodo felt better, but he realized that considering how often this reoccurred he was unlikely to be able to finish out a full term as Mayor.
It had opened first in Minas Tirith, then along the way from Minas Tirith to Edoras, then while in Rivendell. It had opened twice over the winter, in March, then in May. And today--almost a month early this time. Each time, before it would start draining, he’d feel ill for days--irritable, snappish, subject to constant nausea, suffering headaches that this time had been almost unbearable, often feeling weak.
He’d been sick between Rivendell and Weathertop; and again through much of March. He’d attempted his walking trip to Buckland after Sam and Rosie’s wedding, but had ended up accepting a ride much of the way from a farmer heading for the Marish; Farmer Maggot had found him almost collapsed on the borders of his farm and had sent for the farm’s wagon to carry him to the farmhouse; then Uncle Saradoc had arrived with an extra pony on which he’d ridden the remainder of the way to Brandy Hall. On the way back Pippin and Merry had insisted he ride Sam’s Berry, the pony given him by Aragorn and Éomer. He’d grudgingly accepted that there would be no more walking trips such as he’d used to do constantly throughout the Shire. And the days he wished he weren’t in Michel Delving appeared to be coming more frequently in the past two months.
He had to admit that there had been a distinct feeling of rightness in serving as deputy Mayor, and a level of satisfaction in each step toward seeing the Shire restored as a land in which folk could trust one another and delight in the natural beauty of the place. But was it fair to seek to serve the Shire during those weeks when he would prefer to be close enough to his own bed to retreat to it during the day?
Will wanted to retire to the farm in the Eastfarthing that Bucca and Aster ran now; he and Mina had already discussed selling the house there on the edge of the square in Michel Delving, and twice he’d tried to broach the subject of selling it to Frodo for his use, although Frodo hadn’t given him any encouragement. He could give over Bag End to Sam and Rosie easily enough and live primarily there in Michel Delving; but he found that when he tried to consider the idea seriously a feeling of near terror would almost overcome him. The idea of being that far away from Sam for more than a few days at a time made him feel lost; and the thought of living once more on his own made him wish to curl up in a corner and not move until someone came to comfort him. He’d not been alone now for so long, and he was afraid for what might happen if he were to go into one of those nights when the nightmares would come and return, and return some more without the reassurance of one who knew what they were and could remind him that they were but dreams after all there at hand.
“You all right, Mr. Frodo?” asked a voice, and he looked up to see Sam’s earnest brown eyes examining him closely. He realized one hand was clutching his reins abnormally tightly and the other was clutching the Queen’s jewel, and his breathing was shallow and rapid, just at the thought of not having Sam close to him should the nightmares assail him.
“I was--I was just thinking,” Frodo said. “Oh, there’s nothing wrong, Sam, Rosie. Nothing wrong at all.”
“Well, you have at least a sip o’ your tea, Master Frodo,” suggested Rosie. “You went quite pale, you did. What was you thinkin’ of?”
“A situation that--that disturbed me, is all. I sometimes think my imagination is my worst enemy.”
“I can see that,” Sam replied, half under his breath. “Was out plantin’ trees one day near the southern borders, and started thinkin’ on some of them half-orcs sneakin’ over the bounds--kept findin’ myself reachin’ for the hilt of my sword, I did.”
Somehow that admission heartened Frodo. “Then it would seem just the thought of some situations can set us both off, doesn’t it, Sam my lad?” He smiled at his friend and was gladdened to see the smile the gardener gave him in return.
“Oh, that it can--that it can indeed.” Sam glanced sideways at Rosie, who smiled at him in a way that caused him to flush and grin foolishly at her. “And then there’s other thoughts,” he added, “as just fill me with wonder.”
Berry shook her head and Bill snorted, while Strider pointedly pranced as he walked. Frodo found himself laughing as he uncapped his water bottle, suddenly more light-hearted himself.
“Mum, do you have any idea what he’s upset about? It’s been like being about a hornet’s nest since the day the Fair was opened,” Persivo asked as he slipped his shirt studs into his cuffs.
