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45
Confrontation

For Dreamflower and Leianora for their birthdays.


~~~

Confrontation


“But why not marry here?” Rhodium asked her daughter Sapphira. “You are the bride, after all.”

“I told you, Mama,” Sapphira answered her mother yet again, “Oderiadoc and I decided we want to be married on neutral ground. We’re going to live in the Eastfarthing rather than in Buckland, and in our own house, not either the Great Smial or Brandy Hall. And we don’t wish to look as if we’re favoring either family over the other, either the Brandybucks or the Tooks. We decided that having the deputy Mayor marry us would be best, then. Think! We wouldn’t be marrying at all, most like, if the Travelers hadn’t come back when they did. So, why not allow Frodo Baggins to lead the ceremony for us?”

The argument had been going on for the last three weeks at least—definitely ever since Rosamunda and Odovacar Bolger had arrived at the Great Smial to stay until their home of Budge Hall should be livable once more. Once Paladin Took had arrived to see what damage had been wrought by Lotho’s folk after the Bolger and his wife were forced out of the family smial into a storage hole on a farm they owned just outside Budgeford, he’d insisted that the two of them were not to remain in what had become their abode, as it tended to be damp in wet weather, and not even what they used as the kitchen hearth drew properly. “You are Sigismond Took’s daughter, after all,” he’d explained to Rosamunda. “It doesn’t matter you grew up here in Budgeford rather than the Great Smial or Tuckborough—you still have the right to call upon your Took family ties.”

There was no question they were far more comfortably housed in the Great Smial than they’d been once they were driven out of their home by Lotho’s Big Men. But Rosamunda found living amongst so many of her father’s people to be—difficult. She found herself favoring Sapphira in her constant defense against her parents’ arguments that she and her bridegroom should just settle down in quarters within the Great Smial. It seemed there was little privacy to be had in the place, and particularly once worsening weather drove almost all of the inhabitants indoors. One was always hearing the shrieks of playing or quarreling children, and someone bored with their more familiar family was always wanting to visit. Rosamunda found she could fully appreciate just why Sapphira wished to be mistress of her own home rather than just another resident within the vast warren that housed so many of the Tooks. And much as she loved Foxy, as she still thought of her brother Ferdinand who’d moved back to the Great Smial decades ago, and his son Ferdibrand, she wished desperately she were back home in Budgeford once more. Besides, she had grown tired of being in quarters that had no outside windows. She felt so closed in here!

But she didn’t understand Sapphira’s desire for her wedding to be conducted by Frodo Baggins. Truth be told, Rosamunda found herself blaming Frodo for the Time of Troubles. If only Frodo had realized just how deranged his foul cousin Lotho was, he would never have been persuaded to sell Bag End to the git and his odious mother, and Lotho would not have convinced himself he could make himself the tyrant of the Shire. Nor would her beloved Fredegar have been terrorized by whatever strange folk had pursued Frodo out of the Shire, much less would her dear Dumpling have been likely to decide to become a rebel against Lotho and his Big Men and their policies. Imagine, her Freddy had defied Lotho and his Big Men! That should never have happened! What danger that had put him—and Odi and herself—into! She was now so glad that Odovacar had chosen to send Estella into hiding amongst the Tooks before Fredegar went for a rebel. She, at least, had remained safe from the possible repercussions of her brother’s choice to oppose Lotho.

Anyway, Sapphira was grateful for Rosamunda’s support in opposing her parents’ desires for the wedding, and one day pressed an invitation into Rosa’s hand to attend the ceremony to be held a few weeks before Yule in the banquet hall of the Council Hole. The idea of having to travel to Michel Delving during the possible worst of winter weather wasn’t inviting, but it would allow a break from being confined within the Great Smial for a few days! Even Odovacar appeared more cheerful at the idea of being outside the Tooklands for a time, and he sent a letter by the Quick Post to the inn in Michel Delving to take a room for that whole week, as it had been decided to hold a meeting of the Family Heads the day after the wedding.

Sapphira and her mother rode with Rosamunda to Michel Delving in the Bolger coach, remarkably unscathed after its time in the hands of Lotho’s people—not, of course, that any of the Big Men could have fitted in it. The cushions had been replaced, but otherwise all was as she remembered it.

