For Tiggersk8, Primula Baggins, Ignoblebard, SugarAnnie, and Lady Branwyn for their birthdays.
Old Horto Brandybuck, who’d served as door warden for Brandy Hall for more years than he liked to admit to, shuffled toward the Heir’s apartment alongside Gomez, who worked in the stables. “So, Frodo arrived while I was taking my nap? Did he say why he was here? I know that he was advised that neither Sara nor Esmeralda is present in the Hall at the moment.”
“He appears to have come back from Bree,” Gomez answered, his tone indicating that he was as surprised to see Frodo arrive at this time as was Horto. “The word from those on duty at the Brandywine Bridge indicates that he came back to the gates and turned toward the Hall perhaps two and a half hours ago.”
Horto was shaking his head. “Couldn’t have gone all the way to Bree,” he objected. “He stayed at the Bridge Inn last night—they sent word this morning that he had been there and was headed out the gate eastward shortly before dawn.”
Gomez appeared even more surprised. “Then he couldn’t have gone more than halfway to Bree at best,” he agreed. “But why would anyone go but halfway and then come back again?”
“I have no idea,” said the old Hobbit. “Since he came back from south-aways Frodo has been remarkably closed-mouthed.”
Gomez could do no more but agree with that.
The kitchen staff indicated that they’d taken a light meal to Frodo’s room at his request; he’d not been there when it was delivered, so it had been left on his mother’s desk. No one answered the knock at the open door to the Heir’s apartment, and when Horto poked his head into what had been Frodo’s room since his parents’ deaths he saw the tray, still untouched, there where the servers had left it.
So, where was Frodo Baggins?
It took but a moment of thought to realize he was most likely up atop the Master’s parlor, where he’d spent a good deal of time when he was younger. Horto’s bad knee twinged at the very thought of it, but he gamely went to see if Frodo could be found there.
He was. There atop the ridge, one hand leaning against the fireplace flue, Horto could see a tall, slender shape standing silhouetted against the rising moon to the east, thoughtfully staring westward toward the echoes of the sunset. Gamely the old Hobbit set himself to climbing the steps that had been cut for that purpose to join the Master’s younger cousin and former ward. He settled heavily on the wooden bench that Old Rory had placed there for those who wished to look out across the Brandywine while they smoked their evening pipes, saying, “And does the Shire appear fair to you this evening, Frodo Baggins?”
Frodo turned to look down upon him, his face in shadow. “Fair, Horto? Fairer than when we first returned, at least. The Shire heals, thank the stars.”
“That it does,” agreed the door warden. “That it does, although I will admit I wondered just how much it could heal, there when the Troubles were worst. Although I suppose it takes more than a few bully-boys and a twisted Hobbit such as Lotho to destroy the Shire.”
Frodo returned his gaze westward once more. “Although between them Lotho and Sharkey did their level best to leave the place as wounded as possible. I do rejoice that Sharkey didn’t manage to do worse, as he’d intended to destroy the land if he could.”
Frodo shrugged one shoulder, a trick he apparently had picked up during his journey abroad, but it was a moment or two before he finally spoke. “Lotho hated me, and wished to hurt all I’d ever loved, while Saruman----” He gave a sigh. “Sharkey, who was known as Saruman outside the Shire, hated Gandalf, and envied him the love and respect that he knew. He was supposed to help Gandalf inspire the peoples of Middle Earth to stand against the evil of Sauron, and for years he appears to have done just that. But then the Steward of Gondor gave him the ancient tower of Orthanc to live in and to care for, and now that he had a home that was built as a citadel he began hiring guards to drive potential enemies away. Then he began envying the respect given to the lords of the lands near which he dwelt, and the few guards began to grow into a small army. He found the seeing stone of Orthanc somewhere within the tower, and apparently began using it to spy upon his neighbors, and so caught the attention of the Dark Lord, who goaded him into playing small mischiefs against Gondor and Rohan. Looking upon Sauron’s lands and slaves, Saruman envied him the power that the Dark Lord wielded. He captured a few orcs, and in studying them instead of seeking to free them of their base natures he instead sought to duplicate the processes used by Sauron and Melkor before him, and so breed even more powerful and violent warriors. Knowing that Gandalf would disapprove, he hid his doings but still imagined that Gandalf somehow knew of the evil he practiced, and so began thinking how he would punish Gandalf should the Grey Wizard ever seek to interfere with his experiments.”