“I have no idea, save it appears to stem back to the talk he had with the deputy Mayor when he took over the lease agreement and the jewelry brought back from Bree. But I can’t think what Cousin Frodo might have said that could set him off in this way--he’s never been one to be rude, and your father’s admitted Frodo didn’t insult him at all. Although how Frodo could have come into possession of that stickpin----”
“The one Dad’s been wearing the past few days? That was in the box--Ricki told me he and Lyssa were looking at all the things in it one day while we were home, a couple days before we came away to Michel Delving.”
“In the box? You mean that Lotho’s had that stickpin all these years? I swear--every time I think I can’t learn anything that makes me think the worse of your father’s cousin I manage to do so anyway. He was such a loathsome thing--he and Timono truly deserved one another!”
“Do you think that that ragged Man who came with Sharkey, that Worm creature, really ate Cousin Lotho?”
Delphinium turned to look at him, shocked. “Where did you ever hear such a thing?”
“One of the Boffins who came to Bag End and saw--saw the end of it said that Sharkey said such a thing was possible to Cousin Frodo Baggins. He was telling of it yesterday, there behind the ale tent. I’m glad I wasn’t there,” he added, shivering.
“Glad you weren’t where?” his father asked as he returned to the guest room where his son and wife had been talking.
“At Bag End when the Travelers came back. It sounds as if was awful, watching Sharkey die.”
“I hope you never have to see anyone die,” Bartolo said, his voice surprisingly soft and rather sad. “It’s not usually an easy thing.”
“No, I’d not think it would be. And before he died he tried to kill Cousin Frodo Baggins--he stabbed him with a knife, only he had mail under his clothing and the knife broke when it hit the mail. They could see it after Sharkey tried to stab him, through the place where his shirt was cut, shining in the sunlight.”
“I didn’t know that Frodo had had mail, too,” Delphie said.
“He said they all had mail--all the travelers, even Samwise Gamgee. His was goldish while the Captains’ were steel and Cousin Frodo’s was silver and was different and hidden under his clothes. They all had swords, too, only Cousin Frodo and Mr. Samwise didn’t have helmets or shields like the Captains do.”
His father demanded, “Did one of the Captains kill Sharkey--or was it that Sam Gamgee?”
“No--it wasn’t them, nor any Hobbit. It was that Worm-creature who killed Sharkey--after Sharkey said the Worm-one had killed Lotho and might have eaten him. Cousin Frodo wouldn’t let any of the Hobbits hurt Sharkey back after his knife broke--said as he’d been a special one who needed the chance to find healing, but he’d have to do it outside the Shire. So Sharkey told on the Worm-creature and was nasty to him, and the Worm-creature killed him, and one of the archers was so shocked at seeing him do that he just fired at the wretched thing. The Boffin lad said it was awful, and all the Travelers looked ill when it was done, and Cousin Frodo was very sad.”
“Why would he look sad? That Sharkey was a murderer and a thief, and tried to destroy the Shire! Why would Baggins care about someone like that?” Bartolo looked livid once more.
Delphie was shaking her head, however. “No, Barti--we can’t know what Frodo might have known about Sharkey that we don’t. He’s studied many things over the years, and traveled with Gandalf and Elves as well as Men and the King himself. I suspect that if he felt there was a chance Saruman could find healing he’d try to give that chance to him. But he’d not let Sharkey hurt any more of ours, after he was found out.”
“And what gives Baggins any right to care about the Shire? He himself says that he----” He stopped and composed himself as best he could. “No, Persivo, I told him I’d let him tell you himself, and I will. You want to know what Frodo Baggins did or didn’t do, you go ask him, you hear?”
“What do you mean, Dad?” Persi asked, shocked at his father’s tone.
“I mean what I said--you go ask your Cousin Frodo just what he did out there. Let you hear it from his own mouth.” He took another breath, then said, “Come here and let me see you. Now, turn about. Good, you look a credit to your family, I must say. At least you’re going to the Great Smial and not Brandy Hall--they tend to dress rather--rather solidly there at Brandy Hall--solid and plain.”
