“Well, here I am. I’m sorry to have been delayed, but I had to meet with Will Whitfoot before I left the West Farthing, and he insisted I stay for the meeting of the family heads. I shouldn’t have minded that overmuch if it hadn’t been held at the Great Smial, and it turned out to be more of an ordeal than usual as I’m certain Marmadas told you. Fancy Rory sending him as his representative. Anyway, Ferumbras was being very petty, and Lalia was so insistent on each and every little detail being handled just so that all were about willing to push her chair down the stairs outside the main front door if it could be managed. Light and dark, but that Hobbitess is growing more difficult by the day. Now, where’s my lad?”
“We’re not certain.”
Bilbo gave his cousin once removed a look of surprise. “What? Menegilda is allowing him to do things without supervision?”
Esme sighed. “It’s not that anyone is allowing Frodo anything. He’s gone Took stubborn on us, he has, and he won’t tell anyone where he’s going or what he’s doing--only at least twice a week he goes off on his own and is gone most of the day. He’ll say only that he’s not doing anything wrong. We’ve tried having him followed, but the lad has always been able to disappear at will--I’ll swear at times that he has that magic ring of yours from your tales.” She noted that he was suddenly placing his hand almost compulsively into his vest pocket, although he looked abashed almost immediately.
“For the most part he’s become quite silent. He rarely has a great deal to say to much of anyone other than Merry. It’s ‘Yes, Aunt,’ and ‘No, Uncle,’ almost all of the day any more until we are about to pull our hair out with the frustration of it.
“And all that Mother Gilda has to say is ‘I don’t believe that would be the best thing for you to do’ and he will merely nod, say, ‘Yes, mum,’ and disappear into his room or into the library or out into the garden with that journal of his. At least the first month after having been caught by Maggot--by the way, do you know if Farmer Maggot actually has a given name, for that’s all I’ve ever heard him called?”
Bilbo appeared startled by this sudden, unexpected question given in the midst of her narrative, but he dutifully searched his prodigious memory. “Ellis, I believe,” he finally informed her.
“Ellis? I see.” She sighed.
“You were telling me about the first month after he was caught with booty in hand in Farmer Maggot’s mushroom patch.”
She gave a brief nod. “Oh, yes. Rory had to give him some punishment duty, but in light of the way he appeared when at last he came home and how his heart appeared to be laboring, Menegilda was adamant it must not be heavy duty. Myself, I feel he would have done well with weeding detail in the more shaded fields, but she insisted he must not do any duty where he was required to work up a sweat; so in the end Da Rory gave him gardening duty and work in the glass houses alongside Dodiroc for four hours each day, followed by two hours helping to fold clothes in the laundries twice a week. Not, of course, that Frodo minded in the least. He was granted wages for the work he did--I mean, he’s not truly a child any more; and he was required to recompense Farmer Maggot for the loss of his crop out of them.
“But he is so very disheartened, Bilbo. He will smile for his Merry-lad and when he tells stories, although Rory had to insist he not tell more than one story at a time or more than once or twice a day or the poor lad would do naught but tell stories from morning till night and no work would get done anywhere within the Hall, for more and more of the older lads and lasses and even the adults will flock when he begins to spin a tale any more. But he doesn’t do much in the way of drawings again, and has discontinued his work with Asphodel. And now that Tumnus has become ill he isn’t even getting proper teaching. Oh, Bilbo--would you come here to the Hall, for his sake? Teach here--teach him?”
But even as she made the plea she could see the near-panic in Bilbo’s eyes. No matter how strong the urge to wander was at the moment, Bilbo’s roots remained in the rich soil of the Hill, there in the smial dug by his father to welcome his mother to Hobbiton. He might come and stay a month at a time, but she’d seen the discomfort grow in him before; never had he stayed longer than that. Always he must return to Bag End.
“Oh, Esmeralda, my dearest lass, you don’t know what you ask,” he murmured. “Oh, I’d do almost anything for my lad--almost anything. But to come here---- Ah, child, think of where it would most likely lead! The first time Menegilda sought to give me orders it would cause such a row you would not believe! It would make the Battle of the Five Armies look like a children’s battle of snow balls by comparison. And if she were to begin to give my boy commands I disagreed with....”
