“Did you get the Thain’s business dealt with?” Everard Took asked his cousin Isumbard as Bard entered the Mayor’s office within the Council Hole an hour or so after his fellows.
Bard shrugged as he closed his umbrella, reaching back to take that of his wife Pearl as she followed him into the room and thrusting both into the stand by the door. “We have the response to the King’s last letter finished, but want to run it by Frodo before we send it off.”
“Frodo? Why not Pippin? Wasn’t he still there this morning?”
Pearl thrust back the hood of her traveling cloak, and drops of water scattered about her feet from the fur of its trim. “Pippin left about halfway through breakfast,” she informed Everard.
“Oh, you’re here, too, Pearl?” Everard noted.
“I found I needed to get away from the Great Smial for a day,” Pearl answered. “Da and Mum are being so stubborn about denying anything Pippin tells them of this journey of theirs could possibly be true.”
“And the bairns?” asked Hildebrand.
“Pervinca has the care of them today. It will do them all good to spend a few hours together. Where is Frodo?” she asked, looking around the room for her cousin.
Everard shook his head. “I sent him back to Will and Mina’s house for a quick, warm bathe and a change of clothing. He got here from Bywater not all that long ago, and was pretty much wet through, having been caught in a brief but apparently heavy squall as he came by the Sweetbriars’ farm. We could see the rain clouds darker along that direction than where we were—we were all damp when we arrived, but Frodo was simply dripping!”
“I’ll go over and say hello to Will and Mina and hurry him along, then,” Pearl said.
“Will and Mina aren’t there,” warned Hillie. “The healer from Waymoot asked Will to come over there today so he could check out his knee, and they aren’t planning on returning until tomorrow morning. I’m afraid Frodo is on his own at the moment. Mina has been planning for this and left him plenty of food, at least, for which I’m certain he’s grateful.”
Isumbard gave his wife a thoughtful glance. “Why don’t you go over and check on him, dearling, and make certain he gets a mug of that tea of his. It appears to do him a world of good.” He dropped a kiss on the top of her head, and walked to the Mayor’s desk to see what new correspondence had been placed there since he’d left two days earlier.
Deciding that the rain wasn’t all that heavy now, Pearl left her umbrella where it was. She pulled her hood back over her head and left the Council Hole, crossing the square to the Whitfoot place. She knocked at the door as a courtesy, but knowing they weren’t home and that Frodo was likely to be either in the bath or in the room given to his use, she went in and shut the door behind her, shedding her cloak and hanging it carefully from a couple of pegs in the entryway so it would dry more evenly before heading through the parlor to the kitchen.
She could hear muffled music as she entered the kitchen. “Heavens!” she murmured to herself. “Frodo must be singing! But, it sounds such a sad song.” She could not make out the words, but it certainly wasn’t a song she’d heard before. “He must have learned this whilst they were out there,” she decided.
She could smell the fragrant steam from the bathing room, and was glad that Everard had insisted Frodo bathe and warm himself before returning to the Mayor’s office to work. “I should get some of that tea warmed up for him,” she decided, remembering that Bard had told her that Frodo carried tea with him in his water bottles. His cloak was draped between two chairs before the kitchen fire, which had been deliberately stirred to waken the blaze. She smiled: Frodo had always shown an unexpected practical bent at times, and she was glad he’d taken thought to dry and warm the garment before he went back out to cross to the Council Hole. Three water bottles hung over the back of one of the chairs at the kitchen table, so she appropriated one and began rummaging for a mug and a pannikin in which to warm Frodo’s drink.
The song finished as she set the tea to warm by the fire, and she found herself sorry this was so in spite of the melancholy tone of its music. She could hear the muffled slosh of the water in the tub, and at last the sound of the great vessel being emptied. She had found a fresh loaf of bread and a knife, and was preparing slices to toast when she heard the door to the bathing room open and turned to see Frodo emerge from the hallway, wrapped in a warm-looking dressing gown of quilted turquoise, his hair still damp but with curls slowly releasing from his forehead as they began to dry, a towel hung over his shoulders. He started at the sight of her, his face going markedly pale and his eyes widening, and she had a brief thought of him fleeing in terror before he recognized her and his cheeks went decidedly pink.
“Pearl? What are you doing here?” His voice was barely a whisper.
She smiled, holding up the loaf and knife. “I was preparing to toast some bread for you. Would you like it with butter, cheese, or both, Frodo? And I have some of your tea heating up for you here by the kitchen fire. Is that all right?”
In a few minutes he was seated at the table with the tea in front of him, his hands wrapped about the mug to take best advantage of its warmth. “Is it medicinal?” she asked.