“Well, actually, at that house party we attended together when we were young Frodo had a couple very nice outfits that I’m certain Bilbo had made for him that weren’t plain; although when we were playing games such as ‘I’ll-Hide-and-You-Seek-Me’ or running races and the like he definitely wore Brandy Hall cloth. He commented that the Master bought it by the bale as there were always so many who needed clothing and it was cheaper that way.” Delphie looked rather apologetically at her husband, who shrugged in return, his mouth again in a line. “Many of the lads from Buckland tend to dress plain most of the time, but you’ll find they all have very nice suits for when they must dress up. Now, Merimac Brandybuck had a few very nice outfits--do you remember that marvelous formal green jacket and waistcoat with the tall matching hat he wore to his wedding, Barti? He was quite an imposing one that day, as I recall.”
Again Barti merely shrugged in answer. He returned his attention to his son’s appearance. “I only know, lad, as I’ll be missing you while you’re off amongst the Tooks, learning your trade, and that I’m sure you’ll be doing us proud.”
Persivo couldn’t help but smile at that. “And I’ll be missing being home, Da,” he said softly. “Would you mind if Pet and I eat with Uncle Rico and Aunt Angie? They’re camping near the grove.”
“Go on ahead, but be there near the hill when the election speeches are given and we’ll go from there to luncheon together.”
“Sure enough. Then I’ll get my jacket and Pet and we’ll be off.” He gave him parents each a quick kiss to the cheek and saw the surprise in his father’s eyes and the gratification in those of his mother, and he was quickly off, calling for his sister as he went. Then Lyssa was running in and demanding permission to go with her older brother and sister, as Gonya was already off with friends from Hardbottle and Ricki was off with the Greenman lads, who’d arrived the previous evening. “Oh, all right, as long as Persi and Pet agree, but you’re not to devil them to buy you fripperies this morning, understand.”
The child only gave the slightest pout as she agreed as hastily as she could and hurried off, crying out that Da and Mum had said she might go, too.
Bertramo came in once the door could be heard closing behind youthful voices in the distance. “Ah, now it is I remember why Amaryllis and I decided to have but three,” he said, smiling. “It’s a wonder doors survive the childhoods of our offspring! Now, for the two of you--I have some breakfast prepared, rather more than the three of us might wish, but I did choose to do items this morning that will keep, suspecting this might happen.”
Having decided to put the memory of the discussion about Frodo behind him, Barti said, “That sounds promising, Tram. Lead on!”
Petunia was the first to see the arrival of the deputy Mayor and his companions. “That must be Missus Rosie with Mr. Sam and Cousin Frodo Baggins,” she said. “Oh, look at those beautiful ponies. The one Cousin Frodo is riding is so lovely, as is the one Missus Rosie is on.”
“Ooh, yes,” agreed Lyssa, her eyes caught by the beauty of the mounts. “The one Mr. Samwise has looks plain by comparison, although he’s at least as nice as Spotty and Dottie.”
All three ponies were sleek and well muscled. The one ridden by the gardener has a few scars on him, but its coat was now smooth and its mane as well maintained as those of the other two; and the tack he wore was fully as rich as that of Frodo Baggins himself. Behind their saddles were fastened beautifully fashioned saddlebags and blanketrolls; apparently they were planning to sleep under the stars as many did when attending the fair for only a day or two, taking advantage of the fine weather that usually graced the Shire during the Free Fair. Instead of going to the public stable they rode to the series of paddocks that were tended by Pease and some other stable hands from nearby communities and the Tooklands. There they pulled up short of the gate of the largest one and spoke with Pease; then they dismounted and he helped Missus Rosie remove her tack and hang it on a special rail while the gentlehobbits took care of their own mounts. Frodo gave his own pony a gentle rubbing, spoke quietly into its ear, then let it go.
“Come on, you three--Bill, Berry, Strider--we’ll see you turned out with the other ponies. Here, now!” Sam gave a soft whistle and the three followed him trustingly to the paddock gate as Pease swung it open, then turned to help themselves to a drink from the trough before heading out into the field to greet the rest of those held there. A few coins were given to Pease, and Sam and Rosie turned to look out at the fairgrounds. “It’s still an hour or better afore you must be anywhere in particular, Master,” Sam commented. “Want to go and get some second breakfast with us?”
