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9
Master of Bag End and the Hill

Master of Bag End and the Hill


"You can't think that it's quite proper for Frodo to be so--familiar--with a mere gardener, do you?" Lobelia asked in careful tones.

Esmeralda Took Brandybuck took a deep breath, and suppressing her rage wished she could merely slap the oh, so solicitous expression from the other Hobbitess's face. If there was one individual she'd not looked to fall in with on the journey from Buckland to Whitwell, it had to be Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. But Lobelia had been visiting relatives in the Northfarthing and was now on her way, she explained, to meet Otho and Lotho in Hardbottle, from whence they would be making a progress about their properties in the Southfarthing before returning to Hobbiton in about a month's time. And, appearing to have forgotten the origin of the pendant she wore, she'd thrust herself on Esme.

"Familiar with a gardener?" Esme said, and she knew her tone must be distinctly arch. "But his cousin Dodiroc is first gardener for Brandy Hall, and he used to serve alongside Dodi as part of his chores for the Hall. All the Hall lads, including my son Meriadoc, take part in the chores for the place, as do all the lasses. Yes, we have hired servants, but they are educated alongside our own folk, and we work alongside them as well. I would never ask our sewing mistress, for instance, to help with cleaning a larger room for a celebration if I didn't work alongside her, you know. Even Mother Menegilda, when she was Mistress, served as assistant healer and head midwife for years, and kept the apartment for herself and Rorimac as Master until her final illness. I'm afraid that Frodo was never raised to see himself as above work or those who do it--indeed, he did more than was ever asked of him the entire time he lived with us as ward to Saradoc and myself."

Again, Lobelia was unable to find any adequate response to make, so Esme decided to twist the knife but a bit further. "We're to meet at Whitwell, you know--at the farm my brother, the Thain's Heir, works. Those of the Tooklands, as is true of those of Buckland, tend to believe that working directly with the soil is an occupation that one should look on with feelings of pride and accomplishment."

She could see Lobelia thinking rapidly before blurting out, "And what honorable occupation is it the lad knows now?"

Esme purposely smiled slowly before replying, "First of all, there is no question that the 'lad,' as you've called him, is no longer merely a lad, but a Hobbit grown, and properly accepted as having come to his majority and his inheritance, as witnessed by yourself--you were at the party marking his coming of age, after all, and have several sets of cutlery attesting to your attendance." She felt a fierce pleasure as she saw the sullen flush that indicated that particular barb had indeed hit home.

"Second," she continued, "Frodo is recognized as the best copyist and scribe within the Shire, and with good reason. Certainly Master Rorimac has made use of his services, as has my husband as the Master's Heir, and Merimac as seneschal for the Hall. Even Thain Ferumbras and Mistress Lalia have employed him in that regard." Frodo had done more than one series of invitations for the Great Smials in the past few years, and had copied out, illustrated, and bound several texts for not only the archives of the Great Smial but for Will Whitfoot and the archives of Michel Delving as well as documents for various lawyers in the region of the Hill.

"Third, Frodo has been trained in recordkeeping and accounting, and now sees to the welfare of his tenants as is expected of the Master of Bag End and the Hill. He's assisted in the cultivation of Bag End's orchard and in the harvesting and preservation of its fruit since he came there, and often works in its gardens alongside his gardeners, who are, after all, recognized as masters of their craft throughout the Shire.

"I do not believe, Lobelia, that any would see him as idle--quite the contrary--particularly as I don't believe there has been a home in Hobbiton or Bywater, not even yours, where he has not at one time or another offered physical or monetary aid or other comfort as a neighbor able and willing to help at need."

The flush was deeper. "But then there are the various pranks he's pulled on my son and myself."

Esme allowed herself to laugh merrily. "Ah, yes, the pranks of young Hobbits in their tweens! Are they not amusing? I believe he's left the seat of your trap tacky with new paint--isn't that true? And didn't that follow the oh, so amusing prank pulled by your own son and Ted Sandyman in which they waylaid May Gamgee and tripped her up in the dust and, in helping her to rise to her feet, not only trampled the basket of bread she was carrying to a family where there was illness, but also managed to tear her bodice and leave her feeling sullied? Oh, but Lotho himself has been quite the fount of simple mischief worked on the good folks of Hobbiton, Bywater, and even Overhill, hasn't he? Such as the time he removed the linchpins from the cart that carried barrels of ale from the Green Dragon to Michel Delving, allowing the cart to lose a wheel and several barrels, three of which smashed and two of which were found in the stable of your home that evening. Or the time...."

Lobelia's fury was barely contained. "How about the many times Frodo has assaulted folk about Hobbiton, Bywater, and even Overhill? He's struck my own Lotho at least four times, you know, and without provocation!"

"I believe the count given me by Griffo Boffin was closer to seven. Once when he found Lotho using his walking stick to trip a lass carrying pottery to her parents' market stall to watch it smash. Twice when he caught Lotho tormenting cats. Once when he and Ted Sandyman between them were shoving that simple lad from Overhill who has that pronounced stutter between them--they'd already torn his clothing and his braces strap, and the poor thing had a black eye and a nasty bruise on his chest and a worse one on his back; the basket of apples he'd been delivering from the Boffin orchard was quite spoiled you know. Once when he caught Lotho stealing a set of goblets from the market and refusing to admit he'd not paid, the time the Shiriffs were called--but you do remember that time, don't you? And then----"

But apparently Lobelia had no stomach for further reminders, for she rose abruptly, looking down coldly at Esmeralda. "I will not stay to hear my son called a thief."

"Why not? Hasn't he come by the practice of it honestly enough? Perhaps if you do not like accusations of dishonesty, you should not wear openly the locket stolen from me at Bag End that first year after Bilbo took Frodo as his ward. Lotho didn't accompany you to the Hill that day, Lobelia."

