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16
The Between Years

15. The Between Years


It took a surprisingly short time for Mr. Frodo to accept his new place. He still missed his Uncle Bilbo, but the grief wasn’t as intense, particularly once the message came that the old Hobbit had made Rivendell and was on his way to Erebor. Mr. Frodo settled into his new life, as did I. I was still a tween, but I was now the gardener for Bag End, as the Gaffer had declared hisself fully retired. I was also major caretaker for the place, as well as primary cook. Oh, Mr. Frodo could cook well enough, but his love of study had grown, and he’d lose hisself in a tricky translation or one of the books that kept arriving from Rivendell either as gifts or to be copied and returned, and whatever he’d put on the fire would burn, or go cold as the fire died.

When I turned twenty-five, Mr. Frodo took me to the Green Dragon with the Gaffer and my brothers, who was down for the day, and gave me a pipe made by Dorlin what was sent over to me. I told him it wasn’t normal to give presents to me as it was my birthday, but he said it wasn’t a gift from him but from Dorlin, who when Mr. Bilbo left had also left me a set of tools for the garden he’d made for me. Those were the best tools I’ve ever held, and their balance was perfect. I found they fit my hand, and they don’t go blunt. I still have them and use them. And this pipe was beautiful, carved of a white stone, decorated with inset silver in the shape of roses, and with a circle of silver about the bowl.

“Mr. Frodo, can I send a birthday present to Mr. Dorlin in Erebor?” He looked at me with question. “I mean, he’s sent me gifts and made those tools for my gardening. I’d like to send him something I’ve made.”

“I think we could send something via the Dwarves who travel the West Road, although there are fewer now than there once were. With the multiplication of the orcs and goblins in the Misty Mountains it’s much more dangerous than it used to be to travel from Erebor to the Iron Hills and back, and fewer seem to make the journey each year.” But with Mr. Frodo’s promise to carry the gift to the Road in search of someone to take it on to the Lonely Mountain I was heartened.

That was my first time to drink more than a half a mug at a time, and I found it wasn’t as much fun I’d thought it would be. I liked a good mug of ale, I found, but more than two made me feel sick. I noted that Mr. Frodo also didn’t drink a lot, although when Mr. Merry showed up he quickly downed three and began to be merry indeed. But he seemed to love the present I gave him, a leather pouch of Old Toby leaf, and he bought me a mug of ale, which in the end I slipped to the Gaffer, who smiled at me.

We sent the present to Dorlin, a basket I’d made of woven rope that I’d also made, full of fruit from the orchard. Mr. Frodo carried it to the West Road for me, and found an Elf who agreed to carry it to Rivendell and send it on to the Lonely Mountain, and who brought a message from Mr. Bilbo. Such came rarely, and were short but well received by Frodo. He showed it to me after he assured me the gift was on its way to Dorlin now. It seemed so odd to see that spidery writing again, as it did with each rare letter that came to Frodo. Where he was and what he was doing he did not say--only that he was well and that he missed his lad. This was what almost all the letters said, in fact. And when Gandalf during one of his brief visits was asked why the letters were so short, he answered that it was so that if one should go astray it would not tell the Enemy where Bilbo was. Although what enemy it was and why he would be wanting to know where Mr. Bilbo might be no one would say.

The first few years Frodo was Master of Bag End Gandalf visited frequently, and always he seemed to be worried about something, though he wouldn’t say what. He took me aside in the garden the third time and asked me if I’d noted any strange behavior in my master, if there were changes in his temper, if he seemed to have times when he seemed to be listening to things no one else could note. He wanted to know also if strangers came near the Hill, if I’d noted any times when I felt uncomfortable or scared with no reason, or if I’d seen birds or beasts acting unnatural about. “Especially larger birds, particularly if you see them in numbers when it is not in season. Crows and the like are the most likely to be questioned.”

“Crows?” I asked. “I’ve seen a few, of course, and mostly in the farm country over past Bywater, like at the Cotton’s farm. But they was not behaving peculiar--just the way crows always do, watching greedily for the chance to steal a bite.”

“Well, that fails to sound dangerous. No, it would be birds or beasts that are acting oddly, suspiciously, that I would look out for. If you see anything of the kind, head for the Road and look for someone you can trust headed east toward Bree or Rivendell or Erebor--Dwarves, Elves, or perhaps the Rangers.”

