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Guarding from Afar
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Guarding from Afar

For ChickLovesLOTR, Gamgee_fics, and Arc5's birthdays--late, but not forgotten. Beta by Aiwendiel.


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Guarding from Afar


March 14, 1419 S.R.

“What ails you, lass?” Tom Cotton demanded of his daughter.

Rosie was shaking her head, her eyes troubled. “I don’t rightly know, Dad.”

Jolly looked up from his porridge. “Her had a dream just afore she woke up, Dad. A dream about Sam.”

Tom looked back to his daughter. “Is that right, Rosie-lass?” he asked.

Reluctantly, she nodded, looking back at her own porridge, which she’d been stirring but not eating. “Saw him standin’ afore a dark arch, a sword in one hand and—and a shield of some kind in t’other. But ’tweren’t like the pot lids we’d play at swords’n’shields with when we was little ones. ’Twas a shield of light—a bright, shinin’ light such as I’ve never seen afore. No evil could pierce that shield of light and touch him. And the look in his eye----” She took a deep breath and released it as again she deliberately locked gazes with her father. “You’ve never seen such a look in the eyes o’ Sam Gamgee, Dad, never in all his born days. There was—there was power there, power such as I’ve never seen in the eyes of none I’ve ever knowed. I wouldn’t want t’be anyone as him had reason t’hate right then, not the way as he looked. He was angry, angry and frightened, though I don’t think as him was scared for hisself. No, him was scared for someone other than hisself.”

Tom considered, and finally said quietly, “Scared for his Master, then.”

She nodded as she dropped her gaze again to her breakfast. “I’d say as that were so, Dad.”

The back door opened and young Tom and Nibs came in, Tom carrying a hay fork while Nibs was armed with one of the largest scythes they owned. They leaned the tools against the wall inside the door and hurried to stand over the stove, stripping fingerless gloves from their hands. Young Tom looked over his shoulder at his father. “You were right about them Big Men thinkin’ t’come afore dawn, Dad,” he said, his eyes still smoldering with resentment. “There was about ten of them, gatherin’ together up the lane, like. Had clubs and knives, them did. They was plannin’ to spread out, and come on the house from three sides. Only had one lit torch amongst them, but one carried a bunch of others, ready to pass’em out. Planned mebbe t’ fire the barn or the house.”

“Or both,” his father said.

Nibs nodded his agreement. “They’re not quite happy with us. After all, we’ve not let them take ever’thin’ as they’d want, and them’re afraid as we might get others to stand against them. And I suspect as they know as we’re givin’ food t’those as them are tryin’ t’starve out, like the Gaffer’n’Marigold.”

Tom sighed. “You didn’t hurt none of them, did you?”

His oldest son shook his head. “Didn’t have the chance to. Them was talkin’ together, with one o’ them tellin’ the rest as to which way they was t’go once they was past the outer hedge. But suddenly they all stopped, and looked up. Thought as mayhaps you’d come out with a lantern, for suddenly we could see them clear as day. The biggest one, that one with the broke nose and the white scar on his lip, looked up, glarin’, but then stopped, his eyes gone wide. There was like a light atween us’n’them, and them was all starin’ at the light, and if they didn’t all looked right spooked! The light grew brighter, and three of them lifted their hands as if them was shieldin’ their eyes. The big one tried to bluff whatever ’twas as was facin’ them, but was as if someone was givin’ them orders as they didn’t like but wouldn’t challenge. I didn’t hear nobody talkin’ t’them, just the big’un talking back. ‘Who are you?’ him asks. ‘Why should we do what you says?’

“The light gets stronger, and all of’em was squintin’ against it. ‘We gots our orders!’ the big’un says. But the light gets still brighter, and suddenly one of them little ones, the one with the bandy legs, squeals and shouts, ‘I’m off!’ and runs away. That started it, and of a sudden they’s all runnin’ off into the night, and the one with all the torches drops them right in the lane. We got them and have them stored in the feed shed now, once them Big Men was all gone. Eight torches and three clubs and two nasty lookin’ knives. Them was comin’ t’do us harm, I’ll swear.”

