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6
The Freeze and the Thaw

The Freeze and the Thaw


November after Frodo’s twentieth birthday opened cold, and soon two heavy snowfalls held the entire Eastfarthing and Buckland in thrall. The third week part of the river froze, along with all the water troughs as well as the smaller rills and becks and ponds throughout the region. Even the outside wells were affected.

Another snowfall dropped on the land, building up over the heads of the smallest children in the space of a day. The menfolk of Brandy Hall were much about, helping to clear the roofs of barns, byres, and storage sheds, and more and more houses as the weight of the snow looked to collapse support beams for the thatching or roof tiles.

Then, all of a sudden, a new set of clouds moved in from the southwest bringing with them warmer airs and rain. The deep snow began thawing rapidly, leaving footpaths as running streams and exposed earth treacherous with water standing over ice.

All the adults and tweens within the Hall met in the main dining room where the Master, Sara, and Mac began giving out assignments. “We’ll need as many of you wives and daughters as possible here in the Hall to give aid to those we bring in,” Rory directed. “Gather as many extra blankets and quilts as you can find and make certain they’re kept warm for those who might need them. You younger lads will need to see to it that the woodboxes are kept filled and the fires stoked, and that the walkways are covered with ashes or sand to make it less slick for those of us who are out on the farm or patrolling the road. With the water coming from the melting snow and the current rains, I fear we will know flooding; and coming in winter as it is, this could be deadly, far more deadly than the spring floods that we’ve seen in the past.”

Esme saw that Frodo and Brendi stood with Gil and Gomez on the edges of the group with others near their age, each eager to help as he could. She knew that Frodo would not easily be convinced to remain inside. Dodiroc and Bodridoc approached the lads and drew them out to the main parlor where they could divide them up into various roles while Menegilda organized the healers and those who would aid them and Esme set a responsible Hobbitess in charge of each of the main rooms, had Willow and the kitchen helpers go see to having a large vat of soup and a second of clear broth prepared, as well as bread baked and teas brewed and delivered to each command post, and set Liliana in charge of collecting blankets and spare clothing.

The rain lightened as sunset approached; and it looked as if the fears of the Master and his sons were unfounded. Then a new storm followed the first....

The rain grew suddenly heavier, and the wind rose to gale proportions. Those patrolling the roads and the riverbank began to trickle in to dry off, change their clothes, warm themselves with what they could take in of Willow’s soups, teas, and broths, then went out to resume the watch. Then, as the darkness deepened the first victims of the floods were being brought up the long drive to the grounds of the Hall, and they were drawing in families--a householder whose roof had blown away in the tempest; an older couple and their spinster daughter whose floor within their smial was suddenly awash in icy water; a farmer and his sons who’d been caught in the storm as they drove back from the Northfarthing, the cloth and provisions they’d been carrying in their wagon soaked through and the meal ruined.

The wind downed trees, and more families found themselves exposed to the storm as their smials or roofs developed gaping holes. Three teens were unable to get back to their home due to downed trees across the road after they’d braved the storm to gather their six head of cattle scattered when the wind had collapsed their byre; these were glad of the aid of Marmadas and Merimac in herding their beasts to the shelter of the byres belonging to the Hall. A frantic goodwife was found searching for her son who’d gone out in the storm to secure the henhouse and hadn’t come in again; the lad was found stunned where a downed limb had caught him; Saradoc and the three Hobbits with him helped carry the entire family back to the Hall, the father already caught there after coming to the hall early in the day on business.

It was near dawn before the winds at last died. Doors to two barns had been pulled off in the wind, and one of the sties in the piggery had been destroyed. With the calm following the storm the temperature began dropping once more, and although the worst of the crisis was probably past, there was need to remain wary.

Then suddenly Gil broke into the parlor where Esme was wrapping a freshly bathed child from Orchard Place in a clean quilt to bed her down by the fire. “We need help!” he gasped out. “Gomez and Frodo--the Withywindle----” He broke into a spate of coughing.

Menegilda, Beldir, and Markos Longbottom, who’d come with his wife, Bluebell Brandybuck as was, to serve as auxiliary healer for Brandy Hall, were there immediately, along with Mistress Poppea and others with a warm blanket and a hot drink to get into the lad. He was soaked and filthy, and it was apparent he’d fallen several times during his run for aid.

“Soft, lad,” insisted Menegilda with remarkable calm. “You’ll do no good for anyone if we can’t get you warm enough for you to say what the problem is and where it is.”

