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62
It Was a Dark and Stormy Night ...

For Febobe, Shelley, Arc5, and TracyClaybon for their birthdays, and for Tallis, who wanted such a tale.


~~~

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night ...


Frodo wasn’t in the Mayor’s office when Merimac Brandybuck and his wife Adamanta arrived there from Buckland late one rainy afternoon in February. “He’s gone back to Will and Mina’s house,” advised Hildegard Took, who was one of the Took lawyers helping Frodo go through the backlog of contracts, sales agreements, apprenticeship indentures, wills, and so on that had built up during the months Lotho’s Big Men had held Mayor Whitfoot prisoner in the Lockholes. “He’s been fighting a headache much of the day. I suspect that it’s the weather that’s caused it.”

Mantha was surprised. “Frodo hasn’t been subject to headaches for years,” she objected.

Hillie shrugged. “I certainly don’t remember him having such things often at all before, but he has them now. He did take some contracts with him to review, although I hope that he’ll just let them lie for the evening. He works too hard, and would do well with a good night’s sleep.”

While Mac presented the documents his brother Saradoc, as Master of Buckland, had sent to be registered and filed, Mantha indicated she would go to the Whitfoot house to check up on their cousin. She hurried back out of the Council Hole, paused to evaluate the wind and rain, pulled the hood of her travel cloak over her head, and ran as quickly as she could to Will and Mina’s door.

Mina Whitfoot opened the door at her knock, and immediately invited her in. “You just arrived from Buckland? Do wipe your feet well there—you don’t want them wet, I know. Fancy coming all that way in this weather! Frodo? Oh, he’s gone back to his room. Has a nasty headache, not that he wanted to admit to it, of course. But there’s no mistaking the signs. And his shoulder seems to be aching abominably as well. I was just fixing up a cold cloth for him to place over his eyes. Would you like to take it back to him? I’m certain as he’ll be glad enough to see some family today. They’ve been going through several of the contracts as that Timono Bracegirdle and Marco Smallburrow wrote up and presented for Lotho’s benefit. Who could imagine as Hobbits of the Shire would be so quick to take advantage of others in such a manner?”

As she led the way through the kitchen she paused to advise Will, who sat in front of the kitchen fire with one leg propped up on a padded stool, “You remember Adamanta Goodbody Brandybuck, don’t you, Will? She’s come to see Frodo! You two came on Brandybuck business, didn’t you, you and Mac?” she asked, turning to address Mantha.

“Oh, yes—Sara had us bring some of the documents from last summer that we weren’t able to get here then, of course, what with Lotho’s ruffians blockading the Brandywine as they did. It’s the first I’ve been out of Buckland in what seems forever!”

Mina’s eyes were shadowed as she responded, “Oh, but we do understand. No one was able to do much of anything, not while they were in charge. Here, let me take your cloak and hang it here near the fender—’twill be warm and dry in no time. And here’s the cloth for Frodo’s eyes. I soaked it in rosewater and comfrey. I do hope it will help. He has a mug of his tea there for him to drink already. Here—just this way, and through that door.”

Mantha knocked at the indicated door, and at a muffled word from inside she opened it and went in.

Frodo sat on a padded wooden chair at a small table, looking down at a bound document, a single candle lighting the page he was studying. Her first impression was of how much he had matured while he was gone. His face no longer appeared unusually youthful, and his expression was far more serious than she remembered him ever looking. He appeared so very serious! When had she ever seen him look so serious? She didn’t think that even in the dark days before Bilbo brought him away from Brandy Hall to live in Bag End had Frodo Baggins appeared so solemn and determined. As for his hair—well, there were a goodly number of white hairs to be seen in it, and particularly at the temples. His face was thinner than it had been, with decided hollows in the cheeks and in the temple area, and there was a definite furrow between his brows that was new. As for his eyes----

Not since his parents died had his eyes been so shadowed!

She did her best to hide her surprise and dismay. Instead, she tried for a light tone. “Hello, Frodo dearest. Missus Whitfoot asked me to bring this to you—she is certain that you have been suffering from a headache, and she believes that if you will consent to lie down with this across your eyes it will help to ease it.” She held out the thick, cool cloth.

Frodo eyed it uncomfortably. “It’s nothing I can’t bear with, Mantha,” he said.

