“…Yet beneath the sun, all things must wear to an end at last.”

heo Brandybuck let himself out the front door of Brandy Hall—the one closest his father’s study—smiling a little at the bargain he had just struck with his youngest child. Actually, they had not struck a bargain; Eirien had simply dictated the terms of his pardon. She would ride with him to Bucklebury this afternoon, in her very prettiest dress, on his very fiercest pony, to make up for the fact that she had not been allowed to go to Haysend; and in Bucklebury she would have a copper penny all her own and buy a little honeycomb and a hair-ribbon and thereafter accompany her handsome father on whatever business he was about for the rest of the day.

Theo shook his head at the way Eirien had so prettily and passionately pressed her suit. His father was right: she was a Brandybuck through and through, bold and fearless and hungry for tangible experience of the world, as if she learned through her fingertips rather than with eyes and ears. Faith, had she not come home covered in mud just yesterday? It was not enough for Eirien to look on the river; she must all but fall into it, and taste it and smell it and grabble in the shallows and bring away anything her busy little fingers came upon. He thought his father must have been much the same—his whole life spoke to it, didn’t it, (not to mention all those jars)?—absorbing life through the soles of his feet and the palms of his hands and glowing with the joy of it.

It grieved Theo that he was not more like his father—there was no question that he had not that dazzling, quicksilver way of thinking and acting on inspired impulse. His father had never said anything about it, but Theo knew himself to be lacking. It was for this reason that he so often deferred to his father’s authority; that he was willing to remain in the background even so far as his opinion was concerned, for as long as his father was hearty and well and willing to shoulder the management of Buckland himself. There would be plenty of time for Buckland to get used to Theo’s more pedestrian manner, but as long as they could continue to celebrate Meriadoc the Magnificent, Theo was content to wait in the shadows.

He smiled, though, to think of what he had learned of Uncle Fredegar last night; he had been surprised at how great a weight had lifted from his heart on hearing that story, and surprised also to hear that Uncle Freddy had contrived to have a few rather impressive adventures of his own once upon a time, right there in the Shire. He was sure the story had never been told before, and equally sure he knew why: Uncle Freddy had forbidden it for as long as he lived, not wanting to create a sensation around himself, or worse, to be thought odd. He had done what he had to do, and no excuses, but later, he had been a little shocked at himself. It was a very Bolger-ish sort of reaction to have; Theo himself often felt that way, when he was forced to do something particularly Brandybuck in nature to please Bo or support his father in some undertaking or other. But almost it seemed as if last night Father had said to him, “It’s all right, you know,” to be more Bolger than Brandybuck, and this made him feel quite warm with happiness.

He closed the door behind him quietly and went down the stone steps, crossing the wide arc of the lawn, on a path for the woods. He made a very tidy and acceptable appearance, his fawn-coloured waistcoat blending without discernible comment with his soft brown tweed jacket, linen shirt and trousers. He recalled the waistcoat his father had been wearing this morning and grinned affectionately—here was more dazzle and quicksilver: an extraordinary blue-green silk brocade affair that actually shimmered in the morning sunlight! The silk had come all the way from Gondor, a birthday gift from the King and Queen, who knew his fondness for flamboyant colours. Theo reflected now that while Eirien (and Bo as well) might have inherited Merry Brandybuck’s keen awareness and enthusiasm for life, no one save Meriadoc the Magnificent could—or would!—wear such a waistcoat in the Shire!

The Tree rose majestically on the boundary of the woods, high and wide, with a canopy so dense that the slanting sun seemed only to skim the surface before it glanced away again. Beyond, the rest of the wood was glowing with the new day, but the broad circle of the Tree was like a black umbrella in a shower of sunlight. Theo, standing on the rise where the path went down into the wood, marked the shadow and saw his father standing in the covert. All his senses poised in sudden rapt attention, for even at such a distance he could see by his father’s posture that he was distressed. There rushed to his mind abruptly Bo’s startling account of what had happened yesterday in the aftermath of the letter from Rohan:

“Faith, Theo, never have we seen our father so! Lost he was, in all his long years, and heartbroken to find that they had come and gone while he denied their passing—and now to see his times ending, and all his losses piling up! For the first time in my life, I own I was afraid for him—for Father! But then he came round again and made such a sweet apology and smiled and took up Mother’s pictures to show Jamy the face of Éomer King….”