At last he got out, “We were patrolling the river bank with Dinodas, far toward where the Withywindle feeds it. We saw something in the water, and Gomez thought it was possibly a Hobbit, but it wasn’t--it was a deer, I think. But as he went closer to the bank to make certain it was a deer, the bank caved in, and he fell into the water. Frodo was after him in an instant, and I found a great branch to hold over the water downstream of where they went in. Frodo caught Gomez, but he had a lump on the side of his head and was stunned. Dino and I dragged the two of them in. How Frodo did it I’m not certain, but he held onto both the branch and Gomez.

“There’s a woodsman’s bothie there, and we dragged them both into it. Frodo was so cold he couldn’t even walk. Dino is with them and was trying to get the wood in the firepit to start, but it was damp and wasn’t taking a spark when I left them. There was a thin blanket and a tin of tea--quite old. If Dino can get the fire going he’ll get some tea into them and try to get them warm. But we need help for both of them. Frodo’s hand is badly skinned from having to grab the branch and it slipping a time or two before he got a good purchase. Gomez hadn’t awoke before I left them. Both were looking blue when Dino sent me off.”

All looked to where Sara and Mac huddled wrapped in blankets in the midst of a few others who’d aided in the rescues so far, and the two of them looked at one another. Brendi stumbled in behind his father, his eyes bleary, behind some of the lads who’d been going the rounds of the stables and byres and barns, seeing to the safety of the animals and grooms. All turned to look at these newcomers, and the situation was quickly explained.

“I know where the bothie is,” Mac said. “And I’m drier than you, Sara.”

“Where’s the Master?” asked Bodridoc.

“In the main cattle byre,” Brendi’s father answered, “seeing to it that the animals are calm and fed. He’s to go to the main pony barn next, make certain the stable roof is sound. We lost some of the tiles toward the ridge.”

“No time to consult him,” Sara said. “All right, you and Bodri there, and Dodiroc. Can Markos be spared, Beldir?”

“I want to go,” Brendi said.

Sara looked at the lad, then nodded. “It’s calm enough now. Take ponies. How quickly do you think you can rig a trap, Brendi?”

By the time warm blankets and flasks of hot tea and broth were gathered Brendi had a sturdy smaller wagon at the door, and the rescuers were on their way immediately.

It was over four hours before the wagon returned. Dino was warmly wrapped in blankets and sitting between his nephew and Brendi, who was driving, while Bodri and Dodiroc and Markos sat in the back with Frodo and Gomez. Gomez’s skull wasn’t cracked, but it was plain his brains were somewhat rattled. Young Boridoc, newly released from his assistance to the Master, watched beside Esme as the wagon arrived and as eager hands reached to lift the two swaddled forms from the back of it and carry them into the Hall.

Esme sat in the infirmary between the two beds, watching Dinodas, who lay nearby, as well as Frodo and Gomez. The older Hobbit was himself terribly chilled, for he’d taken off his own cloak and wrapped it around the two youths. Frodo’s skin was markedly pale, and she was told that after he was pulled from the water he had gone past shivering; Gomez had yet to regain consciousness. Dino hugged the bladder filled with hot water he’d been given to himself, grateful for its warmth; and Markos was heating stones in the fireplace and wrapping them thickly in flannels to place on either side of the lads to aid in bringing their temperatures back up to normal.

Gomez’s parents had been caught by the storm in Kingsbridge, where they’d gone to find gifts to welcome the bairn of a second cousin twice removed; they didn’t yet realize how close they’d come to losing their son. As difficult as Gomez had been, Esme was grateful she wouldn’t need to tell them their son was dead. Just how badly injured he was no one knew as yet; but it was likely he’d make a full recovery, and hopefully would be more sober and thoughtful in the wake of this accident.

Once more Esme looked down at Frodo, and saw that his eyes were now open and aware. He looked at her rather curiously. “Aunt Esme?” he whispered.

“Yes, sweetling,” she said with relief. “You’re safe now.”

“Gomez--did they get Gomez out of the river?”

“Yes, Frodo--he’s right here,” and she indicated the bed on her other side. “And if it hadn’t been for you, they couldn’t have saved him. You kept hold of him, even when your own strength began to fade. You kept hold of him and the great branch Gil held out to you, and he and Dino were able to bring you in enough to get both of you out of the water; and then you helped bring him to the woodman’s bothie.”

