Hatto Hornblower sat in one of the lesser parlors in Brandy Hall, a glass of the Hall’s finest brew in his hands, looking over the glass’s rim as he sipped from it at the other occupants of the room. Among the party were Odovacar and Fredegar Bolger, that young lawyer Brendilac Brandybuck and his father, Master Saradoc’s younger brother Merimac, and a few other residents of the Hall who were more closely related to the Hornblowers and Goolds of the South-farthing. Hatto was an imposing figure, broadly built and dressed as he was in a jacket of golden brocade over a vest of forest green. One had to look closely to see that the collar of the jacket had been turned at least once, and that the cuffs to his lawn shirt were worn. Although he did his best to hide it, the last two years had not been anywhere as profitable as had been true prior to those days when he’d been convinced to allow Lotho Sackville-Baggins to direct most of his investments.
“So,” Merimac Brandybuck said, “you’ve just come from Bag End, eh? And how was Frodo when you left him?”
The door opened while Mac was speaking, and his sister-in-love entered, Esmeralda Took Brandybuck being followed by one of the servers who carried in a tray of cakes that were set on a large table alongside the bottles of wine, ale, and brandy. Esme thanked the lass politely and dismissed her, and took a chair on the edges of the company so that she might rise and do what was needed by the Mistress of Brandy Hall. “I am sorry to interrupt,” she said politely, “but as Sara is out at Crickhollow with our son Meriadoc and our nephew Pippin, I had some business I must make a decision upon in his absence. I do hope you will answer Mac’s question, however.”
“Frodo?” Hatto’s jaw tightened. “I must suppose he was doing well enough. From what that gardener of his was saying, however, I wasn’t certain I would even be allowed to speak with him. Seemed convinced that his Master wasn’t up to conducting business right then.”
Several people turned toward Brendilac. “You saw Frodo last week, Brendi, didn’t you?” asked one of the cousins. “How was he then?”
Brendi shrugged. “He was a bit tired when I saw him. He’d just come back from still another trip to Michel Delving to go over some business he and the Tooks had been working upon just before the Free Fair so that old Flour Dumpling would be better able to continue on most effectively.”
“Frodo ought not to have bowed out of the office as he did,” commented Odovacar. “I still think he did an exemplary job as deputy Mayor and would have made a blessedly fine Mayor in his own right.”
Hatto cleared his throat and shook his head. “Well, if he didn’t think that it was worth his time to become Mayor himself, I wasn’t going to waste my vote on him. I’ve never seen anything like it, with Will Whitfoot himself putting him up as candidate and Frodo just shoving the office right back at him the way he did. Shameful behavior!”
Mac shrugged one shoulder. “Frodo wasn’t honor bound to accept the office fully just because Will wished to see him take his place. Frodo has had a good deal on his plate since he got back from Outside, after all, what with dealing with the reparations fund Lobelia wished set up to make things right for those who’d lost so much under Lotho’s misrule, helping to see to it that homes were rebuilt and repaired, and having to have Bag End totally refurbished after what those Big Men and Sharkey did to the place. Mantha and I stopped by Hobbiton to see it on our return from Michel Delving, and it was truly unbelievable what had been done there. Sancho Proudfoot and some others were hauling out the carpets, and they were absolutely destroyed! As for the condition of the hole—it was unbelievable! Axes, knives, and mattocks had been used against the walls and doorways, windows had been broken out, and almost every inch of flooring needed replacing. As for what Frodo had to face as deputy Mayor—all of the damage done, food and possessions stolen, animals run off and confiscated, and all—it was enough to dishearten anyone!”
Hatto snorted. “If his sensibilities are so sensitive he couldn’t stand listening to hard-luck stories, Frodo should never have agreed to serve as Will’s deputy.”
Too late, he realized his last statement had not been particularly—tactful. After all, Frodo’s mother Primula had been the Master’s beloved aunt, the darling of Buckland until her untimely death. And Frodo Baggins was first cousin to Saradoc Brandybuck as well as being closely related to everyone in this room, and had grown up largely here in Brandy Hall. The expressions he saw reflected about him were anything but friendly at the moment.