The sun was in Theo’s eyes as he watched his father come out from the shelter of the Tree and drop down on the little stone bench in the sunlight across the path, faltering uncharacteristically for a handhold and suddenly seeming very old. Theo squinted hard for a moment and then he started forward with a sudden urgent sense that he was needed.

he Master of the Hall had come up from his errand to the ferry through the woods, glad to mark that the early morning chill had passed. It was yet early in the day, the sunlight filtering through the trees was bright and at its touch the new leaves blazed forth in every hue of green, and the birds grew bold in song. Here and there at his feet alongside the path spread dark green patches of trillium with small, wine-colored blooms—one of the woodland wildflowers that he and Estella had so carefully catalogued once upon a time when they were courting. He knelt to look at them, to touch them for the wistful memories they stirred in him, and the sun warmed his hair and his shoulders. The rising warmth of the land pleased him. He thought of the wide fields of Buckland and the orchards and all the little gardens of the Shire round about and he was encouraged; if this kept up, it would be a rousing spring and summer and a fine harvest to follow—a good year for all his folk.

The path followed the rise of the hill and at the top he could glimpse the Tree, ancient in splendor, defiant as he was in the face of years and the seeming callous judgment of nature. He looked at the soaring canopy as he paced along, and thought of all the years the Tree had stood and what it had meant to seven generations of Brandybucks—the ageless standard-bearer of a plucky and reckless folk, unique in the Shire, and elsewhere, too.

As he followed the gentle slope of the path upward his thoughts turned to Theo and the absorbing plan that had been forming little by little in his mind since he had first read Éomer’s letter. It could be done, and there was no reason why it should not be! Theo was a fine manager, equal to the demands of Buckland and the Hall. He was shrewd and thorough and well liked, and if he wasn’t as hasty and reckless as most of his Brandybuck forebears it hardly mattered because the rest of Buckland was, and the Master’s job was more often than not one of deciding how far folk could go before recklessness overwhelmed the common good. When it came to defining moderation, Theo had no equal in the Eastmarch; and as quiet as he was, the Master had often seen folk look to him for his opinion in common disputes. He was clever and thoughtful, and could be surprisingly plucky when the situation called for it, so that it mattered not at all that he had none of the sparkling eccentricity of the Magnificent, or the deeply elemental qualities that banked his brother’s still-water nature. Still, the Master knew these things mattered to Theo, which was why he had given Freddy his due the night before.

He was disquieted this morning, though, for he had come to realize yesterday that Theo displayed a curious amount of reluctance for the Heir to Brandy Hall. To be sure, the Master, always busy in his mind, had never really marked this as something to be pondered until the considered destruction of the Tree had forced his ill-considered outcry yesterday and Theo had so hastily backed away from the quarrel. Thinking it over, the Master saw Theo had obviously done this not only against his better judgment, but in blatant contradiction of his common sense as well—for the destruction of the Hall was not something to be dismissed so lightly and impatiently as he himself had done, awash in grief and anger. Theo had been thinking of the Hall yesterday, as a good Master ought whose first concern should always be his folk. Yet he had retreated in the face of his father’s displeasure, and his father—the Master was fully prepared to admit it—had been completely wrong. He wondered suddenly why Theo was so reluctant to put himself forward; certainly he was far more credible an Heir than the Master himself had ever been….

He remembered his own entry into The Inheritance: ruefully, he considered now that like the rest of his life—so unlike Theo’s—it had not followed a predictable course. Whereas the Masters of the Hall before him had succeeded one upon the other with years of groundwork laid behind them, it had not been so with him. A deeply cherished only child who grew into an eager, headstrong youth, he had been loath to give himself over to the Hall too soon, before he had drunk his fill of the world as he knew it. Clever and easily bored, he had ever looked for something more exciting to do. To be sure, he worked as hard as he played, but he played more often than not, and with Pippin and Freddy (Fatty that was) and Folco Boffin (uncle of the clever, red-headed Tansy) and Frodo (when they importuned his too often tender indulgence) he had enjoyed pretty much a free run of the Shire roundabout Buckland and the Green Hills and Hobbiton, long past his coming-of-age.

