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On Merry Yule: 19. Home
Morning, 2 Monday, Afteryule
The next morning, Frodo could tell he was healing. His ribs did not ache so much, and they hardly hurt at all after he and Bilbo had soaked. He had dreamed of his parents last night, though he could not remember very much of the dream. He had not been able to see them, but he heard their voices and he knew their scent. His mother smelled of the dyes used on the yarn and of lavender oil. His father smelled of sweat, horses, and pipe-weed. Their bed always smelled of them together, plus other scents that Frodo could never name but knew to be them and no other Hobbits. Once, when he was certain Bilbo was away and could not see what he did, Frodo took out his most of his mother’s linens and sniffed at them, seeing if any trace of his parents clung to them. They all smelled of the soap from the laundry in Brandy Hall, which bore its own comforts, but was not what he had sought. Only the wedding sheets were unwashed, and those he did not want to touch. As he dressed for the day, Frodo looked at the bed and wondered if that had been his father’s bed when Drogo and Bilbo had shared this room.
The great dining hall was reasonably full, particularly considering that it was breakfast. The Bolgers and the Burrowses, along with Uncle Gis and cousin Rosamunda, were getting ready to set out for Scary. They would spend the night in Whitfurrows with Gun and Tilda, then continue to Scary the next day. The uproar in the room was the greater as Hargo and Violet Bracegirdle had arrived the evening before, Violet intending to stay until Seredic and Hilda’s baby was born. Uncle Sara and Aunt Amalda were hosts to the Bracegirdles, while Uncle Wili was shepherding the Bolgers about. Aunt Asphodel and Uncle Rufus were providing some buffer between the Bolgers and the Bracegirdles, who did not appear to be entirely happy with one another.
Bilbo let out a sigh as he surveyed the throng, while Dalin chuckled and clapped Bilbo on the shoulder.
‘Take heart, Lord of Burglars,’ the Dwarf rumbled, ‘they are only slightly more fearsome than a dragon! You will handle them admirably, I am certain.’ Dalin’s dark eyes gleamed with merriment. Bilbo bestowed a humorless glare on the beaming Dwarf, then chuckled himself.
‘I suppose you are right, Mister Dalin.’ Bilbo patted Frodo lightly on the shoulder and nodded towards the tween table. ‘My lad, go see what you can pick up over there.’ Putting a bright smile on his face, Bilbo strode into the tangle of Hobbits near the main table. Frodo shook his head, and headed for the tween table.
At breakfast, this table was rarely used since people came and went at odd hours and the main table could accommodate them all, even the tweens. This morning, however, most of the seats were filled. Frodo smiled to himself as he noted that the Master’s chair sat empty, waiting for him. His smile dimmed a bit when he noticed that Tom was sitting between Ula and Hamson. Ula got up and greeted him with a sisterly kiss when he arrived, which put him back in good spirits. To his amusement, when he looked over at the main table, Bilbo and Dalin had taken the Master and the Mistress’ seats respectively. Bilbo sent him a wink, then set to charming his relatives. Frodo turned to his own tasks.
‘Brandy Hall is going to be so empty after today,’ Tanna pouted. ‘You’re all going away!’
‘I’m not!” Marmalas and Gormac said at the exact same moment, sending a giggle around the table.
‘No, you’re not, but Bargo and Bluebell and Odogrim and Tom are going today,’ Tanna good-naturedly chided them, ‘and Hamson and Harriet will go home with their Da next Highday, and cousin Frodo will be leaving soon, too, won’t you, Frodo?’
‘On the fifth, I believe, is when Uncle Bilbo and I will go,’ he replied. Tom is going today? Frodo looked questioningly at the smaller boy, who refused to pay him any attention. Even though Tom hunched up his shoulders and kept his collar high, he could not disguise the purple mark on his neck Tom had not been at table last night, so this was the first any of the other tweens were getting a look at the mark. Bluebell and another girl were nudging each other and staring pointedly at Tom, then snickering behind their hands. Tom was turning red. Frodo felt a momentary twinge of pity, then hardened his heart.
‘Admiring your handiwork, Bluebell?’ Ula absently commented, pouring some tea for Frodo. Now it was Bluebell’s turn to resemble a freshly-cut beet, while her friend giggled and poked her in the ribs. Tom was obviously torn between wanting to play along with Ula’s remark and not wanting Bargo to beat him up for fooling with Bluebell. Ula peered intently at Tom’s neck as she reached past him for the bowl of roasted potatoes. ‘Yes, definitely Burrows work,’ she pronounced, handing the bowl to Frodo. Hamson and Odogrim broke into half-choked fits of laughter. Bargo and Bluebell both looked ready to kill her, while Tom looked ready to cry. Frodo kicked her sharply in the shin, and she smiled into her mug of tea.
‘Are you really going today?’ Frodo asked Bluebell in his most charming voice. ‘I didn’t realize you were going to go anywhere.’ She brightened up immediately, after making a face at Ula.
‘Oh, yes, Frodo,’ Bluebell smiled at him. ‘Aunt Amaranth and Mother seem to think we need to go home for a while, but I don’t see why. We’re just starting weaving season, and Missus Tunnelly was going to be training me on the heavy thread looms.’ Bluebell put on what she probably thought was a charming pout. Frodo thought it made her look like the whiskered fish he would sometimes catch in the River. He put on his most sympathetic face and rested his hand on hers.