Fredegar Bolger was regarding him coldly. “I never heard anyone complain about Frodo’s time as deputy Mayor. Indeed, all spoke of his surprising willingness to do his best by everyone who came to him during that time.”
Esmeralda’s face was no longer warmly welcoming, either. “Indeed, my cousins from the Great Smial who helped him in the months he sat in the Mayor’s office indicated that he worked harder than any of them in seeking out the beginnings of Lotho’s perfidy and at seeing to it that a proper investigation was set in motion to learn how he managed to gain so much property and power so swiftly. Frodo personally questioned every single Shirriff as to what he did and what he saw done during Lotho’s self-proclaimed term as Chief Shirriff, and made certain all who had taken advantage of their authority as Shirriffs have been properly disciplined. I would not say that Frodo’s sensibilities were any too sensitive. He has spent hours going through letters and reports detailing the thefts perpetrated by rogue Shirriffs, the Big Men, and the Gatherers and Sharers. He has spoken with every person who spent time in the Lockholes or who was abused in their own villages or homes. He has helped in reconstruction of homes, and has gone through lists of stolen properties and possessions and has helped send most of the found items back to their proper owners. And he returned last to his own home, of all of those whose homes were damaged or destroyed while he was away.”
“But it wasn’t his home when he got back!” Hatto objected.
“Lobelia returned it to him.”
“He could have returned here. Didn’t he buy a new home here in Buckland after he sold Lotho Bag End?”
Odovacar sighed. “Frodo had agreed to serve as deputy Mayor at Will Whitfoot’s insistence. He couldn’t have done that easily from here in Buckland, could he? So, he stayed part time in Bywater where he was a guest of the Cottons and part time in Michel Delving while actively working in the Mayor’s office. After learning that that Sharkey had seen to it that Lotho was killed right there in Bag End, Lobelia couldn’t bring herself to return to the place, choosing to return to her family in Hardbottle, and saw to it that Bag End was deeded back to Frodo. Do you question her right to do that? If your son had been killed dead in his new home, would you wish to remain there afterward?”
Hatto looked sideways at the Bolger and licked his lips. “That is rather hard to speak to, as I’ve never been in such a position.”
“And I hope no one here will ever be placed in such a situation,” agreed Mac. “It is not one we here within Buckland or the Shire are familiar with, although from what we have been told of the Outside it is not all that uncommon a situation for Men.”
“Then I’m glad none of us are Men,” said one of the cousins, to which the rest of the company agreed.
“What did become of the place Frodo bought here?” asked Hatto.
Esmeralda said, “He has returned it to the possession of Brandy Hall to resume using it as a guest house for visitors who do not wish to stay within the Hall, as long as Merry and Pippin are allowed to remain there as long as they wish.”
“And why don’t the two rascals just return home to their families?” the Hornblower demanded.
Too late he realized that he’d caused more offense than he’d be forgiven as a good half of those in the room rose. Brendilac Brandybuck’s father led the way. “I do think,” he said, “that it is time for us to return home now, Brendi.”
The son turned toward his father, shaking his head. “I believe I’ll stay for the moment. If Mr. Hornblower is planning a business transaction with Frodo, then I will need to know sufficient details to write out the agreement or contract. Good night, Dad.”
The older Hobbit nodded. “I will see you when you get to the hole, then, Brendi. Sir,” he added with far less cordiality and a stiff nod toward Hatto, and he led his relatives out.
Only the Bolgers, the lawyer, Mac, Esmeralda, and two other Brandybucks remained, and all of them were eyeing Hatto as if they were waiting for what further insult he might utter. At last Hatto murmured, “No insult intended, Esme.”
“I am at a loss to understand just why you referred to my son and my nephew as rascals, much less why you have insulted Frodo tonight,” she returned. “He was not compelled to continue on in the Mayor’s office just because Will nominated him for the post. I will tell you this, Frodo does not do things for no reason. He might not tell others why he makes the decisions he does, but once the whole matter is understood it usually proves that Frodo has done the best he can by as many as he can.”
“Then why did he leave the Shire the way he did, and sell Bag End to Lotho Pimple, of all people?”
Brendi was searching his face. “I was unaware that you had any contract or agreement made with Lotho that had in it a clause based on Frodo selling Lotho Bag End. I am aware of a number that were….”
