of Rings III.
They didn't learn anything at all but how to hold the sword and how to stand, like this and like that, and there was so much holding and standing that before long his arms and legs were fair begging him to let them sit down and let go once and for all. Sam fought the tired trembling at his knees and elbows, all the while thinking to himself, Samwise Gamgee, your parts were clearly made for strolling slowly of a spring afternoon, not for fighting, and that is a fact.
Aragorn's sword fit so easily into his hands that watching him, it seemed that of course a body must stand just like that, and hold the blade just so. But of course, a body couldn't. It had all sorts of knees, feet and elbows that must be straightened, or bent, or tucked in or otherwise adjusted.
"Hurt?" said Aragorn, when the session was over. The hobbits had collapsed at the side of the hall, and were rubbing calves and thighs and flexing their cramping fingers.
"Yes," groaned Frodo.
"Not as much as you will when you wake up tomorrow." Aragorn sheathed his own sword, and nodded them in the direction of the equipment cupboard. "Well done."
"Oh, Sam!" cried Frodo, when they staggered out into the twilight. "I can't feel my legs at all!" But Frodo's eyes and cheeks were bright with colour.
The winding path to the Shire was new-lit with glowing lanterns, and the bare feet of the two hobbits slapped the dry dirt as they made their way back. It was a warm night. Beyond the gentle curve of the hillside, the homey lights of the Shire dormitory beckoned. Fatigue pulled heavily at Sam's limbs and the grass tickled his feet. Weariness had chased away all thoughts but those of food and a cosy fire, and tumbling into a welcoming bed.
But that was not what they found waiting for them.
They were late.
The Student Council met in a chamber that was far too big for the nine boys who sat small and hushed at the long table. Rough-hewn statues loomed unpleasantly from the corners, and thirty-foot ceilings and thick stone walls turned even a whisper into a sonorous echo. The only entrance was a massive set of ornately carved double doors. Boromir pushed them both open with a heave and a very particular expression before Legolas had a chance to stop him.
Seven faces swung to face them: three dwarves, two humans and two elves. The loud booming from the doors had frozen the council members in place. The elves were poised like elegant marble statues, the dwarves stony-faced granite.
"Yo," said Boromir.
Haldir's gaze met Legolas's and held it.
Boromir, for once swifter than the elf, threw himself down into the chair at the near end of the table, his smirk plain as he settled in, leaving Legolas with nowhere to sit but next to a dwarf.
The Student Council was a delicate balance of new alliances and old feuds. Legolas sat most reluctantly beside Dwalin, feeling hostility sweep over him, an urge to respond like a cat pressing ears to the back of his head.
"Way to go, Boromir," said Theodred, sitting back. He was the older of the other two humans on the Council, with a mop of sandy blond hair, amiable brown eyes and a spattering of freckles across his nose. Eomer, his cousin, was slight by comparison, his nose was smug and his sandy lashes were always lowered, giving the impression of shyness and slyness in equal measure. Both boys were "Rohan maniacs". They wore jodhpurs, crisp white shirts and riding jackets emblazoned with the Gondor house emblem and they spent almost all of their free time hanging around in Rohan, the area to the west of the school that housed the stable and riding courses.
"As the hour is late, and this council session almost at an end, we must choose replacements for Frerin and for Glorfindel. They are stepping down this term."
Legolas spread his fingers out on the table. Beneath them, the wood swirled in dark, concentric circles.
"Faramir," Legolas heard himself propose.
A human sniggered from the other side of the table; not Boromir, one of the cousins.
"Which House would he represent?" called Theodred, ignoring Boromir's murderous glare.
"Mirkwood," said Legolas. "That has never been in question."
"Legolas has nominated Faramir Halfelven," said Haldir, his face as carefully blank as his voice.
"I oppose," said Boromir, in a flat, harsh voice.
"And so do I," said Balin. "There are too many elves on the council, of late."
"Baggins," called one of the humans. "Bilbo's nephew. It's been a long time since there was a hobbit on the council."
"I have no objection to a hobbit," said Balin, gruffly.
"Nor I," said Boromir.
After a short silence, the name of Frodo Baggins was noted down.
Then Boromir leaned back in his chair and said, "Aragorn."
A flurry of looks; there was a twist at the edge of Boromir's wide mouth.
"There can be no objection from the elves," said Boromir. He gave Haldir a smug, insulting look. "Aragorn was raised in the house of Elrond."
Too bold: Boromir expected to get his way, but he was often careless, Legolas thought. Haldir said nothing, he simply watched and waited calmly, like Legolas, for there was no need to speak. Subtlety was an elven gift, and with his last comment, Boromir had miscalculated very badly.
"Are we to have members who are loyal to every house except Moria?" exploded Balin. "I object!"
"So do I," said Dwalin, taking his cue from his brother.
It was some time before Boromir and the dwarves stopped shouting at each other.
"There are other men more deserving." It was a human who spoke when the noise died down. Eomer.
"Name one," Boromir demanded, arms crossed.
