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Ernil i Pheriannath

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Ernil i Pheriannath

       "Look, Naneth," Andrien said suddenly, "It's the Ernil i Pheriannath!"

       Mistress Lindirieth looked the way indicated by her daughter, and sure enough there walked the Pherian in question dressed in his uniform as a Guard of the Citadel, the black and silver of his surcoat appearing odd on one so small. "I see him, dear heart," she responded.

       "Is he truly the prince of the Halflings, do you think? And did he truly offer the services of the men of his people to the needs of Gondor?" the younger lady wondered.

       "I have no true idea," her mother answered. "After all, we've seen only the four since we returned from the place of refuge and the army returned from the Black Gate. But certainly it is a great honor to have such a one swear service to Gondor as this one has."

       The Ernil i Pheriannath, they realized, was not alone. Behind him walked a Dwarf with his russet hair and beard braided with golden ribbons and finished with elaborately wrought gold beads, Lord Elphir of Dol Amroth, a captain from among the forces of Rohan, one of the northern Dúnedain warriors wrapped in a stained green cloak, and the remaining three Pheriannath, the group followed by a personal guard in the blue and silver of Imrahil's service and a Rider from Rohan in green and golden brown over silver mail, apparently attendant on the captain from among his people.

       The attention of the two ladies of Gondor, however, was now on the three Pheriannath who walked with Prince Elphir and the others. These three were dressed in what must be the clothing of their own folk, in trousers, open jackets and a second, shorter garment over cream-colored shirts with embroidered collars, and no shoes on their hairy feet. Almost like children did they appear, save no child looked precisely as the faces of these did. The taller one with the curls of warm brown said something to which the others responded with amusement, the Dwarf guffawing, the Pherian with hair of dark gold chuckling throatily, the three Men laughing openly, and the Pherian with the dark curls smiling as he rubbed absently at his left shoulder. It was the closest any in Mistress Lindirieth's family had seen any of the Halflings, for they'd watched the coronation of their new King from the city walls behind their home in the Third Circle, and the procession of the King's party up through the city from the upper story of their house. Then the Ernil i Pheriannath had walked before the King as guard of honor, followed by two others of the Pheriannath on ponies, the fourth Halfling walking as guard to Éomer King of Rohan. Lindirieth wasn't certain which was which as she looked on them now, and had only the vaguest sense of what had been done by them. It was said that two of them had walked openly through Mordor itself to throw down the Black Tower, although she found the tale that they'd done so by carrying the Enemy's Ring to Orodruin itself barely credible.

       The party from the Citadel was headed for the Lady's Garden, apparently for the noon meal, as were Lindirieth and her daughter. The broad one with the dark gold curls looked up at Lord Elphir and asked, "You say as they make good egg dishes here?"

       "They are famous for them, and for their sliced cold meats and vegetables between bread rolls. I believe you and Lord Frodo will be well impressed. And the light ale they serve is excellent."

       The Halfling who'd spoken flushed and cast a quick glance at the one with the dark hair, whose pale face had spots of pink on his cheeks. "Master Frodo if you must give me a title of any sort, please, Lord Elphir," the one with dark curls instructed him.

       Lord Elphir looked at the older northern Dúnedain warrior in question, and that one gave a slight shrug. He looked back to the Pherian again and gave a small bow. "I stand corrected, small Master," he said, obviously amused. "Please forgive me the impropriety."

       The cheeks of the one with dark curls grew a bit pinker, but he simply gave a slight nod and turned to examine the eating establishment with interest before he followed the Ernil i Pheriannath and the Dwarf inside. Lindirieth and Andrien followed them, and after a few moments were shown to a small table on the eating terrace on the far side of the building where they could look down on the Pelennor. Their table was close by that at which the Pheriannath and their companions now sat.

       The one called Frodo sat opposite them with the one with dark gold hair beside him on his left and the northern Dúnedan on his right. The one with hair of warm brown sat on the end of the table opposite the Dwarf, while Lord Elphir and the Rider from Rohan sat with their backs to mother and daughter. "The chairs aren't too low, are they?" the tall warrior was asking the Halflings.

       The two guards sat at a nearby table alongside the Ernil i Pheriannath, the three of them watchful for possible dangers to those at the table with the other Pheriannath. Lindirieth knew that both Lords Boromir and Faramir had served for a time in the Guard of the Citadel and had stood duty by their father and other notables visiting the city; that the Prince of the Halflings should serve the same duty seemed both right and proper. The Halflings apparently knew that the sons of their rulers must learn to serve their folk from within the ranks. Lindirieth approved of the sense shown in this.

       One of the servers approached the table for the mixed group, and soon had his tablet full. A single mug of light ale was brought to each of those on guard, although they took it in turn to drink.

       Once those at the main table had been served their drinks and the server was gone, the one known as Frodo gave the Man in the green cloak an inquisitive look. "They are almost fawning over the three of us, Strider; but although they are courteous enough to you they barely give you a second glance."

       "It's the northern Ranger garb, I think," Lord Elphir commented. "Had he worn anything else I suspect they'd have been falling all over themselves seeking to serve him."

       "Yet our Lord Éomer found him worshipful enough in such garb from the time we almost rode over the three of them in the tall grass of our land," the Rider interjected, eyeing the Northerner carefully. "There he was no better dressed than now—indeed he was in need of a sound washing."

       The tallest of the three laughed. "I have little patience with witless service, as you should have learned by now. And to be the focus of attention at all times becomes wearing, as you well know, Frodo. I'm happy enough to see you get the respect you deserve."

       "Deserve? And for what? I was born with no status to speak of—merely a Hobbit of the Shire. Certainly growing up just another dependent relative of the Master's in Brandy Hall prepared me for no place in the leadership of any land, much less my own. That so many have tried to make me more than I am is outright embarrassing."

       Lord Elphir smiled at the Halfling. "It is not by virtue of birth that any seek to honor you, Master Frodo, but by the great expression of personal responsibility displayed by you. Too many born to great houses show little or no sign of appreciation for the fact that in the case of those to whom much has been given much is expected in return. You appear to know this instinctively, and this must be part of the reason your kinsman raised you to the status of his heir."

       The pink spots on Frodo's cheeks were once more brightening in color as he rubbed again at his shoulder. "And what did that confer on me, other than the ownership of Bag End when Bilbo left? Yes, he made me also the Baggins family head, but considering how few Hobbits of the name there are left, that's nothing to brag about."

       The one with the dark gold hair snorted. "As if Will Whitfoot hadn't been tryin' to get you into the Mayor's office for the last two terms."

       Lord Elphir asked, "And what is it the Mayor does for the Shire?"

