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by CRB and Ladyhawk Baggins

4 November 1419sr continued...

Late that afternoon, they found nine hobbits in the makeshift prison at Michel Delving, and set them free. Those who had been imprisoned longest were too weak to walk any real distance on their own. Merry volunteered one of Farmer Cotton's escorts to hitch up his pony to the cart outside the prison, and enlisted a few others of the escort to get the former prisoners put up in nearby farms for the next several days. The members of the escort met for a good while, deciding which hobbits would go where. Only two of the escort were familiar with the farms in the area.

Pippin assigned three more of the escort to serve as messengers; they would carry word of the release and new location of each prisoner to those families who were affected. The escort were a cheerful group, and hard workers, Pippin thought. But then again Cotton was very popular in Bywater, and he attracted this sort of folk naturally.

The sun was westering low in the sky as Merry helped Will Whitfoot out of his cell. He was rambling incoherently about Hobbiton, wondering who the new mayor might be. Pippin and Sam had to carry out Fredegar Bolger, who was too weak to walk on his own two feet. His nickname of Fatty was no longer descriptive. Merry would carry him on his own pony back to Bywater, and Pippin would carry Will back; Hobbiton was Will's home. Beyond that, nothing was decided.

Fatty greeted them gamely and commented that Pip seemed taller? Pippin only smiled, but Frodo knew his heart was breaking at the sight of their friend in such a state. He knew it because his own was breaking as well. He wondered how much more sorrow was coming. It seemed every time they began to recover from bad news, they were confronted with more. It would end sometime, Frodo knew. But he prayed it would be sooner rather than later.

While the other three and Farmer Cotton helped set free the remaining six hobbits, Frodo himself helped Lobelia out of her long dark cell. As old and frail as she was, she had insisted on walking, although she leaned heavily on Frodo's arm as they stepped out together into the blindingly bright November sunshine. They had covered her with two cloaks to protect her from the cold outdoors.

Those hobbits who still remained of Cotton's earlier escort for the Bag End visit cheered and clapped loudly as Lobelia was brought out. She blinked and had to shield her eyes from the light, but would not relinquish her umbrella. Frodo wondered where she got her strength. She was 100 years old, and thin as could be.

Lobelia was touched by the reaction of the crowd of hobbits.

"Well, I never!" she said. "An old sour-puss like me!"

Frodo laughed, but when he was able to sit her down in a pony-cart, he sat next to her and took one of her frail wizened hands. It was so cold. He warmed her hand by rubbing it between his own.

"Lobelia, I have very bad news, I'm sorry to say."

"More bad news?" she looked at him with resignation; it was something he'd never seen in her before.

"It's about Lotho, isn't it?" she asked.

"Yes, Lobelia. He's -- he's dead. He was murdered by the ruffians." Frodo would not try to explain Saruman and Wormtongue to her.

"Oh! My poor Lotho! I shouldn't ever have let him buy Bag End! That's when it all started! Oh, I knew he was gone, I knew it, I felt it in my old bones..."

She cried a little, seemingly too shocked and exhausted to react in full to this news.

"It was a bad omen to buy Bag End away from you. It was greed, pure and simple..."

Frodo's tone was gentle. "I put it up for sale. You and Lotho did nothing wrong in buying it."

"Please take it back with my good wishes," she said, nodding, but talking over his words. "I can never live there again; not without my Lotho. I'm going back to live with my own folk."

Frodo was taken aback at the enormity of her gift. "Lobelia, I can purchase it back from you," he assured her.

"No, I don't need any more money. I've got too much now, and look what good it's ever done me. Take it, Frodo. Let me do something good with my last days."

"You are serious about this. I hardly know what to say. This means more to me than almost anything, Lobelia... to be able to live at Bag End again. Thank you, more than I can ever say."

Lobelia was surprised at this crazy young whippersnapper of a Baggins who was giving her an embrace that nearly took the air out of her.

"There, there now!! I still need to breathe, Master Frodo!" she said sternly, but she started to laugh when she saw the bright look of joy on his face. The laughing made her cough. Frodo patted her on the back.

"Are you quite all right, Lobelia?"

"Yes, yes," she sputtered, still coughing, and then began to speak in a jumble of thoughts. "It's just that I haven't laughed in quite a spell. I can't remember last time it was -- now listen, young Master Frodo! -- my, but don't you look thin these days! You need to get yourself a wife to cook for you! Don't be like old Bilbo, now, and stay a bachelor! How is Bilbo? Is he still alive? How old is he now?"

Frodo was nearly speechless, unsure of what to answer first or even how seriously to take her questions; but it would be wisest to assume she was in earnest.

"Bilbo is still alive. He's living quite far away from here now. I think... forgive me, I know this by heart, but not today, I fear... he is 129 years old, or thereabouts."

"Well I never!" Her coughing spell had ceased. "But what about that wife? Didn't you ever get married? Where have you been, while we were in prison? Why didn't you break us out of prison before?" She seemed confused rather than angry.