Again his cheeks grew pink while the rest of his face paled. “I suppose that it is,” he admitted, grudgingly if she knew her Frodo. “Sam appears to have learned how to brew it from Lord Elrond, and he makes certain I have sufficient for several days at a time when I am busy here in Michel Delving.” After a moment of silence he added, “And I must admit I do better for drinking it regularly.”
After a moment she said softly, “Perhaps it might have been better for you if you hadn’t gone adventuring.”
His face twisted a bit. “I did little enough good for myself, I agree. But had I not done so, things would have been so very bad here—far worse than they turned out under Lotho and Sharkey.” He looked up to meet her eyes. “I do not regret having gone, not really, for if I had not left the Shire I should have missed out on meeting Aragorn, which I cannot now bear to even think of. But it was not an—easy—journey. And each of the great joys I was able to share in was more than countered by the griefs and pains I also knew.” He looked down into his mug and shook his head. “It cost me much—very much. Too much, perhaps.”
“But you came home at last, safe and sound.” Even Pearl was surprised to find herself making such a statement.
Frodo again met her eyes, and there was a grim humor in his own gaze, one such as she’d never seen in his expression in all the years she’d known him. “I came home, and perhaps I am now safe enough—for the moment, at least. But, sound?” He shook his head again, more definitely this time. “Looks can be deceiving, you know. And I certainly knew little enough safety along the dark road I followed.” He dropped his gaze again to the mug, took a deep breath, and drank deeply from it.
“Then why did you volunteer?” Pearl found herself saying.
He thought about it, then answered, “I did not think to volunteer. I do not believe I meant to volunteer. But somehow I did. And, having done so, I did what needed doing for as long as I could. But it was Sam who got us there in the end, and Gollum who actually did was I was intended to do.”
Her eyes widened in shock at the name. “Gollum? But he’s from old Bilbo’s stories.”
His face was now grim. “So, he was from Bilbo’s stories? Did you think that those stories were only made up to entertain us children? I assure you that they were more true than I’d imagined.” He considered the mug in his hands. “I almost wish I’d followed Bilbo’s path rather than the one I was set upon. The Dragon was a far more straight-forward danger than the ones we faced, and far less subtle than the greatest opponent set for me to deal with. At least with a Dragon, the worst he could have done would have been to kill me.”
“You don’t wish that you had died, do you?”
He gave her a sharp glance. “I wished I could have died many times along the way, Pearl Took. And, after—It—was gone, I was certain it was but a matter of minutes before Sam and I would be dead, there on the mountain, surrounded by the fumes and the fire. Did you realize that rock could become so heated it would turn to a burning liquid? We saw it, Sam and I, there upon the mountain after Gollum took It into the flame at the heart of the world. When I lost consciousness I was glad I should not feel myself burn. It was such a shock to awaken to find myself yet alive, alive and expected to return home.”
“Weren’t you glad?”
“Not as much as Sam was, or Merry, or your brother, Pearl. Oh, I’ve been glad, too. But it’s hard to remain glad when it feels as if I’ve been hollowed out as one hollows out a melon or a turnip.”
She could not imagine such a state. “But Pippin and Merry seem to feel you are a special hero, doing what you did. And the King has such praise for you.”
He did not respond.
She tried again. “And what is It? This Ring that Pippin keeps speaking of?
His response was accompanied by a challenging look. “And if it was? Do you choose to disbelieve him as your parents do?”
“There were Rings of Power—I remember Gandalf speaking of them at the Party, that long ago they were made by the Great Elves, different kinds of Rings of power for each race—Elves, Dwarves, and Men, although there were none made for Hobbits, which Merimac Brandybuck thought was wrong, as Hobbits are people, too.”
Frodo considered her for a moment, thoughtfully. “Did Gandalf not mention one more Ring—the One Ring, created by the Enemy himself for his own use, intended to rule all the others that were made?”
“And that’s the one that you had to carry?”
He shrugged and drank again from his mug. Pearl knew that her guess was right, although she still couldn’t imagine how It could have come into the possession of Frodo Baggins. Best, she thought, to change the subject. She placed a slice of bread on the toasting fork and held it near the fire. “You didn’t say whether you would prefer butter or cheese, or both, Frodo,” she reminded him.
Suddenly his face appeared young and vulnerable, like a little Hobbit lad who knows he’s asking for a special treat and isn’t certain it will be allowed. “Actually, I’d like butter and honey, if I might have it that way. The honey’s near the butter, just inside the cool room. It’s in a honey-colored jar with yellow muslin over it, tied on with white string.”
