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9
The One Left Out of the Conspiracy

Written for the LOTR Community "Loose Ends" challenge. For AWallen for her birthday. Beta by RiverOtter. Much of the dialogue at Bag End is taken directly from "The Scouring of the Shire" in ROTK.


~~~

The One Left Out of the Conspiracy


The pounding at the door woke him, and almost immediately Folco Boffin found himself alert, his heart pounding to match that at the entrance to the hands’ hole in which he and his mother now dwelt. He rose as carefully as he could, not wishing to waken his mother, as she’d been kept awake much of the night by the myriad of aches and pains from which she suffered. She would be so much more comfortable in her own bed at home, he thought once more as he carefully lifted the cudgel he kept by him in the small bedroom they shared and slipped out to the main room to peer out the window by the door.

This time there was no great hulking shape indicating still another call from Lotho’s Big Men, but instead a Hobbit lad Folco judged to be in his early to mid-teens. “Cousin Folco! Cousin Folco! They’re back—Cousin Frodo and the rest—they’ve returned!” It was the voice of Pando Proudfoot, Sancho’s nephew that he and his wife had fostered since the death of the lad’s parents some years earlier.

Folco fumbled at the bar to the door, an addition his father had installed for former hands who’d come from Buckland, and who’d once lived in this hole. He’d never understood why anyone would want such a thing until it seemed that the ruffians who’d come at Lotho’s call had taken over the running of the Shire. After a moment the door was squeaking open, and the lad was rushing in, the excitement clear on his face. “Da sent me—said as you’d probably want to hurry to Bywater. I’m to stay with your mum and see to her. But Frodo and Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took and Sam Gamgee—they arrived in Hobbiton late yesterday afternoon on the finest ponies imaginable—except for Sam Gamgee’s—his is rather common, really, but the saddle is magnificent! But you have to see them to believe it! They are back, and they intend to chase the ruffians out! They’ve already sent one group running, and if it wasn’t a sight! Pippin Took’s gone off to Tuckborough to fetch Took archers from the Thain, and they intend to run the Big Men off once and for all!”

“Folco, who is it who’s at the door?” demanded his mother from the bedroom. Obviously there was enough noise for it to have roused her in spite of his precautions. He suspected she’d not been sleeping all that deeply anyway.

“Pando Proudfoot, Mum,” he called back, realizing as he did so he’d need to open the door to the bedroom and repeat it for her to actually understand him. He turned back to his visitor. “You say that they’ve all returned? You’re certain?”

Pando appeared affronted by the question. “Of course I’m certain! You think I’d not recognize them when they came home, with me living but two doors from Sam and down the Hill from Frodo all my life?”

There was that, Folco realized….

In minutes he was dressed, having given his mother the scanty information he had so far and informed her that Pando would be by her while he was gone until Missus Sweetwater should arrive later in the morning. “But I’m heading for Bywater,” he stated baldly. “If we’re finally getting rid of the ruffians, then I want to be part of it! And I want to see Frodo for myself!” He leaned over her and gave her a kiss on the forehead, made a quick run to the hearth where Pando had stoked the fire and had the kettle already singing to rush down a quick mug of tea and to stow a bruised but still edible apple and a heel of bread in his pocket before taking Pando’s pony to ride back to Hobbiton and Bywater.

By the time he arrived in Hobbiton it was to learn that the Battle of Bywater, by which name it came to be known, was already over, and the Big Men on the run. More of the menfolk from the village intended to go to Bag End, where it was rumored that Frodo and his companions were headed to confront Lotho. “Not what anyone’s seen hide ner hair o’ Lotho fer weeks,” commented old Noakes as he stood by Folco’s side. Daisy Boffin had been in the square, a large shawl pulled over her thick nightdress, watching after her husband Griffo as he joined the crowd intent on seeing the meeting between the current Master of Bag End and his predecessor. “Since that Sharkey come, no one’s seen ner heard aught o’ the wastrel. Suspect as he’s found as this Sharkey’s too sharp fer him. Ah—here we go, then! ’Bout time, I’d say!” And with that the crowd started toward the Hill.

