1. Guarding the Shire
Aragorn had asked that the Dúnedain who traveled with them take turns keeping watch at night, and they were glad to obey their former chieftain. Renegade Men and Orcs were still at large. Word had gone out far and wide about the deeds of the Ringbearer and his companion; who knew what thoughts of revenge or harm lurked in evil hearts still. It was just prudent to keep alert.
Aragorn settled down near the fire, and Merry joined him. This didn't surprise Aragorn, as Merry had been casting him furtive glances all day. Something was up. They filled their pipes and smoked together in silence. Aragorn waited.
"Stri---- Aragorn," Merry started quietly, "May I ask you something?"
"Of course, Merry."
"Something has been bothering me since we first came to Rohan, since the Rangers found us and rode with you to, to.."
"The Paths of the Dead," Aragorn finished for him.
Merry sighed. "Rohan was so large, and after you left we rode for so many days. Being back here brings it all back. I had a great deal of time to think about everything we had been through up to then. Well, one of the things I thought about was what Sam told us you said at Elrond's Council. About how the Rangers have been watching the Shire for ever so long. And I wondered.." Merry paused. "Well, I wondered what you had been guarding us from. And what may have happened when all the Rangers rode south to meet with you and left the Shire unprotected."
Aragorn was quiet for awhile. "What you call the Shire," he began, "Is part of the ancient realm of Eriador. It was and is some of the richest farmland in Middle-earth, Merry. Perhaps *the* richest. A true prize. The North abounds with greedy and unscrupulous Men who little consider the rights of the hobbits to live there peacefully. You saw some of their like in Bree, no doubt." Merry nodded, remembering. Aragorn continued, "The Rangers were diligent in defending the borders from such as these. The hobbits of the Shire appear at first glance to be defenseless, weaponless, trained in nothing that could defend their land." Aragorn looked at Merry with a smile. "I now see that belief to be false, my friend. There is iron and steel at the heart of every hobbit I have met, and I have no doubt any battle for the Shire lands would have been fierce. But a battle it would have been, and much would have lain in ruin at the end. I truly do not know what has happened there since the Dúnedain rode south; I hope all is well when you return."
Merry stared in horror at this vision of a Shire laid waste. He was about to speak when Aragorn continued.
"But we did not guard the borders ceaselessly, year after year, from wolves, renegades, and brigands, just so the hobbits could live carefree lives and eat seven meals a day in peace. Gandalf said.." He paused.
"What did he say, Aragorn?" Merry whispered.
Aragorn frowned, remembering. "I do not know where the Istari get their wisdom, but Gandalf's interest in the Shire has been a long one. I have traveled far with him and he has told me many things. Perhaps it is not my place to speak about it.."
"Perhaps it is *my* place, Aragorn." Merry looked up, startled, at Gandalf's voice. The wizard put a gentle hand on his shoulder, then sat down with them. Merry kept silent, hoping Gandalf wouldn't tell him to go to bed and stop asking questions.
"The fact that the Shire has lain unprotected for so many months has been on my mind as well, Merry. Frodo wished above all that his leaving the Shire with the Ring would divert all evil from it. There may be many things unforeseen ahead for the four of you when you return home," said Gandalf, "But I have no fear that you can meet any challenge now. You four have grown greater than even you know. No, I am not concerned about any of you now, nor your ability to set right whatever may be amiss in the Shire."
Merry gazed into the fire, hoping Gandalf was right. He wished they could travel faster and arrive home sooner, but Frodo was going to Rivendell to see Bilbo first and nothing would stop him. They weren't about to let Frodo go anywhere without them, even now. Not ever.
"Merry, the reason the Rangers had been guarding the Shire was because I asked them to. Compared to the turmoil brewing in many parts of Middle- earth, the Shire had remained such a refuge, such a peaceful, beautiful, innocent place. The time for the Dúnedain to come into their own had not yet arrived, and it seemed a worthy use of their skills. I sensed there was more to the place than met the eye, but I could not have explained why I thought so. I could not explain it even to Aragorn and his men. I hope my interest in the Shire did not bring unfriendly eyes upon it prematurely."
Merry still said nothing, hoping Gandalf wouldn't stop.
"Years later, on the night of Bilbo's birthday party and disappearance, I began to suspect that his ring might possibly be the One Ring. It was an absurd notion, as all thought it lost forever, and yet I knew of no other explanation for what I saw and heard that night." Gandalf did not elaborate, and Merry sensed he shouldn't ask.
"That was 18 years ago. Just in case my suspicions were correct I asked the Dúnedain to redouble their watch. They did so without question. I'm sure it was a wearisome and thankless task."
"It was," Aragorn chuckled.
"The Rangers of the North could not be everyplace at once, there were never that many of them. But Frodo kept the Ring hidden in peace for 17 years due largely, I believe, to the efforts of the Dúnedain. And his own strength of will." Gandalf looked over at the hobbits' tent, from which soft voices could be heard.
"I suspect Bilbo, or Frodo more likely, will write down the history of the War, Merry. Perhaps you can help fill in some of the pieces for them." Gandalf smiled at Aragorn. "It would be well for the Dúnedain to receive at least a line or two for what they have done!"
"I will, Gandalf." Merry looked up and saw the valiant Thalguron standing across the camp, talking quietly with several of his men. He rose and walked over to them.
"Good evening, Meriadoc. May I assist you with something?" Always kind and respectful, Thalguron smiled at him in a friendly way.
"I just wanted to say... thank you, sir. Thank you for keeping the Shire safe."
Thalguron's jaw dropped, and he exchanged an amazed look with his men. They all appeared stunned. When he looked back at Merry his eyes were suspiciously bright.
"You are most welcome, my friend," he said softly. Merry bowed low and wished him a good night.
Thalguron watched Merry return to his tent and go inside. His men dispersed, leaving him alone with his thoughts. Aragorn walked over and clasped him on the shoulder.
Thalguron turned to his former captain, now his king. "They are remarkable, are they not? We never suspected that safeguarding the hobbits would help end the Shadow and bring peace to all the lands." He smiled. "However, if the valor we have heard of these four can be said of most hobbits, perhaps all this time they have needed us not as much as we had thought."
"Do not begrudge our long labors Thalguron," said Aragorn. "We have all worked together to gain this peace."
"Aye, we have. Yet after so many years with no thought of.. no need for.. I admit it is good to hear.."
"Yes sir." He was silent for a moment, gazing at the hobbits' tent. "Remarkable." He looked back at Aragorn. "A good night to you, sir."
"And to you."
Aragorn returned to his seat by the fire, where Gandalf was now contentedly blowing rings of smoke into the night. They both smiled as a peal of laughter echoed from the tent where Pippin and Sam were sharing some jest. It was good to hear.
"Aragorn," said Gandalf softly, "Thank you for keeping the Shire safe."
Author's Notes: many thanks to "Ranger" for giving his kind permission for the use of his character, Thalguron.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.