       Frodo looked from the one of his fellows to the other, shrugging. "Not a great deal, I suppose. The Mayor officiates at banquets, is one of those who performs weddings, oversees the filing of legal papers, opens the Free Fair."

       The Northerner smiled. "While Sir Meriadoc there will be Master of Buckland one day, and Captain Peregrin is the Thain's heir."

       "Which mean what?"

       Sir Meriadoc looked at Frodo. "You tell it—you explain better than I do."

       Frodo sighed, then looked back to the heir to the lord of Dol Amroth. "The Thain is the traditional leader of the Shire, while the Master is the leader of Buckland. The Thain has served in the stead of the King since the days of Arvedui Last-king, and is expected to serve as the liaison between the folk of the Shire and the King if the King ever returns, which I must admit is never expected to happen at this point in time. When we return with the news there is again a King over Arnor and thus over the Shire as well, there will be very few who will believe us—or at least not at first. It's going to take a good deal of convincing to get most in the Shire to accept that there is indeed a King over Arnor, much less that he's King of Gondor as well. In fact, the number of Hobbits who are aware there is such a place as Gondor is very limited."

       "And is the Thain not the ruler of Buckland as well?"

      Frodo and Sir Meriadoc shared another look before Frodo explained, "The status of Buckland is somewhat difficult to describe. King Argeleb the Second gave our folk title to the lands we hold west of the Brandywine River, where most of our people live. But centuries ago the Oldbucks, even then a numerous family, decided to develop their own territory, and settled the abandoned lands east of the Brandywine between the river and the Old Forest. They changed their family name from Oldbuck to Brandybuck, and called the lands they claimed Buckland. Buckland isn't specifically a part of the Shire, and yet it is at the same time. The Master of Buckland has over time come to also lead the section of the East Farthing along the west bank of the Brandywine known as the Marish, one of the most fertile farmlands in all of the Shire.

       "The Thain and the Master have always been allied. The Thain holds more status than the Master, although he holds little direct authority over those lands the Master has come to head. I must assume it is somewhat similar to the relationship between the Prince of Dol Amroth and the King or Steward of Gondor. Thain, Master, and Mayor are the most influential individuals in all our lands."

       "It works well enough for the governance of the Shire," grunted the Dwarf. "Our folk have ever traveled through the Shire going east and west, and have always got along well enough with the Master's folk and the Thain's people, not to mention the common Hobbits throughout the land. That the current Master is married to the Thain's sister perhaps helps matters at this time. Both Merry and Pippin are descended from the Old Took, as are both Bilbo Baggins and Frodo himself. The Bagginses used to be a prominent family; but with most of the children of the name being born daughters in the last few generations it has diminished markedly since Bilbo traveled abroad with my father and Thorin Oakenshield. My kinsman Dorlin son of Dwalin has met Thain Paladin and holds a great deal of respect for the leadership he's shown; and those of my folk who've sold tools at the Free Fair have had only good to say about Mayor Whitfoot."

       The one called Sir Meriadoc was nodding. "The first Thain was Bucca of the Marish, one of the ancestors to both the Brandybucks and the Tooks, who accepted the title when he led a troop of archers out to the support of Arvedui Last-king and was the only one of them to return. The forces of Angmar destroyed the rest. Bucca reportedly spent some time with King Arvedui before they marched out to the defense of Arnor; he was evacuated with the survivors of the King's forces, his wife, and his surviving son to Mithlond and saw the arrival of Eärnur's fleet from Gondor. Once the army of Angmar was broken and the—the Witch-king fled south to Mordor, Bucca at last returned to the Shire." There was the slightest of hesitations before he named the Witch-king of Angmar, and both he and Master Frodo paled a bit.

       He continued, "The Thainship passed in time into the Took family, and there it's remained ever since, not that my family has ever regretted that. We're happy enough to let the Tooks get on with providing the Thains. Great-grandfather Gerontius, whom we call the Old Took, made a fine Thain, although Cousin Ferumbras, who preceded Uncle Paladin, was often resented, although that's perhaps mostly due to the dislike most felt toward his mother Lalia. Cousin Lalia did her best to hold all power to herself as the Dowager Took and widow of Thain Fortinbras the Second. I remember when she finally died and how much relief all appeared to feel, even if Pearl bore the brunt of a good deal of gossip afterwards."

       Master Frodo spoke next. "At this point my main claim to fame within the Shire rests on my being first cousin to the Master and second cousin to the Thain—and adopted heir to Old Mad Baggins as they commonly refer to my Uncle Bilbo. Although, strictly speaking Bilbo isn't my uncle—he's really my first cousin once removed on my mother's side and second cousin once removed on my father's. But he decided he'd far rather see me as Master of Bag End and family head to the Bagginses than his closer cousins Otho or Lotho, so he adopted me when I was still a lad. He was quite close with my father, and I know both Dad and Mum thought the world of him. I remember how we'd visit when I was quite small, before Mum refused to allow herself or me to be subjected to Cousin Lobelia's poisonous tongue any more. He'd visit us often when we lived in Buckland and then in the Eastfarthing. After my parents' deaths the idea of his visits probably kept me from losing myself completely. I know I wasn't alone, but I still often felt so isolated, even surrounded as I was by our Brandybuck relations there in Brandy Hall. Oh, I loved Merry here as if he were my own younger brother; but it certainly wasn't the same as having my real family by me. I know I was quite a trial on Uncle Rory and on Merry's parents, who fostered me until Bilbo took me back to Hobbiton and adopted me."

       "They still think of you as primarily theirs, you know," Sir Meriadoc said.

       "Oh, yes, I know," Frodo sighed, "and certainly your mum is the closest I have had to a mother since my own died. I love her for it, but can't ever put my own out of my mind."

       "Bilbo certainly never gave over his love and pride for you," the Northerner said.

       "Bless him for it," Frodo said, smiling. "And you know how much I love him in return."

       At that moment a uniformed Guard of the Citadel emerged from the building and approached the table at which the three serving as personal guards sat. The Ernil i Pheriannath rose as he approached, and the two exchanged salutes. "I thank you, Captain Peregrin," the Man said, "for extending your duty until I could finish my own business before relieving you."

       "It was my honor," the Halfling responded.

       "Good, for now you can join us," the Northerner commented. "Bring your ale." He turned to the server who approached with plates for those preparing to eat. "The Ernil i Pheriannath will be joining our table as his duty is now over. If you could see to accepting his order and serving him as rapidly as possible that he not sit and wait too long watching the rest of us eat, we would appreciate it. Hobbits don't take such situations well."