Nothing had prepared him for his first sight of Frodo Baggins, though. “He’s lost weight!” he murmured in surprise to old Noakes as the party from Hobbiton came in sight of the group approaching the Hill from the south, across the bridge from Bywater.

“That he has,” the farmer agreed in a soft grunt. “And him’s more’n a mite more serious’n what I member.”

Folco had to acknowledge that as true, and he found himself searching Frodo’s face avidly. He had a marked crease in his brow now, one that had been seen but rarely before he’d left but that now appeared deeply etched. Frodo’s eyes were wary and, he thought, filled with pain. “What happened to you out there, Cousin?” Folco asked under his breath. Whatever it was, it had changed
Frodo considerably. He was dressed in proper Hobbit fashion, but those garments had obviously not come from any tailor within the Shire, the fabrics richer than was available anywhere near Hobbiton; and the cloaks and brooches worn by all of them were definitely of foreign origin. And was he carrying a water bottle over his shoulder?

Peregrin Took and Meriadoc Brandybuck went first up the steps toward Bag End’s door, drawn swords lifted protectively. Frodo followed them, and Samwise Gamgee followed immediately in his wake, the expressions of each of the four of them deathly serious. Behind them followed more tentatively Griffo Boffin and a few other elders from Hobbiton, and Folco slipped through the crowd to go with them up the steps and through the wicket gate into the front garden. Folco found himself by his cousin Ned Boffin, who was standing on tiptoe, trying to see more clearly. Ned’s attention was fixed on Pippin, and he looked amazed. “He’s tall!” he whispered to Folco. “Pippin Took—he must be the tallest Hobbit I’ve ever seen! What happened? How could he have grown so much in but a year’s time?”

Folco for the first time examined Pippin, and had to admit that Ned’s observation was true. “But Merry Brandybuck is at least just as tall,” he murmured back after a comparing look at the Master’s son. He felt the hair on his feet and the back of his neck standing up as his skin prickled. “Frodo and Sam are the same height as they were before, though,” he added. As Frodo stepped up on the stoop, his head still came even with that slightly protruding brick from the facing for the door that had always seemed to Folco to have a hint of a goblin face to it.

Merry and Pippin pushed by Frodo, however, entering Bag End first through the sagging door, its green paint sullied and dulled by unworthy hands and ill usage. When Frodo turned his head to say something quietly to Sam Gamgee, it could be seen his face was almost totally devoid of color, even his lips blanched unnaturally and his eyes almost feverish in their expression. Then he was turning back toward the door, and they could all see Frodo squaring his shoulders and taking a deep breath before he, too, put his hand against the wood and entered the once fine hole, visibly steeling himself against whatever horrors he might find within.

Folco himself had entered his cousin’s old home but once since Lotho Sackville-Baggins and his objectionable mother had moved into the place. It had been a contentious visit, with Lotho insisting that Folco somehow was duty bound to return to his possession any volumes from the Boffin library that Folco had copied for Bilbo during the year he’d served as old Bilbo’s copyist, back when Folco was still a tween. “My partner wants them!” was the only explanation given. It had been difficult to stand in the study and see Otho’s heavy desk sitting in the middle of the room with Lotho behind it as if Folco had just been brought up before him as the Mayor on charges of theft. The shelves had been filled with heavy ledgers and figures of sheep, as Folco remembered it, and over the study mantel had been hung a great map of the Shire with many sections marked off in red. Folco remembered that the window had not let in as much light as it had in Bilbo and Frodo’s days in the smial, as a shed had just been erected outside it so that one no longer saw the view of the Shire Bilbo had loved so, but instead a rough-hewn wall.

Now it seemed no garden had been left, for the flowerbeds laid in by Bungo and Belladonna Baggins and so long cared for by Hamfast and Samwise Gamgee had been covered over by a multitude of such sheds, each more awful than the last. Reginard Took stepped forward to see better. He had a quiver half filled with arrows on his shoulder, and carried a strung bow in his hands.

