59. Unexpected Visitors
Fourth Age, Year 2. September, The Shire.
Frodo could hardly believe the disappointing size of the potatoes that he was harvesting. He sighed as yet another spud emerged from the soil looking more like a shriveled walnut than a full sized tater.
I don't think I will ever get the knack of growing things...How ever did Sam manage to learn all an expert gardener must know—and be everything that he was besides? He peered up through the overhanging trees to the sky, streaked with filmy clouds. The winds are up… Weather must be about to turn... His left wrist ached, as it always seemed to when rain was coming. He unbuckled the strap that held the fitted leather cup with its small two-tined gardening fork onto his forearm and let it drop.
As he rubbed his stump with his right hand, his eyes fell upon the tool. The once shiny steel fork was caked with dirt; the strap was filthy, and he had been careless about maintaining the leather cup. He should tend it this evening, using the saddle soap and fine leather balm that Pippin had sent to him with the latest selection of inventions from his workshop in Minas Tirith. Gifts for the one-handed hobbit who has everything... He did appreciate the lengths Pip went to find ways for him to be more functional, though in truth, he hadn't ever asked for help. He didn't like the attention, for one thing. But he knew Pippin meant well, and the various implements were useful.
In the nearly two years since they all returned to the Shire--Frodo fully aware that Merry and Pippin intended to remain only until the weather allowed them to make the return trip the following spring--the news from his two far away cousins in Minas Tirith always seemed full of enthusiasm and cheer. It was a wonder, really, how well Pippin had adapted to his new life in Gondor. He genuinely seemed to be thriving, his letters reflecting his contentment and dedication. He continued as apprentice to Master Meneldil, but had been honored for his work on behalf of King Elessar. Injured men from every corner of Gondor, Rohan, Dunland, Arnor, and as far away as Umbar came to Minas Tirith nowadays, to join the Perian's Erhanchion Battalion and be test subjects for young Lord Peregrin's Devices for the One-Armed Soldier. Pippin's latest letter was full of excitement at the padded, armored breastplate he had custom fit for Aragorn. Weighted to give him the balance he required to ride Shadowfax with ease once again, the device enhanced the King's strength and agility at wielding Anduril with his left hand. He also described testing various bow-braces, shield-holders, and spring-loaded struts that enabled a soldier with only one upper limb to learn new ways to fight—critically important now that another war with Khand loomed. When he wasn't working or visiting Queen Eowyn and her husband Boromir—named Lord-Marshall of Rohan before King Theoden's death and the passing of the throne to his sister-daughter—Pippin's spare moments were spent inventing clever solutions for his dear cousin.
Merry had wed Mareyn, and though his knighthood and designation as a lord of Gondor brought him more than sufficient income to support his wife and the child she was expecting, he also had found an occupation that suited him. The son of the Master of Brandy Hall had discovered that pipeweed—known in the south as sweet galenas—grew exceptionally well in the rich soils and moderate climate of western Anorien. He had purchased a small farm, not far from Mareyn's family's dwelling, and imported seeds and plants from the Southfarthing. In just two seasons he had established quite a thriving leaf plantation, with his first harvest planned for this very month. He'd arranged transport of his initial crop to the Southfarthing leaf-masters for proper curing, with transport in the reverse direction for sale in Minas Tirith and Rohan. But in his letters he hinted at a scheme for adventuresome hobbits—and perhaps their families—to emigrate, bringing their expertise with them. In the meantime, his little farm also grew crops of the various healing herbs used in the Houses by his wife and her colleagues; and Meriadoc had recently begun to import pipes.
Smoking a pipe has become all the rage here, as folk emulate the King in his every habit and manner, his last letter had said. I expect a shipment of four dozen simple, journeyman pipes from Dale and a smaller selection of the wonderfully ornate Dwarvish styles, and plan to display them at a small stall at the market. Gimli has, of course, been really marvelous in finding contacts for me... Frodo heard all about how the Dwarf and his friend, the Wood Elf, were frequent visitors to the City; indeed, they spent more time in Gondor than in their own homelands, helping the King to restore the damage wrought by the war. Once my crop is cured and shipped back south, I expect to find many eager customers—though I'll be satisfied even if Pip, Strider and Gimli are my only customers... I do hope that my 'Sweet Brandy Weed' is as flavorful as our own Longbottom Leaf...
The former Master of Bag End sat back on his heels and looked around at the gardens, yard and snug little bungalow in the woods that had become nearly his entire world. How things had changed. Hobbiton was miles away, and everyone who had ever truly been dear to him was gone—far off in a distant land, or worse, gone from the world altogether. The long journey from Gondor had successfully distracted him from his moodiness, and those difficult months after they had arrived back in the Shire had kept him busy, doing what little he could to soothe the storm of grief, confusion and anger that their return seemed to generate.