The flush was gone--Lobelia's face was now stark white. Her hand trembling, she reached up and grasped the ornate locket she wore, then gave a wrench, breaking the clasp to the chain from which it was suspended. Throwing it down on the table before Esme, the older Hobbitess turned and fled the room, leaving Esme looking after her, grief and fury filling her. At last she turned her attention back to the locket, lifted it up and held it to her, realizing she was crying.

At that point Sara, followed by Merry and Pippin, came into the inn from the stable where they'd been seeing the wagon and ponies readied for the day's journey, Sara asking, "Dearling, did I see Lobelia here, in Waymeet? And she was----" He stopped, taking in her tears. His tone became direct. "What was she saying? And what's that?"

She opened her hand to show him, and he looked shocked at first. "Your locket--the one you had from your mother that your dad gave her the day you were born! The one you lost at Bag End...." His face went as white as ever Frodo's had done. "That thieving shrew!" he hissed. "And she was accusing Frodo of having taken it--'to have something to remember you by'--isn't that what she said?"

Looking at the fury in his eyes and the matching anger in the faces of her son and her nephew, Esme thought it well for Lobelia that she wouldn't be returning to Hobbiton for at least a month--she suspected the Sackville-Bagginses would most likely stay a bit longer than usual in the Southfarthing, in fact.

*******


The wagon and the led pony were entering the Tooklands when its occupants spied a familiar form walking in the soft grass growing alongside the wagon track. "Frodo!" Pippin cried. "It's Frodo! Oy, Frodo--there you are!"

The young Master of Bag End turned. He wore a sturdy shirt and trousers, his waistcoat and jacket rolled with his cloak about his bedroll, the day being particularly warm for early April. His eyes lit with pleasure at the sight of his approaching relatives, and he waited until they had caught up even with him and Merry had pulled the rig to a halt. "I'd hoped to arrive before you did," Frodo said, looking up at those in the cart, "but I see the best I could hope for is a ride the rest of the way at this point." He examined the pony tied on behind and noted the saddle slung over one of the barrels of cider being carried in the tilt, then gave his attention to Pippin. "So--you've ridden off again without permission, have you?"

Pippin refused to have his good spirits stifled. "Yes--since I knew my Merry was coming, I decided to ride out and meet him. I made it past Waymeet, even." The lad scrambled into the back in order to free the place by his aunt. "Come and get in," he invited as he reached out to take Frodo's pack and bedroll. "Mum and Da will be that upset," he continued, "but I think they're getting used to it by now. At least this time we're going to the farm and not back to the Great Smial."

"Is that why you've been taking off so often all winter--to avoid the Great Smial?" Merry asked.

"Of course. Uncle Ferumbras keeps treating Da as if he wants to be Thain and as if he wished Uncle Ferumbras gone already; and Lalia's just too awful for words. If I'm quiet she says I'm plotting things. If I'm not she says I'm too noisy. If I wear my favorite things I look a fright, and if I wear my Smial clothes she calls me a little dandy. If I try to play with the other lads I'm too familiar; if I don't, I'm stand-offish."

"I see," Frodo said as he hopped up to take the seat by Esme. "She has it so no matter what you do, it's wrong then."

Pippin nodded. "She doesn't like it when I'm there, and she doesn't like it when I leave, neither. So I may as well go be with one of you so I don't have to listen to it."

Esme and Frodo found themselves sharing a grin as Merry set the team in motion--and then Frodo's eyes lit on the locket she once again wore, suspended by a ribbon until she could obtain a new chain, for she refused to wear the one Lobelia had worn. Frodo's grin softened into a look of pleasure and relief as he reached to touch it with one finger. "You found it," he said softly. He looked up into her eyes. "Where? Was it in your things all this time?"

"No," she answered carefully, "I found it in Waymeet."

He looked again at it, shocked. "Waymeet? How did it end up in Waymeet? The time it went missing, you went home by way of Stock and the Bucklebury Ferry." She nodded, and knew he was seeing the stiffness of her jaw. "I remember worrying that you thought I might have taken it," he said, his eyes searching hers. "I mean, that's what Lobelia was say----" Then his face grew set. "You mean, she took it--she took it and tried to throw suspicion on me?"

"We knew you wouldn't have taken it, Frodo. But I never dreamed that she'd done so. I thought perhaps that odious son of hers might, but couldn't imagine how he could have managed to get his hands on it. But we met yesterday in Waymeet, and she was wearing it. That time she arrived right at tea time when Sara and you and Bilbo were with the Gaffer and Sam in the orchard--she must have taken it that day, although I didn't notice she'd gone back toward the bedrooms."

Merry asked over his shoulder, "Did she go to the privy, Mum? She could have taken it then. The day after Bilbo left, Uncle Mac found her in Frodo's room taking things and hiding them in her umbrella, and we'd all thought she'd left."

"She was trying to steal that day?" At Frodo and Merry's nods she shook her head. "Trust Lobelia Sackville-Baggins to be the absolute worst a Hobbit could possibly be. Benbo must rejoice that she married Otho and isn't his responsibility any more."

"She's still in the Bracegirdle family book," Frodo sighed. "She can still call on family ties if she wishes. But now she's my primary responsibility, I suppose. Can you imagine what that's going to be like--having to remind Lobelia Sackville-Baggins that in taking things that don't belong to her she's bringing shame on the Baggins as well as the Sackville names? Just imagine how she's going to take that from me!"

Sara was turned to watch the two of them, and now and then Merry had looked over his shoulder during the conversation while Pippin leaned on the back of the seat. Frodo glanced briefly at each, then looked away. "Maybe I ought not to have been so quick to accept being named family head after Bilbo," he said to no one in particular.

"Then you would have bear with Otho and then Lotho lording it over you, lad," Sara reminded him, and Frodo shuddered.

"You're right," Frodo sighed. "But at least you have it back."