Frodo was shaking his head. “No, the stomach’s much better now, but what we ate along the way will stay with me for a time, I think. You go on, and I’ll meet you near the ale tent for elevenses--I should probably look in at the Council Hole one last time before I begin enjoying the Fair.”
“Just don’t you find yourself gettin’ caught up in business today of all days,” Sam cautioned him. “We’ll be off, then. Rosie wishes to see the baked goods after we get somethin’ to eat. You keep a watch on yourself, then, Master--don’t push yourself.” And as he set his arm about his wife’s waist and they set out for the Fair proper the three young Bracegirdles approached Frodo.
“Pardon us, Cousin Frodo,” Persivo began, suddenly feeling a bit unsure of himself. “Might we--might we have a word?”
He looked at them, and they could see the crease begin to reform between his eyebrows. “Persivo Bracegirdle? Are you certain your father wishes you to speak with me? I’m not precisely his favorite Hobbit.”
“Actually, he said as I ought to speak with you, sir, and that you had something he wished you to tell me.”
Frodo’s expression became tired as he nodded. “I see,” he sighed. “Yes, he did say that.” He lifted the water bottle he carried on a cord slung over his shoulder and drank from it, carefully recorking it again afterwards. “Come away where it’s a bit more private, then,” he suggested, only to be interrupted by a call from more approaching riders as he led them out of earshot of those close to the paddocks.
“Hoy, Frodo--hold up a moment!” called Pippin Took. “Didn’t expect you three to beat us here!” He and Captain Merry rode up alongside Frodo and the three younger Hobbits, and they dropped rapidly to the ground. “Where’s Mother Sam?” he asked.
“That’s no way to speak of a lord of the realm,” admonished Merry, then grew quiet as he realized the three Bracegirdle children were there with Frodo. “What’s this, Frodo--are you daring to speak with Bartolo’s offspring? I’d think he’d have them trained by now to disdain speaking with mere Bagginses.”
Persivo straightened at the insult. “I’ll remind you,” he said with spirit, “that our mother’s a Baggins, and quite proud of it, really. And just because Dad has some grudge against her cousin he won’t tell doesn’t mean she’ll allow us to carry it, too.”
Frodo had shut his eyes and was rubbing at his temple with a sigh. “Don’t make it worse, Merry mine--we don’t need the anger going on into still another generation.”
“But I don’t begin to understand why he’s been so antagonistic toward you all these years, Frodo. And after all but calling you a coward the other day----”
“He wanted me to tell Persivo something myself, if I was brave enough. There--you have it. Is that enough to make you let it go? He never called me a coward! Sam didn’t begin to hear it all, and I’ve not discussed it with him. This is between Barti and me, and should be allowed to remain that way.”
“Except what you are supposed not to be brave enough to tell his children, which is the same as calling you a coward. Well, out with it--what is it you’re supposed to have done?”
“It’s not what I’ve done--it’s what I didn’t do....”
Pippin gave a very loud sigh. “Oh, so he’s found out your deep, dark secret, did he--that at the last moment you were taken by a force no mortal nor Elf nor Wizard could hope to withstand, and couldn’t finish it yourself--had to see someone else do it--fall into the fire so that you and Sam and the rest of Middle Earth could remain free and safe, so that Sauron could be defeated? Is that it, Frodo Baggins?”
Frodo’s face had gone very white. “I don’t wish it spoken of, Peregrin Took,” he whispered.
Pippin ignored him as he looked back to Persivo. “Is that it--you found out, while you were in Bree, that he’s a lord of all the Free Peoples?”
“I told Halladan to tell his Rangers not to speak of it to anyone, and----”
“And wrote the same to Strider’s lawyer--is that right?” Pippin turned his head to inspect Frodo’s face and gave a small nod. “Yes, I suspected you did that--always trying not to worry folks, you are. But I bet that they heard bits and pieces of the story every time they turned about, and that they figured out the larger part of it on their own. And don’t try ordering me about--right now I’m the King’s Captain more than I am your younger cousin.” Again he looked pointedly away from the deputy Mayor.