“No, nothing like that,” Hatto said, sighing and scratching his ear. “But I made the mistake of allowing Lotho to steer me into a few business deals that did not turn out as promised, and the only person I am aware of who seemed to have any influence over Lotho to keep him in line, besides Lobelia, that is, was Frodo. Had Frodo not done what he did, I could have turned to him to help see matters made right.” He glared at the glass in his hand as if he saw within it a reflection of Lotho’s face, leering at him. After a moment he went on. “Lotho had convinced a number of us that he could make us fabulously wealthy. He was dealing with someone outside the Shire who wanted food and pipe weed in large quantities, and Lotho was willing to broker the deals for us. He also had some warehouses built on his own land near the third Hornblower leaf plantation, and he allowed us to use them to hold shipments we had prepared to send off elsewhere in the Shire. Only some of these shipments wouldn’t be there when our carters came to pick them up to carry on to wherever they were intended. Had a shipment of weed intended for Tuckborough—the Great Smial. It went missing, and Lotho couldn’t tell me what had happened to it. He swore he’d not tampered with it. But then I learned that I wasn’t the only one this had happened to. Erto Mason, near the Longbottom place—it happened to him—a shipment of fruit intended for Long Cleeve. And two barrels of cherry brandy intended for here from the second Hornblower plantation. A mixed shipment from the Pincup Proudfoots intended for Michel Delving disappeared, both produce and material, mostly ribbons, spools of thread, and bolts of broadcloth. There were two wagonloads of Longbottom Leaf that were supposed to go to Gamwidge for distribution throughout the North-farthing, and a fair amount of foodstuffs that had come from the West-farthing that was supposed to be distributed to the various Hornblower holdings that I sent there, there to Lotho’s warehouses, where they, too, went missing.
“We learned that huge wagons drawn by real horses were coming empty into the Shire by night, and leaving by way of the Sarn Ford early in the morning, headed down the Greenway now full of unnamed goods. Lotho kept telling us that these reports were false, but then Leto Sandheaver went missing after he declared he was going to get to the bottom of this, that he was going to sneak into those warehouses at night and see what was really going on. Nothing has been heard of him since shortly before Frodo headed off to here from Bag End, there just before he disappeared with Pippin Took and your Merry. We think that the Big Men driving those wagons took him with them.”
“Why did you go to see Frodo now?” asked Brendi.
Hatto shrugged and looked at the floor. “I was hoping to sell him an additional farm share or two in the third Hornblower plantation, which I run. Lotho cost me a good deal of money, sending my goods I had stored in his warehouse off wherever it was he sent them. I’ve had to pay back money for deliveries to the Great Smial and other places where they never arrived. And when I tried to speak to Lotho about them once Frodo was gone and the Sackville-Bagginses were in Bag End, he just laughed at me, demanding how I was going to prove he’d had anything to do with the shipments that went missing. If I’d not sold him so much produce to send off wherever the missing goods went to, I could perhaps have made things nearly even with the Thain and all. But Lotho underpaid me for what I sold through him, and told me I ought to have read the sales agreements more closely before I signed them. For all Frodo let it be thought he’d spent all he had before he sold Bag End, I’ve heard tell he’s flush enough since he came back, and that it was his own money that went into rebuilding many of the homes and inns and mills that were destroyed by Lotho’s Big Men. Perhaps, with a bit of extra capital to start the coming year with I can get the place back on its feet.”
“But didn’t the harvest this year help you?” asked one of the other Brandybucks in the room. “It was the most abundant we’ve had in living memory!”
Hatto gave a despondent shake of his head. “That Lotho passed onto me some of the advice this Mr. White he’d been dealing with had given him about what to do to increase the yield of the soil, and we tried it—three years in a row we tried it. First year it worked a charm—good yields on everything. Second year it worked, but the plants appeared—damaged, somehow, and the harvest, although abundant enough, all tasted—well, sour. Third year, last year, that is, it was bad, bad, bad! One of the tenants on Lotho’s land came over to see what I was complaining about, and asked if I’d followed any advice Lotho had passed my way from his foreign customer, and told me that this was something I should not have done more than a year at a time, as it can kill the very soil itself. This year was better than last year, and at least what we grew tasted wholesome enough—was excellent, in fact; but it was still far sparser than it was before I tried what Lotho had advised me to do.”