“Did you really fight Lotho’s Big Men?” Folco asked him quietly.

Reggie paused, his lips going thin, and nodded as if he hated admitting to it. “Yes, we did,” he answered in a gruff voice. “Never had to kill anyone before, but I did this morning—they were headed right for Old Tom Cotton, and we had to stop them. And Pippin and Merry—they apparently know how to use those swords they are carrying. Never saw aught like it before, and I truly hope I never do again!”

The thought that a Hobbit such as Reginard would have had to kill anyone, even one of Lotho’s bullyboys, made Folco’s stomach clench.

Sam’s face was white with distress at the state of the place as he followed Frodo inside. Folco watched as he turned just inside the door, apparently taken with shock at the state of the place, and he could be heard offering Frodo words of encouragement that the old hole wouldn’t stay in such shape for long, not if he had anything to say about it. Then he turned into the parlor and was lost to sight.

Other Took archers were coming up the steps and joining Reggie, a few stopping with surprise to realize that what had always been the showplace of the Shire was now bedraggled and defaced. “So many sheds!” remarked one young Took, his gaze drawn to the horrid structures. “What would anyone want with so many sheds, do you think?”

Reggie had no answer to give him, and merely shook his head, his own attention fixed, as Folco’s was, on the sagging open door to the smial. It was some time before the four who’d gone into Bag End appeared just within the doorway, and all of them appeared saddened. “Like I said, it’s Mordor all over again…” Sam was saying.

“It is Mordor, Sam,” Frodo agreed. “…And Saruman was doing its work all the time, even when he thought he was working for himself. And the same with those Saruman tricked, like Lotho.”

“Glad he never got the Ring,” murmured Merry as he stepped out. His face was definitely set. As for Pippin—he was uncharacteristically solemn as he followed Frodo out the door. He sheathed his sword with what Folco realized was a practiced air.

No one saw Sharkey come out of wherever he’d been, but suddenly he was there before them all, confronting Frodo, who stood still on the stoop to the smial. As the Man spoke, again Folco felt an uncertain prickle run through him. Somehow he sensed that this Man was accustomed to wielding power, and his voice----

----How could anyone describe that voice? he wondered. It was mellifluous, as if each word were being sung or solemnly chanted rather than merely spoken. It was filled with authority….

But Frodo was not visibly moved by that voice, and by looking at the recognition and the grief in his cousin’s eyes, Folco realized that the power in Sharkey’s voice was nowhere as complete as he’d first thought, and that there was a strong sense of self-satisfaction to it. He’d heard just that tone before, in the voice of Lotho Sackville-Baggins when he’d apparently won an argument about whether or not an item he’d “found” should be returned to its rightful owner, just before Frodo fixed him with that infamous Look of his, at which Lotho had suddenly remembered an engagement he must hurry for. One of the Shiriffs had then accompanied Frodo to Sackville Place to speak with Otho, and the item had appeared on its rightful master’s doorstep the following day as Folco remembered the incident. Not even Lotho’s father could easily ignore that expression on Frodo’s face, as young as Frodo had been when he became Master of Bag End and the Hill as well as the Baggins.

Now Frodo ordered Sharkey gone, and the tall figure called out, “Worm! Worm!”

Another Man, one hunched and broken looking, had followed Sharkey from his hiding place among the Big Men’s sheds and stood crookedly some distance behind his master. Folco briefly noted him before turning his attention back to Sharkey himself. There was a glint of steel to be seen as he spoke derisively to the hunched Man who followed him. “To the road again, Worm. These fine fellows and lordlings are turning us adrift again. Come along!”

The lunge at Frodo was completely unexpected, and Folco heard the bowstrings of the three archers to his side sigh as Sharkey sought to stab Frodo. Folco’s attention was caught by the shocked expression on the Man’s face as he looked at the now broken blade of his knife, just before Sam, his sword drawn, leapt forward to throw him to the ground, others following the gardener to stand over the foul creature. But all halted at the authority of Frodo’s voice. “No, Sam! Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish for him to be slain in this evil mood….”