“No, I must suppose you are right,” Esme sighed. “But I could wish for it.”
He reached forward and drew her against him, holding her close and gently patting her back in comfort. “Oh, Esme, sweetling, it will all work out to the best, you know. Now, tell me, after he’s disappeared for the day, when do you usually see him again? Tea time?”
“Come to Sara’s office, Bilbo. No, on the days he disappears he will do so from shortly after second breakfast on. He apparently has asked Marigold, who came from Whitfurrow and knew him there, to prepare him a basket with sufficient food for luncheon and tea, along with a flask either of cold tea or water. From what we’ve been able to learn he goes first to his room and changes into older clothing, then he goes to the kitchen and gets what she’s packed for him, and then he goes out and is not seen again until he comes in for supper. We’re not certain what door he’s leaving from, for he’s seldom seen outside the Hall; and we’re not certain what door he returns through, either. All we can say is that when he appears at supper he’s almost always freshly bathed and in clean clothing, and his hair is always neatly brushed, head and feet.”
“And he’s gone out, rain or shine?”
“Yes--rain or shine.”
“I see,” Bilbo said quietly as they approached Saradoc’s office door. Esme went forward and gave a single rap, then pushed it open and waited politely for the older Hobbit to enter first.
Gilda, Mac, Rory, Dodinas, Dinodas, and Dodiroc were already there, and on seeing Bilbo arrive Sara gave a nod of welcome. “Would you prefer ale or cider, Bilbo?” he asked.
“Oh, an ale, if you please. So, our lad has finally managed to get himself caught, has he? I must say he did a job of it, according to what Maggot told me when I saw him at the Great Smial last week as well as what Esme-lass has told me as we’ve come through the Hall. He was very impressed, you must realize--most impressed indeed. Thinks our boy is most intelligent and inventive.”
“So he made plain,” Menegilda said rather dryly.
As Bilbo accepted his ale and sat himself on the end of the narrow settle, he continued, “Maggot was seriously hoping you would not all be too harsh on the lad. Said that the three stripes he gave him and the fright of it all ought to have been enough. He’ll be relieved to hear that the lad accepted his month of penitence duty responsibly enough, I believe. And now Frodo’s disappearing on you twice a week, is he?”
“Yes,” Mac said, “and will tell none of us where he’s going or what he’s doing.”
“My stars, that is puzzling,” Bilbo murmured. “Yet you accept his word for it that he’s not doing anything wrong?”
“If he’s not doing wrong, then why is he not telling us where he’s going and what he’s doing?” asked Gilda.
Sara looked at his mother. “I truly doubt, Mum, that he’s doing aught to make us ashamed. He’s never been one to lie. It’s true he never told us what he was doing while he was raiding the Marish, but at the same time he never lied about not doing it.”
“But he never admitted to it, either,” she returned. “Instead he’d demand that others explain how he could have done what he was suspected of doing.”
“I doubt,” Mac said slowly, “that he did all that has been blamed on him these past few years, either. Certainly some of the other groups of lads must have realized how well the distractions worked for those who were following Frodo and must have tried some of his tactics, or thought of their own. After all, that was how Gomez and Boridoc and their fellows were caught by the Burdocks nicking cabbages--trying the begging for directions ploy on them twice in a month’s time.”
Bilbo gave a snort of derisive laughter. “Too foolish to keep track of the ones on whom they’d played that one before, were they?” he asked. “From the first time I heard that Gomez had been trying to stick Frodo’s head down the privy I knew he couldn’t have been too awfully bright.”
Gilda straightened with shock. “He didn’t!”
“Oh, yes, but he did, but several years ago now,” Esme affirmed. “He’s not tried anything that I’ve been aware of for quite some time. And believe me, Frodo has made certain Gomez and those who were helping him at the time were well paid back.”
“By the way, where’s young Merry?” asked Bilbo.
“With Adamanta and Berilac and the rest of the younger ones in the music room, practicing the “Morning Song.” They’re both to take part when the children of the Hall perform at the Free Fair, and it was very thoughtful of Will to invite them to do so.”
“I’m grateful Will agreed to extend the invitation,” Bilbo said with satisfaction. “He was so interested when I told how pleasing they were.”