She widened her eyes at him. “And just why must you bear with a headache, Frodo? Is that a loan agreement, one of those that allowed Lotho to take possession of someone else’s property? It can wait, can’t it? I mean, Frodo, that we all know by now that Timono Bracegirdle and Marco Smallburrow were deep in the plot with Lotho to take control of the Shire and to rob our citizens of their property and comfort. All that is is far more sour icing upon the cake, isn’t it?”

“It is the loan agreement that allowed Lotho to turn Odovacar and Rosamunda Bolger out of Budge Hall.”

She paused. Oh, but that was definitely one of Lotho’s far fouler moves. Even Ponto and Iris Baggins had been allowed to remain in their own home, although they’d been made to pay an exorbitant rent, from what she’d been told by Ponto’s recently widowed brother-in-law, Milo Burrows. Poor Peony—she’d simply faded away in shock and shame, once she realized that her gossiping to that old harridan Lobelia had helped Lotho convince her brother to accept a loan guaranteed by the deed to Ponto and Iris’s smial, in which a clause had been written allowing Lotho to take possession of the deed should he ever become Master of Bag End. Peony had died late in the spring. Then in the autumn Lobelia found herself inhabiting one of the old storerooms in the storage tunnels in Michel Delving that Lotho and his creatures had dubbed the Lockholes. Not even being Lotho’s mother had kept her safe! “I still find it difficult to fathom why Lotho acted so hatefully to so many,” she said.

“He hated me, and sought to punish me through behaving terribly toward anyone he knew I especially cared for and who cared for me in return,” Frodo sighed, closing the volume with an air of finality. “Although he and his fellows appear to have allowed themselves to become particularly greedy for anything of any value they could get their hands upon.”

“Why did they take so much food?” Mantha asked.

Frodo was rubbing his fingertips against his forehead—yes, that headache was definitely bothering him. “I suspect at first it was done on the orders of Saruman—the one everybody here called Sharkey. He had been building a terrible army with which he’d intended to take over the country next to where he lived, after which they apparently were intended to go eastward to attack Gondor from the northwest while Mordor and its other allies attacked from the east and south. Once they were done there I think that Sharkey intended to bring his army northward. An army such as he brought together needs a good deal of food, and Merry and Pippin tell me that they found at least one storeroom within his keep that was filled with provisions brought at least in part from the Shire. It’s where all the food and pipeweed and other goods ended up that disappeared from the Shire the summer before we four left through the Old Forest.”

“That Sharkey fellow was a warlord?” The idea repulsed the Hobbitess.

“He’d certainly become one by the time we became aware of him.”

“And you first heard of him down south, where you four went?”

Frodo was already shaking his head. “I had heard of him—in passing—from Gandalf a few times. He was the chief of Gandalf’s order, the head Wizard, if you will. And Gandalf had always held him in deepest respect, although it seems they hadn’t seen one another for some time.” He now was rubbing at his eyes. “I know,” he breathed, “that I could indeed do without this headache.” He reached out for the mug upon his desk and drank deeply from it. “The tea usually helps,” he said, eyeing the mug again once it was back in its place, “but this time it doesn’t appear to be doing much good.”

“Then perhaps you should do as Mina suggests and lie down for a time with this over your eyes, dearling. You do look to be in quite a bit of discomfort.” As he rose, far too slowly and stiffly for her satisfaction, she asked, “The tea is medicinal, then?”

He started to nod, but stopped with a grimace of pain as he turned to sit gingerly upon the edge of the bed. “I’m not certain whether Aragorn or Lord Elrond taught Sam how to make it, but it’s similar to several versions of supposed tea they’d been giving me for some time. A thinly disguised draught, I suppose. For a time I refused to accept any draughts at all, so all of a sudden they simply saw to it that I always had some special tea or other beside me.” He swiveled to lie with his head upon his pillow, and she could see the misery in his eyes.

“You never used to need draughts, Frodo Baggins,” she said as she came to settle the cool, damp cloth over his eyes. “You became ill while you were away, then? You’ve not been seriously ill for years.”

He gave an abbreviated shake to his head. “Not ill so much as injured, Mantha.” He swallowed.