Esme smiled. "That I do, sweetling--and you didn't even have to interfere. Be glad."

Frodo turned her way, then flashed her his brilliant smile. "Yes, I have that to be grateful for."

She laid her hand on his shoulder, and he leaned toward her and put an arm about her.

*******


It was late. Sara and Pal were still talking, although they'd moved to the kitchen, and Lanti was doing some straightening in the parlor before putting out the lamps there. Merry and Pippin had gone to bed reluctantly, as had Pimpernel and Pervinca, and Esme assumed Frodo and Pearl had done so as well.

She was feeling restless, and decided to go out and do a turn about the garden. She pulled her spring shawl off the back of the chair in which she'd been sitting, wrapped it about her shoulders, and slipped out into the moonlight. As she went round the side of the house, however, she heard voices, and realized that she'd been wrong about the whereabouts of her niece and young cousin.

"I still don't see why you'd even consider it, Pearl."

"It's my duty, Frodo. All of the older lasses are taking it in turn, you see, and as Da's daughter I can't be seen to be shirking my responsibilities toward the Tooks."

"She'll treat you terribly. She treats all the younglings in the Great Smial badly, and you know it. And the fact you're Paladin's daughter is only likely to make her more painstaking in her fault-finding."

"Actually, she tends to treat me better than most of the rest. I'm not certain why, for the way she treated Linden when it was her turn was enough to cause the poor lass to break down in tears a half dozen times a day. But in spite of Da she actually seems to like me. Maybe that will help me get through the three months I must dance attendance on her. And I will be there at the Great Smial and not out here on the farm any more."

"Don't you like being here in Whitwell?"

"Actually, no. Oh, I know I was born here and have lived here most of the time, but the closer I get to being of age the more I find this isn't the life I want to live. I don't like having to get up each day at the crack of dawn and go out and haul food and water to the pigs and ponies, or to spend my nights amongst the ewes during lambing season, half the time dragging with tiredness and with my skirts filthy and no chance to change them sometimes for days at a time. I'd rather weed flowerbeds than rows and rows of beets and carrots, and I hate working in the cornfield.

"I like knowing that if I don't feel up to cooking for myself I can go to the common dining room and have a real choice to what I eat. I like the idea that if I were to become ill I don't have to send for a healer to come, only to find out that she's been called away because someone else's baby is teething and the young parents don't know what to do to keep it from screaming. I like knowing I can ride in the coach if the weather's bad, and not look forward to becoming soaked through from having to ride pony back or in an open trap or wagon when the rain or snow is pouring down. I like knowing that if the pump loses its prime I don't have to be the one who fixes it this time."

"Plus Isumbard is there."

"Yes, there's that."

The two of them were silent for a time. At last Frodo's voice broke the quiet. "Did you truly love me once, do you think?"

Pearl's answer was a bit delayed, but at last it came, her voice very low. "Yes, I did--I truly did."

"What changed?"

Again there was quiet, and Esme could hear the breeze rustling the leaves on the cherry trees out front and the lilac beside which the two young Hobbits stood. Finally, "I realized, I think, I was more in love with a dream than with you, Frodo. I was terribly shallow, you know, and you deserve someone who accepts you as you are, not the self-centered little beast that I was."

"And does Bard love you, do you think?"

"Yes, and he loves me knowing how petty I can be at times, and how lazy I can be."

"Lalia won't let you be lazy."

"No, she likes to have folks always on edge, or so the other lasses tell me. Hurry up, wait here, we'll go there so get ready--no, not yet. That kind of thing. I think I can live with that for three months." Then she asked, "Do you still love me, Frodo? I don't mean I wish you to, only--only...."

"Only you want to know--if I'm over you?"

"Yes."

She heard a sigh. "I don't know for certain, but I think I am. And--and you're doing well to look to Bard and not me."

"Why?" Esme could hear the surprise in her niece's voice.

"Because I've--well, since I came of age I've been finding out that--that I'm not always as--as patient I as used to think myself. I find myself fighting the urge to snap at people, and struggling to control my hand when what I really would like to do would be to just slap someone or box his ears. Or worse," he suddenly added.

"Everyone gets impatient, Frodo Baggins. You should see me about Pimpernel and Pervinca sometimes--they can be so very childish."

He gave a breathy laugh. "Well, what do you expect from children?"

Esme turned away and decided to give them back their privacy.

*******


Esme had been listening for news of his arrival all day, ever since she and Saradoc and Rorimac had arrived with Merry from Buckland. The Great Smial had been in an uproar ever since the accident; and there were those who wished to blame Pearl, those who wished to blame Lalia's personal maid and nurse Begonia (slave, more like, Esme thought), some who wished the fault to fall on both Pearl and Begonia, and the majority who in truth felt no one should be blamed or found at fault in the glad lifting of the feeling of oppression that had overshadowed the Tooklands ever since the death of Fortinbras the Second. That had been when Lalia had announced she was retaining the power of the Took to herself, and had all but openly robbed her son of the authority of his Thainship as well.

Where Frodo was in all of this no one knew, for the word from Samwise Gamgee was that his Master had left four days previous on one of his walking trips and had indicated he might well spend a fortnight in the Binbole Forest. If he'd made it there there could be no telling when he might return, for there were few proper roads and even fewer villages there. It was a wild place and more than a little uncanny. But somehow she was certain that Frodo Baggins would hear the news and come, and she hoped he would arrive soon. For if there was anyone to cut through this cacophany of calls and countercalls she knew in her heart it was her young second cousin.

Suddenly Gordolac Whitfoot, the Mayor's nephew, was at her side. "Mistress Esmeralda, you asked to be notified when Frodo was found--it appears he's approaching Tuckborough from the northwest and ought to be here in about half an hour."

Breathing a sigh of relief, she said, "Thank you, Gordo. Please tell the Master and Mr. Paladin."

