“He’s so biddable,” commented Jade North-Took as she accepted a mug of tea from her younger sister. “Morigrin was commenting on that earlier today, you know.
Esme, who was still surprised to see her oldest sister and her husband visiting from Long Cleeve in the North Farthing, nodded as she offered a plate of spice cake. “Yes, Frodo’s very quiet and will do almost all that’s asked of him with little argument. But I find I miss the spirit he used to show before his parents’ deaths.”
Jade looked out the window to where Frodo was watching two of the younger Hall children as they played at hoops upon the lawn. They were having tea not in the Master’s parlor but in one of the sun rooms at the front of the Hall where they could watch out the window. “You say he’s quite intelligent?”
“Oh, no question. He reads everything that comes to hand, and remembers almost everything he’s ever read. Bilbo’s even managed during his visits with the lad to teach him some Elvish words. He is supposed to walk some each day, and Master Beldir has also indicated it would be wise for him to swim also as the days grow warmer, both for the excellent exercise he says it will do his heart and to keep him from coming to fear water and the river. I’ve been walking with him down by the river, and the other day we watched first ducklings hatching in the sedges in the flats, and then a dragonfly breaking out of its chrysalis case and spreading its wings for the first time. He was enchanted. He came home and wrote a letter to Bilbo asking for books on how insects make chrysalises. And, knowing Bilbo, he’s probably writing to the Elves asking for books on just that subject now.”
“What jobs do you have him do?”
“He helps some in the kitchens--lighter things such as washing dishes and setting tables, and he watches the younger children a goodly bit.”
“You don’t have him working in the gardens?”
“Oh, no--we don’t wish for him to become overly stressed, after all.”
“And what’s stressful helping with the gardens?”
“Leaning over pulling up weeds or trundling barrows? It could possibly be a strain on his heart, you know.”
“Nonsense, Esmeralda--I doubt that working in the gardens could be overly stressful on any child. Has he never done such work?”
“Well, with his mother he often did--but the gardens about River Place and the smial in Whitfurrow were nothing to the ones here, you understand.”
“I didn’t say to give him the entire garden to care for daily--just allow him to assist in their care. It would do him a world of good, I’d think. Does he ride yet?”
Esme flushed. “Not yet--Mother Gilda is worried that he might have difficulties with a pony and hasn’t given permission for him to learn to ride.”
Jade shook her head in amazement. “Here you have some of the finest ponies in the entire Shire, and you can’t find a nice steady cob to teach the lad to ride? Every gentlehobbit ought to know how to ride, you know. How about roopie or golf?”
“He’s played a game or two of golf with Da Rory, but isn’t allowed to play at roopie--too much running.”
“Does he fish?”
“Mother Gilda is concerned about him being too long under the Sun....”
“Moon and stars, Esme--don’t those who fish along the Brandywine wear hats or fish under shade? What’s stressful about fishing? And I thought that Rory loved to fish! Certainly he was bragging last night about how he’d caught most of the fish we had for dinner. And there’d be no more Sun, I’d think, than walking along the river bank or playing at golf.
“Really, Esme, you must remember he’s a very pretty lad, with that slender build and that fair complexion and those striking eyes of his. You don’t wish for the other lads to see him as too good to play with them, or they’ll begin to abuse him.”
“They wouldn’t dare!” Esme was surprised at the vehemence she felt.
“You think not? Think again. You can’t keep him ever under your gaze, you know; and the moment you’re not around they’ll be there to abuse him--mark my word. Didn’t we see that there in Whitwell and during visits to the Great Smial--look at how Adelard was treated when we were children.”
“It’s not the same.”
“Oh, no? His mother thought he was far too fine to play with the other lads and dressed him up always in those very fancy clothes, and see where it got him!”
“But he used to always be in fights, and won more often than not.”
“That was after he got used to it. When I was younger he was always getting beaten upon, until he learned to fight back and defend himself. But that wasn’t until after almost six years of always being beaten that finally Ferdinand started fighting at his side and teaching him to do it properly. It wasn’t until he was a tween he got enough courage to tell his mother he didn’t want to wear such fancy clothes. Once he started seeming just another lad they finally started treating him as such.”
Esme thought on what Jade had said, and began seeing to it that Frodo was dressed much like the other lads, just to be certain.
She looked into his room one night to find Frodo was out of bed, standing and looking out at the stars. “Can’t you sleep, dearling?” she asked.
He turned around, almost guiltily. “It’s not that, Aunt Esme--I just had that dream again about the moving water, only this time it was night time and the stars were magnificent. So I woke up and couldn’t sleep again, and came over to look out the window at them. Some nights we used to go up and sleep atop the hole there in Whitfurrow, my dad and me, and he’d show me the stars the way he said Uncle Bilbo used to show them to him when he was younger. And my mum would come up, too, and we’d tell the stories about them and make up more.”