He shook his head. “I don’t remember--not quite.”

“You were so cold when they got you out it’s no wonder, dearling. It was a very close thing, Frodo Baggins.”

“But he’s well?”

“We believe so, Frodo. And we believe you and your uncle Dino will be all right as well.”

“Gil?”

“His parents have put him to bed--he’s quite the hero as well, you see.”

Frodo gave a small nod. “Good,” he whispered tiredly. “Good--all safe then.” He closed his eyes, a faint smile on his face. He was quickly asleep again.

*******


“He’s all right?” Bilbo demanded.

“Oh, yes, and more so. The younger ones are competing to bring him presents--mostly their own favorite winter treats; and the adults are all most respectful toward him. He’s alarmed by it all, actually--oh, he was pleased enough by how grateful Gomez’s parents are, but now he’d like to get back to just doing things normally again. As for Marguerite--she’s certainly singing a different tune now than she did a few months back when she was herself considering him a mam’s lad.”

“You can’t put too much stock in the opinion of Marguerite Sackville,” Bilbo said dismissively. “Is he still in the infirmary?”

“No--Beldir and Markos let him return to his own room this morning after it became plain that he’d get no rest from visitors as long as he remained there. Merry’s been fussing over him as if he were a feeble old gaffer, making certain he keeps his dressing gown about him and a rug across his knees and a shawl over his shoulders. And I assure you that it’s only because it is Merry that Frodo’s accepting it at all, although he’s likely to let the child know at any time he won’t stand for it much longer.”

Bilbo laughed.

“It’s his hand that’s worst hurt right now. It’s pretty badly scraped from having it slip over the rough surface of the branch Gil held out to him to catch hold of. It’s properly bandaged, but Mother Gilda worries there might have been a piece of bark or slivers perhaps lodged in the scrapes. And now he’s fighting a terrible cold, as is Gomez. And the other wrist is badly bruised and sprained. Apparently at the time he didn’t even notice!”

“Well, take me to him, Esme, for I have a strong temptation to also spoil him terribly for the next few days.”

“Come, then,” she smiled.

*******


“What do you mean you won’t allow him to go to the Free Fair, Menegilda?” Bilbo demanded.

“The lad has had quite enough excitement, Bilbo Baggins.”

“What kind of excitement? Assisting in the flood in November? But that’s seven months ago! He can’t still be fragile over that.”

“Well, there’s the matter of the Goldworthies----”

“What about the Goldworthies? They’ve been living on Haygate Farm, have they not?”

“Well, yes. But when the main barn caught fire there it was Frodo who raised the alarm.”

Bilbo stopped, looking at her with confusion in his eyes. “Was the boy visiting there or something?” he finally asked.

“No, he wasn’t. Apparently he dreamed of it, and he woke Sara. The Goldworthies are fortunate Sara chose to humor him instead of just rolling over and going back to sleep. He, Frodo, and Marmadas somehow managed to get there in time to keep the fire from spreading to the house--they’d managed to get the animals out before all became too dangerous to do so. But it was Frodo who found one of their ponies that had run in terror out into the marshy area on the south borders of their fields and somehow managed to calm it and get it free of the mud.”

“Oh, for pity’s sake!” exclaimed the old Hobbit, completely exasperated. “He saved not only the farmhouse but a pony as well----”

“But Mum’s been adamant about him not being around ponies from the beginning,” Saradoc interrupted, “and has admitted it goes back to the death of her grandfather when she was a faunt. She says he died amongst the ponies, and she sees Frodo’s face on him when she dreams of it.”

Bilbo paused, obviously thinking. “I think I see.” He gave a great sigh, then turned his attention back to Menegilda. “So, you think you see your grandfather in Frodo, do you? Well, he’s not your grandfather--not at all, you know. Your grandfather was a Boffin, was he not--Helgo Boffin?”

“Well, yes,” she admitted. “What of it?”

“Part of the reason Laurel Chubbs is so prized in Hobbiton is because the region of the Hill is filled with Boffins, who know they may well have inherited the family trait to die early due to heart conditions. You see, she is very knowledgeable about heart conditions, having trained at the side of a Boffin healer who was himself experienced with them, one who even had the wit to correspond with Lord Elrond of Rivendell, having been encouraged to do so by my grandfather, who knew Elrond personally. Auntie Laurel knows the common signs that an individual may have the family tendency, and the best ways of easing it. And from what I can tell her, she is certain Frodo is showing none of the signs--indeed, she says there is every probability he will live a very long, healthy life.”