The Cottons in the room all looked at one another, puzzled. “What could’a scared them off?” Jolly asked.

“Don’t know,” young Tom said. “But even the big’un with the broke nose and the scar was scared almost to wettin’ hisself, I’d say.”

Rosie suddenly shook her head, that odd smile she’d get on her face when she was thinking on her Sam clear to see. “It was Sam—Sam saved us!” she declared. “Him with that shinin’ sword and even brighter shield in his hands! The ones as I dreamt of. Sam did it!”

And nothing would sway her from her surety that somehow Sam Gamgee had managed to save the Cotton farm and family from the threat of Lotho’s Big Men.

*******


March 25, 1419 S.R.

The Binbole Forest loomed even over the squad of eighteen Big Men, noted Otis Tunnely from his place among the ten Hobbits who’d been pressed into accompanying them. The small Man called Baldry was unloading the axes, mauls, saws, and splitters from the wagon, grumbling to himself that he got all the jobs that involved real work, but doing so softly enough to be ignored by the big one with the scar on his lip who was one of Lotho’s most common lieutenants.

The Hobbits hadn’t wished to come at all. The last two weeks had been most uncomfortable. The seed sown in the fields had failed to spring, and there were no shoots in the gardens nor buds on shrubs or trees. The sky was dark and brown rather than merely grey, and although a wind from the southwest had partially cleared the air on the fifteenth, since then the unnaturally somber clouds had returned even more thickly, apparently driven from the southeast. Nor was the forest one most Hobbits freely visited. It didn’t have the friendly feel to it one found in the far more open Woody End or in most woodlots, and the evergreen trees that predominated here didn’t provide large enough sources of food to draw many Hobbits its way.

“I don’t understand as why we’ve got to cut the trees here down,” Terence Banks complained. “It’s too far here from anywheres there’s one of them new mills as might need the wood for the boilers, and it’s not handy for anyone as might want to sell the wood to anyone else for firewood or carpentry.”

Ted Sandyman spat loudly by Banks’s feet. “It’s ’cause of Baggins, can’t ye see? Baggins loved t’come here on them walks as him was always doin’. Old Lotho, him’s determined to ruin ever’ place as Baggins ever cared for.”

“Plumb fool thing to do,” muttered one of the Oatbarrows from the White Downs region, “to cut down the trees to ruin a place for someone as disappeared off into the blue the way Baggins done. Not even likely as him’s still alive, lost out there in the outer world where nothin’s sized for us Hobbits.”

The Big Man with the scarred mouth turned on the Hobbits. “Doesn’t matter if you understand or not,” he spat. “The Chief says as he wants it brought down, and the craban from the Boss what come two days agone says we’re to do what the Chief wants. Doesn’t seem t’like trees no more, the Boss doesn’t. So, we’re gonna take them down!”

Exactly why the Man spoke of Lotho as if he were two different people Otis didn’t understand, but he decided perhaps that was just as well. Instead he responded to the Big Man’s jerk of the head by going back to the wagon and choosing one of the axes intended for Hobbits, and walking beside Terence Banks he headed for the forest.

Only none of them got anywhere near the trees.

None of them had ever seen anything such as they did now, as a figure began to manifest itself before them! Almost the—individual—was familiar, more familiar than any of the Big Men with them. The face was framed by dark hair in curls to the shoulders, but with no hint of any facial hair. The eyes were lit with flame, and the body robed in white light. On the ring finger of Its upraised right hand was a circle of living golden fire, and a crown of dark fire was growing upon Its brow. And It saw what they were prepared to do, and It objected.

NO! YOU SHALL NOT DO THIS THING!

There was madness there, growing in Its gaze as the figure looked down upon them, and It stretched up before them as if It were a pillar of flame, both pure white light and dark flames encircling It in an orb, almost as if they were looking at an Eye with the figure as the slit of Its cat-like iris! And the white light and the dark flames swirled around It as if they fought one another!