There are things I must do… Those were his words to the King—to his friend Strider. He had not really understood just how difficult those tasks would be. In some ways, they were the hardest things he had ever done: to knock upon the door of Gaffer Gamgee, bearing the worst news a father could hear; to ride to the Cotton's farm, and smash the heart and hopes of a hobbit-lass; to hear his name cursed by his old friends and kin, Sara Brandybuck and Pally Took, as the one who had caused their sons and heirs to change into strangers who could abandon their homeland and their duties. Merry and Pippin had done as well as they could to comfort him, as well as anyone could. But their hearts were torn and strained, too, as they begged their families to understand their choices. But no one understood, no one but the Travelers. As Aragorn had predicted, the Shire itself had changed greatly, having survived its own seasons of danger. Tales of great wars and quests from hundreds of miles away had little meaning to those who had lived through hard times close at hand.
And then winter eased, followed by an earlier, more beautiful Spring than The Shire had seen in many a year. The Road beckoned; and Merry and Pippin made plans to meet up in Bree with a mixed company of Rangers of the reunited kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor, on their way to Minas Tirith in service of the King. All three hobbits rode to the Buckland Gate on the 15th of March. Pip and Merry's faces were filled with excitement for their futures, as well as concern for their favorite cousin. Frodo reassured them, wished them good fortune, and watched as their figures disappeared. Then he turned back and crossed the Brandywine Bridge. He was alone in his homeland, where almost no one knew—or cared—a thing about what he had done, or all he had lost.
In that first season of loneliness, Frodo's mood spiraled downward swiftly. By the 25th he was in a ravine of the heart so deep that the walls rose up and blocked out all light and hope, like the ravines in the Mountains of Shadow he and Sam had traversed. The day that in other lands was celebrated as the end of an Age of Terror was, to the Ring-Bearer, engulfed in darkness. His left forearm throbbed with pain as he lay abed all day, feeling wretchedly sick, too tired to rise but unable to sleep. Each time he closed his eyes, three faces hovered before him: Sam, gazing over his shoulder one last time as he took the final steps toward the Door to the Sammath Naur; Bilbo, holding the unfinished Red Book and scolding him with a disapproving frown; and Gandalf, kneeling in the stark landscape of the approach to Morgul Pass, saying his last goodbye. When he did fall into fitful sleep, he would waken, startled, convinced that his little house was ablaze, panting as though he was once again choking on acrid smoke.
One dark day turned into a fortnight of lethargy and silence. He dragged himself from bed once or twice a day, ate little, and drifted in gloom even as spring blossomed around him. All too quickly he found himself musing on precisely what Strider had begged him not to—ending his own life. Wandering from room to room, he dwelled on how he might carry out such a gruesome deed, considering all sorts of alternatives: knives, rope, poison, the swift waters of the Brandywine River. His imagination dulled and his energy at an ebb, he couldn't decide which method to attempt.
After a full month of black moodiness, something finally shifted. Frodo blinked as if he were awakening for the first time in years, finding himself standing outdoors in a plot of weeds that once had been a garden. He looked around, seeing the outline of neat rows, noticing where last year's vines still clung to the trellises and drifts of leaves had piled up. His eyes finally settled on the little garden shed, and as if someone else guided his footsteps, he shuffled toward it and opened the door. Inside, he saw sacks of seeds, trowels, a spade leaning against the wall. Without much thought, he reached for a tin canister of rat poison. He shook it; the granules rattled inside the rusty container. He opened it and looked inside, pondering how much he might need to swallow of the stuff to do himself in. Then the sharp odor of the substance reached his nose, and he recoiled. A voice whispered inside his head.
So, Frodo Baggins—will you dishonor the memory of those who gave their lives to save yours? Or will you finally stop moping about the things you cannot change?
He replaced the cap on the canister of rat poison, put it back on the shelf, and reached for the nearest rake. He left the little shed and began clearing the small plot of ground. The steep walls of the ravine slowly fell away, and a dim light began to filter down to his aching heart.
Frodo never called upon his friend, the King, or anyone else for help. Indeed, the Ring-Bearer was mortified at the very idea of asking for help about something within him so deep and dark, so ugly. He had managed to drag himself out of that black ravine before it was too late. But he knew just how close he had come. On days when his brooding thoughts were a bit clearer, the knowledge that he had nearly thrown away his own life truly frightened him. And that, he thought, is probably as good a sign as anything…
In two years he had learned a great deal about himself. The dark ravine was never far away, and his footsteps wandered there all too easily, especially on empty, unscheduled days. He discovered the one antidote for what he called his moodiness: work. And so he took on all the tasks of caring for a house and property that he had previously employed others to accomplish. Physical labor focused his meandering mind, leaving him no time or energy to simply think. If he could avoid thinking too deeply… if he could force himself to go about tasks that were all the more challenging for someone with but a single hand, this time he might not lose himself down that shadowy ravine. Come on, then—keep moving. It's the journey that's never started that takes the longest…
He gathered his gardening things, slipping a dozen puny potatoes, his specially fitted garden fork and his battered right glove into a basket he always carried with him. He brushed the dirt from his knees and slid the handle over his arm. It was time to clean up and start in on making his evening meal. Sunset was still a few hours away, but such simple tasks as cooking took him much longer now.
