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33
Resentment Stoked

Resentment Stoked


The letter from Bree was sealed with the familiar green leaf impression indicating it had come from Master Alvric, and was addressed to both Delphinium and himself. Bartolo held it, a slight scowl on his face, wondering if he should open it before Delphie returned from the butcher’s stall where she’d gone to have still another talk with Edvardo. Edvardo was a Bracegirdle, but not precisely one of Barti’s favorite relatives. He was more than a bit lazy, and not above setting his thumb on the scale if he thought he might get away with it. Both Benlo and his father had been required to speak sternly to him more than once as family heads, and Barti suspected that he ought to let Benlo know that once again Edvardo was selling exceptionally fatty meat, and refusing to trim away the suet. Of course, he enjoyed a good slice of rib roast from time to time; but when most of what one got was fat with little if any lean it could be distressing.

He brought his attention back to the letter, but finally set it down on the lower desk by his that was Delphie’s for her to open, and turned his attention back to the rest of the post. There was an invitation from the Mayor to a banquet to be held in Michel Delving a couple of weeks before Yule in honor of those who’d labored to rebuild the Shire after the damage wrought by Lotho’s Big Men. The entire family was invited, and the dinner would follow two nights after the meeting of the family heads to be held this quarter in Michel Delving. He wondered if Frodo Baggins would attend this meeting of the family heads--he’d not made it to the last two or three such meetings, or so Barti had been told by Rico. Rumor had it that Frodo had become increasingly reclusive since declining the nomination to run for Mayor last summer, and that he’d not even been to visit either the Tooks nor the Brandybucks since May, although there had been visits by both to Bag End for his birthday in September. Barti suspected that during her stay with Geli and Sancho that Delphie had been up the Hill to see Frodo, but he’d stubbornly resisted asking her about that so far. Not, of course, that she’d volunteered much information about the visit other than that she found little Cyclamen to be delightful and that Pando showed talent in working clay, and that both Geli and Sancho had been delighted to have her visit. Briefly he wondered what she’d tell him if he were to ask for more details, then shrugged in disgust to realize he was actually curious as to what was really going on in the life of Frodo Baggins.

He frowned as he reread the invitation. Frodo might choose not to attend the banquet and meeting for the family heads--his was now a minor family, with fewer than ten males of the name in the entire Shire to the lawyer’s knowledge; but this banquet he must attend, as he’d definitely been one of those instrumental in restoring the Shire to its former placid state. Indeed, if Bartolo Bracegirdle knew Will Whitfoot at all, this banquet had been primarily intended to draw Frodo Baggins, no matter how unwilling, back into the awareness of the Shire and to try to impress upon all just how important Frodo’s own contribution had been to the restoration of peace all now again knew.

I have no desire to go to a banquet intended to honor Frodo Baggins, he thought. And he knew that no matter what he wanted, he’d have to go anyway--Delphie would insist on it, particularly if the children were invited as well. He sighed, and with a sense of grudging duty he lifted the top of the inkbottle and brought out some of his formal stationary, checked the nib of his pen, and began to write:

Garden Place, Hardbottle
Southfarthing
22 November, 1420

Dear Mayor Whitfoot,

We will be pleased to attend....


As he worked at his letter he heard Delphie arrive home, and heard the calls of Alyssa and Enrico as they hurried to greet their mother. Soon she was entering the room, having set the children to seeing the kitchen readied for her to start tea soon.

“And was there any post, Barti dear?” she asked.

He grunted and waved a hand vaguely at the lower desk. With a pleased, wordless exclamation she sat down and took up the letter from Bree and the letter knife; in a trice she had the missive opened and was reading it.

“Oh, my!” she murmured, and he paused in his writing to look at her in question. Her eyes were sparkling, and a smile was spreading across her face. Suddenly she looked at him, an expression of triumph in her smile. “Oh, Barti, it’s so wonderful! We’re invited to a wedding!”

“A wedding--in Bree?”

“Yes--in Bree!”

“Whose?”

“Master Alvric--it appears he’s to wed Mistress Gorse.”

“Soon?” Barti had visions of being able to avoid the banquet by pleading a prior engagement outside the Shire--surely Will would appreciate such an excuse.

“Apparently in February,” she said. “Oh, dearling--certainly we must go! Imagine--Master Alvric marrying a woman from Bree! How marvelous! Now he shall have family ties to bring him back to our area frequently!” She glanced at the letter he was working on. “We will be pleased to attend the banquet.... What banquet?”

“There’s to be a banquet honoring those who labored in the restoration of the Shire in Michel Delving.”

“When?”

“Next month.”

“I suppose I can have Lavinia keep the children....”

“The invitation is for the whole family.”

“The whole family? That’s a surprise.”

“I know.”

“Is it to be held in connection to the meeting of the family heads?”

“Two days after.”

“I suppose he intends to see Frodo whether or not my reclusive cousin wishes to be seen,” Delphie observed astutely.

Barti shrugged.

“Barti--just what is it about Frodo that disturbs you so? And don’t tell me again it’s because he swims. Almost every Brandybuck in the Shire swims, and I don’t see you reacting to the Master or any within his family the way you do to Frodo!”

The lawyer’s face grew stiff, and he shrugged again; but he kept his mouth decidedly closed. He wiped the tip of his pen and set it in the tray, and closed the inkpot with a sharp click. There was no way he would allow himself to be drawn into an argument about Frodo Baggins. Instead he looked at the invitation his wife still held in her hands. “Who’s to marry the two of them?” he asked.

“Marry whom? Oh, you mean Master Alvric and Mistress Gorse? The Lord Steward Halladan, apparently. You haven’t answered me.”

“No, I haven’t, and I shan’t.”

“Really, Bartolo Bracegirdle!”

But just then they could hear Begonia berating Ricki in the kitchen. “Now look what you’ve done, Enrico! Wait until I tell Mother!”

Realizing that a fight was about to break out, Delphie rose to deal with the situation. Barti couldn’t have been more grateful for his children’s interruption at that moment. He hated quarreling with his wife.

*******


“Really, I’m that grateful to young Frodo for refusing to sign that revised will Lothario wrote out for me,” Gammer Alma commented as they sat at tea with her three days later. “Can you imagine how it would have looked had I left those farm shares to Bester, particularly after he’s been caught moving boundary markers? It’s just too bad!”

Bartolo gritted his teeth and did his best to appear agreeable, but as they walked home across the village Delphie said quietly into his ear, “You looked as if you could have bitten through Gammer’s picket fence if she’d said Frodo’s name one more time, Barti.” When he turned to glare at her she just smirked and looked down to take Lyssa’s hand.

He was afraid she was perfectly right.

