The Adventures
Frodo Gardner

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

Chapter 9, Part 9
The Business of Departure
(September 24, 1451)

Legolas did not wake Frodo singing over breakfast, for which he felt eternally grateful. Indeed, the elf seemed unusually subdued, completely unlike his theatrical self the night before, as cool and remote as an island half-glimpsed through offshore mists. Frodo did not want any breakfast at all, when it came right down to it, but his father insisted on ordering one for him, anyway: a thick soup or stew. "Trust your Papa--you'll feel much better for having it. But don't ask Barliman for the recipe, or you'll get queasy all over again." Frodo decided that he did not need to hear that last remark, but the soup did taste surprisingly good, though the pale bits of meat had an odd sort of texture--rather fatty. Now if only the kitchen help wouldn't make such an infernal clatter of plates and cups and heaven knew what crashing about the place!
Bleoboris had already eaten and departed before the rest arose, carrying messages back into the Shire, after depositing a bundle at their room addressed to Meriadoc Brandybuck. Now, at the common table, Merry donned a small pair of crystal spectacles and perused his mail over breakfast, making notes in a book that he pulled from the pack beside his feet. "Ah, Sam," he said with satisfaction, "You'll be glad to know that the Northfarthing Gamgees will find a new market for their rope among the Beornings. With the orcs diminished, some of their youths have acquired a taste for mountain-climbing."
Sam rested his chin in his hand and smiled at his old friend. "Y'know, Merry, of all the futures I imagined for us, I never expected you to be the merchant type. But you've taken to it like a chicken to corn."
Merry closed his book with a snap. "And why not? I'm good at it."
"Oh, I dunno--I sort of pictured you going off on further adventures, the first chance you got. I figured you'd got the bug under your skin, so to speak, to hear you talk of our old times together."
"Oh, nothing's changed there, never fear!" Merry leaned back in his chair with a smile on his face. "Business is my excuse. You think I care about the money? My ancestors set me up too well to worry about that. But trade gives me daily permission to handle the tapestries of Rohan, toys from Dale, the pottery and gems of Umbar, silks and spices from Harad. And I get such pleasure even from something seemingly ordinary, like a well-turned plow hauled by dwarves all the way from Ered Luin, or these spectacles right here..." He took them off and regarded them. "These spectacles came from the Lonely Mountain, Sam. The dragon Smaug might have lain upon the very crystals that they were cut from." He looked up with a grin. "The whole world passes through the warehouses of Brandy Hall, and my imagination fans out back the way they came." Then he leaned close to Sam and said with a grin, "And then there's all those wonderful times when a tricky bit of work can only be handled by the Master of Buckland himself, and I can ride forth from the Shire, who knows where next, with the perfectly respectable excuse that I am 'out on business'."
"I know that you ride out sometimes, Merry, but..."
Merry laughed. "You thought it was strictly business!" And Sam laughed, too.
Frodo glanced over at Legolas, who smiled along politely as he toyed with his meal, but the sorrow that welled up in those eyes now seemed an ocean beyond all measuring, with nothing to disguise it. Merry followed Frodo's gaze and the smile faded from his face. "Butterbur," Merry called, "could you bring me one of those mushrooms you served last night? Not cooked, just to look at?"
"I'm all out, Master Brandybuck...No, wait, here. I have one left." He carried it over in a little silver dish. "I have to admit that it's not much for looking--I came that close to not trying it at all." It certainly had the appearance of what you'd expect to grow in Mirkwood--an ugly, warty, irregular lump of fungus, entirely black, not resembling anything that one should eat. But the enticingly tangy-buttery aroma proved that if the Dark Lord had intended to curse the forest with such growths, this counted as one of his more spectacular failures.
Merry picked it up, sniffed it, nibbled a small piece, and smiled. "The taste is extraordinary. The cooks of the Shire--or anywhere else, for that matter--would pay quite a bit over the usual run for something like this. Even with the price of transport added on." He brought out his book again. "Legolas, as a prince of Mirkwood and the heir of King Thranduil, are you authorized to sign a trade agreement?"