As he unlatched the fence around his vegetable garden and proceeded on the stone-paved path toward the main house, he caught a sound he rarely heard: the clop-clop of a pony's hooves in the shaded lane that led to the house at Crickhollow. Whenever he heard a pony or a cart, he knew someone was come to call upon him—for his small, out-of-the way bungalow was at the very end of a secluded street that led nowhere else. But he wasn't expecting a guest—at least, not today.
Oh, no! Did I count wrong again? Who could that be?
Hurrying now, he tucked the basket into his gardening shed—never mind the potatoes, they would hardly be worth the effort to peel them—and came through the back door into his kitchen just as someone insistently knocked at the front.
"Half a minute," Frodo called as he came through the compact house toward the front hall. He opened the door to one of the few hobbits he could still count among his friends in the Shire.
"Good afternoon, Frodo!" Fredegar Bolger said cheerfully as he stepped over the threshold.
"Freddy!" Frodo said with surprise, as he moved aside to allow his rather bulky guest to enter. "I wasn't expecting you this week… Did I lose track of the dates?"
"Oh, no, my dear fellow," his visitor said genially. "You are absolutely correct. I originally planned to come on your birthday, of course, in five days, to be precise, but I simply couldn't wait that long... "
No one called Fredegar by his old nickname, 'Fatty,' any longer, ever since The Troubles two years ago. Fredegar had risen to the occasion of need, having been a leader among the determined hobbits who rid the Shire of an invasion of ruffians. One side effect was that during his time in the fields harassing and chasing Big People, his weight trimmed down significantly. In a moment of rashness entirely out of his character before or since, he had personally faced down their chief in front of a very large crowd of onlookers. Whether the bully had really been frightened off by a red-faced hobbit brandishing an antique dagger, or had simply decided the pickings in the Shire were no longer worth the effort required, was a moot point. Freddy's fame and fortune had been on the rise ever since. Having spent his short life in the shadow of more prominent friends and relations, Fredegar was quite clearly enjoying his new prominence. Proud of his more muscular physique, he kept his extra weight off, and now looked every bit the hobbit gentleman at the peak of health.
"Well, then—to what do I owe the pleasure of an unscheduled visit from the Mayor of Hobbiton himself?"
Freddy swung his cloak from his back and slipped a leather satchel from his shoulder. "Since when do I need an excuse to visit an old friend?" The newly elected Mayor looked at his kinsman's hand with a smirk. "Interrupting your gardening, am I?"
Frodo glanced down and flushed. His hand was really quite dirty, as were the fronts of his trouser legs. And worse, he'd forgotten to conceal his bare stump, which was also smudged with garden soil.
"Sorry, I truly wasn't expecting anyone," he muttered as he hid his stump by slipping it into the front of his shirt. "Just give me a moment, and I'll clean the first few layers off..." He turned and headed to the kitchen and his sink.
"No apology necessary," Freddy said as he followed him deeper into the small house. "I don't mind a bit of dirt... Of course, not on myself... Wouldn't look right, you know, for someone in my position... But you've no need to explain. By now, I'm well used to you doing everything yourself—gardening, cooking, scullery work—not having even so much as a housekeeper..."
Frodo poured water from a pitcher into a basin and began washing up. Everything took twice as long and was twice as awkward now, with only one hand. He was gradually becoming used to it, learning shortcuts and one-handed tricks. But he had not got used to the sight of the stump. He could hardly bear to look at it, even more than two years after... He shuddered, and smiled to hide it.
"Yes, I suppose the Mayor mustn't go about with grimy hands and dirt ground into his trouser-knees, mustn't he?" Frodo said, forcing a teasing lilt into his voice. He also forced himself to ignore Freddy's little jab about his decision to not employ a single servant at Crickhollow. Freddy would never understand such an outlandish idea, but in my opinion, there are far too many Masters in this world, and not nearly enough gardeners...
He cleaned his stump with a washrag, then pinning the rag against the side of the basin with his left arm, he rubbed his right hand onto the cloth, wiping it free of dirt. The result wasn't terribly satisfactory, but would do for the moment.
He glanced at his visitor as he swished his hand in the basin of water. "All right, Freddy—don't try to deny it. Something prompted you to tear yourself away from the worthy citizens of Hobbiton to ride all the way to Buckland to see me. You might as well tell me, and get it over with…"
Fredegar's easy smile widened even more. "Ah! Yes, right, right…" He winked broadly. "No fooling you, is there, Frodo—you lucky rascal!"
"What do you mean?"
He nodded toward the parlor. "Everything's in my satchel… All the paperwork…"
Frodo looked at him in confusion. "Paperwork?"
"Yes, the transfer of ownership and all…" Freddy gazed at him as Frodo stared blankly. "Why, my dear fellow, you aren't joking, are you… You actually haven't heard?"
"Whatever are you talking about?" Frodo said a bit crossly.