“Never heard tell of Rangers,” I said.

“They’re Men, Sam. Usually wear silver, grey or green cloaks fastened with a brooch shaped like a silver star when they are working officially, although not always. Almost always tall with grey eyes. Usually well mounted on swift horses. Mostly they come out of the emptier wastes to the north, although they watch over all the settled lands of Eriador. They often speak the common tongue with what would sound an odd accent to your ears, but will speak Sindarin or Adunaic fluently.”

“Don’t know no Adunaic, Mr. Gandalf, so I wouldn’t hardly recognize it if I heard it; and my Elvish is no great shakes. Oh, Mr. Bilbo and Mr. Frodo taught me some, but it’s been years since I learnt it, and I hardly get no chance to practice. It’s not like I ever saw an Elf--the only one I was sure at the time was an Elf turned out to be Mr. Frodo, you know. I think I might have spied one one time when I was on a walking trip with Mr. Frodo and Mr. Bilbo when I was a lad, but as neither of them as seen it, too, I never found out if I did or no.”

“You mistook Frodo for an Elf the first time you saw him?”

“Well, you see, I was but ten years, and Mr. Bilbo, he’d told me Elves was passing fair.”

He laughed, and for the first time since he’d begun speaking to me he relaxed a mite. “Surpassing fair--yes, I can indeed see. Yes, for a Hobbit Frodo does have an Elvish air. But once you see a real Elf I think you will understand why I may have seemed apt to laugh.” He smiled, a warm smile indeed.

“But if I send a message, sir, how am I to address it?”

“Address it to me. If the messenger is only going to Bree, send it care of Butterbur, the innkeeper at the Prancing Pony. He’ll see to it it goes on to me. But if you can find an Elf or Dwarf going east, be certain the messenger is planning to go to Rivendell and send it there directly. If it’s a Ranger, he will see to it that it gets to Elrond to be held in trust for me.”

“Do you live in Rivendell, then, Mr. Gandalf?”

He sighed, “No, Sam, I have no home. I am the Grey Pilgrim, and I live mostly on the road, betwixt one endangered site and the next. But at the moment there are a few places where I feel welcome, only a few, and here, Bree, and Elrond’s home are among the few places you are aware of where I feel I can rest and lower my guard at least a trifle. The Shadow is growing, is starting to loom nearer. My time is at hand, and the Enemy seeks always to find and trap me. But Elrond is the one ally at this time you have heard tell of that I know I can count on. I will give him permission to open any missive from the Shire addressed to me so that if I am delayed he can deal with it as he sees fit. Can you understand that, Sam?”

I nodded. “Mr. Gandalf, sir, what are you afraid of?”

This sigh was long, and he shook his head, perplexed. “I’m still not certain, Sam. My suspicions are rising, and if they prove true it will be very dangerous for Frodo and all who surround him. But so far I have no way of knowing for certain, and I will not raise fear unfounded. I have been seeking answers, and will continue seeking answers.”

“But what is there as would threaten Frodo? Why?” I was starting to feel frantic.

“Now, now, Sam--what danger there might be is only a hint at this time. It is not focused on him now--it is a future danger I seek to turn aside if I may.

“You have to understand, Sam, that no matter how peaceful things appear, for the world at large danger is growing. I keep saying it--the Enemy is no longer seeking to hide himself. No longer is he a hint of vague fear in the dark places of Middle Earth, nor is he disguising himself any longer as when he was known as the Necromancer in Dol Guldur in Southern Mirkwood. He has returned to his own land and has, by the reawakening of Mount Doom, declared himself openly.

“Three thousand years ago, before the return of the Sea Kings from Numenor, he followed the example of Morgoth and covered much of Middle Earth with his darkness and terror. And he seeks again to become lord of all lands, to hold all in bondage to himself, to direct the lives and actions and choices of all, and to destroy them at his will, and to smash all opposition to his power. He has no delight in lightheartedness nor beauty save to blot it out in envy, for he can no longer rejoice in it. Your land and people would be seen by him as a gross offense, for he cannot tolerate joy and peace. Given his way, your land would be utterly destroyed and your people slain or enslaved. Not that such a fate would be in any way unique. All free lands and peoples are equally at risk, if for different reasons. Some he would destroy for the power they represent which one day might rival what he sees as his own and his due; some for the example of freedom, some because they have always defied him, and some simply because they exist and have no thought to care for him one way or another.”