*******


“What would you think if I stood you to a couple halfs tonight?” Rico asked the next evening after they’d completed reviewing a particularly tricky will for Hortensia Hornblower. The dowager for the Hornblower family, Hortensia at the moment controlled almost as much property as had Lobelia Sackville-Baggins before she’d died. As the Hornblower family had been expanding rapidly, giving her sixteen grandchildren and half again as many great-grandchildren, apportioning out portions of her holdings was proving a painstaking process, particularly as she was very insistent she not appear to be favoring any one of them. In this case the two lawyers were working together, one calling off names and bequests and the other totting up the values to make certain all was as fair as could be managed.

Within a quarter hour they’d kissed their wives and bade good night to the children, and were pulling their cloaks about them as they headed for the common room at the Dwarf’s Stoup.

“Getting right cold now,” commented Rico with a glance at the grey cloud cover.

“Winter’s definitely coming on,” agreed Barti. “There was ice in the water bucket for the stable this morning.

“I hope it doesn’t snow between now and the banquet for those who helped in the restoration of the Shire,” Rico continued. “I’d hate to see it called off--Angelica’s eager to attend. She can’t seem to wait to tell Frodo how grateful----Wait, Barti! What’s troubling you?”

For at the hated name Bartolo had increased his pace, pulling the hood to his cloak up over his head.

*******


The business for the family meeting held at cousin Hyacinth’s comfortable smial was over, and Barti stood with several other husbands, impatiently waiting for the wives to finish their gossip so they could get home to see to it that the fires were properly stoked. The weather was growing colder, and there had been a good half-inch of snow that morning. There had been hopes that the drizzle this afternoon would see the last of the morning’s fall washed away, but as cold as it was now the chances were it would turn again to snow soon; and the roads were likely to be icy tomorrow. As Barti and Rico were supposed to be at the first Hornblower plantation by elevenses that could mean a difficult drive.

Two of the Bracegirdles and Lavinia’s husband Balbo Hornblower were discussing the barley harvest in the Westfarthing. “The inns and the private brewers are all agreed that we’ve just known one of the best years in the history of the Shire,” Cousin Tito was saying. “And if Frodo Baggins hadn’t insisted that a quarter of the barley they found in the Brockenbores be saved for seed we could have been far short of what we needed for the year. For one who’s never been interested in farming, he’s proven quite astute.”

“Suspect as it’s more due to that Gamgee friend of his and advice from Griffo Boffin as has seen to it he knew what to do,” suggested Eldred Bracegirdle, who lived in Sackville.

“Pfft!” objected Balbo. “What would Gamgee know of barley? He’s a gardener--knows his flowers and kitchen garden plants, and no question as he’s a good one with orchards. But the region about the Hill’s not land for grain--it’s a right place for root vegetables, but not for barley nor wheat, nor even oats. Same with Boffin--he grows primarily potatoes and beets, garlic and onions, aside from his orchard. Nah, if Frodo knows aught about grain, he learned it back when he lived in Buckland, or on visits to Whitwell before Paladin left the farm there. The Thain used to have fields of both barley and wheat, after all, back before he come to the Great Smial to take over from Ferumbras.”

Barti moved away from the conversation, closer to the womenfolk. Hyacinth was talking quietly, and the other Hobbitesses were all listening intently. “That last few months she was right poorly,” she was saying. “Took to her bed at the last, poor dear.”

“Thinking of Lobelia as a ‘poor dear’ seems right hard,” quipped Tito’s wife Orchid.

“Oh, she could be a difficult one, I admit,” Hyacinth allowed, “but really she’d changed a good deal, and even apologized to me more than once after she’d been short in her answers. And if she didn’t take heart from those two letters as she’d had from Cousin Frodo....”

Barti shuddered as he retreated toward the privy. Would he never get away from having to hear Frodo Baggins’s name constantly?

*******


They arrived at Bertramo’s late the night before the banquet after a difficult drive over ice-encrusted roads that had taken all day.

“You must be freezing,” Tram was saying as he hurried them inside. “What time did you leave Hardbottle?”

“Early this morning,” Ricki told him, “before it was light. We had to go very slow most of the time so Spotty and Dottie wouldn’t fall and hurt themselves.”

In moments he had them in the house and was plying them with mulled cider and toasted bread and cheese with slices of ham, with baked apples stuffed with currants. “Benlo’s staying in the inn,” he commented. “I think he was looking forward to seeing you this evening, Bartolo, but as you’ve arrived so late I’m certain he’ll have gone to bed by now. I wonder if the Travelers will come, what with the roads being as they are. Oh, and Persi was by earlier--old Bernigard has come, too. I understand he wishes to meet with the others on the committee regarding language to be used in contracts from now on sometime tomorrow.”

Barti nodded. Now that he’d been through the training offered him by Master Alvric he had a far better appreciation for just how the wording of a contract could allow its original intent to be twisted, and he’d felt he’d contributed more to the group since his trip to Bree. Certainly he now understood just what Frodo had----

He stopped as he realized that this time he was the one invoking in his mind Frodo Baggins! Maybe it was time to go to bed!

*******


Those lawyers of the Shire who were members of the committee appointed to determine standard language to be used in contracts met following luncheon in the banquet hall for the Council Hole only to find that a substantial number of those who were coming to the banquet that night had invited themselves to observe. With old Berni chairing the meeting and Bartolo serving as secretary, they went over those phrases that had been identified as ones that Lotho and the loathsome Timono had taken advantage of in taking property from Hobbits throughout the Shire.

“It’s the phrases regarding roofs must be sound that bother me especially,” said one lawyer from the far Westfarthing, “for it was those that Pimple used to take over properties of three of my clients. He purposely left out the portions that indicated the roofs must be newly thatched on two cottages that had thatched roofs, leaving only the phrases indicating a roof tree of at least seven years must be established commonly used to indicate the top of a smial is sound, and used that to take two of them, but included both the portions regarding new thatching and roof trees in a contract regarding a farmhouse with a slate roof.”

“While in the case of the Shire Horse Inn west of Gamwidge, which had a wooden shake roof, he put in wording that made it imperative that a new slate roof be installed,” added a lawyer from the Northfarthing.

“In the case of my client,” Eligar Bolger put in, “he insisted that a smial roof be freshly thatched.”

There were many who were obviously eager to include their own examples, to which Bernigard Took raised his hand. “That the ploy of requiring new shutters to be manufactured by those such as Pelter Swifthand’s carpentry shop in Greenholm and paint mixed by the Longsmials living on the northern borders of the Northfarthing when he knew that Pelter was dying and that the Longsmials have been out of the business for ten years have occurred in too many contracts, as well as the many variations on insisting roofs be made sound by using materials or techniques or proofs counter to the construction or excavation of the home or establishment. Frodo himself identified far, far too many examples while he was deputy Mayor, while Will and the Took lawyers who’ve assisted in reviewing those documents and others written or presented under the direction of Lotho, Timono Bracegirdle, Marco Smallburrow, Balco Hornblower, and the like have shown even more examples.”