She looked at where Pearl sat, white and still shaking even three days afterwards, surrounded by her mother, her sisters, and her aunts, both Eglantine's sister and hers and Pal's three. Jade and Morigrin had arrived from Long Cleeve at about the same time as the party from Buckland; Diamente had arrived from Michel Delving the evening of the accident; and Primrose, as a permanent resident of the Great Smial, had been here all along. It was as well that she and Sara had already been planning their own trip to fetch Pippin away for a month's visit when the Quick Post rider had arrived at Brandy Hall--it had taken little to get Rorimac's own kit packed and added to what was already in the trap and to choose one of the swifter pairs rather than the single gelding Sara had originally intended to use; and there were changes of teams waiting for them in Whitfurrow and Waymeet as well as the pair Griffo Boffin had brought to the turn toward Hobbiton.

She approached Lanti. "Frodo's arriving, and I'm going to the door to meet him."

Pearl's mother gave her a distracted nod, turning her own attention back toward her firstborn, trying everything she could think of to break through the layer of shock that seemed to have wrapped itself about her daughter, isolating her in the midst of it all.

Frodo had apparently been walking more quickly than those who'd reported his approach estimated, for shortly after her arrival at foot of the great stairs from the main door he could be seen. She went out to meet him. He was somewhat dusty but appeared suitably dressed for presentation at the moment--Bilbo had insisted that clothing chosen for walking trips be sturdy yet appropriate to be worn in company, as one never knew what might be required of one while away from home.

Seeing her, Frodo quickened the pace even more until he reached her side. "The tale is that Lalia is dead, and of an accident," he said questioningly, "and that her attendants are suspected of negligence in the handling of her chair."

"Yes," she said quietly. "She would come out to take the air, sitting in her great wheeled chair up there, on the pavement before the main door."

Frodo looked up with a degree of distaste. "What happened?" he asked. "It's not that long a flight of stairs, after all."

"No, not all that long, perhaps; but she'd become so immensely fat it's likely her own weight killed her as she fell."

"How did she come to fall?"

"No one knows for certain, although it appears that the brake failed on it. As she fell she lost her seat in the chair itself, and appears to have struck her head, breaking her neck. Begonia has become rather frail and is reported to have complained several times regarding how difficult it was becoming for her to set the brake, and Pearl has expressed concern about the sturdiness of the thing, for she said that almost any movement by Lalia tended to cause the chair to shift position. And the artificer for the Great Smial admits that the chair was in need of replacement, as it was at least eight years since it was rebuilt the last time. She had gained so much bulk that the chair could barely support her any more, and he says the joints were shaky. Certainly it is on record that Pearl had requested it be replaced since her arrival a month ago, both on the basis of Lalia's safety and her comfort."

Frodo nodded. "Then they cannot fault either her or Begonia, it appears, particularly if there is ample indication that the chair itself was less than sound and both had brought this to the attention of the artificer and, I hope, Cousin Ferumbras." At her nod, he looked up at the steps. "No, not such a great fall for most. But with Lalia's great weight----" He stood, shaking his head at the thought. At last he said, "I think I should see Pearl first." They entered, and he handed his pack to young Smitting, who served as valet to the Thain's family guests, with a murmured word before following Esme onward.

Pearl had barely changed position since Esme's arrival, sitting always in the same chair, on occasion shaking her head--as if, Esme thought, she were reliving the horror of the fall again and again, seeing it repeatedly being played out before her eyes. As Frodo entered the room he paused, although whether it was due to surprise or dismay or simply taking count on who was there about the lass Esme couldn't guess.

Then he was moving forward, and those about Pearl moved aside, automatically giving way to him as he knelt before her and took her hands. At last she turned toward him, and taking a deep shuddering breath at last pulled herself out of the shock. She searched his eyes, and seeing no question or condemnation there she licked her lips. "Oh, Frodo," she said hoarsely, "some are saying it was a'purpose, and that Begonia or I didn't set the brake, or that one of us--that I--pushed her down the steps. But it isn't true! I'd never--we'd never--Begonia couldn't! Oh, Frodo, she's dead--it was horrible!" For the first time, Pearl broke into tears, and he pulled her to his shoulder, murmuring in her ear and stroking her back. At last he pulled away slightly, producing his handkerchief for her use.

Only when at last her shuddering gasps began to subside did he rise. He turned to Lanti and suggested, "You'd best send now for Isumbard. I need to see Cousin Ferumbras." So saying, he squared his shoulders and left the room, Esme scurrying to follow after him.

*******


Ferumbras had unwillingly led Frodo, Paladin and Saradoc and their wives, Will Whitfoot, old Bernigard, and a few other of the more prominent family heads present as well as some of the more influential Tooks and North-Tooks, into the room where the remains of the wheeled chair in which Lalia had spent most of her days had been brought, and soon all were examining it. A Gravelly who was known to be an excellent artificer spent a good deal of time checking out the construction of the thing, and all realized that many of the joints had been weakened by years of use and abuse under Lalia's tremendous weight. At last the Gravelly spoke quietly with the Took artificer, and the two made their joint pronouncement. "It was needful of replacement, ladies and gentlehobbits," the Gravelly said with quiet authority, his Took counterpart indicating his agreement. "The structure of it was much weakened, it was, and from what I can tell the brakes was all but wore out. It's no wonder old Miss Begonia was a'havin' difficulties gettin' the levers to work. I'd say as it was only a matter a'time afore somethin' of this sort happened, and I'd not put any a'the blame on the lass or the old nurse."

There was quiet for some time before Will Whitfoot asked, "Didn't Pearl and others indicate as it was time and past time to have it replaced?"

