16. Epilogue - The Gift
"Evening, Dudo!" A smile spread across Lily Grubb's face as she hurried toward the shop, gathering her skirts to keep them out of the mud of the street. Reaching the porch, she jumped lightly up the steps and stood looking at him expectantly.
Dudo ignored her and kept sweeping, though after a minute he was forced to put down his broom to keep from sweeping dust onto her feet. He leaned against the broom and looked at her. "Evening, Lily."
"Your uncle asked me to fetch you home."
"All right; as soon as I'm finished and close up shop." When it became evident she was not going to move out of his way, he maneuvered around her and resumed sweeping.
"No, now! Right away." When he merely nodded and resumed his work, she followed behind him, panting in his ear. "Aren't you going to ask me why?"
He turned in annoyance, withholding his retort only upon seeing her push a stray strand of damp chestnut hair out of her eyes. Belatedly, he realized she was breathless as much with excitement as with the exertion of running all the way from his uncle's house. Obviously something terribly exciting was afoot, and he would not get rid of her until he indulged her enthusiasm. "All right," he said, forcing a slight smile. Why?"
"Visitors have come calling for you." She leaned close to him and whispered conspiratorially. "Important visitors. Don't you want to know who? "
Dudo shrugged. He could not imagine what visitors she might be referring to, and he didn't particularly care. The only noteworthy visitor he could think of who would ask for him by name was his uncle's old friend Mr. Frodo. It had been Frodo who had unlocked his shackles and carried him out of the lockhole in Michel Delving. But though Frodo Baggins was always a welcome visitor, he would be no novelty to Lily Grubb. In the months since the Troubles ended, Frodo seemed to will himself into obscurity, and the Shire folk, eager to forget about the bad times, were only too happy to oblige him. While Frodo's fellow Travellers, by some combination of chance and desire, were becoming important and influential hobbits, most decent folk of the Shire viewed the odd Mr. Baggins more as curiosity than sensation.
With a huff of exasperation, Lily snatched the broom out of his hand. "I swore not to spoil the surprise, but if I were you I would hurry on home." She spun him around by his shoulders, pushing him toward the street. "Go on, I'll finish sweeping and close up the shop. Go on!"
With Lily's tinkling laughter grating like broken glass in his ears, he yanked off his apron and hung it on the peg by the door. "Oh, all right," he grumbled.
She swept the broom playfully at his feet to chase him off the porch. "Try not to be quite so rude to your guest, after he came all this way to see you. Oh, dear!" she chided herself, planting a hand over her mouth. "I shouldn't have said that!"
Dudo was now certain he did not care to meet whoever it was that waited for him at Uncle Fredegar's hole. He had no friends from afar that he ever cared to see again. "Thank you for minding the store," he remembered to tell Lily as he set off down the lane.
It was but a short walk to his uncle's hole, a tidy affair with a cozy parlor and a view of one of the few apple orchards that had miraculously been spared the ruffians' axes. As he drew near, he saw two horses standing outside: a small, sleek gelding wearing a silver-studded black bridle, and a splendid white stallion, much, much too large to be the mount of any hobbit. He turned to leave.
"There you are!" Fredegar called from the doorway. "Dudo! There you are, lad! Come inside!" Before he could protest, his uncle scurried out, snatched his arm and herded him through the door. Inside, with his back to Dudo, stood a tall, dark-haired hobbit, wearing a black cloak, gleaming mail, and a sword. Though his recollection of their only meeting was vague, Dudo knew he could be none other than Pippin Took. He and Meriadoc Brandybuck were fast becoming notorious in the Shire for riding about on their silver-bedecked war ponies as if dressed for battle, laughing and singing. Pippin was facing a seated figure, but his back blocked Dudo's view.
"Here he is!" Fredegar announced, and Pippin turned to look, partially revealing the white-robed figure seated behind him. Fredegar's delighted smile began to fade as Dudo remained rooted wordlessly in the doorway. "Dudo, we have guests," he prompted. "Surely you remember Peregrin Took? And Gandalf, who brought you here so long ago. Come in and greet them, boy!"
Dudo stared in amazement. It was indeed Gandalf who sat there, but a gleaming, bright Gandalf, like a silver candlestick with all the tarnish scrubbed off. "Hello, Dudo," Gandalf said.