“Actually, the first one to call him Lord Frodo was an Elf, Mr. Glorinlas Gildorion--we met him on the way to Bree,” Petunia explained.
“You see, Frodo,” Merry said, suddenly smiling, “it wasn’t the Rangers who gave you away after all. And if you think you can tell an Elven lord what to say or not to say, I suspect you’ve another thing coming.”
Frodo threw his hands up and, seeing a stump left by Sharkey’s folks nearby, sat himself down on it. “And now you’ll tell these, will you?”
“Seems as if they already know, and you yourself told their father what a failure you are--the way you keep telling yourself what a failure you are. You’d think that after It being gone now for over a year you’d be past that.”
“You think that I still don’t hear echoes of It?” Frodo again whispered, refusing to meet the eyes of any of them.
Pippin looked briefly again at Frodo, then at the three children. “Your mother’s cousin agreed to carry an artifact of the greatest evil, one no Elf would touch, one Gandalf wouldn’t touch, one the King himself wouldn’t set his hand on, to the heart of Sauron’s own realm to where it was made so It could be destroyed. He’s not the first one to try this--three thousand years ago it was our King’s ancestor Isildur who had It in his hands who ought to have seen It destroyed, only he couldn’t do it. And this time it was a Hobbit who tried it, managing to fight Its influence until the very last moment, when just the task of getting there still carrying It had already almost killed him. And he can’t seem to appreciate that the Creator had found a way to get It away from him before It destroyed him utterly--better the loss of one finger than you and Sam and It, Frodo Baggins.”
“If only it had been but the loss of one finger----”
“Even had you done what you’d intended, he still would have died, Frodo. You know what he told Sam--that when It was gone he’d die, die into the dust. You know he was right.”
“Who?” asked Alyssa.
It was Persivo who answered. “Gollum--it was Gollum, wasn’t it, the one who your Uncle Bilbo met under the Misty Mountains? And that’s how the Ring came to you....”
“You know It was the Ring?” Frodo asked, his face stricken.
“They still haven’t found any of the Rings what was stolen,” Alyssa repeated. “Have they?”
Frodo agreed, “No, they haven’t.”
“And they call you the Ringbearer,” she continued.
“It had to have a ring to it, whatever you did,” she pointed out.
Again Frodo put his hand over his eyes, clutching the gem he wore with the other hand. “Oh, sweet Elbereth,” he sighed.
Merry was examining the three of them with interest and approval. “You’d best be certain, Frodo Baggins, the names of all three of these are in the Baggins family book,” he said, his smile broad. “No mere blockheaded Bracegirdle from Hardbottle, as Bilbo used to describe them, could have figured all that out. I salute you!”
“And did you figure it out?” demanded Alyssa.
“Yes, I did, although it helped I saw Bilbo actually put the blasted thing on his finger and disappear one day, having realized that the Sackville-Bagginses were headed his way and not wishing to have to deal with them. He had no idea at all what It really was--if he had I suspect It would have managed to have taken him somehow before he left the Shire--It almost did anyway, apparently. Although what It was precisely we didn’t know until the spring before we left--Gandalf was the first to truly figure it all out and to warn Frodo.”
They were all quiet for a time. At last Petunia said, “We won’t tell anyone else--we know that we’re all bound by Da’s oath, you understand. But he never told us--we wanted to understand and--and kept learning things until we figured it all out. I don’t think as our other sister and brother understand it all, though, but we three do. And most of what we learned we actually learned from some Dwarves as we met in the marketplace.”
“And I don’t think Dad really appreciates what it all means, even as much as he knows,” Persi added. “I hate to say this of my father, but--but Cousin Bilbo’s description does tend to fit him--at least for some things.”
