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Prologue: Unnatural Appetites?

For Claudia for her birthday, and in return for a most--unusual premise. With thanks to RiverOtter for the beta.


~~~

Unnatural Appetites?


When Aragorn let himself into the guesthouse at the end of Isil Lane in the Sixth Circle it was to find the place silent save for a clattering from the direction of the kitchen. He paused. Then Sam was not cooking today, for when he cooked he treated his pots and pans with a grave courtesy as if they were as well loved and respected as his Master. It might be Pippin, and if so then one never knew quite what to expect as Peregrin Took was a cook given to experimentation and innovation, not all of which were necessarily as tasty as one might hope, given a Hobbit had prepared whatever it was being offered on the board. However, the clang he just heard didn’t sound particularly light-hearted, but instead short and abrupt--angry, even.

He felt the door he’d only just closed push against his hand, and he hastily drew away to allow it to open, admitting Pippin himself carrying a shopping basket filled with vegetables and fruits--with yet another share of strawberries, Aragorn noted from the sweet scent emitted.

“What, no guard?” asked Pippin with surprise.

“I told Duinhilorn to wait at the top of the lane and to enjoy his pipe there. Otherwise it appears the smoke from the front of the house always seems to enter the upstairs chambers of the house next door, and it has proven to cause Mistress Linduriel distress in her breathing. Not all find the odor of pipeweed pleasant, you know.”

Pippin appeared concerned. “I hope that the same isn’t true of when we’re smoking on the balcony,” he said with a nod toward the dayroom and the doors beyond it to the great balcony that looked out toward the Mountains of Shadow.

“Nay--the smoke from there appears to blow mainly away from the city, and so is of no concern at this time.” He paused as a cupboard door appeared to have just been slammed with particular harshness in the kitchen.

Pippin’s head also swiveled that way, and his expression grew wary. “Well, it appears my cousin is not happy about something,” he said.

“Merry?”

“Merry? Oh, stars no, not Merry! No, that slam is definitely that of Frodo. I haven’t heard him cooking while in a temper for quite some time, I must admit; but I certainly heard that level of banging about of pots often enough when I was younger, particularly after he’d just caught Lotho Sackville-Baggins at some new outrage or when Merry and I had just proven particularly obtuse and--indiscreet.”

The new King of Gondor looked down at his smallest Guardsman with mock surprise. “You, Peregrin Took--indiscreet?”

Pippin smiled up at him rather lopsidedly. “Oh, yes--I’ve been known to upset Frodo a time or two--or possibly three.”

“Shall we go and see what it is that is bothering him, then?” the Man suggested.

The Took looked alarmed. “Find out? From Frodo? Oh, no, Aragorn--I mean, my liege--I think not. I mean, not me, at least. You may do as you please, but I will warn you an angry Frodo Baggins is a force to be reckoned with. I’ve managed to be on the receiving end of his ire more often than I like to admit, for I was not always the most thoughtful in my actions when I was younger----”

Aragorn began to laugh out loud at that. “I will go and see what I can learn, then. As you have just indicated you have no plans to enter the kitchen while Frodo is banging about----” Both cringed as the door to the steps down to the cold room was slammed with considerable force, particularly considering the slightness of Frodo Baggins, and reminding Aragorn forcibly that it is not wise to underestimate the strength of Hobbits. The Man looked over his shoulder toward the wall between the hallway in which they stood and the kitchen where apparently Frodo was so notably expressing his displeasure at something. He looked back at Pippin. “Shall I take your basket for you, then?”

At the Took’s nod, Aragorn accepted the basket and headed for the dining room and the way into the kitchen.

A heavily scarred cutting table stood near the door, one whose legs had been cut down at the King’s request for the use of his Hobbit friends. Frodo stood at it, knife in hand, savagely chopping at a wedge of cheese. His face was pale and set, and his cheeks were an angry scarlet. “Foolish idiot!” Frodo was saying as he brought the knifeblade once again down sharply against the table, reducing the slice of cheese further to shreds. “I cannot believe--” clack! “--he said--” clack! “that!” Clack!