Gilda examined him closely. “So, you intend to make certain Frodo goes to Michel Delving again this year, do you?”
“Of course. Really, Menegilda, you know how much going meant to him and his parents when he was a little one. If you keep stealing away his pleasures and accomplishments one by one you’ll lose the lad completely, one way or another--you must realize that.
“Well,” Bilbo added, finishing his ale and reaching to scoop nutmeats out of the bowl sitting on the table beside his settle, “if I plan to waylay the lad I’d best get to a position where I’ll be able to do so. I pray you will excuse me....” He left his mug on the table, rose, gave a brief bow to the company, and left the room.
Bilbo and Frodo came into the communal dining room together halfway through the meal, pausing for a moment as they came through the doorway for a last exchange, at which Frodo, his expression determined, shook his head, and after receiving a brief kiss on his cheek from his remarkable kinsman he turned to the teen’s table to sit alongside Brendilac and Gil while Bilbo, having watched Frodo take his place, finally crossed to join the Master’s table. Esme couldn’t contain herself further; as he sat down she demanded, “Well, did you find out where he’s going and what he’s doing?”
Bilbo gave a slightly delayed nod, his eyes once more turning toward Frodo, before answering, “Yes, he confessed to me--in part, at least. However, I have agreed to be sworn to silence about the matter. All I can--or will--tell you is that he is doing nothing wrong. Indeed,” he added with a significant look at the Mistress of the Hall, “he is doing what he sees as the most right thing he can do under the circumstances, and I cannot do anything other than to support him in his endeavor.” And with that he turned his attention to his meal, and would not be swayed from his oath to Frodo.
Together Bilbo and Esme approached the doors to Tumnus’s quarters, where Bilbo knocked decidedly. The lessons master’s wife answered the knock, her tired expression lightening to note the identity of the callers. “Master Bilbo! Mistress Esme! Oh, do come in--Tumnus will be so pleased to see you.” And she led them through to the small study, lit and given air by a neat window on the other side of the now almost denuded desk that stood against the far wall.
His small grey cat beside him, Tumnus reclined against cushions and pillows on a sofa, so angled he could look out into the small, ancient garden here on the back side of the Hall, one in which part of an ancient wall and apparent window embrasure remained from the days in which the lords of Cardolan had lived in their lofty halls built between the Baranduin and the Old Forest. He’d become painfully thin, and there was a bandage covering his cheek where he’d always had a great mole, one that had some months earlier begun to grow in a remarkable and deadly manner. He turned his pain-filled yet still peaceful gaze toward his visitors. “Bilbo, my beloved third-cousin twice removed. And Esme--how delightful,” he murmured. “How wonderful to have the two of you visit me here. And how is our Frodo?”
“Doing very well, considering the circumstances,” Bilbo assured him as he drew the desk chair and turned it toward the ailing Hobbit so that Esme might sit down, after which he moved a second chair from the far wall so that he might sit beside her. “He’s set himself his own penance, apparently, in which he has sworn to himself he will do whatever is required of him by his guardians, a vow I fear he is already ruing.”
“Oh, dear,” Tumnus sighed. “Considering Mistress Menegilda’s decided wrong-headedness regarding the lad, I suspect he would indeed find that vow an onerous one to keep. And considering the fact that young Topol has read nowhere near the number of books as has Frodo and that his memory is also far from as exact, I strongly suspect that the lad is finding the hours spent in the schoolroom anything but stimulating.”
“He’s doing a fair amount of teaching of the youngest ones to read and write still,” Esme explained, “and has been writing out booklets of stories for them to practice with.”
“The dear lad--I know there is much in him that might indeed predispose him to teaching,” Tumnus said, “but he deserves to continue to learn. He would do so very well, Bilbo, under your tutelage, as I’ve made pains to communicate to Sara, Rory, and Gilda.” He searched the older Hobbit’s face. “But you won’t be moved to do so here, am I not right?”
“There you have it, Tumnus my lad,” Bilbo agreed. “I fear that if I were to offer either Gilda or I would fall at the other’s hand in extremely short order.”