Ferumbras's face darkened. "Of course, Mr. Whitfoot," he returned in a voice that made it plain the honorific was not intended to truly indicate courtesy. "But what am I to do? She controlled the purse strings, and out of my allowance I was to purchase all that was needed for the Smial and the farms and her chair as well. Six years back the main coach needed replacing, the one my mother preferred. Given the choice between replacing her chair and replacing the coach, my mother indicated we'd do better to replace the coach, particularly as it was the one in which she made her own infrequent visits. It took me three years to pay it off. Then there was the year the potato blight went through our fields, and most of my allowance went to purchasing potatoes from Buckland and Overhill to meeting the needs of our folk here."

Many looked to Griffo Boffin and Rorimac Brandybuck where they received confirmation.

"The next year Mother took it into her head that all who served in the Hall must receive livery, and I must purchase fabric and the services of the best tailors and dressmakers to see it all done. I argued against it, for we were experiencing a leak in the back storerooms, but she insisted and would not be gainsaid." There were grunts of affirmation from many of the Tooks. "It was an abject failure and gross waste of funds desperately needed elsewhere, for the design was uncomfortable and the colors chosen flattering to only a few; but Mother was growing very difficult----" the growls of agreement were many, "and no one else's opinion mattered aught at the time, although at last young Pearl was able to talk some sense into her and got her to give up the project before it ruined us completely."

Esme was startled, and she remembered Pearl's comments to Frodo on how Lalia appeared to like her somewhat, and wondered if that liking had stemmed from that time. She noted several were exchanging looks over this intelligence.

"This past year I had a choice--have that blasted chair replaced, or replace a harrow and six plows and two teams of oxen and three farm wagons. You cannot begin to dream how deucedly expensive it has been to have these chairs made, for she is--was--the only one in the whole of the Shire so extraordinarily--obese who must needs have such a thing in order to leave her bed at all. And I am sorry if any of you consider me to have been neglectful towards my mother, but given the choice between her and her self-centeredness and the needs of the Tooks of the Tooklands, I must choose the many over the one."

He looked at Isembold's grandson Berengrim who kept most of the accounts for the Great Smial, who sought to loosen his collar somewhat as he unhappily confirmed the Thain's explanations. "Most of the wealth garnered by the Tooks has been stored away, and Mistress Lalia insisted that we must make economies with what funds she would make available. I can show you the account books...."

After some discussion on the matter, all went quiet. At last Frodo spoke up. "What of this matter of Miss Begonia and my Cousin Pearl being blamed for the death? I believe all of us are now agreed that there is no question of this being anything other than a most regrettable accident, and much of Lalia's own making as she wouldn't take responsibility to see her own chair replaced or agree to lose some of her extraordinary weight. But this could terribly blacken the names of this unfortunate nurse and my cousin, and I will not stand for that."

Ferumbras looked rather coldly at the yet youthful head of the Baggins family, but at last remarked, "I will let it be known that the situation has been examined closely, and all agree that there is no question that neither Miss Begonia nor my niece Pearl was to blame for the accident. And I will seek to make it plain that young Pearl is in my favor for the courtesy and care that she showed ever to my mother.

"She--she has a way with her, your cousin does, Frodo Baggins, one that worked to the good with my mother and that was able to reach past her humors to the remains of her good sense at the last. Mother was a most difficult individual to deal with, and most of those who have taken it in hand to aid her as they could have been reduced to bowls of quivering jelly once she began loosing her acerbic tongue at them or blaming them for her own pains and discomforts. And be advised, young Frodo, that my mother did know true discomfort. Nor is all of her weight due to her own indolence, although the situation certainly began through her inability to distinguish food from comfort. Indeed, although the amount she has eaten has grown less over the years, yet she has not been able to lose any, and indeed has gained even more pounds with each passing season. As her ability to stand and move about on her own decreased, her weight increased correspondingly."

This last was food for thought, and Frodo's face had gone rather pale, although his cheeks had colored more in his own embarrassment. Now he spoke, "I regret having so disparaged your mother, Cousin Ferumbras. Please forgive me. Having myself been the target of her tongue more than once, I fear I was unable to look past the bulk to see that there might be poor health behind it."

Ferumbras examined Frodo for some minutes before his expression softened. "No offense taken, Master Baggins," he said, almost congenially. "None taken. And I will do my utmost to make it plain, as I've said, that I do not hold Pearl or Begonia either one responsible for what has happened.

"And now," he said in a more business-like tone, "if there is anyone wishing to pay their respects, we have Mother's body laid out in one of the more formal parlors. If you will follow me."

It was to be a coffin burial, and the coffin provided was quite enormous, far larger than that which had held the bodies of Drogo and Primula Baggins, Esme noted. The bier provided was held up with far more supports than such things usually required, and Esme noted that it was not only more sturdily constructed than usual but that it had four pairs of rods with which it would be carried. Esmeralda Took found herself supremely glad that she would not be amongst those expected to carry Lalia to her grave.

*******


"I hear that that Pearl Took, Paladin's lass, saw the chair given just that last nudge needed to see it down the stairs," Esme and Frodo's cousin Peony Burrows, Peony Baggins as was, was confiding to a member of the Hornblower family come for Lalia's funeral.

The source of Peony's intelligence was made plain a minute later as Esme caught Lobelia Sackville-Baggins whispering into the ear of one of the Goldworthies. Dirna stood on the other side of Lobelia and was murmuring her own confirmation to Lobelia's pronouncement.

Even amongst some of the Tooks the idea that Pearl was complicit in Lalia's death was murmured about, although here the idea was welcomed not so much with the hint of scandal as it was with a degree of admiration. And when, at the end of the week that saw the death examined and the funeral completed Ferumbras announced at the last formal dinner given for those come to see the late dowager Took laid to rest that he had examined the situation leading up to his mother's death and had determined that no blame of any sort could be laid at the feet of Pearl Took or Lalia's paid companion and maid and nurse, Begonia Rushie, there was a good deal of quiet skepticism shared around the banquet room.