“I can’t believe the day has come!” Sapphira exclaimed. “Tonight we shall be married, Oderiadoc and I. How long it’s been since I promised him. We’d planned to be married last summer, you understand, at the Free Fair. But with Lotho’s Big Men patrolling the bounds of the Tooklands and the edge of the Brandywine and Lotho refusing to allow the Free Fair to be held, even, how could that have happened? I’m just glad Oderiadoc still wants me after all of this time.”

“How could he not, Chick?” asked Rhodium. “Ah dearling, but it’s because he’d already proved himself constant to you that we agreed to you marrying him to begin with. But we’d so expected the two of you to settle within the Tooklands, at the very least.”

Eager to distract them before the old arguments could be rehashed again, Rosa commented, “I’m only surprised you didn’t insist that Will Whitfoot should say the words. After all, he’s the true Mayor.”

“But word is that he can’t stand for that long of a time as yet,” Sapphira pointed out. “Besides, when we played at weddings when we were children, we always wheedled Frodo into saying the words, as he had them all memorized and could say them so convincingly. It’s wonderful to know he’ll now be saying them for real for the two of us.”

“But if he hadn’t decided to go for an adventure when he did—” began Rosamunda.

Sapphira made a rude noise. “Pish tosh! He wouldn’t have left when he did if it hadn’t been something terribly important, not Frodo Baggins. Why, he’s the most responsible Hobbit in the Shire, after all—always has been. Besides, Pippin says that he’s now the King’s special friend, and that the King and almost everyone outside the Shire all respect him more than anyone else, and precisely because he is so responsible. If it hadn’t been for Frodo’s part in the War against the Enemy, both he and Merry insist things would have ended up far worse for everyone than what we knew in the Time of Troubles. And don’t you think that it’s exciting to think of oneself being married by the King’s special friend?”

Rosamunda shrugged thoughtfully. Paladin and Odi had discussed the reports delivered by Pippin often enough, and Paladin had read aloud to them the one proclamation in which was listed the new titles bestowed upon the four who’d gone outside the Shire. All four of them were listed as the King’s Companions, and Frodo Baggins in particular had been singled out as the King’s Friend.

“It’s said that he came home maimed, though,” Rhodium objected.

“Tolly says that he lost a finger—just a finger. He says that it’s hard to spot unless you’re looking for it,” Sapphira responded. “So, he lost a finger. That doesn’t mean he’s become horrible to look at or anything of the sort. And Periangard, who’s the smith for the Great Smial, has managed to lose parts of two fingers in his work, but that’s never slowed him down any. Am I to avoid Cousin Periangard because he’s maimed?”

“I hope that the menfolk won’t delay following us too long,” Rhodium said fussily. “I’d hate for Hildimans to be late to his daughter’s wedding.”

“They’re only waiting for the Brandybuck party to reach the edge of the Tooklands, Mother,” Sapphira sighed. “Really, you don’t have to worry over everything! They’ll be escorting Oderiadoc as is right and proper. Besides, the Thain wishes to consult with the Master while they’re on the way.”

It was rather a relief to reach Michel Delving at last and to be able to escape into the rooms Odi had taken for the two of them and to be shut of the constant bickering for a time. There were already some of Rhodium’s Tunnely kindred there, and they descended upon the bride and her mother in an excitedly chattering mob to assist Sapphira to prepare for the wedding to come.

But somehow the rooms in which Rosamunda found herself seemed disturbingly quiet once she was behind their closed doors. Face it—she’d begun to become accustomed to the constant noise from the population of the Great Smial! She shuddered at the thought, but certainly she felt somehow cut off without at least Odovacar’s presence. At last she decided to go across to the Council Hole to see to it that the banquet hall was properly prepared for the wedding to come. That should offer her a welcome distraction from the fact she was temporarily alone.