Frodo suddenly surprised them all by starting to laugh, laughing louder and more freely as the minutes stretched, with the others joining him in his laughter. “I think,” he finally managed to gasp out, “that when I spoke of this to your father the other day I could never have imagined this talk happening in a thousand years! Oh, Persivo Bracegirdle, it will be with pride I will look on your name next time I must go through the family book. No, no blockheaded Bracegirdle at all are you, you or your sisters. Well, I insist that you don’t seek to enlighten your father further, and that you leave things as they are.” Then seeing the expressions in their eyes he added, “Please.”
“If you insist,” Persivo said uncertainly, “although I wish he truly understood.
“Oh, children,” Frodo said, his face going rather sad, “I don’t wish any to have to understand--not truly understand. And had I understood ahead of time what it was I was volunteering for, I don’t know that I could have borne doing so.”
By luncheon the entire Fairground and beyond was buzzing--Frodo Baggins, who’d done so very well as deputy Mayor for the last eight months, had stood up not to accept the nomination as Mayor in his own right all had expected, but instead to explain he was returning the office to Will Whitfoot. Among those shocked by this turn of affairs were Will Whitfoot himself, Benlo Bracegirdle, and most of the rest of the Shire. Benlo stubbornly voted for Frodo anyway, as did Thain Paladin Took. Master Saradoc Brandybuck, on the other hand, seeing the shadows under Frodo’s eyes, voted for Will, knowing his younger cousin and former fosterling would have made such a decision only if certain it was needful. Frodo had stepped back into the crowd, then disappeared. Begonia Bracegirdle, seeing the mixed expression on her father’s face--she wasn’t certain whether he was angry, hurt, or triumphant at this turn of events--set herself to track down her mother’s cousin and berate him for failing to meet everyone’s expectations; but she found herself knowing as difficult a time in finding Frodo Baggins as anyone else. She finally found herself looking inside the Council Hole and heard his voice from the banquet hall where he was apparently sitting on the floor on the other side of the great carved sideboard, speaking to a younger lad who looked much like himself and like Persi had when he was in his teens, and a lass who appeared to be the lad’s sister.
“We thought we’d lost you, Iorhael,” the lass was whispering. “We were so glad to hear you were back, so glad to know you were deputy Mayor and making things all right, and so upset you didn’t come to us.”
“I couldn’t,” he answered. “It’s been all I can do to make it once to Buckland to see Aunt Esme and Uncle Sara, or at times just to make it here to Michel Delving. I’m not well, children. I must be honest with you--I’m not well.”
“Why do you have to be honest with us?” asked the lad.
Begonia backed out of the room as quietly as she’d come in, standing near the room where the lasses did their hair until she saw the three of them go out together, Cousin Frodo Baggins and these strange Hobbit children she felt she almost recognized, although she was certain she’d never seen them before. She’d seen them earlier among the crowd just after elevenses as Frodo had told a story behind the ale tent to an audience of mixed children and adults, describing the coronation of the new King, Aragorn Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar, and how one of the guards had come before the new King for judgment, having broken the law by leaving his post without orders or permission and killing other guards and servants to prevent them from helping a person kill his son, although why the Man had wanted to kill his son she couldn’t understand, much less why others would try to help him. She saw the children again that evening, sitting by a Hobbit she was certain was a Gravelly and what was plainly his wife, neither of whom either of them resembled. When the singing began she found herself transported, listening to the songs sung. Pippin Took had the most beautiful voice, she recognized; yet it was Frodo’s voice that moved her most. And when Sam Gamgee sang a song alone that he called the Lay of Gil-galad she was amazed at how warm and powerful his voice was. It was apparently a song of an Elven warrior who fought in a war in a place called Mordor, a warrior who at the end faced the Enemy himself alongside a great King of Men, and together they managed to bring him down, although the two of them died doing so.
But then the two very tall figures rose and asked permission to sing, and for a second time in her life she saw Elves--twin Elves, these two with hair as dark as the growing night around them; and they came into the light of the fire, greeting Frodo with great courtesy and honor. “Ar-Iorhael,” she thought they called him, and she was reminded of the lass earlier in the banquet hall calling Frodo ‘Iorhael’ as well. She cast a quick glance at the two children again, and saw they were both sitting up and listening intently. These two knew and recognized that name as soon as they heard it, and indeed were listening for it.