       "Oh, my lord, but it is our great honor," the server answered him. He turned to where Captain Peregrin now sat himself in the empty chair between the captain from Rohan and the Dwarf and described those dishes that could be most quickly prepared, and the Halfling gave his order and then lifted his cup of ale.

       "I find I like these mugs intended for Men," he commented as he took a deep pull. "They certainly cut the number of refills required considerably."

       "It's not as if they were new to you," the Northerner said thoughtfully. "You were happy enough to drink from Men's mugs in Bree and Edoras."

       "But of course! Men's mugs are wonderful, although we find your plates rather small."

       "Small?" asked Lord Elphir.

       "Oh, yes, definitely on the small side. If you hadn't realized it as yet, we Hobbits take our meals very seriously—seriously and often."

       "Hobbits can out-eat even Dwarves," the Dwarf laughed.

       "Well, if I'm to be Thain one day I ought to try to look as substantial as I can. After all, it's expected of me!"

       "Not that your father is the least bit heavy," observed Frodo.

       "That's because of the years in Whitwell," Captain Peregrin answered. "But I can at least aspire to follow the example of Will Whitfoot. Now there is a Hobbit who looks every inch—and pound—a Hobbit."

       "You allow yourself to get into Fredegar Bolger's shape and I shall be forced to speak with your mother," Merry said acidly. "I refuse to set out to carouse with a cousin who looks as if he was intended to be kicked around a playing field. Aunt Lanti will listen to me, you know."

       "You wouldn't!"

       "You know full well I would, cousin. I doubt, however, you're in much danger of such an event. You're too active to put on that kind of weight."

       Captain Peregrin looked down on himself, and his voice sounded truly mournful as he examined his figure. "If you're certain I'll remain as slender as my da and Frodo…."

       "I certainly hope you don't ever become as slender as me," Frodo said, shaking his head. "I've always been too thin, and am now absolutely stick-like."

       "Slenderness isn't admired amongst Halflings?" asked Lord Elphir.

       "Not in most Hobbits," the one with dark gold hair said. "Not that any of the lasses has ever been put off admirin' Mr. Frodo here by reason of his build."

       "You see," Captain Peregrin explained after taking another drink from his mug, "Sam here has what most consider the proper build for a Hobbit. Frodo, Merry and me, descended from the Old Took as we are, all appear to be more slender than the average, although I must say that Frodo's always taken the idea of slenderness a good deal further than the rest of those of us descended from Great-grandfather Gerontius. Now, he'd begun to finally put on weight before we left the Shire, but has lost a good deal ever since. As Sam has said, however, that's never deterred the lasses any. Most of the lasses appear to find his slenderness just another thing to admire, and a good many of them hope to be the one to feed him up to a more respectable weight."

      "Not that such a thing will apparently ever be possible now," muttered Frodo darkly. "I'm personally tired of not being able to eat as well as a Hobbit ought to be able to do."

       "Certainly you are handsome enough by the standards of any folk of which I have knowledge," the captain from Rohan said, pausing in the enjoyment of his roll stuffed with greens and sliced pork. "And according to both Sir Pippin and Lord Samwise here you've been regularly admired by the women of your folk in the past. Do you think this will change in the future?"

       "It certainly won't change for Narcissa Boffin, Frodo," commented Sir Meriadoc.

       "That it won't," agreed the one identified as Sam. "She's rather like my Rosie—has known about all her life as Frodo's the one she's wanted, and won't be put off on anyone else, if you take my meanin'."

       "You're certain they aren't related?" asked Captain Peregrin. "Although I must say Narcissa's been far more constant than my sister Pearl, for which I'm grateful. Not that Pearl went wrong marrying our cousin Isumbard, mind you."

       "And fine children the two of them have produced, Bard and Pearl," added Sir Meriadoc. "Pansy is a lovely lass, and young Brand is absolutely a joy."

       Captain Peregrin gave Frodo an evaluative look. "I find myself trying to imagine what kind of children Pearl might have had if she'd indeed married you, Frodo. I suspect they'd have shown a good deal more curiosity than Pansy ever has, although I doubt they could outdo Brand for questions."

       "The quality of the questions would perhaps have been different," Sir Meriadoc agreed. "But everyone who remembers him as a child insists that there was never anyone like Frodo for asking questions and then demanding honest answers. Dad always said trying to find a proper tutor for him was a challenge, for with all of his reading of the books Bilbo sent to him and Brandy Hall in general Frodo often knew far more than those who would have liked to think themselves his teachers. It's undoubtedly for the best he went with Bilbo after all, for Bilbo had more resources to help in answering Frodo's questions than anyone else in the Shire."

       "Mostly Bilbo taught me how to find the answers I desired to know myself, either by devising tests to find out in matters of natural history or in using techniques to search his library for other questions—when he didn't suggest I think of the one person I could ask who'd most likely know the answer," Frodo said. He sighed. "I'd always hoped to prove as good a teacher for my own children as Bilbo was for me—and then who is it I ended up teaching in the end? Only a group of miscreant younger cousins!"

       "Meaning us, Fatty, Folco, and Berilac, I must assume?" asked Captain Peregrin.

       Frodo laughed briefly as the server came with the meal for the Ernil i Pheriannath. "You lot were the Creator's revenge on me for my misspent youth," he said. "I know I tried the patience of your parents and Uncle Rory and Aunt Gilda the years I spent running wild throughout the farms of the Marish with the other lads from the Hall, Merry."

       Lindirieth found herself examining what she could see of Master Frodo. He was indeed slight in build compared with the other Halflings, and his age compared to them was difficult to gauge. His features were very fine and as youthful as were those of the others—if not more so, she thought. Yet she could see fine lines about the eyes and mouth that spoke of a hidden maturity and painful experiences, and noted a sense of restlessness about him. He lifted his mug, and she realized he was missing a finger on his right hand. He winced as he set the mug back down on the table, and the Man at his side was immediately reaching to take his hand and to massage it briefly before Frodo's face appeared relieved and he gently pulled it away with a soft "Thanks, Strider."

       Those at the next table now became quietly attentive to their meal, and remained so for some moments until another Guard from the Citadel bustled out onto the terrace from the building and approached the table, bowing respectfully before stepping to the Northerner and speaking quietly into his ear. There was a whispered interchange between the two Men before the seated Dúnedan gave a nod and a sigh, then said more loudly, "Then of course I shall come at once. Go and advise them of that, please." The Guard saluted and bowed, then turned and hurried off back through the building. The Man at the table quickly finished his ale, picked up the remains of his bread roll, and said with regret, "It appears a deputation has just arrived from the Dunlendings, and I am called back to my service to the realm. Captain Elfhelm, I fear I must ask you to return with me, for I will need to know first if you recognize any in the embassy and then would be relieved to receive any advice you can give me as to how to respond to what they might have to say. After all, the Dunlendings are your closest neighbors."