The Man winced as Frodo savagely swept the shredded cheese into a bowl with the flat of his knife, then slapped the bowl and knife together down onto the table’s surface. The abused bowl broke in half with a sharp crack, and the Hobbit was left glaring down at its two pieces with mixed fury and frustration. “Oh, in the name of Gothmog!” he spat.

At that Aragorn entered the kitchen, intent on saving the remains of the crockery and its attendant cheese from being flung in rage across the room. “Hold a moment, Frodo Baggins,” he said with the authority he’d used on the Hobbits while traversing the way between the Prancing Pony in Bree and the dell below Weathertop as he grasped the Baggins’s wrists firmly. “Neither Sam nor Mistress Loren will thank you if they must clean up cheese from all the corners and crevices of the kitchen. Now, what has you in such a temper?”

Frodo was glaring up at him as if he were somehow to blame for what had sparked the tantrum. “As if you hadn’t heard!” he said, his teeth gritted.

Aragorn felt his own anger rising in response to that being shown by Frodo. “Indulge me,” he said in carefully controlled tones. “Imagine if you will that I have not.”

Frodo continued to glare defiantly up at him, his open fury a marked contrast to the Man’s more controlled anger. At last he took a breath and dropped his eyes somewhat, then pulled his hands free from the Man’s now released grip. “It’s not really your fault,” the Hobbit said finally, looking off toward the door to the cold room. “You’d have no idea how some would choose to interpret our friendship, after all.”

Aragorn realized that Pippin was behind him, avidly listening to what was being said. He gave a quick glance over his shoulder at Pippin’s shocked expression and realized that whatever it was that had so infuriated Frodo, Peregrin Took was as ignorant as himself as to its cause.

He returned his attention to the Ringbearer, realizing Frodo was paying his younger cousin’s arrival no attention whatsoever. There was that odd stillness to the Hobbit that Frodo alone among the four from the Shire appeared to have mastered. His profile was as hard and cool as the marble of any of the city’s many memorials and statues, his injured expression almost ludicrously solemn.

“And what is it they are saying?” the King asked.

Frodo flinched slightly at the tone of voice used, and glanced quickly up at his friend, then looked away again, discomfited. He frowned, then sighed as he looked down at his right hand as if still amazed to find his ring finger was missing. At last he said in very low tones, “The story is being spread that I--that I am your----” He paused, apparently searching his mind for the proper word. At last he finished, “that I am your--catamite.”

Aragorn felt his jaw drop at the absurdity of the charge. He found he wanted to laugh, but didn’t dare, not with Frodo’s cheeks now flaming in humiliation. At last he managed, “My lover? It is suggested that you and I----” He stopped, shaking his head in disbelief. “And who is it who has made such a charge?”

“I heard it today, down in a courtyard for an eating establishment in the Fourth Circle, near the marketplace there. I went to find a set of knives that feel comfortable in my hands, you see, and after I’d purchased them I stopped at the food vendor’s to get some of their--herbal drink, as they called it, and some of those almond cakes we all like. There were several Men at the next table--they seemed to be merchants, from what I could tell. One of them was commenting on the fact the new King wasn’t married, and another laughed--it was such a horrible laugh, Aragorn, for all it wasn’t particularly cruel. That one said that perhaps--perhaps your tastes didn’t run toward women. He said that--that you’d not been known to offer more than a look at the women here, not even the Lady Butterfly, who’d managed to draw the attention of every other man who’d ever caught a glimpse of her. Then he said that considering how--tender--you are with me, it was obvious that you preferred the----” He swallowed and raised his chin, looking decidedly now at the expanse of wall above the hutch in which the serving dishes were housed. “He said,” Frodo began again, “that obviously you prefer the attentions of boys such as I am. Pretty boys, I believe, were his exact words.”

Aragorn felt himself go as still as Frodo had. “I see,” he finally said. “No wonder you are angered. It’s a wonder you didn’t take out one of your new purchases and seek vengeance on him.”