She pulled the chair about and sat upon it, her hands folded together on her lap. Outside, the wind rattled at the shutters, and the rain beat a distinct tattoo. “Injured?” she asked, again deliberately keeping her tone as light as she could. She’d learned during Frodo’s last two years at Brandy Hall that it didn’t do with Frodo Baggins to make a question about how he felt sound serious. “It doesn’t appear to have been a serious injury. You look quite fit. Thinner, yes—but no more so, I must say, than when you were a lad in the Hall. But I must suppose that it is hard to get regular meals out in the outer lands.”

He gave a brief, painful laugh, and she was glad he couldn’t see her flinch, what with the cloth over his eyes. “And we’ve been back in the Shire since the fall. Don’t you think that in four months I should have begun to look more a proper Hobbit once more, Adamanta? Mina has never tried to stint me, nor the Cottons, either.” He was quiet for a minute or two. At last he said, “I just can’t eat as I once did. They tell me that it happens sometimes, when a person has been through the types of—experiences—that Sam and I went through.”

“And who are they who tell you this, Frodo?”

A small shrug. “Aragorn, Lord Elrond, Lord Elrond’s sons, the healers in Minas Tirith. We were given a house to live in next to one of the healers who went with Aragorn to the Black Gate and who helped with those who had been injured during the battle, and who saw to Sam, Pippin, and me as we recovered. He and Aragorn both have told me that having to breathe the air where we were alone was enough to damage my digestion. Sam was able to recover more fully and has regained much of his weight. But he didn’t suffer all that I did.”

It was difficult to continue her pretense of mild interest. “Pippin? Was he injured, too?”

“Yes. He almost was crushed, poor lad. You should have seen him when Sam and I awoke—he was still sporting a good deal of bruises, most of them going yellow as they healed, thank the stars.”

The shutter rattled particularly hard, and Frodo shuddered.

It took her a moment before she could respond. Her mouth felt dry. “He looks quite fine now, I must say. He and Merry both appear to be magnificently well now, what with how much they’ve both grown. Who could have imagined that little Peregrin Took could grow so tall in just over a year? Why, we’d all thought he’d never be much taller than Bilbo, who wasn’t a particularly tall Hobbit, if you’ll remember.”

At last she saw a smile upon his lips. “Oh, I know. You should have seen Bilbo standing there in Lord Elrond’s house when we stopped there on our way back, his head cocked and his hands on his hips, giving Merry and Pippin both a bit of last minute advice. ‘And don’t let your heads grow too large for your hats!’ he told them, before noting that as tall as they both are now they are likely to find hats and other clothing a good deal more expensive, what with all the extra cloth needed to make them a suit of clothes any more.” His laugh this time sounded more like him, and she laughed along with him.

“Yes,” she said, “Merry said that you’d all seen Bilbo there in Rivendell. How wonderful, to think that he’s lived there all these years! Still intent on passing up the Old Took, is he?”

His nod was more normal. “Yes. He has always wanted to live longer than his grandfather.” He reached up and rubbed briefly at his forehead, and she saw for the first time the gap where his one finger had been lost. She swallowed hard. Who had so damaged their Frodo?! If she ever managed to find the one who’d done this she’d—she’d—well, she would make him pay, somehow!

She cleared her throat. “This Aragorn you all speak of sounds to be rather marvelous.”

Again he smiled, and his voice was softer when he answered. “He is, Mantha. I’d never dreamed that there were Men such as he is. Terrifying and caring by turns, the greatest warrior among Men born this whole last Age of the Sun, they tell me, and the greatest healer among Men as well.”

“And who has told you this?”

“The Elves who raised him.”

She thought for a moment. “Why would Elves raise a Man?”

Frodo was now rubbing at his left shoulder as if it, too, were aching some. “His father died when he was a toddler—that’s what Men call their children we’d refer to as faunts. Aragorn is the last of the line of Kings, the latest of the descendants of Lord Elros Tar-Minyatur, who was the brother to Elrond, the Master of Rivendell. Elrond is counted among the lords among Elves as his brother was counted as among the lords among Men, and since the return of the Sea Kings to Middle Earth he has always cared for his brother’s descendants. Because Sauron sought ever to kill those of that lineage, after the death of Lord Arathorn Elrond took Aragorn and his mother into his house to keep the child safe until he was old enough to return to take on the rule of his people, and to help prepare him for the last battles. He didn’t tell us who he was when we met him, and only after we were given a letter from Gandalf telling us we could trust Aragorn did he admit that he knew the Wizard. Sam didn’t trust him for quite a while, I’m afraid, although they are now best of friends. Who would have ever dreamed that a gardener would become a special friend to the King Returned?” He smiled, and they were quiet for a minute or two.