His father, who had watched over the Hall for a good number of years and found that quite the easiest thing in the world to do, found Merry something else again: he was hard-put to tame his son’s uncommon spirit and after a time gave up the mostly useless commotion that came of bashing heads with him. Saradoc allowed with a sigh that the Hall would come to the boy soon enough anyway, and as long as he didn’t play truant too often, and helped with the planting and the harvest and saw to his proscribed duties as the Heir in between, it shouldn’t matter if he didn’t sit in conference day by day with his father learning every trick of the trade. This explanation he impressed upon a number of curious relations and neighbours, but he was not above hoping to exact a little gentle revenge in the end. He was confident that if he waited patiently, he would live to see Merry find himself in sobering straits one day—as indeed he had, though not the sort anyone could ever have imagined.

One look into his son’s eyes when they met on the road to Bywater told Saradoc Brandybuck more than he needed to know about Merry’s trials in the year just past, and made it clear to him how it must be for the boy now, so lately come of war and wreckage and what appeared to be a painful loss of innocence—and so alone, save for the other three (who looked much the same), in counting up the costs. His heart was wrung with pity; nonetheless he made a shrewd assessment and set aside tradition to allow for Merry’s trouble.

“I judge you need some time, lad,” he said, noting that the blue fire that once had fueled Merry’s wildest and most ill-conceived exploits now consumed him in quite another fashion. “You’ll want to get squared to the habits of the Shire again, and I shan’t stand in your way. Do what you have to do; you’ve a few years left before I’ll have done with the Hall, and I warrant you’ve come by more sense in this enterprise than I could ever teach you, anyway.”

Gratefully, he had taken the time to get square. He threw himself into the Reconstruction, and afterwards taught the Watch a thing or two about tactics and defense; he saw Sam and Rosie married, and Frodo away to the Havens; and he traveled again to Rivendell, where in the library of the Last Homely House he bent for long hours over the histories of the Elves and the Men of Númenor and all the struggles of the Ages, trying to understand the part he and the others had played in the ongoing story of Middle Earth, and how it had come about and why. In this he was driven by a deep and pressing need to

know, as if this would somehow validate the enormous departure he had taken from the quiet life of the Shire, the effects of which he knew would frame his life forever.

Then he and Pippin found themselves racketing through the North Farthing and Diamond of Long Cleeve had looked on Pippin and he on her, and in an instant everything had changed. The heart-songs that had bound them in harmony and counterpoint all their lives diverged and to Pippin’s was added a new theme that Merry could not follow. Pippin had always done everything before the beat, and falling in love proved to be no exception. Years before anyone looked for it—much in the same way Theo had done later—Pippin had found and spoken for the girl he would marry, and he wasted little time in settling down to the idea of being married, even if he was forced by two parental decrees to wait a few years before he actually did it. Pippin’s trips to the North Farthing were frequent during this time, and his attentions necessarily diverted for the most part, and for good reason.

Merry loved Diamond—as rare and startling a combination of beauty and ingenuity as he had ever met in or out of the Shire—and he was more than satisfied to see how much she cared for Pippin and how she surprised and delighted his cousin at every turn. He stood Pippin’s second at their joyous wedding (as notable an assemblage of Tooks and North-tooks as ever gathered in the Shire) and delivered a sincere and memorable toast to happiness lifelong—and then suddenly he found himself alone. Not cast out, to be sure, or even nudged, for that matter, for Diamond—sensitive to the way her coming had transformed a deep and abiding friendship of so many years’ duration and shared experience—made every effort to draw him often and lovingly to Tuckborough, and Pippin looked for him as often as ever and welcomed him always with gladness.

Still, for all their kindnesses, he found himself left behind in a way he had never anticipated, and for the first time in his life he felt lonely, and out of place. It occurred to him that he was seven years Pippin’s elder and that perhaps he ought to be seeing to finding a wife himself. He knew a great many young ladies, but no matter how many he danced with, or took into dinner, or accompanied to picnics and festivals and birthday parties, there was not one who took his breath away the way Diamond did Pippin’s, and he wanted that, if he was to be married. He wanted to be in love.