       The Dwarf nodded. "I'll remain and finish my meal then, and see to these four for you.".

       The Northerner nodded his appreciation, and was rising and reaching toward his belt purse when the Pherian Frodo rose beside him and stayed his hand. "No, Strider—I told you that today's meal was my affair, and I meant it. Too much have we been given beyond our deserving—or at least beyond mine. Now, hurry off and see to the business of the realm, and we will entertain ourselves, and see you perhaps this evening if time permits." All rose, and led by the Guard from the Citadel who'd taken the duty from Captain Peregrin and followed by the two other personal guards, the three Men strode swiftly toward the doorway. The regret on the face of Frodo as he watched them go was clearly seen before the four Pheriannath and the Dwarf resumed their seats.

       A server from the inn approached the table with questions written large on his face, looking at the four Halflings before Frodo spoke for the group. "Our companions were summoned back to the Citadel on the King's business," he explained. "Please bring the bill to me when all is finished, for this meal was at my suggestion and invitation."

       "If that is your desire, small master," said the server with a bow, and he then asked if there was aught else the five remaining guests required, appearing surprised when he was immediately answered with requests for more victuals by four of the five, including a request given by the one known as Sam for a plate of fresh vegetables and fruits and a goblet of water "for Mr. Frodo here" with an indication they were to be placed before the one of the four Hobbits who'd not requested anything for himself.

       The Man's face grew still with deep respect. "You are the Lord Frodo, then—the Cormacolindor?" he asked in quiet awe. "It is our great honor to host you today, my lord. My brother fought before the Black Gate and brought back the report of your great service to the whole of Middle Earth, you see, and saw the great Eagles who brought you and Lord Samwise out of the ruins of the Mountain. He says he would not have returned had the two of you not reached the Sammath Naur when you did. We of the Lady's Garden are indeed proud to have you grace our establishment."

       Frodo's face had paled, save for the spots of color in his cheeks which grew a stronger pink. "It was little enough I did," he said almost defensively. "Sam was perhaps more responsible than I to see it all done properly."

       As the server, obviously confused, retreated, the looks of exasperation to be seen on Sam and Sir Meriadoc's faces, not to mention on the face of the Dwarf, were palpable. Captain Peregrin's concern could be heard in his voice as he said, "Oh, Frodo Baggins—what are we to do with you? You can't continue undervaluing what you accomplished the way you insist on doing. Now, eat up the remainder of your eggs, and then whatever fruit and vegetables you can get down you."

       Sir Meriadoc gave a laugh. "You hear that, Frodo? It appears the Prince of the Halflings has spoken then. You'd best follow his commands."

       Frodo fixed Captain Peregrin with a stare. "Shall it be as you command, then, Pippin?"

       "Of course, minion."

       Sam looked at Pippin somewhat sideways. "The lad's been readin' too many of old Mr. Bilbo's adventure books, I think," he said rather quietly to Sir Meriadoc. "Not but what he's right about Frodo eatin' more, of course."

       "And the rest of you should all keep in mind my rank as understood here in Gondor," continued Captain Peregrin. "I can be magnanimous, you know."

       "How about shutting your mouth and eating your meal?" asked Sir Meriadoc.

       "Now, which is it you want me to do, then, Merry—eat or close my mouth? I can't do the former and follow through on the latter at the same time."

       "Pippin," said Frodo, "let's have a bit of peace so we can finish our meal! No pointless arguments."

       "Frodo Baggins," said Captain Peregrin icily, "I could have you flogged for that disrespect, you know."

       "Then take it up with your father the Thain when we get back to the Shire, youngling. Eat!"

       "All right," said Captain Peregrin, suddenly cheerful. "Ah, here comes our seconds. Eat up, Frodo."

       "Actually," Sir Meriadoc said some moments later after he'd swallowed a good deal of his second bread roll filled with sliced lamb and cress, "I think the last time a Thain had someone flogged was under Ferumbras, early on. I think it was a Hobbit from the East Farthing who'd stolen three sheep and a wagon with a broken wheel from a Bracegirdle from Hardbottle—from Lobelia's uncle Bendoro, if I recall correctly. I think the report I read in the archives of the Great Smial said it was one of the Broadloams who was flogged."

       "That would fit," Frodo commented as he moodily moved slices of apple and segments from one of the orange fruits about his plate. "The Broadloams live in Whitfurrow and have always considered themselves 'salvagers.' If something is broken folk usually prefer to have it have it hauled off and don't seem to mind if the Broadloams take it. That anyone would have something broken and wish to repair it, or might wish to be asked before anyone takes it is not something a Broadloam might understand." He lifted a piece of celery and nibbled it briefly. "And from what I remember of Thain Ferumbras and Mistress Lalia, they would indeed at one time have favored such a punishment, particularly Mistress Lalia. She was a vindictive sort." He took another bite from the stick of celery and set it down again. "Guido Broadloam's father Gerdo wouldn't have balked at trying to take an entire wagon; nor a sheep or two. I can't imagine, however, he'd have dared to take three and a wagon at a single time, though. It sounds a bit much, even for Gerdo."

       "You'd best try to eat what you can, Mr. Frodo," suggested Sam. "You knew these folk?"

       "I lived in Whitfurrow for several years before my parents died, you'll remember," Frodo said. He chose a piece of apple, held and turned it between his fingers. "Guido Broadloam fascinated me when I was a little one. He told wonderful stories." He took a bite of the apple slice, made a face and put it down.

       "I certainly can't see my da ordering anyone flogged—save perhaps me," Captain Peregrin said. "I'm not looking forward to facing him and Mum when we get back."

       "It's Pervinca who'll give you the hardest time, I think," Sir Meriadoc said. "She's always been the one to make your life difficult, after all."

       "Sisters," agreed his friend.

       "Are the apples dry, Frodo?" Sam asked.

       "No, actually they're quite good for the winter's store," Frodo answered. "I just can't eat any more, I find."

       "You're not goin' to get all your weight back if'n you can't eat, you know."

       Lindirieth and her daughter finished their own meal as Master Frodo began fishing in a pocket in his trousers for a money purse. Master Marendil, the owner of the Lady's Garden, came out of the building with the one who'd served the Halflings, and at a nod from the server crossed the terrace to their table, giving the Pheriannath and the Dwarf a profound bow. "My lords," he said reverently, "we of the Lady's Garden are heartily proud to have you patronize our dining terrace. However, considering the service each of you has given our land and especially our city, we cannot accept any payment from you."