The warm, familiar voice reached for something lost deep within him, but Dudo swallowed hard and pressed his lips together, restraining his reaction to a hesitant nod. "Master Pippin," he said, bowing minutely to Pippin. Staring at Gandalf, he said, "The King said no Big Folk can enter the Shire."
"I am not under the authority of the King," Gandalf said with a smile. Raising himself to a hunched stoop, he extended white-robed arms toward Dudo. "Come here, Dudo. Do not leave an old man in despair."
Nudged hard by Fredegar, Dudo reluctantly stepped forward and stiffly submitted to the wizard's embrace.
"I was just telling Gandalf how fine the harvest will be this year," Fredegar said cheerily, evidently sensing that the reunion was off to an unpromising start. "I have never seen the corn so tall this early."
"The corn is taller than the trees they left uncut," Dudo said, extracting himself from Gandalf's robes.
"The Shire will bloom more brightly than ever, but its time of innocence is over," Gandalf said, looking suddenly less bright and far older. He sat down. "And yet the damage done here was only the faint scorch of a falling ember."
"If that was the ember, I wish to never see the flame!" Fredegar said.
"You would not wish to, but many did," Gandalf said. "Frodo and Sam, Pippin and Meriadoc, Aragorn and Halbarad, and countless others faced the flaming eye of Sauron with but scant hope of victory." Gandalf's hand tightened on his staff, and Dudo could see an echo of that flaming eye in his black ones. "But the flame of Mordor has been extinguished, and now will come a time of peace."
"We didn't have a flaming eye here, but Sharkey's ruffians were bad enough," Fredegar said. "You should have seen how Dudo fought them. Fearless, he was, even when they locked us up."
"He has been fearless before." Gandalf smiled. "But then, young Dudo has fought Sharkey's ruffians before."
Dudo frowned. "I have?"
"Hold out your hands," Gandalf said. When he did, Gandalf dropped a handful of small gold-colored baubles into them. "Where have you seen these before?"
Rolling a half-familiar bubble of glass between his fingers, Dudo fought to recall a long-faded memory: broken bits of rounded, yellow glass scattered on a dirt floor…the dirt floor of a shack in the woods where a Dunlending spy had kept Aragorn captive. "Teburic!" he exclaimed. "These are just like the baubles we found in the cabin where Teburic kept Aragorn locked up. Do you mean Teburic was working for Sharkey, too?"
"Yes," Gandalf said. "though he likely did not know it. Saruman was clever; he revealed himself only to a trusted few. The boy Rolly was surely one of them. It should have been plain to me by the way he looked at me, the way he spoke; but my eyes were blinded by my loyalty to Saruman."
"I don't understand, Gandalf," Fredegar said. "Where did these yellow beads of yours come from? And who is Saruman?"
"I found them in Sharkey's lair," Gandalf said grimly. "It is called Isengard." He plucked a bauble from Dudo's hand and fingered it. "These baubles, when broken, release a medicinal powder that confuses the mind, makes it more vulnerable to suggestion. Has no one told you who Sharkey truly was, then? His name was Saruman, and he was a wizard, like me."
"A wizard?" Dudo recoiled in revulsion. "A wizard like you? How can that be?"
"Saruman was the greatest and wisest of my order," Gandalf said. "But he fell deep into the hands of the Enemy – slowly, and without intending it, like a moth entranced by the flame. Though I knew him best of anyone in Middle Earth, even I did not suspect his treachery and was ensnared by his trap, almost to my ruin. But I have since learned that Saruman's jealousy and suspicion of me long preceded that encounter. For years he set spies against me, and against my friends. It was Saruman, I now know, who dispatched Rolly to organize spies in Bree; Saruman who ordered Aragorn kidnapped to satisfy his curiosity about my dealings in the Shire. Had Aragorn not resisted him, resisted these -" he emphasized, displaying the bauble, "the Ring might have fallen into Saruman's hands and all would have been lost." He smiled at Dudo. "And had Dudo not been so fearless in his defense of Aragorn, Gondor would not now be celebrating the coronation of a new King. Pippin and Fatty have told me you showed enormous courage fighting the ruffians, Dudo."
"It didn't matter," Dudo replied tersely. "Hobbits still died." That boy still died, he heard himself say to Halbarad, so many years ago, when first he had found his courage and it had not been enough. "And we got locked up and beaten and the Shire was destroyed. So what good was any of it?"
