Story Notes: It is the year 1420 in the reckoning of the Shire, at some point after the marriage of Samwise Gamgee to Rose Cotton, but before the harvest. Halfred Gamgee is visiting his brother. Fennel Brown is 9 years old in hobbit reckoning, which would be closer to 6 years by our counting. Hint: Ignore this equation unless you really care – it makes little sense. [For those with any interest, the equation used for this calculation is as follows: human-age x 33 ÷ 21 = hobbit-age (21 being the coming-of-age for humans, 33 that of hobbits. 18 may be substituted for 21)] Disclaimer: Tolkien owns everything except a few first names and the characters of Lettie Burrows, Sorrel Proudfoot, Fennel Brown, and Oakred & Laurel Boffin.

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"...An' the Elves, queer folk that they are, gave 'em an escort of five-an'-eighty warriors, all armed to the teeth, to take 'em straight to the Black Land."

"Ooh, how noble!" sighed Lettie Burrows. "What happened next, Teddy?"

From his perch on the center table, Ted Sandyman surveyed his captivated audience with glee. They were hanging onto his every word, most neglecting the drinks that the Green Dragon provided for those not yet come of age. This younger generation of hobbits was delightfully gullible.

"Then they marched clear through a tunnel under a mountain-"

"But why didn't they just climb over it?" interrupted Sorrel Proudfoot. "Them Elves is nimble enough!"

"Well, see," Ted improvised, "they live in a nice, warm valley, see? An' the mountain was covered in ice an' snow, so as they would chill their pretty toes on it."

There was a general nodding of heads. Clever Ted knew everything about Elves.

"So they had to fight a monster, a hundred feet high with great sharp claws! Them Elves jus' stepped back an' let it kill an old man, an' then they ran out through the back."

"All five-and-eighty?"

Ted glared in the general direction of the unidentified voice.

"Doncha know anythin'? Elves can run like lightnin' an' thunder when they have a mind to, 'specially when they're runnin' from foes!"

Voices were raised in chastisement for the foolish one. Ted raised his hands for silence.

"Steady on! Now, they stopped off in a forest made all of gold an' silver an' jools, an' the Queen Elf gave Frodo Baggins - our very own Nine-fingered Frodo..." He paused for effect; the others leaned forward eagerly. "A glass of star-juice!"

"What's star-juice?"

"Magick stuff, that's what! Old Frodo ought not to 'ave touched it, but 'e took it like a fool."

"My Dad says that Mr. Frodo's a hero!" little Fennel Brown piped up. The crowd murmured in agreement. Ted smiled condescendingly at the child, who blushed bright red and nearly dropped her mug of milk. Her older brother, Jimson, looked embarrassed.

"Yes, we all know Frodo's a hero an' all, but he's still a hobbit like us. He can make mistakes, too - made plenty of 'em, too!"

"What sort of mistakes?" came the chorus. Ted suppressed an evil chuckle as he plotted out Frodo's 'mistakes.'

"Well, to begin, he shouldn't never 'ave trusted that old wizard, what sent him on that Quest. Got strange powers, he has, an', by all accounts, he's more'n half an Elf."

"What else?"

"Well, 'e trusted that simpleton, Samwise, when 'e could've brought along a sensible hobbit."

"He should've brought you, Teddy," cooed Lettie. Ted tried to look modest as the crowd cheered.

"Well, I would've asked Frodo to take me with 'im, but that fool Sam whisked 'im off to Buckland afore I could say a word."

In the corner of the inn, Oakred Boffin glanced over at his companion.

"Why don't you stop 'im, Hal? It's your brother he's tellin' tales about!"

Halfred gazed moodily into his mug.

"Well, I reckon the fool's bound to trip himself with all those fancy tales of his, if we wait long enough. Anyhow, who'd believe me? He's their hero."

Oakred could only agree. The hobbits, most of them in their tweens or younger, looked to Ted as a mentor, the only one who could tell them everything about the strange new world just beyond Bree.

"So what else did Frodo do?" asked another young hobbit.

"Well, like I said, 'e 'ad to take that Ring to the Doom Mountain, far off in the east of the world, but the grand party of Elf Warriors took off with 'is magick cloak what the Elf Queen gave 'im-"

"Didn't the Queen Elf give 'im a glass of star-juice?" asked Fennel innocently.

Ted caught himself and explained, "That was another Elf Queen."

"Oh!" and Fennel fell silent.

"Now, where was I?"

"The Elves ran off!"

"Oh, right. Now, them Elves took Merry Brandybuck an' Pippin Took with them, an' made 'em great Lords, so as they wouldn't make a fuss about Frodo goin' to the Black Land with none but that halfwit Sam to go with 'im. The Elves taught 'em to talk to the trees, an' they're right queer even now!"