       Frodo's face went colorless save for his cheeks, which flamed. "If you will please pardon me, Master," he answered, "this meal was to be a gift of sorts to my friends, including three who have had to leave early to deal with the King's business. It is a poor gift if I am not allowed to pay."

       Master Marendil and Frodo Baggins found themselves each trying to stare down the other. Finally the Man said gently, "You are the Lord Frodo?"

       "I am Frodo Baggins of the Shire," the Halfling answered, raising his chin proudly.

       "Small master, you cannot know what the long war with the Dark Lord has cost us here. You and all you would host are ever welcome at the Lady's Garden. My son was lost four years ago, and my daughter's husband died under Lord Faramir's command in the retreat from Osgiliath. But my brother's son lives, as do many others related to all of us, all of whom survived only because you and Lord Samwise completed your quest when and as you did. That you survived that we might show you honor is a grace given us by the Creator. Please do not spurn the offerings of a grateful nation, my lord."

       The other three Halflings had gathered with the Dwarf at the end of the table closest to Lindirieth. Captain Peregrin cast a swift glance at Frodo, and said quietly to the others, "I hate when they do this—it always causes Frodo so much distress when he isn't allowed to pay his own way."

       The one called Sam began, "Well, if'n old Strider had only…."

       Sir Meriadoc interrupted in an intense whisper, "Well, that was the point of the entire excursion, you know, Sam—to give him a day as a person." When Sam gave a snort, he continued, "Think about it—we'll go home probably within a month or two—once Frodo is fully able to travel; and once we're home, Frodo will go back to being no more than Mr. Baggins. But there's no going back for Strider, and you know it. When he goes back North he'll never be just Strider again, and will never be allowed just to wander alone through the wilds any more."

       "He ought not to go back to be ignored, Mr. Merry, sir."

       "Well, he will, and you know it, Sam. He's not a Dúnedan like Strider but a Hobbit of the Shire, after all; and Hobbits of the Shire for the most part don't know from Rings or Morgul wounds, and that's just the way it is. And for the moment at least that's the way he wants it. If you think he wants the likes of Lotho, Ted Sandyman, and Odo Proudfoot appreciating what it means to have been the Ringbearer, you're crazy."

       "What about your folks or Mr. Pippin's?"

       Sir Meriadoc and Captain Peregrin exchanged looks. "I suppose in the end he'd appreciate them realizing what it all has meant, but that's about all he'll want to have understand. But then, we're the closest he has to family and parents, after all."

       The argument between Frodo and Master Marendil appeared to be over, and it was plain that the Pherian had lost it. Master Marendil and the server retreated, both looking satisfied, while the Halfling was plainly trembling with emotion. "Pippin," Frodo said through gritted teeth, "Slip two gold pieces into the bread basket." He handed the indicated coins to his companion, closed his money purse, and put it back into his pocket.

       "We always do two gold pieces. Seems to me it would be cheaper to just pay the bill," Captain Peregrin pointed out.

      "Maybe it would, if we had any idea what anything in this city costs!" Frodo growled. "Let them realize who we are—not that we have any choice in the matter—and they always want to give it to us! That's no way to live!"

       "Maybe," the Dwarf pointed out, "you should just shrug your shoulders and let them do as they wish. They're not losing from the transactions, for folk are flocking to the taverns and eating houses where you stop to eat, you see, for the pleasure of knowing you enjoyed the hospitality there."

       "Well, that's not the way I want to live. Did you spot where the privy might be, by the way, Gimli?"

       "Yes—over that direction and through the passageway," the Dwarf answered, indicating to the left.

       "I'll go with you," Sam said.

       With a disgusted noise Frodo turned the indicated way and headed off to the facilities with Lord Samwise in tow. The Dwarf and two remaining Pheriannath watched after him. "Very much on his dignity, Frodo is," the Dwarf commented in low tones.

       "He's been like that since he lived with us before Bilbo took him to Hobbiton," Merry explained. "He always felt as if my parents and grandparents didn't let him pull his own weight, and hates feeling as if he's a charity case. No matter how much he loved Mum and Dad and Grandmum Gilda and Granddad Rory, still the fact they coddled him past bearing drove him mad with frustration. From the moment he went to Bag End that all changed, for he was expected to help with chores and assist Bilbo in copying and binding books and was allowed to work with the Gaffer and Sam and to do the marketing and help any and all as he wished, and he never felt useless. He hates feeling useless more than anything, you see."

       "He's been anything but useless since he left the Shire," the Dwarf pointed out.

       "You know it and we know it, but you'll never convince him. His sense of responsibility is far too highly honed, you see."

       "When I'm Thain I'll have to make him one of my primary advisers," Captain Peregrin said. "Although I find myself wishing he'd just agree to remain here by Aragorn."

       "Why stay here?" Sir Meriadoc asked.

       The Halfling with the auburn hair shrugged. "I just feel in my bones it would be the best for him, somehow. Here or perhaps Rivendell. The Shire won't be kind to him once we get home, I fear."

       "We're getting Bag End back for him," Sir Meriadoc said as if reminding his kinsman of a decision already made. "And now the Ring is gone Narcissa finally has a chance, I think."

       Captain Peregrin shook his head. "No, Merry, I doubt she has any better chance now than before we left the Shire." He looked off the direction the other two had taken. "I feel it in my bones," he repeated.

       The server for the table where Lindirieth and Andrien sat returned to settle their bill, and they left the Lady's Garden just as Frodo and Sam returned from the privy to rejoin their friends. Mother and daughter were quiet as they left the place, and it was as they were going through the marketplace in the Fourth Circle they finally began to discuss what they'd overheard. "So," Andrien said, "the ones called Frodo and Sam did indeed go into Mordor, and took the Enemy's Ring."

       Her mother nodded. "Apparently," she agreed. "I'd not have believed it had we not heard the talk today."

       "And the others will be great ones among their own folk one day." The two women examined fabrics together. "What made them leave their own land, do you think?"

      "What I'd like to know," Lindirieth said softly, "is why anyone would ask that small one to carry such a thing as the Enemy's weapon. I can't begin to imagine why the Wise would allow it."

       A bustle toward the entrance to the market caught their attention, and they realized that the Pheriannath and the Dwarf had also decided to check out the goods offered for sale, and all were turning that way, seeking to catch a better look at the five strangers in their midst. "It's the Ernil i Pheriannath!" they heard from several sides. "The Cormacolindor are here!" "The King's friend," they heard whispered. "The Esquire." "He slew the Witch King!" "The Holdwine—do you see him with the horse heads of Rohan on his sword?" "A Dwarf lord here in Minas Tirith!" "They fought for our city…."