When they began singing she felt she knew the story they were singing about, even though most of it was in languages she’d never heard before, and she realized it was about--about Cousin Frodo Baggins. At one moment, however, she found herself looking away from the Elves to look at her parents. Her father’s face was straining after the music, but understood almost nothing of what he heard; her mother’s, on the other hand, was streaming tears as shamelessly as were the faces of the four Travelers and Rosie Gamgee, the four of whom had gathered protectively about Frodo Baggins. Gonya had the distinct impression her mother understood what the song was about better than any of the rest. Everyone listened enraptured by the clarity of the Elven voices; but a few, she realized, were seeing the story happen even as she, from time to time, did. At the moment the song reached its crescendo she forgot everything else, seeming to see a dark place lit only with a great glow of fire from below, filled with noisome smokes swirling about a single figure, as Iorhael stood over the brink, small and vulnerable, yet great and terrible; and he held out something bright and shining in whose light he grew even greater and more terrifying, one in the strength of whose will might have sought to command the world itself. And that glittering Object took Iorhael and sought to remake him as he sought to Command It--and another flung himself out of the obscuring dark smokes and leapt on the powerful figure of Iorhael and--and saved him from the horror that had wrapped Itself about him, biting at Iorhael’s hand to take the glittering Object for himself, leaving a small, bleeding figure lying on the ground as the attacker took the Object for his own, falling into the Fire with It clutched in his hand.
Somehow she heard her older brother murmuring, “The Ring!” as she saw another small figure approach the first one, the bleeding, wounded one, and lifted it up to carry it away.
Then when it appeared death had taken the two for its own great winged shapes appeared out of the returning glory of day to swoop down and gently lift the two figures out of the center of a ring of fire, bringing them safely out to where shining arms waited to receive them, and powerful presences waited to call them back from the Gates of Death itself, until the day they awoke to the praises of Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits, when the King Returned came to seat the two of them upon his own Throne to the praise of all....
“Eglerio! Iorhael i Perhael, a laíta te! Praise them with great praise!” the Elves sang as they went each to one knee, bowing low before--before Frodo Baggins.
At last the two Elves rose and gave a joint bow to all who sat there before turning and disappearing from the hilltop. Folco Boffin and Fredegar Bolger were among the first to rise and approached the four Travelers, as did one she thought was a Brandybuck; and a number of Took lawyers close in age to Frodo stood together to screen away any others who might wish to approach Frodo, glaring their defiance at all, including the Thain himself. Sam and Rosie Gamgee were leaning down to gather the scrolls and letters that the Elves had presented to Cousin Frodo Baggins, and Pippin Took had his arms about Frodo protectively, and the seven Hobbits walked about him down the hill and back toward the paddocks.
“Where are Fosco and Forsythia?” the Hobbitess with the Gravelly was demanding. “Where have they disappeared to?”
“I don’t know, Lilac--they were here all during the song those--those Elves sang--I’m sure of it.”
“We can’t lose them, Emro--we can’t, not now! If they talk to Baggins....”
Begonia cast a quick look at her brothers and sisters. Persi and Pet, she realized, had seen much the same images as she had, and Persivo was shining at the moment almost as much as had been Cousin Frodo himself. Then she saw her older brother exchange a glance with their mother, and knew that the two of them each saw the other shared the same understanding of what the song had been about.
She felt a tug at her skirt as she rose, and saw that Ricki was looking up seriously into her eyes. “That was about them--about Cousin Frodo Baggins and Mr. Samwise, wasn’t it?” he whispered as she bent down to hear what he had to ask.
“I believe so,” she whispered back.
“I thought so,” he returned. “I thought so. How they got to be lords, I think.”
She nodded, and they turned to gather with the others about their parents.
“Now, that was not something I’d anticipated,” her da was saying to her mum. “But why couldn’t they have sung a song we all could understand?”
And at that moment she felt great pity stir her for her father. No, he’d not understood or appreciated what the song had been about, not much at all.