“He didn’t!” Pippin, he realized, was spluttering with his own rage. “Who was he, Frodo,” he demanded as he pushed past Strider’s legs. “Do you know who he was?”

Frodo went paler, realizing Pippin had heard his news. “I have no idea,” he said, his cheeks again flaming.

“Had he any reason to realize you were there, or that you might have overheard him?” Aragorn asked.

“I doubt he saw me at all. I was sitting beneath the shade of a canopy against the wall, and he and the ones who were with him arrived as I was contemplating leaving. The one he was addressing might have seen me as I left, but the one who spoke was sitting sideways to me and never glanced my way at all from what I could tell.”

“You said they might be merchants. Why do you think that?”

“They were speaking of selling almonds and walnuts to the Citadel, and one spoke of how well the olive crop was doing. I’d only tasted olives twice before we came here, and I was interested to learn how it is they grow, so I admit I was listening with interest. The one who said--what was said, he was doubting northerners such as we are would appreciate olives or almonds, as he understood the trees that produce them don’t grow in the north. I was pleased to learn olives do indeed grow on trees, as Uncle Paladin and I once had quite the argument about how they must grow--he was certain they’d grow on a shrub or bush much as rose hips do, you see.”

“I see. And how did this lead into the subject of the two of us having--unnatural--appetites for one another?”

The centers of Frodo’s cheeks were again bright with color. “One of the others commented that when you ever married perhaps a gift of nut meats from their orchards would make a welcome gift to the bride and groom and so win regular custom from the Citadel. It was in response to that that the first one said--what it was he said.”

“So.” Aragorn thought for a few moments, then asked, “Was there anything you noticed especially about what any of these looked like? Could you recognize them again?”

“The one who--insulted us, he was taller and more slender than the other four--there were five in all. He wore a cloak of a dark gold color, almost the same color as goldenrod, with a flame-orange lining to it, the fabric of a fine weave. His hair was dark, and he had no beard, although I think he could have grown a beard if he wished. He had--stubble?” He looked at Aragorn for confirmation that this was indeed the proper word. “His cloak brooch was of a ship and a tree. His nose was slightly hooked, and his hair was quite short to his head.

“The one I think might have seen me was some shorter with a broad chest, but was not particularly stout. He had a square head and a neatly trimmed beard, not particularly long. He was wearing a ring of a dragon or serpent surrounding a green stone on his right hand. He had a clever face, I thought. His hair was shoulder length and bound with a thong at the back of his head. I thought that unfortunate--perhaps to have allowed it to hang loose might have allowed him to appear less austere.”

Aragorn was amazed at how much detail Frodo appeared to notice in other people. “I will ask Prince Faramir if he recognizes either Man from the description you give. In the meantime, what is it you had planned to do with the unfortunate cheese? And where should we put these strawberries of Pippin’s?”

Now having been able to share the cause of his anger, Frodo calmed quickly enough, then left to change into a different shirt, the one he was wearing being quite sweat-stained and now covered with cheese. Once they heard the door to the small parlor in which Sam slept and through which Frodo must pass to return to his own room close, Pippin commented, “Whoever it is that said that obviously never saw Frodo with my sister.”

Aragorn paused as he shredded greens for a salad. “Your sister? Frodo is in love with your sister?”

The Took shrugged as he hulled his berries. “Not is, was. Oh, Pearl decided she was in love with Frodo when both of them were quite young, before I was born, even. He was in his tweens, and she wasn’t there yet, if you understand me. She told me she saw him dancing with the other lads behind the ale tent at the Free Fair in Michel Delving, and decided then and there he was the one for her. She pursued him for years before he began looking back. I remember how left out Merry and I felt then, now that Frodo didn’t have time for lad-things any more. When our families got together, he was always walking with her and holding her hand, helping her with her wrap, and all that. We’d get letters from him--he always sent a letter each week, you understand--and there were these short letters for Vinca, Pimmy, Merry and me, and this huge big letter for Pearl. And at the Free Fair when he wasn’t dancing or helping with the judging for something or other he’d be with Pearl. I remember the first time he took her out to the Grove....”