“You mean that it wasn’t being amidst the ponies that killed my great-gaffer?” asked Sara.

“No more so than any other reason,” Bilbo answered him. “Delric Boffin had advised Helgo to use a tincture of foxglove to ease the strain on his heart, but knowing that foxglove ordinarily is a poison Helgo wouldn’t do it. It’s often so--many herbs that in large quantities might make one ill or even kill, in extraordinarily small, controlled amounts can help fight illness. Certainly Lord Elrond told me the same thing.”

He looked back at Gilda once more. “Didn’t your gaffer suffer from extraordinarily puffy ankles and puffiness in his face as well?”

“Well, yes,” she admitted.

“It’s one of the signs the heart is failing and would benefit from small amounts of tincture of foxglove; and there are other herbs that will also tend to help. Laurel prepares just such a draught for old Gammer Strawflower Boffin in Bywater, and it’s done her a world of good.”

“But the lad should not be allowed to excite himself----” she began again.

“And why in Middle Earth not? Right now, does he appear to be particularly happy?”

“Well, no----”

“Well, there you have it, Menegilda. Had his heart been as weak as you keep imagining I will tell you he would not have survived going into the river last November.”

Her face had become very pale. “Yet Bilbo,” she said in a very low voice, “I do on occasion know dreams of the future, as does the lad, apparently.”

Reluctantly, he nodded his understanding as he leaned closer to allow her to whisper in his ear.

“And I have seen him in the future, suffering from heart failure.”

Bilbo pulled back and examined her face. At last he said, “So, you think to protect him by keeping him from all exertion and excitement now?” At her nod his mouth worked and he began shaking his own head. “Again, nonsense, Gilda! Can’t you see--by your own attempts to protect him you are most likely preparing him to suffer just the condition you would guard him against? Lads need exercise and a degree of excitement! And it wasn’t the ponies that killed your gaffer, or even being in the midst of them. His heart was failing him, and he’d been avoiding activity in hopes of avoiding the pain his heart would give him when he stressed it. But doing so weakened the heart the more in the end. It’s likely just the act of walking to the paddock after not doing much of anything for days was what led to your gaffer’s death, although as weak as his heart was becoming it could as likely have happened right there in his chair. Would you confine our lad to a chair in hopes of avoiding a seizure of his heart at some undetermined time in the future? Beldir has told you that walking and swimming are excellent exercise for the lad’s heart, helping to strengthen it, has he not?”

“Yes,” she admitted.

“You can’t protect him from the failure of the heart in the future by not allowing him to strengthen his heart now, Menegilda Goold Brandybuck.”

She drew back, throwing her hands up in the air. “You just don’t understand, Bilbo Baggins!” she exclaimed.

“And you just may destroy that precious boy with kindness, Mistress Menegilda!” he retorted.

For several minutes they glared at one another, and at last he spoke in a tone that brooked no further argument. “I will be taking Frodo to the Free Fair, where he will wander the grounds as much as he likes, and if he desires he will dance, and I will not say no to him unless I see physical signs that he is tiring unduly. Do you understand?”

Reluctantly she nodded.

Esme found herself looking from one to the other, finding herself alarmed and yet impressed. She was rather glad she and Sara had said nothing and thus were in no danger of being caught up between the two, oh, so stubborn old Hobbits!

*******


Bilbo walked into the Hall the following spring with no warning. He’d arrived unannounced for the birthday party thrown for Frodo in September, and had pointedly not been invited to join the Yule celebrations the preceding winter, although the correspondence between him and Frodo had continued in defiance of Menegilda’s disapproval. Rory refused to answer his wife when she demanded the old Baggins be thrown bodily out of the Hall, and Esme hurried from the Master’s office to Frodo’s room to try to make certain Bilbo didn’t upset the lad unduly.

She arrived, she noted, just after Bilbo’s own entrance into the rooms. Frodo was sitting, much as he’d been doing most of the winter, in his cushioned chair, his face expressionless as he stared obliquely out the window at the outer world the Mistress had been forbidding him to share.

She’d caught Bilbo just in the act of pulling the desk chair over from where it had stood by Primula’s desk. He paused, looking warily at her, before saying, “Perhaps you should take this, then, Esmeralda.”

“No,” she said quietly. “You take the chair--I would be more comfortable sitting on the bed than you, Bilbo dear.” She looked about. “Where’s Merry?”