Adamanta glanced around the room and saw a pair of brushes on the clothes chest. She reached to pick up the foot brush, saying, “Who would think that the King would return?”

Again he laughed. “We can’t say when the King returns and mean never in your wildest dreams any more, can we?”

She again laughed with him. “I suppose not. Here, let me brush your feet for you. You always liked to have your mother brush them when you were a little one.”

She could see the furrow in his brow reappear briefly. “Yes, she used to do that to help me calm down when she felt I was growing too excited.” His brow smoothed, and his mouth grew gentle. “I missed her doing that after—after the accident.”

She turned and shifted her chair, and found herself caught by the beauty of the brush she held in her hand. “Oh, my,” she said, her tone breathless with wonder. “But this brush is truly a work of art! Where on earth did you come by it?”

Were his ears going pink? They were! He licked his lips before explaining, “Aragorn had sets made for each of us, as parting gifts. Although the artisans who made them wouldn’t accept any payment for them.”

“Why not?” she asked as she turned the brush in her hand.

“They were made by a couple, a husband and wife, who lived in the Second Circle. Their son went with the army to fight before the Black Gate. One of the great Uruks, the largest and most evil of goblin warriors, had knocked him down and was leaning over him, preparing to bite out his throat, when—when It went into the Fire. When that happened almost all of the truly evil creatures stopped fighting, and the Uruk who was preparing to kill the young Man stopped with the rest. He stood quite still, surprised by the withdrawal of the Enemy’s attention, and the young Man was able to scramble to his feet and kill the Uruk before it could run away with so many of its fellows. His parents were so grateful to have their son return alive and mostly unscathed that they would do anything for those of us they felt were responsible for his survival. When Aragorn explained why he wanted these sets of brushes made they threw themselves into making them the most exquisite they could manage.”

Adamanta turned the brush in her hand. “This isn’t bone,” she said tentatively.

“No, it is ivory. It is made from one of the tusks from an oliphaunt. And the bristles are also mostly from oliphaunts as well, although some are boars bristles, I’m told. The Southrons brought fighting oliphaunts with them from Harad, and all that made it to the battle of the Pelennor were killed. A few of the tusks were given to the King of Rohan, whose people did the most to kill the beasts, and others were given to some of the guilds in Minas Tirith. The parents of the young Man were carvers, and they were allowed to have a whole tusk for themselves to carve and sell, for their house and shop were among those that were destroyed in the fires that ravaged the lowest Circles of the White City. They had often crafted brushes of wood, bone, and occasionally ivory that came their way for the women of Gondor; now they were given drawings of Hobbit brushes by the new King to make some for us.”

The back of the brush was sheathed in silver inlaid with other metals. It depicted a Man who was turning to face the artist, his face proud and glorious, a circlet set with a shining jewel about his brow. He stood upon a construction that reminded her of….

“Is he standing upon a great boat?” she asked.

“It is the ship known as Vingilot, the craft on which sails Eärendil the Mariner as the morning and evening star,” he answered. “And it is sailing toward Menelvagor, the Warrior of the Heavens, or so they call it among the Elves and the Men of Gondor.” The familiar constellation was picked out in small gems.

She felt odd using such a beautiful and obviously valuable brush for such a mundane activity as brushing Frodo’s feet, but she could see that Frodo himself had been using it for precisely that purpose, the actual purpose for which it had been made. She started slowly, diffidently, but brushed more firmly as she saw his muscles begin to relax. His voice was growing softer. “The set made for Pippin has a depiction of one of the Guards for the White Tree upon the back of each of them, while those for Merry have the White Horse of Rohan on them. Sam’s have roses surrounded by elanor and niphredil blossoms. He loves them!”

“Was your shoulder injured? You have been rubbing at it.”

He paused before admitting, “Yes, not long after we left Bree. I was stabbed. It was rather a bad wound. It’s healed, but I’ve been warned that it’s likely to continue hurting me for years, and especially when the weather is bad or changing for the worse, or when I am particularly tired or anxious.”

“Like Mac’s collar bone, where he broke it.”