He stopped, and it was hard for the Man to decide just what emotion he saw on the young Hobbit’s face. Jealousy, perhaps? Hurt, definitely, although it wasn’t clear for whom Pippin mourned. A measure of amusement and indulgence, he realized. At last Pippin continued, “Oh, there was no living with Pearl for days, not after that.”

“There is a special significance to taking a lass to the Grove?” Aragorn asked, fascinated.

The Hobbit looked up at him as if everyone should already appreciate what going to the Grove must mean. “Well, of course! One doesn’t take a lass one doesn’t care for to the Grove, you understand.”

“I’m afraid I do not understand, Peregrin Took.”

Pippin continued to search his eyes in confusion, then flushed with embarrassment and turned his attention back to the strawberry he still held in his hand. “Oh, yes--you never lived in the Shire. Of course you wouldn’t understand.”

“Not understand what?” asked Sam from the doorway, bringing in a bowl of mushrooms gathered from the garden of an empty house near the entrance to the barracks at the north end of the Circle.

“About how you don’t go into the Grove with any lass you don’t care about. I was telling Strider about Frodo taking Pearl to the Grove during the Free Fair, and....”

“What’s he goin’ to know about the Grove, Mr. Pippin? It’s not like Lord Strider’s a Hobbit of the Shire, if’n you take my meanin’.”

“I know, Sam. I just sort of forgot....” His voice again wound down as Sam stared at him unbelieving.

At last the gardener said, his voice partly disgusted, partly wondering, “How in Middle Earth does a body mistake him for a Hobbit?”

“Is anyone going to explain the Grove to me or not? Or must I ask Frodo?” Aragorn demanded.

Again Pippin flushed. “Well, it’s what it sounds like--a grove of ash trees there on the edge of the grounds for the Free Fair in Michel Delving. It’s only lovers that go into it. First time I missed my mum and da when we were camping nearby there for the night and Pervinca told me they’d gone into the Grove to do some kissing in private I was so shaken. I’m not certain just what I thought might come of it, you see--I was only twelve, after all. The thought they might have to get married----”

Aragorn began to laugh. Pippin flushed a bit more deeply, and he could see that Sam, who had fetched the stiff brush they kept for such things and was beginning to brush the mushrooms, was smiling broadly.

Pippin, now starting to smile himself, went on. “A couple years before Frodo came of age he finally took Pearl into the Grove. I mean, it’s traditional--to take the lass you intend to marry there, I mean. The lads kiss the lasses, and the lasses kiss them back--or so I’m told. And most times those who go in there do get married--eventually, at least. Sam and Rosie, after all----”

Sam’s hands dropped, and he glared at the Took, his own face growing flushed. “Now, Mr. Pippin--there’s no point tellin’ others as has no business as to who I might of been kissin’, you know.”

“Well, you are going to marry her, aren’t you? When we get back home?”

Sam looked down at the mushroom he held, and resumed brushing it clean. “There’s always a chance as she’s give up on me--chosen another,” he said softly.

“Rosie Cotton? I sincerely doubt it!” Pippin sounded very sure of himself. “As for Frodo and Pearl--well, after that he was certain it was her he would marry, so he ordered a pair of pearl eardrops and a pendant for his promise gift. He was finally fully smitten back, you see.”

“So they are betrothed?” Aragorn asked.

“No--no, it never got that far. We came to Hobbiton to visit at Bag End, and we all expected that Frodo would ask her during that visit, and give her the pearls, only it didn’t happen that way. She went into the village square to visit the market, and came back and threw him over--just like that. He didn’t begin to understand what it was all about--not at all. And she wouldn’t tell anyone why she’d suddenly changed her mind. It wasn’t until the Party that Frodo finally seemed to be over it--was dancing with all the lasses, and especially with Narcissa Boffin--but she’s always been sweet on him, at least as long as Pearl was, and she’s never changed her mind, not like Pearl did. I know Aunt Esme’s always felt that Narcissa was a better match for him than Pearl was. She was so pleased to see Frodo back to dancing happily with the lasses that day, and the thought that at last Frodo was seeing how much Narcissa cared for him just thrilled her. Only--only that didn’t come to anything, either. After that night he barely seemed to look at the lasses any more--then he was dancing less and less often.”

