“But we still don’t know if they’ll return----” Saradoc Brandybuck began.
The Thain of the Shire looked up as Isumbard opened the door to his office after the most cursory of knocks. “What is it that can’t wait, Bard?” he asked. “I’m in conference with the Mayor and the Master, after all.”
Bard was clearly suppressing a good deal of excitement. “Pippin’s back, sir,” he said, “Pippin and Merry both, along with Sam Gamgee and--and several Men and a couple Elves.”
The Hobbits in the room stood up in shock. “Men?! Men, here at the Great Smial?” demanded Paladin Took.
“Yes--and one appears to be--one appears to be the King himself!”
All stiffened where they stood. At last Saradoc Brandybuck exchanged looks with his brother Merimac before turning again to examine Isumbard’s face. “The King himself?”
Bard nodded. “Says he came on Frodo’s behalf.”
“Frodo? He’s not come, too, has he?” Sara’s voice was filled with barely contained hope.
But now the tall Hobbit lawyer and Paladin’s aide was shaking his head. “No, he didn’t come with them.” He glanced up at the ceiling and shook his head. “No, he couldn’t fit in here. Shall I take him to the private dining room, do you think, Pal? He could sit comfortably in there, I think. He’s quite the tallest Man I’ve ever seen.”
Will Whitfoot fell back into his chair, clutching his cane to his chest. “Men in the Shire again!” he said softly to himself.
It was several moments before those who’d been in conference with Paladin Took came to the dining room. Apparently one of those who kept inventory on the old mathom rooms had unearthed at least one of the chairs the Old Took had seen made for when his friend Gandalf came to visit and had brought it there, and on it sat indeed the tallest Man Paladin Took had ever seen, his grey eyes clear and filled with command, a circlet with a single bright gem about his forehead, his dark hair lying upon his shoulders. He didn’t rise as the Hobbits entered, and Pal was rather glad he didn’t, as imposing as he was just sitting down.
“But I’ve seen you before,” Sara was saying, “riding through the Shire, and once in Bree.”
The King turned to look at him, and then smiled, and the stern expression lifted. It was as if the Sun herself had somehow peered into the room, and as if the stars were shining there also. “Yes,” he said, “you may well have done, for I was one of those who protected this region of Eriador and patrolled your borders. Master Saradoc?”
It was then that Paladin registered the others who stood about the Man--another Man, broader in the chest than the King, who appeared perhaps of an age or slightly older; two more Men, one with a black glove upon his right hand, whose sword hung upon his right hip rather than his left, and the other a young Man with a great hound sitting by him. Then there were two Elves, one golden haired while the second had hair slightly darker than the King’s own and grey eyes to match; and a Dwarf whose hair and beard were totally white, his face filled with authority.
“Let me introduce my companions--my cousin Halladan son of Halbaleg, my Steward here in Arnor; and his aides Gilfileg son of Gilthor and Eregiel son of Miringlor, both of them also my kinsmen. My foster brother Elrohir Elrondion, and Lord Glorfindel of the House of the Golden Flower. And this is Lord Gloin of Erebor, the Blue Mountains, and the Iron Hills--his son Gimli was one of our companions when your sons went south with Frodo and myself to rid Middle Earth of Sauron’s Ring.”
The door opened behind them, and Pippin, Merry, and Sam entered carrying some taller stools more in keeping with the stature of the other Men and the two Elves. Pippin stopped, somewhat warily, and eyed his father before turning purposefully to bring the stool he carried to the area where the guests waited. Hillie and Everard entered carrying more stools, and Pippin, having surrendered the one he’d brought to the Elf the King had identified as Elrohir, now was drawing a chair out for the elderly Dwarf.
At last Merry turned to face his father. “You’ve told the Thain what was told you when Gandalf and Lord Elladan came to fetch Pippin and me, Dad?” he asked.
“Yes. You left him in the King’s city, then?” The disappointment in the Master’s eyes was clear.