Well. That, at least, were plain enough, though I still couldn’t see what all that had to do with a special interest in Bag End or Frodo in particular, and I said so. And he shrugged.

“I will not say more until I am certain, Sam, and I must rely on your discretion, which I already know to be to be greatly treasured. Sometimes you must face your fear by declaring and describing it openly; but sometimes doing that only increases danger needlessly. And this is one of the latter times. Can you understand?”

“No, I can’t understand, but I can accept that you feel this is true and I can trust in that.”

He smiled in relief. “That is enough at this time, Samwise Gamgee. I always did think, by the way, that your father misnamed you.”

I felt my face grow warm. “Don’t know about that, sir. But I do want to protect my Mr. Frodo.”

He searched my face closely. Then he said, very softly, “Yes, all who truly know him seek that. Frodo Baggins, for some odd reason no one has yet been able to isolate nor name, inspires love and loyalty. I have been given little grace to know what may or will be, Sam; but I fear there is a reason why this is so, and that he will need that loyalty and support. But, I don’t know why this is so, nor why it will be important--not yet.” He straightened, looked back toward Bag End’s windows. “I must go in to him now. I will not burden him at this time with the fears I have shared with you. Please try and understand.”

I nodded. “I think I do, sir.”

He smiled. “I keep saying it--Hobbits are such amazing creatures.” And he gave me again a bow of respect, which set my face aflame once more, and he went inside.

More years passed, and we didn’t see hide nor hair of Gandalf for a powerful long time, and although we got a note of thanks from Dorlin which Frodo had to translate for me as I had no experience at all with dwarf runes, we got no more letters from Bilbo, and Frodo came home from his walking trips to the Road or Buckland feeling frustrated. Now and then he’d comment he’d seen wood Elves in the wild parts of the Shire, but only at a distance; but he only seemed to find Elves from Rivendell once every year or so.

Books still arrived from Rivendell now and again, but they came through the quick post, with comments that a Man had come to the Brandywine Bridge and set an addressed package in the hands of one of the Bounders or Shiriffs on duty there. There were none to be returned, and rarely was there more than, “For a gift to the Master of Bag End” as a message.

At first Frodo was active in the events of the Shire, attending banquets and parties and such, and he never missed the Free Fair at Michel Delving. He was often away to the Great Smials or to Buckland for this celebration or that, for weddings and birthdays and a few of the holidays. He were still a lithe dancer and popular with the ladies as ever. But it seemed his interest in return was fading. Where once the look a lass gave him or the movement of her hips would spark a smile of appreciation, now he seemed to note such little, and there came the day when one year, after his thirty-ninth birthday, when he even commented on it aloud. He’d given his party in the Party Field and with lanterns once more in the Party Tree, but the invitations had been far more limited than Bilbo’s last party, and the celebration limited to an evening meal and music and dancing. He’d danced only a handful of times, and after the others had left and only the younger cousins and me remained and we was now gathered about the kitchen table in Bag End with plates of leftovers from the party, Mr. Fredegar, who’d been earning his nickname as Fatty, commented on that.

“Time was, old Frodo, when you’d dance the whole night through, and the lasses would be fighting openly to catch your eye. But tonight, I ask you! What led to this pitiful situation?”

“I don’t know,” Frodo replied. “I really don’t. But it seems I just don’t notice much at all about how lovely a lass or a lady might be any more. And, oddly enough, I miss the excitement of admiring a beautiful lass.” And there were real regret in his voice. But then he raised a toast to Bilbo, and we all joined in. But I put away the situation to study on.

He’d given me a book, and I found it was one I’d not read afore, on the life of Tuor. I read it that night for hours, and I found myself wishing I could have lived in those brave days, and again I felt the desire to meet a real Elf.