"Grima," said Eomer, "has been recommended by the Headmaster."
Boromir’s face soured with disgust. "They call him Wormtongue," he said.
But Balin said, "I have no objection to Grima."
Under the name of Frodo Baggins, the name of Grima Galmodson was noted down.
Frodo had taken Sam's arm in his and drawn him off the path to walk on the soft grass. They ambled together tiredly, but happily enough, as every step brought them closer to home. There was no one out on the hillside, and though some muted noise filtered up from the dorms, it was, all in all, quiet. The sound of a door--their own door?--slamming shut was loud. Frodo and Sam exchanged looks when they heard it, fearing mischief, and they hurried the last few yards to their dormitory, where they stopped short.
Bilbo Baggins was outside the entrance to their dorm room, and he gave a great start of surprise he saw them round the hillside. "Frodo!" he said, almost guiltily.
"Bilbo," said Frodo, rather taken aback.
"And Samwise!" continued Bilbo. "I--I went in and saw you were out, and I was just leaving, you see, and I was going to, well."
The boys waited expectantly.
"The thing of it is," said Bilbo, "is that I came to . . . I came to . . . well, just to give you--to give you . . . " He trailed off. "But I . . . now that it comes to it, I . . ." He shook himself. "Don't you worry yourselves about it, boys." And then a cloud passed over his expression and he muttered to himself, "For why should I, if I don't wish to? What does he know about it, after all."
Though it was a balmy evening, and he was still warm from exertion, Frodo felt a sudden, familiar chill.
"Bilbo?" he said.
"Forgive me, Frodo. My mind's busy with a hundred different things."
Indeed, Bilbo was distracted as Frodo had never seen him. He was standing with his left hand thrust deep into the pocket of his waistcoat. He appeared to be twisting his fingers, as though he was playing with a stray thread.
A strange silence fell, and Frodo thought, he still did not know why Bilbo was here.
"My retirement's almost upon me you know, Frodo," said Bilbo. "I'm getting on in years. I may not look it, but I'm beginning to feel it. Not old, but thin and sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread."
Bilbo was old, but the strange thing was that at one hundred and eleventy years, he looked much the same as he had at fifty. There was a smiling black and white photograph of him in one of the school halls that had been taken almost sixty years previously, but if there was any difference in Bilbo's appearance, it was imperceptible. The staff called him well preserved, though unchanged would have been nearer the mark.
"It will be good to see the old towns again," continued Bilbo softly. "Bree and the Shire proper. To walk in the woods and to gaze out over the fields. And to write! Of course, I am going to finish my book, you know. I'm going to do all the things that I cannot do here at the school. I'm going to shake off this feeling . . . of a weight hanging around my neck . . . "
He smiled and seemed to return to his usual self. "But it's seeing you at Rivendell, Frodo, and you Sam, that's the best I could have hoped for. Why Thranduil of the Five Armies has a son here. Do you know the story of his battle? Why don't we settle ourselves in for some tea and I'll tell you. I was there, you know. I'm planning to put it in my book."
"The thing is, we just came from sword circle," said Frodo awkwardly. He was pleased to see Bilbo, but he was tired all the way down to his bones, and Bilbo had a habit of waxing long on any number of subjects, his book and his schooldays foremost among them. Even Sam, who was usually eager to hear any of the old tales as they might involve elves, was shifting from one foot to the other uncomfortably.
And beneath that was a further reluctance which was tied up in the cold, and the strange way that Bilbo was acting.
Bilbo's face fell. "I see. I see. Well, yes, of course, you must be tired." Bilbo hid his reaction as best he could, but Frodo immediately felt rotten. "We can talk another night. There's plenty of time before I leave. Plenty of time. You boys get some rest."
"I didn't mean--" said Frodo.
"Nonsense. Supper and sleep for the both of you."
Frodo bit his lip. The boys watched Bilbo until he had disappeared around the turn in the path.
"It's too late for supper," said Sam in a dismal voice.
Frodo spoke slowly. "Sam, when Bilbo was talking, did you feel anything strange?"
"Feel anything strange?" Sam looked at him uncertainly.
"Like . . . cold. Or like being watched."
"Watched!" said Sam, and now he looked truly spooked.
The lush green grass of the hillside was dark with the oncoming night. It rustled at the cold touch of the wind, no longer welcoming.
"Let's go inside," said Sam.
Frodo was still lost in thought. "It felt so . . . "
"Didn't Gandalf tell you that if there was any trouble, you could trust the Student Council?" said Sam.
"Well, there you are then," said Sam, relieved. "Even if there were some trouble about, we needn't worry. There's elves and all sorts of good folk on the Council."
"I suppose you're right, Sam. Still, it does seem queer," said Frodo. He drew out the steel ring from which his dorm keys dangled, and set about unlocking the door. "And what do you suppose Bilbo meant when he said he was going to give us something?"
"Cakes!" exclaimed Sam as the door swung open, and indeed the table in the centre of the room was piled high with a terrific assortment of cakes, and a warm pot of tea was brewing.