Merry paused, then shook his head. “Not exactly. He’s left Middle Earth. No,” he added hastily, cutting off the sob his father almost let escape, “he’s not dead--or wasn’t when we last saw him. He’s gone to the Elven lands with Bilbo and the great Elves--and Gandalf. That grace was granted him in light of the service he gave us all by taking Sauron’s Ring to Mordor to its destruction.”
The King now spoke. “His last request of me was that I have Halladan come speak to you to convince you of the truth of your sons’ reports, for to think of you, Thain Paladin, not accepting what Pippin has tried to tell you has about torn his heart out of him. In the end, once the ship bearing him and Bilbo and my adar and the others set sail back down the Anduin, it was decided perhaps I myself should return with these to speak with you. My beloved wife and Steward can see to the needs of Gondor while I must be gone; but I am King of Arnor as well as Gondor now, and you are as much my subjects as are the citizens of the southern kingdom. Are your lady wives here? Perhaps it would be best to call them here that you all hear what I have to say.”
Shortly afterwards Esmeralda Brandybuck, Eglantine Took, Mina Whitfoot, Fredegar and Estella Bolger, and a few others came into the room and took places about the table or on chairs from the side of the chamber, followed by still more who brought trays of food and drink to set upon the table, withdrawing uncertainly, each craning to see the great Man it was said was their new King before they left. Outside in the corridor, even through the now closed door, they could hear the buzz of excited talk as those who could stood outside the Thain’s private dining chamber, hoping to learn more when it was possible.
Again the guests were introduced, and the Hobbits introduced themselves. Pippin’s sisters were there with their husbands and children, and all now sat quietly to hear what the King had to say.
Before the King, there on the end of the table, lay a number of documents and a couple of books. “Shortly after Frodo agreed to remain in the south with my wife and me, Bilbo forwarded this to Frodo, asking him to write down the story of our journey for him. He did so, and I now bring it to you. He indicated he wished for Sam to complete the final chapters that he’d not been able to write.” He held up a great red volume and indicated it should be passed to the Thain. “The first part was written by Bilbo himself, taken from his memories and journals, and tells of his journey to Erebor with Gandalf and Lord Gloin here and of the defeat of Smaug and--and the finding of the Ring beneath the Misty Mountains. I am told the story is much as you have heard it, although undoubtedly far grimmer than the way in which he’s told it to you before. Having seen the great spiders of Mirkwood myself, I can assure you they were of a vicious nature, second only to the nature of the orcs--or goblins--he escaped from and later faced there at Erebor.
“The Ring Bilbo brought back here in his pocket, as he has told me himself, and I doubt any of you save Merry saw it while he remained here in the Shire. Gandalf had always questioned the nature of this ring, but it wasn’t until his last visit to Bag End he finally knew the way to test it to find out for certain. To realize first Bilbo and then Frodo had been carrying Sauron’s own Ring of Power in their pockets all these years--it was almost more than he could bear. Know this--Gandalf has come to greatly honor and love your folk, many of whom he’s known since your ancestors first came west from the valley of the Anduin to settle here in Eriador. And his memories of his friendship with your great Grandfather Gerontius have always heartened him when he’s found Elves, Men, and Dwarves less than willing to work together to face the Enemy.
“I saw the Ring first there in Imladris--Rivendell, when Frodo brought It out to show to the Council. That Frodo managed to bring It that far and remain free of Its influence amazed us all. It had sought to betray him all along the way, coaxing him again and again to put It on so It could make Itself plain to the Enemy’s Black Riders here in the Shire, in Bree, and along the road eastward when we traveled together. It even slipped Itself onto his finger in Bree when he refused to do so voluntarily. He almost suffered worse than death when he was wounded by the wraiths with a Morgul blade. We reached my adar’s aid only just in time to save him.
“Perhaps it would have been easier to believe and understand how deeply he’d been wounded had you seen him. He’d lost about half his weight when we reached Rivendell, and he never quite regained that afterwards.”
“They were all three thinner when they got back,” commented Merimac.