The lessons master nodded, then a wave of pain crossed his face. “It’s too bad, really,” he murmured. “You have so much to offer him that no one anywhere else in the Shire could, knowledge he burns to take as his own.” He sighed and rubbed at his cheek. “He needs to get out of here, Bilbo Baggins--without meaning to, Gilda will end up devouring him. And he deserves to be more than a lessons master of the Hall, you know. Given the chance, he could be Mayor one day; but no one will vote for a Mayor who dwells in Buckland. Mayor, or perhaps----” He yawned, closing his eyes and leaning his head back. “Mayor, or perhaps more,” he muttered as he drifted off into a doze. The cat pressed itself more firmly against his side.
It was good to get Frodo away from the Hall. He rode on the bench beside Bilbo during the drive in the open surrey toward Michel Delving, Merry usually perched on Frodo’s lap rather than on the padded seat behind where his parents sat. While the great wagons carrying most from the Hall who’d wished to attend the Free Fair went onward toward the field where they always camped, the Master’s Heir and his party stayed their journey late the second afternoon with the family of Paladin and Eglantine Took at Whitwell, where Frodo and Merry were shown the farm by Pearl and Pimpernel, small Pervinca following, fascinated, in their wake.
“You’re all looking particularly well,” Pal said, “all save Frodo. I doubt I’ve ever seen him so subdued in his life.”
“He’s better than he was before we left the Hall,” Sara sighed. “But when he came in after his fright by Maggot--I’ve not seen him look like that since his parents died--grey and shaking. Mother insists his heart was laboring heavily that night.”
“Do you think he might have been the one who indeed put the glue on Lalia’s chair during that last visit?” Lanti asked.
“I still don’t see how he could be,” Esme said, “although I didn’t see how he could have pulled off some of the scrumping exploits we heard tell of there in the Marish, either.”
Bilbo snorted. “Well, look at it logically, Esme--he probably didn’t do all of it, for as Sara’s pointed out some of the other lads were mimicking Frodo’s tactics. And young Reginard was as much a target for Lalia’s criticism during our last visit all of us together as was Frodo; and Isumbard wouldn’t have been above taking some revenge for the way she was speaking of his sister. Bard’s very protective of his sister’s feelings, you know.”
“True,” Esme said, sighing. “If Lalia weren’t such a--a----”
“Despotic old tyrant?” suggested Bilbo.
“Perfect,” Esme agreed.
“And the only reason Ferumbras was as angry as he was was because he’d just had that chair constructed to replace the old one that broke down under her weight, and he was envisioning having to do it all over again,” Paladin informed them. “She’s always had him pay for having these things made, you realize.”
Sara was obviously floored by that. “She controls the purse strings in the Great Smial, and gives her son his allowance, then he must pay for such things for her benefit?” he demanded. “The self-centered old cow!”
Esme felt the same anger in herself. “Cousin Ferumbras might have made a great Thain and Took if he’d received encouragement instead of always having been kept under the thumb of his mother. He was a decent enough lad, as I remember it and as our sisters have told me.”
They looked out the kitchen window to see, out near the byre, Frodo and Merry being encouraged by Pearl to stroke one of the smaller of the calves, Frodo looking up as Pearl spoke, his eyes fixed on her face, and Pearl glowing in the light of his attention.
“What do you mean your Aunt Gilda wouldn’t approve if you danced?” Bilbo asked, his eyebrows raised. “Nonsense, lad, since when have you known anything but pleasure from dancing? The Creator wouldn’t have granted you such a talent if He’d not intended you to use it. Now, look--there’s your cousin Narcissa right over there, and she’s an excellent one for dancing as well. Get on with you, now!”
There was definitely a look of relief in Frodo’s eyes as he nodded at Bilbo’s admonition and turned away to approach Narcissa. They couldn’t hear the exchange between Frodo and the lass, but her eyes lit at the request, and the two of them moved onto the dance floor and joined one of the forming sets; and as the music began they joined hands as they turned to start the skipping that marked the beginning of the form for the dance.
“I must say,” Esme breathed as she watched them turn toward one another for the linking of hands to do the one turn, then the hand-off of Narcissa to Reginard while Frodo briefly accepted Pearl from Folco Boffin for a single turn before the lasses returned to their former partners for the next figure, “that Frodo and Narcissa are well matched. Oh, my--that dip was most masterfully done, wasn’t it?”