Legolas, lost in thought, startled to hear himself addressed. "Yes. Yes I am."
Merry took from an envelope in his pack a soot-covered sheet of paper; this he slipped behind a page in his book. "Give me a moment," he said, and wrote swiftly. "Let's see...doesn't Mirkwood also grow a black kind of walnut with flavor unsurpassed by nuts of other color?"
"It does indeed."
"I'd like to trade in those, too, if you don't mind," said Merry as he scribbled away. "Seems I recall your father sent some nut-stuffed pastries to Strider's wedding, and I never got the taste out of my mind since. Let's see...there's also the various lichens from which the elves make their dyes--much better than anything we've come up with at home--and then there's the spider-silk fabric that they use it on...I'd gladly trade in cloth-goods, too, if I could."
Legolas regarded him with surprise and delight. "You seem to know more about our resources than I would expect of anyone."
"That's my job. Okay, let's add spider-silk to the list...hmmm, considering the sort of spiders you deal with over there, I'd better up the price for hazard-pay. Not to mention an extra fee for all the trouble you go through to separate the smooth strands from the sticky ones--that has got to take some time."
"Time is one thing elves have plenty of."
"Elves?" said Butterbur, who'd been leaning with some personal interest over Merry's shoulder. He looked at Legolas suspiciously. "You have dealings with...elves?"
Sam pounded his cup on the table. "He is an elf, you dolt! Son of King Thranduil hisself--haven't you been listening?"
"I...I had no idea! Are you sure? He doesn't look anything like how I'd picture an elf."
"And how would you picture a king?" Sam growled.
"Now don't go reminding me of that, Mayor Gamgee. I can't be blamed if our Sovereign Lord goes about disguised as a homeless vagabond, now can I?"
Legolas laid a hand on the angry hobbit's shoulder just as Sam began to rise. "It is all right, my friend," he said. "Good Master Butterbur mistook me for a beggar--and still treated me kindly, without any real expectation of return, for nine long days. How can I feel other than grateful for his hospitality?"
Sam muttered but sat back down. Merry handed Legolas pen and ink. "Sign here, please...good. Now go over the letters again with this empty pen, pressing hard...very good." He tore out the page behind the sooty paper, and tossed the sooty page aside. "Here, Legolas--your contract. Mr. Butterbur, you have witnessed the signing. Legolas is now in partnership with Brandybuck Mercantile--any expenses that he has incurred, or will incur, shall be paid by the Brandybuck family. You can send the bill as soon as Bleoboris returns--and write yourself a generous tip, while you're at it. You know I'm good for it."
"Why, thank you so much, Master Brandybuck! Thank you very much indeed!" And the innkeeper went off whistling to his other chores.
Merry sighed. "Barliman's a good sort," he said, "if you don't expect too much of him."
Almost inaudibly Legolas murmured, "Yet I am a beggar."
Merry said, "And Strider really was a homeless vagabond. But that's not all he was."
Legolas looked at the contract in his hand. "I cannot tell you how grateful I am, Merry." Then he laid down the contract and sighed. "Yet it will not stop the fading."
"It's proof," said Merry. "It's something I can hold in my hand to remind me that you and I have a relationship." Suddenly the implication in the words smote Frodo to the heart. Merry continued, in a stern yet gentle voice, "I could make a whole lot more money than I do now, my friend, by promising people guarantees that I don't know I could deliver on. But I don't do that kind of business, so I won't offer you any guarantees, either. But listen to me. In my youth I helped take care of my grandfather in his final days. Towards the end he had no idea who I was. But he could still sense a love between us, and it meant something to him, and that meant something to me. He died holding my hand, Legolas, and it doesn't matter a bit to me that he did not know it was Meriadoc Brandybuck, his grandson, right there by his side. Tell me, old friend--can you love me as much as I loved him?"
"Did I not run across Rohan without rest to hunt the orcs who had captured you?"