“Well, you go about walkin’ all across Middle Earth and then ridin’ back again, you’d be thinner also,” Sam commented. “But my Master--he lost far more than we ever did.”
There was another knock at the door, and Pimpernel rose to open it, admitting Rosie Gamgee and another Elf.
“This Elf come,” she said, indicating the twin to the dark-haired Elf who sat near the King, “sayin’ as my Sam’s back and here and as I needed to come to him now. He brought me and our Elanor.”
Sam gave a wordless cry of joy, and hurried to his wife’s side, sweeping her into his arms.
“Le hannon, Elladan,” the King said to the Elf. “Sirs, mistresses, this is my other foster brother, Elladan Elrondion.” The Elf approached the King and laid in his hands the small Hobbit child he carried. “And this is Elanor?” he asked, looking upwards. At the answering nod he looked back down, his eyes tender. “So, this is Sam’s firstborn, and Frodo’s so beloved niece of the heart.” He kissed the child gently on the forehead. “This is from your uncle, little one,” he whispered. “He so mourned he’d never see you.”
At last he reluctantly surrendered the infant to the hungry arms of her father, once he’d seen his wife seated in his place and then come to reclaim his daughter. “Ah, little Ellie,” he was murmuring as he held her. “I told him all about you, I did, as we walked down through the city to the coach at the gates.”
“Frodo survived the seizure of his heart, then?” asked Esmeralda.
“Yes, although he didn’t recover fully from it. We only hope that he will do so as a result of this journey.”
“Why did he need to go away?” asked Mina Whitfoot.
“We begged this grace for him, considering what the Ring stole from him as he saw It to Mordor. It left him feeling scarred and emptied as well as weakened; and his wounded shoulder, heart, and stomach particularly never fully recovered. When the memories of what all he’d been through began returning to him that first fall, he was badly weakened, and again during the spring. He would always try to hide how the return of the memories hit him, but couldn’t do so effectively.
“Know this, Mistress Whitfoot, Frodo there will have the chance to have body, mind, and spirit all cleansed of the wounds left by the bearing of the Ring and the journey he accepted. His heart can be healed as it cannot here. He can come to understand fully how the journey has changed him, and not only what he lost, but more important what he gained by doing what he’s done. He can again know joy unbridled, the peace he has earned, beauty beyond what we can know here. But he’s not the only one who paid deeply for accepting the responsibility to see all of Middle Earth protected. Sam, Merry, and Pippin also nearly died to see us all remain safe.”
He looked to Merry. “Perhaps you need to speak first, and tell them how it was you became aware of the Ring and then the danger It posed.”
So Merry told of the Conspiracy and why he’d recruited Sam and Freddy, and why he’d decided against involving Folco Boffin.
“I saw that Merry was planning something,” Pippin said when a lull came in his cousin’s story, “and I refused to be left out. I spied on him until I’d found out most of the details, and then let him know that there was no way he was going to leave the Shire with Frodo and not take me. I had to threaten to tell Da to get him to agree, though. Then Gandalf came back, and we found out that Frodo was really going this time, and that the Ring was far more than we’d ever thought--and I informed them all they’d best not try to leave me behind for I’d follow them no matter what.”
“So that was why you purchased those ponies and moved them to the pasture near Crickhollow,” said Saradoc.
Merry raised his head proudly. “Yes, sir, it was. The ponies were run off in Bree, although they’re back there now. Mr. Butterbur paid for them when they went lost, and so I left them with him. He uses them well, and I certainly don’t need them now.”
Pippin briefly described the journey from Bag End to Bree, and then to Weathertop. The King told of the facing of the Ringwraiths there and how Frodo was wounded. Sam told of the trip to Rivendell and the long vigil as the wound was probed twice and the shard finally removed.