“Yes.”

She dug the bristles more deeply through the curls on Frodo’s feet. He’d always had the most beautiful hair there, as dark and glossy as that on his head. But now she could see that there were some scars beneath the hair, and even on his soles. “It appears you had some burns on your feet, Frodo Baggins. What were you doing, dancing in Yule or Midsummer bonfires?” Again she had to work to keep her tone light.

His ears were now pale. “No,” he said, turning his head slightly away from her. “Although Sam and I appear to have stepped on burning embers we were barely aware of at the time. There was a good deal of ash and such that escaped from the fire and lay about us on the ground, and particularly at the end. I was told that they had to treat us both for burns and cuts, and particularly to our hands, knees, and feet.”

She was surprised. “What in Middle Earth were you two doing—crawling through the ashes?”

“Not on purpose,” he said, the furrow reappearing on the portion of his brow she could see.

She had to push the lower end of his trouser’s leg up so as to get to all of the hair. “I don’t remember you wearing your trousers so long.”

“They tend to wear them longer in Gondor.”

“Oh? Do Hobbits live there as they do here in the Shire and in Bree?” she asked.

He appeared uncomfortable. “No, there are no Hobbits there in Gondor, although the people of Rohan have stories of having lived near Hobbits when their ancestors dwelt in the upper valleys of the River Anduin. And according to Lord Elrond’s journals our people migrated from the upper valleys of the Anduin westward into Eriador, eventually settling along the Great East-West Road in the Breelands and finally, with King Argonui’s permission, here in the Shire.”

She shrugged. “I admit I’ve not seen as many Men as you have, much less from as many lands as you four appear to have journeyed through, but those I have known all tend to wear their trousers longer than Hobbits do. So, what does it matter if those Men who live in Gondor wear their trousers longer, too? Were you trying to copy the fashions of the Men who live there?”

He sighed audibly. “It’s not as much a matter of copying them as it was that all we had once we reached Gondor was basically rags, Mantha. We couldn’t carry too many changes of clothes during our journey once we headed south and east, so most of what we took with us was sturdy clothing that would withstand the weather and countryside through which we would walk. We would wash them when we could during the first month and a half, but I’ll admit we didn’t have the chance to do so more than two or three times. When we reached Lórien the Elves there cleaned them thoroughly and mended them all for us, but once we reached Cirith Ungol—” He paused and swallowed. Finally he resumed, “When we reached Cirith Ungol, the orcs there got hold of my pack and tore it apart, it and everything in it. They took what was left of our regular food that I’d had with me, and they threw the lembas, the Elvish waybread, off into a corner, much of it crumbled. I suppose I should be grateful they didn’t befoul it the way Sharkey’s people did the carpets of Bag End, for I was able to recover a good amount of it. We found ourselves relying solely on that by the time Sam and I reached our destination.

“I had no clothing left, and Sam had to—to borrow clothing for me to wear. But it was foul, and did not—fit—correctly. Neither correctly nor comfortably. I finally had to throw it away, and we made do as best we could with Sam’s cloak tied about me. After they rescued Sam and me, a tailor made us new outfits to wear, but he made them patterned on the clothing worn by their children. Aragorn had a good many sets of clothing made for us to wear while we stayed in Gondor, but little of it was proper for here in the Shire. I’ll admit that I ended up giving a good deal of it away before we reached home. I did have some suits of proper Hobbit garb made, but they still made the trousers longer.”

“Well, I recognize the shirt and waistcoat you’re wearing today, and those are ones you wore frequently in the first years after Bilbo left.”

“I always swore I’d not do what Bilbo did and fill Bag End’s wardrobes and dressing rooms with more clothing than I could possibly wear. But I did keep more clothes than I ever got rid of, even though I never imagined that I would ever lose enough weight to be able to again wear what I did at the time I came of age. I was grateful to have sufficient of my old clothes that I can now wear once they brought some of my things to me from Crickhollow. But the trousers from Gondor seem to fit me better now than the ones I wore when I was younger.”

Mantha was examining the scars about Frodo’s lower legs and ankles where his legs had apparently been tied together so tightly that the ropes used had cut into his skin, scars the newer trousers hid. They fit you better, Frodo Baggins? she thought. If you say so. But knowing him, he’d not tell her how he’d come to be bound up so. “Why did you give away most of what you brought from Gondor?” she asked instead.