       A member of the City Guard saluted Captain Peregrin, who saluted solemnly in return; the keeper of a stall of woven straw goods greeted Sir Meriadoc in Rohirric, and that one returned the greeting in the same language (if heavily accented with Westron). A girl approached the Lord Frodo with a spray of flowers and presented it, and a Man offered the Lord Samwise a potted plant. "I understand," he said, "that in your own land you are a keeper of gardens. I hope you will accept this lily, for it is full of beauty."

        "Thankee," Sam said with considerable dignity. "I only hope as when we're ready to return to the Shire I'll be able to carry all as I've wanted to take with me of plants and cuttings and seeds and all." He gave a respectful bow, delighting the Man.

       Nearby the stall where Lindirieth and Andrien were examining fabrics were those of a fruiterer and one of a seller of second-hand books, and the Halflings were drawn to them. While Captain Peregrin looked to purchase a surprisingly large order of strawberries and Sam was commenting under his breath on the lack of sufficient mushrooms, Sir Meriadoc and Frodo were going through books.

       "Ah, Frodo," Sir Meriadoc said, "here's one in Sindarin."

       Frodo turned from his examination of a collection of stories from Rhun to take the volume being held by Sir Meriadoc, opening it and examining it carefully. "No, Merry—not Sindarin—this is written in Quenya. It's from Rivendell, from what I can tell, and was apparently copied by Lord Erestor—I recognize the writing. It's a description of the arrival of Eärnur's fleet at Mithlond and the final victory over the forces of Angmar. I wonder if Bucca's troop is mentioned at all?"

       The stall keeper leaned over the two Pheriannath with interest. "You are a scholar, small lord?" he asked. "You have had dealings with the lords of Imladris?"

       "Our Took forebears have had sporadic dealings with Lord Elrond's people for centuries, and certainly we five here came by way of there. Also, my uncle has dwelt there for the last sixteen years or so."

       "You know the high language?"

       "I read it better than I speak it—Bilbo saw to it that I was familiar with it." He leafed through the book, then gave a small cry of triumph. "Pippin," he called, "I've actually found reference to Bucca's archers here!" He paused. "This section is in the hand of another. I wonder if Lord Elladan or Lord Elrohir might have written it. I don't know enough to recognize their hands as yet. But to actually find a reference to Bucca of the Marish…."

       The Dwarf came from his examination of an ironmonger's stall. "What is it, Frodo? You look as if you've just found a vein of pure gold in what you'd expected to be a tin mine."

       "I feel as if I have, Gimli." The Halfling lifted his eyes from the volume. "This book actually makes reference to Bucca of the Marish."

       "And what would a writer from Gondor know of Hobbits of the Shire?"

       "It wasn't written here—it was written in Rivendell." The Hobbit placed a finger to mark the reference, then quickly paged to the beginning to search for an inscription. He smiled. "This was written for one of Aragorn's ancestors," he said with satisfaction. "I'll have to ask him which one was named Araglas."

       Captain Peregrin was thrusting his basket of strawberries at Sam, and hurried over to examine the find. "This was written for one of the line of Kings from Arthedain?" he asked.

       "Yes, for Araglas son of Aragorn—that must have been Aragorn the First, then." Frodo looked up. "I wish to purchase this as a gift. How much do you wish for it?"

       Lindirieth and Andrien stood with their swaths of fabric forgotten in their hands as they watched the bargaining in the next stall with fascination. First Frodo had to insist he would not under any circumstances accept the book as a gift; and then he had to convince the Man to put a decent price on the volume. Once that was finally established, the actual bargaining began, and it was soon obvious that Frodo Baggins was a consummate bargainer. His eyes lit with pleasure as he and the bookseller haggled, and at last settled on the price both had obviously intended to see paid to begin with. At last Lord Frodo gave the book into Sir Meriadoc's hands and pulled out his money purse to pay for his purchase.

       "One thing," asked the bookseller when all was done, "who was Bucca of the Marish?"

       "One of our ancestors," Frodo said, taking back the book and opening it again. "He led out archers to the support of Arvedui Last-king."

       "But how would this book, written in the north kingdom obviously for one there, have come here?"

       "It was probably carried here by one of the Northern Dúnedain who served in the armies of Gondor. I'll ask the King who might have brought it south and then lost it." He held the volume with obvious pleasure. "Now, this makes the entire day worthwhile, even the debacle of the luncheon I wasn't able to pay for."

       "And did you purchase it for me?" asked Captain Peregrin.

       Frodo glanced up with a look of disdain. "For you, Pippin? Whatever for? You don't read Quenya and aren't likely to become proficient at translating it in your lifetime."

       "You getting' it for Strider, then?" Sam asked.

       "Don't you think he'd appreciate it?"

       "Well, of course. He's fluent enough in Quenya and all."

       Captain Peregrin said loftily, "Well, you ought to have purchased it for the Thain's archives."

       "I'll ask if we can get it translated and copied for the Great Smial; but as it is it's useless for Shire purposes. I doubt any Hobbit save Sam, Bilbo, and I have known any Quenya whatsoever in the history of the Shire, not even Isengrim." Frodo slipped the flower he'd been given into the pages to mark the reference that had caught his attention. He looked at his companions, then focused on the basket of fruit Sam carried. "Didn't Pippin buy those?" he asked.

       "Well, yes, I did…" began Captain Peregrin.

       "And now you'll let Sam carry them home for you? Really, Peregrin Took—you're letting this 'Prince of the Halflings' idea go to your head. You carry your own berries home, do you hear? Let your own princely little fingers do some honest work!"

       "Work? Me, Frodo Baggins? The Great Smial would fall down in a faint of surprise if it saw me working!"

       "Perhaps your father should have shipped you off more summers to the farm at Whitwell, then. Let's go back up to the house. I need a rest."

       Merry caught the expressions on the faces of the two women who'd been following the interchange from its beginning, and nudged Pippin to indicate the audience. "Actually," Merry said in a low voice to Lindirieth and Andrien, "being the Thain's son doesn't give Pippin much of an advantage at home in the Shire, either, except among those Hobbits near his own age or younger."

       "I'm in uniform, Merry," Peregrin said in a wheedling tone. "Will you carry them for me?"

       "You heard Frodo—you can do your own carrying today. After all, being in uniform didn't stop you from eating with Strider or from shopping for those berries, you know. Come along, then." And in moments the Pheriannath had disappeared back toward the gate to the next circle of the city.