“What are orcs?” asked Horto.
“Goblins. From the Elvish name for them—yrch.”
Horto looked up disbelieving at Frodo. “You mean that this Sharkey was breeding more goblins? Whatever for?”
“He sought to make himself as much a warlord as Sauron had done, and at first we think he was certain that he could only fight the Dark Lord with Mordor’s own weapons. But by the time Saruman had perfected his breeding of his Uruk-hai, the largest of the fighting goblins, he had secretly become the Dark Lord’s ally. It is horrible, realizing just how much he’d fallen, Horto.”
“But I still don’t understand why he came here!”
Frodo sighed, shaking his head. He came to sit by Horto, moving uncharacteristically slowly. Horto felt alarmed as Frodo dropped rather heavily onto the bench. The Baggins reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a flask, removing its stopper in order to drink from it before he answered. “The Wise have known of the Shire for quite some time, from shortly after its founding, actually, although they have rarely paid us Hobbits much attention one way or another. Only Gandalf and certain of the Elves, mostly those from the wandering tribes, appear to have visited the Shire on any regular basis.” He considered the stopper to his flask absently for a moment, finally replacing it and settling the flask between his knees. At last he continued. “Gandalf became convinced somehow that in order for the dragon Smaug to be destroyed a Hobbit of the Shire needed to be involved. So when he learned that Thorin Oakenshield and twelve companions were set to travel to Erebor in order to find at least the Arkenstone and so challenge Smaug, he came here to find someone who could serve as the Dwarves’ burglar. He apparently hoped that one of the Old Took’s descendants should serve as that burglar, and his feet for some reason led him to Bag End, where he found Bilbo sitting upon the bench by the doorstep, smoking his pipe as the Sun rose. And, he tells us, his heart told him that Bilbo was intended to be the one to go with the Dwarves.
“Poor Bilbo had no idea what the visit from the Wizard might lead to, and he certainly never intended originally to leave Hobbiton for any such purpose. But we can rejoice that he did, or so Gandalf insists, for if Bilbo hadn’t gone with the Dwarves who knows what might have become of that magic Ring he found in the dark of Gollum’s cave?”
Horto was surprised to hear the bitterness in Frodo’s tone—bitterness and irony. “You don’t sound particularly cheerful about it,” the old door warden noted.
Frodo looked away, but not before Horto noted the rigid set to the Baggins’s chin. “Considering what that cost me, do you expect me to be delighted by the fact that in stumbling about in the dark Bilbo chanced upon the Ring that Gollum had managed to drop, Horto? That discovery certainly did me no favors.” He sat stiffly, his attention fixed upon the western horizon well beyond the Brandywine. After a moment, however, his posture drooped, and he reached up with his right hand to rub at his left shoulder. “No,” he murmured, “I should not complain so. At least this gave me the chance to meet fair people and to see lands others in the future cannot know as Bilbo and I have done. I doubt that the Elves of Lórien will remain within their borders all that long—perhaps no more than a few decades—now that their Lady’s Ring of Power is shorn of its magic and she purposes to leave Middle Earth to return to the land of her birth. I doubt that her husband will agree to go with her, particularly as I believe he was born here in the Mortal Lands and will know so few there beyond the Sundering Sea. He at least will wish to see what the new order shall be like for the world he knows so well. I suspect it will be many years ere he will agree to come to her side again. As for Rivendell, once the Lord Elrond quits it, to what shall it come, do you think?”
