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30
Leave-taking

My Memorial Day offering. Written for my dad, who died in service when I was still a baby, and for Kaylee and Addie for their birthdays.


~~~

Leave-taking


As Pease reentered Michel Delving’s public stable from his adjoining cottage, he was aware immediately that someone was there. Oh, the ponies were all quiet enough, but it wasn’t the slightly shifting quiet of drowsing ponies and occasional wisps of hay being lifted from the hay nets. No, the ponies were all still and watching someone. But strain his ears as he might he could not hear the movement of a soul.

Well, for all that most Hobbits were soft-footed, only one Hobbit Pease knew in all of the Shire made almost no sound at all as he moved about the stable.

“Hullo, Mr. Frodo, sir,” he said as he came around Grey Lad’s stall.

Frodo Baggins looked up from his inspection of his Strider’s off fore hoof—a most responsible one he was with that lovely bay gelding of his, nodded an acknowledgment to the stablehobbit, and let the foot go to check the other fore hoof.

Pease felt his heart drop. Mr. Baggins wasn’t quite as peaked as he’d looked at the Free Fair at Midsummer, but it appeared that once more he’d been losing weight. His face was unnaturally thin, with little color under the nearly transparent skin, and his eyes were shadowed, although his expression was determined enough. No one, Pease now knew well enough, would do better than Mr. Baggins to see that all that needed to be done was accomplished and done right properly at that; but how could he keep going when it appeared his body was intent on wasting away to nothing?

Having assured himself that the pony’s hooves were sound, Mr. Frodo now turned to preparing his steed for the return to Hobbiton. Pease watched as the Baggins stroked the pony’s ears and prepared the bridle. “I was a bit surprised, sir, as you’ve chose to use a hackamore rather than a bit.”

Frodo didn’t turn, merely giving the ghost of a shrug as he saw the straps settled over the pony’s head and the headstall properly centered. “I have chosen not to impose my will over any other creature by force, not unless it is truly necessary. If Strider will not bear me of his own will, out of our caring and trust for one another, then perhaps I should simply walk anyway,” he said quietly. After a moment he added, “Many of the Elves use no tack at all, or a hackamore at most simply for adornment, with bells hung from the reins to ring forth their delight in life.”

Pease, for the first time in his life, felt some envy toward Frodo Baggins. “You saw such things, there, outside, while the four of you was gone?” he asked.

At last Frodo turned to face him. “Yes, we did. Lord Glorfindel did have both saddle and reins for his great horse Asfaloth, but more, I understand, because he needed to ride far and long each day and so that he might carry his personal goods more handily and fight unemcumbered if it should prove needful than because they were necessary for him. He said that when he rides for pleasure he rarely bothers with them.” He was searching Pease’s face. “I never thought that you would wish to see such things yourself, Pease.”

“You’re not the only one whose dreams was full of the stuff of old Mr. Bilbo’s tales, Frodo Baggins. I member when I was but a wee one and him only recently come back from his travels, and sittin’ at his feet when it was him there behind the ale tent at the Free Fair, tellin’ of his adventures to the bairns. You think as I haven’t wanted to see Elves myself? But then, I have seen a few, and not just that first Free Fair when you come back, when at the last you chose not to run for Mayor after all. Twice I’ve seen them, in the woods north of the Road, headin’ west. First time I was but a lad, dreamin’ in the gloamin’, like. And there they was, a great party of them, some afoot and others on great horses such as I’d never seen afore, movin’ quiet through the trees, as if they was barely the memory of other times, if you take my meanin’, sir. The second time I was a Hobbit grown, and you would have been but the smallest of faunts at the time. It was not long afore the Lithe-days, and your dad and mum had come already with you to stay in the inn, preparin’ for the start of the Free Fair. Now, if’n you wasn’t the most precious of little lads at the time, and it was so clear how much they loved you, Mr. Frodo, sir. And that night your folks come out to the edge of the fairgrounds to sit on the benches to show you the stars, and I saw two Elves standin’ still in the trees, watchin’ the three of you, and none of you the wiser for it.”

He saw that Frodo’s eyes were shining as if with unshed tears. He continued, “I often had dreams of what it might be like out there, and wanted to see for myself. But—well, I couldn’t just leave my folks and go off on my own, you know. And then I was prenticed to old Oatbarrow as was stablehobbit afore me, and it was mebbe too late, or so I thought.