‘Well, I am sorry you are going to be leaving before the Loom Mistress can train you, but I am certain you’ll enjoy visiting home again. Besides, Oatbarton is closer to Hobbiton than Buckland. I’m sure we’ll get to visit if you’ll be staying any length of time.’ Bluebell simpered at him, while Ula brought her heel down sharply on his foot.
‘Are you sure that you and Uncle Bilbo have to stay until the fifth?’ Odogrim asked through a mouthful of egg and griddlecakes. Swallowing it all in large lump, he went on, ‘I’m sure Papa would be glad to have you two come be guests in Scary for a day or so, if you could travel with us. He was saying last night that Uncle Bilbo is someone he needs to spend more time with. He was telling Uncle Gis that he thought Uncle Bilbo one of the best Hobbits in all the Shire, and was proud to count him cousin.’ Odogrim shot a stealthy look at Bargo. Bargo was ignoring everyone, eating with great determination.
‘Indeed? Well, I think the admiration goes both ways,’ Frodo bluffed. Why does Odogar want to be friends with Bilbo? Perhaps he knows who he must court if he wants his tannery and his gold. ‘However, I think Uncle Bilbo wishes to stay for a few more days so we can finish the translation of the Elven scroll for the Mistress. Why are you going? I thought you were prenticed to the Dye Master.’
‘Well, I am, but Papa said he wanted me to come home for a spell. Bertie and Poppy sent a letter saying they were going to come.’ Odogrim shoved things around on his plate and then looked over at the main table, his expression a bit worried. ‘I think, well, he’d like all of us home for a bit, this time of the year,’ he ended quietly, never taking his eyes off his father.
‘I think it good that you are going to visit, then,’ Frodo said earnestly, ‘and it is grand that your father was kind enough to come see us all for Yule. I know Merle, Merry and Tilly are very happy that Stella and Fatty have been here.’ The one time he had ever had much compassion for Odogrim was last year, when his mother died just at Yule. Frodo gave him all of his Yule candy and had sat with him by the River a few hours a day for a few days after Odogrim had returned from the funeral. They did not do much besides throw rocks, but Odogrim was satisfied, and had been kinder to Frodo after that, softening some of Bargo’s harsher acts.
‘Well, Uncle Rory told Car and Rosa that he expected them to bring the little ones down for a good month come summer,’ Odogrim said in a more cheerful voice. ‘I’ll be back then, if not sooner. I expect I’ll be back in Solmath.’
‘Where are you going, Tom?’ Gormac asked.
‘And why are you going?’ Marmalas added.
‘Master Mac got me a prenticeship up in Whitfurrows,’ Tom answered, ‘with a lumberyard owner. So that’s where I’m going and why. The fellow needed someone who was good with figures.’ Tom said this with a fair amount of pride. The twins were suitably impressed.
‘Well, we might be going, too,’ Gormac confided.
‘But not just yet,’ Marmalas advised.
‘Uncle Rory told Uncle Gis…’Gormac said.
‘That there needed to be some Brandybucks…’
‘In Southfarthing, so we’re going to go to cousin Adelard…’
‘Or to cousin Ferdinand …’
‘And learn about leaf trade…’
‘In Rethe, after we’re done with lambing.’ Marmalas happily concluded.
Hamson gave Tom a punch in the arm, hard enough to knock Tom into Ula. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you wanted to prentice?’ Hamson demanded. ‘I thought you were set to do loom work! My Da could use a boy with some schooling at the tannery.’ Hamson glared at Tom. Ula reached around Tom and gave Hamson a smart rap on the side of his head.
‘So you go and be a good boy for your Da,’ she scolded, ‘that is, if you know any figures!’ Hamson glared at her, gave Tom a shove with his elbow and turned his attention to a second plate of breakfast.
‘I don’t see why we have to go back to Girdley Island,’ Harriet complained. ‘I want to stay and help Hilda with the baby, and Aunt Amalda was going to teach me a new tatting design. Uncle Saradas insisted that we go back with Da. He said Da needs us there since everyone else is here, but I want to be here when the baby is born!’ Harriet sulkily picked at her plate.
Frodo was reminded that he had only been nibbling at his meal, and turned his full attention to it. Or what would have been his full attention had Bluebell not kept trying to touch his arm and flirt with him, and had Ula not been alternating between kicking his shin and ticking it with her toes. He did his best and managed to eat most of it by the time Bilbo wandered over with Dalin in tow.
‘Aren’t you a merry looking bunch!’ Bilbo exclaimed with his best false cheer. The tweens chorused a greeting back to him and to Dalin. Only Tom appeared to remain intimidated by the Dwarf, who bowed slightly and returned the tweens’ greetings. Frodo gulped a mouth more of tea, and rose to accompany Bilbo. Only then did Bargo look up at him. The older boy leered a bit, then poked his tongue into his cheek, moving it about.
‘Something stuck in your teeth, Bargo?’ Ula asked, ‘or are you just trying to kiss yourself again?’ The table broke into a storm of snickers and guffaws. Frodo was not amused by any of it, and turned to leave. He saw Bilbo giving Bargo a very even stare. When Frodo looked at Bargo, the leer had disappeared from the other’s face, replaced with a somewhat fearful expression.