Glorfindel described the Council of Elrond and the debates as to who should accompany the Ringbearer to Mordor. “Gandalf surprised us all by arguing for these two to be allowed to be among the Fellowship, saying only he felt their presence would prove invaluable. In the end Elrond agreed, but against his better judgment. He felt it might have been better had they returned here, having had foresight of the dangers the Shire faced. In the end, however, the love of Meriadoc and Peregrin for Frodo convinced him, as we all realized that there was no way in which we could keep them from following after Frodo and as we saw how just their presence helped him keep up his own defenses against the Ring’s persuasions.”
“And it proved good they did come.” Aragorn’s voice was thoughtful. “Had they not, the Ents of Fangorn and their Huorns would probably not have moved on Isengard and come to see the end of Saruman’s orcs at the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Nor would Merry have been there to aid the Lady Éowyn in the destruction of the Witch-king of Angmar, nor would my Steward Faramir have survived his father’s last madness. And there before the Black Gate Pippin saved the lives of at least three others, and probably more, as he killed the great troll who charged their formation. As for whether or not Frodo would have awakened in Ithilien had these two not been there to speak to him and Sam as they lay in the healing sleep I laid upon them--I have wondered that many times.”
“Why did Frodo have to be placed in a healing sleep?” Paladin Took asked, finally.
“We was both almost dead once the Ring went into the Fire,” Sam explained, and he briefly described the journey once they’d separated from the rest and the encounter with Shelob.
“This--this spider poisoned him?” demanded Eglantine, totally shocked out of her dogged disbelief.
“I was certain as he was dead,” Sam said, his face blank with the memory of that great grief. He took a deep breath as he described the rescue of Frodo and the last of the dread journey through Mordor itself.
He accepted a glass of wine Merry poured for him and drank it down before telling of the last fight with Gollum, and the blow he’d received within the chamber carved out of the mountain itself, and that eerie struggle he’d witnessed, ending with Gollum biting off Frodo’s finger and then falling with the Ring into the chasm to the destruction of both.
“I carried him out, and he woke enough to crawl with me onto a bit of a heap of ash. We thought as it was the end, and we held hands as the heat and poison of the air took us.”
“That was how they were found by Gandalf and the Eagles. They were so very close to death, closer than any I’d ever called back before, even closer than Faramir had been.” Again all eyes were fixed on the King. “After Merry arrived from Minas Tirith he sat equally by them and by Pippin; and once Pippin could bear being moved he would spend time with them, also, talking and singing to them, helping to keep them anchored. And at last they awoke, and appeared to recover.”
Pippin swallowed. “But Frodo wasn’t recovering properly, and at last I decided he should stay there in Gondor, there in Minas Tirith with Aragorn. I convinced Merry and Sam, and we all convinced Frodo. I don’t think now that it was such a good idea. I think he’d have done better to come home with us. Maybe he’d still have needed to leave Middle Earth in the end, but I suspect everything would have turned out better had he come with us.”
Esmeralda Brandybuck asked, “Was he happy there, with you?”
Aragorn answered her, “Mostly, but his heart still belonged to the Shire. We finally coaxed him into accepting the room we’d prepared for him within the Royal Wing of the Citadel, but he hated being there with so many about him at all times. I now see how private of an individual he’d been for most of his life. The housekeeper and page who’d served the guesthouse where the rest of the Fellowship stayed were among the few he’d allow to visit with him regularly, and I made them his only permanent attendants. They are both heartbroken to have seen him go, although both admit they are glad he finally decided to accept the grace.”
“What was it like, when he decided?” asked Fredegar Bolger.
Elladan told them of the day they’d arrived, and of the attack of pain he’d known in the afternoon as he completed the review of the documents brought to him by Pippin. “It was not a full seizure of his heart, but was nearly that. My adar had me prepare a draught that is one only he seems fully able to see work properly, one intended to give him strength and endurance for the last he needed to see done. Under its influence he finished what he had to do, and he rested as the documents were examined and signed.” He indicated the stack of documents that lay there. “As Peregrin Took is now a captain of the Guard of the Citadel within Gondor and serves as one of the Guards on the King’s person, and as he has demonstrated many times over he is able to meet the expectations placed on a Man of the Realm, our muindor here instructed he was to sign as one of the witnesses to Frodo’s signature and intentions. Adar, Éomer King of Rohan, and Prince Faramir also signed most of the instruments, along with Glorfindel for those where Lord Samwise could not sign them. And Estel here saw them all registered within the annals of Gondor, and now would see them registered here within the Shire as well.”