“You have this dream about moving water often?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve had it a few times--when I was a little one once, one time when we were visiting with Uncle Bilbo; not long before we moved out of River Place; maybe once in Whitfurrow when Uncle Bilbo was visiting us; a few nights before--before Mum and Dad--had their accident.”
“Then the moving water is the river--the Brandywine?”
He shook his head. “No--not the Brandywine. In my dream it’s all around me, and you can’t see any land no matter which way you look--except at the end sometimes, just before I wake up, I’ll see land far, far away, ahead of us. Only the water isn’t flat like the Water at Hobbiton, or moving in a line like the Brandywine. It’s bumpy, and the bumps go up and down; and when you see fish they’re usually enormous, some of them as big as the rowboat.”
He went quiet at that, and she noted that his expression was filled with that combination of anger and great grief that had become so common to him. She knew that the former subject was now closed, at least as far as Frodo was concerned.
She looked around the room, here in the quarters given to the Master’s Heir, that was now his. It wasn’t overly large, nor particularly small. There was room for the rather wide bed, a desk that came from his mother’s things, the matching chair, a couple shelves for books and his goods he wished to be able to look on, a more comfortable cushioned chair in the corner with a small table by it, a small dresser near the single small round window, and the great wardrobe his father had carved for him with scenes taken from Bilbo’s tales--a flying dragon on one door, a Man with drawn bow on the other, a Dwarf on the left side and an Elf on the right, a great primula blossom as the central boss over where the two doors came together, and the Wizard Gandalf carved into the door handles. Yes, a good room for the lad, she thought. Just enough from his family’s apartment in the Hall to make him feel comfortable, but not more than he could bear.
Gilda and Sara had gone, driven by Mac, to Whitfurrow to close out the smial there, and they’d bring back most of the lad’s possessions and the family pieces that would mean the most to him when it came time for him to set up his own household. Esme found herself wondering where that might be--already she sensed that it wouldn’t likely be here in Buckland. No, once Frodo Baggins came of age he’d want a home of his own, but not here so close to where his first great grief had come to him. Somewhere, she thought as she joined him in staring out the window with her hand on his shoulder, where he could see the stars clearly.
“We won’t be going to the Free Fair?” demanded Frodo, his expression disbelieving.
“Not this year, lad,” Gilda pronounced solemnly. “After all, it’s the first one after....” She didn’t bother to finish, and didn’t need to.
Esme noted how the lad drew in on himself. She knew that the Free Fair in Michel Delving had been an outing as eagerly anticipated in the Baggins household as it was in Bag End or the farm in Whitwell. Drogo had always taken rooms in the inn within the village for himself as a young bachelor, a practice he’d kept up once he’d married. He’d always displayed at least one piece of the furniture he’d carved and joined in the past year, and Primula’s woolwork and embroidery had captured many a ribbon. The last two years running Frodo’s own pictures had been entered, and one had won a third place last year. Drogo and Frodo had both taken part in the races and games, and for the past three years Frodo had won first place in the distance race for lads his age every time; and when father and son had run together in the three-legged race last time they’d come in second. They’d always stayed for the whole of the Fair, and Frodo had always stood by his mother with shining eyes to watch when his father and Uncle Bilbo and Cousin Paladin stood up amongst the menfolk to dance the Husbandman’s dance. Once when that was over Drogo had slipped the band a silver, and they’d played the Bounder’s Jig, and Drogo and Frodo had danced it side by side, with all clapping and laughing and many tossing the requisite coppers or brasses that traditionally rewarded those who’d performed that dance. Drogo had given all of it to Frodo, who’d found Esme and Saradoc and had treated them proudly to some of the Broadbelts’ famous pheasant and mushroom pasties.
And the three of them for years had taken part in the singing that closed the evening of Midsummer itself. Frodo would be heartsick not to go, Esme realized.
Looking at the unhappy face of the lad, she found herself wondering if perhaps Mother Gilda might just be wrong about how stressful going to the Fair might be for Frodo. Or perhaps, she thought, she might be right. If only she herself was as knowledgeable about other Hobbits as was Mistress Menegilda.
“You won’t be keeping him away from the Free Fair this year?” Bilbo asked, looking at Esme somewhat sideways.
“No, I promised him we’d not keep him from it again,” she answered. “Really, I felt that Mother Gilda ought not to have banned him from going last year, for he had been so looking forward to it. He was far, far too quiet the whole week the others were gone, and when he greeted Brendi when the wagons got back I felt it was far too forced. He never said a word about it, but I got the strong feeling he felt betrayed.”
“Naturally,” the old Hobbit sniffed. “A tie to his life with his parents withheld from him that way. Menegilda had best watch out, or she’ll make an invalid out of the boy or worse. He won’t bear coddling.”
When Gilda found Merilinde and Lavender in charge of the six faunts she’d set Frodo to minding she’d gone white. “Where is Frodo?” she demanded.