‘Master Burrows, I believe your father would appreciate your assistance in preparing things for his trip today,’ Bilbo said in a voice that was somehow bland and threatening at the same time. Bargo nodded sharply, and scuttled off to Uncle Rufus at the main table. I need to cultivate that voice. Bilbo nodded a cheerful farewell to the table, and walked away. Frodo hurried to keep up with him.
‘So, Wilwarin, what did you find out?’ Bilbo asked once they entered the corridor.
‘Nothing too interesting, Uncle Bilbo. Cousin Odogar evidently thinks you are one of the finest Hobbits in the Shire, though I think that is scarcely news to anyone. Except perhaps cousin Odogar.’ Bilbo chuckled appreciatively. ‘All we spoke of really was who was leaving.’
‘Leaving? What do you mean, leaving? Who?’ Bilbo’s voice was curious.
Frodo shrugged. ‘Quite a few. Bargo and Bluebell said their mother and Aunt Amaranth want them home, while Hamson and Harriet are going to go home with their da later this week. Uncle Saradas insisted that they go. Odogrim’s going back to Scary with his papa, and Tom is going to travel with all of them to Whitfurrows. That just leaves the Twins, Hanna, and Ula, really. A few of the younger girls, too. Oh, and the twins are probably going to go to Southfarthing come Rethe to learn leaf trade. Uncle Rory set that up with Uncle Gis.’
‘Hmm,’ was Bilbo’s reply. Dalin bade them good-bye, saying he had agreed to meet Uncle Saradas to look at the pulley system for the guy ropes on the Bucklebury Ferry. Bilbo gave him an absent-minded farewell. They returned to their study, and set to work on the translation.
It went smoothly, though too slowly for Bilbo’s liking, through the morning. Frodo enjoyed the copy work and noted that, though he might complain about the pace, Bilbo was back to his old tricks of reciting snippets of poetry at every opportunity. Dinner arrived on a tray sooner than Frodo expected, and he was surprised at how hungry he was. Bilbo, as usual, had little appetite, and urged Frodo to eat most of what had been sent for both of them. Frodo happily complied.
Frodo put the dirty dishes back on their tray and carried them to the hall. As he turned to come back, Bilbo held up a hand.
‘You need to go get cleaned up and put on some better clothes if you are not to be late, Wilwarin.’ Bilbo’s face was too bland for honesty. Frodo crossed his arms and waited. Bilbo’s eyes twinkled mischievously. ‘Your Gammer expects you for a visit before tea.’
‘What?’ Frodo exclaimed, not at all pleased. ‘When did this happen?’
‘It has not yet happened, my lad,’ was Bilbo’s imperturbable reply.
‘When did she tell you this?’
‘Last night, at supper.’
‘And you only thought to tell me now?’ Bilbo’s look became less humorous, more serious.
‘Yes. I did not want you fretting about it all night and all morning. Now, hurry along. She is expecting you in her parlor.’ Frodo stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
How dare Bilbo not tell me! Frodo fumed. He slammed the door to their room for good measure. The wash water was tepid, though there was enough to see to his face and hands. His pants were good enough, but his shirt needed changing. The battered door of the wardrobe had been removed from the room the day before, and he had only to reach in to pick a shirt.
Frodo stood a while, looking at the place where the door had been. The broken half of the top hinge remained on the frame. When he stepped closer, he could see a few splinters of wood remained sitting on the clothes on the shelves behind where the door had been. He carefully shook them clean. Frodo picked out his best shirt, the one he had worn at Yule, and put it on. He chose his father’s waistcoat, and tried to remember how Bilbo had set it on him, had fixed the sleeves of the shirt, had made the collar lie just so. In a quieter mood, he went to see Gammer.
He poked his head around the door jamb. Gammer was sitting, reading a page of the scroll translation. She looked up and smiled. He slipped in, closing the door behind him.
‘Come here, rascal, and give your Gammer a kiss!’ Frodo did so, and sat next to her. For a minute or two, she said nothing, just looked at him and touched his face and hair with a trembling hand. Finally she sighed and leaned forward a little to be embraced. He hugged her very carefully, wary of squeezing her thin frame too firmly.
‘I have so missed you, child,’ she said softly.
‘And I miss you most of all, Gammer,’ he replied. She smiled and tried to take his hands. Frodo carefully gathered hers between his own.
‘I might wish to keep you with me always, rascal, but the time had come for me to stop being so selfish.’ Frodo looked at her quizzically. Her own expression sharpened. ‘And the time has come for you to stop being so foolish.’
Frodo sighed and stared at the carpet, waiting for the lecture. He felt Gammer pull a trembling hand free from his clasp and stroke his cheek.
‘Rascal, why didn’t you come talk to me?’ she asked. He shrugged. ‘Am I really that much more ferocious than Rory? And I am not talking about your silly fooling with other boys, Frodo. That is not worth worrying over, and I have had more than a notion of it for some time. I am talking about Sara.’
‘I didn’t want you to know, and I didn’t think Bilbo would tell you.’
‘He didn’t.’ Gammer gave him a disapproving stare. ‘The fool kept his promise to you. He should have told me at once, and neither of you should have spoken to the Master.’
That’s what Bilbo told you, Rat. It pleased him that Bilbo had kept his word, but roused his curiosity. ‘Then how did you know? Mac said you talked to Sara and knew everything before I spoke to Uncle Rory.’