When the talk looked to go on longer Ferumbras cleared his throat impatiently, and at last all went quiet. "I wish all of you to know," he continued, "how deeply indebted I feel to young Pearl for her great patience and caring shown to my mother. Mother was--not--an easy person to deal with on a daily basis. My young cousin Pearl was most understanding of my mother's infirmities and was able to soothe her tempers due to the great discomfort she often knew most effectively. Pearl was one of the few individuals whom my mother came to care for and to respect deeply, and one of the few to whom she would display her wit and humor, which I assure you were present."

Esme could tell that this pronouncement was greeted with even more skepticism--considering how many had suffered the sharp side of the tongue of Lalia Took, few were willing to believe there had been any other side to the old Hobbitess.

Again Ferumbras cleared his throat, and all went silent more swiftly than the last time. He lifted up a flat box. "Miss Rushie has been granted a stipend to provide for her in her retirement, and has chosen to return to her own family. Now I wish to thank young Pearl for the care given, and to give her this in memory of my mother. My great-uncle Isengar is said to have brought these back from his travels in his youth, and of the many treasures and heirlooms of our family, this was one item my mother especially appreciated. I now wish that young Pearl have them as her own in memory of my mother, who so appreciated her caring and patience shown, and to show how much esteem I, too, feel toward her."

Pearl gave uncertain glances toward her parents and Isumbard, who sat by her, before accepting the box and opening it carefully. In it was a most magnificent strand of pearls, and she lifted it out, amazed at the quality and colors. Her eyes were swimming as she looked up at her uncle and murmured, "Thank you so deeply, Uncle Ferumbras, but I don't know that I can accept such a gift, even in the spirit you offer it. It is far more valuable than I could dream to own in my own right."

He gave a careless wave to dismiss her misgivings. "Nonsense--considering how closely you will be related to the Thain one day and how much respect I hold for your courtesy and discernment, there is no question that this will be leaving the treasuries of the Tooks, particularly as it appears you shall be soon sharing your own life with another of the lineage of the Tooks of the Great Smial."

Esme felt her heart fill with dismay. Did he not realize that it appeared he was possibly rewarding Pearl for helping see to it his difficult mother was now out of the way, and that he himself might be paying her court? She looked to Isumbard and saw the manner in which the young Took's jaw was now set--he certainly foresaw where the Thain's remarks would lead the gossip of the Shire regarding this unfortunate incident.

As for Frodo--it was obvious that her beloved former ward was doing all within his power to keep from strangling the Thain for the damage he'd just unwittingly inflicted. And a glance at Dirna and Lobelia showed they were right in their element with the manner in which they might construe Ferumbras's gift and remarks.

*******


Frodo had come to Buckland to share in the celebrations of the Spring Ball, but he'd danced far less than she remembered him ever doing. Oh, he'd danced the Bounder's Jig and the Husbandman's Dance with as much skill and even more grace than ever; but when it came to the couples dances he'd sat on the sidelines as often as he'd taken part in the dancing, and Esme saw signs of frustration in his face--a face, she suddenly realized, that hadn't changed appreciably since the day he came of age.

Suddenly she realized he'd slipped away, and she began looking for him, finally finding him outside the pavilion where the dancing was taking place, leaning against the ancient pillar that had stood there since long before the Hall was excavated, watching the dancing with a distinct expression of unhappiness on his face.

"What is it, dearling?" she asked as she joined him, startling him, she noted.

"It's nothing," he said as he turned his gaze back toward the dancers, his expression now carefully guarded.

"Why aren't you dancing? Melilot would die happy if you'd but ask her; and Absinthe is eager as well."

He looked at her, and she couldn't place the expression he showed. "I can't inflict myself on them!" he said.

"They wouldn't exactly see it as you inflicting yourself on them, Frodo Baggins," she pointed out reasonably.

"You just don't understand----" She could hear the frustration so clearly expressed in his voice.

"Understand what?" she finally asked.

He turned to look back at the pavilion, and now she heard pain there as he said, "That's the problem, Aunt Esme--I don't understand, either."

*******


Esme looked between Brendilac's eyes and Frodo's. They'd just come back from the burial grounds, having seen Brendi's childhood sweetheart and wife of not quite a year buried after succumbing at last to a growth in her belly. Frodo had encouraged Brendi to marry Merilinde anyway in spite of the fact she would most probably die shortly, having known how devoted Brendi and his beloved had been to one another for so long, and there was no question there had been a good deal of joy between the bride and her bridegroom as a result of their decision. All had wondered at the choice--herself and Sara, Merilinde's parents, Brendi's father; but none had regretted it--at least, not till now.

Frodo asked in a low voice, "Do you blame me, Brendi, for the pain now?"

Brendi looked surprised at the question. "What are you asking, Frodo Baggins? Blame you? For what? For encouraging me to seize the joy of the day with both hands both for myself and for her? One of us or the other was bound to most likely go first anyway--that's just the way life is, you know. Yes, I hurt now, but at least I know I had that joy, and not just regrets at what we might have known. No, I don't blame you, Frodo--I thank you--thank you with all my heart."

*******


It was Sam's birthday, his coming-of-age, and Frodo was sparing no expense to make it a memorable one for his friend. Boxes of flowering shrubs stood here and there. A marvelous kitchen tent had been erected where between the Gaffer's brood and the Cottons most marvelous odors were filling the air of the party field. There were tables and a bandstand, stacks of kegs from the Green Dragon and the Golden Perch, and a most, most wonderful cake baked by young Rosie Cotton, who all agreed was a dab hand with baking.

Frodo himself had purchased a large consignment of mushrooms from the Maggot farm in the Marish, and had prepared at least ten whole chickens baked with mushroom sauce, a dish Esme had taught him to fix while he lived in Brandy Hall; and he was providing at least a half dozen bottles of Old Winyards from Bilbo's cellar.