Bilbo, his expression filled with pride and pleasure at seeing Frodo enjoying himself, nodded. “Has all his father’s grace on the dancing floor and then some. I’ll swear he’s as good as my great-grandfather Balbo, and his dancing skills were legendary.”
Saradoc nodded his agreement. “So my gaffer told me when I was a little lad. He always swore you inherited your skill from Balbo. Of course, the Boffins have always been excellent dancers as well.”
The dance had reached the end of one form, and now the lasses had moved to the next lad, and it was Pearl who skipped by Frodo’s side, her face filled with enjoyment, her laughter clearly heard over the music. She hadn’t the natural grace at dancing Narcissa possessed, but what she lacked in skill she made up for in enthusiasm. Then the second form was ending and she reached to accept Reginard’s hand with just a barely discernible glance of regret cast back in Frodo’s direction as Frodo accepted Linden Took as his partner for the third form, Linden’s face glowing with pleasure as she took his hands to begin the skip that began the form.
“Oh, Frodo,” murmured Merry as they went through the tent where the flowers were being shown, “look at those hydrangeas! Aren’t they lovely?”
Frodo nodded. “Dodiroc would be so jealous,” he agreed. “I wonder who submitted them?”
Bilbo laughed. “Oh, those were brought by the Gaffer from the gardens at Bag End--as is true of those lilies there.”
Frodo stopped, his eyes wide with wonder and pleasure. “The lilies,” he murmured softly, “Elven lilies, Uncle Bilbo?” At the old Hobbit’s nod he breathed, “I’d forgotten how very lovely they are.” He moved forward to bend over them to sniff their delightful scent, then straightened, his eyes alight. “You had some planted outside the room where I used to sleep, there beside yours at Bag End. I remember.”
“There and outside my study window as well,” Bilbo explained.
“Oh, and irises. I always loved the irises at Bag End, and was thrilled to realize Uncle Ponto had married an Iris.”
As they finally went to leave the tent, Esme saw Frodo glance back at the Elven lilies Hamfast Gamgee was exhibiting from Bag End, seeing the regret to be discerned in the lad’s eyes.
They paused at the turn toward Hobbiton as Bilbo climbed down from the surrey and accepted his pack from Frodo. “You’re certain you won’t stay the night with me?” he asked them. “It’s been so many years since you Brandybucks visited me at Bag End.”
“We promised Gilda,” Saradoc was saying with regret, “that we’d not bring Frodo within range of Lobelia’s tongue. It was all we could do to stay out of sight of her and Otho at the Free Fair, you know.”
“It’s really too bad,” Bilbo said with disappointment, “although I can understand wishing to protect the lad from the old harridan. Well, a good journey to you, and give my respects to Tumnus and Dodiroc.”
Once the old Hobbit was well started down the lane toward Hobbiton and the Hill, Sara slapped the reins, and they hurried off catch up with the line of wagons full of Bucklanders headed back toward the Bridge and home.
Frodo produced the plaques and ribbons won by Bucklanders at the Free Fair for the Master’s and Mistress’s inspection. “And our ponies just managed to beat those from Cottons’ farm in the gig race,” he informed them, “and were well before those belonging to the Great Smial.”
Sara laughed. “Ferumbras was fair gnashing his teeth at being beaten out by Buckland ponies and those of a simple farmer, not that Tom Cotton is truly but a simple farmer. And if Maggot’s bulls didn’t bring in all the ribbons again--three generations now!”
Frodo gave Menegilda some silk flowers. “Here, Aunt, I bought you these. The Gaffer’s wife Bell makes them. I met her--she was minding a stall where she was selling this and some lace and embroidery she and others in the family made up over the winter. These are patterned after the Elven lilies at Bag End. I think they’re among the loveliest flowers I’ve ever seen anywhere.” He sighed. “She looks older than I remember, Missus Bell does, but her smile is as warm as ever, I think.”
Esme was examining Dwarvish crockery on display in the Oldbuck shop in Kingsbridge when she heard the door open and close as other customers entered. “They have the best selection of ribbons here in all of Buckland,” she heard Saradas’s wife Dirna comment. Her heart fell, for she had found that of all of old Rory's brothers and sisters and their families, the one person she barely could tolerate was Dirna. In fact, hardly anyone got along with Dirna, who had the tendency to interpret everything in the worst possible light and who rarely had much positive to say about anyone. “Not,” Dirna added, “that that’s saying much about the quality of ribbons anywhere about the place. No, if you want ribbons you’d do best actually to go to Pincup or Threadneedle.”