"Come back out to your parlor, and let's have a good long talk," Freddy said smoothly. "I'll just put on the kettle and when we hear it sing, I'll pop back and make us a spot of tea…"
Frodo allowed his friend to steer him toward the sitting room near the entry and brought him to the best chair in the house, the one nearest the window that looked west. As if he lives here still…
As he sat in the adjacent chair Freddy's chest puffed out, and he put on a face so stern—so mayoral—that Frodo had to pinch himself not to burst out in laughter at the sight. Really—he has become so full of himself I can hardly bear it…
"It's about Bag End," Freddy said solemnly, but barely able to contain his eager smile. "Lobelia's will has been found, at last. It appears that she changed it soon after Lotho ran off. There was a bit of a stir at first, but it's been thoroughly reviewed … It is undeniably authentic, seven witnesses with the proper signatures and all…"
Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and her son Lotho had, of course, purchased Bag End from Frodo when he'd moved to Crickhollow, just before he fled from the Shire with the Ring in the company of Sam, Merry and Pippin. Fredegar had been a co-conspirator, his task to make it seem that Frodo was still living at Crickhollow. But he'd had to run for his life almost immediately, when Black Riders discovered the place. He had raised the alarm in Buckland and spoken to Gandalf when the wizard came racing into the Shire on his great horse in search of the Ring-Bearer. Later, as Freddy saw it, it was from the goodness of his heart that he'd kept an eye on the property during all the long months with no word from the Travelers, making certain the rooms were aired, the roof was sound and no one moved into the apparently abandoned home.
Then The Troubles began, and the little house at Crickhollow suddenly had a different appeal for Fredegar and his fellow 'resisters.' Various Bucklanders, Marish-hobbits and Eastfarthing lads came and went from the secluded property, using the house, grounds and small buildings as a storehouse for knives, bows and arrows and foodstuffs. Secret meetings were held in Crickhollow's small parlor, or more often, in its country-style square kitchen. Freddy really did come to think of the place as his own, and the little house became the headquarters for those in the eastern parts of the Shire unwilling to simply allow the Ruffians to have their way with things.
After several months of trouble, the news was passed from ear to ear that Lotho had been involved in shady dealings with Big People away south of the Shire for years, well before the Troubles began. It was suspected that he'd actually invited a few of the ruffians across the border in exchange for their muscle to back up some of his more questionable schemes. During the depths of 'The Occupation,' Lotho profited considerably. But when the uprising swept the invaders out, Lotho vanished, along with a few of his hobbit henchmen. Lobelia had been heartbroken, but faced with incontrovertible evidence of her son's activity, she had withdrawn from society even more than usual. A virtual recluse in Bag End, no one but a few servants and an occasional Healer saw the inside of the old place. Then Lobelia took ill and died, just a month ago. With Lotho gone, and no other heirs, the ownership of Bag End was the hottest topic of gossip in the Four Farthings.
"I suppose it shouldn't be such a surprise. After all, you were one of the only hobbits to be even remotely kind to her in the aftermath of that idiot, Lotho's, behavior." Frodo had politely called upon Lobelia in the days following his return to the Shire, discovering afterward that he had been her only visitor for months—and that his already tarnished reputation was taken down farther still by his small act of kindness.
"Well, here it is, some excellent news, and long overdue, if you ask me. The old biddy has finally done something good: Lobelia has left Bag End to you!" Freddy said with a triumphant grin, as he opened the top of his satchel.
Frodo's mouth dropped open as Freddy placed a leather folder tied with a red ribbon into his lap. He stared at the documents without opening them.
"She did w…what?"
"Need a han… Need a bit of help with that?" Freddy murmured as he leaned forward, tugged on the ribbon and opened the folder. He indicated where Frodo should read. "There it is, plain as the pimples on Lotho's chin…"
Frodo's eyes fell on the document. There it was, his name, written in the required red ink. I Hereby Bequeath Bag End, the Entirety of Its Contents and All Surrounding Property to my Second Cousin, Twice Removed*, Frodo Baggins…
"But why on earth would she do this, Freddy? She hated me, and Bilbo…"
Freddy's smile turned into a smirk. "Lobelia hated everyone, Frodo. She simply hated you a bit less…"
"But… but I don't want Bag End any longer," Frodo muttered as he fingered the papers in his lap.
Freddy's eyebrows shot up. "Not want Bag End! Whatever do you mean, my dear fellow? Of course you want Bag End. It's where you belong—it's your home!"
Silently, Frodo folded the will into thirds and stared at it. I cannot even retie the stupid ribbon without help… Pippin hasn't invented the tool for that yet… He drummed his fingertip on the parchment and met Fredegar's eye.
"I couldn't bear to live there again, Freddy," he said hoarsely. "Every inch of the old place on the inside would remind me of Bilbo… and every square foot of the outside would remind me of Sam… Seeing the empty spot where The Party Tree once stood… And with the Gamgees right down the Hill…" He shook his head. "I can't do it. I simply cannot live there."
