There was a small figure standing, leaning on the parapet at the end of the Court of Gathering, looking across at the Ephel Duath as Faramir approached it. At first he thought perhaps it was one of the pages come out for air, until he came closer and saw the dark curls blowing in the breeze. No, this was no page--it was Frodo Baggins, the Ringbearer. He was dressed in his grey-green cloak over one of the outfits that Aragorn had ordered made for him, for he’d had nothing on him, Faramir had been told, when he was found. He was still more slender than Faramir remembered him when they’d met in Ithilien, although he’d looked anything but well fed at the time. At least his clothing was fresh and comfortable looking, and his hands were now clean and smooth, unlike the rawness Faramir had noted before, indicating he and his gardener friend had already had to climb rough outcrops before they were found in the woods along the road from the Black Gate. One other detail Faramir noted--Frodo’s nails had grown out--they’d been bitten to the quick when they’d first met. But as he looked at the right hand where it lay on the stone Faramir saw a muscle spasm, accompanied by a tightening of the jaw in response to the pain across the stump that was all that remained of the ring finger. What the Pherian--Hobbit--had experienced had been terribly cruel, Faramir realized more strongly than ever.
He’d paused, but as Frodo turned to acknowledge his arrival, the young Steward gave a courteous bow. “Master Hobbit. May I join you?”
“Gladly, sir,” Frodo answered him, inclining his head. “I’m not truly certain how it is we’re expected to address you now, as I still think of you as the Captain we met there,” indicating the forest to be seen on the opposite side of the river with a gesture of his head. He looked back at the far side, looking somewhat northward of the site of Osgiliath. “We were fairly far north of there, considering how long it took to come by ship south from Cormallen, which I know was very close to where we met. The road through the ruined city leads to the Crossroads where the statue of the old King stands, does it not?”
“Do you know what King it was that was depicted there? Not, of course,” he added looking back at Faramir apologetically, “that I’d recognize the name anyway. Was it Anárion, or Elendil?”
“No--if I remember correctly it was Atanatar the Second. He was called Alcarin, the Glorious, and was, from what I can tell, one very proud of his accomplishments, and undoubtedly rightfully so. But Gondor was already falling from the greatness of her glory even then. Mablung has told me that at our Lord Elessar’s bidding the head was replaced on the statue and the base cleansed of the obscenities left by the Enemy’s folks.” He looked beyond Osgiliath as if by doing so he would see the Crossroads itself. “The symbols they left on it were so crude. Sometimes we would pause as we passed it to cleanse them away as we could. As many were gouged deeply into the base itself, however, I suspect it will need to be fully reworked in order to remove them all.”
Frodo nodded thoughtfully. “It was the last day on which there was any true sunlight when we reached there, and that not until sunset when the westering sun finally got below the reek. To see the gold of the stonecrop and the circlet of white blooms on the fallen head--after the gloom and desolation of the day, somehow it gave us heart, Sam and me, as if secretly he was crowned in glory, and the Enemy didn’t realize he was already defeated.” He looked up at the height of the dark mountains and shook his head. “And we climbed that wall! I barely remember it, save for the great weariness of it. The only good thing was that the steps were properly outdoors.”
Faramir straightened in surprise. “Properly outdoors?”
Frodo looked up at him. “Yes, outdoors. We Hobbits don’t usually build houses or dig our smials on more than one level, so we have no steps inside, usually, although we will have ladders to lofts in our barns. We’ll have steps up to our doors and to the tops of the hills into which we dig our smials, but none inside if we can help it. There are slanted ramps in places for Brandy Hall and the Great Smial to connect some of the different levels, for there were a number of smials in the ridges of Buck Hill and Took Hill that were dug at different times and later joined together; although most of us going to upper doorways and halls go out and up the steps outside.”
“So your homes are usually of a single level?”
“Usually, although some farmers will have a second story where they store things in upper lofts and storage rooms.”
“This city must seem very strange to you, then.”
The Hobbit nodded. “Yes, very different. The houses are so imposing, so close together and so high--three stories seems to be almost the norm on the lower levels of the city from what I noticed as we came up through it. And things are so straight, as well as high.”
“And houses aren’t--straight, there in your land?”
“Roofs tend to be low and--and hill-like. We rather like rounded shapes, you see--although my family has always dwelt in smials delved into hills or banks.”
Faramir thought on that, the fact that these Hobbits lived so close to the earth that they built their homes--when they weren’t dug into the ground itself--in imitation of ridges and hills. “It sounds a comfortable land,” he commented.