“He went with old Bilbo,” Lavender answered her. “Bilbo asked us to watch the little ones for an hour and a half so as Frodo could get a break and see some of the fair on his own and mayhaps do something as he’d like to do by himself. He swore as he’d not allow him to come to any mischief or harm.”
“That interfering old--bachelor!” the Mistress snorted. “Esme, go and make certain the lad’s not trying to get into the day’s races. And you,” she added to Ivy Boffin’s young daughter who stood watching them with her eyes wide, “would you know Frodo Baggins?”
“Mother Gilda,” Esme said, staying her errand to intercede for the lass, “that’s Narcissa Boffin--she often visits the Hall when we’re there for Yule. Of course she knows her cousin Frodo.”
“Do you have any idea where he might be about the grounds?”
“No, mum,” the lass replied, her tone rather defensive. “I’ve not seen him since Uncle Bilbo brought these two to take over for him for a bit.”
Menegilda gave a great sigh. “I don’t wish to lose the lad through overmuch concern he’s not having as much of a lark as he’d wish. Well, child, go off and see if he’s at the grounds for the races and games.”
Esme gave a nod and dutifully set off on her errand.
“Mistress Esme!” panted Gomez Brandybuck as he pelted into the great open parlor where Esme was aiding those who were dusting the room, “Come quick! There’s been an accident, there at the beach.”
Terrified at what she might find, Esme called out to one of her helpers, “Lavender, go and fetch Mac and Saradoc, and have them see to it towels and blankets are sent to the bay where the children swim. And send Master Beldir and any of the other healers who might be about.
She herself grabbed up the old blanket that she’d spread over the sofa as she’d been dusting the chandelier that hung over it, and hiking up her skirts in one hand she raced out the open door, down toward the bay south along the Brandywine.
What she found was not what she’d expected, for it wasn’t Frodo lying face-down on the ground but Fred Oldbuck; Frodo was kneeling over him and bringing his hands up behind him to force the water out of him, then turning him over to breathe down into his mouth, having pinched the other lad’s nose closed, to get him breathing again. Three breaths, and then the next breath was taken by Fred himself as he began to cough almost convulsively. Frodo had him turned on his side in an instant, and after another minute the coughing finally abated as the last of the water was expelled.
She was quickly by the rest and was helped by Frodo to wrap Fred with the dusty blanket she carried. “I’m all right,” Fred kept trying to assure her, but Esme merely shook her head.
“No, child,” she said, “you may be all right now, but when the healers get here they’ll have my head if I let you up before they have the chance to check you over, you know. Now stay still.” She looked up and around, then smiled back at him. “They’re almost here, you see. Good enough then.”
In moments Master Beldir was moving in on the child, and she gave way gladly enough, pulling Frodo away with her when he would have waited by Fred’s side until he was certain the other lad was indeed as well as could be expected. Meanwhile Sara and Mac, having supplied the healer with a couple more warm blankets and a length of toweling for the lad’s head, were gathering details of the incident. Seeing one of the blankets brought had been set aside, she now wrapped it about Frodo, who was clad in the short trunks usually worn when the lads were swimming together. He was quivering slightly, but not with shock. Indeed he appeared remarkably calm, and his major concern was for the lad who sat now on the ground, growling with growing discomfort in answer to Beldir’s questions.
“And then suddenly Frodo was swimming out, beyond the bay, and grabbed Freddy by the hair and pulled him up to the top. He got his one arm about Freddy’s head and sought to swim back, although it was a job one-handed against the current. At least it brought him closer to the bank, and we larger lads could make a chain and he got Gil’s hand and we hauled them in. And Mistress Esme saw as how Frodo got the water out of him, for he was just doing that as she got here, and Frodo breathed into his mouth as Mr. Mac taught us, and at last he started coughing, and now he’s all right.” The older lad’s explanation now finished, all looked at Frodo.
Frodo was a year younger than Fred Oldbuck, but was as tall, if only two-thirds the weight. However, he had been an accomplished swimmer for some years, having been taught by his mother and Saradoc. That he’d been able to save Fred from the current somehow seemed just right to Esmeralda Brandybuck. She put an arm about his shoulders and pulled him close to her, smiling into his beautiful blue eyes, so reminiscent of those of his mother. “Your folks,” she whispered to him, “must be so very proud of you.”
He searched her face, his eyes alight with some emotion she couldn’t name, then smiled, that brilliant smile she hadn’t seen for so long. And an unrecognized knot that somehow lay just behind her heart unraveled.
Bilbo came for their joint birthday, bringing a great pad of drawing paper, charcoal drawing sticks, a new stick of graphite, a box of colored chalks he explained he’d purchased from the Dwarves of Erebor, who said they’d brought them from Dale, a few balls of gum, three bottles of colored ink, several quills, and three books, one of them indeed about the habits of insects. It was written in what Esme knew was Tengwar script but heavily illustrated, and Frodo was fascinated by it.