The sheer power of the figure before them froze them to immobility, and axes, mauls, saws, and splitters fell from nerveless fingers. Suddenly there was a wind from the west so strong that it almost knocked them all flat, and the earth trembled under their feet. The trees before them bent before the onslaught of the wind, and there was a creaking and groaning of limbs such as none of them had ever heard before. Otis smelled urine, and he realized that Baldry, who was almost abreast of himself and Terence Banks, had wet himself in his terror. Several of the Big Men and a few of the Hobbits were gibbering in the extremes of their horror. Suddenly Baldry broke from his frozen state, and with a shriek of fear that was horrible to hear he began to run, and the rest of the Men followed his example. Baldry did not make it far—he tripped over a mattock dropped by one of his fellows; and the leader, with his twisted nose and the scar across his mouth, managed to pound right over the smaller Man as if Baldry were merely a stone to be run across, and at least three others followed him over Baldry’s felled body. The Hobbits remained but a half an instant longer, petrified by the figure looming between themselves and the wood and the amazement they felt at seeing the fear of the Big Men to be more than even the Hobbits were experiencing. Suddenly the Hobbits scattered. In his last glimpse cast over his shoulder as he ran, Otis saw the figure at the center of the orb of dark and white light twisting and writhing as if It were struggling with Itself even as the trees behind It bent and shuddered in the wind, and that sight so added to his terror that he did not look back again!

It had been midmorning when they approached the wood, and it was after nightfall before he realized he was a mere half mile from his own farm. Somehow in the blindness of his flight Otis Tunnely had managed to head for home!

*******


Mid-February, 1420

One of the Big Men who had come from Dunland hid out with a few of his fellows who also had not come from Isengard in the caves and tunnels near Scary where months earlier Fredegar Bolger and his band of rebels had taken refuge. The Hobbits who followed Captains Pippin and Merry in search of remnants of Lotho and Sharkey’s forces smoked them out much as the Men had done with Fatty’s troop. The Man threw down his weapon once he realized that all of the Hobbits about him were skilled archers, and that the two tall Hobbits who led them were comfortable with the swords they held. Those swords might not be much longer than the knives possessed by the Men, but none of the Men was trained in proper use of their weapons. They’d not needed skill with blades to lord it over the Hobbits of the Shire prior to the return of the Travellers; now they were clearly outmatched, and none was willing to face the ire of those who’d captured them.

They were marched east along the Road, taking refuge from the cold in barns or cowsheds at night. Word came to their guards that the Master of Buckland wished to interrogate the prisoners once they reached Kingsbridge, so they continued traveling an hour after sundown that night rather than stopping just ere the light failed as they’d been doing.

The Shirriff House was gone—that was the first thing the Men noticed. They were led into the recently reopened Bridge Inn’s common room where a number of important looking Hobbits sat at tables, eating and drinking, and going over a number of documents laid out before them amidst the plates and cups. In the eyes of these Hobbits they saw not the surprise they’d seen in the first Halflings they’d encountered upon entering the Shire, nor the growing fear they’d become accustomed to after the first month of their occupation of this little rat-land. No, these Hobbits, who were leaner than the fat Mayor had been, looked upon them with disdain and authority, for all they were dressed plainly compared with many they’d seen in Hobbiton and Michel Delving. These were Hobbits who themselves worked hard and had earned the respect of their people.

With them were two Men of a far different sort than were the prisoners, tall and slender, warriors born and bred, who moved with the precision of swordsmen and whose grey eyes examined the Dunlending and his fellows thoroughly and dispassionately. The Dunlending shivered and looked away, suddenly finding the cracked toes of his own boots to be of great interest.

He and his six fellows were directed to sit down upon the floor, which they did awkwardly, their hands being tied before them. An employee of the Inn made his way amongst them, giving each a bread roll filled with sliced beef and cheese, then returning to give each a mug of soft cider. The Men had become accustomed to feeding themselves by this time even with their hands bound, and they made short work of the meal provided them. When all were done, the seated Hobbits and the two Men began to question them.

“Who are you? Where did you come from? Who approached you with the suggestion that you come north to seek your fortune? When were you first recruited to enter the Shire to put yourselves at the service of Lotho Sackville-Baggins, who’d styled himself the Chief? Did you take part in the assault on Bree? Did you ever kill any Men or Hobbits dwelling in any of the lands through which you traveled, or in the Breelands or here in the Shire? What were you required to do by the Chief or Sharkey to intimidate or take reprisals on those who did not easily give in to your threats? What were you expected to do in destroying the woods, fields, and farms of the Shire?”

