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8
Older Cousin

Older Cousin


“Hello, Samwise,” Esme said, finding the lad kneeling, cultivating around the lilies and other flowers planted under Frodo’s window.

He looked up, startled, then quickly rose to his feet, knuckling his forehead. “Hello, Missus Esme, mum,” he said. “And how might I serve you?”

She felt a wry smile show itself--the Gaffer had done so well at teaching his youngest son to show proper respect, and it seemed so odd in such a young lad. “I came looking for my cousins and my son,” she smiled. “Paladin and Eglantine are to be here for dinner, after all; and I intend to enjoy their company in full before I must head back east toward Buckland tomorrow.”

“They’ve gone into Hobbiton, mum, to the market. Should be back at any time, I’d think. My old dad’s had to drive to Overhill about the beddin’ plants for the fall. He’s heard as there’s a new bulb available, a crocus as blooms in September instead of April, and he’s set hisself to gettin’ a few for our garden and here. So he set me to doin’ some weedin’ as needs done. You’re done with your meetin’ with Mr. Griffo, then?”

“Yes. Our orchards did poorly there in Buckland this year--there was that windstorm that hit just as the blooms were opening; and the Hall needs apples and pears to tide us over the winter. And while I was at it I was able to deal with Fortumbald as well--we’ll be able to trade a goodly amount of seed potatoes for sugar beets--our potatoes have done extraordinarily well, but it appears we decidedly underestimated how many beets we’d need, and Fortumbald’s farm has produced a definite surplus. I’m just pleased Rory decided to trust me--Sara’s been kept so busy dealing with claims generated by the windstorm in April.”

“Well, my Mr. Frodo’s that glad to see you, and no mistake--you and Master Merry.”

“I’m glad.”

He gave a nod, then bent to pick up a clot of old stems and roots to toss into his barrow along with his tools, then reached to pick up a rather battered book to stow in the bag he wore over his shoulder. “What are you reading?” she asked.

“It’s a book as Mr. Bilbo says come from far away, some land as he says is way south-aways. It’s written in Westron, and its about some Elves as lived long ago and had a Haven in a far place, way down by the sea, it’s said. And there was two as was lovers, and his name was Amroth and hers was Nim-ro-del--” he sounded out the name carefully, “--and they was to sail off together, but she didn’t come, and a storm drove the boat away. The Lord Amroth, he threw hisself into the water to try to swim back ashore--guess as he was goin’ to search for her and find out as why she didn’t come, only later the Elves left at the Haven said as he never made it, and no one ever saw her, neither. It’s terrible sad, it is. But it seems as lots of the tales about Elves is terrible sad.”

He shook himself. “Seems as those as messes about with boats don’t tend to come to too good an end,” he observed as he leaned down to pick up the handles of the barrow. “If’n you’ll excuse me, mum.”

*******


Pippin looked up from where he was sitting on the floor alongside that odd Wizard Gandalf, smiling broadly. “Auntie Smee!” he called. “Come see!”

Esme entered the room rather diffidently--she’d just returned from Delphie and Bartolo’s wedding--to which neither Frodo nor Bilbo had been invited, she’d noted (or if they had they’d chosen not to mention it), and she’d not realized the Wizard was visiting. “I see, Pippin, dear. Is it a byre?” At the child’s nod she continued, “Ah, it’s very nice. And where are the older lads?”

Pippin’s smile faded, “Outside, at the stream,” he said. He was pouting.

She felt her lip twitch. “And they wouldn’t let you go, too?” she asked, to which he gave a reluctant nod, obviously quite put out.

“And considering the way you looked when you followed them the last time, it’s undoubtedly just as well,” Gandalf said, smoothing curls out of the child’s eyes and then turning to smile up into Esme’s face. “He managed to catch himself in blackberry thorns just past a stand of nettles--it took them a good deal of time to work him free, by which time they were all badly scratched and sporting an abundant crop of nettle stings. It’s a good thing that between them the Gaffer and Sam have such a wonderful store of aloe and comfrey.”

Pippin held up a bandaged hand. She asked, “And did you get a thorn in your hand, Pippin?”

He nodded vigorously. “Unca Bilbo got it out. This big!” And he demonstrated a thorn so large it would have done for a bread knife, she estimated.

“Oh, but I wager you were quite brave when he pulled it out,” she suggested.

He nodded. “Frodo held me, an’ I was brave.”

She saw the pride in the odd Big Folk’s face as he looked from the small child toward the front door to the smial.