“And it’s mine to keep?” he asked. “You aren’t going to have to send it back after copying it?”
Bilbo was beaming as he shook his head. “No, lad, you won’t have to give it back. The note that came with it from Lord Elrond indicates this came from another Elvish realm, the Golden Wood, where the Elves feel they owe me a debt of gratitude for helping remove the threat of Smaug from their kinsman’s realm of Mirkwood. It was sent as a free gift to me, and I’m thrilled to share it with you, Frodo.”
Frodo leafed through the pages, pausing at a colored picture of dragon- and damselflies so realistic that Esme almost expected them to lift off the page to fly out through the garden toward the shallows of the river. He shifted his gaze from the picture to the graceful lettering, his expression thoughtful. “It’s too bad I can’t read it,” he murmured.
“Well, that can be rectified,” Bilbo said, settling down on the bench beside Frodo and leaning his head over the book alongside the dark curls of the younger Hobbit. “Now, this here....”
Esme watched the two of them together, Frodo’s gaze almost dancing over the page, Bilbo’s steady and expressing much experience. She no longer listened to the talk, merely watched how Frodo took it all in, nodding as each little fact was absorbed and fit itself into his understanding of what was on the page. My brilliant first lad, she thought. She watched his mouth shape an unfamiliar vowel, utter an exotic word, the amused shake of Bilbo’s head as he corrected the pronunciation, heard the quick self-deprecating laugh as Frodo realized his mistake and tried again. Oh, she thought, how right this is for him, our Frodo lad.
A late butterfly fluttered erratically away from the dahlias and chrysanthemums and circled the two Hobbits bent over the Elvish book about insects. Esme smiled at the way it seemed somehow more full of color as she saw it momentarily backed by Frodo’s shining curls.
“Wilwarin,” Bilbo said, his own attention drawn from the text by the flight of the butterfly. “That’s the Sindarin word for butterfly, my lad.”
Wilwarin, she thought. Yes, a good word, a proper one for her lad.
“But why can’t I go out and sled with the other lads?” Frodo asked “I promise I’ll wear my scarf and keep my jacket properly buttoned and my cloak about me. Oh, Aunt Esme, I’ve not been out for weeks. It’s more than I can stand to have to stay in all the time when the weather’s no worse than it’s ever been in my life!”
“Your Aunt Gilda has forbade it, Frodo.”
“But it’s not fair!” His tone was filled with frustration and barely suppressed fury. “Fred’s barely over that cold he had a week ago, and his mother isn’t making him stay in away from all the fun. And I’ve not even been sick.”
“I need you to help decorate the Great Hall for Yule, sweetling.”
“I’m not your sweetling!” he seethed. “I’m nobody’s sweetling. And no matter how you may want me to help decorate the Great Hall you know as well as I do that Aunt Amaranth will do it all, as she always does, and she’ll not agree to let you and me do anything but hand her things and maybe place a few sprigs of greens.”
He was right, of course.
She found him in the library, not reading, but sitting not in front of one of the great windows but to one side of it, somehow, peering out of it obliquely. His expression was bleak.
“Is there anything troubling you, dearling?” she asked quietly.
He shrugged, but didn’t answer.
“Your Uncle Rory has engaged a new lessons master. He’s Tumnus, Sadoc’s third grandson. He’s been serving as tutor for the Longbottom children in the far South Farthing, but they’re beyond it now and he’s decided to come home to Buckland again. He ought to add a good deal to the studies you’ve done already.”
He gave her a quick glance, then looked away again.
She tried again. “You’d been complaining that Bodridoc wasn’t teaching you anything.”
At last he responded in low tones, “He wasn’t. I’d been through all those lessons with my mum and dad and Uncle Bilbo. And his writing and spelling were horrid.”
“Well, I suspect you will find Tumnus an improvement.”
He shrugged, but failed to look away from the greyness beyond the window. She reached for his hand, but he pulled it away. Not knowing what to do or say, she pulled another chair near him and sat in it, hoping that just her presence would be enough.
They sat thus for quite some time, until she’d almost decided she’d get nothing from him, before he said, again in low tones, “Uncle Dodinas wouldn’t let me help him bring in the wood. Gomez and Brendi, yes. But not me. Aunt Mantha wouldn’t let me climb the ladder to hang the mistletoe. Hawthorn won’t let me help wring out the clothes from the boilers and hang them from the airing racks in the old kitchens. Willow allowed me to help knead the bread until Aunt Gilda came in and glared at her, and then I was sent off with the admonition to go wash my hands well and perhaps see to the younger children. But it’s naptime, and the faunts are all in their own rooms with their mums or older sisters looking after them.
“Why won’t anyone let me help, Aunt Esme? I used to help my mum and dad all the time. But here--here I’m not good enough to help.” She could see a slight tremble to his lower lip and the sparkle of unshed tears in his eyes. “I’m no good for anything.”
“That’s not true, Frodo.” She reached out to lay her hand on his shoulder, but he shrugged it away.