The interrogation was prolonged and intense, and one of the Men and two of the Hobbits were kept busy making a record of the questions asked and the answers given.

In time the Dunlending found himself describing the planned assault upon a farm near Bywater. “Was owned by some farmer who’d made the Chief mad, I’d say,” he explained. He paused, noting that one of the two Hobbit Captains had entered the room and was crossing toward those seated at the table. One of the older Hobbits rose to his feet, a smile on his face.

“Welcome, Merry. It would appear you and Pippin and the Tooks got yourself quite an interesting group of Big Men this time.”

The one addressed as Merry did not appear to be living up to his name at the moment as he looked over the seven Men seated upon the floor. “At least none of these appear to have orc blood in them,” he observed. He accepted a mug being pressed into his hand. “Pippin has gone off to Bywater to report to the deputy Mayor on what we found this time.”

“I hope that Frodo finds it interesting,” the older Hobbit said. “It appears that this individual was involved in an unsuccessful planned assault on a farm in Bywater.” The Dunlending was somehow discomfited to find himself the one being indicated as being involved in the situation.

Merry examined him critically. “And just whose farm was it that was being involved?” he asked.

The Man shrugged. “Somebody what was named after a cloth,” he answered. “Had a big farm northwest of the village. Was suspected of slippin’ food into those what the Chief thought was the worst ones fer hatin’ him.”

“There’s no Woolyfoots anywhere near Bywater,” the older one said. “They live in the western Marish district and down near Pincup.”

But Merry was shaking his head, his eyes alight. “Was it the Cottons?” he asked, his tone intense.

The Dunlending shrugged. “Coulda been. Had a pretty gal, but wouldn’t let her run free o’ the place most of the time. Bred ponies and grew lots of grain.”

“That’s the Cottons, all right,” Merry said, his eyes meeting those of the older Hobbit. “They’d intended to go after Tom and Lily Cotton and their children. Trust Lotho to remember those who’d caught him stealing from their stall in the marketplace and made him pay. Plus Rosie would never give him the time of day, and was all but promised to Sam.”

“If they were friends of Frodo’s, you know they were on Pimple’s list,” the older Hobbit said in a grim voice. “Seems, though, that they weren’t successful.” He turned back to the prisoner and asked, “What stopped you?”

The Dunlending shrugged and his mouth worked. He’d managed to put the whole incident out of his mind for months at a time. But he couldn’t resist the determined expressions of those facing him. “Was sumthin’ strange,” he admitted. “Pankin was givin’ orders, like, and Baldry had a bunch o’ torches all set fer us t’light t’use on the roof and the barn and all. But just as Pankin was gettin’ ready to give us the signal, there’s this great warrior, right there in front of us, come outa nowhere! Niver seen nothin’ like it b’fore, b’lieve me! Had a sword what was a blue fire, an’ a shield o’ white flame, and a breastplate o’ gold! Asked us what we was doin’ there an’ told us t’git, and that sword’n’ shield was too bright t’look at! Baldry finally couldn’t take no more of it, and the plain fool took off’s fast as his legs’d let him, and we took off after him. Even Pankin give up when there was no one left t’stand wit’ him. When the Chief wanted t’know what for we’d not burned’em out, Pankin tol’ him that the Boss’d sent a crow and said t’leave the farmers alone exceptin’ them what was fightin’, that we needed what food them’d grow. The Chief, him was purty mad we’d let’m be, but wasn’t nothing him c’d do t’make us go agin the Boss.”

The older Hobbit looked at the one named Merry and asked, “Who is this Boss of theirs?”

Merry’s expression was stern. “Saruman—the one they all called Sharkey here. He used great gorecrows to spy for him, and apparently to carry messages and his orders as well. Out there they call these crows crebain, and nobody trusts them. We told you that he was the one really calling the shots during the occupation, even before he reached the Shire.” He returned his attention to the Dunlending. “When did this happen?”