"Queerer than Mad Baggins?" asked a breathless young lass - Laurel Boffin. Oakred stirred and glared at Ted, who was beaming at the curious child.

"Queer as they come! They had some magick ale of the Elves, an' they're half-high as an elm!"

"Let's hear more about Nine-fingered Frodo!" begged Lettie, nearly on the table with Ted. "What happened when he reached the Doom Mountain?"

Ted took a deep breath before plunging into the truest lies he had ever invented.

"Well, Frodo an' Sam walked for miles an' miles an' miles, an' nearly died, I'll warrant. The Black Land is jus' full up with poisons an' evil creatures."

"And then what?"

"Then they clambered up the Doom Mountain, an' it's bigger'n a great tall tower, an' three times wider'n the biggest hill you ever saw."

"Then what happened?"

He had them riveted, mouths agape, drinks forgotten. He crouched on the tabletop, continuing with relish.

"Then they reached the very tip-top of the Mountain, an' there was a big crack for Frodo to drop the Ring in, but..."

The youngsters leaned forward with bated breath.

"...At the very last moment, he decided to keep the Ring an' use its magick all for himself."

There was a collective gasp. Oakred snorted softly, observing his daughter's shock.

"What happened then?" breathed Lettie. Ted straightened up, towering over them.

"Then a great warrior creature, Gollum, came an' cut off Frodo's finger with 'is great warrior sword."

"Ohhh!"

"An' then that tomfool Sam shoved the warrior into the crack in the mountain. The Ring fell into the fire inside the Mountain an' burst like fireworks!"

There was a long, awed silence. Not many of them had ever seen fireworks, but they had heard tales from their older siblings and parents, which, naturally, magnified the truth a great deal.

"Then what, Teddy?" Lettie asked fawningly.

"Well, then-"

A clear, ringing voice interrupted him.

"Ted Sandyman."

Ted turned to the door - and froze. Heads turned until all were looking in the same direction.

There, framed in the doorway, stood Frodo Baggins.

For a very long time, no one said a word.

At last, Frodo raised his piercing gaze to Ted's face. His blue eyes locked with Ted's brown ones; Ted was unable to move or look away.

At that moment, as many remembered for years afterwards, Frodo Baggins, standing in the doorway of the Green Dragon, seemed to be miles taller than Ted Sandyman on his table.

 "Oh, Ted, would you lead these lambs astray?"

Ted's throat constricted painfully. Lettie Burrows slowly backed away from the table.

After what seemed ages, Frodo sighed and looked at the floor. Ted gasped and nearly tumbled off the table.

The first one to move, oddly enough, was little Fennel Brown. Setting her mug carefully on Ted's table, she walked forward until she stood a foot away from Frodo.

"Hello, Mr. Frodo," she said respectfully, dropping a little curtsy. "Mr. Ted was just telling us about you." She looked at him in her childish innocence. "Did you really try to keep the Ring for yourself?"

Frodo gazed at her with great pain in his eyes. His voice was soft, yet it carried in the breathless silence.

"Yes, little one."

There were gasps from those not too transfixed to respond.

"Did Gollum cut off your finger?" asked the unruffled Fennel.

In reply, Frodo held up his right hand. Light from the open door shone through the gap between his second and fourth fingers.

"He used no knife or sword, but only his teeth."

"Then he wasn't a great warrior?"

"No." Frodo glanced at Ted, then back at his little questioner. "He was a sort of hobbit, but long had he dwelt in a cave beneath the Misty Mountains, and he was shriveled and stooped like an animal."

"Oh." Fennel smiled. "And Mr. Samwise didn't push him in."

"No."

"Then Mr. Ted must've heard wrong."

Some of the older patrons of the Green Dragon were able to laugh. The crowd of young hobbits remained silent, ashamed to have been fooled so easily.

"Mr. Frodo?"

"Yes, little one?"

"Are you a hero?"

Ted had recovered his wits enough to chuckle softly. How could Frodo answer the question without appearing either conceited or foolish?

Frodo knelt on one knee before the child.

"I am no hero." A ghost of a smile hovered on his lips. "I am just a hobbit, like you."

Fennel's smile broadened.

"That's all right." She took his maimed right hand. "You can be a hero, too."

A single tear rolled down Frodo's cheek. He kissed Fennel's hand softly.

"Thank you."

Releasing the child's hand, he stood, turned, and walked out - not with the stride of a conqueror, nor the step of a hero.

As Halfred told Samwise that evening, when he and Frodo had both returned to Bag End:

He just walked out, natural as you please, like he was just comin' home from a rowdy night at the inn...but I knew, watchin' him, that he would walk for a long time before he found his way home. I almost didn't think he'd come home at all.

To which Sam replied sorrowfully,

Knowing him, I don't think he has.

***

© 2002 SoF