*******


“No, Pippin--no more biscuits until you’ve finished your boiled egg,” Frodo admonished the youngest of his cousins present. “And, no, Pervinca Took--you may not take your sister’s seed cake.”

Esme caught Bilbo’s eye--he was plainly amused and proud. Gandalf, who sat nearby with a folding table appropriate to his own height before him, watched with fascination and, she realized, a very large smile hidden behind his grey beard and mustaches. There was no question that Frodo was in charge of the children who filled Bag End. Sam, who with May and Marigold had been granted permission by the Gaffer to join the proper guests for tea was himself keeping an eye on his younger sister.

Bilbo looked around the dining room briefly and commented quietly, “This is what my own parents had hoped for when they designed this room--a dining room apt for a family. They were so grieved that I was the only child given them.” She found herself nodding her understanding.

There were still a few odd boxes likely to hold cocoons lying here and there about the room, and on one of the windowsills was a glass bowl with sand and what appeared to be tiny seed beads scattered across it along with some kind of water insect. She looked at the bowl with distaste, and turned to nudge her host. “What is that?” she asked, indicating the bowl.

“That? Oh, it’s the young of a particular kind of fly that according to Frodo’s Elven book of insects is called a caddis fly. Sam refers to it as the ‘water worm,’ by the way. It protects itself by creating a shell for itself out of whatever materials it finds, and appears to produce what I must assume is a kind of glue to hold it all together. The lads are fascinated by them, and have been experimenting by giving them different materials out of which to construct new shells. Frodo has been building a collection of the shells once they’re emptied, and I must say they are unusual. And in that one,” he added, pointing to a similar bowl on the other windowsill, “is a tadpole that has almost completed turning into a frog. I’ve made Frodo promise he and the other lads will take it down to the stream in the woods and turn it loose tomorrow that they not be tempted to slip it down the neck of any of the lasses once the transformation is complete.”

Remembering the times her brother had done just that to her, Esme gave a wry smile. “I thank you, then,” she said, and received a mock bow in return.

She found herself watching Pearl, who sat beside Frodo and was hanging on every word the young Hobbit spoke. Why, she realized, the lass is besotted by him! Then she caught Pimpernel watching her older sister with disgust, and noted that May Gamgee also was casting glances of adoration at Frodo and barely hidden envy at Pearl. And Frodo sat there, not truly realizing that such emotions were aimed his way and yet unconsciously responding to the carefully timed smiles Pearl gave him each time he looked toward her. Now, this could prove an interesting situation!

At last Frodo, having examined the plates of each of the children, nodded his head. “Well, if you are finished we will withdraw and leave the adults to complete their own meal in some peace. I’d think they’d truly appreciate being able to hear a thought make itself known in their heads, should such an event occur, of course.” He flashed a grin at Bilbo, who responded with a sharp look.

“Don’t be insolent, child,” the older Hobbit returned as Frodo rose and took up his plate and cup and indicated the other children should do the same. “And don’t go too far in your rambling about!”

“We promise we shall return in good time for supper,” Frodo said, turning at the door. There was an unspoken exchange between him and his guardian, and with a smile the younger Hobbit led the rest of the children back toward the kitchen.

“I must say,” Gandalf said, turning his own gaze from the back of Pippin, who’d slipped off the great book that lifted him up high enough on his chair he might sit more easily at the table, “that the hole is truly brightened by the presence of so many children. You ought to have married and produced your own brood, my dear Bilbo.”

Bilbo shrugged as he looked thoughtfully toward the door, his hand automatically slipping into his vest pocket. Esme thought that for a brief moment he appeared troubled, although the expression had smoothed once he turned his attention back toward the Wizard. “Do you really think so, a decided old bachelor like me? I fear I would have found ways to make the life of any lass unlucky enough to accept me particularly miserable.” Yet Esme thought somehow the light tone with which he said that was perhaps more than a trifle forced.

The old Hobbit rose and went to the sideboard to fetch the bottle of wine that sat there, pouring some into each of the goblets that he’d prepared earlier, taking one to Gandalf and then returning, taking the two remaining and bringing them back with him and presenting one to Esmeralda. “In the general run of things,” he commented as he resumed his seat, “I ought to be glaring after children for ruining the peace of the day with their boundless energy and noisy chatter--that’s certainly what one sees in most Hobbits my age, after all. But I find I revel in it, and find them enchanting and their turns of interest fascinating to watch. They are so in love with life, and so easily awed by the complexity and simplicity of all they see around them. And our lad--he’s fascinated by everything about him.”

“Does he have that pony yet you spoke of during my last visit?”