Horto had no idea how to respond to all this, for he had no true experience with those outside Buckland. Oh, he’d ridden out to Bree alongside Old Rory a time or two when he’d been much younger, and he’d even had the chance to speak to an Elf on one occasion when one came to ask if Bilbo was visiting within Brandy Hall, which had chanced to be true. But he’d rarely crossed the Brandywine to go much further than to the village of Kingsbridge on the Shire’s end of the Brandywine Bridge or to fetch back mushrooms for the Master’s table from Bamfurlong Farm. He’d been once to the Free Fair, back when he was a curious lad, and had attended the infamous Party when Bilbo had disappeared so spectacularly. But except for those two occasions he’d not gone any further west than the Marish. What did he know of Elvish lands beyond the tales old Bilbo and Frodo had always delighted in?
Frodo again lifted up his flask and removed its stopper, and paused as he swallowed, the flask still raised, still staring toward the western horizon. There was something in the Baggins’s gaze that frightened Horto. The older Hobbit licked his lips uncertainly, and suddenly daring he reached out to take the flask from Frodo’s hand. “Well, since you’re tippling you could at least offer a sip to an old gaffer like me,” Horto said, and he put the flask to his lips.
Frodo turned, surprised, to face the door warden, and for the first time that evening Horto thought he saw a level of amusement in the younger Hobbit’s expression. “I fear you shall be disappointed,” Frodo said. “There’s no liquor there, not even a sip of ale. I doubt that it should hurt you, however, so drink freely with my blessing.”
Horto had taken slightly more than a sip, and was surprised to discover he had a mouthful of what appeared to be cold willow-bark tea that had been sweetened with honey. He swallowed with a grimace, and held the flask out to return it to its owner. “Are you in need of draughts, Frodo Baggins?” he asked as Frodo took it and stoppered it again.
Again Frodo shrugged. “Apparently,” he admitted with a sigh. “My shoulder often aches, as does my entire left arm on occasion. And there’s a spider bite on the back of my neck what will suddenly fill with infection at almost regular intervals—it can hurt like anything when the boil reforms again. And there are headaches—always the headaches.” Once again his gaze had strayed westward. “Gandalf and Lord Elrond did their best to help me deal with the pain, but they’ve both warned me that there is no true healing for such wounds as I received, not as long as I remain within Middle Earth.”
Horto’s mouth felt dry in spite of the draught he’d tasted. “Then you were hurt out there, out in the outer lands.”
Frodo didn’t meet his eyes. “Yes. We all were. Merry, Pippin, and Sam—they’re almost wholly healed, but not me. I was hurt too badly; the wounds go too deep….”
For several minutes they remained quiet, and at last Frodo spoke again, his voice low, and he told the tale of Saruman the Wizard, for so long the chief of the Istari, until he forgot his purpose and found himself lusting for power to the point he sought not only to copy the ways of the Lord of Mordor but to possibly defeat and supplant him! “The Powers—they couldn’t allow that to happen,” he said simply. “So, when Gandalf fell with the Balrog and he was sent back from Death, Gandalf was made the White instead, and Saruman’s staff was broken. He could no longer work magic, and his army of Uruk-hai that he’d engineered had been destroyed by the warriors of Rohan and the huorns of Fangorn Forest. The Ring of Isengard that encircled his tower had been broken by the Ents and filled with water to drown the lowest of his forges and dungeons. He could no longer use the power of Orthanc, and that Worm-creature with him had thrown from the tower his palantir, so he could not answer the questions of the Dark Lord any longer. Once Mordor fell, Saruman was left with nothing but his wits and his bitterness and what power lingered within his voice. He’d been corresponding with Lotho for years and had been giving him advice that, had it all been followed, would have begun destroying the lands of the Shire long ago. But he was able to convince Lotho to ship growing amounts of produce southward so he could feed his army, with more and more being diverted all the time.”
“Is this why things were getting dear?” Horto asked. “Pipeweed and such?”