“I told your Uncle Bilbo once though, that I wanted to go outside myself some day, I mean. And he sighed. Told me that it wasn’t all glorious adventures and makin’ fools of trolls. Told me that sleepin’ on the ground night after night is awful, and that it was often too cold to bathe, no matter how clear the water you might find, and how too many nights there was no shelter from the rain.”

“And that’s true enough,” Frodo said.

“I told him as I’d like to see Men’s cities sometime, and he agreed. Said as Bree and Laketown was the most as he’d seen, and they weren’t really cities, properly speakin’, not being much more’n Michel Delving, he figgered. But he did tell me that if I’d learn to read, I could see them in my mind, and that was more’n many ever do. Give me my first book, he did.”

Frodo was smiling fondly. “Sounds just like him. Bless the old fellow.”

“Is he still alive, Mr. Bilbo, I mean?”

Frodo’s expression grew rather solemn. “He was the last I heard from Rivendell, a few days ago. But how much longer he might linger—he’s now quite elderly, after all, even taking into account that he’s the grandson to the Old Took.”

He now turned away toward his saddle where it sat on the rail of the saddletree. It was a beautiful example of the saddler’s art, inlaid with silver stars just as Mr. Pippin’s was with silver trees and Mr. Merry’s was with horse heads and Mr. Sam Gamgee’s with sunbursts. Pease saw Frodo start to lift it up, and that his hands had begun trembling at its weight. Immediately he moved forward to take it from Frodo’s hands, to lay it himself over the saddle blanket already rested across Strider’s back. “I’ll do this, Mr. Frodo, sir. You go and rest on the hay bales for a minute.”

For once Frodo did not argue but did as he was told. He slipped the water bottle from his shoulder and drank from it, then stoppered it and set it beside him on the bale. There was an expression Pease could not fully interpret on his face. There was some pain there, and he thought he discerned more than a little anger—and relief, and something else the older Hobbit couldn’t put a name to. To fill the silence he said, “Beautiful tack as you four brought back with you. Not Dwarf work, though.”

Frodo paused, but then replied, “No, they were made either in Rohan or Gondor. I’m not certain which. Perhaps both. I think the actual leather was worked in Rohan, but there’s something to the decorations for Pippin, Sam, and me that speaks of Gondor. Now, Merry’s—that’s purely Rohirric work, from what I could tell, between the brass and the horse heads designs. The White Tree on Pippin’s tack, though, is definitely indicative of Gondor and Minas Tirith, while the sunbursts on Sam’s tack and the stars on mine are almost Elvish somehow. But, then, the rulers of Gondor are descended from the people of Númenor and thus were heavily influenced by Elvish culture until not that long before the island foundered.”

Strider stood still and cooperative while Pease saw the saddle settled and the girth tightened, merely twitching his tail a few times as if anticipating the journey to come. Once Pease was satisfied with the lay of the saddle he turned to the saddlebags that hung over the gate to what had been Strider’s stall. “These aren’t the same work as the saddle, though,” he commented as he fastened them to the ties on the back of the saddle.

“They were gifted to us by the Prince of Dol Amroth.”

“Him a Man?”

“Yes.”

“Seems odd, that Hobbits should be getting’ gifts from kings and princes of Men.” Finished, he stepped away from the pony and turned to face the former deputy Mayor. “Odd as Hobbits should meet such folk at all, come to think of it. But, then, it’s said as Bucca of the Marish did that, and that was how he become the first Thain.”

“Yes, Aragorn’s ancestor laid that duty on him and gave him the title,” Frodo said. “They remember, the Dúnedain of the north, how forty Hobbits of the Shire marched out to serve Arvedui Last-king, and how much they owe to those Hobbits, who never refused to face the enemy.”

Pease’s voice was low even in his own ears as he said, “And this time it was but four as went forth, although this time you all come back again. Only you come back changed.”

Frodo looked down at his hands. Was he looking at where his one finger was gone, Pease wondered? Probably. He said, equally softly, “Yes, we all came back--changed.”

“And you really all faced the Enemy?”

Frodo rose to his feet. “Yes, we did, each of us in his own way, Pease.”