But no love materialized, and he judged then he might take Bilbo Baggins as his model, and so set about being a rather colourful bachelor, which he did with great style for a year or more, reading and writing and studying plants and trees and history with enormous concentration until at last he wore out and began to find himself rather at loose ends again. This time he determined that he must get away altogether for a while. Pippin protested his going with real dismay, and Sam, sitting already in the Mayor’s chair, frowned and shook his head unhappily before writing out a kind greeting for Merry to carry to the King. At Brandy Hall, the Old Master sighed and nodded assent, but told him not to be too long about it, and his mother took his face into her hands and looked at him searchingly for a long moment before she bestowed upon him a gentle kiss goodbye. He packed his bags and stole away to Gondor.

For a year he lived on the heights, always quick and ready to work or be of use, delving into the Archives in Minas Tirith as he set about writing a Book of Years, invited to sit in council with the King and his advisors, visiting the beautiful white house in Ithilien, where lived Eowyn of Rohan, wed in great happiness with Faramir of Gondor, both of whom he loved. In Ithilien he saw also his friends Legolas and Gimli, and enjoyed much talk with them, and when Gimli said that soon he would be making for Aglarond, close upon Rohan, Merry was of a mind to go with him and see again his friends at Édoras.

In Édoras he learned to ride like a true Rohirrim, and to throw a spear, and he listened to the songs and ancient tales of Rohan, and marveled to realize how close in origin were the languages of the Shire and the Horse-lords. He and Éomer King argued happily the notion that long ago the Rohirrim must have known hobbits in the north and been able to speak with them in some like tongue, and he had begun to make notes for a book on this subject when an outrider appeared at the court one afternoon and delivered to him a slim packet which had been handed over at the Fords of Isen by a King’s Ranger who had been requested to carry it in some haste from Bree.

There were two letters within and his hands trembled as he slipped them out. The first was from Pippin and brought tears to his eyes: Merry! I have a son! How absurdly beautiful he is, and how very noisy, and how I long for you to meet him! You must come home now, for we cannot celebrate his Naming Day without you. Please come, Merry, we miss you so much….

The second was from his mother. Esmeralda brooked neither etiquette nor fond remonstrance. Enough! she wrote in her swooping Tookish script. Your father is failing. Come home.

He went home and begged his father’s pardon. Scattergold had indeed suffered an alarming setback, and though he was not yet in danger of dying, he blessed his son’s return with troubling frailty and suggested hopefully that perhaps they would do well now to put their heads together over the inescapable matters of succession. Merry would have sat down immediately, but the old hobbit grunted and stayed his hand.

“Not today, lad,” he said. “There’s other business pressing. Be off to Tuckborough first, for young Peregrin has suffered your absence long enough. Mind, he’s taken up his duties as Heir with what some might call remarkable seriousness (though I always knew he’d follow Paladin right enough), and he’s a beautiful wife and a handsome little lad there—according to your mother, who’s gone to look—but you were ever brothers at the heart of it, Merry, and it’s no secret he’s missed you something terrible. Now, unless I’m blind, along with everything else that plagues me, I’d say you’ve missed him too, so get along to the Smials and beg his pardon and carry the best wishes of Buckland and the Hall to his good wife and son!”

He was welcomed at Tuckborough with more affection than he deserved. Pippin swept him into such a glad embrace that he was ashamed to think he had stayed away so long, and Diamond left tears bright as her name on his waistcoat, where her cheek rested when she came into his arms. “Please forgive me, Merry,” she begged in deep distress. “I never meant to part you from him, nor he to make you feel you had not always a place with him—or with us! You are our dearest friend and brother; I pray you will tell us if we do aught to hurt you again!”

“Nay, Diamond,” he returned, tipping up her face so that she could see his own remorse. “The fault for this is mine. The hurt came not from you, but from my own bewilderment; I did not know what to do with myself when Pippin grew up ahead of me. But I shan’t ever go away again for long; indeed I think you may grow tired of seeing my overlong shadow in your doorway, my dear!” He smiled and stooped to kiss her and then reached for Pippin’s arm. “Now, where’s this fellow I’m supposed to meet, eh? What’s his name? Pippin, I hope you remember that I told you once that little Merry Gamgee ought to be quite enough by way of namesakes. I’m sorry, my lad, but Sam beat you to it, and anyway, it seems to me that ‘Merry Took’ is just asking for trouble!”

