The Adventures
of
Frodo Gardner

Volume I
Where Many Paths and Errands Meet
By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 4 Part 4
On the Road
(September 22, 1451)

It almost took till noon to get through all the goodbyes that go with a big family. Mama squeezed Frodo so hard that he thought he'd pop (especially after that breakfast!) Elanor and her husband gave him a ton of good advice about life abroad that he only half-heard, between all of the hugging, crying, last-minute packing (not only his, but the newlyweds finally moving to their own home) and of course the two chickens that just had to pick this time to escape their enclosure and find their way to the kitchen's interesting smells. He felt just about done in when he found May tugging at his sleeve. As soon as he turned to her she pressed into his palm her prize possession: the crystal magnifying-glass from the court of the King himself, with pretty pink jewels all around the rim in the pattern of flowers, which she used to study petals and bugs and all manner of interesting things.
 
"This is too precious," Frodo said. "I can't accept this."
 
"Then bring it back to me," May said with an earnestness beyond her years. "Bring it back when you come back yourself." So intense a look passed between brother and sister that even though he could think of no use for such a gift, he slipped it into his pocket and promised that yes, he would return and give it back to her. As he hugged and thanked her, his eyes watered and he realized that he couldn't even imagine what life might be like without his loving, bickering, encouraging family all around him--all these people he knew so well that the slightest twitch of the face communicated whole speeches to each other.
 
Then Frodo saw his mother moving towards the kitchen to get lunch going, and he picked up speed in his goodbyes. He had this vision of Mama trapping him at the table forever, feeding him till he couldn't fit his chair between the table and the wall, just to keep him from leaving. He picked up his pack, which made a faint, musical jingle that caused him to frown and stare at it a moment.
 
"One more thing," Papa said right before Frodo tossed his pack up on the pony. "The dwarf-kit."
 
Frodo stopped short in awe. "No. You're not going to give me that, Papa. You can't."
 
"I can and I will. It's not like I have much use for it anymore," Sam said, and slipped the oval of black metal into the pack, then tied the pack to the saddle himself.
 
The Dwarf-Kit! It didn't look like much, at first glance, just two black pans fit together like a tortoise-shell, though on closer inspection you could make out curious engravings of the sort that dwarves love. But it weighed so much lighter than any metal had the right to, light as an eggshell, even though it held more pans inside, and measuring spoons, and cups, and knives and other tools that all folded out from a single casing, and a small grill, and a colander, and every kind of utensil that a cook could make use of on the road, all cozied up together like puzzle pieces; Frodo used to spend hours taking it apart and putting it back together for a game, till he got the hang of it. The pans would heat evenly and hold their temperature perfectly like you'd expect of iron triple the gauge or more, and none of the equipment ever dented or showed a scratch, no matter what use you put it to. Gimli of the Golden Lock had given it to Sam some years before, "In memory of many a fine meal," he'd said, "and in honor of what you lost for us."
 
If nothing else had proven it already, Frodo knew for certain from that gift that his father did not expect him back anytime soon. After that it hardly surprised him at all when Papa strapped onto Frodo's belt the old, worn scabbard that hid the most marvelous blade in all the Shire.
 
"I hope you don't need it," Sam said, "But you never know." Frodo glanced at the pack and back at him, and smiled, and the whole family chuckled. "Yes, yes, Frodo," said Sam, "there's rope enough in there."
 
"And something else, too," Frodo said. "Something that jingles."
 
Watching from the kitchen window, Rosie blanched, but Sam said, "Hope you don't need that, neither."
 
Billie-Lass, the pony, gave Frodo a somewhat aggrieved look as the hobbit climbed up into the saddle. Sam said, "It's about time you gave her a good riding, Frodo--I swear you treat that pony more like a pet dog than a beast o' burden. It'll do Billie-Lass some good to get proper exercise; she's gotten fat and lazy, if you ask me."
 
Frodo petted her neck. "She gets lots of exercise--don't you, girl? She carries all the supplies when we go out on picnics, all by herself."
 