Sharkey was rising shakily to his feet and staring with first awe and then hatred in his eyes as Frodo spoke. How, Folco wondered, could he feel such hatred, considering the open compassion in Frodo’s voice?

The tone of Sharkey’s voice had changed, become crass and rough in response to Frodo’s expression as he spoke his curse. “But do not expect me to wish you health and long life. You will have neither. But that is not my doing. I merely foretell. … But did I hear someone ask where poor Lotho is hiding? … Worm killed your Chief. … Stabbed him in his sleep, I believe….”

Folco felt the horror of that pronouncement overwhelm him. Hobbits didn’t kill other Hobbits, and the thought of this Sharkey having ordered this craven figure to have killed even such a one as Lotho Sackville-Baggins made Folco cringe in revulsion.

Frodo’s face as Folco could see it had again blanched completely, and there was grief the depths of which Folco had never seen before reflected is his widened eyes. Frodo’s lips formed a silent No! as he gazed on Sharkey. The Man’s fellow was groveling now as if he were indeed the worm Sharkey named him. “You do what Sharkey says always, don’t you, Worm? Well, now he says: follow!” And with a vicious kick to the creature’s face he turned abruptly away, and all drew clear to let him go down the steps and out the broken gate.

But this time Sharkey had gone too far, for Worm suddenly leapt to his feet and drew his own knife too suddenly to be followed, stabbing his master viciously before leaping over the already falling body toward the steps----

The three bows sang, and Worm tumbled face down, his head cracking audibly against one of the steps as he went still. Folco had just enough presence of mind to note that Reggie’s face was as white as Frodo’s own as he looked at the arrow protruding from the Man’s neck.

And then there was that terrible moment as the dark smoky figure had arisen from the body of Sharkey—just before a west wind blew it apart. Folco felt faint, and realized he’d been holding his breath since Worm’s last voluntary movement.

All was silent as they looked down on the shriveled form that lay where Sharkey had been killed. “I think I’m goin’ t’be sick!” someone finally murmured, and Folco unconsciously nodded his appreciation of the sentiment.

Having covered over the skull-like face of the fallen villain, Frodo clutched at the jewel he wore at his neck and murmured, “Sam—I need to leave. Please—get me back to the Cottons’!”

And all were moving. Sam was gesturing Young Tom forward, and Tom and Merry were now each offering Frodo a shoulder. When Folco started to follow down the stairs after him, Pippin interposed himself, shaking his head. “Let him be, Folco. He’s been through too much today.”

“But, Pippin----” He looked up into the young Took’s eyes, but what he saw there confirmed the words spoken.

“You can help more here, Mr. Folco,” Sam noted. “Can you help move that one to the lane? Get him off the steps, at least?”

And so Folco helped lift the limp body of Worm down the steps to the roadway, where he was laid out on his side as if he were asleep. Pippin knelt to systematically break off the arrows, his face distant as he worked, as if he’d had to do such things before….

*******

“Well?” demanded Wisteria Boffin as Folco returned to the hole that night. “Is it true? Frodo’s truly returned, and that Sharkey’s gone, and Lotho’s Big Men have been sent packing?”

Missus Sweetwater, who’d been sitting with his mum when Folco returned, rose to leave, but Wisteria grabbed her hand to make her stay. Folco nodded appreciation for her presence before turning his attention back to his mother. “Yes, Mum, Frodo is back. And he sought to send that Sharkey away, but the one with him killed him. He was a vicious thing, Sharkey was—just terribly vicious. And he was angry that Frodo treated him with pity. Took ill to being treated with pity, he did!”

“Someone killed him?” Wisteria asked, shocked to hear of such things there in their beloved Shire.

“Yes, the Man who followed him did it. But he’d been provoked, I’d say.”