Pippin sighed as he set the bowl of hulled berries to the side and threw the stems into the basin set for them. “Merry became convinced it was the Ring--that’s what he told me while we were working on the Conspiracy--that it was the Ring somehow making it so Frodo didn’t see the lasses any more.”

Remembering certain comments Frodo had made not long after they’d come to Minas Tirith from Ithilien, the King of Gondor and Arnor thought he understood.

“It would have made me as you are!” Frodo had told the degenerate Umbari who had accosted him a few days after the coronation. “But I would not be that way!”

And he had himself told the Man much the same before passing sentence on him--"I would not accept the Ring from Frodo when he offered it to me, for it would have sought to make me as you are, and I would not have it so.”

What had the Ring sought to do to Frodo during the years he had held it? Why was it he had paid less and less attention to the women among his own people when it was plain he had once loved as a man of any race should love the proper woman for him? His own expression stern, the King Aragorn Elessar set the greens he’d been shredding in a bowl and turned to other vegetables waiting to be added.

*******


A few days later Frodo looked up from where he’d been reading to a soldier blinded when one of the balls of flaming stuff sent over the walls had burst into flame in his face to see Lasgon, the page assigned to those of the Fellowship who dwelt in the guesthouse, approaching across the garden southeast of the Houses of Healing. The Hobbit paused in his reading. “I’m sorry, Beleforn,” he told the Man. “It appears that I might be called away.”

“Oh, but I am sorry. Perhaps Celaphrion will finish reading the story to me,” Beleforn suggested.

“I hope so,” Frodo answered, folding the book closed over his thumb. “Yes, Lasgon?”

“I beg your pardon, Master Frodo,” the boy said as he gave a polite bow before them. “But word has come from the Citadel. The King has asked that you join him this afternoon as he speaks with a group of merchants from southern Langstrand. He said that this would be of interest to you.”

“At what hour?”

“At the first mark after the noon meal, Master.”

Frodo nodded. “Very well. It appears, Beleforn, that I will be able to finish what we have been reading after all before I must go. Thank you, Lasgon; if you will send word to Lord Aragorn that I will be there?”

The boy smiled his acceptance of the dismissal and hurried back toward the guesthouse, walking jauntily under the warm summer sun.

*******


Aragorn looked up from where he sat in the lesser audience chamber as the door opened and Frodo was ushered in, neatly dressed in one of the garments Aragorn had ordered made for him. His lip twitched, for he knew Frodo preferred wearing proper Hobbit garb and only wore Gondorian costume for audiences. Frodo most likely felt somewhat uncomfortable in the tunic and surcoat worn over the light lawn shirt, but he looked impressive--and, Aragorn thought approvingly, very masculine. That was to the good.

“You will meet with the merchants here?” the Hobbit asked as he accepted a seat and nodded his thanks to young Mistress Airen who served them that day as she offered him a goblet of juice of pomegranate.

“Yes, for Faramir and I both thought it would be best this audience be--informal. He has been entertaining them in the gardens for a time.”

“And how is it I would be interested in this particular trade delegation?”

“It is merely this group of merchants deal with certain merchandise you’d indicated you’d be interested in learning more about, is all, Frodo.”

Frodo was examining him closely. “Then why is it you look like the cat that has been into the dairy and is happily wiping away the last of the cream from its whiskers?” he asked.

Aragorn laughed. Then he said, “I understand that you have visited with a glassblower.”

“Yes, Master Celebrion. He is a master of the craft. Oh, Aragorn, you should see the beautiful workmanship he does--it is truly remarkable. I have ordered a set of candlesticks crafted for the marriage of Prince Faramir to the Lady Éowyn, done in green glass encased in clear crystal.”