Fredegar sighed dejectedly and sank back into his chair. Frodo could read the deflated look upon his face clearly enough—he had come with this wonderful piece of news, his hopes high that he could at last cheer up his old friend. And I've disappointed him…like I've disappointed everyone…
Frodo felt sick. Not again… The pattern was inescapable. Every time, it seemed, that he made an attempt to re-enter hobbit society, in even the most tentative way, something happened to ruin it. Poor Freddy was the most persistent of his old friends, doggedly coming to visit him month after month, never forgetting a birthday or holiday, sending chatty letters full of the latest Hobbiton gossip when he could not come in person. But Freddy treated Frodo with kid gloves, always carefully avoiding the slightest reference to anything uncomfortable—such as the Quest, the loss of Frodo's hand, or the friends they both missed so much. That left precious little for them to converse about, and nothing of real substance. Folco Boffin still called occasionally, his visits brief and awkward; but every last member of the Took clan had conspired, it seemed, to shun Master Baggins. Paladin had gone so far as to disown his only son in writing; he refused to even acknowledge Frodo on the rare occasion that they met. Rumor said that Pally was playing his nephew, Hildigrim II, against his eldest daughter Pearl's husband, Drotho Proudfoot, to prove to him which hobbit deserved to inherit the Thainship. Saradoc held onto a tendril of hope that Merry would 'come to his senses' and abandon his new family for his old one. But his brother's son Berilac was clearly being groomed to become the new Master of Buckland. Sara and Esme still spoke to Frodo, but through a cloud of anguish so thick it was a torment for all of them to be in the same room. Frodo did his best to steer clear of Brandy Hall unless he could not avoid it.
In truth, the only hobbit in the Shire who treated Frodo the same as he always had was old Maggot of the Marish—gruff, straightforward, and with utter honesty. Frodo studied Freddy's crestfallen face as he thought to the morning after the next full Moon, due at the turn of September into October, when Farmer Maggot would appear for his every-other-month call. That visit, and what sometimes followed, was the only thing that Frodo looked forward to these days. And he felt terrible for it. Dear Freddy had ridden all the way from Hobbiton. He was so loyal a friend—even if he really didn't understand Frodo; even if he really didn't comprehend all that had happened to him. I should do something nice for him… He deserves it, after all he's done for me, and for the Shire…
Frodo brightened as he grasped Lobelia's will and handed it back to his guest. "I have an interesting idea, Freddy," he said with a determined smile. "I think I know just who really ought to inherit Bag End…"
Early the next morning, Frodo watched from the gate with a wan smile as Fredegar Bolger, Mayor of Hobbiton and the new Master of Bag End rode away up the lane that led to Crickhollow, a newly penned letter from Master Baggins in his satchel, right next to Lobelia Sackville-Baggins's will, and his eyes puffy and red from crying tears of real joy. It feels good to make someone happy for a change… They had talked long into the evening and into the night, and when Frodo had not changed his mind in the morning, Freddy finally believed the secret dream of his entire life was coming true at last. It is the least I could do for him… And this way, Bag End will remain in the hands of someone who remembers Bilbo and Sam, at least for a while…
Frodo turned from the gate and walked with a new determination in his step toward his front door. September the 18th… He often went for weeks without being sure of the date. But Freddy had said he was five days early for Their Birthday, and that meant yesterday was the 17th, and this must be the 18th. He must write down the number immediately and mark the passing days. He didn't want to become all muddled, as he had last autumn, and be caught unprepared again. He reached his threshold just as the rain, promised by yesterday's damp winds, began to fall; he ducked inside.
Almost at once, Frodo's determination to carefully mark the dates began to flag, as did his mood. Each day was very like the last, only the slow shortening of the hours of grey daylight marking the season's passing. He soon lost count again. The weather changed, much for the worse. September's usually pleasant second half was filled with altogether too much rain, chill winds, and gloomy skies. Forced by the wet to remain mostly indoors, Frodo's thoughts grew as dark as the clouds.
When the post-service hobbit knocked at his door with two letters from Hobbiton, a brief note from Brandy Hall, two thick missives from Gondor and a fat envelope affixed to a package with the Royal Seal, he knew that Their Birthday must be upon him. He thanked the grumpy fellow profusely for carrying such an unusually large burden, confirmed that the day was indeed September the 22nd, and began keeping careful track again. For whether or not the clouds would allow him to see it, he recalled that the full Moon was due on the night of September 30th, and that meant Farmer Maggot would call on October 1st. Just nine days away…
If he was very fortunate, the old Farmer would bring a message with him inviting the two of them to proceed onward together for a short journey. And if we are invited to remain for a while… maybe for a few weeks… That could mean that their journey might last beyond the next date that was weighing on Frodo's mind, and not in pleasant anticipation. He shivered as he closed his front door against the damp wind, trying not to think of how miserable he had been during the last two October the 6th's, how chilled and dark he'd felt, how painful his left shoulder had been. Perhaps, he thought, if I am staying in that very special House… Maybe this year won't be so awful…
Finally the dreary month of September was nearly done. September 30th dawned, and though he hadn't caught even a glimpse of the Moon, Frodo was certain that Maggot would come the very next day. The dull grey morning grew dimmer, and Frodo retreated to his kitchen when the skies opened again. Rain fell steadily, and the wind rose enough to whistle in the shingles and bend the supple trees, scattering the yellow leaves of autumn like flakes of gold. Flashes of violet-green light split the noon sky; rumbles of thunder came closer and closer. He made his circuit of the small bungalow, latching windows and closing the shutters against the storm. Then he set out his walking stick, hung up his traveling cloak and hood, and packed a small bag with a few extra clothes. If we are going on Eastward, I can add a half-round of cheese and some apples in the morning…
The thunder gradually faded, and no flashes of lightning came for more than an hour. Frodo sat in his overstuffed chair near the west window, a sheaf of paper on a lap-desk propped on his knees and a lamp lit on the small table nearby. He was attempting yet again to write a more literary version of Bilbo's story, There And Back Again. He had been working on it for nearly two years, having been wholly unsatisfied with the version he had left in Minas Tirith. Last summer, when the King himself carried a copy of the New Red Book with him on his tour of his Northern Kingdom and presented it to the Ring-Bearer at their brief meeting at the Gate, Frodo had been embarrassed at the poor quality of his own writing. He was determined to rewrite the entire thing. But the pen had fallen from his fingers, and a blob of black ink pooled beneath the nib on the pure, blank parchment. He fell fast asleep, and the day rolled forward into night. Somewhere, behind a thick layer of clouds, the Full Moon rose.