“All of the properties lost in our region had requirements that new wells be dug even though all of them had viable long-existing wells or other clean water sources,” commented one of those serving the Underhills of the Westfarthing.

“Face it,” pointed out Isumbard Took, “in almost every case we’ve uncovered such requirements were used, save in those where repayment of a loan must be complete on a particular day or within a particular time period of an event to which only Lotho and his co-conspirators were truly privy.”

“Making the requirement that Ponto and Iris Baggins repay the loan he made to them within three days of the date by which Lotho took possession of Bag End plus a heavy loan fee, or they lost their title to him and must pay an exorbitant rent until exactly a year from the date of the making of the loan when again all fees and a substantial amount of interest must be repaid to him certainly made their lives miserable,” commented Griffo Boffin, who was present as village head for Hobbiton. “For those who had no idea Lotho had come to Frodo with the price asked of them in cash, who would have imagined such an event?”

There were mutterings of agreement throughout the room. “The loan he made my Hornblower clients referenced him taking possession of Bag End,” commented a Longbottom. “We were certain the phrase was included to indicate he was actually making a gift to these of his relatives.” Again there were mutters by others who’d seen the same ploy used.

“In our case it was the day when Marco Smallburrow became master of Watermeadow Lodge,” an Eastfarthing lawyer added. “As no one had realized that Lotho had written a contract that would steal the Lodge and see it fall under Marco’s control, who was to appreciate the reason for the odd wording? My clients and I all thought it was just an obscure joke written into the loan agreement.”

Tollerand Took muttered, “Save us from such ‘jokes’ in the future!”

“Amen!” agreed Algenon Grubb.

“That Frodo Baggins shouldn’t ought to of sold Bag End to Pimple to begin with!” added the village head for Tighfield, who’d lost his inn to Lotho when the Baggins smial had become the abode of the Sackville-Bagginses.

“What was he to do when Lotho came to him with the cash in hand?” demanded Griffo. “Cousin Peony had no idea Lotho was intending to cheat everyone when she told Lobelia that Frodo had offered the hole to Ponto and Iris for that price.”

Most of those within the room were now looking at one another uncomfortably. “That was how Pimple come to purchase Bag End, was it?” asked a member of the Chubbs family. “We’d wondered.”

Old Berni cleared his throat loudly. “To get back to the question of how the wording on roofs needs to be changed....”

Not much was actually settled during this meeting, Barti realized when at last all were asked to vacate the chamber so those who worked on the night’s banquet could ready it. With so many observers there were too many interruptions. But to learn precisely how Lotho had come into possession of Bag End had been--interesting. So it had been Peony Baggins Burrows who’d let it slip to Lobelia that Frodo had offered the smial to Angelica Baggins Clayhanger’s parents. As Ponto’s sister she would have learned of the offer quickly enough. She’d died during the late spring the Travelers had been missing, and those who lived in the region of the Hill had all agreed she’d died of sheer misery brought on by Lotho’s evil rule; it sounded to Bartolo Bracegirdle as if the real cause had been sheer shame.

Tram looked up from the game of draughts he was playing with Ricki as the lawyer entered the house. “Did you get much accomplished today?” he asked.

Barti shrugged as he hung his cloak on a peg in the entranceway. “Mostly we were treated to a list of ways in which Lotho and Timono stole property,” he said as he finally entered the parlor proper. “They were far, far too careful in noting what kind of property it was and which specific language the ones signing their contracts were likely to skip over.” He sat himself in his favorite armchair in the room and watched the game progress.

For a time Bertramo focused also on the game, carefully playing to extend the game as long as possible without just allowing Enrico to win, the lad’s father noted. At last, when it would take but two more moves to end the game, the older Hobbit gave Barti a glance and commented, “I understand that Gammer Alma’s now thoroughly disgusted with Bester.”

“Moving the property marker as he did to try to increase his holdings at his brother’s expense was not the wisest thing Grubb ever did,” acknowledged the lawyer. “If Alma hadn’t paid to survey the boundary for the two of them just three years ago it might have been successful, I suppose; but certainly his brother was bound to notice once the marker’d been moved into his plum orchard.”

“Bester had best beware,” Tram noted, “or he’ll end up in that gaol Frodo had built.”

“I used to think as it was a waste of the Shire’s money,” yawned Barti as he laced his fingers behind his head and leaned back.

Tram paused with his hand outstretched to make his next move. “Oh, the Shire didn’t pay for the new Lockholes, Barti--Frodo paid for them himself.”

The Bracegirdle sat bolt upright. “What do you mean he paid for them himself?”

“When Ordo and Oridon Goodbody are handling all the funds, you know that it’s Baggins money that’s being used,” Bertramo said with his own shrug before picking up his one remaining piece and moving it deftly about the board, removing the four red counters Ricki had been maneuvered into placing just so. “There, my lad--I believe I won that one, too.”

Enrico Bracegirdle was goggling at the board. “How’d you do that, Uncle Tram?”

“Oh, I learned how to play this game long, long ago,” the older Hobbit smiled, “and I’ve learned a bit of strategy along the way. You put the pieces back into the drawer under the board, and this old Hobbit will get ready for the banquet.” He stood and stretched, and Barti distinctly heard two pops from his older kinsman’s shoulders and back. “You’d best come, too, Barti--you wouldn’t wish to appear at the banquet dressed in that waistcoat, would you? You’ve a great splotch of ink on it.”

Dismayed, Barti examined his front and saw that Tram was exactly right. “I wonder how I managed that?” he said, shaking his head.

“Probably just holding a quill, waiting for interruptions to die down so you could actually write something of substance,” suggested Tram.

Barti had to agree.

When he returned to the parlor with Delphie some twenty minutes later, it was to find that Rico and Angelica had arrived alongside Largo Longbottom and his wife, and all were sitting over mugs of ale or cider. “No,” Largo was saying, apparently in answer to a question put by one of the others, “Frodo didn’t come to the meeting the other night, and neither did Sam Gamgee. According to what Sancho told his father, who came with old Odo, Frodo was hard hit by that cold that went through during the autumn.”

“What did Merry Brandybuck or Pippin Took have to say during the meeting?” asked Angelica.