“And where does he craft these things?”

“In the Fourth Circle, not far from the marketplace there.”

“Does he sell his wares in the market?”

“Some of them, his smaller pieces, mostly goblets and strings of glass beads and the like. Each is unique, or so I found as his daughter showed them to me.”

“Ah, he has a daughter?”

“Oh, yes, and she is a remarkable beauty. She has a--a softness to her that I have not seen for a very long time, not since I was young and fancied myself in love with my cousin Lavender Brandybuck.”

“You loved one of your cousins?”

“Oh, yes--but then I was but a child of eleven. It was not long before my parents’ death, actually. Lavender was about my age--a year older, perhaps, now I think on it. Oh, but she was quite the beauty--in my eyes, at least. And she could already cook--that adds a good deal of desirability to a lass for us Hobbits you must understand.”

Aragorn found himself grinning broadly. “So I would guess,” he agreed. “What did she look like?”

“She had hair much like Merry’s, though perhaps with a bit more of a red shine to it. Her eyes were hazel in color, with a glint of gold to them when she was in the right light. Her curls were long, almost all the way to her waist, and her mother would spend a good hour brushing and arranging them each morning. She was always saying, ‘Oh, my dear lass, but your hair is your crowning glory, you know.’ And I agreed--I loved looking at how it would lie about her shoulders.”

“And you were in love with her?”

“I certainly thought I was.”

“As much as you were with Pippin’s sister?”

Frodo straightened, and his expression grew more guarded. “And who is it who’s told you of Pearl and me?” he asked.

“Do you think I’d never wondered if you’d had a woman from your own people you cared for?” Aragorn asked, his eyebrows raised.

“It ought to be of no interest other than to those of us involved.”

“Did you ever find out why she threw you over?”

Frodo searched his eyes, then finally looked down to his goblet, giving only a slight shrug as he raised the drink and sipped from it, then lowered it to his lap once more. “No,” he said. “I suspect Lobelia had a hand in it somehow, although since Pearl has never admitted it I cannot say for certain. What she said later, after Bilbo left the Shire, was that she had realized that she’d been more in love with the idea of being in love with the future Master of Bag End and the Hill than she’d truly been with me. Both of us had grown up a good deal over the years, you know, and we had so many different tastes. She didn’t wish to live on the farm in Whitwell any more, or have to help in the lambing or the weeding or the carding as she’d had to do when we were younger. She didn’t want to be the one who had to repair the pump when its leather needed replacing, or to have to go out hunting for strayed ewes, or to have to walk behind the harvesters gleaning the wheat and the barley. She wanted for someone else to do most of the baking and cooking. She wanted me to take her to parties and dances rather than to sit home and read or embroider while I worked on copying documents or indulged in my own studies. I suspect she would have left the kitchen garden totally to Sam and me to work, and would have resented helping with the orchard.”

“I see. Is she comely, Mistress Pearl?”

“Comely? Pearl? Oh, indeed, yes. A lovely lass. Her hair was dark for a Took, although slightly lighter than Merry’s--darker than Sam’s, that’s certain. She was much shorter than I, and was just a bit taller than Pippin was at the time we left the Shire. Her eyes were a warm brown in color, not green as are Pippin’s eyes, and she----” He paused, then said delicately, “Her shape was becoming very--pleasing--there just before she threw me over. And her ankles--they were so dainty and fine. I was enchanted with her ankles, and she knew it.” There was a slight smile of remembered appreciation on his lips. “I think that is part of what drew me to Master Celebrion’s daughter, you know--her ankles; they are so lovely. And she, too, has a most--pleasing--shape.” His lip twitched. “Most pleasing.”

“What about Narcissa Boffin? What was she like?”

“What have you been doing--questioning the others about the loves of my life?”

“As you have never married, I’d merely wondered.”

“I’ve never married? And Master Galador, the Minister of Protocol, hasn’t wondered about why it is you have not married yourself?”

Aragorn could feel a slight flush. “I have had my own loves, you know.”

“Then tell me of them.”