She was relieved to find that there was already someone within the banquet hall when she arrived. She didn’t recognize his back as he stood before the great carved sideboard that stood along one wall. As she remembered it, Drogo Baggins had crafted the great piece of furniture shortly before the accident that robbed the Shire of him and his wife. He’d carved into its panels a map of sorts of the Shire, including representations of everyday life throughout the four Farthings. The stranger, with his rather long curls of dark hair shot through with strands of silver, appeared to be focused on what Rosamunda remembered to be the area of Hobbiton, in which Lobelia Sackville-Baggins was depicted listening at the window of someone else’s hole, and with a spoon in her hand. Rosamunda wondered what this stranger, with his unusual grey-green cloak, thought of that?

He was remarkably slender, the stranger was, even more so than was her own Fredegar now. She wondered who he was, and what business had brought him to the Council Hole. Perhaps he was from the far Westfarthing, perhaps from Greenholm, come to report on sightings of Elves or Dwarves beyond the western Bounds. She didn’t know anyone from that far west in the Shire, after all, and couldn’t be expected to recognize such people. Or he could maybe have come from Bree—it was said that the road to Bree was open to free travel as it hadn’t been for years, and some adventurous Hobbit from the Breelands might have been sent with word from the people there. She supposed that examining the sideboard would offer entertainment to anyone awaiting the arrival of the Thain and the Master. Although she had to admit it was unlikely that such a one would come ahead of the groom’s party, as the Master was planning to escort Oderiadoc to Michel Delving. Surely the Bounders on watch at the King’s Bridge would so advise any guest to the Shire coming from the Breelands!

She approached the stranger. His trousers were longer than was typical of Shire Hobbits, and the sleeve of his jacket as he reached out to caress a figure on the depiction of the Hill was definitely not of any fabric woven inside the Shire. It was of a sober brown, she noticed, with rich embroidery along the edge of the sleeve. As for the shirt worn underneath the jacket, she saw that the creamy cuff was held together at the wrist with a gold stud set with an opal. Whoever this stranger was, he was apparently well off! It was not until she’d come alongside him that she could see his profile, and noticed that his face was uncharacteristically serious for a Hobbit, his brow furrowed with concentration as he examined the carving he touched. “That’s supposed to be Bilbo Baggins,” she volunteered. “He lived in Bag End in the Hill for quite a long time, certainly the whole time that the one who carved this sideboard was alive.”

“I certainly know that, Cousin Rosamunda,” the stranger said, and she realized this was no stranger after all. No, it was Frodo himself.

Automatically she drew back, her back straightening in surprise. “Frodo Baggins—what are you doing here?”

He turned his face to examine hers. “I’m the deputy Mayor, you know, Cousin Rosa. I’m to officiate at the wedding tonight. I came in to see if everything had been arranged properly, and I stopped to look at my father’s work on the sideboard. I was there when he carved it, you will remember.”

“But you were only a child.”

“I was eleven, definitely old enough to remember.” He looked back to the figure of Bilbo again, and sighed. “Not that my father was that good at doing portraits of people. I think the best one he did was the one of Lobelia, actually.” His finger moved down the Hill to another figure outside a door on the Row. “And here’s Bell Gamgee with Sam in her arms. He showed you with Freddy in a pram,” and his attention shifted eastward to Budgeford, where he tapped his finger against the figure of a Hobbitess pushing a basket on wheels. “I know we visited Budge Hall a time or two, but I don’t remember Freddy’s birth, I’m sad to say. I know that you didn’t visit Brandy Hall after my parents’ funeral.”

“And we left Freddy in Budgeford with my father,” she said. “He hadn’t been to Buckland before you returned to Hobbiton and Bag End.”

He nodded. “Then the first time I remember seeing him was at the birthday party Bilbo threw for us that first September after I became his ward,” he murmured. “I don’t even remember seeing him at the Free Fair.”

“We usually went to the Lithe Day celebrations in the Tooklands instead,” she admitted. “We only went to the Free Fair in election years then.”

Things went quiet between them as Frodo again focused on Hobbiton and the Hill as shown in his father’s carvings. “You wouldn’t recognize Bag End or the Row now,” he said softly. “Lotho had the smials on the Row dug out, or at least through Number Four. Number Five wasn’t completely collapsed, perhaps because it was the biggest and ran the most under Bag End itself. The Big Men filled the gardens of Bag End with sheds—and such awful ones, at that! As for inside the hole----” He shuddered. “We were all sickened by the stench of the place and the damage we saw. Lobelia won’t return to it, as that is where Lotho was murdered. She sent me the deed back, did you know?”