“Neither attended--Paladin admitted he’s barely seen his son for months, and Isumbard just shook his head and refused to say much of anything. Saradoc was more forthcoming--said Frodo’s been quiet since he was ill. Pippin and Merry are supposed to have gone to Bag End to see to it Frodo comes to tonight’s banquet. He’s apparently not been seen out and about much since he gave over running for Mayor.”

“I wonder just how sick he was,” muttered Rico.

“I’ll say this,” Delphie said rather stiffly, “there was no question he was indeed recovering from being quite ill when I saw him about a month ago. He was quite pale and had lost a good deal of weight, and admitted to feeling light-headed if he sat up suddenly. He’s quite a bit more solemn than I ever remember him being when he was younger, and admits he suffers at times from headaches that almost tear him apart. From what I saw, he’s come back from his travels with less than perfect health. My sister and her husband and the children have all been concerned for his health for some time.”

Angelica was at the same time examining her husband. “My parents have said the same thing as Sancho Proudfoot, Rico--that the last few times they’ve seen Frodo he’s been exceptionally quiet and tired looking, and that he’s lost weight, and that he was hard hit by the cold that went through the whole Shire during the fall. No one’s seen him dance since he returned, and he told my mum that he just doesn’t have the stamina any more to do so. Doesn’t sound to me as if he’s just malingering for some reason no one appears willing to explain.”

Rico gave his wife a sidelong look and shrugged, taking up his mug and drinking deeply from it.

Largo sipped at his own mug thoughtfully, finally setting it down. “Frodo did very well by the Shire while he was deputy Mayor. I wish he’d followed through and accepted the full office in his own right.”

“I’m told he’d fall asleep in the Mayor’s desk chair,” Rico said rather carefully. “Doesn’t sound to me as if he were up to the job.”

“Seems to me he as good as said so himself, as far as his stamina went,” Delphinium agreed. “But it didn’t stop him from doing a good job of it anyway, did it?”

Barti felt himself going contrary inside. “And how much did he do and how much was completed by those Took lawyers he got to come in and help him?”

“Who was it that asked the Tooks to come in?” asked Largo.

“Will says Baggins asked for them especially,” Tram said. “It’s not as if we were particularly far from the Great Smial, after all. But Frodo admitted up front he was no lawyer to appreciate what evidence there might be in whatever documents there were from Lotho Sackville-Baggins as to how Lotho had done what he’d done. Although the Took lawyers all have said, more than once, that he ended up learning very quickly and was soon showing them what to look for. That was why old Bernigard had hoped to take him on as an apprentice to become a full lawyer for the Shire.”

“Who told you that?” asked Barti, sitting up and looking at his wife’s kinsman with surprise.

“Both Tollerand and Isumbard have said so, here at the inn.”

Rico and Barti exchanged questioning glances. Rico assayed, “Frodo Baggins--a lawyer for the Shire? But he’s never had any interest in the law!”

“No, not until Will insisted he serve as deputy Mayor he didn’t. But once he had to begin going through sales agreements and contracts of various sorts he rather had to learn, didn’t he? Sort of an introduction by fire, if you will. But he wouldn’t accept the apprenticeship--said he didn’t know that he was up to it, or that his gardener friend would allow it. I must say Sam Gamgee did seem particularly careful of him during the times his work with the trees brought him this way while Frodo was here working; and the time, Barti, when you brought the deed to Bag End back to him Bard sent someone on a fast pony off to Bywater to fetch Gamgee and a wagon for him--Frodo was that overwhelmed.” Tram took another sip from his own mug before continuing, “He was always very competent--but there’s rather a bit of fragility to young Frodo since he came back to the Shire, I’m thinking. Not that he’s all that young now, of course. He’s what--fifty-two or so? No, he’s finally aged, he has. That journey of theirs seems to have aged him the most of the four of them. Still one of the most responsible Hobbits in all the Shire, though--if anything, that’s gotten stronger.”

“Then why didn’t he accept Will’s nomination to become full Mayor?” demanded Rico.

“I thought we settled that--his health’s not the best any more. Whatever it was he did out there--it scoured him thoroughly.”

Largo took another sip at his mug, then said thoughtfully as he wiped his lip, “So, old Berni had thought to take Frodo as an apprentice, had he? But I thought he had his full complement of apprentices. He must have taken someone else if Frodo didn’t accept the offer.”

Inside Barti felt himself grow a bit numb. It was after the trip to Michel Delving with Lothario that Persivo had come back home with the news that Bernigard Took had an opening for an apprentice and would consider Persi to fill it. Was Persivo a second choice to Frodo Baggins, then? Did he have the fact Frodo didn’t want to go to the trouble of apprenticing and having to stay for a time at the Great Smial to thank for his own son’s place? Why that raised his anger so he couldn’t say, but by the time the party was ready to walk across to the Council Hole he was steaming with resentment.

The Bolger coach was pulling up outside the hole when they arrived, and they had to wait while a step was set in place and Peregrin Took disembarked, followed by the rest of the Travelers and Fredegar Bolger. It had been a time since Bartolo had seen the heir to Budge Hall, and he was amazed at the changes. No one could honestly call him “Fatty” any more, for he’d lost most of his weight, although he was nowhere as slender as was Frodo. He seemed taller now, where before all one noted was his rotundity. In fact, the resemblance between him and Frodo Baggins was far more noticeable than it had ever been, for he was almost as tall as Frodo and stood with much the same wariness.

He couldn’t see Frodo at first, between the coach and what appeared to be Sam Gamgee fussing over him, seeing to it his hair was properly combed and his cloak straightened....

Then the coach was being moved, and the light seemed to fall more directly on the Travelers; and it seemed to be gathering most around Frodo’s figure. Bartolo felt a tightening in his stomach that took him by surprise. How he could see Frodo as if he were lit by starlight on a night when the sky was clouded the lawyer could not say. Frodo was not wearing the cloak he’d been wearing since he returned from his journey, the one that matched those worn by Merry, Pippin, and Gamgee; nay, what he wore tonight was far more formal, heavier and richer in appearance than the cloaks worn by the others, a fact clear even in the darkness of the evening.

But it was as they followed the party newly come from Bag End into the banquet room that any of those who entered with Barti could clearly see what hung about Frodo Baggins. The Bracegirdle could hear the sharp intake of breath from both his wife and his wife’s cousin Angelica.

“Oh, my!” murmured Petunia, Begonia’s repetition of the exclamation almost an immediate echo.

Barti felt a sharp tug at his own cloak. “Who’s the prince?” Alyssa whispered up at him. As for Enrico--his eyes were large and round as he watched the progress of his distant Baggins cousin as he followed Gordolac Whitfoot toward the head table. Here there was less similarity between Frodo and Fredegar Bolger--Freddy still moved with the slightly ponderous tread that had been his when he was one of the most enormous of Hobbits of the Shire; Frodo walked lightly, if more slowly--as gracefully as only the one once judged the greatest dancer within the Shire could move. And there was a level of regality to Frodo--a distance and innate dignity that Barti had always imagined as part and parcel of kingliness during those few and long distant times in his life when he’d allowed his thoughts to dwell on the stories old Bilbo and later Frodo had been wont to tell.