“I spoke with him first, and sent him off to the kitchens to fetch a tray of tea and biscuits. He told me Willow’s been overseeing Lavender baking quantities of sugar and almond biscuits, so I told them those were my special favorite today, as I appear to prefer them on Hevensdays, and asked if he could get us a goodly number of them.”

Esme was thrilled to see that a ghost of a smile could be discerned on Frodo’s face in response to the whimsical statement on the part of his uncle. “I’m certain she’ll be glad to send them, for Frodo’s been terribly disappointing her by not coming to beg them from her himself.”

Frodo turned his head away, giving a shrug that was just a trifle too careless. Bilbo didn’t appear to notice, although Esme was certain he had. “Ah, good enough then. I was just about to ask whether or not Frodo will be dancing at the spring festival.”

Apparently deciding to be frank and blunt, Frodo announced, “I see nothing to dance for, Uncle.”

There was a moment of silence before Bilbo said quietly, “I see. And you aren’t even happy enough for me to be here to dance for my sake?”

Frodo loosed his grip on the arms of his chair, folding his hands in his lap and looking for some time at them before murmuring, “She doesn’t want you here. She thinks you’re a bad influence on me.”

“In what way?”

“She thinks you encourage me too much.”

“Encourage you to do what?”

After a pause the lad finally said, “To do things. To run and play and get into mischief and to--to dance.”

Bilbo ruminated on that. At last he said, “You are very thin again, Frodo.”

“I’m not hungry much of the time.”

“And you appear to be very pale.”

The lad merely shrugged, fixing his gaze on the scene outside his window.

“Are you happy, my dear lad?”

Frodo shrugged. When Bilbo asked no more questions, at last he answered, “I’m not really unhappy, I suppose.”

“You must suppose you are not unhappy? You don’t know?”

Frodo again shrugged.

“Are you still going out on your resolve on Sterdays and Sundays?”

Another shrug, reluctantly expanded upon with, “Mostly, when it’s warm enough. Sometimes I’m just angry enough to go out and do it in spite of them all, and sometimes I find I just don’t care.”

“At least you’re going out some--that’s good. Did you swim during the summer?”

“Yes. But the moment the weather was beyond swimming then I must remain within doors if she sees me at all.”

Merry returned then with Marigold beside him, the maid carrying a tray laden with a fine teapot with its cozy, four mugs, a jug of milk, a bowl of sugar, and a pot of honey along with spoons while the child carried a great plate piled with biscuits. Again there was a hint of a smile on Frodo’s face as he watched his beloved younger cousin fussing around seeing all was properly placed on the small table.

Merry was now dominating the conversation, busily telling Bilbo about his new cat and his riding lessons--Frodo’s expression again went shut at the mention of them--and how he was assigned to work in the herb gardens and how he looked forward to learning all about herbs in the coming summer. Frodo finally ate a couple biscuits at Merry’s urging, but over time he turned again to look out the window, and Esme could see a grave, patient tiredness there on his features, a tiredness that appeared somehow familiar.

“And Master Topol says----” Merry chattered on, finally sparking the memory of where she’d seen that tiredness before--on the face of Tumnus, shortly before he’d died. Suddenly Esme felt terribly alarmed.

*******


As she entered the Master’s parlor, Esme saw Menegilda’s head turn rapidly to examine her face. “Where is that interfering Baggins?” the older Hobbitess demanded.

“He’s gone to the garden to smoke a pipe,” Esme answered.

“Has he been telling the lad what a horrid old shrew I am?”

“No, anything but. He’s been asking questions, but only to have Frodo let him know what his life has been like lately. The only one who’s said anything about you has been Frodo, and even he refuses to chide you for the way you’d deny him life.”

Gilda paled. “I’m trying to save him...” she began.

“For what, Mother Gilda? What kind of life do you allow him, shut up here in the Hall for so much of the year, denied the chance to make his life meaningful? He admits you have his best interests at heart, but one can’t help but see he wonders just what those best interests are when he can’t do anything that’s worth doing.”

“He’s at least healthy----”

“Is he? Have you looked at him, truly looked at him, lately? He’s pale and thin, and his muscles are apparently wasting. He barely eats. When was the last time you heard him laugh aloud? He’s not drawing any more, and lately he’s only writing in that journal when he’s very angry. He’s not even reading any more. And Markos has been coming to me at least once a week telling me Frodo can’t continue on this way.”

“What does he know? He’s not much better than a lad himself!”