Bilbo shook his head in regret. “No, he’s decided not to accept one until he finds one he feels he can truly love. He’s learned to ride, however. Griffo most graciously has taught him, and he has proved to have an excellent seat and a way with the beasts. I fear, however, he’s absorbed my own preference for independence. Perhaps had he come to me a bit younger he would have fallen in love with one and I’d even now be sponsoring one in the stables of the Ivy Bush or the Green Dragon; as it is he refuses to be tied down to a single pony when he can rent one at will but not need to be responsible to it the rest of the time. Although he often goes down and helps in the grooming of those kept at the Ivy Bush.”

“I see,” Gandalf noted as he sipped at his wine. “He has quite a way with the younger children.”

Bilbo nodded as he drank from his own glass. Then setting the goblet on the table he turned his attention toward Esme. “And was there anything you wished to do now, lass?”

“I’d promised Menegilda I’d lay some flowers on Camellia’s grave. Gilda always was rather taken by Dudo’s wife, you know, as was Adamanta as well, the few times they met. It’s too bad, really, that Dudo left Hobbiton after her death. Do you hear from him often?”

“I hear of him far more than I hear from him, I’m afraid. He’s never quite forgiven me for leaving the Shire before, you realize, for he had always held with Dora’s prejudice that a proper Hobbit does Nothing Unpredictable. Yet, faced with the loss of his wife and son, the first thing Dudo himself did was to remove himself about as far from Hobbiton as he could without leaving the Westfarthing. But the village head lets me know how things are going with him--just keeping track of him as part of normal family business, you understand. Although Daisy does write to me two to three times a year. She seems to like Westhall, but says she misses Hobbiton and Bywater.” He straightened. “I try to weed Camellia’s grave a time or two a year. Shall I accompany you?”

“If you wish. And you, Mr. Gandalf?”

She was positive the Wizard was amused at being so addressed. “If you don’t mind being accompanied by such a one as I, I admit I would be honored to come with you as well.”

So it was that, having repaired to the garden where between herself and Bilbo they’d carefully chosen and cut some blooms adequate to their purpose, they headed down the hill and across the bridge, edging about Bywater until they came to the common burial grounds for the region of the Hill. However, they found that they’d managed merely to follow the children.

Pearl and Pimpernel were kneeling over the grave of Bungo Baggins and Merry over that of his wife Belladonna, carefully pulling out weeds and dropping them into a basket brought from the workshed at Bag End; while Pervinca and Pippin, under the supervision of Estella Bolger, were setting pebbles in a line about the borders of the freshly cleaned grave of Camellia Baggins. Freddy looked up from where he and Folco Boffin were working on that of a Bolger relative. “Sam was coming down to check his mother’s grave,” he said in almost a whisper, “so we all thought to do some weeding.”

“I see,” Bilbo said, looking at the graves for his parents with the roses that he and the Gaffer maintained over them. Esme could tell that he was moved to see they’d done such work. He cleared his throat. “And I thank you,” he added to the lasses and Merry, his voice particularly gentle.

The children glowed, she noted, at the appreciation expressed. Merry straightened, wiping his hands on his trousers. “It was the least we could do, Uncle Bilbo,” he said.

Esme laid her bouquet on the grave of Camellia Chubbs Baggins, and stood for a moment, thinking on her life and how her hope for a second child had ended with her own death, followed by that of the infant. She remembered the statement Bilbo’d once made that throughout most of Middle Earth few lived to reach the status of old age and that even within the Shire a significant number of children born didn’t reach adulthood, and thought how that made it important to find what joy one could and to make ones mark on the world while it was still possible. Suddenly she shivered.

The breeze shifted direction slightly, and she realized she could hear murmuring off to the right, past a stand of forsythia and flowering quince; she exchanged glances with Bilbo, and at his shrug in return they turned that way to follow the quiet voices of the other children, Gandalf like a great grey shadow behind them.

Frodo stood by Sam, looking down at a grave that was relatively new yet planted with pink hyacinths, white narcissi, and primroses of blue and gold. Sam had his arm about the waist of his sister May; Frodo held little Marigold in his left arm with her right about his neck, and had his right one around Sam, with his hand resting on May’s left shoulder. Esme, Bilbo, and the Wizard halted immediately, listening to Sam. “She come to love you as much as she did us, Mr. Frodo, and she was always glad as we was friends.”

“As I’m glad I was able to know her as well. She made me feel welcome, and when I was with her I didn’t feel motherless. Your mum and my Aunt Esme--they’ve been my second mums, you know.”

Marigold was wiping her nose with the back of her wrist. “I miss her, Sammy--I want her to come home again.”