“Well do I know that!” sighed Pippin regretfully, though his eyes shone with happiness when he looked at Merry. “That being the case, we had to make do with next-best. I hope you will approve; I think you will! His name is Faramir.”

Small Faramir was given into Merry’s arms for his Naming ceremony, and his ‘uncle’ was surprised to find that a babe-in-arms was rather a more comfortable and interesting thing than he had imagined. Indeed, Pippin’s little son already promised to be as quick and lively as Pippin had always been. He had a small, handsome face that was crowned with a silky little cap of black ringlets like his mother’s, and while the tint of his eyes was still indeterminate, Merry guessed they would soon be the same sunny green as Pippin’s, to match the impish smile that came from that quarter as well. As the crowd raised their cups to the little fellow’s health and long life and the wide-eyed infant looked up at him with the same sweet gravity he had been used to see in Pippin’s face when they were very young, Merry found himself charmed beyond all expectation. And as if to secure his approval, the baby danced upon his knees, seizing his fingers in a small, urgent grip and pulling himself upright again and again on his tiny furry feet, until at last he sat down with a gurgle and a laugh and fell into the crook of Merry’s arm where he promptly went to sleep. Merry gazed at the peaceful little face with something akin to wonder. Who would have thought to see it? Pippin’s own son!

“Well, I think you are well-named, Faramir,” he observed quietly, “and well-sired, too, for there is no hobbit in the Shire can equal your father’s sweet and open-hearted kindness. Fair you will be, I am sure of it: not only of face, but of temper, too.” He laughed softly. “Shall I call you that? I think I shall: Fair Took, for Faramir, son of Peregrin!”

In the evening, while the guests danced on the green and consumed as much provender as the seemingly fathomless cellars of the Smials could furnish forth, Pippin and Diamond gave a private dinner to welcome Merry home. Among his close relatives and old friends in the cozy dining room were Tooks and Brandybucks, Bolgers and Boffins, and some young Bagginses and up-and-coming Cottons who were among his most ardent admirers. Sam and Rose came to meet him at the door and a gaggle of small, fair, rosy-cheeked children cheered and waved at him from across the room where they were settled about the hearth. With them was a young lady who put him in mind of the royal nurserymaids in Minas Tirith, diffident and graceful, sketching quietly in the firelight while the guests moved busily about the room.

“Hullo, there!” Merry greeted the baby boy Rose held in her arms with a smile and then stood back to look. “Is this Merry, then?” he asked Rose uncertainly, “I’d have thought he would be bigger by now.”

“He most certainly is!” laughed Pippin, proffering a pint. “You’re behind the times. This one’s named for me! Meet Pippin Gamgee, if you please. There’s young Merry—!” And he pointed to the smallest of the children at the hearth, a pretty, tow-headed child of about three years grappling wildly with an older boy who was the image of Sam and must then be Frodo-lad, a sturdy, handsome boy, fairly embarrassed by his little brother’s antics and much grown from the small child Merry remembered leaving behind.

“Oh, I see!” he said, watching the little one laughingly tackle his brother yet again, despite the remonstrations of his two sisters and an eloquent glance from the lady. “I warned you, Sam. You want to be careful about who you name your children after.”

“Well, I only name them for people I admire, Mr. Merry,” said Sam, smiling fondly. “Though I expect there’s something in what you say: Frodo-lad, being first among the boys, and named for Mr. Frodo and all, is a bit more solemn than the others, as you see. Little Merry there is as mischievous a puppy as I’ve ever met, though, and young Pippin here is already showing signs of catching up quick enough. I can see already he doesn’t like to be left behind for long.”

“They’ll be a pair, all right,” said grown Pippin, throwing a look of real sympathy at Rose, who laughed frankly and seeing that matters at the hearth demanded her attention, handed the baby to Sam and turned away with purpose in her eye. Sam balanced the little one deftly in one hand whilst taking a sip from his mug with the other. “There’ll be another at the end of the year,” he confided with a shy smile to their exclamations of surprise. “I’m thinking it will probably be another little maid and I’ll take your advice, Mr. Merry, and name her as gentle as I can!”

“Well, just don’t call her Eowyn!” laughed Merry.