As usual Dirna’s voice could be clearly heard throughout the shop, and with a quick glance aside at Ariel Esme could tell that the shopkeeper’s face was flushed with the insult, one that was even worse accepted as Ariel had made a point of purchasing her ribbons from the weavers of such things in Threadneedle and Pincup, plus she had a selection of some traded by Dwarves from other lands far to the south, ribbons of unusual quality and materials, including some of a marvelous purple said to have been colored with a dye made from the shell of a creature drawn from distant waters.
Frodo, who’d gone off to the living quarters for the Oldbucks to fetch Fred so the two of them could go off to spend a bit of time together before he must accompany Esme back to the Hall, came through the shop with his friend. “We’re off, Mum,” Fred said to Ariel as they passed. “I should be back in two hours’ time.”
“Remember to stop by the Bridge to see if the shipment of scarves is here from Bree,” she advised him, “and have a good time. Frodo child, it is so good to see you again. It has been too long, you know.”
“Thank you, Missus Ariel,” Frodo said, ducking his head slightly. “And the walnut cake is absolutely wonderful.” Then the two lads were out the door and off, those remaining in the shop looking after them.
“That was that Frodo Baggins, wasn’t it?” asked Dirna’s companion, Polo Brownloam’s wife.
“Yes, the rapscallion,” Dirna sniffed. Esme colored as she turned to keep her identity obscured from her husband’s aunt by marriage. “What he and his lads did to you and Polo and the farm....”
“Actually,” Missus Brownloam said, “I thought as they were very clever. Polo’s always had too strong an opinion of his own wit, and he’s done nothing for years but twit the lads throughout the region. Much as I love my husband, he’s deserved to be twitted a bit in return--it was good for him, I think. And how they would trick folks--my, if it didn’t bring a good laugh to hear how folks were gulled.” She paused, then said, apparently to Ariel, “Oh, but these ribbons here are so unusual and lovely. Might you have some in a width of, say, this?”
“Oh, yes, mum; it will take but a moment,” Ariel assured her, hurrying off to the adjoining storeroom to fetch what was wanted.
“He’s an odd one, that Frodo is, for all that Das’s brothers and sisters all dote on the lad,” Dirna said. “Reads far to much--has odd thoughts in his head. Do you know what he said to me at the spring festival last year? He asked if I ever go out at night just to look at the stars! Can you imagine?”
“Don’t you ever go out to enjoy the stars, Dirna? I love to look up at them, myself, especially when the Wanderer shines down most brightly on the azaleas.”
“If you aren’t as queer a one as is that Frodo. And it’s too bad that old Bilbo hasn’t done his proper duty by the lad, after all. I mean, he is family head for the child. Just think--he could possibly make the lad his heir and give him a proper home and decent prospects. And instead he lets the lad languish out here on the wrong side of the Brandywine, where he’ll never be more than just another dependent on the Master and Mistress. I hear they’re already profiting from the lad’s great reading, having him teach the younger children, not that I hold for teaching all and sundry how to read and write. Waste of time, all this learning is, for the majority of the folks of the Shire.”
“Well, I appreciate that when I was younger and was accepted as a maid at the Hall for a time they taught me how to read and write,” Missus Brownloam said, a touch of impatience in her own voice at the constant criticism from Dirna. “I help keep the records and ledgers for the farm, and enjoy reading a good tale from time to time as the folks of the Marish pass books read onto such as me. Really, Dirna, don’t you have anything nice to say today? Oh, Missus Ariel, but that would be absolutely perfect. If I might have six measures--I intend for the lass’s new dresses to sport such colors for the harvest ball at Maggot’s farm. And if you have an equal amount in one of the same width in this shade of green....”
The day had suddenly clouded over and the rain was sheeting down, the windows almost impossible to see details through as Esme sank down in a chair near the back of the largest parlor. She’d just finished assisting in the dusting of the library, and was willing to wager that the shelves and books hadn’t been thoroughly freed of dust in at least three years. She felt gritty and filthy, and was wondering if she ought not to have followed Liliana and Hawthorn back to the bathing rooms rather than to have wandered in here to leave traces on the chairs. But for now it felt good just to sit....