"She'd have been better off carrying you." He shook his head and laughed. "Why oh why did I give a pony to a child who loves his own feet best?"
 
"Now that's not true--I love my Billie-Lass. We've just had a certain understanding over the years, that's all."
 
"Well, the understanding's going to have to change, lad. You've got a lot of miles ahead of you, and better you cover them on her feet than yours."
 
"What, all the way to Bree?" Frodo grinned at his father and Sam grinned back; his mother did not smile at all.
 
At last the three hobbits got out the gate, just in time to hear the lunch-bell ringing behind them. Bleoboris started to turn back, but Sam grabbed the postman's reins, then tossed him an apple and a couple rolls. Bleoboris shrugged and said, "It's not so bad--we messengers get used to eating in the saddle all the time." Sam and son exchanged glances, but said nothing, just rode through the peace of the countryside while Bleo went on about the terrible sacrifices of life on the road, though Sam's eyes would twinkle every time the young hobbit said, "You folks have no idea!"
 
Frodo ignored Bleo, surveying the Shire as if for the first time in his life. The full splendor of autumn colored every corner of the land in hues so bright that they could burn your heart up. Leaves danced in the air and scented the land with a wholly different sweetness than the perfumes of spring; everywhere he looked he saw the same leaps and pirouettes upon the breeze, as though the leaves held a final party, a goodbye before their winter flight. "And a goodbye for me, too," he thought. He suddenly recalled his father's tales about how his namesake kept going about the Shire, murmuring things like, "Shall I ever see that hill again, I wonder?" the year before their famous journey. Now it all came alive for him; he felt keenly for ol' Mr. Baggins--and more keenly for himself.
 
He glanced over at Papa, while Bleo droned on about great meals he'd met at the Prancing Pony. Sam fingered a small white jewel on a chain around his throat, a tiny thing that could shoot out the piercingest gleam of light if it turned just right. Frodo knew the story of that jewel better than any other tale, though it had come to them when he was just a baby, barely old enough to totter to the yard and back. Indeed, it stuck out as the very first memory of his life.
 
The other Frodo had once worn that jewel, so he'd been told. The Queen herself had given it to him, to ease his cravings for the One Ring that was gone. He'd worn it still when he'd gone to sea with the elves; Sam said he figured he'd never lay eyes on it again.
 
But it had come back. One day Sam had been out in the field, haying with the hired hands, on an autumn day much like this, the air fairly prickly and golden with the blowing chaff, as they got the last wagon-load of fodder in before the weather closed on them--indeed, storm clouds loomed in the west already; everything looked brighter than real against that dark mass. Frodo remembered distinctly from where he sat on a blanket on the ground, next to Mama laying out a picnic lunch. He may have been the first to see the bird--a great, white sea-bird with wings stretched wide, sailing in out of the west with the wind, with the storm on its back and the rain already on its wings, and lightning following behind.
 
"Bird!" he'd cried, pointing. Something made his father, and all the other laborers, turn to look, as the gull tumbled from the sky headlong into the stubble of the field, near-dead with exhaustion. Sam, being a kind sort, ran to care for the poor creature just as the first rain came pelting down and the hands scurried to get the hay into the barn. He'd carried the bird wrapped in his own cloak to the barn and called Rosie over to come take a look, even as she bundled up the food and blanket. Frodo toddled after as fast as his little legs could run, forgotten for the moment, frightened by the storm. But he stopped dead in his tracks in the barn doorway when his father lifted from off the bird's neck a fine silver chain with a gemstone hanging from it, giving off a radiance that shone onto Sam's weathered face.
 
"He's dead then," Sam said. "They wanted me to know." That was the first time Frodo ever saw his father weep.
 
But it was a good thing, everybody told him, a kindness to let Sam know, so that he could mourn properly, the hobbit way, and so let go. Immediately the farmhands crowded around Sam and escorted him to the tavern, picking up the Gaffer along the way, calling out for wives and sisters to go "tend to the Missus". People all over Hobbiton and Bywater laid down their work, despite the busy season.
 