“Where did they go, Frodo and the others?” his mother asked.

“They didn’t say; but they’ve all changed, all four of them. That Sharkey tried to kill Frodo, but when he said, No! they all held their hands and made no further move toward the Man at all. So he kicked his fellow, who jumped up and killed him. There were Tooks there with their bows, and three of them just let loose—and the poor Worm-creature died, too. Even Frodo was shocked. And, yes, the Big Men all seem to be gone. There was quite the fight in the early hours, apparently, and many of them are prisoners now and will be shown to the borders and sent away. They say Frodo wouldn’t let them treat those who gave up the fight badly.”

“Well, did you speak with him?”

“No. They took Frodo away, back to the Cottons’ farm, apparently. I’ll see him tomorrow, I hope.”

“And Pando got back to Hobbiton all right?”

“Yes—I saw him just before we left Bag End. You’d never believe what they did to the place, though! It’s horrible! Flowers all beaten down; sheds all over the place….”

But the next day there was no time to meet with Frodo, who’d apparently ridden off to Michel Delving early in the day to check on the rumors of the Lockholes, or so Lily Cotton told him when he arrived at the farm to try to see his cousins. And the next day when he arrived it was to learn that once more Frodo was gone, back to Michel Delving, summoned by Will Whitfoot. Fredegar Bolger was there, though, and in moments Folco was standing by Freddy’s bedside.

“What did they do to you?” he asked, staring in grief at the spare form that seemed to barely make a bulge in the covers.

“They tried to starve me to death,” Freddy answered in a hoarse whisper. “They failed, though.” His smile was more a grimace than anything else. “I’m too weak to do much yet.” He accepted a sip of water from the cup held by Rosie Cotton, and nodded his thanks. “I’ll be all right—or mostly so, so they tell me,” he added to Folco.

“You saw Frodo?”

Freddy nodded. “Not for long—he was pretty tired last night, and Will sent word he wanted to see him today as soon as he could get there to Michel Delving again. They brought me back here with them yesterday—my folks were thrown out of Budge Hall, you know.”

“Our place was dug out by the Big Men, on Lotho’s orders, apparently,” Folco responded. “Seems he was hard on those who were close to Frodo.”

“I know.”

They were silent for a few moments. Lily Cotton carried in a tray with some sauce of apples on it and a glass of soft cider, as well as a small piece of bread, setting the tray on Freddy’s lap. The now painfully thin Hobbit smiled gratefully at her before telling his cousin, “I have to eat small bits at a time, or they tell me I’d probably just lose it all again. But at least it’s food! I’ve seen so little food for so very long!”

It was hard to imagine how Freddy had been treated, there in the Lockholes. He helped Freddy eat his meager meal, sat by him a few more minutes, and left him to rest, knowing he was getting good care from the Cottons.

*******


A week later Folco rode to Michel Delving himself, intent on speaking to Frodo this time. He found Frodo in the Mayor’s office, sitting at a table, surrounded by Took lawyers, the attention of all focused on a contact from which Frodo was reading.

“And a well shall be dug upon the south side of the property,” Frodo read aloud, then looked up to meet the eyes of one of those standing by him. “Now, I know that property—there’s a stream bounding it on the south side. Can’t you see how it was that Lotho tricked old Mistress Marjoram out of the deed, writing such a provision into the contact? When it could be shown that the well she had dug was placed on the west side of the hole instead, of course he could then charge her with breach of contract, and there was nothing she could do about it!”

There were indignant murmurs from the various Tooks as they looked from one to another. Hildigard Took took up the contract from the table and leafed rapidly through its pages, then glared at a stack of similar documents piled up on another table nearby. “I’ll wager we’ll find similar problems in them all,” he predicted darkly.

“Who wrote that one?” asked Isumbard Took, reaching to take it from Hilly’s hands.