“She can’t, Goldy,” Sam sighed, looking up at her. “And don’t do that--here, use my handkerchief.” He produced a square of cloth and handed it to her, and she took it awkwardly with her left hand and wiped her eyes and then blew her nose. “Maybe we should go home now,” he said as he accepted it back and stowed it again in his pocket. “It looks right fine, it does. She’d like it, I’m thinkin’.”

Frodo withdrew his right arm and set Marigold on the ground, at which time the child turned to her older sister. May now lifted her up, and stepped back so she could return toward the other children. Now it was Sam who was surreptitiously wiping at his eyes with the end of his sleeve, and it was Frodo who was bringing out a clean handkerchief to offer him.

“I’m not a bairn any more to cry all the time,” Sam was muttering.

Frodo, however, was shaking his head as he knelt to look into the smaller lad’s face. “No, Sam--don’t be ashamed when you want to cry--that shows you’re alive and that you’re able to feel things. The time to be ashamed is when you don’t want to, for that shows your spirit is more dead than the one you’re missing--like a tree where the sap can’t rise any more. My Aunt Esme told me that, you know.”

She must have straightened in response to that and managed to catch his eye, for he turned his head and noted Gandalf, Bilbo, and her, and his cheeks grew decidedly pink; but he turned his attention back to Sam. He reached out and pulled the gardener’s lad to him. “How proud your mother must be of you,” he murmured. “How very proud.”

As yours is of you, sweetling, she thought.

As she turned away to return to where the rest of the children were gathering, she noted Bilbo’s eyes were decidedly damp, and that Gandalf stood slightly behind him, protectively, his large hand on the old Hobbit’s shoulder.

*******


As Frodo shook off his rain-soaked cloak before hanging it on the peg that had always been his there in the entranceway, he asked, “Is he in his room or in the infirmary?”

“His room. I fear he was very adamant about it, too, insisting that he didn’t want to be where all the other lads could come and smirk at him. Where’s Bilbo?”

“He went with the trap to the stables--he’s concerned the mare they gave us may have a pulled muscle and wanted to examine her himself. I’m always amazed at how much he knows about ponies and their care.”

“He appears to have inherited his mother’s eye for pony flesh,” Esme agreed as she saw the umbrella provided by Horto for the drenching walk from rig to door shaken and set loosely in the stand to dry. “I’m told that the pair Bag End sported in her day were always chosen by Aunt Belladonna, and that she saw mostly to their care. Uncle Bungo never had that much time for ponies, my Gamma used to tell me. But then the Bagginses never were big ones for riding--not until Bilbo came along, at least. Although he never has appeared to be as happy spending time in the stables at the Great Smial or the Hall as most of the other lads his age were, and it appears you are set to follow his lead.” She led their way toward the main sunroom--and considering the downpour obscuring the windows it certainly didn’t deserve its name today.

“For all I was so keen to have one when I was younger? I find that now I’ve been amongst them I quite like the beasts, but that they are nowhere as intelligent as I’d been led to believe. I remember Mum and me making up stories about the adventures my first pony of my own and I would have--he’d be a bay, a lovely, shining bay, with the longest mane and tail, sleek and dark and quite a contrast to his barrel; and he’d carry me on long journeys.... And then I actually met them, and find most are skittish of anything unfamiliar and likely to be jealous of their fellows and wish to nip their withers; or else they’re stolid and without any imagination at all. It’s rather like dealing with four-legged children, you know.” They laughed as they waited for Bilbo’s arrival.

“I ought perhaps have gone with him,” Frodo commented. “Horto and I brought in the two hampers, but there was a large box on the tilt I could manage better than he can.”

At that moment the door opened, and they could hear the rain dashing down on the pavement before the Hall, then the voices of Horto and at least two other Hobbits in the entranceway, then Bilbo’s cheerful laugh. “Oh, no, lad--I’m not so aged and decrepit I can’t handle a box, you know.”

A younger voice responded, “Nonsense, Cousin Bilbo--it’s my honor. Look, you can carry that hamper there if you’re so keen to carry something.” A moment later Bilbo appeared, followed by Horto and Gomez.

Frodo nodded easily. “Good to see you, Gomez. And how have you been faring?”

“Very well. I’ve been spending a good deal of my free time in Bucklebury lately.”

Frodo smiled delightedly. “Have you a lass under consideration, then? Let me guess--the Bunce’s niece from Stock!”

More proud than he was embarrassed, Gomez nodded. “Yes--Addie and me--we’re talking about when we come of age. She’s been in Bucklebury, apprenticing as an apothecary. She’s a fine lass, she is. And you, Cousin Frodo?”