Amused by the rather imperious tone used by the Ringbearer, Aragorn said, “Well, first there was Meliangiloreth, one of the healers there in Imladris. For about a year she was my standard of beauty in womankind. Although I suspect that what drew me to her first was her honeycakes. I was--what? Six or seven at the time--about the same as a Hobbit child of ten, I suppose.

“Then there was Mirhaeth. Ah--Mirhaeth. A Sindar from Ossiriand whose family was all lost ere the War of Wrath. She is married now to one of the wardens of Imladris. Slight, ethereal in nature, a marvelous artist! She worked in the scriptorium. When I became enamored of her I began to haunt the scriptorium so as to be there at her side. Ah, but I was in love! I wrote bad poetry to her comparing her hair to sunlight and, if I remember correctly, the golden pitch of the pines on the edge of the valley. Why she did not laugh me to scorn I cannot say.

“But it was because of Mirhaeth that I learned to write with a clear hand, for as long as I was spending so much time there in the scriptorium my--Lord Elrond told Mirhaeth to set me to work copying books and documents.”

“And that you did?” Frodo was looking at him with a level of amazement as well as amusement.

“Oh, indeed that I did! And you should have seen her wrath when I did less than my best! What I underwent during weapons training should I drop my guard was nothing to the torture of having to deal with an angered Mirhaeth.”

Frodo was now laughing with delight. “I had no idea that you, also, had trained in copying,” he managed at last. “Ah, the hours I’d spend copying books for Bilbo, or writing out invitations for Lalia, or making copies of contracts and wills for various lawyers!”

Aragorn was smiling, pleased to see Frodo laughing freely. “I’ve copied my share of documents, I assure you. It is a skill I can be proud of, although your hand is fairer than mine is.”

“I thank you for that, then.” Frodo leaned back and returned to his inspection of his friend’s face. “And there were no others?”

Now Aragorn’s felt himself go more solemn. “There were two others. One I saw on the day I came of age, and she was--dancing. I was in love from my first glimpse of her, but I swiftly realized that I was nothing to her. I was now old enough to appreciate what the difference in years between us might mean, and in learning my heritage and my possible destiny I was warned that I might not bind any woman to me until and unless Sauron was cast down. So, I left that place and saw her not again for many, many years. And then there was another, another I might have loved, perhaps, had things been different then.”

“What became of that infatuation?”

“Oh, I assure you it did not quite come to the point of infatuation--merely interest. Nay, she married another, one who loved her dearly. She bore him two sons, two sons before she died.” He sighed, looking down at his hands, remembering that woman so long dead. “I did not stay long enough to see the second child born. I was not there during her last illness.” He sat still for a moment, then looked up to see the compassion in Frodo’s eyes. He said quietly, “Had I been there I would have done my best to help her find strength to live, and both husband and wife knew it. I believe that he sought after news of me; but by the time the reports reached me she was failing it was already too late. I doubt he ever forgave me for not being there to help her, although had I stayed I doubt he would have forgiven me for being there.” He suspected his smile was a bit twisted.

“He was jealous of you?”

“Yes.” After a moment he made shift to change the subject. “And your Pearl--would you marry her now?”

“Marry Pearl? Stars, no, Aragorn! She married Isumbard years ago. And they have two children--a very pretty lass and a little lad.” He paused, obviously remembering. “She told me she fell in love with me the day a group of us lads were dancing behind the ale tent at the Free Fair. There was an argument, and Lotho was involved, of course. I had no idea who he was--I thought he must be a Bracegirdle, and I was partly right, his mother Lobelia having been born a Bracegirdle. He was saying things about Bilbo and how he was a decrepit old Hobbit who ought to stay out of the dancing because he couldn’t do it any more. I was wanting to punch him in his smirking face, considering what he was saying about Bilbo. And then we were making a wager as to which of us could make it through the Husbandman’s Dance without faltering.

“Did you ever see Bilbo dance, there in Rivendell when you visited?”

“Once, the first time I saw him there after he came to live. It was wonderful. Who would think one so small could move so lithely?”