Chapter Text

       The family of Lindirieth and Andrien saw the Hobbits a few more times during their stay in the city, but always, it seemed, from a distance. Not until the day they left for the north kingdom again did they get close enough for their faces to be clearly seen. Now Sir Meriadoc, dressed as a Rider of Rohan and Esquire to their King, rode on the wain that carried the body of Théoden King back to Rohan, while Peregrin Took looked and acted every inch the Captain of the Guard he was as he walked by their Lord King and his bride. Lord Frodo, the King's Friend, rode on a lovely pony, his esquire Samwise riding by him, much as they'd done entering the city. The Dwarf was in the company as the King's party went down the main way to the barrier where the gate had stood, walking in the party of Elves, speaking familiarly with those about him, all of whom treated him with the greatest courtesy. The great wizard Mithrandir walked near the head of the pony on which Lord Frodo rode, speaking with those who would make up the party going to Rohan and beyond, but ever watching the Halfling with concern.

       The face of Lord Frodo was, Lindirieth realized, very attractive indeed. Certainly the captain from among the Rohirrim had been correct when he'd indicated that the Pherian was remarkably handsome according to the standards of any race or people. He accepted the tribute of sprays of flowers and greenery with grave courtesy, but she sensed in him a level of remoteness that touched her. He had the face of one who'd once been given to humor and smiles; but now she realized that under the surface was an impatience bred by discomfort. Again she saw the restlessness, and thought she perceived even signs of querulous tendencies being made manifest. He was, she realized, not as well as he would like to appear.

       The party was well past Lindirieth's position before she realized she'd still not seen the face of their Lord King Elessar as well as she would have liked to do. For now, she sighed to herself, she'd have to do with the brief glimpses of a tall Man with a bearded face and clear grey eyes walking beyond the shining beauty of his wife. Her attention at the last, before the procession passed from view, was caught once more by the upright form of Frodo Baggins on his pony, turning briefly to smile at something said by Lord Samwise, rubbing absently at his left shoulder with his right hand.


       Two years passed. In the fall Andrien married a saddler who'd fought before the Black Gate among the Men of the City, and two years after the marriage gave birth to their first child. When only a few months old, however, small Sendrion developed a high fever, and was carried to the Houses of Healing in the Sixth Circle for whatever aid might be available to him. Lindirieth accompanied her daughter and son-in-law, and after seeing them in consultation with one of the healers who specialized in the illnesses of children she excused herself to go out to walk in the gardens for a time.

       It was February, and the weather was remarkably fine that day. Already many of the trees and bushes were showing a pink blush as the sap began to rise and they prepared to put forth budding leaves; and in several of the formal beds the tips of leaves were beginning to push through the warming soil. A gardener knelt over one bed, smiling to see how much more growth there was from what had been visible the previous day; and a Guardsman in the black and silver of the Citadel stood on guard near a garden bench on which a tall Man sat reading a book.

       She recognized the Man immediately. "Lord Strider," she said, giving a deep curtsey.

       He looked up, apparently somewhat surprised at being so addressed, although he did not appear disturbed by the familiarity shown him by this woman he obviously didn't know. "Mistress," he responded, rising and bowing, closing the book with one finger in it to keep his place.

       She recognized it immediately. "Then Lord Frodo did give you that after all," she said, smiling. "My daughter and I were in the marketplace when he found it, and he indicated then he desired to give it to you."

       "Oh, yes, he did. It was rather like finding an old friend here in the White City, finding it in my hands once more." He indicated the bench, and once she was seated sat beside her.

       "You recognized the book?" she asked.

       "Oh, yes, I certainly did. It was one of the books written at Lord Elrond's direction for the instruction of one from the line of Kings of Arthedain, and which was subsequently used by many of the lords of the Dúnedain of Arnor. I think I read it the first time when I was about fifteen years of age."

       "How did it come here, then?"

       He smiled as he examined the book's cover. "It was last given to a younger kinsman of mine who was coming south to serve here among the forces of Gondor. He was captured by the people of Rhun and was held captive for several years. His fellows in the Rangers of Ithilien feared he was dead, and many took mementos from among his goods. Apparently the one who took this died a year before the battle of the Pelennor, and his widow sold it. That Frodo would find it was, I suppose, only to be expected." As he spoke Frodo's name his face became somewhat solemn.

       "Actually, as I remember it, it was Sir Meriadoc who actually found the book and pointed it out to Lord Frodo, believing it was written in Sindarin. Lord Frodo realized it wasn't written in Sindarin but in Quenya, and found a reference in it to Pheriannath who had marched out to fight for Arvedui."

       "Yes, I know. It was when Eärnur's fleet returned from Arnor that the first stories of Halflings began to be told here in Gondor; but in actuality only a relative few of his troops actually saw Bucca. The archers from the Shire were all slaughtered by the forces of Angmar save for Bucca; but his people led the forces retreating from Angmar's might across the Shire to the western marches where Lord Círdan's people offered them protection until the fleet finally arrived. Bucca returned to be the first Thain of the Shire, with the praise of the remains of the armies of the Dúnedain of the north. For his sake our folk have ever protected the borders of the Shire, and we have ever respected his people. And now with these four, all throughout the free peoples of Middle Earth realize just why we of the northern Dúnedain have ever honored them."

       "Do you hear from the four of them, Lord Strider? Since they returned to their own place, I mean?"

       "From the Hobbits? Oh, yes, frequently." But an overwhelming grief could be seen on the Man's face, and he held the book more tightly as he looked down on it. Then he raised his grey eyes to meet hers. "I even met briefly with Sam, Merry, and Pippin in early October."

       "I'd not heard they came here."

       "They didn't come here—I went north for a few weeks' time, although few know it." He searched her face. "How is it you know this name for me, for few call me by it save the Hobbits themselves?"

       "Well, my daughter and I were going to eat also at the Lady's Garden that day, and were led to the table beside the one at which you sat, my Lord. The Pheriannath spoke of you by that name throughout the time we were near them. I remember that Lord Frodo was disappointed that he was not allowed to pay for the meal, for he said it had been his intent to give you a day just as a person again, for you would have few of them now."

       "Who was it that refused him the right to pay for the meal?"

       "Master Marendil, who owns the Lady's Garden. He said a free meal for the four Halflings and their guests was the least he could offer them in return for all the four had given Gondor."

       The tall Man's face twisted. "And I must imagine that Frodo's face went all pale save for his cheeks, and that he argued for some minutes."

       "Yes, it was so, my Lord."

       He nodded and sighed. "Yes, that was Frodo for you." He looked away toward the city walls and beyond it to the glimmer of the Sea in the far distance to the southwest. "Oh, my sweet, small brother of the heart."

       "When did you first meet them, my Lord?"