At the hearth, Rose settled Merry’s hurtling namesake to his brother’s grateful relief and exchanged a few quiet words with the lady, who had finished her sketch and handed it over to the little girls. Elanor and little Rosie exclaimed over it in transports of admiration while the artist smiled and bent again to her sketchpad. Merry frowned; she seemed slightly familiar but he could not place her quiet face and warm, dark eyes. He watched her intently and as he did so she glanced up at him suddenly with an expression so keenly considering that he blinked in surprise. The look vanished from her own face in a heartbeat; it was plain that she was quite dismayed to find him aware of her and looking back. He bowed, smiling affably. Uncertainly, she returned his smile and then dropped her eyes again to her work. He waited for a moment, but she did not look up again.

“Sam,” he said, wondering deeply now, for surely he knew that winsome look from somewhere. “Who is your nurserymaid, the lady sketching at the hearth?”

“Nurserymaid?” said Sam, startled, turning to look. “Bless you, I’ve none such, though lately I’ve considered it might be a good thing. Oh! You mean—!”

Fredegar Bolger, who had just joined the group, laid an arm over Merry’s shoulders. “Faith, Merry,” he said in his mischievous drawl. “You have been away too long if you don’t recognize my sister for herself. It can’t be so long as that since you’ve seen Estella?”

“Estella!” he exclaimed, looking yet again at the pretty face bent over the paper, and at the soft, dark ringlets that fell about the pensive features, rosy and warm in the firelight. “Oh, surely not! She’s still a little—!” He stopped, confounded. How many years had it been since last he’d noticed Fredegar’s quiet little sister?

“Just a little lass?” Fredegar laughed softly. “Aye, when we were little lads! Where do you wander off to in that mind of yours, cousin? Come back! I collect we’ve all of us save Peregrin been of age for at least ten years now!”

he light failed suddenly, and the warmth of the day with it. The Master of the Hall looked up from his reverie and discovered he had come into the circle of the Tree. With a little sigh, he felt his pleasant memories slip away.

It was cooler here beneath the Tree, he thought, flushed from his up-hill walk. But then he gave a little shiver: nay, it was as chill as early morn! He looked up: what little sunlight sifted through the branches above was not enough to find its way to earth; for the first time, it occurred to him that the magnificent canopy that spread out in the sunlight above the forest cast a very deep shadow below. The air around the Tree was dark and musty, too, and in the otherwise fragrant dampness of this hopeful spring morning it seemed stale and old, and harsh with creeping decay.

He regretted his hastiness of yesterday. He had not taken any time to see what might be wrong here; his quick and angry response had precluded that, and Jamy’s interesting arrival had put it off further. Now he stood alone, mindful of the gloom and the smell of rot, looking about in dismay. The lower branches of the Tree he had used to climb as a boy were spotted with mold and stripped of life: only a few struggling leaves, brown and famished, remained where once a thicket of glossy green had been enough to conceal his children there in games of hide-and-seek. He remembered that once the sun had shone through the canopy and that a soft little mat of green grass had grown here beneath the boughs; the same soil now lay dark and empty, and the uppermost shallow roots of the great tree lay powdered black with mildew. Yet all around the edges of the dark circle the grass grew in copious masses, together with wildflowers of many colours; and young trees of every other sort sprang up where the light fell, but there were no young oaks, thriving in the advent of another Shire spring.

What in all the Shire had happened here? That the tree itself was dying was a certainty, but why was the ground beneath it poisoned now? He knelt to investigate closely: the earth was packed so hard against his questing fingers that he had to take up a broken twig and scrape and dig until he had loosed enough to hold in his hand. Yet even before he sniffed out its desolation, he could see that it was leached of sweetness and thinned of substance, and he thought it must be for lack of light and warmth that the ground lay sick. He cast about; here and there were a few acorns, overlooked in the last sweep. He took them up, but they were already cracked and blotted with mold.

A thousand acorns every year, and shade and shelter, too… When had the canopy grown so dense? And could nothing find purchase here now?