‘Don’t I always know what questions to ask to wring a confession out of a wicked little boy?’ Gammer said with a sly smile. Her face changed and became stern. ‘Child, there are some secrets you should not keep, for they will hurt you. There are some secrets you have no right to keep, for they hurt others. Your secrets about Sara did both. You have no right to keep secrets about the Master, or the Master’s Heir.’
‘I wish I had held my tongue,’ Frodo bitterly replied. ‘I would not have everyone angry at me and lecturing me about how stupid I am. I think I would be in a bit less pain, too.’
‘No, rascal, you are not stupid. And I am not angry with you, child. What were you afraid I would do? Did you think I would simply let Sara have his way with you?’
‘Would you have believed me?’ Frodo demanded. ‘Uncle Rory hit me and called me a liar. When he did believe me, he said I seduced Sara, corrupted him.’
‘Do you think you seduced Sara?’ Gammer’s voice held a true question. Even Bilbo had not asked him.
‘Maybe. I don’t know,’ he began haltingly, ‘Bilbo said that I was just stupid.’
Gammer let out a sharp, barking laugh. ‘Bilbo Baggins is no one to lecture someone else about stupidity! The things that man did when he was your age do not bear repeating, and he only got worse as he got older.’ She put her hands on his again. ‘Rascal, were you trying to seduce Sara?’
He shook his head. ‘I just didn’t want him to beat me up again. Once, I did get tired of what he wanted, and I took a beating instead. He still tried to make me do that, and he didn’t give me a choice again, afterwards.’ Frodo looked at her hands in his. The skin was loose, lined, with little spots, and they shook with a constant, tiny shiver, occasionally twitching strongly. ‘I just hoped he would stop being so mean. That he would go back to liking me, as he used to. But he didn’t. No matter what I did.’ He bit his lip and forbade himself to cry.
‘Sara swore to me that he never lay with you, or used you like a woman. Is that the truth?’
‘He never used me like that, no.’ He knew the omission was glaring, but Gammer did not press for more of an answer. She just sighed a bit and squeezed his hands.
‘Frodo, my dear child, why did you never say a word? Not a breath to me, your Gammer?’
‘I was afraid you would send me away. That’s what Sara said you would do and that’s what did happen!’ Frodo said miserably.
‘Well, of course I would have sent you away, rascal!’ Gammer crossly retorted. ‘I would not keep you here to be harmed! I would have sent you to your… Uncle Bilbo at once, if I had known such a thing.’
‘But I don’t want to be with Uncle Bilbo! I want to be here, with you and my cousins!’
Gammer snorted in exasperation, shaking her head. ‘You Bagginses! Soft, sentimental fools, every one of you. I raised you to have better sense than this, Frodo! I taught you to be as tough as a Took and as sensible as a Brandybuck.’ Gammer laughed a little. ‘What shall I do with either of you? You would let your hearts rule you into ruin.’
‘Maybe it isn’t sensible, but I can’t help it. I want to be here, not Hobbiton.’
‘No, Frodo. You mustn’t allow yourself to think this. I know it must be strange, perhaps lonely, there, but it is best. I told you I would not see you harmed. I also would not see Sara harmed.’
‘Sara harmed? What harm comes to him?’ Frodo said with derision.
‘Great harm!’ Gammer snapped, and Frodo leaned away. ‘Do you have any idea how horrible it was for me to hear such a confession from my own son?’ Frodo remembered Bilbo’s words of a few nights before – “It is a terrible thing to know that your child has done something so wrong, something not just foolish, but wicked.” Gammer’s face was fierce on the surface, but lines around her mouth and eyes spoke of more sorrowful feelings. ‘He is to be Master, and now he has a mark upon his soul that may never lift. The burdens of care are heavy enough without such a wound. You did not will to do him wrong, but you did tempt and break open the fault within his own heart. Wickedness has dug its claws into that poor fool in darkening times, and he is not one made for such struggles, not like his father. Or even like you, Frodo. Would that I had sent you to Bilbo sooner, for everyone’s sake. I should have made him take you from the start.’
‘You have always wanted to send me away, then!’
‘Think like a Took, you silly boy! Have you not understood what I am saying? I have let my own heart govern too much where you are concerned, rascal. I love you as dearly as I love my own sons, perhaps even more in some ways, and I have let that love blind me to my duties. I am your Gammer, but I am also the Mistress, child, and I must think of the care of Buckland, and not only the ones I hold dear. You are the Baggins heir, and you, too, will come to understand your duty to things greater than close kin and the keeping of your own smial. Frodo, I would never simply send you away! I would have sent you to Bilbo, which is where you should be. Have you no place in that foolish Baggins heart for him?’
‘Yes, of course I do. He is a most wonderful person and I do love him dearly. It’s just hard to have only him now. And he can be rather… difficult.’
Gammer broke into a gale of laughter. ‘Difficult? Oh my, that is a diplomatic way of describing Bilbo. Infuriating beyond measure is how I would put it!’ She took him by the shoulders and gave him a small shake.
‘You are not coming back, not even to visit, for a good long time. You and Sara both need to find your ways in the world, and you will be a torment and a temptation to each other until you do. Leave the other boys be as well, little one, at least for a time. This is a lesson you should learn from Bilbo – to abstain from the passions of flesh until you have discovered the true compass of your heart. He may be… difficult,’ they exchanged a smirk, ‘but he is wise in such things in a way unusual for a man.’ Gammer’s expression became stern, and she shook a finger at him.