       "At the end of September of the year before the War of the Ring. Gandalf--Mithrandir--had charged me to watch for Frodo and Sam as they came out of the Shire with their burden, and in the end I found not two but the four of them. Merry and Pippin refused to allow Frodo to leave the Shire without them as well as Sam, fearing perhaps rightly that Frodo would die or otherwise lose all without their companionship and aid." He straightened somewhat. "I led them to Imladris, then was named part of the company that accompanied them south and east until we were parted at Amon Hen. It was to me that Frodo and Sam were brought after the destruction of Mordor, and I oversaw their recovery—such as was given them, at least. Oh, Sam has made an almost complete recovery, but not so Frodo."

       "Is Captain Peregrin now the Thain of the Shire?" she asked.

       He smiled more freely. "No, not as yet. His father Paladin remains Thain as of this time, and will remain so for some more years, I think. And Saradoc Brandybuck remains yet the Master of Buckland. Let Pippin at least come of age before he is made Thain."

       "You mean that—"

       He nodded, his smile now wry. "Pippin was still considered little better than a child by his own folk when he came out of the Shire, for all he was older than Éomer of Rohan at the time. Indeed, he still isn't an adult in the reckoning of the Shire. Hobbits are not considered adult until they reach the age of thirty-three."

       "So," she said slowly, "that was why they were constantly reproving him."

       "Oh, yes. All four found the fact our folk named him the Ernil i Pheriannath highly amusing at the time. And certainly when they returned Pippin's contribution to the defense of the free peoples of Middle Earth was not recognized by his own people, not even his parents, who refused to believe one so young had accomplished all he did. It took Frodo's intervention to bring about reconciliation between Pippin and his parents." Again his face grew sad.

       "Why did you go north in the fall, my Lord?"

       "In hopes of bidding those I love there who were leaving Middle Earth goodbye."

       "So many died there?"

       He sighed and shook his head. "No—not death, although I will see none of them again. Lord Elrond, Lord Erestor, Lord Gildor, Lady Galadriel, Gandalf, and many others I knew among the great ones of the Firstborn—they chose at last to abandon Middle Earth and to go to Tol Eressëa and the Undying Lands. And they took with them Frodo Baggins for such time as is granted to him." Again he met her eyes. "If he'd not gone, the probability was he would not have lived long. Carrying the Enemy's Ring as he did cost him much—far more than most can appreciate. That Frodo was granted this grace was far more than we'd hoped for him. The quest emptied him so, and few recognized how much pain he felt."

       "You did not see him before he left?" Lindirieth was surprised at how much grief the news gave her.

       "No, I arrived to late to bid him or my Adar or Mithrandir farewell."

       "I am sorry, my Lord."

       The two of them remained silent for a time, thinking on the fair face of Frodo Baggins.

       There was a stir at the door to the Houses, and after a few moments they were approached by one of the healers, who bowed deeply. "My Lord Elessar," the Man said, "we have an infant newly brought to us whom we believe will benefit from your attention."

       The Man by her rose. "Then I will come immediately." He turned to the woman. "Please pardon me that I must leave you, but he who was as a father to me saw to it I was trained as a healer as well as a warrior and leader, and it is with more pleasure I serve our lands here than on the battlefield or in the Hall of Kings. And feel free to approach me should you meet me here or on the level of the Citadel. Your name, Mistress?"

       "I am Lindirieth daughter of Annen and Belfamir of this city, my Lord," she said automatically, suddenly realizing the identity of the one with whom she'd been speaking. "My family lives in the Third Circle." She rose, feeling quite flustered and overwhelmed. "Please, my Lord King, forgive me the familiarity. I had no idea…."

       He gave a short laugh. "I see that on the day you first saw me closely the anonymity offered me by Frodo's invitation worked far better than we'd realized. No, do not feel distressed. It is stressful ever being bowed and scraped to—it is one of the reasons I love the Hobbits so, for they are not given to the dreadful formality of Men. Again, should you find me abroad again feel free to approach me. It is pleasant to simply speak with others as with a near equal." He gave her a short bow and turned into the Houses of Healing, followed by the personal Guard and the healer. Still feeling shock, Lindirieth looked after him.

       Two days later her grandson was released from the Houses, fully recovered. Lindirieth hadn't returned to the upper levels of the city, still feeling a great degree of embarrassment at having realized she'd approached the King as if he were a mere anonymous northern Dúnedain lord.

       "Ada, Nana," called Andrien from the entranceway, "he is well again. And the King himself told us he was free to go today." Together with her husband she came down the hallway toward the solar, carrying Sendrion tenderly.

       "A new blanket?" Lindirieth said, briefly accepting the baby from her daughter and realizing the softness of the child's wrappings before relinquishing Sendrion to her husband.

       "Yes, a gift from our Lady Queen," she was told. "We are told she and her maidens give a portion of the cloth they weave to the Houses of Healing for the needs of those who are ill. And yesterday she accompanied our Lord King Elessar when he came through the Houses on his rounds. Who would have believed how the King Returned would indeed have the hands of a healer, Naneth?"

       Her husband fumbled with a small basket he carried. "And the Lord King sent this for you, Nana Lindirieth. I didn't realize you'd had the chance to speak with him that first day." He handed the basket to her.

       Inside were two small ceramic jars, one blue-grey and the other ocher in color, each with a portion of white cloth covering its mouth, one marked with a C glyph and the other with an S. Included was a folded note sealed in black wax shot with silver, an A glyph and eight-pointed star impressed into it. Lindirieth slipped her finger beneath the seal and lifted it, then unfolded the short missive.

To Mistress Lindirieth, I give you my greetings.

       Again, I beg you not to feel embarrassed regarding the nature of our meeting in the gardens of the Houses of Healing. Obviously this was the first chance you'd had to see me up close as the King of Gondor and Arnor, and I treasured that you spoke with me openly. Such occurs sufficiently infrequently that I am overjoyed when such encounters do happen.

       While they lived in the guesthouse in the Sixth Circle Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin had an occasion to make jam, and most of it they left in my keeping as they couldn't carry it all home with them. I hope you will accept this gift of cherry and strawberry jam, and that as you and your family enjoy it you remember your encounters with Hobbits and King fondly. I assure you it is quite good—Hobbits are fine cooks, you will learn.

       I rejoice to return to you your grandson, well and whole. May he give you years of joy.

                            Yours under the Valar,

                            Aragorn son of Arathorn

(also known as Strider—now you can perhaps better appreciate the name I took for my house as Lord of Gondor and Arnor)

       And as they enjoyed bread spread with strawberry jam the family of Mistress Lindirieth agreed that indeed, Hobbits were excellent cooks.