"There is no wife, Lobelia. I would sincerely love a good cook of my very own, preferably a wife, since Samwise Gamgee will be marrying sometime this coming year and I'll be without a cook for sure. But I don't think that will ever be. I'm afraid I've left it too late, having a wife." He kept his tone very light. He had no intention of burdening her with anything like his true feelings on the matter. "As to why you weren't let out of prison earlier, I -- "

She interrupted him, the old brown eyes, edged with crow's feet, boring into his bright blue ones. She was adjusting well to the sunlight. "Now, Frodo, just because I'm old doesn't mean I'm stupid or blind. I can tell by your tone of voice that you're not telling me everything. I've got plenty of time, you know. Not going anywhere, and it's a fine day out!"

Frodo's expression of surprise and bewilderment set her to laughing and coughing again.

Frodo jumped off the pony-cart, went to his hired pony, and got the water flask off the pommel. Within a few steps he was back up with Lobelia, offering her water.

She drank it thirstily. The prisoners had all been given water and food first thing upon their release, but Frodo could see she was far from being satisfied. They had been true prisoners, treated badly, for months, some for nearly a year.

He felt a terrible grief come upon him. He was beyond anger. Anger could not change the past. But he could grieve, and must. He had to bend or he would break. The darkness crept in, tempting him again to fall into despair and to lie there, never to emerge into the light again. It would be easier, it whispered. You could go somewhere, and lie down, and never get up again. It would be much easier than trying to rebuild all this. Give up! How will you get all the trees back? Where will you begin? Where will you start with Bag End? What makes you think Gandalf will come? He said you were on your own, you hobbits. And marriage? You cannot actually believe you have any hope, any chance at that! Especially with her. You are broken, broken. She will want someone whole. She can have anyone she wants in the Shire. She already wants someone else...

"Stop, stop!" he cried. He held his fingers to his temples for a moment, and then jumped down off the pony-cart, leaving Lobelia puzzled. He had to walk, move, think about something true, and happy, to silence that voice.

"Mr. Frodo! I heard you yelling -- Frodo?"

Sam touched his arm. Frodo's eyes were closed, but for Sam he would open them.

He spoke with a good deal of effort and concentration. "Do you think we're nearly ready to go? Can you check with Merry and Pip -- and please tell Lobelia I'm sorry I left her there. Tell her I'll be back in a minute or two. But we have to get out of here. I must get some rest. When I'm this tired, the darkness comes..."

"Master, you don't need to say another word. I'll go see to it. Sit down here for a spell, Mr. Frodo. Don't worry about Lobelia. She's fine right where she is."

He waited until Frodo sat down in the grass, and then left, shouting for Merry and Pippin as he went. Frodo saw him stop to talk to Lobelia for a moment, giving her a little bow before moving on again.

I must pray, thought Frodo. I cannot fight this alone. I can never manage this alone. Please send Gandalf to me, he pleaded in silent prayer. I need to speak to him. Even though he said he would not be helping us again. I need rest...

When Sam returned, Frodo was asleep on the ground.

"Frodo? Master Frodo?" He touched his friend's arm, and Frodo sat bolt upright.

"Sam, where? Where are we?" Sam was by his side, but Merry and Pippin were standing next to their mounts a few feet away, looking down at him with concern.

"Mr. Frodo, we're at Michel Delving, remember?"

"We've let the prisoners out," Merry continued, "and Pip and I have got them all situated in homes for the next few days. We need to get somewhere for the night ourselves -- the sun's set and it's getting a good deal colder, Frodo."

"And we need a good hot meal," said Pippin. "Or two. And a pint, and I'd like a pipe. Come on, Frodo." He smiled at his cousin, trying to cheer him. He saw then that Frodo was far more tired than sad.

Sam helped Frodo up, and began to brush the grass off him. Frodo remembered what had happened; the darkness had assaulted him in a moment of weakness. Then he had prayed. His mind was clear now, although sleep still beckoned. Sam led him over to his hired pony, tethered next to Bill.

"Can you ride, do you think?" Sam asked. "If not, you could ride with me on Bill and even your pony can rest."

"I think I can ride." Sam helped him up. "Thank you, Sam."

He walked the pony back to Pippin and Merry, already set to ride. Fatty was sitting behind Merry, looking happy but nearly asleep.

Frodo smiled at them wanly. "If Fatty and I fall off these ponies, you're going to come back for us, am I right?"

Merry and Pippin, and even Fatty, were laughing; Sam wore a smile.

"No answer; I'll take that as a yes. Where are we going?"

It felt odd not to be in charge, but he was too tired to care. In fact, it felt wonderful. They were in very capable hands. Pippin's voice was softer than before.

"There's a nice warm smial about five miles south of here. Old Bracegirdle said he'd feed the six of us and put us up for the night. The sooner we get there, the sooner we can eat."

"Food -- ! " smiled Fatty.

Will Whitfoot only nodded, hanging on to Pippin. He hated being on a pony.

"And the sooner we can get a smoke," said Merry.

"I think I'll just have an ale," Sam decided as they headed south. None of them saw Frodo's smile at Sam's simple wish.