‘And be quite sure you stop paying court to Esmie!’
She’s paying court to me! Maybe you’re tempting her, like Gammer says you tempt Sara, Rat? Frodo put on his most innocent expression. ‘I don’t know what you mean, Gammer.’
‘Not only do you have a Baggins heart, you have the Baggins inability to lie,’ she sardonically observed. ‘Do you think I am blind as well as crippled, boy? I have seen you making eyes at her, and always trying to be near her. Have you been in her bed?’
‘Gammer!’ Frodo exclaimed.
‘But you have kissed her.’ Frodo stared back, refusing to answer. Gammer snorted and shook her head. ‘Flirting with and kissing another man’s wife. You know better!’
‘That’s what Uncle Bilbo does with you.’ As soon as it was out of his mouth, Frodo knew he had greatly over-stepped. Gammer stared at him, a very strange expression on her face, and while she stared at him, her shaking ceased. He sat as still as he could, not daring to look away. Finally, a ghost of a smile played on her lips and a strong tremor came over her.
‘And Baggins honesty slips its leash once more.’ She regarded him closely, a puzzle to be solved, and then she gave him a tight smile. ‘So, little rascal, you have eyes, if no tact. Tell me this, how does such flirting differ? Or does it?’ Frodo tried to think before he spoke this time.
‘Because he loves you, and would never bring shame to you.’ Gammer looked away, but spoke.
‘And you bear no such love for Esmie?’
‘No. Not like that. She’s pretty, and she’s nice to me, but I don’t understand.’ Gammer motioned for him to go on. ‘I’m not complaining, but, why? Bilbo does not like her, and he will not explain himself to me.’ A strange thought, rather unsettling, suddenly appeared. It was ridiculous, yet… ‘Gammer, it is as though they are…having…a fight…over me.’
Her eyebrows went up a bit, and she cocked her head to the side, considering. After a long moment, she nodded decisively. ‘You are right about this, rascal. They fight. She would keep you away from him, I deem, and a mischievous Took is someone to be avoided! What Esmie forgets is that I am one, too, and much older and more clever than herself.’
‘You’re a Took? I thought you were a Goold,’ Frodo asked. Gammer proudly lifted her chin.
‘And the Goolds are kin to the Tooks! I am the great-great-granddaughter of Bandobras Took himself.’ She leaned forward and said in a conspiratorial whisper, ‘It’s why I’m so good wielding a stick!’ Frodo giggled at the idea of Gammer using her cane on an Orc, but had no doubt whatsoever that she could, and would, do so. More soberly, Gammer said, ‘Whatever she is up to concerning you, child, beware. She has a man of her own and has no cause for complaint. Indeed, what would a grown woman want with such a scrawny little thing as yourself? Listen to what she says, but judge every word. Trust Bilbo’s sense around conniving women. He is immune to their charms.’
Gammer fell silent, thinking. Frodo tried to sort out his own thoughts. He began thinking back over his encounters with Esmie. They no longer seemed quite so innocent, though they were no less enticing. Why? Remember what Badger said to Snake – a wife always knows. You were thinking to get back at Sara this way. Why wouldn’t she? But this was before, she flirted with me before she knew! She always knew, Rat. She must have. Just getting back at Sara. But she said she was worried about me! And Sara said he was sorry, and Tom said he liked you. He was distracted from his troubled thoughts by the sound of Gammer’s voice.
‘Another thing, wrong.’ Her tone was musing, and she was staring off over his shoulder. Frodo wondered if she remembered he was there. ‘It is like a bitter tang in the air, a sourness in the mouth. When I took Sara’s hand, I shook so badly, for the blight was present. As though the heart’s corruption left a physical trace. I have seen a wanton wife, tiring of her foolish mate, but perhaps I have not looked deeply enough. Perhaps this is more than a bit of spite…’ Her voice trailed off.
Frodo was lost in Gammer’s speculations. The talk of corruption frightened him. You did that, Rat. She said you had tempted Sara, broken him. What else have you harmed? Gammer’s gaze lost its far-away quality and she gave him a sharp glance.
‘Have you been watching out for Bilbo, as I told you to do?’
The change of topic left him momentarily speechless. ‘There really is nothing for me to look after, Gammer. Uncle Bilbo knows everything and can do anything. He watches out for me.’
‘He is not so strong as he would seem, child,’ Gilda said sadly. ‘He is not well.’
Frodo felt something akin to panic begin to rise in his chest. ‘No, not Bilbo! He, he is perfectly fine. He’s as strong and healthy as can be!’ Don’t leave me. Not now.
‘You are as blind as he is! Can’t you see? He should be old and worn out, looking like cousin Gis. They are the same age, for goodness’ sake! He doesn’t age and that is what is wrong.’
‘But I don’t want him to be old! I don’t want him to leave… me.’
‘He won’t, child,’ Gammer soothed, ‘he won’t. I begin to think he needs to go see these Elves who know so many things, but not yet. Too many dangers are about. Perhaps if his wizard friend shows up. You are good for him. Do not be in such a hurry to grow up and not need him anymore. As long as you need him, he will stay safely in the Shire. You heard Dalin talk of all the dangerous things out in the world. You need to help me keep him here, until it is safe to go see the Elves. Then, I do not doubt but that you will go with him.’