How could she deny that hopeful look in his eyes? Leaving him with toasting fork in hand, she went to fetch the butter and honey, and soon had both the butter crock and the honey jar opened and ready for use. He ate two slices with all indications of enjoyment, then stopped after three bites of a third, pushing it from him with signs of reluctance. “It’s all I can eat,” he explained apologetically. “You may have the rest.”
Rather diffidently, she took a bite. “Wildflower honey,” she decided. “It does taste good!”
They shared a smile.
She searched his eyes. “I sometimes think that I ought to have married you after all, Frodo,” she murmured.
He was shaking his head. “No, Pearl, you did rightly to marry Bard instead. He will never leave you aforetimes as it is likely I should have done, and you never had to live with me during the years I was possessed by the Ring. Somehow I managed to keep It under control most of the time, but what It would have had me do to someone I loved as a husband is meant to love his wife—I shudder to think of that!” And shudder he did—visibly!
“But at least you would not have been alone,” she began, before he cut her off.
“Those who bear a Ring of Power are alone,” he said, his voice remote and sad. “The Lady Galadriel told me that, and how true it proved. Of course, she spoke from long experience. Lord Elrond tried to tell me the same thing, of course. But then, they wore two of the three Rings for the Elves.”
“And you had to carry the One Ring, the evil one made by the Dark Lord to rule the others? This is the Ring that Bilbo used to tell of in his tales, the one that made him invisible, that no one believed was true?” she asked. At his nod, she continued, “Who has the third Ring made for the Elves?”
He gave a wry smile and shook his head. “I know now. I’d glimpsed it before, but hadn’t realized what it was I’d seen. But I only saw the one the Lady wears because I’d worn the One Ring, or so she explained it. The other Rings of Power could not be hidden from one who’d worn the One Ring, not when he could see the bearers. But recognizing what one sees is quite a different thing than just seeing it.”
After a moment she asked, “Then you won’t tell me who wears the third Ring?”
After searching her eyes Frodo smiled, and she saw the first faint signs of his old mischief that she’d seen in years. “It is not for me to say. I doubt you shall ever see either the Lady Galadriel or Lord Elrond, but this one you have seen in the past and may see yet again. Since the One is now gone this person may now freely display the Ring worn, but I will not spoil things ahead of time.”
“And the One Ring—the one you had, It’s truly gone now?”
Just the one word, but such a weight to it! Once again his expression was closed, his eyes turned away. He put his hand up to rub at his forehead, as if he had a sudden headache, and she could see the place where his ring-finger was missing. She wanted to ask about that, too, but knew from watching him with her parents that he was unlikely to answer—that he would most likely turn from her completely, and she didn’t want that.
She found a safer topic. “I’ve not seen that dressing gown before.”
He looked down as if he’d forgotten what he wore. He rubbed at the lapel and explained, “It was Fenton Whitfoot’s. Mina told me to wear it, that it was honoring her lost son.” He glanced up from under his brows. “At first, I think she was seeing Fenton in me. I mean, we were the same age and appear to have been much the same height and build, although his shoulders were a bit wider than mine, and I cannot wear his gloves—they fall right off my hands! But somehow, allowing me to stay here during the week has helped her to accept that he’s been dead for so many years without the loss tearing at her heart as it did in the past. And it also helps somehow to reassure her that the Time of Troubles is over, and that no one will take Will away again.”
She considered him thoughtfully. “It is a good color on you, that shade of turquoise.”
He shrugged once more as he tightened the belt, which had begun allowing the garment to sag somewhat. “I had best dress myself and return to the Mayor’s office. There will be a good deal of work to catch up on.” He looked up to catch her eye. “And why did you come with Bard today?”
“To be frank, to avoid Mum and Da for the rest of the day. Pippin stayed the night, but left halfway through breakfast, which was generous of him considering how Mum was gushing over him and Da was arguing with almost every word he said. I cannot begin to imagine why they don’t want to accept that he fought in a war, and that he fought goblins and even managed to kill a troll. Brand is fascinated by his stories, and I’m certain Pippin is doing his best to hide from the lad how terrible it really was. But I caught him changing his shirt and could see how different his ribs look now, that he truly did have them break when the troll fell on him. And when I try to say anything of how bad it must have been he just says it was nothing to how badly you and Sam Gamgee were hurt, or Merry. He says that all four of you almost died, and that without your Aragorn’s care none of you would have recovered as well as you have.”