“Then why won’t they let me help?”
“You’re a special lad, dearling....”
“Too special to help? Too special to do anything worth doing? Too special to go out and sled with the other lads or build snow smials or play at snowball battles? Oh, I can mind the little ones, but not really help.”
“What other lad your age even understands the word admonition, Frodo?”
He gave a growling laugh with no humor to it. “Good enough to know words, I am. But what use is that to just living, Aunt?”
Suddenly he rose and went out of the room, but when she followed after him, she couldn’t find him. She searched throughout the smial, and didn’t find him anywhere. He didn’t come to tea or supper.
Finally as late supper was nearly ready she checked his room one more time, and found he was there, sitting in his chair much as he’d been doing in the library, staring obliquely again out into the dark of the winter night. He had no candle or lamp lit, was sitting there in the dimness of his room, watching the first flakes of a new snowfall beginning to drift down, illuminated by lights in other windows. He didn’t turn as she opened his door and looked in, didn’t respond to his name or her questions.
It took Sara’s command to finally draw him out of his room to Master Rorimac’s office where the lad stood, his face stony as his uncle and his cousins all three examined him.
“Why didn’t you come to tea and supper, Frodo?” Rory asked.
“I wasn’t hungry.”
“You’ll become ill if you don’t eat properly, lad.”
“Where did you hide all this time?”
Again Frodo shrugged.
“Late supper is ready. You are to go in to the dining room and eat a decent meal.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“How do you think you’ll be able to do anything if you don’t eat?”
Finally Frodo actually looked into his uncle’s face. “Do anything? Since when am I allowed to do anything, Uncle Rory?”
Esme, sitting in the corner behind to her husband’s father, watching, saw the frustration and hurt in the lad’s eyes.
“Go to the dining room. Now, Frodo.” Rory’s voice was soft, even gentle. Had he ordered Frodo loudly, Esme suspected the child would have just stood there; but at this unexpected gentleness Frodo again looked into his uncle’s eyes and his lip trembled some, and a single tear escaped to run down his cheek. He turned his head to wipe it against his shoulder and his sleeve, and without saying anything more he went out.
At the meal he sat at the children’s table, although he ought now to be sitting at the teen’s table, as tall as he was getting. He shook his head when Brendi tried to talk to him, and sat with a single chop upon his plate and a small spoon of potatoes and half a slice of bread. She couldn’t tell that he was eating anything.
Sara saw him to his bed while she went to the Master’s parlor to answer questions from Rory and Mother Gilda. Dodi and Dino and Asphodel all sat nearby, their faces as troubled as Esme’s own.
“From what I can tell,” she finished, “he’s feeling as if he isn’t wanted.”
“Of course he’s wanted!” insisted Menegilda. “What on earth could make him feel that?”
Dodi took his pipe from between his teeth. “Maybe the fact that every time he offers to help anyone with anything we all tell him, no, that’s a good lad now, instead of either explaining or allowing him to assist us.”
“We can’t let him become too stressed, Dodinas Brandybuck. You saw him collapse when they brought his father’s body back.”
“And you think refusing to allow him to do anything worth doing isn’t stress enough, Menegilda Goold?” he asked, his tone acid. “The lad’s growing a good deal, and he’s fully capable of carrying in a few sticks of wood now and then, you know.”
Gilda snorted. “A few sticks of wood? Considering you bring in unsplit logs for the fireplaces, I certainly wouldn’t refer to it that way.”
Esme commented, her tone carefully neutral, “He said that when you came through the kitchens while he was helping knead bread dough you glared at Willow sufficiently that she sent him off almost before you’d gone out again. And he doesn’t understand why he can’t go sledding or playing in the snow with the other lads.”
Asphodel commented, “From what I can tell, he only wants to feel properly useful. He’s bored----”
Rory interrupted, “Well, all the children will start getting proper lessons again next week when Tumnus gets here and has the school room set up properly. That will give him something to look forward to. Bodridoc certainly wasn’t giving the lad much of a challenge, not when Frodo knows more words than Bodri does and can spell much better, and has read far more books in his thirteen years than Bodri has in sixty-two. We need a properly qualified lessons master with Frodo around, you know. And you could begin to work with the lad on his artwork, Delly. Stars know he appears talented enough.”
Rory’s sister shrugged. “I’m willing, but no one had asked, and last time I suggested such lessons it seems to me I was openly discouraged.” She gave Gilda a significant sidelong look, causing her brother’s wife to look away, slightly embarrassed, as Saradoc entered.
“He in bed now?” asked Rory of his older son.
Sara nodded. “Yes, although he barely murmured good night to me. I hate to see him pining like this.”
Menegilda sighed. “It’s for his own good, Sara, you know that.”
Dino shifted in his seat and reached for his mug of ale. “Seems to me Frodo’s the only one who doesn’t appreciate it’s all for his own good. Maybe if you were just to tell him what you and Beldir have noted....”