A trip to the Elves. Bilbo always promised that, and other adventures, but it seemed so wrong. To keep Bilbo here would keep him sick, but young and vigorous. To let him go would make him well, and make him age like Gammer and Uncle Rory. Everything Gammer said was leaving him more and more confused. Not being hurt by Sara, that made sense, and not flirting any more with Esmie, well, fooling with another’s wife was asking to be beaten, and rightly so. The rest of her talk about corruption and illness and danger, he did not know what to make of. His confusion must have shown, for she patted him on the arm and smiled reassuringly.
‘Now, rascal, you promise that you will be my eyes and ears in Bag End, and that you will write me with all the news and details of how your uncle is doing?’
‘Yes, Gammer, of course,’ Frodo obediently replied. She reached up and tried to pat his cheek, but her arm was trembling very badly. He caught her hand and held it to his face.
‘And you will tell me how you fare, as well, yes? I am not dismissing you, child, not sending you off because I am ashamed of you, whatever my fool son may have said. I could make Rory let me keep you, if I wished. But you are where you belong now.’
‘It doesn’t feel like home,’ he whispered, ‘It all belongs to Bilbo, and I don’t fit there. I do love him, but it’s not home.’
‘You’ve hardly been there,’ she chided, ‘so how could it be? And you have spent all your time missing what was here instead of enjoying what is there. But it will be more home to you than Brandy Hall, sooner than you think, for you are just like him. Yes, Bag End all belongs to Bilbo, and you do as well. You are his!’
Gammer’s gaze was intent, and her hand had dropped to clutch his shoulder. Frodo nodded. ‘I know I am.’
Her eyes narrowed. ‘You know it? You do not sound like you do. How are you his?’
‘He adopted me, made me his child and heir, not just his cousin. He said much as you have, that I will change my mind in time, and I will think of Bag End as home. I should not even say such things. It is terribly ungrateful and disloyal. He does so much for me.’
She kept watching him, and he grew uneasy under her stare. Finally, she let out a great sigh, and relaxed her grip on his shoulder. ‘Damn you, Baggins,’ she muttered to herself. Frodo hoped she meant Bilbo, not him. ‘Frodo, my sweet boy, there is nowhere else in the world you belong but with him. He is an infuriating fool sometimes, but he will look after you better than your own parents could have, and I speak as one who loved them deeply! Take care of him in return, as I did not. After all he has lost and has relinquished, he deserves to have something returned to him. He needs someone to outlive him.’
This was not really what Frodo wanted to be thinking about. I don’t want to outlive him, or you, Gammer! He did not want more holes like that in his heart. ‘Very well, then, I will do as you say, and I shall write you every week. More often if I can!’ She smiled happily at him. He wondered if he could get Ula to write him about Gammer.
To his relief, Gammer left off her strange questions and unsettling pronouncements. She asked him to tell her of the things he had been doing in Hobbiton, and he gratefully began telling of the walks he and Bilbo would take, of the Elvish lessons, of being taught to bake tasty things, of the garden, and of the Gamgees. He did not say anything about the Sackville-Bagginses or how Uncle Dudo and Aunt Dora ignored him. He was telling her about how he was teaching May and Sam Gamgee their letters, when there was a knock on the door, followed by Bilbo peeking around the edge.
‘I do not wish to interrupt, but Mistress Maddie has promised to skin me alive, set me on fire, drop me down a well, drag me out, and let the horses trample me if I allow Frodo to miss a meal in her Hall,’ Bilbo cheerfully informed them, ‘and as I am not yet done with my translations,’ he disappeared for a moment, reappearing with a large tray, ‘I thought to practice some self-defense and deliver your tea.’ Gammer and Frodo both laughed, and Frodo got up to help Bilbo with the tea items. In a trice, all was laid out upon the low table, and Frodo was helping himself at the urging of Gammer and Bilbo. He was surprised at how hungry he was. Bilbo and Gammer only wished for tea and some toast, and Frodo finished most of the rest.
While he ate, he watched the two of them insult each other with verve and affection. Gammer scolded Bilbo for letting Frodo waste away, while Bilbo reproached her for never coming to visit to make sure he was not failing in his duties. Bilbo had insisted that Frodo stay next to Gammer, and had taken a seat opposite them in a soft chair. It did not seem possible that Bilbo could be ill in any way. Age barely touched him – a trace of grey in his hair, a softness in the skin along his throat, knuckles a little gnarled – and his spirits were those of a young man. How could any woman have turned him down as a husband? Bilbo was the finest, most handsome, most amazing gentlehobbit in the Shire. Frodo gave himself a mental shake and concentrated on the bread and butter.
Suddenly, Bilbo stopped talking, whipping around in his chair to face the door. A moment later, Frodo caught the sound, too. Someone was racing at full speed along the corridor, making an unusually large amount of noise for a Hobbit. The door of the parlor crashed open, and Bilbo and Frodo were both on their feet, putting themselves between the intruder and Gammer.
It was just a farm boy, panting heavily yet still trying to talk before he caught his breath. ‘Mist’ Gilda… y’have t’… come quick… trouble… Mist’ Dilly… needs you… s’bleeding…’
Gammer cut him off with a gesture. ‘Go to the stables at once. Tell the Horse Master to get the pony trap ready for me. Now!’ The boy took to his heels, running full tilt. Gammer gave orders.