“I’d heard rumors.”

“They were true ones, then.”

She felt her anger growing within her breast. “You ought never to have sold the place to them!” she said with a vehemence that surprised even her. “Once he got his hands on its deed, Lotho decided to make himself the boss of all!”

He was shaking his head as she finished speaking. “He’d been planning it for longer than that, Cousin,” he answered. “Many of the loan agreements he had written included strange clauses in them indicating he would take possession of people’s properties once I left the Shire at last.” Again he shook his head, his pale lips pressed into a tight line. “He always believed that one day I would follow Bilbo,” he said bitterly. “He planned for it! And, then, after he’d come to me to offer to pay cash for Bag End, just what I’d offered to sell it to Ponto and Iris for, he made me promise not to make the deal public for three weeks, in which time he changed the clause to one in which he said he’d take possession of other people’s deeds once he was Master of Bag End and the Hill. Only I never made him Master of the Hill. I never offered him more than the deed to Bag End and its gardens and orchard. He declared himself the Master of the Hill strictly on his own, just as he declared himself Chief Shiriff!”

“You should have known he’d do such a thing!” she insisted.

“Didn’t you and Odi accept a loan from him, guaranteed by the deed to Budge Hall, in which he included that clause?” he asked, his eyes stern. “I warned Odi not to take a loan from Lotho, but to take the one Paladin offered instead.”

“But who could believe—” she began, and stopped abruptly, blushing furiously.

His voice was filled with bitter irony as he responded, “Who, indeed?” He returned his gaze to the sideboard again, his eyes on the figure of a Hobbitess and a child alongside the Brandwine’s banks.

She found the anger still spilling out of her. “Well, you should never have included my Freddy in your plans.”

“I didn’t! I intended to leave the Shire alone, until Gandalf insisted I had to take Sam with me. We swore Sam to secrecy, but he’d already been telling Merry, Freddy, and Pippin what I was planning. I learned nothing of the conspiracy until we got to Crickhollow.”

“At least you had the sense to leave Freddy in the Shire!”

“He didn’t want to go, Rosa. He never intended to leave the Shire. Instead he decided to stay in Crickhollow to make people believe I was still there.”

“And those horrible black Big Folk attacked him there!”

“I know.”

There was something in the way that he said those last two words that drew her eyes to examine his face more closely, some echo of anguish. “What do you know of them?” she demanded.

He rolled his eyes briefly to meet hers, and then back away again. “Too much,” he whispered. His eyes were filled with pain, his face bloodless. “Too much,” he repeated. “They were terrible. At least they are gone now, and cannot return again.”

“How do you know that for sure?” Her tone was imperious.

“The Ring is gone. Their power was shorn with Its destruction, even as is true of the Rings of the Elves. Gandalf and Aragorn and Prince Imrahil have all told me that as soon as I—as soon as the call came the eight remaining turned their steeds back toward the Mountain, and they fell as soon as the Mountain began tearing itself to pieces, even as Barad-dűr itself began to fall. Prince Imrahil says that they all burst into flame—eight great fireballs plunging toward the raging volcano. How Sam and I managed not to be struck by the molten rock thrown all about by the Mountain I could never say.”

“What mountain?”

“Orodruin—Mount Doom in Mordor.”

“But there is no Mordor—that’s just a children’s tale!”

His eyes as they met hers were haunted. “There is no Mordor now. But it was never but a children’s tale, Cousin Rosa. No, it was real enough.”

“And how do you know all this?”

He turned again to face her directly. “Because we went there, Sam and I. And because Pippin went to fight before its gates, part of Aragorn’s army of defiance. We almost died there, Sam and I did, and Pippin also outside the Black Gate. A troll fell on him. If he’d not been as small and young as he was, it was likely he’d have been crushed to death. That any of us survived to return home again was not due to our own efforts.”

She could feel cold reaching toward her heart. “And if Freddy had gone,” she said, then paused. “Would he have come home again?”