Most of the residents of the Hall had retreated to their own quarters with clothing snatched hastily off lines and hedges out of doors to hang them before parlor fires wakened for the first time in the season to counter the sudden chill and grey from outside. The fact Hawthorn wasn’t available to lower the airing racks in the old kitchens would annoy many of them, Esme knew.
“I swear he’s the one what saw to it as a great bowl of bread pudding laced with herbs to make one ill found its way into Gomez’s room,” a Hobbitess said as she and another came into the parlor. “He’s never liked my Gomez, that Baggins lad hasn’t.”
“Nonsense, Marguerite, it’s always been the other way about. Your Gomez has always been one to take offense at nothing, and he’s always been the first to count Frodo a mam’s lad and the like.”
“Well, if that Frodo’s too good to do what the other lads throughout the Hall do, what does anyone expect?” Marguerite demanded. “You don’t see Frodo Baggins out in the fields with a hoe in his hands, do you? Or in the stable wielding a pitchfork, cleaning stalls? Oh, no, not that precious child. No, they have him minding the bairns and the faunts. He was too good for years to even play with the other lads. You tell me he isn’t as much the mam’s lad my son’s always said.”
“He’s the first to help any as truly needs it, and you know it, Marguerite. It’s not his fault as the Mistress keeps him from doing anything as might strain him. Marigold’s told me as he was that grey and sick after Maggot finally caught him scrumping his mushrooms and had his dogs chase him off the place. The poor lad’s never been about dogs enough to tell when one might be truly vicious as opposed to wanting to play--Maggot’s dogs know their business, you know, and would never have done him any harm lest he tried to hurt one of them. I suspect as he was scared nigh to death, poor lamb.”
“Well, look at the fool he made of himself two years back over that lamb--wouldn’t eat any meat for months and made himself ill like that after he learned as they’d butchered it. Where did he think as the mutton for the Hall come from? If he can’t bear the thought of meat having come from what was cows and pigs and poultry and sheep----”
“Listen to you go on! As if the first time you realized the chicken you was eating for dinner was one you’d fed that morning in the barnyard at your aunt’s farm you’d not done the same, Marguerite Sackville!”
There was a very cold silence before Marguerite said, her voice brittle, “I’ve been a Brandybuck for nigh on thirty years now, I’ll have you know.”
“And today you’re sounding a right Sackville through and through as you were born--no, more a Bracegirdle! I’d think that Lobelia up Hobbiton way would accept you as her own sister.”
Esme heard the rustle of skirts as Marguerite turned abruptly about and headed out of the room, slamming the door after her. She heard a snort of disgust from the other. “Silly ass,” the second Hobbitess commented to herself. Then the door opened again and closed behind her as she too left the room.
Esme examined the book Frodo had been reading lately with concern. As Frodo returned from the schoolroom where he’d been helping Topol she asked, “Dearling, what happened to this?”
He gave it a sour glance and shrugged. “It was a prank pulled on me by one of the other lads,” he said quietly.
“By whom?” she asked.
He looked up at her. “Does it matter?” he asked.
“Books are valuable, best beloved. Of course it matters.”
“It’s only a bit of glue on the edges. Bilbo’s sending me a special knife used to cut pages apart when one’s finished with a folio, and I intend to use it to release the pages. It’s not irreparable, Aunt Esme. And it’s not as if the one who did it won’t rue it in the end.”
“What do you intend to do, then?”
He gave her an inscrutable look and changed the subject.
“Boridoc keeps swearing he had nothing to do with the rats and mice let loose throughout the Hall,” Esme commented to Saradoc as they retreated toward their private parlor.
“If he hadn’t done it before we might have believed him,” Sara answered her. “But finding his room filled with the remains of those cages, a few of them with the rats and mice still in them, made it plain he wasn’t through with slipping them into the lasses’ rooms. The construction of the cages out of stout twigs and string was ingenious, by the way--sturdy enough to hold the vermin until he’d gotten them into the rooms, but easy enough for them to chew their way out of. Marguerite is fit to be tied, having had one slipped into their apartment. And Merilinde is swearing he must be seeking to avenge himself on her for telling when he stole her clothes while she and the other lasses were bathing privately in the pond at Crickhollow the first of September.”