‘Bilbo, help me up. I need fetch my herb bag. Frodo, go at once and find Ula. Tell her to gather her things and meet me here as quickly as she can.’ Frodo bolted for the door.
‘After you tell Ula, get my coat and cloak!’ Bilbo called after him. Frodo ran straight to Ula’s room, hoping she would be there. He had no other idea of where to look for her, except with Gammer. Luckily, when he knocked on the door, she called a greeting. Her smile disappeared when she saw his face.
‘Ula, Gammer says to gather your things, she didn’t say what things, and go to her parlor at once. One of Mac and Dilly’s farm lads just appeared, and said that something’s wrong with Dilly. He said she was bleeding.’ Ula nodded, and turned to her workbench to put things into the new leather satchel she had received at Yule. Frodo did not wait, but went swiftly to collect Bilbo’s coat and cloak. He and Ula arrived at the parlor at the same time.
Gammer was standing, braced with her cane, looking into a satchel Bilbo held open before her. He closed it at her signal and set it down.
‘Ula,’ Gammer said, ‘I fear Dilly is in trouble with her child. Bilbo will take us both to the farm.’ While Gammer spoke, Bilbo pulled on his coat. He threw his own cloak around Gilda’s shoulders and fastened it for her – it was far too large for her thin frame, and it touched the ground. He pulled the hood up over Gammer’s head, and chuckled.
‘Just like old times, eh, my girl?’ Not waiting for a reply, Bilbo scooped Gammer up in his arms. ‘Wilwarin, get the doors.’ Frodo hastened to open the door, and Bilbo strode out with Gammer. Ula picked up Gammer’s bag, hurrying after. Frodo took care of all the doors in between the parlor and the stable yard. Mister Tunnelly stood with the frightened farm boy, holding the reins on the pony. He bowed respectfully to Gammer. Ula put the bags in the basket on the back and clambered up to the seat. Bilbo handed Gammer up to Ula, then hopped up beside them.
‘You know how to handle a cart, Mister Baggins?’ Mister Tunnelly asked.
‘Since before you were born,’ Bilbo tartly replied. The Horse Master gave Bilbo an unpleasant stare, and walked away, bestowing the same look on Frodo before he left the yard.
‘Frodo, please make sure that Esmie and Rory know where we have gone and what has happened,’ Gammer asked, ‘and see that this lad gets a meal before he sets out for home. I doubt we’ll be back before tomorrow.’ Bilbo called to the pony and shook the reins to let the beast know to step out. The trap soon was on the lane, the pony in a brisk trot. Frodo led Tam, the farm boy, to the kitchen for Maddie to fuss over, warning the boy not to gossip. Then he went to find Esmie.
She was in one of the canning pantries, overseeing two young Hobbits moving jars from high shelves to now-empty lower shelves. Her face lit up when she saw Frodo, but dimmed when he did not smile back. Indicating that the other two should continue their work, she walked out into the hallway.
‘Frodo, my dear, you look grim. What is the matter?’ she asked, placing a hand on his arm.
‘Aunt Gilda sent me.’ That wiped the concern off of Esmie’s face. She crossed her arms and waited for the news. ‘She and Bilbo and Ula have set out to Mac’s farm. Dilly sent one of the farm lads because she was not feeling well.’
‘Has she lost the child yet, or do you know?’ Frodo was startled by the matter-of-fact tone, and the lack of any sign of concern on Esmie’s part.
‘I don’t know.’ She smiled again, the smile that used to make him feel very special and now made him feel somewhat threatened. Esmie put her hand on his arm again and stepped closer.
‘Don’t be upset, Frodo,’ she said in a sweet voice. ‘Things like this sometimes happen. Gilda is the finest midwife in all the Shire. Dilly will be fine.’ She ran her hand along his arm, looking intently at him. ‘If you wish, I can sit with you until Bilbo comes back.’
I don’t think you have sitting on your mind, Esmie. The brush of her hand gave him a shiver, and she smiled again. He thought for a long moment of saying “Yes” to the offer of interesting possibilities. Just once. Parts of him were very much in favor of those possibilities. “Nor have I lain with any man’s wife.” Not even one you love. Frodo carefully pulled his arm out from under Esmie’s hand.
‘Thank you, but I am fine. I need to go find Uncle Rory, now.’
‘He will not be back for another two hours,’ Esmie said casually, starting to rub his arm again, ‘nor will Sara.’
‘Then I should get a bite to eat and wait for them in Uncle Rory’s study. Thank you for letting me know when they will be back.’ Frodo turned and walked quickly away, before his resolve failed. The last invitation had been unmistakable. Had it come yesterday, he knew where he would be headed. He joined Tam at the small table in the corner of the kitchen, much to Maddie’s delight, and pretended to eat something.
He had a quiet conversation with the other boy, who told him that Dilly had been pale, but otherwise seemed well enough, when she told him to collect the Mistress. Frodo hoped this meant that things were not too bad. Tam’s mother, a goodwife from the holding next further towards Crickhollow, was sitting with Dilly. Frodo sat with Tam for the better part of an hour, then walked the lad out to the lane. The boy trotted north in the dimming light. Frodo went to the study, half afraid Esmie would be waiting there. It was empty. He lit some lamps, selected a book from the shelf, and waited for Uncle Rory.