Frodo looked up, noticing Folco standing just inside the door. “Well, the lot of you are due back to speak with the Thain in another couple of hours—best take that with you and show it to him. I’ll go through another one or two before I head back to Bywater.” He waved them off, and they all turned to take up cloaks and satchels before filing out the door past Folco. Only when they were all gone did Frodo take a sip from the mug sitting in front of him, then acknowledged his cousin. “Hello, Folco. You are looking well, at least. And how is Aunt Wisteria?”

“Suffering from cramps and various miseries,” Folco told him. “But she’s better off than many others, I suppose. We did go to the farm after our smial was dug up, and the hands’ holes there are much snugger than most places folks were moved to once Lotho decided to see them displaced.”

“Did you take a loan from him?” Frodo asked.

Folco shook his head. “No—just one day a group of Big Men showed up saying that the Shire needed the dirt and stone from our ridge for paving roads, much as they did when they dug out Bagshot Row, turning the whole Row into a gravel quarry. Lotho’s just lucky that the whole of the Hill didn’t collapse beneath him, from what I could tell when I went by there the day he summoned me to see him.”

Frodo appeared alarmed. “He summoned you—as if he were the Thain or your family head?”

“He’d named himself Chief Shiriff, and seemed to think that gave him authority to order everybody around as he pleased. It was a week before a mob of Big Men came to order us out of our home, telling us to get what we could into the wagon before they started digging. We were lucky, I suppose, that Mum and I had already gotten our most valuable possessions and the books out to the farm and put in the hidden storage holes and pits there. He wanted any books that Bilbo might have had me copy—for his partner, he said.”

“His partner?” At first Frodo seemed puzzled, and then he grew pale. “Oh—I see. Yes, Saruman could well have wanted copies Bilbo might have made of any of Elrond’s journals. I’m so glad I had all mine taken to Buckland even before I left Bag End.” He nodded and drank deeply from his mug, then sat holding the vessel between his hands, looking into its emptiness. At last he looked up to meet Folco’s eyes. “I’m glad you were safe here, though—at least, safer than we were.”

Folco gave a wry smile. “Well, at least I didn’t lose half my weight as you did—much less as much as old Fatty.”

Frodo nodded, looking off into the distance, his expression now sad. He reached for the jewel he wore at his throat. “He didn’t want to go with us—was afraid. He’d perhaps have been better off had he done so. Or,” he added after a moment, “maybe not. After all, we all almost died out there. We gave Aragorn quite a good deal of practice seeing us all healed, I understand.”

Again he looked up to search Folco’s face. “They didn’t tell you anything about the conspiracy?”

“Not until you were gone, Frodo. After those strange Big Folk apparently attacked the Crickhollow house and at last the Brandybucks gave up asking him about where you lot had gone and why, Fatty came to our place. Aunt Rosamunda was very upset, and he didn’t want to deal with her, not that I blame him. He told me then that there had been a conspiracy, but that because of Mum’s health they wouldn’t involve me. They knew she needed me, after all.

“I was furious when I realized you’d left the Shire and didn’t tell me! Felt that you hadn’t trusted me! It took a while for Fatty to assure me that, no, it wasn’t that nobody trusted me, but that you hadn’t told anyone but Sam Gamgee.”

Frodo snorted. “I told Sam nothing—it was Gandalf who decided he’d go with me. And Gandalf let me know that I had no say in the matter, either. I’d not intended to take anyone with me, much less let anyone know I was leaving. After all, there was the strong chance I’d never come back.”

Folco saw the bleakness in Frodo’s expression, the haunted look to his gaze, and his heart seemed to twist in sympathy. “It was that bad?”

Frodo looked down at the mug again. “It almost killed me. It almost killed us all.” He let go of the jewel and rubbed at his left shoulder as if it ached.

They were quiet for a moment. Folco at last pulled an abandoned chair opposite his cousin and sat down where he could look more clearly at Frodo’s face. He realized that for the first time in his memory, Frodo Baggins looked every one of his years. The crease between Frodo’s brows wasn’t the only one etched there. At last he noted, “It aged you, at least.”