And the garment that hung over the shoulders of Frodo Baggins only added to the impression of royal status. “That’s no mere cloak,” Angelica Baggins Clayhanger said softly but reverently. “That’s a proper mantle if there ever was such a thing.”

Barti had to silently agree, even as a wave of envy and even resentment swept over him. The garment had to have been woven of the richest of multi-colored silk, with the image of a tree in flower upon the back and--he noted as Frodo turned once he reached the seat prepared for him alongside Will Whitfoot--bands of stars down the front. As for the star-brooch that fastened the thing--Barti suspected it was worth more than his hole in Hardbottle.

It’s not right! he thought. How can Baggins deserve such things, no matter what he did? He recognized that this must have been a gift to Frodo from that King of his, for he could not imagine Frodo Baggins ever purchasing such a thing for himself.

It’s my Persivo who deserves such things, who deserves such recognition! He looked about, and saw Persi standing at an otherwise empty table adjacent to one about which stood a number of Tooks, including old Bernigard. One of those serving as ushers indicated to Barti and Bertramo that they should follow him, and he led them to the table at which Persivo stood. A few moments later old Odo Proudfoot and his son and grandson joined them.

“Geli didn’t come?” asked Delphinium of her sister’s husband.

“She’s helping with the feast,” Sancho explained quietly. “We left the children home--Cyclamen’s really too young, and Pando said as it all sounded dead boring. May’s stayin’ with the Gaffer tonight, and offered to watch them. The cold weather’s gotten into the Gaffer’s joints, it has--he’s been achin’ the last few days. But he’s pleased as punch as his lad’s one of the guests of honor tonight.” He looked up at the form of Frodo where he stood, his head inclined sideways to listen to something Sam was saying to him and shook his head in admiration. “So--Sam got him to wear the King’s mantle, did he?”

“The mantle belonged to the King?” asked Alyssa.

Sancho was smiling as he explained, “Oh, no--the King gifted it to Frodo, there in the King’s city. I helped bring in the chest from the Dwarf’s cart last spring when Master Gimli come from down south-aways with things the Travelers hadn’t been able to bring with them on pony-back and with the goods to help restore Bag End.” His expression grew darker. “Those folks of Lotho’s and that Sharkey--what they did to Bag End can’t be told. They did all as they could to destroy the place without actually cavin’ it in. But Master Gimli--he opened the chest as was Frodo’s and pulled that out and hung it in Frodo’s dressin’ room hisself, and told me as the King had it made for him. Said as only the highest lords o’ the realm are allowed to wear such things.”

Again envy stabbed deeply at Barti as he looked sideways at his oldest child, the one of his children he’d always felt deserved every wonderful thing the world offered. Why Frodo and not my Persi?

“Now, if that don’t look right unnatural,” muttered Odo, who was shaking his head as he examined Frodo. Frodo was carefully unfastening that star brooch, and then Sam, who’d helped remove his wife’s cloak, folded it, and laid it carefully over the back of her chair, was now doing the same for Frodo before removing his own cloak and settling it, too, over the back of his own chair. “Outlandish!” he added.

Not that the suit Frodo wore underneath was in any way outlandish--nay, it was Shire through and through, from the wool and linen from which it was made to the stitching that put it together and decorated it. Barti was willing to wager, in fact, that it was Sam’s sister Daisy and her husband Moro Burrows who’d made it. The colors weren’t particularly commonly worn in the Shire, being silver and grey; but there was no question the outfit suited Frodo now, adding to the illusion that he was surrounded by starlight. As Sam stood again by his chair he leaned over and murmured something else to Frodo, and for a moment Frodo’s gravity broke, and he laughed briefly, the two of them sharing what was obviously a private joke before once again he went solemn and distant, if not quite as much so before Sam’s quiet quip. Only that star stickpin he now always wore spoke of other lands.

Merry and Pippin stood at their places, having removed those cloaks of grey-green they wore and hung them over the back of their own chairs. They, too, were dressed for once in Shire cloth, although the tree and circle of stars embroidered on Pippin’s shirt had never been considered symbols of the Shire.

“Interesting outfit our Peregrin’s wearing,” old Berni was saying to those by him. “What’s the embroidery supposed to be?”

Isumbard, who’d joined the table with his wife Pearl, peered at the head table before informing him, “It appears to be the White Tree of Gondor, and the Seven Stars of the Dúnedain--or that’s how Frodo explained them to us when we’d get letters from the King or his northern Steward with those symbols on them. After all, Pippin is sworn to the King now. In fact, the King’s supposed to be one of those who saw both Pippin and Merry trained in how to use those swords of theirs.”

“Seven stars of what?” Odo asked Bertramo.

“Of the Dúnedain--that’s the Elvish name for the descendants of Elendil, the King that led his folk back to Middle Earth over the Sea at the breaking of the world. Not long after the inn was reopened Frodo was encouraged by the Tooks who’d brought him over for a bite and a mug to tell them of how it was we had a King again, so he started with telling us that the Dúnedain, the old King’s folks, had formed two kingdoms, south and north; and those that lingered here in the north had been for the most part driven into hiding, but most continued to secretly protect the borders of the Shire and the Breelands and other settled places. He said that the White Tree with Seven Stars in an arc over it are part of the symbols of the Southern Kingdom, while the circle of Seven Stars is the symbol of Arnor, the Northern Kingdom to which we in the Shire have belonged. He said that Pippin is sworn to our King Elessar, who is King to both, and since he’s from the Shire, which is in the Northern Kingdom wears both symbols. Someone in Brandy Hall must have embroidered his jacket like that.”

The last stragglers were filing into the banquet hall, and all was going quiet. At a sign from Will Whitfoot all sat down.

“Odd,” Bertramo said quietly, “how at home Sam Gamgee looks up there, as if this were all old hat with him.”

Barti had to agree this was true as he watched Sam take his seat and lean over to speak quietly to his wife, who looked surprisingly elegant in the dress she was wearing. A gardener and a farmer’s daughter--sitting up at the head table as if they were gentry! The envy in the lawyer’s breast grew a bit more.