The Man shrugged. “Dunno. Mebbe a year gorn.”

“In the winter or the spring?”

The Dunlending thought. “Should of been spring, but it was like spring didn’t wanna start. It was March, day b’fore the south wind, and mebbe ten days, two weeks b’fore the day the clouds broke. Didn’t know that you folk had haints here’bouts.”

The Hobbits exchanged looks. “What are haints?” asked one who’d been taking notes.

The Man wondered how he could explain. “Spooks. Like wraiths, but don’ have t’be black. Ghosts!”

“Wights? Like those who are supposed to be in the Barrow-downs?” asked the older Hobbit.

The one called Merry shuddered. “Believe me, Dad, there are wights there. And you don’t want to meet them! But this doesn’t sound like those, not at all! No proper wight would think to defend anyone.”

Dad? Oh, so this older one was the Master of Buckland, then. No wonder he was asking most of the questions.

The one Man who’d taken part in the general questioning had risen from the bench on which he sat and stepped closer where he could examine the Dunlending more thoroughly. “You said it was on the day before the south wind. What did you mean by that?”

The Dunlending shrugged. “Don’t know what the weather was like out there, but here the sky was gone all dark, but brownish. All the clouds come from the southeast, and the winds was mostly steady. But one day the winds changed, and come from due south, southwest instead. But that was only in the late afternoon. Next day the wind come around southeast agin.”

The Man had a smile of recognition on his face. “The day we came up the river from Pelargir to Minas Tirith, the wind changed for us, blowing from the south and the west rather than directly from the east, directly from Mordor. The sky cleared that day as we drove Sauron’s troops back and back, and finally won the battle before the gates of the White City. But, as he says, the next day the wind blew again from the east.”

Merry was nodding. “The day of the Battle of the Pelennor,” he said. “We arrived at dawn, Theoden King’s forces. I remember hearing calls that ships were coming up the river, and all seemed to believe they were reinforcements for the enemy. But friends came off those ships instead! That was you, with Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli and all.”

“Yes. And if you will recall, Lord Mithrandir was able to establish while we were returning northward that on that day Lord Perhael entered Mordor carrying the Enemy’s weapon, and he said that It sought to beguile him with the fancy that if he would claim It he could summon an army to raise their swords with him!”

Merry gave a brief laugh, shaking his head in dismissal. “Oh, I can just see Sam Gamgee at the head of an army! He’s right—he’d not have known what to do with them, not like Strider or Théoden King or Éomer and all the other true captains. But if It was doing to him what It did to Frodo—showing him things that were happening elsewhere, trying to distract him….” He gave a twisted smile. “Once again Its own will to evil betrayed Its best interests, it seems.” He returned his attention to the Dunlending. “Perhaps a—haint, as you called it, but not one destined to allow evil to be wrought in its presence. Did you know any other strange—hauntings—while you served as one of Lotho’s Big Men?”

But the Master interrupted. “Wait, Merry—you’re saying that you know what this Man saw, and it was—--”

“Yes! Frodo had been poisoned, and he thought Frodo was dead, so he took Sting and put his own sword beside him, and he took—It—and had put Its chain around his neck. He knew It had to go to the Mountain, and he was the only one who could take it, if Frodo was dead, I mean.”

“But what is all this about golden breastplates and swords of blue flame and shields of light?”

Merry sighed and gave his head a shake. “You’ve never seen Sting anywhere close to any orcs, or goblins, that is. But it glows blue when there are orcs nearby. I’m telling you, Dad—I’ve seen it myself! There in Moria it did look as if Frodo had a sword of blue flame while we fought the goblins and that dratted troll! And the shield of light was the starglass the Lady gave Frodo when we left Lórien, I’m certain of it. As for the golden breastplate….” He looked off into the middle distance, and at last said softly, “That was It, on Its chain. The orc who saw him in the tower thought he’d seen a great Elf warrior, because with—It—there, It made him look bigger, and scary. And little seems to frighten orcs more than Elf warriors.”