Frodo was in the middle of a mixed-up dream of dull-witted Trolls being tricked by a clever wizard while Nazgul swooped above in the darkening sky, when the soft rustle of fabric and a tiny drop of rain spattering upon his face abruptly roused him. He flinched, opened his eyes, and suddenly gasped, startled.
Standing—or rather, crouching in the low-ceilinged room—before him, was an Elf. At least, Frodo thought it must be an Elf, for this person was clearly no Hobbit, and was taller and more striking than a Mortal Man—though not quite like any Elf he had ever seen. The stranger had just removed his dark cloak and shaken the raindrops from it. He leaned over Frodo, peering at him with keen interest. If the Elf's face wasn't exactly welcoming, neither was it hostile. He appeared calm and curious, but with a subtle friendliness that seemed layered beneath many walls of caution.
"Hullo!" Frodo said, as he quickly pushed himself up from where he had slumped down in the chair. How did he get in here? Then he remembered that he never latched his door—but how had this stranger known that? Who was he, and why was he here? Gave me quite a fright… But he was, after all, an Elf, and therefore he couldn't really be anyone to fear… Could he?
"Good evening. May I help you?" he said with characteristic Baggins politeness, bowing his head slightly toward his visitor.
The Elf bowed in return as best he could in the hobbit-sized parlor, and his placid face was warmed ever so slightly with a faint smile.
"It might be possible for you to help me," the Elf said; and at once Frodo was struck by the resonance of his voice. The tone was deeper and lower than any voice he could recall hearing, except, perhaps, Radagast's gravelly bear-voice. But not quite like that, either… "That depends…"
Frodo perched himself on the edge of the chair and strained to look up into the Elf's overhanging face, for his peculiar visitor was standing quite close to him, peering straight down.
"Might you be more comfortable sitting?" Frodo asked, as he indicated the chair beside him. What a queer fellow he is…
The Elf frowned as he looked from Frodo to the empty chair and back. "Sit?" he muttered. "There?" He stared at the chair as if he had never seen anything like it before. He peered at the hobbit again. Then suddenly his long legs folded beneath him and he sat, tailor-style, upon the carpet right at Frodo's feet. Their faces were now nearly level, and the odd Elf flashed a brief and very crooked grin. "Better. Much better," he said.
Frodo swallowed hard as he looked directly into his visitor's eyes. For those eyes were such a dark blue that they seemed to mimic the midnight sky, and they seemed endless—old even for an Elf. Older than Lord Elrond… Older than the Lady Galadriel… Indeed, what came to his mind with a start was that he had not seen eyes so ancient other than when, in unguarded moments, Gandalf's eyes had briefly revealed the true depth of his being. Like that glimpse of his eyes I caught, right after we hauled him out of the chasm in Moria…
The Elf's hair was raven-black, very like the hair of Lord Elrond and his sons. But whereas the Peredhil's hair had been sleek and shiny, this Elf's hair seemed a bit coarse: thick, and a little shaggy where it hung below his shoulders. And that was another thing—Frodo didn't think he had ever seen an Elf, or anyone, with shoulders quite so broad. His visitor's limbs were heavily muscled; as if to mirror his voice, he looked as powerful as a bear. Yet his face was as strikingly handsome as any Elf, though unlike any Elf Frodo had yet seen. The hobbit glanced at his garments, finding them to be of simple homespun linen, the colors drab. He wore a wide leather belt and black boots, and as far as Frodo could see, he carried no bag, nor a single weapon.
Frodo wasn't sure how long he had been holding utterly still, staring at the stranger, when he drew in a deep breath and spoke.