Esme gave a great snort. “He’s attended on Lalia herself, and on old Peringard. I’d think that he knows enough to recognize when someone’s fading, Mother Gilda.”

The Mistress of the Hall looked away. “Lalia’s certainly not fading.”

“No, but in her shadow Ferumbras has failed to become the great Thain and leader of the Tooks he had promised to become when he was younger. Look at him now, and he looks far, far older than his years--older, and filled with bitterness. Markos has seen what being stifled did to Ferumbras, and he’s afraid it will happen to Frodo as well, if the lad doesn’t just give up altogether first.”

They paused, for they could hear conversation approaching the room from the side door to the Master’s garden. “And then Sandyman jumped, I tell you, so startled to realize he was being caught trying to sneak a sack of flour out of that ground for the Great Smial, and by Ferdinand himself. He turned as white as the meal and tried to explain he was only trying to move the Thain’s flour to a more protected place.”

Saradoc and Rory were both laughing as the door opened to admit them and Bilbo, and the old Baggins’s face was alight with his customary humor. But the laughs failed as they realized Esme and Menegilda had preceded them, and as they noted the tension between the two Hobbitesses. The three of them paused, just inside the door.

At last Gilda snapped, “Oh, come in, do, and sit down, the lot of you. Yes, Esme’s been giving me a good chiding, one I suspect she’s been holding in for a goodly amount of time.”

Sara and Rory’s came in uncertainly, but Bilbo was looking at her with an expression of alert anticipation. “You expected Esme to stand up to you?” he asked, apparently overwhelmed with curiosity.

“She’s almost the only one who ever does,” she admitted. “Not even Frodo will speak openly against me, apparently.”

“He loves and honors you, Gilda, so much he’s unwilling to defy you--most of the time.”

“Most of the time,” she repeated, looking away. Then she looked back at him. “Why did you come?”

“I received a letter addressed to me as Baggins family head regarding the welfare of one of the members of my family of name.”

She searched his eyes. “From Markos Longbottom?”

“Yes.”

“Regarding Frodo?”

“Yes.”

“What about?”

“He says the lad is beginning to fade. He’s losing weight, is uninterested in food, has become markedly pale, barely responds to questions, will have sudden outbreaks of defiant behavior between prolonged bouts of lassitude and inactivity. He’s come to Markos complaining of headaches and even shortness of breath. He complains that sometimes he can barely manage to wake up, but that other times he cannot sleep at all. And....” He let his narrative trail off, looking down at his right hand lying on his knee.

“And what?” asked Rory.

“His ankles are beginning to become puffy.”

“Blood and water.” The intensity of Rory’s concern was accented by the quiet tone in which the words had been issued.

Sara said quietly, “I’ll go fetch both Markos and Beldir.” He turned and left the room, stepping aside for Asphodel and her husband to enter before continuing on his way.

“Where is the lad?” Rory asked.

“Playing at gardening with Merry,” Bilbo said.

By the time the two healers arrived accompanied by Poppea the rest of the family had gathered in the Master’s parlor. At one point Esme left briefly to request that platters of rolls, meats, cheeses, and pickled cucumbers be sent in rather than for the family to attend the meals in the communal dining room or the Master’s dining room; and she sent word asking Frodo to please see to it that Merry ate at the children’s table.

“But I’ve only wanted the best for him!” Menegilda insisted again.

“We know that, Mistress,” Beldir informed her. “No one questions your care for the lad or your love for him--we’ve only questioned whether you were exhibiting it in the most appropriate manner.”

“But you’ve never questioned my decisions before----”

“But I have. Perhaps I’ve not been as persistent as has Markos, but I have questioned you and suggested differently more than once.”

Merimac sighed as he turned his attention from the senior healer to his mother. “Mum, you know how much all here love you; none of us would willingly go against you in most matters; but the time has come--we can’t allow things to continue as they are, for Frodo’s own sake. Maybe you’re right and that murmuring in his heart is important and possibly deadly, and perhaps he will die young of a failure of the heart. But if we let things drag on he will fail, not at some distant time in the future, but here and now.”

Bilbo was shaking his head. “Here in the Shire we are so protected from so many of the great dangers that exist out there in the world in general, we have come to assume that what we experience is the only right and proper thing to expect. But the fact is that most people born in Middle Earth don’t die of a peaceful old age; and even here within the Shire a good portion of our children die before they come of age. I, for one, don’t intend for our boy to die before he’s even had a chance to live fully.”