"Thought so. And did I not reward you with the best food and wine from Saruman's own larder?" Merry laughed, but Legolas averted his eyes.
"You remind me of something I would soon forget," said the elf. "Not your hospitality in Isengard, but...I apologize for my behavior last night. I...I was not myself." Not himself, Frodo thought as he finished his soup, certain that the elf did not refer to wine alone.
Sam patted him on the back. "There now, you didn't kill nobody, and you didn't break nothin', so no harm done. You didn't even hurt any feelings, which is better'n most could say in the same situation."
"I am, indeed, grateful for your kindn..."
"Stuff it," said Sam, and Frodo nearly dropped his spoon--he'd never heard his father say anything crude before. Apparently it shocked both Legolas and Merry, too, by the way they stared. Sam's face remained kindly, but it hardened. He twisted in his seat towards the elf (now that he had his full attention) and jabbed a finger at him. "You listen to me, Legolas, and you listen good. Gratitude is a wonderful thing, and we all need a healthy dose of it, but you can kill 'taters with too much water, or too much sun, or too much steer manure, or anything else that's good for 'taters, so you can stop wallowing in all that fine gratitude-manure right now! I ain't requirin' it of you." The hobbit's face crinkled with earnestness. "I seen hobbits wither up and die from too much gratitude to too many people all the time, and I expect elves ain't that different. Now you've hit a bad patch, and no mistake, but next year it may be my turn, maybe Merry's the next after that--you never know; ain't nobody safe from bad patches, after all. Now, I don't have to be told, 'cause I already know you'd do anything you could to help me if I asked it of you, or even if I didn't ask and you just figured out on your own that I needed somepin', so I don't see what's so odd about Merry or me, neither one, wanting to help you out in any way we can." His voice caught as he said, "Legolas, we've held each other's lives in our hands too many times to be fussing about gratitude--so enough said!" He sat back in his chair with a huff.
Legolas sat there, speechless, till finally he uttered, "Sam, Sam, I am truly..."
"Don't say it!"
"Well," said Merry, pushing back from the table. "I guess it's time we hit the road." And Frodo breathed a sigh of relief for the change of subject...until he realized the implications. Even then it didn't fully hit him until after they'd gone into the stables, as they saddled up their ponies and strapped on the baggage, that from here on out they'd ride two different roads. He turned to his father. "Papa..." he said.
"Son..." and no other word choked from the hobbit's throat. To his surprise Frodo saw tears welling up in his father's eyes, and found matching tears in his own. Papa didn't squeeze him half to death like Mama did, but he held on for the longest, longest time, just like he once did Mama after the other Frodo's wake.
"It's okay, Papa," Frodo said. "I'm not gonna die out there. I promise."
"You'd better not, you whelp," Sam said, socking him in the arm, "Or your Ma and me'll never forgive you!" With that they mounted their ponies, and Legolas his horse, and rode from the inn's courtyard, out into the street. For some reason Frodo had not reckoned on how weird it would feel to take the Old South Road while his father turned back west, like riding into a whole new life he hadn't dreamed of. He remembered his excitement the first time they ever left the boundaries of the Shire, but this felt different; he'd never had his parents far from reach in all their travels; it almost felt like they'd carried a bit of The Shire around with them in their family bond, though he hadn't noticed at the time. But now, as he turned and watched his father disappear around a corner, he felt like he'd truly left his country for the first time in his life.
They soon departed Bree, heading down the well-worn road still called The Greenway from habit, through a pleasant countryside, sparsely used by shepherds here and there. Frodo pretty much saw the same kinds of grass that grew at home, same bushes and little groves of trees, their leaves fluttering in autumn's bright livery. Somewhere he heard the clatter of a deer, impatient with the season, knocking the velvet from his antlers against the nearest tree. He heard the beat of wings overhead of southbound birds going on before them. Squirrels darted rustling among the brush, hastening to stash away the season's last nuts before the winter chill. He could have seen and heard all such things in the Shire just as well. Yet every familiar creature looked, smelled, and sounded strange today--foreign. I am not myself, he thought.

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