Frodo’s cheeks colored as he shrugged. “I’m still young to be thinking of lasses,” he said.

Bilbo laughed, “No--but they’re thinking of him, believe me!”

“Uncle Bilbo!” Frodo’s cheeks were flaming now.

“Good for you!” Gomez returned. “Well, we’d best get these to your rooms, so I can be back to the stables again.” He indicated the box he carried. “Which way does this one go?”

“That’s mine, as is the hamper I have here. Horto, that one goes to Frodo’s room. I’ll see you in a few moments, lad--go and ease young Merry’s heart.”

“Yes, Uncle,” Frodo said, smiling, as he turned toward the Heir’s apartments and Merry’s room.

*******


“Peregrin Took!” Frodo was exclaiming as Esme came into the room. “How many times must I tell you to not jostle Merry’s bed!”

“But, Frodo----”

Frodo picked up his smaller cousin and held him where he could look the child in the eye. “Merry has a broken leg, you know it aches him terribly when it’s jostled, and yet you can’t seem to remain still enough to keep him from having it bounced about every ten minutes or so. Do you have to be sent from the room?”

In a very small voice, Pippin answered, “No, Frodo--don’t send me away, please! I’ll be still, I promise!”

As he set the lad in Merry’s cushioned chair Frodo was shaking his head. “I know you intend that, dearling, but I doubt you can keep to it. Oh, Aunt Esme--let me take the tray!”

He suited action to word, quickly settling the tray on the table by the dresser, swiftly preparing a single plate of elevenses for Pippin to keep him busy and away from the bed before fixing up a plate for Merry.

Esme lifted the back of her hand from Merry’s forehead. “No fever, sweetling, so that’s to the good.” She checked his eyes, then had him open his mouth so she could examine his tongue. “Well, it appears your body is now adjusting to the fact the leg is broken and is settling down to the tedious business of mending it.” She fetched a still steaming mug from the tray. “Beldir and Markos are agreed with your grandmother that you’re beyond poppy juice, especially as it would only cause you to sleep all the time, so they’ve sent you willowbark tea instead, and a hearty beef tea and calves-foot jelly to aid in the mending. Now, drink this.”

Merry dutifully took a swallow, and all but spat it back out. “Mummy, but it’s bitter!” he exclaimed.

She smiled. It had been a time since her growing lad had last addressed her as Mummy.

Little Pippin looked up from his breaded fish to advise Merry, “You’re lucky you didn’t break your head, falling off that ladder. Uncle Ferumbras said so.”

Merry made a face at his beloved younger cousin, and set himself to drink the remainder of the draught. At last he had it down, and gladly traded the mug for the glass of apple juice Frodo was holding ready for him. It was as Frodo turned away that Esme noted the knuckles of his right hand were red and swollen, and that his hair half-hid a bruise near the temple.

“No, Frodo--wait but a moment. Let me see.”

Frodo, who’d become less comfortable with caresses in the past few years, stiffened. “It’s nothing, Aunt Esme,” he said, his voice formal.

“Nonsense, beloved.” She swept the curls away, and saw he’d sustained a definite blow to the side of his head. “Have you been having to fight, Frodo? I’d believed Gomez long past that--he’s settled so well since his fall into the river a few years back--certainly he has appeared far less likely to remember imagined slights.”

Frodo brushed her hand away, his face pale but his cheeks reddened. “It’s not Gomez at all--you’re right--he’s a much more enjoyable fellow now than he was when we were but lads. Yes, there’s a lad who tried to give grief, but I doubt he’ll try it again.”

“You hit him?”

“Please, Aunt--it’s over, and let it remain over, unless he shows he’s not learned his lesson.”

“But who taught you to hit someone?”

Frodo’s expression was decidedly closed, but after a moment he gave a huffing sigh. “I asked Mac how best to deal with the situation, and I’ve found his suggestions worked admirably. Again--the lad in question won’t be trying it again soon.”

She examined him closely. “Well, I’ll have someone bring you some ice from the ice house to use on your knuckles--that bruise looks to be fresher than the one on your forehead.

When she returned to the kitchens she sent young Holden, who’d been hanging about begging Willow for tastes from the dishes she was preparing for luncheon, to go off to find his cousin Merimac to fetch some ice for Frodo’s use.

At Frodo’s name the lad’s expression lit up joyfully. “For Cousin Frodo?” he asked. “Oh, yes--anything for Cousin Frodo!” And as he turned away she noted that he had a marked bruise on the back of his neck, as if someone with large hands had been pinching him there. She thought she now had an idea as to how it came about Frodo had gotten involved in his own fight.