It was almost an hour and a half before Uncle Rory and Sara walked in, discussing pigs. Neither noticed Frodo until he stood. Uncle Rory sent him a questioning look, while Sara glared. I could have been with your wife, Snake. In your own bed.
‘Frodo, good evening,’ Uncle Rory politely said. ‘Please, stay and read your book if you have a mind.’
‘Thank you, Uncle, but I was waiting for you. Both of you,’ Frodo amended. ‘Aunt Gilda told me to wait for you and tell you where she had gone.’ Uncle Rory looked concerned now. ‘She went with Uncle Bilbo to attend Dilly. Ula went with them. Tam, one of Mac’s farm boys, came to the Hall a little over two hours ago, saying that something was wrong, and Dilly needed to see Aunt Gilda at once. So Uncle Bilbo took her there in the pony trap.’
‘The baby,’ Sara worriedly said, ‘Has anyone found Mac? Do you know?’
‘I don’t know. Tam was sent off first, so perhaps someone went afterwards.’
‘He’ll be going back for supper,’ Uncle Rory added, ‘so he’s probably back to the farm by now.’ Sara shook his head, and began rebuttoning his coat.
‘No, Da, he went south to help Uncle Sara with some pasturage near Standelf. He was not going home for supper. I know where he is,’ Sara was already walking out of the room, ‘and I’ll go find him. He needs to be home.’ The door shut behind Sara. Uncle Rory sighed and sat down heavily in a chair near the fireplace.
‘That’s all I know, Uncle Rory,’ Frodo said. The older Hobbit nodded, then gestured that Frodo should retake his seat. They sat in silence, Uncle Rory staring into the grate. Only a week, Rat. A week ago, you thought you would sneak back. Frodo watched his uncle, who looked older than Bilbo. He had never really thought of Uncle Rory as old, not until he left to live with Bilbo. He did not want to think that there could be something wrong, yet trouble seemed all about.
Uncle Rory finally stirred and looked at Frodo. ‘I… owe you an apology, lad.’ Frodo did not move, did not change expression. ‘You were telling the truth. My son wronged you, and I did so as well. I have let harm come to you as a guest in my smial. I am sorry, Frodo.’
Frodo did not know what to do with these words. It did not seem right to tell his uncle that an apology was accepted, impertinent to think the Master owed an apology to a child.
But Uncle Rory waited for an answer.
He rose from his chair and went to his uncle. Kneeling, Frodo gathered the other’s hands in his and kissed them, then laid his cheek across their backs. He could smell the dirt of the day’s work clinging to fingers and cuffs, knew the scent of sweat and wool that had always meant the dependable embrace of this kinsman. There was no room for an apology in this touch. Uncle Rory’s right hand turned over to cup his face and smooth away the trace of it ever having been other than this. His uncle’s other hand soon caressed his hair. They stayed like this until a soft knock on the door announced supper.
Frodo paused before they left the study. ‘You were right about one thing, Uncle Rory. I don’t belong here any more. Gammer explained this to me today.’
‘Aye, lad, this is no place for you now, though the fault lies other than with you. You are his, now.’ Uncle Rory smiled a little crookedly. ‘It’s proper you’re with Bilbo. He’ll teach you to be a good man. Better than I could.’
The rest of the evening went by slowly. The dining hall felt empty with all the guests gone, and even more so with Gammer and Bilbo away. Sara was also still missing. Frodo hoped he had been able to find Mac. With so few there, Frodo sat at the main table next to Dalin. Merle and Merry managed to wiggle their way onto the bench, flanking Dalin and stealing liberally from his plate. Dalin, Uncle Rory and Uncle Saradas chatted about the Bucklebury Ferry, and Frodo introduced Uncle Gis’ idea that perhaps a ferry could be set up on the Shirebourn. This seemed to please Dalin more than a bridge, and soon the four were discussing the best location between Willowbottom and the Overbourn Marshes. After supper, he went back to the study with the others and they smoked their pipes in companionable silence until it was time to go to bed. He tried to sleep, but could not, wondering whether Bilbo would be back, and how Dilly was doing.
Late in the night, Frodo was wakened from his fitful doze by a sound. Bilbo had returned, and was trying to get ready for bed without lighting a lamp.
‘I’m awake, Uncle Bilbo,’ he said into the dark.
‘I’m sorry, Wilwarin. I did not mean to wake you.’
‘I wasn’t really asleep.’ A few bumps and thumps later, he felt Bilbo slide into bed. ‘What happened?’ Bilbo was silent a long time. When Frodo had decided that he was not going to get an answer, Bilbo sighed.
‘Dilly will be well, though she is feeling very poorly now.’ More silence. ‘The child was cast out. Gilda could do nothing for that. Thank you for telling Sara. He found Mac and the two are there. Dilly is better for having Mac with her.’
Frodo moved towards Bilbo, saddened by the news and worried at the weariness in Bilbo’s voice, then pulled away. The last thing he wanted was a fight over what he was trying to do. Before he could scoot back to his side of the bed, Bilbo rolled over and put an arm around him. Frodo wiggled back and spooned up against the old Hobbit. Bilbo nestled his face against the back of Frodo’s head. Soon they were both deeply asleep.
Characters introduced this chapter:
Tam - OC. Buckland farm boy.
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