"Oh, where are my manners?" he said, flustered. He reached out in greeting and smiled. "My name is Frodo Baggins… Though I wonder if you don't already know that…" The stranger merely gazed at his outstretched palm in silence, making no move to offer his own. Frodo quickly drew his hand back. "Welcome to Crickhollow. Why don't you tell me your name, sir, and how I might help you…"
The Elf's crooked smile appeared again. "Baggins… Frodo Baggins…"
"Yes… That's right," Frodo nodded. "And you are…?"
"I was told to look for you…"
Frodo frowned, a bit concerned now. He couldn't imagine who might have sent an Elf to look for him—not to mention a rather strange Elf, and one who had no qualms about simply entering his home. "Really? By whom, if I might ask?"
The Elf's eyes gleamed, and his faint smile vanished abruptly. "A…friend. A mutual friend..."
"Oh, really?" Frodo said sharply, unable to keep a note of suspicion from his voice. "I should like to know the name of this friend… And once again, sir, I do wish you would tell me who you are…"
The Elf frowned and looked down. His shoulders curled forward, and his hands clenched into two great fists. He shook his head and his face flushed darkly. "I… I have said something wrong," he whispered. "I have erred… Forgive me, Master Baggins… I have much to learn…"
Frodo blinked at the powerful stranger sitting on the floor of his parlor, appearing for all the world like a child ashamed at some misdeed. I believe he's worried that he's frightened me…'I have much to learn…' I wonder what that means… True to his generous nature, the hobbit couldn't help but feel a rush of pity for the peculiar Elf. He reached out again and lightly placed his fingertips on the Elf's broad shoulder.
"No, no! You didn't say anything wrong; please don't worry. Come, let's start again, shall we?" he said. Cautiously he withdrew his hand, aware that the Elf had stiffened at his touch. "Tell me which friend has sent you to me."
The Elf's head rose, and his dark eyes caught Frodo's. "He said it would be best if you to simply meet with him, later… If you are willing, that is, to trust in friendship…"
Frodo frowned again, suppressing a sense of feeling cross once more. "Well, I certainly do trust in friendship—all the more so when I know in which friend I am placing my trust…"
"…one who can be trusted implicitly," the stranger interrupted. "As I do." He stared solemnly at the hobbit. "For, you see, he taught me the meaning of the word."
Frodo's throat went quite dry at that. He swallowed hard. He opened his mouth to speak, but the Elf was talking again, and his crooked smile had returned.
"But I have done little to help matters, I suspect. Twice you have asked for my name, Master Baggins," he said. "I am called Iaurel, though I have had other names in my long life…"
"Iaurel… Iaurel," Frodo muttered as he worked out the translation. He sniffed. "Ah, I see… Very well, I will allow you your small joke… 'Old Elf'… Sort of like saying, 'Short Hobbit,' I suppose." He stood up from his chair and bowed again, more formally. "If you don't wish to tell me your real name right now, I suppose I shall simply have to accept it. But mind you," he said as he shook his finger teasingly. "You still have a great deal to learn about the meaning of the word trust. You must earn trust. One does not simply give it away, not to just anyone." He smiled. "Yet you haven't done anything terribly untrustworthy, so far… other than enter my home, without leave…" He held up his hand as Iaurel began to sputter. "Don't worry—you are forgiven. After all, I leave my door unlatched, so I can hardly blame you…"
He cocked his ear upward, suddenly aware of the silence. "I believe the rain has finally gone." He stepped to the window and opened the shutters. It was very dark outside, without Star or Moon in the sky. "Goodness, I had no idea it was so late… I must have slept the day away!"
The Elf crouched near him, gazing out the window. "Indeed, Master Baggins, you did. For this day has passed, and another has arrived. It is tomorrow, and the dawn is not far off…"
"October the 1st…" Frodo whispered.
"A fine day for traveling, do you not think?" Iaurel said, his crooked grin slanting upward.
Frodo looked up at him, frowning half in wonder and half in suspicion. "How do you know…?"
The crooked smile turned impish. "How do I know that Farmer Maggot shall soon rise from his comfortable bed, that his worthy wife shall soon place a basket of mushrooms in his hands, that he shall ride his pony to the Buckleberry Ferry and cross the Brandywine River, that he shall arrive here two hours after noon? How do I know that he bears a note from an odd creature who lives in a strange house on the other side of an ancient forest nearby, inviting both of you to journey there and be that creature's guest?" The Elf's midnight-blue eyes twinkled. "I cannot tell you that. You will simply have to trust me, Master Baggins."
* * *
Maggot twisted in his saddle for the third time in as many minutes. The tall Elf was barely in sight, following the pair of hobbits on their ponies at a distance. He seemed to be in no hurry to catch up to them, lagging well behind. After spending the night at Crickhollow, they had crossed over the Brandywine Bridge and through the Gate early on the morning of October the 2nd, two hours ago. To their right, the impenetrable wall of the Old Forest loomed darkly. At the moment, Iaurel appeared to be studying something perched upon a branch, far up in a solitary old oak that grew upon the much more open north bank of the East Road. His arms were crossed over his broad chest, and his head was tipped back as he stared up into the tree.