The man-hobbits converged on The Green Dragon and the lady-hobbits converged on Bag End. There Frodo and his sister sat by while the goodwives gave Rosie cups of tea with a little something sharp-smelling from a bottle, till she spoke at length of the time she spent helping to care for Frodo Baggins in his final year, and she'd cry, and she'd laugh, and most of what they said went clean over the head of Frodo Gamgee. If either he or his sister fussed or fretted, two or three ladies at once would tend to their every need, till at last a hobbit-granny tucked them into makeshift beds of cushions by the fireplace, and the night wore on, lit only by the fire and a candle here and there, and the rain came down outside as soft and sweet as his sister's breathing by his side. At some point he remembered somebody measuring him, up, down, and sideways, and somebody else warning to allow for a year's growth. Nobody suggested sending them away to their rooms that night. Frodo drowsed in and out, lulled by the murmur of feminine voices and the flickering twilight of the fireside so warm beside him.
 
At dawn his father came home, aided by a sturdy hobbit on either side of him. But they and all the other neighbors melted away like shadows from the growing light, leaving Sam and Rosie in each other's arms in a silence spreading like the day, even the sound of the roosters seeming muted by the muffling thickness of emotion in the room.
 
The Gamgees did no work that day, nor the next, but lounged about the house in their night-clothing and robes. At mealtimes a knock on the door signaled the presence of a basket of fresh-cooked food from this neighbor or that, but they never caught a glimpse of anybody at the door. Sometimes Frodo heard work going on outside, as folks took turns tending to the chores; chickens got fed, water got drawn, but you never saw who did it. The family spoke in low tones and went easy on themselves, venturing out only as far as the garden, and if anyone passed, no one spoke to them.
 
On the third day, as custom provided, they woke to new suits of clothing lying on the porch--clothes fresh-made for the entire family, all in black to remind the whole Shire that this family mourned, be gentle with them. Yet, also according to custom, the black clothes displayed a rainbow of embroidery, fantastic shapes passed down through time, bright about each cuff and collar, hem, placket, and pocket, for hobbits believe in some wonderful unknown beyond the grave; they mourn for their own loss, but celebrate for the dead themselves.
 
People spoke to the Gamgees now, as Rose and Sam resumed their places in society. Folks politely inquired of their memories, listening patiently to the stories, or at least pretending to. For one year the family wore their special clothes, they and the baby born that year, and then they laid those clothes aside, and it was done, and life began afresh. And Papa wore the jewel from the first day that he'd received it, and did not lay it aside, and when times got especially hard he would sometimes finger it, just like that other Frodo used to do.
 
Sam fingered it now, staring off across the countryside. Frodo at last grew impatient and interrupted Bleo right in the middle of a preposterous piece of Staddle gossip (as if a man could have any reason to wax jealous over his wife's hobbit friend!) "So when are you going to tell me, Papa?" Sam shot him a pained look. Frodo said softly, "You can't put it off forever, you know."
 
"The King needs a gardener. He asked me for my best."
 
"That's all?" Frodo nearly laughed. "All this fuss just because I'm going to Gondor?"
 
"I didn't say Gondor, now did I? The elven folk have done all the gardening the city can take. No, Frodo, you already know what land needs gardening in the worst kind of way." When his father frowned the scar on his scalp twitched and colored till all of Rosie's words rushed back in on Frodo.
 
"King Elessar wants to send me there...as a gardener?"
 
"Why not? You wouldn't be the first." and they exchanged one of those Gamgee family looks that got them both laughing, though Frodo's heart still beat too fast.
 
Bleo said, "No, I just don't see it! What on earth would the King want with the likes of Frodo in a place like that? What's he gonna do, huh, grow pansies for hobgoblins?"
 
"Would you like it better if the King sent in a messenger?" Bleo blanched and fell silent for the first time on the trip. "Frodo," Sam said, "there's men that farm in Mordor--slaves we'd freed when we toppled Barad-Dur. But they can't farm no more, son, and they're starving over there."
 