“Because most of it would appear totally outlandish here,” he said. “You know that even though I finally gave in and began wearing grander things that Bilbo had made for me, I still have preferred to wear plain Hall cloth when I can get away with it.”

She couldn’t deny that! She thought for a time, and as she rhythmically brushed his feet she said, “You remember Fred Oldbuck’s cousin Nicco? He ran afoul of one of the new Shirriffs Lotho appointed. Nasty sot, Beasty Bracegirdle proved.”

Frodo made a spitting noise. “You don’t have to tell me about Beasty Bracegirdle,” he said. “Always was a bully, you know. Bigelow never appears to have tried to do anything about making him behave, either.”

“Fancy you knowing about Beasty Bracegirdle! After all, he came all the way from Westhall, they tell me.”

He gave another of those slight shrugs. “I have business dealings all across the Shire, between the partnership agreements and farm shares I made and those Bilbo and my parents left me.”

“True,” she commented. “Anyway, Beasty appears to have taken a particular dislike to certain people, like the Chubbs brothers who bought the tailor shop in Kingsbridge, and Nicco Oldbuck. Caught Nicco out rounding up his goat one night after the curfew they’d declared, and he had him bound hand and foot and carried into Kingsbridge to the Shirriff house there where they accused him of all kinds of things. They let him go after second breakfast the next day, telling him that what happened to him was just a warning. He was in terrible shape! They’d used fine line to tie him up, and it had cut hard into his wrists and ankles. The cuts to his ankles were so bad that they festered, and it’s a wonder he didn’t lose a foot!” There, she thought. I know what I see when I see such scars, Frodo Baggins. Who tied you up like that?

Frodo didn’t make any response to that, not that she’d expected one. But she knew that he was aware that she recognized that a similar thing had happened to him. At least he knew that she recognized he’d been a captive.

She decided to change the subject. “Tell me about your time with the King—once he became the King, that is. Merry tells me that you were all there when he was crowned?”

Again the tips of his ears flushed. “Yes—we were all there. He had Sam and me walk on each side of him, while Pippin went before him as Guard of Honor, and Merry walked by Éomer as the Esquire to the King of Rohan.”

“You walked beside him, you and Sam?”

“Yes.” After a pause he added, “He said that he could not have become King if it weren’t for us.” She left another pause to see if he would continue, and at last he did so: “After all, if we hadn’t made it, made it all of the way to the mountain, the rest of it, the battles and all, would have all gone for naught. It had to go into the fire for the Enemy to be brought down.”

“And the fire, the one you and Sam went through, it was at the mountain?” She had to admit she felt confused.

He almost whispered, “Yes. The mountain, it was a volcano. Its core was the fire. It was the only place—the only place where It could be destroyed.”

It was a moment before she could respond, “And—so, that was where you and Sam—crawled—through the ashes.” She had to struggle to keep her voice calm.

“Yes.”

That answer was so simple, and so terrible. Suddenly she didn’t want to know the rest that had happened, not there, there on the mountain where the ashes were not from a bonfire but of rock itself. She worked to make her tone light. “Is the King married?”

Again his ears grew decidedly pink. “He is now, but not when he was crowned. She came at Midsummer, for the Lithe Days. They were married on Midsummer Day.”

“And you attended the wedding?”

He was smiling, apparently remembering. “Sam and I were two of those who attended upon him during the wedding.”

She was surprised. “He had more than two attending on him?”

“He had seven attendants, as did she.”

Now, that was impressive! In the Shire bride and groom usually had only one person each to stand beside them at a wedding, although sometimes there might be two apiece. That was considered to be a trifle excessive, however. “So, what is his wife like?”

“She is the daughter of Elrond Peredhel, the Lady Arwen Undómiel. She is truly the most beautiful woman of any race I have ever seen. Oh, Mantha, you cannot imagine! Her hair is dark, almost black, and her eyes the most beautiful grey, and it as if you see a field of stars when you look into them. Aragorn’s eyes are grey, also, but then they are both descended from Eärendil the Mariner after all.”

“But, wouldn’t that be like him marrying his sister, if he was raised by her family?”

He gave a shake to his head, then made certain the cloth was centered over his eyes. “She was not there when he was growing up. She’d gone to Lórien to stay for a time with her mother’s people, so the first time they saw each other was the day he came into his majority.”