He sat back on his heels and scanned the circle of bare and blackened earth. At length he spied what seemed to be a small growing thing, and he rose and went to it. It was a tiny tree, but its brave struggle for life had ended but three inches above the ground: a small, drooping stalk, its single, infant leaf shrunken and wasted, its tiny crown bent dead upon the heath. He stood over it, wondering deeply, and all around him he marked the shadow of the Tree, heavy and smelling of ruin. The draggled seedling swooned at his feet, and from the canopy there came a thin rain of small dead leaves, borne on a hurried breeze.

He bent down and touched gently the thin, withered stem. This was not the intent of nature: that a child should perish in the protection of its parent. How could this little tree not flourish, nurtured beneath such a splendid Tree as this?

Suddenly in the stillness he heard Jamy’s voice as if it were an echo, eager and not a little awe-struck: Come this way and look at your shadow, sir! That’s splendid! And he could see it again, flung across the sunlit carpet next the boy’s: his own shadow, long in years and legend: Meriadoc the Magnificent, Master of Buckland.

In a breath, a hollow stillness wrapped his heart, followed by a moment of such pale and sickening surety that, lurching to his feet, he had to grope for a steadying handhold on the Tree. Save us! he thought, leaning heavily on the mottled trunk. It is the Tree itself—the shadow it casts—that overwhelms its own! And mine that smothers Theo! And he looked at the tiny tree that had tried and failed to live there in the wasting shadow of the Tree’s radiance and thought of his eldest son, ever reluctant to put himself forward, quietly and gracefully declining in the long shadow of the charismatic Master of Buckland.

Wracked, he turned away from the Tree. An ancient stone bench nestled in a little embankment across the path, sunk deep into the verge, glowing warm in the golden morning light. He blundered toward it out of the shadows, stumbling to a seat, his heart pounding in his ears.

Slender tips of wild iris peeped blue and white from among the grassy stems around the bench and at his feet a narrow carpet of green moss flung itself joyously across the ground, tiny white flowers scattered across it like stars across the heavens. He found himself staring down at them, shining in their little firmament. He stretched out a trembling hand and watched them dim beneath it: Meriadoc the Magnificent… Did Theo feel himself diminish in the same way? His heart twisted painfully; for the first time in his life, he thought to curse the name that had followed him for fifty years, and the renown that came with it, and all that it must mean to the son who must come after him.

Little wonder then that Theo was reluctant! As Éomer’s son must rein his own strength against his father’s waning kingship, so too must Theo abide in what must be to him the shadow of kings, forced to check both hand and mind against the artless brilliance (and seemingly unending reign) of Meriadoc the Magnificent. What a benevolence to offer a dutiful and loving son! Well, Theo would not end like that wasted infant beneath the Tree; he would get on with his plan, and in the end they would see if it did not rescue them both.

“Father?” Startled, he looked up to see Theo himself standing on the path that came down from the Hall, a sturdy and elegant little figure in his soft brown tweeds, grave and courtly, if a little out of breath for having hurried. His dark-eyed gaze was sharp with concern. “Father, is something amiss? Are you ill? I saw you from up above….”

He wondered that he had never marked it before, that Theo’s face, though it bore the unmistakable imprint of Bolgers, was as sweetly and solemnly fashioned as ever his cousin Frodo’s had been, and that the strong and gentle resolve to do right sat upon him now just as it had upon Frodo those many years ago. The transitory resemblance took his breath for a moment; a hard lump rose in his throat. Well, hadn’t Frodo had been born of Brandybucks as well as Bagginses, and with the same soupçon of Tooks? Doubtless Theo had been bequeathed the same quiet dignity and generous depth of grace from the same source. The Master rather liked the effect of the calm Bolger overlay on the passion of the Brandybucks; unlike himself, Theo had always been an obedient child, earnest and thoughtful and responsible. It only remained for the shadow on his spirit to be withdrawn, so that he might find his way with confidence.

The sunlight glinted suddenly and it was with a real pang of dismay that he saw the shimmer of silver strands in his son’s dark hair. Save us! How many years of the boy’s life had he so completely and unwittingly overshadowed, and how many more to come, if his protracted legacy of Magnificence wore on? His heart turned over.

He rose, pale with self-reproach. “Ill? No, lad, I think we may have no fear of that. But there has been much on my mind since yesterday, and much there is now that I must say to you. I beg you will forgive me, lad—for I own I am distressed, and it will not all of it be easy!”