Later in the afternoon she looked back into Merry’s room to see how he and his favorite cousins were faring, and had to smile. Quickly she went to fetch Bilbo from his own room where he’d retreated earlier to do some reading. “Come and see, but be quiet,” she warned him.

At last they arrived at Merry’s door, and very softly she pushed it open. Merry lay dozing in the center of his bed, his head resting against the top of Pippin’s head where the child lay beside him; on the other side of the bed lay Frodo, definitely asleep as well. Both children had their heads pillowed on Frodo’s outstretched arm.

Esme and Bilbo shared a smile.

*******


Esme was sitting by Menegilda’s bed when there was a knock at the door. At the older Hobbitess’s nod, she called out, “Enter, please.”

The door opened, and she smiled, then looked down into the ailing Mistress’s eyes. “It’s Frodo, Mother Gilda,” she said softly, and was relieved to see the smile on Gilda’s face.

The Mistress of Brandy Hall and Buckland turned her head slightly to peer up at the young Hobbit who now stood over her. “You’ve become so tall, sweet lad,” she whispered raspingly. “So tall, and such a fine figure of a Hobbit to look up to.”

Esme gave up her own place to Frodo, and he sat down, taking his aunt’s hand. “And you still turn the heads of the gentlehobbits when you walk through Kingsbridge,” he said gently.

She gave a soft laugh, then coughed. “Perhaps,” she murmured. “But I won’t be going there again, I fear. It’s my time now. And if there’s anything I’ve--I’ve ever been ashamed of, it’s the way----” She stopped to take a deep breath before continuing, “It’s the way I treated you. But I like--I like to think that you’ve come out as--as well as you have in part due to me.”

There were a couple tears working their way free of his eyes. “Oh, Aunt Gilda--certainly that’s true. No one could have taught me to care for others as much as you have.”

She smiled, tightened her grip on his hand as she could, and drifted into a doze. A half hour later she woke, then smiled up again at him. “And you still in your cloak. Off with you, lad--get something to eat. Comfort my Rory for me. Go on. I’m not off yet, you know.” She decidedly loosed his hand, and as he leaned over her to kiss her cheek, she caught at his shoulder, drawing him down to kiss his in return. “Love you, my sweet young rascal,” she breathed into his ear.

A couple hours later, once those keeping watch by her deathbed had been reduced once more to Esme and Bilbo, Gilda looked up to solemnly search the eyes of each. “I’ve dreamed of him again,” she said softly. “I still see him, apparently not much past coming of age, suffering as his heart fails him. But this last time--this last time Merry and Pippin and that Sam were by him, all of them Hobbits grown. They’re by him, and together--together they’ve know something terrible and something wonderful. But now they’re all there--there for him--guarding him as he’s tried to guard them. They’ll do what they can to safeguard him.” She gave a deep sigh. “I suppose,” she said at last, “that’ll have to do. I did what I could.” Again she went quiet for a time. At last she asked, “Could you have my Rory come in. I need a last cuddle.”

Esme rose to fetch the Master from the private parlor that had been Menegilda’s private domain, and found him held by his sons, all of them weeping. At the quiet word given, he pulled away, wiped his eyes with his handkerchief, and, with a final smile at Sara and Mac, turned to go toward the bedroom he’d shared with his wife all these decades.

Merry and Frodo sat side by side with Berilac on one of the cushioned sofas, Frodo’s arms about both Menegilda’s grandsons protectively. Esme smiled tiredly at them, and pouring herself a small goblet of wine sat opposite them to wait. Shortly afterwards Bilbo came out, also took a glass of wine, and sat himself in a wing chair, his face sad. “It won’t be the same without her,” he said quietly.

“No, it won’t,” Saradoc sighed as at last he sat beside his wife, allowing her to put her arm about him and draw his head onto her shoulder.

Mantha and Mac agreed as they, too, settled down together.

Dirna was sitting by a table, thoughtfully refraining from her usual litany of complaints, looking up watchfully at Saradas as he paced the room, watched also by Dinodas and Dodinas. Asphodel and her husband Rufus sat quietly in the corner with their son Milo and Frodo’s cousin Peony from Hobbiton near them. Seredic and his wife Hilda and their children had come from their home outside Hardbottle--they now planned to move back to Buckland to spend time with Dick’s parents, uncles, and aunt as they could. Amaranth had died the previous year, and Dodi’s health had been fragile since the accident with a ladder that had led to Merry’s broken leg and his own punctured lung.