“Did her mother take her to visit her grandparents?”

“No.” His voice was growing drowsy. “Her mother has been gone for quite a long time. About five hundred years, Bilbo tells me.”

She stopped in the rhythmical brushing of his right foot, surprised. “Just how old is this Lady Arwen Undómiel?”

He gave a gentle but amused smile. “She was born only a couple hundred years after the start of the Third Age, long before the founding of the Shire. Her mother is the daughter of the Lady Galadriel, who with her husband now rules the realm of Lórien, and she married Lord Elrond not long after the War of the Last Alliance was won.” The smile faded, and she could hear the regret in his voice. “I am told that the Lady Celebrían was captured by the Enemy’s creatures as she was traveling between her parent’s realm and her home in Rivendell, and she was subjected to terrible tortures and suffered a poisoned wound. She never truly recovered, and could not find rest for her spirit while she remained here in Middle Earth. After a year her husband accompanied her to the Grey Havens west of the Shire and saw her put aboard one of the Grey Ships that take those Elves who choose to leave Middle Earth to Elvenhome. Her husband, her sons, and her daughter all grieve that she cannot be with them, for those who leave Middle Earth cannot return. Lord Elrond intends to sail soon enough, I suppose, now that Sauron is defeated for good, and I suspect that the Lady Galadriel will accompany him, and both look forward to being reunited with her.”

“Then the Lady Arwen is an Elf?”

“She has more Elvish blood in her than mortal, but she was still counted as one of the peredhil, the half-Elven. It was foretold that Elrond’s children would be granted the same right to choose that was accorded to Elrond and his brother Elros, to choose whether in the end they would consider themselves Elves or Men, and that this choice must be made at the latest by the time their father chooses to sail from Middle Earth to Aman. The Lady made her choice when she found that Aragorn stirred her heart—she has now allied herself with those of us who are mortal. Although I am told that her brothers now have been given more time before they must declare themselves, for although they are still undecided they do not wish to leave her for the time she has left to her. Aragorn expects to live at least for the next century, if he is not slain in battle before his death by age comes. It seems a rarely long time for us, but for one who has already lived almost three thousand years it will seem no more than the blink of an eye, I fear. Most of us suspect that in the end she will know a good deal of surprise to find how soon in her eyes that day will come, and she will not truly be ready for it.”

As Adamanta resumed gently brushing his foot, she thought on what he’d said and the tone of voice he’d used, and made a realization. “I think, Frodo Baggins, that you are more than a little in love with the Lady Arwen Undómiel yourself.”

He was quiet for a time before he sighed. “I cannot deny that she has stirred my heart almost as much as hers was stirred by Aragorn. How it has torn me, to find that almost every woman who has ever seriously drawn my eye had already given her heart to another.”

“Except for Pearl, minx that she was at the time. Pearl and Narcissa. I saw you with Narcissa at the Party, Frodo. And you and I both know that she loves you truly to this day.”

“And what can I give her back, Mantha? The Ring—It all but scoured me out during the time It was entrusted to my keeping. I’ve been stabbed, poisoned, beaten, starved, bitten, and tortured almost beyond belief. It showed me terrible things being done for Its Master’s benefit, always telling me that I could stop it all if only I would claim It for my own. I held out for as long as I could, and then—then I failed, and It claimed me! It certainly wasn’t my doing that I was saved at the last.”

Ring? What ring? she wondered. Frodo had never worn any ring in her memory. He’d inherited his father’s ring, but that was much too large for him. Nor, considering how he’d seen it last upon the swollen finger of Drogo’s drowned body could she imagine him ever wanting to do so! Knowing Frodo, he had it carefully stored away for the day when he had a son to pass it on to, not that that day was likely to come now, not as long as he was convinced he wasn’t fit to marry!

Deciding it would be best to change the subject again, she reverted to questions about their new King and Queen. “So you attended on the King and the Lady Arwen at their marriage? Was it a lovely ceremony?”