"Your friend is a curious one," he grunted.
Frodo suppressed the urge to smile. "So you've said … At least four times, so far…"
Maggot sniffed. "Well, he is odd… You say he knew about Bombadil's invitation…"
"Um hmm… Listen, I don't know any more than you do, Maggot. But I don't think he means us harm," Frodo said as he glanced back. The Elf had apparently given up on his perusal of whatever had caught his fancy in the tree, for he was now loping toward them at a fast pace, running along in the turf above the ditch. "He's an Elf, for goodness sake. Have you ever heard of a dangerous Elf, or a bad one?"
"Seems to me there's been a few… Some old tale or other. Your uncle, Bilbo—he'd have known the story…"
"Maeglin," Frodo interjected. "And his father, Eöl…"
"That's it," the farmer said. "Them's the names…"
"Maeglin betrayed the fair city of Gondolin," Frodo said quietly. "What always seemed remarkable to me, though, was that in all the tales of the Elves there were only those two names… Only those two Elves who could be held up as examples of bad Elves…"
"Well, you mustn't forget about all those wars they fought amongst themselves, ages back… Can't all have been good Elves, not with all that Kinslaying …"
"Certainly not," Frodo replied. He paused and looked back again. Iaurel was gaining on them rapidly; he would be even with them in a minute. "I know there are bad Elves, Maggot. But I don't get any such sense from this one, even if he is rather peculiar…"
Maggot grunted again. "Neither do I…"
"Well, now—that's worth a great deal: the good common sense of Farmer Maggot. I'd say that's about as strong a recommendation one can get…"
The Farmer snorted, and Frodo chuckled just as the Elf reappeared at their side.
"Greetings, Master Baggins, Master Maggot…"
"Don't be callin' me 'master,' now, you hear me?" the Farmer growled. "I'm no gentle-hobbit. Ain't got no servants to call me 'master.' Nothing but good hired lads, treat 'em exactly the same as my own flesh and blood…"
Frodo couldn't help but grin, especially at the befuddled look upon poor Iaurel's face. "Yes, Iaurel, and you'd best learn that I no longer go by any such title, either. I am no one's 'master' nowadays, and I never plan to be one, again. Better to simply call me Frodo, and call Maggot here…well, um…" Frodo turned to his companion. "Well, indeed! I don't believe I know your given name! What shall he call you, Maggot?"
The Farmer's Sun-bronzed face turned a deeper shade of red. He muttered something under his breath.
"I did not hear you, Mas… ah, Maggot," said the Elf as his slanting grin appeared.
"Nor did I," Frodo laughed. "Come on, tell us! How bad can it be?"
Maggot snarled. "You'll not be repeating this, you hear me, Baggins?"
Frodo shook his head. "I swear, I'll never tell a soul…"
"No! You're not serious! Like Uffo Boffin?" Frodo said, aghast. The son of Otto Boffin The Fat had been even more corpulent than his infamous father.
"Aye… My dam had a great uncle she was fond of, named for the old fellow years back… Saddled me with the ugly moniker. No one but the wife knows it… You swear to keep this to yourself, Baggins?"
"I do, I do!" Frodo laughed. "I'd much rather just keep calling you Maggot, if you don't mind…"
"I'd have to box your ears again if you use any other name…"
Suddenly, Iaurel lunged and grasped the farmer's reins, holding them tightly. The pony snorted in fear, and Maggot reared back before he leaned forward, an angry scowl on his face.
"See here, what do you think you're doing…"
"You threatened Frodo Baggins," the Elf said sternly. His deep voice had fallen even lower, and his face was hard as stone. Both hobbits looked at him in astonished alarm. "You should not have done that…"
"Iaurel, please—he was only joking," Frodo cried.
The Elf's head snapped toward him. His dark eyes pierced him. "He should not make light of such a thing. No one should joke about harming another… especially not a friend… It is very evil to do such a thing—to harm a friend…"
"Of course… of course it is," Frodo said carefully. "I promise, Iaurel. Farmer Maggot will not harm me. Now, let his pony go… please…"
The tension slowly eased as Iaurel released his grip on the reins. Maggot reached forward and soothed his nervous mount, and the Elf moved away a few paces, watching the hobbits intently. Maggot leaned toward Frodo and muttered softly.
"As I said—quite a friend you've got there, Baggins… loyal, and odd…"
Frodo nodded absently as he met the eyes of the Elf. The look on Iaurel's face was of fierce protectiveness—and something else… Shame? Guilt? Frodo wondered who this Elf really was, and what he was hiding. I hope we will learn what there is to know of him, when we reach Tom's House… And find out what other friend is waiting for us there… For that was the only thing that made sense: that someone waited to meet them at the House of Tom Bombadil.
...to be continued..**
* Author's note: having no sense of how one assigns the levels of 'cousin' in hobbit terms, I looked at the family trees and took a wild guess here. If anyone has a better idea, please let me know!
** And yes, I know, I know, I said just one more chapter.... well I was wrong. There's more to come, and I have given up predicting how many chapters remain. You will find out when I do!
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.