More years passed, and rarely did word come from outside the Shire. The Dwarves traveling the Road rarely stopped inside the Shire no more, and those who stopped when hailed by Frodo were guarded, but would talk with a bit of freedom once they learned this was the heir to the Honored Burglar Bilbo Baggins. It was becoming terrible dangerous to get across the Misty Mountains now, and Elrond’s folk ranged through the passes and over the roads surrounding Rivendell attempting to keep them clear of orcs and trolls and such. Once he got a letter from Gloin, and a few times we received notes from Dorlin and Dwalin. But of what was passing with Mr. Bilbo or Gandalf or in Rivendell we heard nothing, just the arrival of the odd book or document.

Frodo didn’t seem to change physically at all, although he finally began to put on a bit of weight, although far less than one ordinarily sees in Hobbits. But he accepted fewer invitations to dinners and parties and banquets, and went to weddings and funerals only when they was family. Nor was he receiving as many invitations as he once did, once it became obvious he wasn’t looking at any lasses or young ladies. But he’d visit the inns in Hobbiton and Bywater about once a month, more often when Merry and Pippin and Mr. Fredegar and Mr. Folco come to Bag End, which was frequent. And, as the years passed, he was becoming more and more restless, much as had been Mr. Bilbo at the end.

Once a quarter he met with the banker of discretion I mentioned afore, and he saw the Brandybuck lawyer a time or two each year, mostly, I’ve learned going through the estate records I’ve inherited from him, when selling or buying interests in new businesses or farms. When he give it out that he was coming to the end of Mr. Bilbo’s treasure as he did, he were lying, plain and simple, and the Brandybuck lawyer and the banker of discretion could have declared the lie, if he hadn’t have forbidden it.

Frodo still did a bit of his own marketing in Hobbiton, and let any kind of disaster come to his attention--a death, an injury, an illness, damage to a house or hole or shed or barn due to weather or fire or neglect, and he’d be there to lend a hand however he could. And anything to do with the Bagginses themselves he was right there on, even with the Sackville-Bagginses. When Mr. Otho became ill he sent over food from Bag End regular, and this he usually prepared hisself, taking more care than when he was fixing for hisself; and his letter of condolence to Missus Lobelia and young Lotho when Otho died was heartfelt--even Missus Lobelia admitted that with an odd hitch in her voice. Mr. Lotho, now, was sneerings when he referred to that letter, all but openly accusing Mr. Frodo of really rejoicing his dad was dead.

He continued to spend time alone atop the Hill, reading, writing, occasionally drawing or painting, watching the stars of a night. He still walked daily, and went on regular walking trips about the Shire, and although I was always invited to go along, I rarely did unless he were planning to stay close to Hobbiton and Bywater. For during my free time I was a lot with my own kin, particularly the Cottonses, especially Young Tom and Rosie. I got regular invites to the farm, and as time went on they’d extended the invitation to include Mr. Frodo as well. He would come usually once or twice a year, mostly for Rosie’s birthday, and I know it was mainly for my sake.

And when I come of age, he threw the biggest party for me in the Party Field I’d ever had, and all of Hobbiton and Bywater was invited, as well as lots of his cousins and friends. All I had to do was provide presents, and he give me access to some of the mathoms he and Bilbo had got over the years to aid in dealing with that. As Rosie and I danced, I suddenly caught sight of his gaze as he sat at his table, an almost untouched mug of ale afore him, smoking his pipe, and I realized he was looking at us with joy for me, and with regret for hisself. He still couldn’t understand why he had no interest in lasses and lady Hobbits no more.

I now wondered--was it because of the Ring? I knew by then that that was what he carried in his pocket and fiddled with as his Uncle Bilbo had done, the Ring Mr. Bilbo’d found in Gollum’s cave, the one he’d wore to make hisself invisible. Did possession of the Ring burn out the interest in others, the ability to love one other especial?

But he still kept humbugs and horehound drops in his pockets for the children, and he’d still stop to praise a child he saw working diligently around Hobbiton or Bywater, and he kept an eye out for likely lads and lasses who needed a hand up, and he’d tell tales to groups of bairns on market days and at the Free Fair at Michel Delving and when he was in the Great Smials or Brandy Hall for festivals or holidays or weddings or funerals, and they flocked to hear him and to be with him. And no one dreamed of abusing any child or beast anywhere in the area, or not openly. Nobody wanted the ire of Mr. Frodo Baggins brought to bear on them--nobody.

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