Gilda was shaking her head. “Would you want to know if it were you, Dinodas? We don’t wish to convince him he’s dying, you know.”
Esme heard Dino mutter, “No, we won’t convince him of that by treating him that way, will we?” She didn’t think Menegilda heard it, though.
When Bilbo arrived unexpectedly on First Yule Frodo’s sadness appeared to be immediately forgotten, particularly when he insisted Frodo bundle up warmly and took him out for a ramble over the snowy landscape of Buckland. They weren’t gone terrifically long, returning well within an hour, and as Frodo went off to his room to change to more festive clothes for the meal and parties to come Bilbo sought out Esme.
“What is this, Esme? He’s far too thin.”
“He’s been growing rather quickly, Bilbo.”
“You’re evading the point, Esmeralda. He’s also far too pale. And he became markedly cold shortly after we went out. I’ve taken him on rambles through the snow often enough over the years to know that’s totally unlike him Haven’t you folk been allowing him to go out and play with the other lads?”
Esme could feel herself flushing, and Bilbo’s lips thinned. “I see,” he said slowly. “So, he’s being made to stay in and kept from overtaxing himself still, is he? Didn’t you notice that last summer he braved the current of the river and managed to save a lad almost half again as heavy as himself? Doesn’t that tell you perhaps he’s not as fragile as Menegilda likes you all to think?”
Esme felt stung. “You didn’t see him when he collapsed, Bilbo, there when they brought his father in. He didn’t just go pale--his lips were blue, truly blue. I’ve seen several individuals faint, and never saw one go blue before. And when he pulled Freddy out of the river he didn’t do it alone--the other lads formed a chain so he could grab Gil’s hand at the end closest to him and they could help haul him and Freddy in, you know.”
“But you yourself told me, child, that he didn’t appear particularly winded or upset, more excited than anything.”
“I keep trying to get through to you folk here--you can’t coddle him--it will hurt him, truly hurt him, if you do. He’s far stronger than you seem to appreciate, and he needs that strength recognized and respected.”
At that moment Frodo came back, his eyes sparkling as he called to ask if Bilbo would like to see his newest drawings. As the old Hobbit walked away to join Frodo, Esme found herself glad he hadn’t been here a few days earlier to see how Frodo had looked then, staring morosely out at the snowy landscape he wasn’t allowed to enter.
“You told me he was intelligent,” Tumnus Brandybuck commented to old Rory as they met after dinner in the Master’s apartment with Sara, Esme, and Asphodel, “but you didn’t tell me he’d been studying Elvish.”
“Well, it’s not been a particularly regular study of the subject,” Rory said slowly, “just what Bilbo’s had time to share with him during his visits first to his parents’ home in Whitfurrow and later here.”
“So, it’s true that Bilbo Baggins has indeed met Elves?”
Sara nodded. “Oh, yes--he’s constantly receiving packages of books from them. He copies them out and often translates them, then sends most back to Rivendell. He has Frodo fairly besotted with the idea of them, I think. The lad’s read almost all the Elvish tales and histories Bilbo or old Gerontius ever sent here in the past, and we brought several more volumes back with us from his parents’ hole in Whitfurrow.”
“And he’s familiar with the language, also?”
Esme traded glances with her husband before saying, “I’m not completely certain how much he really knows, but he does know some words and has a couple books written in their writing. Bilbo says it’s called Tengwar script. I couldn’t begin to read it, of course, but Frodo’s practiced it a good deal, especially since last September.”
Tumnus reached into the bowl of sultanas that sat on the table by him and popped a few into his mouth, chewing meditatively. “I’ve read many of the basic stories--Túrin and the Dragon, Beren One-hand, the fall of Númenor--although that’s more about Men rather than Elves, strictly speaking. But it sounds as if young Frodo’s probably far more conversant with the subject than I am. What does he know about the Shire’s own history?”
Rory glanced at his older son and his wife, then back at the teacher. “I’m not completely certain. Probably a fair amount as Bilbo’s been much involved with setting his education. Bilbo’s scoured our records here and in the Great Smial, you see. If you let him get started on the subject he’ll go on for hours. He was furious to find there’s no longer the original charter granting the Shire to our people’s occupation still around, and even the copies are damaged, he says.”
“It’s been years since I last spoke with the old fellow,” Tumnus said consideringly. “Sounds as if he’s become a walking library. What does the lad know of crop management?”
“I’m not certain,” Sara said slowly, “for he’s never appeared particularly interested when I’ve spoken of it around him.”
“Breeding lines of your ponies? Laying records of the poultry?” As those who were around him shook their heads he gave a nod to his own. “So--a starting point--practical knowledge. One can be conversant in Elvish, I suppose, and still starve to death if one can’t cultivate a simple garden. By the way--does Bilbo know anything of cultivation?”