Esme smiled as Frodo teased Sam and exchanged banter with the other lads--with Fatty Bolger, Folco Boffin, Berilac, Merry, Pippin, the Cotton lads. How wonderful it was to see Frodo surrounded by these, his friends. Then she felt her smile slip a bit. Sam was only today coming of age, April 6, and Freddy wouldn't do so until October 5, while Beri'd just done so last month. Folco had been of age only two years; Merry and Pippin wouldn't reach their majority for years yet. She wasn't certain about the Cotton lads, but she thought young Tom was the only one Sam's age.

Yet Frodo didn't look a day older than Beri, and he was almost forty-five already! What was it with the Bagginses of Bag End?

*******


"Merry, are you going to the Westfarthing again?" demanded Saradoc of his heir. "We have that report to give tomorrow to the farmers in the Marish."

"I finished it, Dad, and it's lying on your desk now. I'm sorry, but you or Mac will have to read it. But this is important--truly important. I suspect Frodo's planning on slipping away on us."

"I almost wish he'd do so and save you all the concern at his expense. Stars and clouds, Meriadoc Brandybuck, you are so very worried about what Frodo might be doing all the time!"

Merry's voice grew stiff. "I'm sorry, Father. However, Frodo's always been as my brother, and I won't see him endangering himself needlessly."

*******


There was a meeting of the family heads in the grange hall in Hobbiton, and the Brandybucks had stayed in Bag End with Frodo so that Saradoc, now Master of Buckland and the Hall, might attend, accompanied by Merry as his heir. While the menfolk were at the meeting, Esmeralda wandered into Bywater to the tea shop, having decided that she didn't wish to remain at Bag End alone. She'd just been served a mug of jasmine tea and a plate of scones and cherry jam when someone approached her table and sat down opposite her. Well, she thought as she turned to look at her new companion, she hadn't wished to feel alone----

----Only she hadn't thought that Lobelia Sackville-Baggins would be the one to sit opposite her.

She didn't know quite what to think of the expression on the older Hobbitess's face, for it certainly wasn't either the superciliousness or the slyness Lobelia usually displayed. It had been several years since the confrontation in Waymeet--several years and the loss of Otho; and something subtle had apparently changed in Otho's widow, something that Lobelia herself wasn't quite certain how to react to.

Esme continued to search the face of Lobelia, seeing there a level of uncertainty, and as the searching continued some degree of annoyance as well. Finally she asked, "And what can I do for you, Missus Sackville-Baggins?"

"You know that my Otho died not that long back."

"As I attended his funeral, I rather think I do."

"You and Master Saradoc both did. Not that most appear to have bothered."

Otho's funeral had been remarkably sparsely attended, Esme remembered. Two of the Sackvilles who lived in the area had come, the Thain and his Heir, the Master and his Heir and wife, Griffo Boffin as village head, Frodo Baggins attended by Samwise Gamgee, and Mayor Whitfoot. Lotho had turned up followed by Ted Sandyman--quite late in the proceedings, and apparently drunk, from what Esme remembered; very sorry behavior from the new head of the Sackville family, really. He'd glared at the others present, saving his foulest looks for Frodo, who'd not appeared to have paid them the least attention. Instead, in the absence of her son for the earliest portions of the ceremony, Frodo had helped carry the bier holding Otho's shrouded corpse to the burial ground and had helped lower the body into the grave, then had stood by Lobelia to offer her what comfort he could as Will and Griffo had stepped forward to speak over the grave of one no one had truly liked in years.

She remembered that at Lotho's arrival Frodo had stepped away from Lobelia to allow the son to take his proper place at the side of his grieving mother; but Lotho hadn't done so, continuing to stand across the open grave, staring down into it, leaving those who watched uncertain as to whether he was trying to will his father to stand back up and return home or if he was decidedly happy not to have to deal with the old, bitter Hobbit any further. At last Frodo had stepped back to Lobelia's side, and it was on Frodo's arm that Lobelia had at last been led away, once those present had thrown in their handsful of earth and, at a nod from his Master, Sam had stepped forward, more tardily followed by Merry and Pippin, to finish filling in the grave. Where Lotho and Ted had disappeared to then was anyone's guess.

Esme remembered all that, then found herself looking into the shockingly serious face of Lobelia. "Yes, we attended, although I regret to admit that had we not already been here in the Westfarthing at the time it's unlikely we would have made the journey merely to do so."

Lobelia shrugged as if that were unimportant. "Not that any would have faulted you--you're no twelve-mile cousins, after all."

Esme gave a slight nod in return.

"None of the Hobbiton healers have been willing to deal with us for some years," Lobelia continued.

"No?"

"Only reason Drolan Chubbs came, there at the end, was because Frodo asked him. Drolan's always been a better healer than Modo Brownlock, who's the only one who's been willing to see to us for years. Not that that's any recommendation--I certainly never got the impression that Modo's much cared whether we became well or not, as long as we paid our coin for his attendance and whatever nostrums he's thrust at us."

Again Esme nodded her understanding.

"Then Drolan wouldn't let me pay him. No, he told me, he did, 'I said years ago, Missus Lobelia, I'd never take coin from you again, and I won't start now. Master Frodo--he's paying for this,' and off he goes. But for all that, he was thorough and gentle with my Otho, and saw to it that there at the end Otho was comforted and never alone.

"Why'd he do that, Esmeralda--Frodo, I mean? Why did he care?"

Esme found herself thinking furiously, trying to put the reason into words Lobelia could understand. At last she said, rather slowly, "First, there's the fact that when Bilbo chose him as next family head, Bilbo was choosing the most responsible member of the family to succeed him. And as family head for the Bagginses, Frodo feels responsible to all of the family name, including you, Otho, and Lotho."