Frodo looked up, as if surprised. “Aged me? Oh, I agree that it did do that.”

He shoved the mug aside. “I must return to Bywater. Want to ride with me?” At Folco’s nod he added, “I’ll be ready in about half an hour.”

It was not until they were riding home together, mostly quietly, that Folco noted that Frodo’s right hand was missing its ring finger. He didn’t dare ask about it.

Frodo did tell him that the King had returned, and that he was the finest Man that had ever lived. He described some of the lands he’d visited—fleetingly, Folco realized.

“And did you find Bilbo?” he asked at last.

Frodo nodded, his gaze fixed on something Folco realized was beyond the eastern horizon. “Oh, yes, I did. He’s in Rivendell. He’s aged, too, since the Ring was destroyed.” His voice was very soft. “I don’t know how much time he might have left.” And in a softer murmur he added, not as much under his breath as he’d intended, “Or how much time I have left, either.”

“What ring?” asked Folco.

But Frodo merely shook his head.

Sam Gamgee was there when they rode into the Cotton place and as Frodo swung himself, uncharacteristically heavily, out of his pony’s saddle. Folco was invited inside, his pony taken to the barn along with Frodo’s Strider, and stayed to a finer dinner than he’d known in some time. It was late when, armed with a lantern, he headed for Overhill and the farm at last.

Yes, Frodo was returned safely, but just how sound he might be Folco wasn’t certain.
*******


Work began on building a new home for Wisteria and Folco Boffin within a few weeks, and Hobbits from all over the region came to help in the construction of it. Frodo came to see it during his stays on the Cottons’ farm, and he, too, was helping as he could, bringing water for the masons and helping to steady support beams. Fatty rode with him on his second visit, and knelt among those who were tiling the floors, although Frodo made certain he did not tire himself.

Once the place was finished and Wisteria restored to her rightful place as dowager mistress, Frodo would visit now and then. He was happy to describe Gondor and the King’s wedding and the work the King and Queen did within the Houses of Healing and a few of the audiences he’d observed. He spoke of the beauty of Elrond’s home, and Folco felt he could see the graceful edifice within the deep but wide valley of Rivendell more clearly from Frodo’s descriptions. Frodo put on some weight at last, and looked more as Folco remembered, although he was far more reserved and quiet than he’d ever been.

And many of the possessions taken by the Gatherers and Sharers were restored as Lotho’s many holdings were searched, barns were opened, sheds emptied, Shiriff Houses dismantled, and the Lockholes cleared. Some Frodo brought himself; others were brought by a whistling Sancho Proudfoot or another of the Shire’s carters.

Folco hosted Freddy and his sister Estella for a week in February. Estella had been sent to the Tooklands during the Time of Troubles, disguised as a boy, to keep her safe from the Big Men, some of whom had been less than well behaved toward pretty Hobbitesses of good family. She’d come back nowhere as flighty as she’d been, much quieter and gentler than Folco had ever seen her.

“I’m amazed at how quickly things are being restored,” she commented. “This house—it’s hard to realize it is a house now, and not the smial I remember. Frodo drew up the plans for it himself, you realize, with the help of Ergo Banks. He wanted for you and Aunt Wisteria to feel right at home in it. And it just feels right, if you understand me.”

“How about Budge Hall?” asked Folco.

Freddy shook his head. “We aren’t certain when it will all be done. One of the back rooms was more badly damaged than we’d thought—they say it might collapse if there’s not more shoring done. But the Mayor’s office authorized payment to see it finished. My father was surprised—was certain we’d have to pay for it ourselves. But Frodo said no, that there was already a fund to help those whose homes were destroyed.” He sighed. “I suspect he’s funding much it himself, actually. Seems to think himself personally responsible to see the Shire rebuilt.”

“He doesn’t have that much money—” Folco began, but Freddy again shook his head, a twisted smile on his face.

“Don’t be so certain, Cousin,” he said. “The King has settled quite an income on him, or so Merry tells me. For services rendered unto the realm, it seems.”