“But Sam Gamgee has never had a sword----”

“All of us were given swords, Dad, when we were in the Barrow-downs. They came out of one of the barrows. That’s where the ones Sam and Pippin carry came from. Frodo’s broke when he fell from Asfaloth’s saddle at the Ford of Bruinen, and mine was lost on the Pelennor. Bilbo gave Frodo Sting to carry since he’d probably need a sword to protect himself once we headed south and east, and this one,” he looked down at the sword he wore at his waist, “the Lady Éowyn and Éomer King had it made for me after they knighted me.”

He turned to face his father directly. “Frodo had given Sam the starglass to hold so he could see to cut the spider’s web, and when he ran on once the web was cut he let Sam carry it after him. So, after Sam thought Frodo was dead, he kept the starglass in case he might need its light. I suppose it’s some kind of Elf magic, but it will glow brightly for Frodo and Sam when they hold it in their hands. And Sting was made a long time ago by one of the Elven smiths, and the protective spell laid upon it makes it glow when enemies are near at hand. I can’t explain more than that, not right now.”

The Master’s face was pale. “What were you doing in the Barrow-downs, Meriadoc Brandybuck?”

Merry’s voice was husky. “We got lost in a fog, and had to be rescued. And that’s all I will say about it. But it’s how I know what barrow-wights are like.” He closed his eyes, rubbing at his right hand and arm with his left briefly before he turned back to the Dunlending prisoner. “I’d asked—were there any other hauntings you saw?”

The Man nodded reluctantly. “One other—the day the clouds broke.” His voice sounded brittle to his own ears. “The Chief—he’d took it in his head t’cut down a woods—a big woods. Some’ere this Hobbit he hated liked to go, it seems. Summon named Baggers, I think.”

The expressions of the Men and Hobbits facing him had all changed, some looking knowing, others gone decidedly cool. He swallowed and continued. “I wasn’t workin’ there near the Chief’s place no more—got m’self moved t’Michel Delving and worked mostly with those what were in the Lockholes.” Again expressions were changing, and he had the idea that perhaps he ought not to have revealed that. “Anyways,” he said, trying to push on past his uncertainty, “one day Pankin and Bardly show up wit’ a wagonful o’ axes and all, and tells us we’re t’go off to cut down some trees fer the Chief what he wants felled. Said that Hobbits was t’help, so we got some of’em what worked with the Gathering and Sharing and we head off to this forest what nobody goes to much. Takes us a time t’get there. When we do, one o’ the Hobbits don’t unnerstand why, and that Sandy-fella says as Lotho hates this Bagger—or whatever ’is name is, and wants it cut down. Another one asks why or somethin’ like that, and says that the one what the Chief hates is most likely dead, havin’ run off into the blue. Pankin just tells us t’get movin’, ’cause the Boss sent a crow sayin’ he hates trees now and wants ’em all cut down.”

Merry gave a huff. “I’d wager he would have a grudge against trees at that point,” he said. “We saw what the forest did to Isengard, after all.”

The other Hobbits all looked at him questioningly, but Merry merely indicated to the Dunlending that he should continue. The Man licked his lips before speaking again. “We went and got the axes and mauls, saws, splitters and all, and were headin’ fer the woods when it all changes. Now, it was the darkest day yet, y’know, an’ the air was sullen. Suddenly, there’s no sound—no sound at all, at all! An’—an’ then there’s this—this person in front o’us, tall, dark hair in curls t’his shoulders, like. Was all in white, white bright ’nough t’blind ye. I ain’t niver, niver seen nothin’ like that, niver!” He realized he was trembling, and he had to swallow before he could continue his story. “Whoever it was, whatever it was, it was more’n a bit mad, I’d say. It’s eyes—they just wasn’t sane! Filled with flame. Raised its hand, and had a ring o’fire on it.”

Merry had raised his hand to his throat, his face horrified, his mouth working. “Oh, no!” he almost whimpered.

Having started, the Dunlending couldn’t stop. “An’ it told us we weren’t to do this thing! We was all stopped, Men an’ Hobbits---all stopped stock still! None’ve us coulda moved if we’d tried. An’ then—an’ then----” He stretched as tall as he could, sitting on the floor as he was. But he had to explain, somehow, he knew.