“Yes,” Rory said. “He has a gardener--Hamfast Gamgee. But when old Holman worked for him he was always out puttering about as well--developing new strains of roses, bringing in Elven lilies, certain herbs he learned of on his journey. Used to do his own pruning of the trees in his orchard.”
“Then at least old Bilbo can be used as an example of how one needs to be well rounded in ones knowledge. What about his family trees?”
Esme smiled. “He knows his Tooks back five generations. I used to play games with him when he was younger to teach him it all.”
“So, I’ll need to find out what he knows about the Brandybucks and the Bagginses, and perhaps some of the auxiliary lines such as the Goolds, Chubbs, Goodbodies, Bolgers, and the like. Who taught him to read and write?”
“I’m not certain anyone actually sat down and taught him those,” Rory said. “Seems there was never a time when he didn’t know.”
“His da started teaching him to write when he was three,” Esme said. “He’d been sitting on laps while folks read to him all his life, and was recognizing letters from the same age. Certainly he was reading on his own by the time he was five.”
Tumnus took another handful of sultanas. “Well, I must say that this will be quite the challenge!”
“What is it, Esme?”
“I’ve been having some cramping off and on all evening is all, love. I doubt it’s anything to wor--Oh!”
Sara searched her eyes. “Oh, what?” he asked, alarmed. But then he felt it--a spreading dampness near his hips. He sat up in the bed. “Then it’s time?” He was up immediately and, with his eyes on his wife he scrabbled blindly for the dressing gown hanging from the bedpost. “I’ll go fetch Mum and Poppea,” he said, his voice distracted.
Once the wave of pain was over she took a look at his agitated face and gave a short giggle. “You’d think you were having this bairn rather than me. Best hurry, I think, love.”
As he hurried out of the room, leaving the door swinging further open after him, she noted he’d put his dressing gown on inside out. But she was glowingly happy. This time she’d kept the child, and it was only a week and a half shy of when it was due. Within a few hours she could well be holding that little brother or sister she’d been wanting for Frodo in her arms. Certainly since they’d told him this one was coming he’d forgotten his frustrations of the winter in anticipation for the coming birth.
Some hours later as Poppea wiped her forehead, Esme came briefly to herself, hearing Menegilda at the door admonishing, “Well, have Tumnus or someone get him away. Hearing the cries will only terrify him--we can’t have him becoming frightened.”
She could hear Sara, obviously frustrated, answering, “But I’ve tried--and tried! I can’t keep him out of the apartments, it seems. I thought last time he was gone for good until it was over, only to find he was sitting on the floor behind my desk with a book in his hands, although I doubt he’s truly reading it. I won’t force him, Mum.”
Another wave was taking Esme as she heard her husband’s mother say, “Well on your head be it, then, Saradoc Brandybuck!”
Then, at Esme’s cry of pain Mother Gilda was back, leaning over her and checking. “It won’t be too much longer, dearling--sweet water and stars, it’s coming now. Poppea!”
And soon afterwards she heard with delight the lusty cries of a newborn as her own body gave its final relieved shuddering.
She was just delighting in lying still on clean sheets, feeling calm and eased and cleansed as it seemed she’d not been in ages, with Menegilda leaning over her with a gently triumphant smile on her face to place a tiny blanketed bundle in her arms when the door burst open. Somehow she wasn’t surprised to see the first one through it was a young teen with dark curls about his pale but shining face rather than her husband, although she couldn’t help noticing Sara was almost treading on Frodo’s heels as he followed. “Well,” she managed, “are the two of you ready to see Frodo’s small brother-cousin?”
She walked through the grounds of the Free Fair happily, pushing a currently empty pram of woven wicker before her. The stiffness of the birth had faded swiftly, and it was good to feel alive and at one with the world. She looked to her right at where Frodo walked, a blanketed Meriadoc in his arms, softly singing some song in Elvish he’d learned from Bilbo as he walked, his eyes returning periodically to the little face that peered up at him from the midst of its swaddlings. She couldn’t help noting that every time he met the eyes of the bairn he carried he seemed to glow a bit more.
Esmeralda herself was glowing with satisfaction as she felt her beloved Sara slip his arm about her waist. They exchanged joyous smiles and then a small but still satisfying kiss.
Yule was coming on, and as the bright days of summer had been displaced first by the cooler fall weather and the increasingly brittle days of winter Frodo had again become increasingly quiet and somewhat withdrawn. However, the other children had learned that Frodo, as was true of his Uncle Bilbo, was a veritable fount of tales; and whenever Esme saw Frodo’s expression grow distant she had but to give a nudge to one or another of the little ones to beg him for a story to see the discontent give way to growing animation as he sat with a circle of children about him, sharing his stories. She blessed Bilbo for having given the lad that gift to share, and she equally blessed the Creator for the gift of her son. Three things that gave Frodo joy that could ever put his doldrums to flight--telling a tale, the company of Bilbo Baggins with his sheer delight in the life given him and the world about him, and the smile of little Merry, whose own face lit up as much as that of Frodo when they saw one another anew.