He saw that smile of love and pride. “Oh, yes, Bilbo inherited the full gift of dancing. It’s said that Balbo and Longo Baggins were two of the greatest dancers the Shire has ever known, but I think Bilbo was at least their equal. He and my dad taught me.”

“What I do know is that when you have danced here you have inspired others to do better. You are even better than Bilbo, I think.”

Frodo’s cheeks grew a bit brighter. “I have always loved to dance. Anyway, we made a wager, Isumbard, Lotho, and me, as to which could go longest in the Husbandman’s Dance. Lotho put up a pocketknife and so did Isumbard, and I put up seven silver pennies I’d brought to spend at the fair. I won, and Isumbard was disgruntled because I’d won his knife but was angry because, without realizing it, I had somehow won Pearl as well. As for Lotho....” He shook his head. “He never forgave me for winning over him then, although he was one of the first to stumble during the dance.”

He shrugged slightly. “I appear to have caught the attention of other lasses as well, mostly with the dancing, but mostly I didn’t notice, not until Pearl began pointing it out to me. She was so--smug, to think that she had my attention and they did not.”

“Do you think you truly loved her?”

“Yes--or at least as well as one not yet of age can do so. It hurt so deeply when she suddenly threw me over, although I suspect a good deal of that was more confusion as to how anyone could appear to love me one moment and not the next more than the fact my heart was sore. I was quite conceited by that time with the idea that I’d found my own true love so early and so easily. The day I realized that I was suddenly over the loss of that love I was more than a bit shocked, I must admit. And then....”

Finally Aragorn prompted, “At last you noticed Narcissa Boffin?”

Again that slight shrug as Frodo looked away. At last he said, very softly indeed, “Yes, I noticed her--saw the love in her eyes and found myself responding to it----” He drew himself up straighter and his face went stern. “But then--then It came to me, and that was the end of that.” He looked up into the King’s eyes. “What It wanted me to do--and I thought it was all me, the dark part of me that lurks down behind everything else. Bilbo had warned me there were dark pockets in all of us. Now I suspect he did so because--It--had shown him many of his own.”

Again there was a time of silence until at last the Man asked, “When you go back home, will you seek her out? Court her?”

Frodo shrugged once more, then looked up, realizing the two of them were no longer alone. Standing just inside the door to the inner room were Prince Faramir and three other Men, two of whom he recognized from the day he’d overheard the discussion as to whether or not he and the King had unnatural appetites concerning one another. He went quite still, and Aragorn knew he’d realized that these had overheard much of what had been said between them. The tall Man in the golden cloak with the flame-orange lining was quite flushed, while the shorter one with the square face looked deeply embarrassed.

The Ringbearer’s expression went very still and proper, and he looked, Aragorn thought, every one of his fifty years. He rose with dignity, setting his goblet, barely touched, down on the table beside the low divan where he’d been sitting. He searched the faces of the two Men briefly, gave an inclination of his head, saying, “Gentlemen,” in a tone that Aragorn suddenly realized was identical to his own. The Hobbit turned his attention back to Aragorn, his expression strictly formal. “I see I was asked more to instruct than to learn. I bid you good day, my Lord Elessar.”

So saying, he gave a deep bow and turned and left the room with great dignity. The King felt his lip twitch at the straightness of the Ringbearer’s carriage and the deliberate pace he kept. He saw that Gandalf stood outside the door, and caught the disapproving glance the Wizard gave him as he turned his attention to the Hobbit. Gimli and Legolas waited until Frodo had cleared the doorway before entering, the Dwarf glancing behind him in frank curiosity before turning his shrewd gaze to that of his Mannish friend, while Legolas’s expression had become as impersonal and dignified as Frodo’s own.

Well, he thought, at least I must hope I have disabused these of certain ideas as to the nature of my friendship with Frodo Baggins. As he turned his attention to his guests he gave some thought to the kitchen of the guesthouse, and hoped it did not suffer too deeply as a result of the slight deception he’d just practiced.

[Index]

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