Brendi and the Brandybuck who’d last questioned Hatto exchanged looks. “The Lady’s gift probably helped undo the poisoning done by the misuse of the soil,” Brendi suggested. “But if the soil was badly depleted it most likely couldn’t do a lot to make it stronger quickly.”
The other Brandybuck nodded. “Best leave as much land as you can manage to lie fallow for a year or two, work plenty of mulch and manure into it to strengthen it up, and then replant it with beans first after it’s had a rest.”
“That’s what Lotho’s tenant said,” Hatto admitted. “Said as he’d read up on it a few years back in a book his family owns, one that was a gift from the Tooks. There’s supposed to be a good deal of advice from the Elves in this book, apparently.”
“There’s no question that the Elves know the proper way to heal the land,” Brendi commented. “So, you wanted to try to sell Frodo more farm shares. What did he say?”
Again Hatto sighed. “Took me a time to get the gardener to let me even see Frodo—seemed to think that Frodo wasn’t well enough to talk with anyone. But I insisted, and at last he showed me into Frodo’s study. If Bag End was badly damaged, it appears to have been repaired very well.”
“Yes,” Esmeralda said, “it was. Was Frodo in the study when Sam showed you in?”
“No, but he came in quickly enough. Looked all right to me, I suppose. Except he’s very thin now.”
Fredegar Bolger gave him a jaundiced look. “I suppose he is. But, then, so am I.”
Hatto glanced at him, and then swiftly looked away, clearly embarrassed. “I’d not wished to say anything,” he muttered. He cleared his throat, scratched his ear again, and continued, “He asked me what crops I might have that he could benefit from, and I offered him two large barrels of Old Toby rather than the one small one he receives now.”
Esme and Brendi exchanged looks. “Not,” she said, “that he particularly favors Old Toby, much less Longbottom Leaf. He’s always preferred Goolden Lynch. But, then, I do not believe he even smokes anymore.”
“So he said,” Hatto responded, his tone rather flat. “He suggested I speak with Sam Gamgee. But why would his gardener be interested in buying farm shares? It’s not as if he has a great deal of money to invest----”
Freddy gave a bark of a laugh. “Do not be so swift to think that, Hatto Hornblower. Sam has far more means since he returned to the Shire than he had before he left it.”
“And how did the likes of Samwise Gamgee come into money just by leaving the Shire?” demanded the second Brandybuck who’d stayed behind when their kinsmen left.
“It has to do with what he and Frodo and the others did outside the Shire towards winning the war,” Esme answered him, looking his way briefly. “If Merry and Pippin came back soldiers, Frodo and Sam earned even more honor and respect for what they accomplished.”
“Which was,” prompted Hatto.
“Fooling the Enemy and destroying his greatest weapon,” Freddy said. “Which,” he added, “effectively destroyed the Enemy himself. And that allowed Aragorn son of Arathorn, who had been Chieftain of the Dúnedain of the North, to become King of both the North and the South Kingdoms, of both Arnor where we live and of Gondor to the south. From what Sam, Merry, and Pippin have all told me, that earned all four of them a good deal of honor and respect, considering that all four of them almost died protecting others, with Frodo being at the point of death more than once.”
Hatto didn’t understand all of this. “But why in Middle Earth would they even consider leaving the Shire to begin with?”
“Frodo had to leave the Shire,” Brendi said. “He’d inherited one item old Bilbo brought back from his own adventures that was getting ready to destroy the whole of the Shire, and the rest of Middle Earth as well. He left the Shire to take It away, and hopefully, he’d thought, to protect those of us he loved from the danger that was rocking the rest of the Free Lands. Only one of the Enemy’s allies had realized where It must have lain hidden for the last sixty or so years, and both he and the Enemy himself sent agents in search of It.”
