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When court had ended, the King and Queen departed. The hobbits soon found themselves surrounded by curious Big Folk. But Freddy and Berilac were drawn aside by the Steward.
“The King wishes a private word with the two of you, Master Bolger and Master Brandybuck, regarding the two exiles you have brought to him for judgement.”
Freddy and Beri nodded, and followed Prince Faramir through a side door to the huge room, and down a short corridor. A guard stood in front of a door, but he gave a nod to the Steward, who opened it, and ushered the two hobbits in.
The King sat behind a large and rather battered table. To one side was a somewhat untidy stack of papers, and to the other side a lamp, unlit as it was unneeded in the light of day, which poured in through large windows on the wall to the right of the door. But most of the table was bare. A bookshelf crammed with volumes was behind the King’s chair, and atop it rested the winged crown he had worn before. Now he bore only a simple silver filet, with a gem in a star-like setting. His mantle of state hung from a hook upon the wall, and he wore a simple sleeveless doublet of dark grey velvet. The sleeves of his white shirt beneath had been pushed up to the elbows.
Freddy and Beri started to bow, but he shook his head, and waved a hand. “In this room I indulge myself by waiving formality,” he said.
There was one large chair next to the table, besides the one in which he sat, but then Freddy noticed that Faramir had moved to a corner and was bringing two smaller chairs forward—there had been four of them there. The chairs were higher in the seat than the large chair, but had rungs placed so as to make it easy for a hobbit to clamber up, and the seats were smaller, sized for hobbits. Freddy blinked in surprise.
Berilac, however, grinned. “I suppose those are chairs you had made for our cousins and Sam!” he said, his eyes twinkling.
“You suppose rightly, Master Brandybuck! Please, be seated.”
The two hobbits found it was a simple matter to use the rungs and climb up into the chairs, which were quite comfortable, though having his toes dangling above the floor made Freddy feel somewhat like a child again.
Faramir sat as well, in the other big chair, and the King leaned back.
He smiled at them, and Freddy was once more struck by just how much his smile transformed his rugged face. “I am happier than I can say to see all of you arrive safely here. “ He picked up a letter that lay atop the stack of papers, and Freddy recognized Frodo’s distinctive hand. “Frodo writes most fondly and highly of all of you. I look forward to getting to know you.”
Freddy found his voice. It was impossible to remain timid in the face of such good will. “And we are looking forward to getting to know you, sire.”
Elessar nodded. “Unfortunately, we also have the matter of Clodio Banks and Dago Bracegirdle to deal with. Captain Targon delivered the dispatch case last night, containing many of the documents that Frodo and the Thain had found, concerning the dealings of these two.”
Freddy and Beri nodded. Both of them had seen these troubling documents, detailing the partnership that Clodio Banks and Dago Bracegirdle had entered into with Lotho Sackville-Baggins. It was quite clear that Clodio had been motivated by ambition for the Banks family, while Dago had been motivated mostly by simple greed. Lotho had not exerted the sort of pressure on them as he had with a few other “investors”, who had found themselves fearing for their families.
“From what I can tell, Lotho Sackville-Baggins invited Dago into the partnership on the strength of his relationship to his mother, and it was Dago who then encouraged Clodio to join in on the scheme.”
“I know,” said Freddy, “that the three of them bought up a good deal of property that should not have been sold.”
“In addition to that, I have papers that were confiscated from Isengard. These detail the dealings that Saruman had with the Shire from his end. Did you know that Saruman had been dealing with the Bracegirdles in the Southfarthing for over sixty years before Gandalf suspected the presence of the Ring in the Shire?”
Freddy’s jaw dropped in shock. “How can that be?” he asked.
“Apparently, it was Gandalf’s own interest in the Shire that drew Saruman’s attention. He began to build commercial ties with the pipe-weed growers of the Southfarthing. He was known to them as “Mr. White”, and he sent his agents there to buy pipe-weed and other commodities. His purchases were small at first, but he paid higher prices for them than was usual. The earliest mention we have dates to 2953, when we have a letter from the head of the Bracegirdles at the time, to him.”
“Shire Reckoning 1353,” said Berilac. “Why that’s only about ten years after Bilbo returned from his Adventure!”
“Did he suspect the Ring was in the Shire at the time?” Freddy asked.
The King shook his head. “No, he had been spying on Gandalf, and had noticed his visits there. I believe at the time it was merely suspicion of his fellow wizard that drew his attention.”
“But leaf was going out of the Shire in great quantities at least a year before Gandalf returned to give Frodo the news of the Ring!” Freddy remembered how his rebels had discovered this fact when they had begun their activities against Lotho.
“That was Lotho’s doing,” said Faramir. “We found letters from him, in fact, among the papers in Isengard.”
The King reached into the stack again, and drew forth another letter:
”4 Solmath, S.R. 1416
1 Longbottom Lane
Southfarthing, The Shire
Dear Mr. White,
You have been recommended to me by the Family Head of my mother’s people, my uncle Mr. Bruno Bracegirdle, as someone who has an interest in the pipe-weed trade. I am aware that you have been buying exclusively through the Bracegirdles, but I am hoping that you might consider an expansion of this trade, and I am offering my services as a broker, should you think well of the idea.