Frodo turned his gaze away, not so much avoiding hers as focusing on what she’d said. “He is right in that, Pearl. None of us would have survived if Aragorn had not been able to tend to us when we were worst hurt.” He returned to her face, his eyes sad but with a tremulous smile nonetheless. “We are so fortunate to have such a one as our King now. I cannot wait to have you meet him, when he can come north again to us. But there is a larger population in the southlands, and he will need to consolidate his rule there fully before he can come home to Eriador and Arnor once more. I suspect he will rule mostly from Minas Tirith, but his heart dwells here in the north.” He rose. “If you will excuse me, I shall go change. Thank you, Pearl, for being with me this morning.”
He gave that beautiful smile of his as he disappeared into the side hallway to the bedrooms and the bathing room, and she heard him close his door before he reached for his dry clothing.
She cleared up after his toast and honey and saw all the food returned to its proper place and the dishes cleaned and laid out upon the drying towel. He emerged from the bedroom neatly dressed, his hair carefully brushed out on both head and feet, his trousers so much longer than he used to wear them, hiding his ankles. She emptied the wash basin out into the yard and set it in the dry sink before turning to look him over once more. “You look more as you did so many years ago when I was certain you were the only gentlehobbit I would ever love, Frodo Baggins.”
“Thin as a stick, you mean? Although with the silver threads in my hair and the lines now so clear to be seen on my forehead, I do not believe anyone would take me for a young lad ever again.”
“No, I admit you don’t look a lad. But you look even more an interesting person now than you did as a tween, and that is not saying you weren’t interesting then. Have you seen Narcissa—Narcissa Boffin, I mean? She will love you even more than ever.”
He was leaning over his cloak, seeing how much it had dried. His voice was quiet when he answered her. “I doubt I will seek to court her, Pearl.”
“But with that Ring gone now, why not?” When all he did was to shake his head she continued, “She would love the pearls you bought as your promise gift to me.”
He shook his head more emphatically. “No—those were bought for you, not for anyone else. And, if I were to seek a marriage with Narcissa, I would find a far different set of jewelry for her for a promise gift, one that matched her and the love I would know with her.” He turned to look at her more directly. “No one could ever replace what I dreamed of knowing with you with what I would know with any other woman, Pearl Took. There is only one first love, and my first love was you. I am certain that what you have said about your own love for me being immature is true, and how—satisfying our marriage, had we come to it, might have proved was likely to be far less than what we had imagined or had hoped for. Had I pursued a courtship with Narcissa I believe we could have been happy—I hope very happy, as long as the Ring didn’t interfere. But it would have been a different manner of happiness than I might have known with you.
“But I know now that the—terrible things—that I found myself thinking of doing to those who caught my eye once Bilbo left It with me were due to the Ring’s imaginings rather than being my own, and I am grateful to know I was nowhere as horrible a person as I had found myself believing me to be. I doubt our marriage would have been happy at all, not with the Ring in my pocket; what It would have tried to make me do to you and our children does not deserve to be dwelt upon. And even should I have successfully defied Its will, still I should have seemed undeservedly distant as I sought to protect you from what I was being pressured to do. I tell you this—I am now so very glad you did throw me over before we came to that!
“But It would have done Its best to corrupt my love for my wife no matter whom I might have married.”
“You don’t still love me, do you, Frodo?”
He was already shaking his head. “Oh, I do love you, as a friend, almost a sister. But I cannot imagine loving you as I once did, or as I might love someone else, someone like Narcissa. That time is long past. Do you still love me?”
She smiled sadly. “Not as I did when I was a foolish lass, Frodo Baggins.”
After a moment of silence he said, “I suppose I should not be surprised to be grateful now that Lobelia warned you off me as she did.”
Pearl knew she must be flushing deeply, feeling her cheeks burning with embarrassment. “I still wish, in some ways, at least, that I’d never listened to her.”
He touched her cheek, and his smile was the one she’d known when they were young, long before she’d come to think she loved him. “It would have been a different life for us. But I would have been so torn to have had to leave you behind when I went to rid myself and Middle Earth of the Ring, Pearl.”
“Then it is good that I came to realize that I belonged with Bard.”
“Yes.” And the weight of that word as he’d stated it last was lifted. He leaned down and kissed her forehead. “Thank you.”
“For loving me at all. At least I knew that once in my life.”
He never courted Narcissa Boffin, and Pearl knew that Narcissa grieved for that love that never came to be long after Frodo left the Shire and Middle Earth. She felt a degree of anger at this, for there was no question that Narcissa had worshiped Frodo Baggins for far longer than she had done, but then she remembered how he’d described himself as being as hollowed out as a melon and found herself forgiving him.
She learned that Frodo had bequeathed to Narcissa most of the jewelry that his mother had left, and she was glad.
But he did leave her a charm for the bracelet Pippin gave her that first Yule after their return from Gondor—a silver star set with a pearl in the center, with the words Thank you engraved upon the back.