Gilda suddenly snapped, “Why do you keep referring to him as a ‘boy,’ Bilbo Baggins? He’s not a child of Men.”

“If not, it’s only due to an accident of birth,” Bilbo retorted. “He very well might have been born amongst the greatest of Men, or even Elves, although I can’t see that bright spirit of his having been born a Dwarf. Perhaps he might have even been hatched amongst the Great Eagles! But I swear to you he is the equal of the noblest of those who ever graced Middle Earth. I want to see him come to the fullness of his promise, not to wither on the vine as is happening now.”

Menegilda had begun to cry. “You’ll take him away from me!”

“If I must, Gilda--at least long enough to see him healing again--long enough for his Light to be restored.”

“What do you mean by ‘his Light’?” asked Dodinas.

“You’ve never noted that when he enters a room all in it is brighter and more lovely? That when he smiles your own heart is lifted? That when he sings, even if his voice isn’t the greatest and sweetest of voices, you yet find yourself wishing to join the song? That when he dances all about him move with more grace and lightness of heart?”

The rest exchanged looks. At last, after Bilbo had produced a clean handkerchief and pressed it on her, Gilda wiped her eyes and asked, “What about Lobelia?”

“What about the old harridan?”

“Primula didn’t wish Frodo anywhere near her.”

“As I’ve said before, the best way to deal with Lobelia Bracegirdle Sackville-Baggins is to face her down. You can’t beat her by hiding from her--it only encourages her to make up even worse and more ridiculous stories, you know. So far, no matter what she’s tried she can’t do better than to convince the Shire that I’m mad, but most of our folk became convinced of that when I refused to apologize for going off for a year and a day with thirteen Dwarves and a Wizard.”

Suddenly all were laughing.

*******


Frodo was sitting quietly in the small parlor when Esme came to fetch him from the Heir’s quarters. “What is it?” he asked, half rising. “There’s--there’s not been a row, has there--about me?”

She forced a smile. “Not exactly a row,” she said, “but certainly a long discussion. But Bilbo has something he wishes to ask you, dearling. Will you please come with me?”

Merilinde was waiting out in the outer hallway as they came out. “Is little Merry in bed, then?” she asked.

“Yes,” he answered her. “Are you to watch him, then?”

She nodded. “I promise, Frodo, I’ll not let anything happen to him.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” he answered, then straightened. “Perhaps I ought to have brushed my hair,” he said.

The lass paused with the doorknob in her hand. “You look fine, Frodo Baggins. Go on with you.”

Bilbo was standing, waiting, just inside the Master’s parlor. “I was wondering, lad,” he said rather abruptly, “if you’d walk out into the garden with me for an time.” Frodo, perplexed, nodded. Bilbo looked at Esme, adding, “Perhaps you ought to come with us, just for the sake of the Hall folk.”

She felt herself slowly nodding, and together they walked to the pegs by the door out into the Master’s garden where each took one of the cloaks hanging there. Bilbo hurriedly took Esme’s from her and aided her to don it, swung his own over his shoulders and fastened it, and waited while Frodo secured his own before opening the door and letting them go first. Once outside, however, he moved from Esme’s side to Frodo’s. He put one arm about the lad and steered him toward a garden bench and indicated he should sit down, then sat down beside him. Once he sat down, however, he appeared to be having some difficulty knowing how to begin. He leaned forward a bit, his hands folded between his knees and sat still for some moments. At last he turned and looked up sideways into the face of his young kinsman. “I was wondering what you would wish to do for our birthday.”

“Our birthday?” asked Frodo, completely confused. “But that’s not until September, and it’s not the end of March yet.”

“Oh, I know,” Bilbo said, nodding sagely. “Although for some, significant birthdays one can’t begin preparing early enough, I find.”

“But I’ll only be twenty-two on my next birthday. I won’t be twenty-five for three and a half years yet.” Esme was pleased to see that Frodo was openly smiling at what he plainly saw as his older cousin’s famous eccentricity, planning for a birthday that wasn’t even on the horizon as yet for one as young as he. “As for coming of age--that’s still well over eleven years off, you know.”

“Oh, I know--I know indeed. However, I’d thought that perhaps you might agree to join me in Bag End--make it easier for the two of us to plan our birthday parties together from now on, don’t you know.”

Frodo’s mouth had fallen open, his eyes opened wide in shock. “I don’t understand,” he breathed at last.