He relaxed again. “Oh, yes. It was very lovely. I swear better than half of the city came up to the Court of Gathering outside the Citadel to see them married, in spite of there being almost no warning that it was to happen. The Minister of Protocol was quite out of his depth—he has always managed all ceremonies for the rulers of Gondor for about thirty years or so, I understand; but here the King was, seeing to almost everything himself! Aragorn went out to the gardens himself to choose the flowers to decorate the bower under which they were married, and he gave the orders for the food vendors to provide for a special feast for everyone in the whole of the White City and paid for it from his own purse rather than from the public treasury. He chose who was to sit where at the formal wedding feast in the feast hall of Merethrond, and directed how the Citadel was to be cleaned and decorated for the arrival of his bride and her party. I think he even chose the music that was sung to welcome her! He’d been a heap of nerves for weeks until one day a messenger arrived from the north, and suddenly he was all business and secretive. I think he might have told his housekeeper and the Seneschal, but other than Gandalf, Legolas, and those of his kinsmen from here in Eriador who’d come down to fight at his side, I don’t think anyone knew what was to come!”

“Who said the words?” she asked.

“Her father, Lord Elrond.”

“Not someone from his new city?”

He again gave a small shake of his head. “I suppose he might have asked her grandfather, Lord Celeborn, for he and Lady Galadriel arrived with the bridal party. But Lord Elrond is his family head, I suppose. And I think that both bride and groom wanted for him to be the one to marry them, he who was father to them both, as it were.”

He raised his hand to his throat, undoing the top button of his shirt. “Is your collar too tight, sweetling?” she asked.

He gave a slight shrug. “A bit.” She realized he was bringing out a white gem in a silver setting he wore suspended from a chain about his neck. He fingered it gently.

“I’ve not seen that before,” she said.

“The Queen gave it to me, there before we came away home. I am told she was given it when she was very young.” Again he was quiet for a time before continuing, “She told me to wear it and remember Elessar and his Evenstar, and to allow it to ease the memories of pain and grief when they come upon me.” He swallowed, tipping his head backwards somewhat. “The headache is much better, but with the wind and rain the shoulder is aching worse now.” He added wryly, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”

He took a deep breath, held it for a moment, and then let it go, rubbing at the cloth across his eyes with the palm of his left hand. He tried to cover the yawn he gave. “Elessar and his Evenstar—our Lord King and Lady Queen. They are so wonderful to see together! We never dreamed when we met him in Bree that he would prove so great—so great and so worthy.”

“And she gave you that jewel?”

“Yes.” She had the feeling he was almost asleep at last.

“That is a very beautiful and personal gift.”

“I know. And she gave me another.”

She kept her voice low. “What was that, Frodo?”

“She said—said that if the pain and memories were too much, I could go in her place. Like her mother. Find healing there. Had a poisoned wound, too, her mother did. Couldn’t heal here, but could there.” He turned onto his side, pulling his ankle from her hand. “Should I go? Do you think so?” He yawned again, and as he rubbed at his face the cloth fell away. His eyes were blinking sleepily. “To sail away, go with the Elves….” Again he yawned. “Go with the Elves—cross the Sea…. Maybe be healed. Like the Queen’s mother.”

His eyes closed, and after a moment he began to breathe deeply. He was asleep.

She rose to set the brush softly back on the chest, and carefully removed the damp cloth. She opened the wardrobe door, and on its floor lay a feather quilt, beautifully embroidered. She smiled as she brought it out to lay it gently over Frodo’s sleeping form. It should keep him warm, she thought. The wind had died away as they talked, and now there was only the soothing sound of the rain upon the roof.

She blew out the candle and went to the door and opened it. But then she turned back to look at where he lay upon the bed, now sound asleep, and she felt a lump in her throat. He looked almost frail, lying there; frail and unworldly. “He works too hard,” Hillie Took had said. “There’s no mistaking the signs,” Mina Whitfoot had said. “I’ve been stabbed, poisoned, beaten, starved, bitten, and tortured almost beyond belief,” Frodo had said. And the Queen had offered him her place upon her father’s ship?

She shivered as she noted that the furrow was back, there between his brows. Never had she thought to see Frodo worn with care.

Reluctantly she wondered if perhaps—just perhaps—he might think seriously about whether or not he should accept the Queen’s second gift. But she knew that she would not speak of what he’d confided to her this night until after she knew for certain what he had decided.

She gently closed the door and heard the snick of the latch, and went out to drink a cup of tea with Mina and Will, and listen to the gossip of Michel Delving until Mac came for her.

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