Disclaimer: Not mine. Sigh! I borrow these characters for my own amusement and promise to give them back unharmed.

SPIRIT AT THE FEAST

Brandywine Bridge

S.R. 1436

There hadn't been a sight like this seen in the Shire since Old Bilbo's birthday party. Not that it was strictly in the Shire.

The meadows beyond the Brandywine Bridge had been transformed into a tented city. A week ago a party of soldiers and artisans had clattered along the East Road from Bree and under the watchful eyes of the Thain and the Master the pastoral farmland had been transformed. Now, on a rise above an open field the Royal Pavilions stood proud, banners and flags wafting in the gentle spring sunshine.

Two days ago the guests had started arriving, the early trickle soon turning to a constant stream as the citizens of the Shire crossed the bridge clutching their Royal summons'. As far as possible each family had received a personal invitation and, to ensure that no one was overlooked, a proclamation had been posted in each village and hamlet.

The Counselors of the North-Kingdom and their families were afforded special honour and escorted to the Royal Pavilion to be greeted as special guests by King and Queen and other friends in the Royal Entourage.

With the feast consumed and the official presentations of the evening completed the gathered throng listened in rapt attention to the King's Minstrel as he sang the Ballad of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom. And with the authority of the King to give credence to the tale the enormity of the quest and the price paid by Ring–bearer was finally brought home to the good citizens of the Shire. Mayor Samwise wiped the tears from his cheeks even as he beamed with joy that his beloved friend was finally receiving the acclaim that had been so long denied.

Wine and ale flowed freely and the musicians played long into the night, keeping the 'tweens and the adults dancing and reeling.

From his place at the high table King Elessar watched with quiet joy as the Shire folk enjoyed the celebrations. He saw Merry flirting with Éowyn only to be chased away with mock displeasure by Faramir. He saw Pippin teaching his own son, Faramir, how to dance a reel and he watched as Samwise shepherded his growing brood with a firm but gentle hand.

In all his long, lonely years as a Ranger protecting and guarding the Shire this was what he had been fighting for. That the Hobbits of the Shire and all the other free peoples of Middle-earth should have the freedom to live in peace and prosperity. And now fourteen years into his reign he could see that the worst of the destruction and grief of the dark times had finally been erased.

And this was all down to a gentle-hearted, stubborn Hobbit who had struggled beyond hope and endurance to achieve the impossible.

The tears and the overwhelming tide of grief took the King by surprise and he turned away to hide his distress. In the darkness only one saw his pain and guessed as to its cause. Sturdy, callused fingers wiped the tears from his cheek and patted his shoulder in comfort until the storm of his grief stilled.

"Frodo?" it was an acknowledgement rather than a question. The King nodded, bestowing a weak smile on his small comforter.

"Ay, it catches me like that sometimes, too. Not so often these days but there is never a day goes by that he is not in my thoughts. Most often it's happy memories but they catch me just the same."

"I'm sorry Sam. I should not have burdened you with my sadness."

"Now that's just daft! Who better than me?" Sam chided gently.

"All these years and he is still as dear to my heart as ever. In my head I've known that he was gone but my heart still pictures him here in his beloved Shire." Aragorn struggled to put his thoughts into words. "I see you all happy and content, the Shire thriving under your Stewardship and the unfairness of his sacrifice cuts me deeply."

"Aragorn," said Sam, speaking to his friend rather than his King, "it was not your fault. It wasn't anybody's fault. I think he made his peace with his fate before he left for the Havens. He was sad to go but he left with the hope of finding peace and healing."

"And how did you find your peace, Sam?"

"Time, plus the love and support of my friends and family and the knowledge that one day we would be together again!" said Sam with a sad smile.

"You sound so sure."

"I am sure. I was a ring-bearer too and when the time is right a ship will be waiting for me. Lord Elrond vowed to me that he would look after him and keep him safe until I was back by his side." The King smiled at his certainty and at the confidence that now cloaked him like a mantle. He hugged the Hobbit to his breast.

"Thank you, Sam, you have given me comfort. Tell me, my wise friend, how do you remember him?"

"Oh, that's easy…I picture him as he was at Bilbo's party; playing host, handing out mugs full of foaming ale, dancing with joyful abandon, teasing the lassies, his eyes full of starlight and laughter and his face glowing with his own special light…" Sam swallowed against the lump in his throat. "…that's how I remember him best. That was Frodo as he should have been if fate had not shadowed his path." Aragorn nodded in understanding.

"Sire, are you well?" The Steward's concerned enquiry brought the two friends back to the present.

"Thank you, Faramir. I am quite well. Sam was just putting me to rights with some Hobbit common-sense."

"You look tired, Sire. Are you ready to retire?"

"In a moment, Mother!" the King teased his Steward and very good friend.

"Don't make me set Arwen on you again, Sire! You still have the bruises from last time!" came the swift rejoinder. "I will bid you good night, Samwise."

"Good night to you too, Faramir. It has been a wonderful day." With a last hug of farewell Sam took his leave of the King and the Steward.

Left alone the King turned back for one last look at the revels.

On the edge of the firelight he caught just the glimpse of a small figure in the flickering shadows. The face was familiar and yet not.

The youthful and unlined features were lit with an inner glow and a smile of piercing beauty and serenity was bestowed upon him. The figure raised a maimed hand to his lips and placed it above his heart in a silent salute. The head was cocked to one side making the ebony curls dance in the firelight and the King could have sworn that the midnight blue eyes winked.

The King rose to his feet and bowed his head to the figure but when he looked up the figure was gone.

"Fare you well, Frodo Baggins," said the King with a smile in his heart. "May the Valar watch over you and keep you safe until you are reunited with he who loves you best."

Seasons greetings to one and all