Although the Thain had been a farmer, too, and still did his share of the work during harvest time in the fields surrounding the Great Smial; while Saradoc Brandybuck was said to personally aid in the foaling with the pony herds kept by Brandy Hall. And all the menfolk of Brandy Hall were said to take part in the harvests there, just as many even of the lawyers of the Tooklands helped in the spring sheering. As for Frodo Baggins--he’d always helped with the orchard behind Bag End, and was said to have done his share of work at Cotton’s farm in Bywater each year--one of the reasons Cotton had agreed to take him in when he needed a place to stay near the center of the Shire after his return, or so Barti supposed.

Saradoc was leaning behind Mistress Rosie’s chair to speak to Frodo, and Frodo was leaning behind Master Samwise to listen--a quick smile was shared between them, then Frodo was sitting up again, his expression thoughtful as Williden Whitfoot began his welcoming speech...a speech that threatened to become interminable.

There was a quiet shuffle by them, and Iris Baggins came to sit beside her daughter and son-in-love. “Mum?” Angelica said quietly. “Dad didn’t come?”

“He’s not up to it, dearling. Drolan Chubbs and his wife are staying the night at our place--your dad and he are playing at Kings, and Shasta’s keeping an eye on the two of them. Ah, but you do look well!” Iris looked about. “It’s a wonderful company,” she whispered. “And to know our Frodo is being honored....” She looked at the head table, then said quietly, “My stars, he’s lost weight again. I’d not seen him for two weeks, I think. But that outfit does so become him.”

Once more Barti found his attention claimed by Frodo, “After all,” Will was saying, “where would I be if Frodo hadn’t consented to take over the post of deputy Mayor while I recovered? I still most likely would be sitting in the Mayor’s office, seeking to make sense of all the chaos as had built up there while I was in Lotho’s Lockholes--that’s where I’d likely be tonight! But Frodo did accept the office, and wisely recognized as he needed help and asked for it--and got it! And for that we must thank the Thain and Took, our great friend Paladin, as well as the Took lawyers who agreed to come to Michel Delving daily to help plow through all of those documents. Everard, Tollerand, Hildibrand....”

Barti glanced from Frodo’s troubled face to that of Paladin Took, smiling uncertainly, then with more confidence as his own folk were named out, nodding with pride and familiarity at the table where they all sat, their wives and children about them. Barti looked back at Frodo, who suddenly was looking toward Sam, listening to another quiet comment from the gardener. Again there was that smile--that gentle, illuminating smile, and Sam reached over to pat his hand briefly before turning to incline his own ear to a question from his wife.

“And then there are the ongoing investigations into how we came to such a pass that we found ourselves enslaved in our own lands, the lands the King himself gave us....”

Won’t he ever give over? Barti thought irritably. Really, Will Whitfoot can talk more about less than any other Hobbit I’ve ever met!

But it appeared that Will was intent on boring all into a full state of stupefaction. “Then we must thank those who are helping not only in the investigations of all the atrocities offered by the Big Men under Lotho’s authority, but who are also investigating claims for reparations. Brendilac Brandybuck, stand up there, won’t you? You and the others who are on that committee deserve our most profound thanks, mind you, for it’s not always a rewarding task, trying to determine what can be replaced and what can’t. And how can we put a value on a lost dog, killed because it had the courage to bark at these interlopers, or a set of dishes destroyed wantonly because although they held no value for the thieves amongst the ‘Gatherers and Sharers’ they yet meant the world to those who saw them broken, and our new masters wanted us to feel terror and despair, to lose our pride in ourselves as Shirefolk?”

This was causing many to feel restive, recalling too strongly the feelings of helplessness and rage that had to be brutally suppressed if they were to not follow in the wake of the shattered dishes. Odo shifted abruptly in his seat. “What’s he going to do?” he hissed rather loudly at Largo Longbottom, “Thank even the children as folded the napkins for the place settings for the banquet tonight?”

It was enough to break the tension, and Barti felt himself both again irritated but also grateful for the interruption. Barti again cast a glance at Frodo Baggins, and noted to his surprise that Frodo was suppressing a spontaneous grin, shaking his head at the irrepressible old Hobbit. That the former deputy Mayor was also grateful for the break in Will’s prolonged words of praise startled the Bracegirdle lawyer, and then seemed merely to add fuel to his irritation.

Will gave a sigh and looked reproachfully at Odo, who ignored him. “Mostly, of course,” Will continued, “this banquet is to thank Frodo Baggins....”

Barti ignored Delphinium’s glare as he added his own groan to those of many others who hoped desperately that Will would take the hint, sit down, and allow the actual meal to begin. At least Baggins appeared to be as uncomfortable with the situation as everyone else--the Bracegirdle had that satisfaction.

Determinedly, Will droned on. “We are all sorry he chose to forego proper election as Mayor, and hope he does well as he returns to private life.”

A great snort was heard from Odo Proudfoot over that one. Bartolo had had enough, stating baldly, “He’s come off all right, after all--back in his own hole and didn’t lose a single farthing in regaining possession of it.”

Will paused, and Isumbard Took gave his Bracegirdle counterpart a scathing look. “I seem to remember you taking money directly from Frodo for the deed to Bag End, and of far higher value than you’d looked to take, and in the King’s coinage at that.”

Feeling his face begin to burn with embarrassment and anger, Barti blurted out, “But he got it back....”

“As the return of the sum taken for the reconveyance of Bag End’s deed was a personal bequest from Lobelia Sackville-Baggins to Frodo, and as most of the furnishings sold to Lotho with the smial had to be replaced as well as the hole and property needing extensive, often expensive repairs, I wouldn’t exactly say Frodo lost nothing in the transaction. Nor did he make out extraordinarily well from his service as deputy Mayor, as he insisted on returning his salary to the Shire’s treasury, and paid for some improvements out of his own funds that the Shire not be burdened at a time when much was needed to see many returned to their homes and regular sources of income. Also, he was the last Hobbit in the Shire to return to his own place.”

That news certainly gave Barti pause, and he risked another look at the former deputy Mayor. Frodo’s face had gone white and the spots of color on his cheeks quite pink as he found himself the object of general scrutiny. Frodo had refused to accept the compensation given to the one who served in the Mayor’s office? Not, of course, considering what the Bracegirdle knew of the Baggins’s financial situation, he had need of such a salary. “And just what ‘improvements’ did Frodo pay for?” he heard someone at a different table ask those by him.

Odo was sitting up very straight as he glared at their Baggins kinsman. “You too good for the Shire’s coinage?” he demanded. Frodo looked back with a desperate dignity, his lips bloodless but his chin lifted defiantly.

Sancho Proudfoot, highly embarrassed by the old Hobbit’s rudeness, elbowed his grandfather quite hard in the midriff.

Will was glaring again at the family head for the Proudfoots. “Could you have done better, Odo?”