"Can you start from the beginning, Papa? Why are they starving? And what can I do about it?"
 
"It seems that Sauron had some funny notions about agriculture. He had to take control of every detail, leave nothing to chance, which meant nothing to nature. His factories could concoct powders and potions that could make any kind of crop grow anywhere--force 'em to grow, however he liked. Problem was, they killed the soil, so pretty soon those farms couldn't grow so much as a weed without more powders and potions. And people started to get sick from whatever he put in that junk, weird and painful sicknesses that made parts inside themselves grow like a forced plant trying to break out into the sun, but he didn't care, he just caught hisself more slaves to replace the ones that died. And babies got born all wrong, or died at birth, but he'd just catch more slaves still, and nobody dared complain. But I've got to say, the stuff did work. He could churn out food like you wouldn't believe, to feed all them orcs and armies of men, and trolls and wargs and whatnot, just so long as he kept those powders and those potions comin'."
 
"But you stopped all that," Frodo said. "You, and the other Frodo, and Gollum. You made it all good again--didn't you?"
 
"It's not that simple, son." He held the jewel tight in his hand. "Some things, if you get sick on 'em long enough, you get even sicker when you quit of a sudden. It's hard to explain..." Frodo watched his father's knuckles whiten on the jewel.
 
Gently Frodo said, "You still miss it, don't you?"
 
Sam nodded. "Sometimes. Like now, when I feel small, with the world's problems so big." Barely audibly he added, "And to think I only bore it for one night--one night as long as the four ages combined." He shook his head. "Frodo must've been in agony."
 
"So explain it to me," said Frodo the Younger, "the best you can, what happened in Mordor."
 
"I told you--the soil died. They couldn't bring it back to life--they didn't know how. They hated the poisons they'd been using, but they didn't have no choice, they had to keep on using them, and have some of their folk die now and then, or stop and starve, and die all at once. No more trains of orcs came over the hills hauling bags of the stuff for them, but they did all right with the stores they had for awhile, not having to feed armies anymore, just themselves--they could ration it, make it last a little. Then they ran out, but they sent out men to explore the other parts of Mordor, and some of those came back alive, and some told where to find warehouses of the stuff, with some danger between here and there, but watching their young'uns go hungry scared them more, so they fetched back whatever they could. And so they lasted awhile longer."
 
"And then they ran out again."
 
"Yep. They finally ran out. And each crop got smaller and sicklier, and all the nasty, crawly bugs of Mordor got bolder and ate what they had left, till finally now they've got a famine on their hands. They've petitioned the King for help, and he's sent them some wagon-trains of food from happier lands, but he can't do that forever. They've got to bring the land to life again."
 
"Why can't he send gardeners from his own people?"
 
"Men are good enough at making prime land grow what they want, but they don't know how to make bad land good. It takes a hobbit to show 'em how." Sam waved his hand around at the fertile countryside. "You see all this? A long, long time ago war had laid it all to waste before our folks came to it--a big ugly war with the Witch King of Angmar." Sam shuddered. "You can thank your stars you never met him, lad--he became the chief of the Nazgul."
 
"I know the story," said Frodo. Bleo didn't, and stared wide-eyed.
 
"Do ye now? Think of it--all this land around us, a desert, stinkin' of the blood of good men and bad, and only gorecrows finding anything to live on. Blasted by war and weapon and witchery, trampled and burned and poisoned and bled. We took it because the hobbit-folk had nowhere else to go, and the men-folk didn't want it. We made it what it is today. Hobbits always take what's overlooked and make something of it that nobody expects--that's our way, that's our strength. And do you know how we do it?"
 
"Tell me, Papa."
 
"By listenin' to it, feelin' it, by smell and by taste. By learning its own account of how it best lives and working with that, not against it. You remember that, Frodo--don't try to force the land your way. Listen like you'd listen to a girlfriend, find out what the land wants and what the land needs, and work with it. Let it change you as much as you change it."
 
Frodo sat back in his saddle, horrified at the thought. Let Mordor change him? Autumn felt colder all around him, and the winter not far off.

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