“You hafta unnerstand—there in Dunland, we know ’bout t’Eye! They come, those sent from the Black Tower, an’ they always got the sign o’ t’Eye on’em, the Red Eye wit’the black slit. We seen it—seen it too much, y’ask me! This was like that, like the Eye, but differ’nt. There was white light ’round this one, white light’n dark flames, an’ it was like the light an’ t’flames, they was fightin’ one another! An’ there was like a crown o’flames, the dark flames o’ t’Eye, tryin’ to circle his head, but the light din’t want that there. An he—he ­howled, and twisted! Like he was fightin’ himself! It was—it was more’n we c’d stand. Baldry broke first, o’course, but he tripped and wen’ flat on’is face, and Pankin and two others ran right over him! I don’t think I stopped ’til I reached the Shirriff House in Michel Delving! It was like lookin’ at t’Eye, but all gone wrong, white ’stead o’red, the eye slit white ’stead o’ black! And the wind—it’d started t’blow, blow fit t’knock a Man on’is jug! An’ there was a howlin’----”

The room went quiet, and all stared at him, and then at Merry, who was gone pale as a wight himself, and was swaying, moaning softly to himself, the only sound to be heard.

The Dunlending thought he discerned a name: “Frodo!” And tears flowed from the tall young Hobbit’s eyes.

The Man who’d been in on the questioning took a step forward. “Sir Meriadoc?” he said.

But the Master waved him back as he left his place at the table and stepped forward to embrace his son, pain, sympathy, and caring so obvious on his face. “It’s all right, my dear Merry-lad, it’s all right. Sa, sa! Let it out. You are home, and Frodo is home, and Pippin and Sam are home now, too, and safe. It’s all right. Whatever was trying to take him—it didn’t get him, did it?”

One of the Hobbits who’d been sitting by the Master rose and went to one of those who’d been standing to one side near the service bar and spoke quietly to him for a moment. This one went behind the bar and drew four mugs of ale. One he set aside, but he carried the others out on a tray, giving one to the surprised Dunlending, and taking the others to the Master and his exceptionally tall son. He stood there for a few minutes as Merry calmed, and at last the Master let him go, saw the one there with the mugs of ale, gave him a nod of thanks, took one and pressed it into Merry’s hand, took the other for himself, and led his son back to the table where he pressed the younger Hobbit into the chair he’d vacated, taking the one his fellow had quitted. The server went back behind the bar, picked up the fourth mug and downed it, and wiped his eyes. Merry fished a square of cloth out of a pocket and wiped his eyes and blew his nose before taking a healthy swallow of his drink.

After taking a few sips of his own ale, the Master finally spoke, his voice rather rough, but gentle. “On the day the clouds broke, your mother was trying to dust the chandeliers in one of the common rooms. It was dark—so dark under those dead, brown clouds. It was dark and sultry. No one could work long under them, no one! At last she couldn’t do any more. There was no wind, no sound—nothing. She felt her heart stop, and—and she saw Frodo, wrapped in a filthy grey cloak tied around him with a silver rope.”

Merry, who’d been looking at his lap, raised his eyes to meet those of the Master. His father gave him a brief, sad smile, and said, “You know that your mum inherited the Took Sight. I’d expected you to inherit it, too, considering that you have a double dose of the Old Took in your background, having two of his children as great grandparents, after all. I think at times it’s there for you, but it’s stronger in Pippin than it is in you. But, then, one day he most likely will succeed his father as the Thain.” After Merry gave him a brief smile, he continued, “It’s rather odd that the Took Sight has been stronger in Bilbo than it ever was in Ferumbras or than it is in Paladin. Gramma Mirabella once told me that when he was a little lad she was certain she’d seen it in Bilbo, but that it didn’t seem to be anywhere as strong once he was an adult. I suspect that this was due to the fact that he’d done his best to suppress it as he approached his majority. After all, at the time he was very intent on being a proper Baggins indeed, and ‘Knowing Things Ahead of Time can be Disturbing,’ as Aunt Dora would put it.”