Barti watched Frodo’s face as the Mayor went on to list many of the things Frodo had accomplished while he was serving in Will’s place, and saw that although he was embarrassed to have them listed Frodo Baggins was refusing to back down under Odo’s disbelieving stare. Certainly as a lawyer for the Shire he, Bartolo Bracegirdle, appreciated more than most folks did just how much more than officiating at weddings and banquets the Mayor did for their small land; but there was no question Frodo had gone well above and beyond the call of duty.

“Do you realize,” Will was asking, “how many hundreds of pounds of malt, wheat, barley, and other grains Frodo helped see distributed, or how he met with innkeepers, brewers, millers, farmers, and so on just so we could get the Ivy Bush and the Green Dragon opened for you to get your evening half pint again?”

Certainly the inns of Hardbottle and Michel Delving had needed help getting restarted again, as Barti knew well enough. And Frodo had been wise enough to plan for the grain found in the Brockenbores to be equally distributed throughout the Shire, not hoarding it for the central Shire or Michel Delving; no one could claim he’d practiced favoritism.

Will was continuing, “Do you realize how many hours he spent poring over lists of objects found on one hand and items stolen on the other, matching them up and seeing clothing, furniture, jewelry, candlesticks, and so on returned to their rightful owners?” Barti couldn’t help looking to his wife and seeing her promise necklace hanging once more about her neck, and down at the stickpin he once again wore. Yet even the King’s Ranger kinsmen knew that Frodo had been doing all he could to make things right within the Shire--Frodo, Meriadoc Brandybuck, Peregrin Took, and that Samwise Gamgee.

Barti found himself examining the face of the gardener who sat at the head table beside Frodo. Sam, he knew, had begun to work to get the Quick Post going again even before Frodo asked him to see to it; and he was the one who’d done the actual leg work necessary to seeing homes and inns rebuilt and gardens and groves replanted. He was the one who would ride into town, and folks would flock to his side and pitch in and help--help rake away dead branches and ashes and dig holes for new trees; help pull down those awful Shiriff houses and sort out the bricks to be used to shore up many an old place and make them snugger--when they weren’t used to put up new homes in place of those burned, torn down, or dug up by Lotho’s folks.

Bartolo Bracegirdle knew a secret that few within the Shire had any knowledge of--that in the outer realm both Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins had been made lords of the realm by order of the King; and that both were equally honored by Men, Elves, and Dwarves.

And then he glanced at Persi and Pet, who sat side by side--and saw that their eyes were glowing with pride at the praise they heard being heaped on Frodo’s head. They, too, knew more than the wretched Baggins wanted anyone to know of what he’d done out there, and suddenly Barti was glad! glad! glad! that they did. Serve Frodo right, it would, for folks to be in on the secret!

He suddenly was listening to Will again. “Frodo Baggins didn’t have to come back to us again, you know--he could easily have stayed in Gondor with the King, whose friendship he knows. But he and the others returned, and because they did the Shire is well on its way back to being healthy and strong as well as free of ruffians again. I think it’s time to thank these, and those like Fredegar Bolger who during the Time of Troubles did their best to stand up to Lotho and his Big Men to help the rest of us as they could.” Barti watched as Hobbits around the banquet hall began to rise to their feet, some applauding. More and more rose, and more and more were clapping, and finally all stood proudly, and now stamps and cheers and whistles of appreciation were added to the applause. Barti rose, although he pointedly refrained from clapping. Then he caught the eye of Benlo Bracegirdle, the family head for their shared clan, and saw the disapproval there, just before Benlo turned deliberately to examine the rest of Barti’s family, seeming mollified as he saw how enthusiastically Delphinium and the children were in their applause for those being honored tonight.

The meal was served at last, and as usually seemed to happen when the Travelers attended a public meal, the four of them rose and turned toward the West, standing quietly for a moment before they turned back to take their places at the table. As usual there were a few quiet comments on this strange custom, although none thought to publicly question the practice.

No one could complain for either the quantity or the quality of the food. Barti, however, couldn’t seem to ignore Frodo Baggins no matter what he tried to do, and he saw that the former deputy Mayor ate relatively little, although he was obviously being coaxed by Sam Gamgee to do what he could. One of those serving the meal paused to ask something of Frodo, and at his shrugged answer nodded, her brow furrowed with concern. She delivered her last platters of lamb and then joined the table at which Fredegar Bolger sat with his sister, Folco Boffin, Griffo and Daisy, and a few other Boffins and Bolgers from Hobbiton and Bywater as well as the individual who’d driven the Bolger coach tonight. Geli Proudfoot came to sit by her husband Sancho, and Barti, after a warning glance from his wife, set out to be stiffly polite to the two of them.

When the music started Geli was one of the first on her feet, rising to begin clearing away so that the younger Hobbits present could stack the tables against the walls for dancing. At a word from Will Whitfoot, his nephew Gordolac fetched a few chairs for some of the older and frailer folk, and soon Sam was steering Frodo into one of these; shortly after that Geli appeared at his side with a small table to set at his elbow, and a plate with some rolled, cold meats and cheeses and some vegetables.

“Special treatment for our deputy Mayor?” Barti overheard one of the Hornblowers ask of Sancho Proudfoot.

“He’s not been able to eat much at a time since he caught that horrid cold as was goin’ ’round in November, so Sam suggested this. Easier for him to eat if it’s not all at once.”

Mina Whitfoot stopped by Frodo, and he rose respectfully to speak with her, shaking his head regretfully to some suggestion she’d made. She placed her hands on his shoulders and spoke rather solemnly, then hugged him briefly before going to fetch out a mug of tea to set beside him, earning her a grateful smile; and he watched the dancing with what Barti couldn’t help but recognize as further regret.

Why am I watching Baggins so much tonight? he suddenly asked himself. You’d think as I cared how he feels, or how well or how ill he is! Disgusted with himself, he murmured into Delphie’s ear, “I’m going out to get some fresh air.”

“Then leave your resentments out there, Bartolo Bracegirdle,” she returned in a low voice. “If Ricki were acting as you are you’d be ashamed to own him as your son.”

Further angered, Barti stalked out of the banquet room toward the doors, although as Benlo came out of the hallway from the privy he paused. The Bracegirdle family head gave the lawyer a scathing glance. “Think as you were rude enough tonight, Bartolo?” he asked. “You been inside Bag End and seen what was done to it? Well, I have, and I can tell you as it was almost gutted. Must of cost Frodo a pretty penny to see it put right again. Maybe much of the furniture to replace what the Big Men destroyed might of come from Brandy Hall or even the Great Smial, but most of the sconces and chandeliers had to be made special, and that’s not cheap, you know. Nor is workin’ patches into panelin’, joists, and beams, or havin’ to pull out all the floor tiles and lay in slate in their stead, or havin’ to have most of the plaster redone and everything repainted. Better’n half the shutters and windows had to be replaced, and all new carpets were put down and curtains hung throughout the hole. I’m told as even the mantels and fireplace facin’s all had to be redone.

