Elladan and Elrohir were the first of those sent out to return to the King's camp at Cormallen. After making their report to Aragorn they went up to the fortress, along with Pippin who carried their request to see Sam.
"Me?" Sam echoed startled.
"None other." Pippin grinned.
Sam looked to Frodo for help. "But why?"
"Let's ask them in and find out." his master suggested.
They were in Frodo's chamber playing backgammon, a comfortingly familiar pastime that made them both feel more like their old selves. The entry of the Half-Elven brothers rather broke the spell reminding both Ringbearers sharply of where they were and who they had become.
Still that wasn't Elladan and Elrohir's fault and Frodo asked them politely to sit and offered wine. Pippin set the chairs and filled the goblets like the well trained esquire he'd become.
"But of course it's Sam, you've come to see." Frodo said once they were all settled, cups in hand.
Elladan smiled at the nervous Hobbit. "Indeed yes. Aragorn sent us to finish off Shelob, knowing that Samwise had left her wounded and we were unlikely to get a better chance to put and end to her."
Sam and Frodo both winced, remembering Shelob's dark, web filled tunnels.
"Poor you!" said Pippin sympathetically, standing behind Frodo's chair like a proper esquire - but speaking out like the impulsive Hobbit he still was.
"Not at all." Elrohir laughed. "When we tracked Shelob to her lair we found there was nothing for us to do. She had died some time before of the wounds you gave her, Samwise."
"Did she?" Sam asked wonderingly. "Well that is a bit of surprise. I knew I'd gotten at least one good thrust into her but she scrambled away so fast I didn't think it was mortal. She went, that was enough for me!"
"Quite so." Elladan agreed, smiling. "You had other, heavier concerns. Still it is a great feat, worthy of song."
"Yes." Frodo put in. "We must add 'Spider Bane' to your titles 'Samwise the Strong' Ringbearer!"
When King Eomer and his horsemen rode back into the camp at Cormallen a week or so later Pippin was right there to meet them - or rather Merry, riding on his pony Stybba next to the banner bearer right behind the King. Pippin went forward to stand at his cousin's stirrup as he dismounted.
"How did it go?"
"Smooth as you please." Merry replied cheerfully. "Excuse me." he moved Pippin aside to ask Eomer. "Will you be needing me, my Lord?"
The young King gave them both a smile. "No. You are free to trade war stories with your good cousin, Sir Holdwine. Be sure you do our deeds justice!"
"No fear of that, sir!" Merry replied grinning. Then he and Pippin went off to enjoy a pipe and a chat as Eomer and his lieutenants disappeared into Aragorn's tent.
"This southern stuff isn't bad, but it's not Longbottom leaf." Merry remarked casually as he took his first puff.
"To think they use it for moth repellant!" Pippin said, shaking his head.
"And tea for medicine. The Gondorim are an odd lot, no mistaking." Merry agreed, but indulgently as one comments on the eccentricities of a friend.
"So, what did you lot do to the Southrons?"
Merry's grin broadened. "It was easy as you please. The Swarthy Men are still spooked by the fall of Barad-dur it wasn't hard to make them run, in fact I'm surprised somebody managed to make them stand! Eomer was very clever, he divided us up into little bands hitting the enemy one after another so they thought there were a whole lot more of us then there were.
"They had this big camp at the crossroads - you remember the place - about six thousand all told Eomer said, three times our number, but we stampeded them into running like rabbits just the same! They left their tents and other goods behind and I picked up a few souvenirs, including a little ivory oliphant for Sam."
"He'll appreciate that." Pippin's grin faded. "Merry, do you ever look around and think 'what am I doing here?'"
His cousin smiled crookedly. "All the time. We're a long way from the Shire and Farmer Maggot's vegetable garden."
Pippin's grin reappeared at the memory. "Poor old, Maggot. We really shouldn't have done that, Merry."
"No we shouldn't have. We'll make it up to him when we get back."
"I wonder how many silver pennies ten or fifteen years of garden raiding are worth." Pippin wondered ruefully.
"Don't worry, he'll know!" Merry retorted and they both laughed.
"Funny I never thought it was wrong to steal vegetables from Farmer Maggot before." Pippin mused. "I guess Legolas was right about us all being changed, not just Frodo and Sam."
"Of course he is. You remember how he and Gimli could scarcely exchange a civil word back at the beginning, now look at them thick as thieves! Gandalf's certainly different -"
"Being dead will do that to you I guess." Pippin chirped pertly.
"Right. And even old Strider's taken to combing his hair!" they shared another laugh, then Merry said more seriously. "As for you and me, Pip, I think we've grown up."
"I suppose that's it." his cousin agreed. "And about time too, my Dad would say."
"Mine too. I wonder what he and Uncle Paladin will have to say about all this."
"Probably won't believe the half of it." said Pippin.
"Probably not." Merry agreed.
Gimli was the last to return to the camp at Cormallen. He had with him a train of Dwarves and Men of Dale but neither wagons nor pack ponies to the puzzlement of the two Hobbits who went to meet him.
"Strider said you went to get gold to help him pay for rebuilding Minas Tirith." said Pippin as the Dwarf dismounted.