There was a scattering of chuckles about the room. Merry gave a wan smile.

“Imagine that the strongest case of Took Sight that’s been seen since old Gerontius was Thain has been displayed by a Baggins, for there’s no question but that Frodo’s always had it. But then Frodo has been gifted strongly with so many of the Fallohide traits, after all. While you were gone your mother worried so for you and for Pippin, but she felt that the greatest danger lay ahead for Frodo.”

Merry murmured, “Yes, that was true. We were all in danger, and we all almost died there at the end of the fighting; but it was worst for Frodo. The Enemy wanted him, and did his best to take him. First there was the Morgul shard, and if we’d not reached Rivendell in time Frodo would have been lost to us—not dead, Dad, but truly lost nonetheless. Then he was poisoned by the spider when they were ready to enter Mordor, and Sam thought he was dead until he overheard some orcs discussing the kinds of poisons the spider used and how Frodo would most likely wake up in a few hours, so Sam set about to rescue him. Then, at the very last the—It—finally took him. If that horrible Gollum hadn’t been there it would have been all over, Dad—the Enemy would have taken Frodo and gotten his weapon back, and then the truly Dark Days would have come again the way they did in the Second Age.”

The Master nodded uncertainly, and cleared his throat. “I see,” he responded. He looked off thoughtfully, and finally returned his attention to his son. “When your Mum saw Frodo, she, too, saw that something was taking him. The grey cloak changed to white robes, and there was a crown of mixed darkness and light that was being woven about his brow, same as this fellow said. She told me she knew that if that crown managed to finish forming that Frodo would be lost to us.” At Merry’s nod, he gave a shuddering sigh. “Only something happened, didn’t it?”

“I told you—if Gollum hadn’t been there, that would have been it. He was trying only to get his treasure back, but in taking it he managed to save Frodo.”

“Bilbo’s Gollum?”

“Yes, Bilbo’s Gollum. He’d been traveling all through Middle Earth, looking for the Baggins he believed stole his Precious, and he found us when we entered Moria and followed after us—after Frodo.”

“Where is he now?”

“Dead, bless him.”

“How?”

“He died after he attacked Frodo. It was what saved Frodo, him being attacked by Gollum.”

The Master squeezed his eyes shut. “The stars bless him!”

“Which, Frodo or Gollum?”

“Both?”

They searched one another’s faces, father and son, and gave matching twisted smiles.

The tall Man cleared his throat. “So, somehow, while they carried the Enemy’s weapon, they appear to have become aware of the danger threatening here in the Shire and managed to—interfere?”

Merry rose to his feet, turning toward the Man. “Yes, Lord Faradir, that is what appears to have happened.

Lord Faradir gave a single slow nod of his head. “Then I shall so advise the King. I am certain that our Lord King Elessar will be interested in this report.”

Merry again gave a twisted smile. “I suspect that you are correct, my Lord.”

They all turned to examine the seated prisoners. “What’s to be done with these, then?” asked one of the seated Hobbits.

Lord Faradir said, “With your permission I will take them away and question them, after which I suspect that all of them will be allowed to go free, as long as they are willing to return to their own lands and trouble no one either here in the north or in Rohan or Gondor ever again.”

“But they did some terrible things to some of our people!” objected the one who’d brought the ale.

Merry, the Master, and Lord Faradir exchanged meaningful looks, and at last the Man answered, “Perhaps they did. However, the Lord Iorhael has made it clear that he does not wish ill treatment to be rewarded with more of the same, and I will see his will done.”

The Dunlending wasn’t precisely certain what all of this meant, but he found himself grateful to this mysterious and apparently powerful Lord Iorhael for his mercy. As he and his fellows were prodded to their feet, he commented quietly to one of his former comrades, “I don’t have no objections t’goin’ home and stayin’ there, do you?”

“None!” the other Dunlander answered. “Wherever he is, hope that he rests well t’night.”

***


As Frodo settled himself under the covers of the bed in the room given to his use at the Cotton’s house, he found himself smiling, and indeed his dreams that night were filled with images of light-filled beings who showed him beautiful things, although the next morning he could not say what it was they had showed to him.

[Index]

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