“I don’t know. But he was fighting as surely as Merry and Pippin did, only he was doing it here in the Shire rather than in strange lands whose names we barely heard of before we left home.”

“And they caught him, and put him in the Lockholes!”

“Yes, Cousin Rosa, they did.”

She could see in his eyes that he felt he was to blame for Freddy’s imprisonment, and agreed with him. “It wouldn’t have happened if you’d not left when you did,” she said accusingly.

“Perhaps. Or perhaps not. We have no way of knowing for certain. But Sharkey, as they called him here—he’d already heard of the Shire, and had sent his people here to take over the Shire in Lotho’s name, but in reality for him. You’ll note that the moment he entered the Shire they saw to it that Lobelia was sent into the Lockholes herself, and Lotho was killed. Sharkey was the one who masterminded the whole affair—of that I am certain.”

“Why didn’t you get Freddy out sooner?”

“Out of where? Out of the Shire? I thought you did not wish to imagine him ever leaving the Shire! Oh, you mean out of the Lockholes! How were we to know he was even there? Until we reached the Cottons’ farm we’d never dreamed anyone would take those old storage tunnels in Michel Delving and think to imprison Hobbits in them! And we found ourselves having to deal with the ruffians and to free Bywater and the region of the Hill first! Then, when we went to confront Lotho we discovered he was dead, and Sharkey was there instead. And Bag End was all but ruins. You cannot believe what they did to it—the beams hacked, the carpets defiled, the doors hanging off their hinges, the walls fouled and the mantels broken to shards of stone! As for the gardens—they have been trampled to dust and those sheds are everywhere, like giant, misshapen toadstools!” Frodo was white, and he was shuddering visibly. “We went to Michel Delving the next morning, first thing,” he whispered. “And he was the first one we found, Freddy was. Poor Freddy! He couldn’t walk….” He stumbled over to the nearest table and sat down heavily in a chair, burying his face in his hands. “That was when they told us he’d led the rebels, stealing food they’d ‘gathered’ so that it could be given to those Hobbits who were starving.” He swallowed heavily, and finally looked up at her. “He was afraid to go out of the Shire, but he stood up to evil here, Cousin Rosa. He’s a hero—do you realize just how great a hero he is? You must be so proud of him!”

“Why didn’t you send him home?

“To live in a storage hole with the two of you?” Frodo was plainly shocked at the idea. “Maligar was with the archers who came from the Great Smial, in spite of not being a Took, and he told us what had happened to you and Odovacar. You didn’t have the room to house a Hobbit as sick as Freddy was, not in a storage hole. And you cannot believe how much time is involved in caring for someone who has almost starved to death. Lily and Rosie Cotton worked ceaselessly for days making certain there was the type of food he could stomach so that he wouldn’t grow more ill from eating the wrong things, and then seeing to it he was eating at least hourly for the first two weeks. He is likely to suffer from damaged digestion as well as a weak heart from now on, and he must never gain back all of the weight he had before.”

“You could have sent him to the Great Smial when Paladin gave us a place there to stay until Budge Hall is habitable once more.”

“Perhaps, except that Estella had arrived by then and was gladly taking care of Freddy where he was. And the Cottons were proud to care for him, considering how he worked to see to it that others didn’t starve while the Big Men were in control. They are special people, Tom Cotton’s family. You owe them thanks for more than just the care given your son.”

She felt her jaw clench, for indeed the Cottons had seen to it more than once that extra food reached their storage hole outside Budgeford, mostly after it was known that Freddy had been taken by the Big Men. It stung to be reminded how much she and Odovacar owed to the farmer and his wife. She wracked her brain for some other charge to throw at him, but couldn’t think of anything else. At last she growled, “At least you didn’t drag him off into danger with yourself on that foolish adventure of yours.”

“No, for he stayed purposely to avoid it. But the danger I left to try to draw away from the Shire came here anyway, in spite of all I did to protect it. And he was at least here to do what he could to protect our people, and I am so very, very glad—and sorry—that he did. I am so very, very proud of him, Rosa, of how brave and creative and caring he was.”

Rosamunda Took Bolger was surprised to see that Frodo indeed felt proud of his younger cousin.



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