Gimli laughed. "So he did, young Hobbit." his eyes twinkled. "Surely you weren't expecting me to take a treasure train through country so disturbed? I have brought a sealed draft for thirty thousands hundredweight of gold from Dain and the treasure masters to the King and two score stonemasons and metal smiths to help put his city in order."
"Thirty thousands!" Merry echoed, eyes popping.
"A small advance." Gimli said, well pleased by his reaction. "The Dwarves always pay their debts, Sir Meriadoc. Always. Now, where is Aragorn?"
The King was not in camp that day, Pippin explained. He had gone up to Cair Andros to see the several dozen Eastern and Southron leaders taken in battle settled in their quarters. "They'll be more secure and more isolated up there. We were always having incidents with them in camp."
"I don't doubt it. And Legolas?"
"He's at the fortress too." said Pippin. "He'll be glad to see you."
Gimli humphed, looking at once pleased and embarrassed. "I'll be glad to see him too - but don't tell him I said so!"
"Never." Pippin promised grinning.
"Wouldn't dream of it." added Merry, keeping a straight face with some difficulty.
Frodo and Sam walked into the King's hall, on their way from the herb court to their chambers, and found it full of Dwarves with a sprinkling of stocky, fair haired men who looked somewhat like the Rohirrim. (1) The two Ringbearers exchanged surprised glances then worked their way forward towards the dais where Aragorn's head could be seen towering over the shorter folk around him, with Legolas' golden poll just behind him. When they arrived at the fore front of the crowd the Hobbits saw the King had Merry and Pippin with him too and good old Gimli.
"So that's where all these Dwarves came from." Sam breathed in Frodo's ear.
"We thank you heartily for coming to our aid," Aragorn was saying over Gimli's head to the Men and Dwarves behind him. "and will gladly make full use of your skills when we return to our capital." then he looked down again at Gimli. "In the meantime this fortress has taken some battle damage and I have no craftsmen of my own to put it right."
The Dwarf chuckled. "Good. It will help us pass the time. I take it we'll be quartered up here then?"
"Of course." Aragorn smiled. "I don't doubt your folk will find stone rooms more welcoming than tent walls."
"Absolutely." said Gimli cheerfully. "Personally I've had enough open air and greenery to last a lifetime!"
Legolas snorted but said nothing.
Gimli grinned, pleased that his shot had gone home, then turned and saw Frodo and Sam standing below the dais. "Ah, Ringbearer - and Sam - you're looking well."
"Thank you. We're feeling much better too." Frodo answered. Obeying a gesture from Aragorn he and Sam climbed the steps of the dais to join their companions.
"I have something for you, or rather for old Bilbo." Gimli took a small, leaden casket from a pouch on his belt and offered it to Frodo. He opened it and gasped.
Inside was a great white jewel, round and faceted gathering all the light in the hall and sending it back in rainbow reflections that danced over Frodo's dazzled face. After a long moment he tore his eyes away to look at Gimli. "Not - not the Arkenstone!"
The Dwarf smiled, shaking his head. "Oh no. The Heart of the Mountain still bides on the breast of King Thorin. My father and uncles made this jewel by ancient, secret arts for their valiant burglar." (2)
"It's wonderful!" said Merry pushing closer for a better look. Pippin and Sam nodded emphatic agreement and even Legolas looked impressed.
Gimli beamed. "It was long in the making with many false starts, and then these troubles kept us from sending it before."
"I'm sure Bilbo will love it." Frodo said earnestly. "He's often described the Arkenstone to me and regretted he'd never see it again."
Gimli both smiled and sighed. "It's not a patch on the true stone," he confessed, "being but a work of Dwarf craft and not from the hand of the Great Maker as the Arkenstone is. Still my father and uncles hope Bilbo will treasure it for old times sake - and as a token of the gratitude of the Kingdom under the Mountain."
"I know he will." said Frodo.
Later in his room Frodo took the stone from its casket and held it up to the window to sparkle blindingly in the sunlight. It wasn't quite so big as the Arkenstone, having been made to fit comfortably into a Hobbit palm, but it was hard for him to believe any stone could be more beautiful. 'Bilbo will love it.' he said again to himself.
A sudden fear struck him and his hand closed tightly around the gem. What of Bilbo? What had the destruction of the Ring done to him who had born it for so long? 'But he gave it up.' Frodo admonished himself. 'It no longer affected him, Gandalf said so. He'll be fine - he must be!' Forcing himself back to calmness he put the stone away in its chest. Then looking at his palm saw his spasmodic grip had imprinted the facets of the jewel on his palm like a little circle of net. It reminded him of something he'd seen - and recently too - then it came to him. The mark on his palm was almost identical to the faded white scars on Tal-argan's.
Frodo stood, staring at his hand, mind racing to an almost unbelievable conclusion. It couldn't be - but if it was it would certainly explain the Old Elf's mystery.
1. The Men of Dale and the Long Lakers are said by Tolkien to be descended from the Northmen like the Rohirrim.
2. These were most likely learned from Noldorin craftsmen in the First or Second Age.