“Don’t you, my beloved boy?” Bilbo said earnestly. “Don’t you? I’m asking if you will agree to come live in Hobbiton, in Bag End, with me. We’ll try it for a year, and if you then wish to return here to Brandy Hall and Buckland that will be acceptable--more than acceptable. It’s your life, after all. But if you desire, then I’ll have you made my permanent ward, and, if you’ll accept it, I’ll adopt you as my heir.” His eyes became sharper. “Better you than the S-Bs, you know. By the stars, better anyone than Otho and Lobelia!”

Suddenly Frodo gave a breathless laugh. “I’ll tell you what--lets not tell them--let them find out when you’re gone!”

Then the two of them were laughing uproariously, giddily. “Then you’ll come?” Bilbo managed.

“Oh, Bilbo--you can’t imagine how I wish to come!”

Bilbo’s grin stretched from ear to ear. “Then we’ll do just what you suggested--if and when it comes to perhaps adopting you as my heir, we won’t tell them. Let them wonder! Let them stew in their own juices, the greedy gits! They won’t realize that the Shire itself will fare the best with you as Master of the Hill rather than them!”

“But Auntie Gilda----” Frodo turned about, his face suddenly stricken, searching Esme’s face. “I don’t really want to leave you and Sara and Merry, Aunt Esme.”

“I know dearling,” she said, suddenly painfully proud of him. “But Mother Gilda knows it’s time for the change. We’ve agreed to a year with Bilbo, and then a meeting to be certain what you wish at the end of that year. But your Uncle Bilbo feels it’s time, perhaps past time, to exercise his right and duty to see to it you get the best education available to you, and certainly there’s no better teacher for you than he is.”

Frodo rose, moved suddenly forward, and then was folding her in his arms, and she realized he was weeping--weeping tears of happiness.

*******


“No!” Merry said. “He can’t go!”

“He has to go, Merry.”

“But he’s my Frodo!”

“No, Merry, he has to be his own Frodo before he can be anyone else’s.” And as she said it, Esme realized that this was right, and it became that much easier to accept that in a few weeks’ time Frodo would ride away from Brandy Hall to take up a life elsewhere; that even if--when--he returned it would be as a guest, not as the son of the Hall he’d been.

Frodo himself had insisted they wait until the end of April for him to leave. “I’ve made promises to the bairns,” he said.

Bilbo had nodded his understanding. “And it will give me time to make some preparations as well. Then I’ll leave now, and be back the end of April. You’ll come to Bag End as the young Master on the first of May, then.”

Then he’d reached up and drawn Frodo down to gently kiss his brow. “You just keep shining, my boy, until I come to claim you, my own star-kissed lad, to brighten my hole in my old age.”

Merry was weeping. “I don’t want him to go away!” he insisted.

“Neither do I, my sweet lad,” she said as she drew him to her. “None of us truly want it, but he must. It’s time. None here in Brandy Hall or all of Buckland can be a proper teacher to him now when he really needs it. I fear only Bilbo can.”

“But Bilbo doesn’t need him--I do!”

“And you’ll always have him, Merry,” the child’s father assured him. “He won’t love you the less for living in Hobbiton and the Westfarthing now. Not Frodo--he’ll love you the more for the fact his mind and heart will be challenged properly. He’ll be happier, and he’ll be able to share his happiness the better with you!”

Esme added, “And don’t be so certain Bilbo doesn’t need Frodo--he may not look it, but Bilbo himself is an old Hobbit. You wouldn’t wish for him to find suddenly age has caught up with him and he’s begun to fail with no one to look out for him, would you? He has no other family, you see.”

“There’s his Cousin Otho--I heard him say he has a Cousin Otho. We were running to hide from him at the Free Fair, although I don’t know if Cousin Otho ever looked properly to find us.” Merry’s voice was stubborn.

Esme and Sara broke into peals of laughter as Esme crushed her son against her chest. “Oh, sweetling--I doubt Bilbo’s Cousin Otho will ever understand how to properly play the game with Bilbo Baggins,” she managed to gasp out as he squeaked and pulled away from her. “And I love you, my dear one; I love you with all my heart.”

“And Frodo will come to visit--you’ll see,” Sara added. “He’ll come to visit us, and we’ll go to visit him.”

“In Bag End?”

“In Bag End.”

“I’ve never been there!”

“Then you have something to look forward to, don’t you?”

Yes, Esme thought, something to look forward to....

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