“Aunt Esme--that new farmhand, the one who came from Bree--I don’t get a good feeling from him.”
“What do you mean, Frodo?”
“He’s angry all the time.”
“Nonsense, Frodo. Albro Greenman seems to do nothing but smile.”
“Look to his eyes, Aunt--the smile never reaches there. And when he goes past me it’s--it’s all I can do not to pull away. He’s angry, and his wife and children are frightened of him.”
“I’ll speak with your uncle.”
He nodded, his brow furrowed as he looked over his shoulder to follow Albro Greenman’s progress as he walked through the gardens toward the toolshed, knuckling his forehead to Aunt Amaranth as he passed her.
That evening it seemed no one could sleep. The weather was getting ready to change, Esme judged, and as she looked out the window of her bedroom she saw reflections of light from a number of windows further down the Hall off the trees and shrubs of the surrounding gardens.
One person was deeply asleep at least, she realized as she leaned over Merry’s cradle and saw he had one chubby fist to his mouth. Sara had gone off to his study a bit earlier, worried his own restlessness would keep her awake. But she, too, felt unable to settle. She pulled her dressing gown about her and headed for the privies, pausing to give a glimpse into Frodo’s room as she passed.
His bed was empty, and she realized he was sitting somewhat sideways in his cushioned chair, looking out at the night. “Are you having difficulties sleeping also, sweetling?” she asked.
He turned toward her, and from the dim light filtering in from the passageway she saw his face was quiet and thoughtful rather than discontented. “I slept for a time, but woke from a dream.”
“A bad one?”
He shook his head. “No. The moving water. I hadn’t had that one for so long.”
“Were you looking at the stars again?”
“No--it was daytime, and it was raining. The rain was beautiful, somehow, like quicksilver beads all around me. And in the distance I could hear singing--beautiful singing.” There was a distant flash; westward over the Shire proper apparently a storm was raging. A time later they heard the echoes of distant thunder.
“Well, it shall be raining here soon, I’d think,” Esme said. “I wonder if you should close your window.”
“In a minute--it’s been so close today that the storm will be welcome, Aunt.”
She nodded, and he turned again to look at the world outside. After a moment she found herself saying, “My Grandmother Blossom used to say that when you dream the same dream over and over it can mean it will come true some day.”
“Really?” he asked.
“Would you like this dream to come true, Frodo--to go upon the moving water?”
He shrugged. “But why would I want to do that? Although the singing was so delightful....” She could see the soft smile on his face.
Suddenly he stiffened. “What is it, Frodo?”
“Something’s wrong.” He sat as if listening, at last murmuring, “I can’t tell....” Then he went absolutely rigid, his face horror-struck. “Greenman--it’s Albro Greenman--he’s hurting someone, Aunt Esme--we need to go stop it!” And he was up and past her, snatching up his dressing gown as he passed the chair by his desk, pulling it about him as he sped out the door, hurrying for the far precincts of the Hall where many of the hands and servants had their quarters.
She started to follow him, but couldn’t keep up. Besides, if there was trouble it would be better.... She turned back and ran toward Sara’s study, bursting in to find he was sitting there with Mac and Dodi, their pipes in hand and a mug of ale before each. “Sara--Frodo’s run off toward the hands’ quarters. He says there’s something wrong at the Greenman’s apartment.”
“Some dream?” Sara asked, rising.
“No, he was awake, also, and looking out his window.”
“Did he see something?”
“No, it was more like he heard something, although I couldn’t hear it. He said Albro was hurting someone.”
“Hurting someone?” He looked at his brother and his uncle. “I can’t see how he could know something like that, but apparently we need to go check it out.” He gave a nod to his companions, who set down pipes and mugs, rose, and followed him out into the restless silence of Brandy Hall.
It was an hour before they returned as the promised storm finally let loose its fury over Buckland, Mac propelling a disheveled Albro Greenman before him, Dodi with his arm around Frodo, who was pale and had a bruise to his left cheek, and finally Sara shepherding Greenman’s wife and three children. The Hobbitess had a blackened eye and a split lip, while the oldest of the three children had a bruise the size and shape of his father’s hand on his cheek and wore a ripped nightshirt.
Two days later Albro Greenman was officially escorted across the Brandywine Bridge and told never to return to the Shire, and his wife and children were being given a cottager’s place in the midst of the Marish where they’d never again be in danger of being abused by the brutal Hobbit.
Three days later when a fishing dory overturned on the Brandywine River Frodo swam out and saved the fisherman and his young son, bringing them to hold onto the boat and somehow propelling the capsized craft over to fetch up at the island south of the Hall. There they lost the boat, but he was able to get the two of them onto the small eyeot and keep them calm until Mac was able to get a boat to them and bring them ashore to safety.
Esme found herself considering her young nephew with a worrisome combination of pride and concern. How did he seem to know?