Hatto realized that Fredegar Bolger was trembling, and that he’d gone quite pale. “Some of the Enemy’s agents, on learning that Frodo was removing here to Buckland and the Crickhollow House, came there after the others left, and they attacked the house while I was still there. We are fortunate that they didn’t remain once they realized that they’d been tricked and that Frodo was already gone out of the Shire. Even they didn’t dare follow him through the Old Forest, so they tried to waylay him thrice on his way to Rivendell. That was the first time he almost died. And had they caught me in the house when they broke in, I have no doubt they’d have taken me prisoner and tortured me to tell them where Frodo might have gone before they finally killed me. You cannot imagine what it was like, facing them even in as cowardly a manner as I did by fleeing out the back door.”
“What kind of agents did these fellows send?” demanded Hatto.
“The Enemy sent his most terrible servants,” Freddy said through a clenched jaw. “And Sharkey sent the Big Men to help Lotho take over the Shire and do his bidding—at least until he came himself and had Lotho murdered.”
“Are you saying that that Sharkey----” Hatto began.
Brendi faced him, his chin raised, his demeanor sadly stern. “Yes, Sharkey was this mysterious Mr. White who gave Lotho advice on how to improve the yield of our fields—and to kill them. They aren’t certain exactly when he became a traitor and began serving the Enemy, but it appears to have been quite some time ago that he decided he wanted the Enemy’s weapon for himself, to conquer the Enemy and put himself in the Enemy’s place. Once he realized that the weapon was likely here, he began plotting the destruction of the Shire. And that was probably before Frodo was even born, certainly before it was guessed Frodo planned to carry It away.”
“How do you know so much about all this?” Hatto asked, his confusion coming out as bluster.
Fredegar Bolger sighed and said, “After they saved me from the Lockholes, I remained in Bywater at the Cottons’ farm, along with Samwise Gamgee, Sam’s dad and sister, and Frodo, when he returned to the center of the Shire on the days he did not work in the Mayor’s office. I heard—things, and sometimes Frodo would even answer a question or two about it all. And, as you know, Brendi there has been Frodo’s personal lawyer for years.”
“I had to make out his will, and needed to know some things to see to it his wishes were followed while he was away,” Brendi added. “He did not go into great detail, but I learned enough to convince me that he was compelled to leave as he did to protect us all. Since he got back he’s told me some things, but again not all. He’s told me enough, however, to reassure me that his fears before he left had been more than borne out.”
“So, why doesn’t he smoke anymore?” asked Hatto.
Esme answered, “From what little he and the lads have told me, it is because of the last injuries he suffered. They affected his stomach and his lungs. He apparently breathed in quantities of a poisonous fume, and the healers who saw him as he recovered and afterwards are all adamant that he must not smoke any longer. Indeed, Pippin tells me that for a time he, Sam, and Frodo all three were forbidden to smoke, and that those who visited with them must only smoke outside and downwind of them. Pippin and Sam recovered enough that they were allowed to smoke again within a few months, but Frodo cannot smoke at all, and Sam only smokes out of doors, away from Frodo.”
The idea that a Hobbit of the Shire could not smoke for reasons of health was a totally new one to Hatto Hornblower. “Who’d of thought?” he said, searching the faces of the others.
“Indeed,” agreed Odovacar Bolger. “But at last I understand.”
“That Samwise was so lordly in his manner when he told me I couldn’t smoke there in Bag End,” Hatto said, remembering how offended he’d felt at the time.
Esme laughed tiredly. “Well,” she said, “from what it says in those letters Sara and I received from the King, if Sam behaves in a lordly manner, he has good reason. He’s now considered a Lord of the West, you must understand, him and Frodo both, for all they did to see the Enemy’s weapon destroyed and the Enemy himself brought down. He’s now the Lord Perhael, having been ennobled upon the Field of Cormallen, which apparently is a cleared area inside the forests of Ithilien in the Kingdom of Gondor, where the King was first crowned. The King and his Council all appear to consider Frodo and Sam both among the highest of honored souls within all of Middle Earth.
“Now,” she concluded, rising to her feet, “if you will excuse me, I must see to it that all is ready for dinner. You will be joining us, Hatto, Odovacar, and Freddy? Shall I prepare a room for you for the night, Hatto? Good enough.”
So saying, she left them, followed by the two Brandybucks who’d remained, leaving Hatto with Merimac, Brendi, and the two Bolgers.