“Yes. It was easy to go berrying when I was a tween, for all I had to do for most berries was to climb the Hill itself to the ring of berry bushes the Gaffer and Sam planted about its crown. The ring gave us more privacy when we went up to the top--or me, actually, as Bilbo rarely went up that high any more, as well as offering a good crop of fruit in the seasons for the various berries. It used to be one of my tasks to check the bushes and harvest the berries when they came ripe, although I used also to go out into the woods to fetch back brambleberries and wild strawberries from there.”
“You gathered your own berries?”
“Of course. Didn’t you?”
“And where within the city do you think we’d find them growing? Although my mother did plant some sloes in her own private garden.”
“We had gooseberries, currants, raspberry canes, huckleberries and blueberries, and a bed of strawberries toward the south end of the circle. And Sam had covered the Hill with all kinds of wild flowers--poppies, Queen Melian’s lace, strawflowers, anemones of several kinds, buttercups.... It was very beautiful.” Frodo’s face reflected homesickness, Faramir thought.
“And your home was--was dug into the Hill itself?”
“Yes, about halfway up it. At the bottom was Bagshot Row. There were five smials dug into it there, mostly straight back into the Hill, with most of the rooms with no windows. Number Five was where I was born--it was the largest, and was at the far end, dug somewhat along the curve of the lower Hill, so it actually had a couple bedrooms that did have windows. It was where Bilbo’s father was born, although he dug Bag End up higher on the Hill, and had the Lane built up to it. Much of it, I suspect, was done with Aunt Belladonna’s dowry, actually. Once I was Master of Bag End I let Number Five to some of our Proudfoot cousins. I felt it ought not to stay empty as it had done for some time after my parents moved us to Buckland.”
Faramir tried to imagine the land and homes as his companion had described them. “It sounds a pleasant place.” Frodo nodded. “You will be glad to return to it, then.”
But the Hobbit was shaking his head, a stern and grieving expression in his eye. “I sold it--to a cousin who does not deserve and will not properly appreciate it.” He was looking off at the dark elevations opposite them again, then looked over his shoulder at the shadowed slopes of Mount Mindolluin against the light of the fading day. “Bilbo told me of mountains, but I’d never thought to see so very many of them--far more than he’d ever hinted to me existed in the world. And these are the White Mountains, and those the Mountains of Shadow.” He looked back and forth between the peak that overlooked the city and the walls of Mordor. “And now the sunlight falls there, and they are shadowed no longer. What will your children know them as, I wonder?”
Faramir shrugged and he leaned forward, his forearms resting on the top of the parapet and his hands clasped. “I suspect eventually the name for them will be changed, although when that might be who can say? It is odd--I’d never thought the day would come when I would have children--or at least I’ve not thought so since years before I was accounted a Man grown. And now--mostly due to the efforts of you and your friend Samwise, it is likely that I will.” After a moment of mutual silence, he asked, “And for you--there in your own land of the Shire--is there one you love as I find I love the Lady Éowyn?”
He noted the stillness that had fallen on the Hobbit immediately, although he could see no physical difference in his stance, and little change even in his expression. Yet he sensed an invisible wall had long ago been erected about this one’s heart, a wall he’d managed to prod with his questions. At last there was an answer, uttered in a distant voice: “Once I thought to marry, but she chose another in the end. That was many years ago, then, before I was even of age--and before It came to me.” Faramir remained still to see if Frodo would say any more on the subject, for he found himself markedly curious. At last, in a determinedly casual tone, Frodo continued, “Perhaps once I was considered desirable--but now? I’ve sold away the beautiful home and gardens I inherited and own now but a country house in Buckland, some miles from Brandy Hall. I’m now definitely identified in the minds of the folk of the Shire as old Mad Baggins’s equally mad Baggins heir, who’s hared off out of the Shire on a second mad adventure. When I return with my finger gone and my health in a shambles, who would even dream of considering me, do you think? And who would I seek to inflict myself on?”
“Surely once your folk understand where you went and why----”
Frodo turned his face upward defiantly. “You think they will understand? Your typical Bolger or Brockhouse cares nothing at all for aught that happens outside the Shire, and from what I can tell only a very few folk saw the Black Riders when they came seeking me.”
Faramir felt himself stiffen in shock. “They went there--the Nazgul?”