“I don’t know for certain just what inspired your Aunt Lobelia to deed Bag End back to Frodo, but I’m proud of her for havin’ done it afore she died. And you know as well as I do that she’d never shown a whit of respect for Frodo Baggins until she come out of the Lockholes. Certainly I’ve never felt particularly close to Baggins myself, but I’ve always respected him, and even more so since he come back from foreign parts. One thing as I’ve seen--he cares--truly cares for folks--always has done and always will, I’m thinkin’. He’s honest and has integrity, and what’s more, he respects you and never has a bad word to say about you. Yet you--one would think as he’d done nothin’ but speak ill of you ever, way you look at him and speak of him, even after he sent you out to Bree--the first Shire lawyer to be qualified by the King’s lawyer to write contracts for the realm.

“Now you’re family, and you’ve always been the one I’ve had see to my business and all; but if you want to keep that position you’d best mend your ways and apologize to Baggins afore you leave here tonight.” And with a meaningful look, Benlo disappeared back into the banquet hall, leaving Barti seething as he watched after before he finally blundered out through the main door into the chilled evening.

Bartolo found he wasn’t alone out here, either, as a pipe flared off to one side and he realized Bertramo had come out before him. Somehow grateful, the lawyer found his way to his wife’s kinsman’s side. Tram gave him only a nod, working at keeping his pipe going in spite of the crisp air. “Well,” Barti finally sighed, “it probably would have been better if we hadn’t come after all.”

Tram moved his pipe to the side of his mouth. “Benlo certainly wasn’t looking very happy with you.”

“Threatened to get someone else to handle his business,” the lawyer admitted grudgingly.

The older Hobbit shrugged. “That’s his right, of course. He’s come to admire Frodo, you know. Was one of the most active ones besides Will trying to see Frodo elected Mayor in his own right last summer.” After a moment of reflection he added, “And there’s no question that Frodo made an excellent deputy Mayor--best one to have there as the Shire was recovering. I’d wager as he’d have done as well as proper Mayor--perhaps even better.”

“I suspect you’re right there,” Barti agreed. “But I’d be a lot happier if we didn’t always have to hear as how fine a fellow is Frodo Baggins from morning to night. Stars know he didn’t look any too comfortable in there tonight with all the talk about all that he did.”

Tram gave a nod as he puffed at his pipe. “No question about that,” he agreed after a moment. “Too retiring by half, our Frodo. I distinctly got the impression he didn’t wish to be here, either.”

After another moment’s comfortable silence the Grubb asked, “Do you have any idea as to why he sets your teeth on edge, Bartolo? It can’t be just because you’d hoped to inherit Bag End from your aunt--you’ve cringed at the sound of his name for as long as I’ve known you, after all, and I just can’t see you living anywhere but Hardbottle.”

“I didn’t want Bag End for myself,” Barti finally admitted, realizing his teeth were clenched. “Don’t want to live anywhere but where I do, there in Garden Place.”

“But you wanted it anyway? Why? For what purpose? Not the sort of property one rents out, after all.”

Barti shrugged sourly. Tram was patient, merely puffing at his pipe, until at last the lawyer said slowly, “I wanted it for my Persi.”

Bertramo Grubb pulled his pipe from his lips in surprise. “For Persivo? What in Middle Earth would lead you to suppose Persi would wish to live in Hobbiton? He’s Southfarthing born and bred, after all!”

“He’s bred out more Baggins than many a Baggins,” Barti suddenly said in a rush. “He’s a far sharper mind than I’ll ever have, my Persi has. Can see through a tangle of words and intent before I can quite parse out what was meant. Master Alvric, the King’s lawyer--he’d lay an argument out for us to consider, and right away Persi was seeing where it could be difficult to support or where it could be niggled at. It took the two of them--Persivo and Master Alvric together--to make me see just what it was Baggins was getting at about the language of our contracts having been used against us.

“Can’t you see, Tram,” he continued, “how right it would have been to have Persivo there, there in Hobbiton, watching over our folks? My Enrico--he’s Bracegirdle through and through, and he’ll never leave Hardbottle himself. But Persi--he’s meant for bigger and better things. He would have shone there in Bag End, he would.”

Bertramo started to puff at his pipe once more, only to realize it had gone out. He sighed as he knocked out the spent ash and remaining leaf, then painstakingly refilled it and took out his striker set, finally getting it alight once more, puffing thoughtfully for some minutes and examining Barti before saying, “So, you weren’t merely being greedy--just seeing it as the proper setting for Persivo.” At Barti’s slow nod he sighed and looked away, up at the stars that were now showing where the clouds were rolling back. “I see. Yes, I could easily see Persivo being happy there as Master of the Hill. But I can’t see him being happy at Frodo’s expense, not, I think, that Frodo would have begrudged it.”

Bartolo had to acknowledge Tram was undoubtedly right.

After a time Tram asked, “Did you know Frodo’s signed over the deeds to the holes there along the Row to his tenants? All but Sancho Proudfoot and his Angelica, that is--they’re not of age as yet, after all. Understand from what Will’s said as that one’s being held in trust, with Sam Gamgee as the trustee equally with Saradoc Brandybuck, until they’ve both come of age. Then it will be theirs. Same with a good deal of other rental properties he’s had, I believe. Will and Brendilac Brandybuck had to talk him out of a few of the reconveyances he’d planned, though--there’s a smallholding over Pincup way he inherited from Bilbo that would go to ruin if the tenant realized he was no longer responsible to a landlord for keeping up the place, you know. Perhaps too idealistic at times, Frodo Baggins is. Understand his reasoning was he didn’t wish for an absentee landlord in the future to be able to arbitrarily change his mind about what the land’s being used for and merely sweep those who live there off their places for his own purposes.” He suddenly glanced sideways at the younger Hobbit, a slight grin on his face. “And you never told me what it is you’ve held against Frodo all these years.”

For some reason Barti didn’t feel offended by the change in subject. “No, I didn’t, and I don’t intend to do so. Part of it’s been shown not to be what I thought it at the time, actually; as for the rest----” He shrugged and let the thought lie unfinished.

Tram smiled as he finished his pipe and once more knocked out its contents before stowing it in his pocket. “Fair enough, Barti. Don’t mean to pry. Well, ready to go back in there and face the fact once more that this is Frodo’s evening, as reluctant as he himself is to be here?”

And with a shared laugh at the expense of a reluctant Baggins, the two turned to reenter the Council Hole.

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