Gandalf's dark eyes tightened with sadness. "Struggle with the Enemy comes at a heavy price, but the cost does not erase the deed, Dudo. I thought you learned that long ago."
Dudo huffed in disgust. "I thought I learned a lot of things long ago, but it turned out that none of them was true."
Gandalf's face fell. "What was not true, Dudo?"
"Everything Halbarad told me!" Dudo exclaimed scornfully. "Where was he when Sharkey's men took over? Where were his Rangers when the ruffians burned the houses and cut down the trees and made off with everything they could carry and locked us up?" The despair of the lockholes surged through him anew, along with shame for allowing Halbarad's promise to sustain him through those long, dark days. He had foolishly clung to the memory of Halbarad's desperate, single-minded determination, all those years ago, to find a missing friend at any cost, had foolishly sustained himself with the memory of a grim-faced Halbarad carrying a bloody, battered Aragorn out of an orc cave. He had not lost faith until rescue finally came – not at the hands of a Ranger but a solemn-faced hobbit with nine fingers. Dudo hung his head. "Halbarad promised the Rangers would protect us. He told me that as long as he drew breath, no harm would come to the Shire. But he lied."
"Halbarad did not lie," Gandalf said softly. Leaning close, he took Dudo's hands in his large, gnarled ones. "Dudo, listen to me. The Rangers were summoned east, to Mordor, to fight an enemy so powerful that defeat would have meant enslavement for not just the Shire, but all the lands of Middle Earth. Halbarad led his men to Aragorn's aid in his time of need, just as he promised."
"He could have come back!" Dudo protested. "The war was already over when Sharkey's men came. Pippin was in the war, and he came back. Meriadoc Brandybuck came back. Mr. Frodo came back. Why didn't Halbarad come back?"
Gandalf glanced at Pippin, nodding slightly. "The King asked me to give you something, Dudo," Pippin said quietly. He reached beneath his cloak and held out a burnished leather scabbard. "He said you would recognize it."
Dudo took in a sharp breath. The dagger Pippin held was of Elven make, impossibly old, and twelve years ago Dudo had saved Aragorn's life by sinking it hilt-deep into a wolf. "I don't want it," he said, keeping his hands at his sides. "I gave it back to Halbarad. He was supposed to keep it, to protect Aragorn. Tell him to keep it." He closed his eyes, and if he could have, he would have closed his ears.
"It is no longer of any use to Halbarad, Dudo," Gandalf said so gently that Dudo opened his eyes, seeing that Gandalf now held the dagger. "He did protect Aragorn. He carried the King's standard into a mighty battle. He fought bravely and slew many foes before he fell. This dagger was found in the body of an Easterling. It was the King's wish that you have it."
"I don't care what the King wants!" Dudo cried, though his hands blindly sought the object Gandalf held and snatched it to his chest.
He felt a gentle hand stroking his hair. "Don't despair," Gandalf said. "It is no failure to die fulfilling the duty of one's heart. Halbarad would have been nowhere else than by Aragorn's side in his hour of need. He is at peace now. And you should be at peace as well. Keep this dagger, as a remembrance of Halbarad's friendship, but know that he gave you a far greater gift than this. Do you know what it was?"
Sniffling, Dudo shook his head.
"He helped you to find your own courage. When the ruffians came, you found the strength to protect yourself. You weren't afraid of them at all, were you?"
"No," Dudo said scornfully. "I'd seen their kind before."
"And in the end, who defeated them?"
Dudo looked at Fredegar and Pippin. "We did, didn't we? Hobbits. We did it all on our own."
Pippin smiled. "Yes, we did."
"The King - Aragorn – asked me to give you a message," Gandalf said. "He wanted you to know that Halbarad's grave lies where he fell, beneath the open sky, within sight of the King's banners that he fought so hard to realize. King Elessar told me it is the first thing he looks for when he opens his window in the morning. Someday, he would like you to come to Minas Tirith and see it yourself."
"Halbarad would like to be under the sky. He said he didn't belong in fine halls of stone," Dudo whispered, his voice cracking. "He dreamt of seeing the King's banners flying over the city. Did he get to see them before he died?"
Gandalf enfolded him in his robes and held him as he wept. "He saw them, Dudo," the wizard said softly, his voice rough with unfallen tears. "He saw them long ago."
Some references in Dudo and Gandalf's conversation are to events that occurred in "In the Hands of the Enemy."
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