Merry went on, “After he saw Bag End conveyed to Sam and Rosie, Frodo held Sam for a bit and said how glad he was Sam was now Master of the Hill, and that he’d chosen to accept the grace offered him. Then he knew another smaller attack, I think, and lay back as Aragorn saw to his easing. Last thing he said was 'tall brother,' and then he was quiet.
“Sam and Lasgon saw him dressed. They brought a litter, and Aragorn gently lifted him onto it, wrapping him warmly. It was wide enough that Bilbo could lie beside him, and Bilbo held his hand as they carried him out. Sam walked by him and held his other hand, and all down through the city he told Frodo of how happy he’d been to see the Shire rebuilt, and to be married to Rosie, and all about Elanor and life on the Row and how he’d seen Bag End restored and its gardens again blooming, and Frodo smiled but said nothing.
“They had a great carriage waiting at the bottom, and again Aragorn lifted him into it to sit between Lord Elrond and Sam with the Lady and Bilbo opposite him, and we all rode behind across the Pelennor to the quays of the Harlond. I think that Elrond gave him miruvor and lembas during the ride. When we arrived, he--seemed more present. He hugged us each, and kissed us each as they led Gandalf’s horse aboard and down into the holds. He held Sam the longest, and gave him a kiss of blessing. It was then it truly hit me that Gandalf was leaving, too, as he bade us all farewell and spoke of the end of our Fellowship. Then Frodo walked--alone--to the plank, took Gandalf’s hand, and went aboard. The Elves were singing a hymn to Ulmo, I think. Aragorn gave Frodo’s saddlebags to the Lady. Frodo had brought his starglass that the Lady had given him in Lorien, and he held it up for us to see as long as we could see the grey ship upon the river.
“All the way down through the city....” But he couldn’t finish for his tears. His father approached him and held him close, his own tears falling unheeded.
Pippin finally continued, “The people of the city had always been polite to us, and almost worshipful of Frodo and Sam. They came out to see him go, and they brought flowers and sprays of greenery and--and candles. The Elves and Gimli and we accepted them for Frodo and Bilbo, and the sailors on the ship took them from the carriage. The folk of Minas Tirith were weeping to see Frodo leave them--they’ve come to love him so much! And those of Aragorn’s counselors who were present in the city accompanied us down through the gates and across to the Harlond.
“I don’t know how long the draught Lord Elrond gave him would last, but he managed to make it onto the ship and far down the river without lowering the starglass. He did have Elrond, Galadriel, and Gandalf there by him, however, and I believe Erestor and Gildor Inglorion were aboard the ship as well, and probably others I’ve met. If anyone could help Frodo make it to the Undying Lands, they can.”
Paladin was looking at his son. “How long did you remain there, there in Gondor?”
“We stayed two nights in Minas Tirith and then set off for home again. We took it more easily, but not much so. We were met by Lord Elrohir’s party three nights ago; they were to have followed us, but at the word Aragorn returned with us they came only as far as the Shire. They had a pavilion and heated water for bathing not far from the Sarn Ford. We crossed over and have ridden pretty straight through the Shire until we got here. We’re all rather tired, and would appreciate another good bathe, I think.”
The Thain nodded, then looked back at the King. “And you came--to make certain that we believe?”
“Yes. I myself wished to see to it that Frodo’s wish is met.”
“Sun and moon!” whispered Paladin Took. “What fools we’ve been, Lanti.” At her nod, he returned his attention to their son. “Can you forgive us, Pippin?”
The first, rather watery, smile they’d seen on Pippin’s face that day lit his expression. “Oh, Da!” was his answer as, forgetting his dignity as one of the King’s own Guard, he hurried to throw his arms about the two of them.