I have a good many business and family connexions throughout the Shire, and am well-known for my profitable business dealings here. I have long thought that the Shire needs to broaden its horizons, and trade beyond our borders is a good way to begin.
Should you be interested, I have already purchased the interest in this season’s harvest of Longbottom Leaf from my cousin Dago Bracegirdle. I would be most pleased if you would consider this proposition.
Freddy sat up sharply. “I wonder! I wonder if the mysterious Mr. White had anything to do with the problems of the Bracegirdle family several years ago?”
“Cousin Hugo?” Berilac asked.
Freddy nodded. “At some point in time, Brutus Bracegirdle-- he was Lobelia's eldest brother-- disowned his own children, Hugo and Hilda, and passed the headship of the family to his younger brother Bruno, who was Dago’s father. At the time it was thought that it was because Hugo supported the marriage of his sister Hilda to a Brandybuck. But perhaps there was more to it than that.”
“It’s possible. Hugo was only a Brandybuck connexion by marriage and not by blood, but he visited Aunt Hilda a lot, and he was always disparaging of the business dealings of his own family. He was the only Bracegirdle relation that Dodi and Ilbie ever really knew growing up. I know that it used to amuse Cousin Hugo that Lobelia would cut him if she saw him, and she was always angry when he would visit Bilbo.”
“Bilbo was very fond of Hugo, though he would get annoyed when the books he loaned him were not returned.” Freddy would have continued in this vein, but he noticed that the King was trying to suppress a chuckle. “I am sorry, sire! I am afraid family gossip is a sad failing of hobbits.”
“Not at all,” he said, “it reminds me much of Bilbo, and also of Frodo, Merry, Pippin and Sam, who could while away entire evenings with old gossip about their families.”
“At any rate, there were several pieces of correspondence between Lotho and Isengard. Here is the last one we found:
”30 Halimath, S.R. 1418
My dear Mr. White,
In regard to you inquiry as to sending your agents to the Shire to purchase pipeweed, I am in full agreement with you that your own people would be able to negotiate larger purchases than those we are able to do through the intermediaries of the Dwarves.
I believe that if you sent your own Men, not only to see to the purchasing as a few have done in the past, but also, as you have suggested, as carters, or even as those who could work in the pipeweed fields, it would increase the profits, since there would be no need to pay a percentage to the Dwarves.
If you could see your way to sending your people to Sarn Ford, they would find a ready welcome among the plantation owners of the Southfarthing.
I thank you for the suggestion, and look forward to working with you more closely in the future. Perhaps at some time you might see your way to making a visit to us here. I have accommodations in my new dwelling in Hobbiton that are meant for the comfort of Big Folk, and I would like very much to show you hospitality.
Freddy went white, as he read. Two spots of red appeared on his cheeks, and Berilac said “What is it, Freddy?”
In a tight voice, Freddy said “The date—look at the date!”
“That was the date…” Berilac’s voice trailed off.
“What is wrong?” asked the King. “What is the significance of that date?”
“It’s the day that the Black Riders invaded Buckland!” said Beri.
“The day they attacked Crickhollow,” added Freddy. He gave a shudder. “Lotho had much to answer for.”
The King nodded. “But he has gone beyond answering to us. Now we have to discover the culpability of his accomplices.”
“I think,” said Freddy carefully, “that they did not have any idea at all who the mysterious ‘Mr. White’ was. I do not think that they intended the damage that was done by the Ruffians. I do think that they knew Lotho’s own practices were dubious, but they decided to ignore that in the name of profit. I am sure that neither of them thought of what they were doing as treason, although of course, it really was.”
Berilac nodded. “I am sure that they thought they were simply being sharp in business. And I am equally sure that while they would not have agreed to the violence that Sharkey’s Ruffians brought, they were not much concerned with the fates of hobbits who were displaced and dispossessed by their doings.”
“They deserved exile,” Freddy added. “But I do not believe that they deserve, well, the sorts of punishments Men sometimes deal out…”
“You mean death,” said the King bluntly. “I do have some latitude in sentencing them as accomplices to the doings of the Sackville-Baggins. Fortunately they committed no violence themselves. I am glad that the two younger hobbits remain in Rohan. I am trying to get some of our laws changed, but the injury they did would not have given me any choice in the matter, according to Gondorian law.”
He leaned back, and thought briefly. “I will give some consideration to the matter. I believe I will take a week to deliberate the matter and think of what I will do. I thank you for your frankness. I know you are hungry. It is nearly time for nuncheon here. Please go and find your fellow hobbits, and enjoy the rest of your day. And I look forward to seeing all of you once more at the feast tonight!” For the hobbits already knew a great feast of welcoming had been prepared for them.
“Thank you, sire,” said Freddy, relieved. He had confidence in this King, whose eyes spoke of wisdom and discernment.
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