They’d been waiting perhaps three quarters of an hour when the door opened and Rory returned. He walked rather proudly, if slower than had once been his wont. He looked around the room. “She’s gone now,” he announced simply in that very gentle tone he saved for his more profound statements. “She was smiling when she kissed me--and let go.”

*******


Esme and Lanti sat together with Adamanta at one of the tables at the edge of the dancing floor at the Free Fair, watching the couples whirling past, and one in especial. “Look at his eyes,” Lanti was urging. “At last he’s looking back--do you see? I told you that Pearl was intent on capturing his heart!”

Maybe so, Esme thought, but there were any number of lasses also taking part in the dancing who were anything but happy at the situation. Hyacinth Tunnely was glaring stones at Pearl every time the Took lass came within sight, her eyes caught by Frodo’s; and Bluebell Chubbs was all but sniveling. As for Narcissa Boffin--she’d refused a dance with Brendi, and was standing in the shadow of the ale tent, her arms clasped tightly about her, her face inconsolable.

Meanwhile Merry galloped by with Pervinca on his elbow, both faces glowing with enjoyment. As for Isumbard Took--with the fury to be seen in his eyes Esme found herself glad that Frodo didn’t appear to have noticed him.

Just then one more couple spun into sight, and Esme smiled to see young Samwise Gamgee’s dark gold curls beside those of the daughter of Tom Cotton. And as young as she was, there was about the child a definite possessiveness. Now, if there was ever a Hobbitess in the making with the one she’d chosen as the love of her life, it was small Rosie Cotton.

*******


Esmeralda managed to corner Bilbo as he returned from the privy toward the common room of the Green Dragon where his Dwarf friends and Gandalf awaited him. He looked at her warily. “What is it you want, Esme?” he asked.

“Where’s Frodo?”

“He and the lads remained at home tonight. I believe he has them up atop the Hill, telling tales on the stars.”

She examined his features, trying to memorize them. He’d changed so little in the past how-many years since his disappearance into the Wilds. She asked, “You’re planning on leaving, aren’t you, Bilbo?”

At last he met her eyes, then gave a sigh. He looked about them, then pulled her aside into the darkness and isolation of one of the inn’s private parlors. There, in the light from the lanterns set on the outside of the inn and what moonlight sifted its way past the chestnut tree that grew outside the window, he at last answered her. “I have to go, Esme. It’s time and long past time.” After a moment of silence he admitted reluctantly, “I don’t understand, dearling, how it is I’ve--I’ve stayed the same all these years. As I told Gandalf when he arrived, I may not look my age, but I now feel it. There’s something--something decidedly--off. Yes, something off, and I don’t know what it is, but it’s disturbing me. I ought to be bent over and hugging my shawl about me, not drinking freely with Dwarves and Wizards. I hope to find out, perhaps, just what it’s been that’s affecting me so.”

He was quiet for a moment, then continued hurriedly, “You should have seen Gandalf’s eyes when he arrived. The fact I’ve not aged frightens him, Esme! And I will assure you that Gandalf the Grey is not easily frightened, not at all! Whatever it is, I must get away before our boy--before our beloved boy is affected by it, too, although....” But there he stopped.

At last she demanded quietly, “You think that whatever it is could endanger Frodo?”

He shook his head, and she realized as the leaves of the tree outside were blown aside by the breeze and a bit more moonlight fell on the old Hobbit’s face that he was pale. “I can’t say more, Esme. Please--swear you won’t tell the others. Please!”

She gave a nod. “All right, as you desire, Bilbo. But can’t you tell me what might endanger Frodo?”

He was decidedly frustrated. “I don’t know, Esme. I just don’t know! But what I’ve felt lately--there’s someone angry who wants me to be angry, too, only I can’t tell for certain who it is or where he is.” His hand was clasping onto the pocket of his waistcoat. “But the sooner I leave, the better it will be for our lad. I know that for certain. And--and I want to perhaps go back to the Lonely Mountain again with Gloin and the others--that’s why they’ve come, you see--and stand by Thorin’s tomb once more and assure him I know he forgave me and that I truly have forgiven him in return. I’d hoped to see good old Balin again, but they tell me he’s gone off to try to reopen one of their other old dwellings, so he’s not there. I’m sorry, but I should be able to see most of the rest.

“I’m restless, and I can feel that the world is getting ready to move. A storm is brewing, a great storm the violence of which I can’t begin to imagine. The Dwarves speak of it, and many of the Elf-kind are fleeing before it, abandoning Middle Earth to what will come. None have stayed to speak to me for ever so long save for those who come from Rivendell, and they are girding themselves once more to fight.