Frodo gave a brief nod. “Apparently. Merry and Pippin found one of his storehouses in his fortress of Isengard, and in it they found a barrel of Longbottom Leaf with the Hornblower mark branded into it. The storehouse was full of food that all are certain came in large part from the Shire. Certainly as deputy Mayor I heard more than enough stories about shipments that never made it to Hobbiton, the Great Smials, Budge Hall, Michel Delving, Long Cleeve, and the like, and from farmers all over the Shire who never got paid for shipments that went missing and didn’t arrive where they were supposed to go. Even before we left the Shire there were complaints of farm shares that weren’t being fulfilled, and the sellers of pipeweed in Hobbiton were worried that they weren’t receiving enough barrels of leaf to meet the demands of the village.”
“Certainly we didn’t receive as much Old Toby and Longbottom Leaf as we usually do that year,” Horto agreed.
“They were complaining about insufficient shipments from the South-farthing as far away as Bree,” Frodo added.
“So how did this Sharkey and his sniveling companion end up here?” demanded Horto.
Frodo sighed again and explained as well as he could.
“So they got well ahead of you, did they?” Horto shook his head. “Right villains they proved. And between the two of them they did for Pimple, I understand?”
Horto sat quietly for a time, considering the grief he heard in Frodo’s voice. He sighed, and lifted his hand to lay it gently on Frodo’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, dear lad,” he said gently. “He may have been a terrible git, but after all, he was your cousin.”
Frodo gave another brief nod. “Yes, he was that. May he know greater peace now than he did before,” he said.
“So, why did you try to spare that Sharkey when he admitted he’d had his servant kill Lotho, then?”
Frodo took a deep breath and held it briefly. “Because of what Saruman was supposed to be,” he said. “Both he and Sauron fell so far. Sauron once repented, but then recanted his repentance and became even worse than he’d been before. Saruman could have redeemed himself, Horto. I’m certain of it! But he wouldn’t do so. Instead, he cursed me.”
“He cursed you? Is that why you can’t eat enough to look a proper Hobbit again?”
“What?” Frodo looked a bit confused. “Oh, that. No. Or—well, perhaps it adds to it. But the problems with my stomach, well, they started there in Gondor after Mordor fell. Aragorn and Lord Elrond both have told me that what we went through, Sam and me, could badly damage our digestion. It took a while before Sam could eat regularly again, but as I said, I’ve not healed as much as the others did. But, then, I was wounded more often as well as more deeply than any of them, so I suppose that must be why I’ve no chance of becoming truly well again. But certainly the curse laid upon me by Sharkey hasn’t helped.”
“But you said that he couldn’t do magic any more.”
“That is correct—he couldn’t. But the power of his voice was native to him and he retained it, although not as strongly as he could before his staff was broken. In the letters sent by Lord Elrond he assures me that just hearing the truth of my physical condition spoken aloud as Sharkey did, there on the stoop of Bag End, was enough to make it even worse. So, as I said, Sharkey’s curse certainly did me no good, even if he didn’t retain sufficient power to make things sufficiently bad to carry me off immediately.”
Again, Horto thought on what Frodo said. At last he asked, “Are you dying then, Frodo?”
Frodo’s tone had gone rough when he answered, “Dying? Aren’t we all in the slow process of dying all during our lives, Horto? After all, none of us will leave the world alive, isn’t that so?” Then his voice gentled once more. “My health isn’t particularly good, and it’s not going to get any better. In fact, it’s likely to get worse. But I doubt I’m in any danger of dying within the next few weeks, at least, barring the sort of accident that could carry any one of us off unexpectedly, that is. But I’m not likely to make it to a hundred twenty-nine as Bilbo or Great-grandfather Gerontius had done. In fact, I doubt I’ll live to a Man’s expected lifespan of three score and ten. Perhaps not even to sixty.” Horto could see, as Frodo met his gaze, the brightness of the Baggins’s eyes, the tears unshed. “I would like perhaps to linger to see Sam and Rosie’s second child born, although it’s perhaps too much to hope for. I suspect that Elanor is the only one of their children I’ll ever hold in my arms.”