Folco and Estella exchanged surprised looks.

*******


“Frodo’s running for Mayor,” Folco commented to Freddy as he settled in the chair in his cousin’s new home in Budgeford that he shared with Budgie Smallfoot and his wife Viola.

Freddy snorted. He looked much better than Folco had ever seen him. He was far slenderer than he’d been as a child, but definitely more substantial than he’d been that first time Folco had seen him after Frodo’s return, lying in one of the Cottons’ extra rooms, emaciated and sickly looking. “It’s all Will Whitfoot’s doing,” he said with some authority. “Frodo’s not certain what to think about it all, actually. He’s not sure he wants to keep the job.”

“But he’s so good at it!” objected Folco.

“No question of that. Everybody is surprised at how quickly things have been set to right, you know, and the winter would have been a lot sparer for most of the Shire if Frodo hadn’t been in charge of seeing to it that all the foodstuffs found were equitably shared around the land. Without him and Sam Gamgee taking over and seeing to it homes and the Quick Post were restored and the carters organized to get food and supplies where they’re needed most and the Family Heads cooperating together with the heads of villages, I don’t know where we’d have been.

“But Frodo is feeling—tired.”

“He’s much too young to just retire,” Folco pointed out.

Freddy shrugged. “That may be true, but I get the feeling he feels he’s been far too responsible for far too long. After all, he spent months on his journeys outside the Shire, helping to fight the Enemy. If anyone deserves a time of peace, I think it’s Frodo Baggins.”

Thinking to the last glimpse he’d had of Frodo, sitting in the common room in the inn at Michel Delving, his hand clutching the jewel he’d worn about his neck since his return from his wanderings, Folco had a feeling that Freddy was all too accurate in his assessment.

*******


Folco reread the letter he’d had from Frodo—the last letter he’d ever have from his beloved cousin, he realized. He stood and walked over to the door to the passageway, and doubling his fist he struck the support post. “No!” he cried to the empty house, his mother having finally left this life peacefully but three months earlier. “He can’t have left again!”

He barely noted the rapid beat of ponies’ hooves until they stopped; he turned at the sound of voices outside the house, recognizing that Freddy must be out there. He hurried to the door.

Freddy was leaning on the shoulder of Budgie Smallfoot, and both appeared as stricken as he was himself. He searched his Bolger cousin’s eyes. “Then you know he’s gone again,” he said.

Freddy limped closer. “I just found out. He wrote me a letter, but Rosie didn’t send it when he entrusted it to her. He’d told her I was coming to Bag End, you see, so she thought it would keep until I got there.”

Folco escorted the two of them inside and saw Freddy settled in his favorite chair, one of the items Frodo had found in one of Lotho’s hoards and seen returned home again. Folco went to the kitchen and poured his cousin a cup of strong tea, and on second thought added in a dollop of brandy from the bottle that Merry had sent him at Yule, doing the same for the mugs he prepared for Budgie and himself.

Once the three of them had each taken a good swallow from his cup, Folco fixed Freddy with his most serious stare. “I think, my beloved Fredegar Bolger, that it is time to tell me all. I need to understand.”

Freddy searched his eyes. “He told you nothing?”

Folco shook his head. “Next to nothing, at least. But I got the feeling you know far more than I do.”

Freddy looked down into the tea in his cup, nodding slowly. “Perhaps it was because I was there at the Cottons’ place with him, after they rescued me from the Lockholes. He told me more than most, I think. And I insisted he let me edit his book.”

He sighed and looked up to face Folco squarely. “Yes, it is time—past time—that you were properly brought into the conspiracy.”

“Is he dying?”

“I sincerely hope not!” Freddy said emphatically. “No, but he won’t be able to come back—those who go to the Undying Lands can’t, you understand.”

A thrill of hope rose in Folco’s soul, for he remembered some of what he’d read as he’d copied those books for old Bilbo….

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