Frodo nodded as he looked again out at the Ephel Duath where the sunlight lingered. “Yes--they had learned that a Hobbit of the Shire named Baggins found It beneath the Misty Mountains seventy-eight years ago, and came in search of It--fortunately arriving as we were leaving Hobbiton. They pursued us all the way to Rivendell.”
“When they came across the bridge in Osgiliath----”
“You knew of that?” His blue eyes were examining Faramir intently.
“We were there--Boromir and I, when they came across it. We could not hold them back, but pulled down the bridge after them and leapt in to swim the water to the western shore. We thought to make a barrier of the river itself, as though it, too, were a wall, that no others might easily enter our lands and slay our folk.” Troubled to learn why the Nazgul had crossed the Anduin, Faramir turned his own eyes back toward Osgiliath.
Frodo was still examining him, however. “So--you have felt their terror twice as they crossed the river, then--when they came across to seek the Shire, and when they came across this time with their army.” He shook himself and also looked off eastward. “We saw them march out of the Morgul Vale. It seemed that there was no end to the line of Men and orcs.” He shuddered. “The Ring--It wished for me to put It on to reveal myself, but this time--this time I fought It successfully.” He shuddered again, and looking at him Faramir saw how very pale he’d gone.
“You were very brave,” Faramir said, “continuing on in the face of that terror.”
“What else could I do?” Frodo asked. “There was no means to return home save to go through--through Mordor. You were braver--leading your Men back there after you’d come back here. Pippin and Gandalf both told me of it, and how Gandalf and the second time Prince Imrahil rode out to offer support to you and your Men. They tell me that your Men would follow you anywhere, so deeply did they trust you; and that until the Southron dart took you they stayed by you in spite of--them.”
Faramir nodded. For a time they stood together in silence. Finally Frodo continued in a low voice, “Hobbits of the Shire aren’t going to understand all this, you know. Most of them are happy to think that nothing that might be outside the bounds of the Shire has anything to do with us. And although there was a time I felt my countrymen needed something to waken them to the realization that there is more to the world of Arda than just the four Farthings and Buckland, now--now I don’t want them to have to understand just how awful things have too often been in the outer world. I don’t wish them to have to learn of the nature of evil, of betrayals and ambushes, assassinations and warfare, orcs and trolls and other evil creatures.”
“You would wall out the rest of the world?”
“I doubt such a thing is even possible, but, yes, I suppose that I would.”
After a time, the new Steward of Gondor took a deep breath, held it briefly, then expelled it. “It is unlikely they can remain truly ignorant of the rest of the world forever, Master Baggins.”
“Probably not,” agreed Frodo reluctantly. “But I’d rather my folk didn’t learn to live in fear and suspicion as so many Men have had to do, or to know the great grief of the Elves. I try to think of my young cousin Geli having to see her beloved Sancho losing a leg due to a Southron sword or weeping over him with an orc arrow embedded within him, and it turns my heart cold. Or to think of little Pando having to face a line of trolls--for all he loves to play at Túrin and the dragon, I’d never wish his life to truly be in danger.”
“But if he is never tried, Frodo, how can he ever learn of what he is capable?”
Frodo nodded again, thoughtfully, looking out once more at the darkening sky over what had been Mordor, and then straightened, smiling softly, to see the star of Eärendil beginning to shine there, to the east. “Bilbo was the one to tell me of the first time the Gil-estel was seen shining in the sky, just before the Valar came to oppose the growing might of Morgoth and his forces. While we were in Mordor, there was one night when the winds were strong enough to sweep away the wall of clouds some, enough that Sam could see it shining down on us there. I was too lost to pay much heed--if I gave any, I suppose. I barely remember it, although he’s spoken of it a few times since we awoke. Star and crown of blossoms--common enough sights, but how they helped reassure us that Sauron didn’t understand the simple hope that infects all life that can appreciate beauty.” He smiled more fully. “It was worth it, I think--all that time of grief and misery, knowing that my beloved cousins won’t lose all their innocence as so many out here have had to do.”
“To know that my children may have to fight at times to protect what is good and worthy, but not against the overwhelming evil that sought to claim us,” Faramir agreed.
The two of them stood so for some time longer, and in time Faramir realized that he’d covered Frodo’s hand with his own. For all this Hobbit had been fenced about by the legacy of the Ring--yet that barrier had now been breached, and it was the Man’s hope one day the remains of that wall would tumble down completely and be buried beneath vines of colorful blossoms.