“It’s not fair.” Why he said that Horto couldn’t imagine, but as he said it he knew he meant it.
“Who ever said that life is fair?” Frodo responded.
“Are you certain you won’t get better? Are you certain that it’s not just being morbid?”
Frodo gave a twisted smile. “Oh, I have no question it’s not just being morbid. That I was allowed to return to the Shire was a grace I’d not expected to know. I never thought I’d get further than the mountain, and I thought those last few moments as the fire surrounded Sam and me were our last. Who could have suspected that Gandalf and the Eagles were already searching for us? We both thought we would be dead within minutes, and neither of us expected to awaken again still within Middle Earth. It was a shock, then, to find ourselves lying upon proper beds in an enclosure within Ithilien, and particularly to find Gandalf standing there, watching over us! After all, both of us had believed him dead for some weeks, and nobody had been by to tell us that he’d been sent back.”
Again Horto didn’t have the slightest idea as to what Frodo meant. “That Gandalf—he’s not going to come back and carry you off again, is he?” he asked, the suspicion clear in his voice.
Frodo once more looked westward. “If I leave the Shire again, Horto Brandybuck, it won’t be Gandalf’s doing, but instead solely my own. But I suspect that the next time it will be to rejoin my parents, since I wasn’t granted a family of my own to cherish.”
“Where did you go today, then?”
Frodo gave him a slightly curious glance before answering, “I am the King’s Friend now, so I have certain duties to him and the lands he rules. I had some papers to sign regarding my responsibilities in the outer world, is all. Bartolo came from Bree with the King’s own lawyer to see them properly presented and signed off on.”
“And why is Bartolo Bracegirdle your lawyer now? I thought Brendi was that.”
Frodo looked down at the ground between his feet as his hands uncorked the flask once more. “Brendi is still my personal lawyer within the Shire, while Bartolo is the one who sees to my business outside it. Brendi will be starting his own training with the King’s lawyer sometime after Yule, I think. But until he is qualified to write contracts and deal with legal situations before the courts of Arnor and Gondor I must rely on Bartolo to see to my business with the King.” He took another sip from the flask, then replaced the stopper solidly before thrusting the flask back into his pocket. He rose stiffly to his feet. “I do not have to answer to you, to Sara or Esme, or anyone else within the Shire, Horto. I had business dealings to see to, and I was met halfway to Bree, saw to them, and that’s the end of it. It’s late to drive further back toward Hobbiton and Bag End, so I thought to spend a few days in the Hall, here where I spent so much of my childhood. I know neither Sara nor Esme is here, and that Merry and Pippin are also absent from Crickhollow. I’m sorry to miss them, but I cannot always arrange for business matters to be dealt with when I can visit with family, no matter how much I love them. But at times I just need to take a break from my relationships.” One last time he met the old Hobbit’s gaze. “Please understand, Horto—there are times when I feel stretched far too thin. I now fully appreciate just how Bilbo could tell Gandalf that he felt as if he were butter that had been scraped over too much bread.” He laid his right hand, the one with the missing finger, on Horto’s shoulder, gave a light squeeze, and then disappeared down the ridge. Horto listened until he heard the soft closing of the door to the Master’s parlor, and knew that he’d not likely see Frodo again that night, even if he went to the Heir’s apartments and Frodo’s room. Nobody who’d ever lived in Brandy Hall could disappear within it as effectively as could Frodo Baggins, who’d searched out every hidden hidey-hole in the place back when he was a mere lad.
He rose slowly to his own feet and stood, looking down the steps that Frodo had already descended. “The stars watch over thee, lad,” he whispered. “The stars watch over thee.”
Stiffly, Horto followed Frodo downward, although he turned away from the Hall and walked in the moonlight through the gardens for a time, listening to the rush of the river within its banks. Hobbits came and went, but the Brandywine would continue, bearing witness to many joys and sorrows. Somehow that thought comforted him when he at last headed for the nearest entrance into Brandy Hall so that he could find something to eat for late supper.