“Boridoc’s been sweet on her for years,” Esme said as they reached their own quarters and Sara opened the door. “Not that she’s had any interest in him at all. No, her eyes have always been on--oh, speak of the--here you are, Brendi. And how’s your father doing?”
“Well enough, Cousin Esme,” Brendilac said, flushing. “He’s almost over the chill he took last week.”
“That’s good. Menegilda will be very gratified, I’m certain. And how’s your ratter?”
“He seems better, too. I’ve seen more of the dogs about the Hall up and about today.”
“It’s been so odd, so many of them wanting to do nothing but sleep for days.”
“Well, I’d best go,” Brendi said, still appearing uncomfortable. Knowing how close the lad appeared to be with Merilinde, Esme felt amused at his apparent embarrassment, considering the conversation she and Sara had been having as they entered. Brendi glanced back at Frodo. “The old mill, you say?”
“Yes,” Frodo said. “That’s where I’m certain I left it.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” Brendi said, hurrying out of the room.
“And what did you leave in the old mill, Frodo?” asked Sara as he closed the door after the retreating Brendilac.
“I think a book I’d borrowed from him, one he received as a gift a month or so back for his great-aunt’s birthday.”
“The one of dragon tales?” Sara continued.
“Yes, that’s the one. Gomez was twitting me about sitting about doing nothing useful, so I went there to read in some level of peace,” Frodo said in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. “But then Dodiroc sent Gil to ask if I’d help in the glass houses, and I didn’t wish to take it there. I thought it would be safe enough in the mill.”
“And is our son tucked up in his bed?” Esme asked him.
“Well, that’s where I put him, not that he’ll stay there,” Frodo sighed. “Once he gets his first sleep out, he always seems to wake up and come creep in with me again. The mornings I waken to find my right arm asleep because he’s been lying on it....”
They all laughed. “I’ll go in and check on him,” Sara said. “Then I think I’ll visit the privy and get ready for bed myself. I’ve been up since before dawn, helping with the foaling. Sunblaze has thrown such a lovely filly.”
Frodo’s expression became closed. He took a deep breath, then finally said, “I wish I might have helped, too, Uncle Sara.”
“I wish you’d been allowed, also. But you know your Aunt Gilda.”
“Yes.” Frodo’s voice was a study of neutrality. “I know she only means the best.”
Sara gently ruffled Frodo’s dark curls. “You’re such a joy, Frodo my lad,” he said softly.
Frodo gave a delayed nod as his older cousin left the room. He reached out again to the journal that sat by his chair, and it was then that Esme noted the palms of his hands. “What have you been doing, Frodo Baggins?” she asked in alarm. “Your hands--they’ve prickle marks all over them!”
“From helping prune the roses, I suspect,” he said quietly as she took his right hand to inspect it. “It’s nothing to be worried about.”
But Esme found herself examining his face. She’d helped Dodiroc do the final pruning of the roses before he covered the bushes over with hay to protect them through the coming winter. Since when had Frodo worked with the rosebushes? Then she noted the ball of twine half hidden behind the book Frodo had found with glue on its pages.
Early next morning after first breakfast, as she carried a tray of dishes from the main dining room into the kitchen alongside Marigold Brownlock the maid commented, “And did Willow tell you as the kitchen tom’s come back again? Been missin’ for about a week this time, he was. Not as he looked as if he’d come to any harm, you know. Very sleek, he was, and smellin’ strong o’ fish. I suspect as he’s the one what’s been raidin’ old Jessup’s fishin’ weir there on the river.”
As she accompanied her husband to the Master’s office after second breakfast he informed her, “Mac says the two tabbies that live in the main pony barn have come back, and that Bodridoc’s ratter appears to have recovered from whatever was ailing it.”
“I’d not realized the barn cats were missing,” she commented. “You know, I think that Bodridoc is much happier dealing with pigs than he was when he served as lessons master.”
“No question. Says that pigs don’t answer back when caught lazing about, not like most children he’d sought to teach.”
And so it was they entered the Master’s study laughing merrily.