“Yes, a storm is coming, and I fear I will be a leaf in the wind if I don’t hurry to do what I can and find some place to shelter myself.” He loosed his hold on his pocket and searched her eyes as he could. “Thank you for listening to an old Hobbit’s ramblings, lass,” he said huskily. “But remember--you are never to speak of this to any other. I won’t have Frodo further burdened just when he is coming into his own.” And without warning he leaned forward to gently press his dry lips to her forehead. “You’ve been so dear to me, lass--I so wished at one time to have a daughter as wonderful as you.”

She looked after him as he turned and strode out, and when she peeked into the common room she saw him surrounded by the Dwarves and Gandalf, Sara and Merimac and some others, his eyes alight with amusement as he spun them some tale.

*******


She watched Frodo’s face carefully in the wake of Bilbo’s remarkable disappearance. He’d known it was coming--that much was clear. But now he was hiding his own grief, deftly handling the loud complaints of Odo Proudfoot, Dirna’s repeated demands to know what had become of the old reprobate, Bartolo Bracegirdle’s suspicious glares as he bundled his wife and young son out of the pavilion, and the shrill cries of upset by Aunt Lilac Hornblower.

Ferumbras had gone out in a right fit of wordless temper--if there’d been a door to slam, she was certain the hinge would have needed to be replaced; and he’d dragged young Isumbard and several others of the Smial Tooks with him. Paladin and Eglantine, however, had refused to look at him at all, much less follow him, further increasing the Thain’s fury that his proper Heir wasn’t reflecting his own righteous anger.

As for the Sackville-Bagginses--well, they’d been amongst the first to leave, although not before in a fit of triumphant pique Lobelia had stowed the spoons, forks, and knives from about her place at the table into the rather capacious bag she’d brought. Esme found herself smiling at the thought, for as Lobelia sat herself at the Baggins table Bilbo had turned to murmur into Esme’s ear, “I made certain the cutlery near her assigned place is all the cheapest of pewter so no one’s too out of pocket when she leaves.”

As she went closer she could see Merry taking the elbow of one of those intent on going closer to Frodo and suggesting, “Let him be tonight. This is as much a shock to him as it is to you. Come tomorrow, and I’m certain we can learn just what Uncle Bilbo was playing at.” Not far the other side of Frodo Pippin was glaring up at an irate Took cousin, and she could see the confusion in the Hobbit’s eyes as he found himself backing away from the lad--and from Frodo.

Rory, who’d undoubtedly realized that this day was coming, refused to be upset, announcing loudly that as the food and drink hadn’t disappeared along with Bilbo he couldn’t for the life figure out why anyone else should be upset. Then, after the other Brandybucks nearby, including Dino and Das (Dodinas having died a year previously) relaxed back into their seats, she saw Rory, the humor going out of his eyes, watching Frodo with some level of anxiety: then at last giving a sigh, he raised his mug in toast to his nephew just as Frodo turned his way, and she saw Frodo give a rather wavery smile in return.

As she and Saradoc finally gathered Merry to them to leave the Party Field, she realized that amongst the younger Hobbits there were a few who were more concerned with one another than with the fact they’d just seen eccentric Uncle Bilbo disappear in a flash of light and puff of smoke. Isumbard Took, who must at some point have managed to free himself from Ferumbras, was escorting Pearl Took through the gate toward the line of carriages belonging to the Great Smial, his expression comforting and tender, his arm possessively about her shoulders. Pearl was looking up into his face not with the look of adoration she used to give Frodo, but with a look of surprisingly mature appreciation. Why she’d thrown Frodo over a couple years earlier no one knew for certain, although Esme had her own suspicions that somehow Lobelia Sackville-Baggins was involved. However, it appeared that what Pearl was now willing to offer Bard would be far more considered and adult than what she’d once thought to know with Frodo. Esme certainly hoped Bard appreciated that fact.

The other youngling who caught her attention was Narcissa Boffin, who was fair glowing with joy. “Oh, Folco,” she confided to her cousin, pointedly ignoring her mother’s attempts to draw her back toward their trap, “did you see? He danced with me so many times today--and he was looking at me, and smiling at me! Oh, it’s a dream come true, Folco! He’s finally recovered from Pearl throwing him over.” As she at last turned to follow her mother, Narcissa wasn’t walking so much as dancing. Esme felt relief--much as she loved Pearl as her niece, she truly felt that, considering their natures, Narcissa was a better match for her Frodo.




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