They stood looking at one another. Frodo Baggins, Pease realized, appeared somehow particularly alone—alone and tired. At last he accepted the truth. “This will be the last time as I’ll see you, isn’t it, Mr. Frodo?”

Frodo closed his eyes, and the pain he’d been trying so desperately to suppress could finally be seen plainly. “I suspect so, Pease. I’ve—I’ve little enough time left, and I must soon away.”

“It’s not fair!” Pease was surprised at his own vehemence.

Now Frodo opened his eyes again, and the stablehobbit noted that there was a glint almost of grim amusement and compassion in them. “Life has never been fair, my friend. Never. At least the Shire wasn’t destroyed by the evil that touched it while we were gone, and has now been set to rights again. It wasn’t all for nothing, what we did out there. We learned that we Hobbits are strong enough to send mere bully-boys running, and that we can and will care for our own as well as for others.”

“And you’ve made Mr. Sam Gamgee your heir.”

Frodo sighed. “Yes, I have. And Will’s already let word of that make the rounds, has he?”

“He come to me, and had me witness your signature on the adoption papers. After all, he knows as I know your signature and you, and that I can read and write.” After a moment he asked, “Why are you makin’ him one of the gentry, Mr. Frodo?”

“Because he’s perhaps the best Hobbit the Shire ever produced, Pease. If it hadn’t been for him I certainly would not have survived. Most likely I’d just have let the Mountain itself kill me. In fact, I wouldn’t have made it to the Mountain if he’d not been there with me. And if that had happened, then it would have been a far different world today than what we know now.”

“So, you’re dyin’ now.”

Frodo gave a mirthless laugh. “Sam keeps telling me not to dig my own grave before I’m quite dead, so I’m trying my best to keep that in mind.” He sighed again. “I’ll be leaving soon. Perhaps the journey will finish me, or I might just recover. We will have to see which it will turn out to be.”

Pease felt a thrill of hope run through him. “You goin’ with the Elves, then?”

Frodo appeared surprised. “Yes--yes, I am.”

“And you’ll stay away, same as Mr. Bilbo did?”

“Yes, it will be needful.”

“Him goin’ with you?”

Frodo gave a slow nod. “Yes, we’ll be going together, Bilbo and I. Find rest and healing together.”

At last Pease said, “The Shire will be a poorer place with you gone from it, Mr. Baggins, sir. I know as many think as Mr. Bilbo was cracked, but I’ve never thought so. Knew as him was about the wisest Hobbit we ever had livin’ in the Shire. But you—well, you’ve always been the best Hobbit ever.” Suddenly he stepped forward to take Frodo in his arms. “You go well, Frodo Baggins. You go well, and know that at least a few here in the Shire know as how much we owe to you. Mebbe we don’t quite understand all as you did out there; but there’s no question as we needed you here when you come back. We’ll heal, and for the most part it’s ’cause you was there in the Mayor’s office helpin’ to put things back in order. At least some of us appreciate that the Mayor does more’n just make speeches.

“And we know as the King hisself respects you. I suspect as him’s not one as does that for just anyone.”

Frodo hugged Pease in return before pulling away. He appeared even more fragile than he had at first. “It’s been a long day,” he said. “Again and again I’ve had to bid farewell, and it’s been tearing me apart, Pease. Please understand.”

Pease found he did understand. He took up the empty water bottles that hung over the corner post to the now empty stall Strider had occupied and hung them from Frodo’s saddle horn. He led the pony to the mounting block and then offered Frodo his arm to steady him as he used it to ease himself into Strider’s saddle. Frodo sat there for a few moments, and again squeezed his eyes closed as he worked to once again steel himself to do what needed doing. At last he opened his eyes, nodded to Pease, and spoke to his mount. Strider started forward, needing no further urging, and Pease hurried to roll the door open to see them out, into the growing darkness. He watched after, seeing the soft glimmer of the stars reflected from Frodo’s figure as he headed out of the square toward the Road back east.

“Go well, Frodo Baggins,” he whispered before Frodo was quite out of sight. Then he looked up at the distant stars. “Watch over him, please, for him’s one of your own.”

With that he turned to go back in and check his charges once more before he settled himself into his chair to read a book once given him by old Mr. Bilbo.

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