At Lobelia's impatient nod, Esme continued, "Secondly, Frodo's the most compassionate individual I've ever known. There when he lived in Brandy Hall he'd help anyone who needed it, once he realized they did need it, even the lads who tormented him the most. Oh, yes, there were a number of lads who did their best to make certain Frodo's life was miserable at the time, taunting him as a mam's lad and trying to stick his head into the privies. But he won them over in the end, not through besting them, but by being the decent, caring, capable individual he's always been.

"If he stood by you through Otho's final illness and funeral, it was as much because he truly cares as because, as Baggins family head, it's his duty. Now, if you would like to join me for tea...."

Esme was amazed to find herself pleased when Lobelia, obviously taken by surprise by the invitation, accepted and behaved in a most exemplary manner afterwards.

*******


She saw Narcissa sitting in the Common in Bywater, speaking to a young Boffin cousin, both faces alight with laughter at some joke shared. As was often true, Narcissa had a book by her, and had closed it, folding it over a finger to hold her place as she welcomed her cousin's company.

Then she saw Frodo also watching Narcissa, and she couldn't believe the expression she saw on her lad's face--it was ugly--leering--lustful! She saw he had his right hand in his waistcoat pocket, clearly clutching something there--did he still carry that green stone with the hole in it he'd found as a child, she suddenly wondered? His left hand was clenched at his side for as long as that terrible expression lasted--which thankfully wasn't long. The expression changed, appeared shocked perhaps to find such feelings contained within himself. Frodo slowly but purposefully opened his left hand, and he looked with great distaste and, if she was right about it, with a hint of fear at the marks where his bitten nails had dug into the heel of his hand. Again he looked at Narcissa, but this time without lust, this time with a raw longing and grief that was as terrible in its way as had been the ugly expression earlier, before he purposely turned away, back toward the Hill in the distance, there across the Water.

*******


Esme looked into the room that had always been Frodo's when he was in the Hall since the death of his parents, and found it empty. She wondered where he'd got to, and suspected he might have gone out where he could look at the stars. That seemed to give him a good deal of comfort when he was troubled, she knew. She looked in at Merry and Pippin, sleeping comfortably together in Merry's room--Pippin had refused the guest room offered him--and wondered what it was that had Pippin so anxious. For months Merry and his beloved younger cousin both had been tense as bowstrings, and it seemed either Pippin was just arriving or just leaving or drawing Merry away for quiet talks in the corners of drawing rooms or behind shrubs in the gardens.

Now there was this talk of Frodo coming to the end of his money...how had that happened? Bilbo had been more than comfortably well off even before he'd come back from his infamous adventure with two chests of treasure and the hints that more was his by rights from the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain. He'd always invested well and had taught Frodo to do likewise, and she'd heard no hint that Frodo had allowed himself to be bought out by all the farmers in whose farms he held shares or the businessfolk in whose enterprises he'd been a silent partner--not that she had any idea as to just how extensive those holdings might be. However, she was certain it was Frodo who was backing the Chubbs brothers who'd purchased the tailoring business there in Kingsbridge, and although they were by report doing very well for themselves, they'd not come anywhere near being able to pay off their anonymous backer and run the place independently as yet.

Merry had convinced Sara to sell Frodo the Crickhollow house, and Frodo had come out to check it out and finalize the sale. He'd been markedly quiet and withdrawn, and had retreated to his room after dinner, pleading a headache. Only, obviously he'd not stayed there.

Esme went through the door out into the Master's private garden to find Frodo wasn't there. Sighing, she went beyond it to the place where rough steps had been set to allow access to the top of Buck Hill, and sure enough at last her search was rewarded. She could smell his pipe--not Old Toby as Bilbo had always favored, or even Longbottom Leaf, which was the favorite of Sara and Merry; but the lighter, fruitier tang of Goolden Lynch.

She found him sitting back against the chimney pot for the Master's private parlor, his pale face upturned toward the heavens, his glowing pipe held for the moment in his hands, seeming to glow a bit himself as happened as often as not. She could tell that he'd indeed changed into a nightshirt, and that in leaving the Hall he'd merely pulled his trousers on over it, and his waistcoat as well. She wondered at that last--why bother donning a waistcoat over a nightshirt at this time of the night? Who was there to see or care?

"Hello, dearling," she said. "Mind if I join you?"

He looked at her, and finally nodded, patting the grass beside him. "Do, Aunt Esme," he said quietly. He lifted his pipe and drew on it thoughtfully as she seated herself beside him. She had the distinct impression he knew what she'd ask first, and decided not to disappoint him, allow him to get it out of the way.

"Why on earth did you decide to sell Bag End to Lotho and Lobelia?" she asked. "Lobelia will truly appreciate it, but Lotho never will."

"No," he agreed, again holding his pipe between his hands, "he won't. He's never wanted the smial so much as he's wanted the power he's seen it as representing."

"You didn't pass over to him the family headship, did you?"

He shook his head, then took another puff on his pipe. "Certainly not--never that--not that he realizes it. I doubt he's thoroughly read the sales document as yet, and when he does he'll be furious. He remains merely head of the Sackvilles and nothing more. I didn't even sell him the deeds to the holes along the Row."

She felt relief. "I'm glad of that, for I suspect that had you done so he'd have raised the rents outrageously, and especially for the Gamgees and the Proudfoots and the Chubbs."

He nodded. They remained silent for a time. At last she ventured, "When are you going to pay court to Narcissa, Frodo? You know she's loved you about forever, and I saw that look you gave her when you saw her in the Common in Bywater last spring. You've always wished to marry and be a father--see your children loved as your own parents loved you."

"And as you love Merry, or Pal and Lanti love the lasses and Pippin."

"Then why don't you pay court to her? She'd have you and do proudly as your wife and as Mistress to Bag End--or Crickhollow, I suppose."

He looked away, his face set. "No, I'd not do that to her."

"She wouldn't mind leaving the Westfarthing, not as long as she was by your side."

"I don't mean that. I'd be an awful husband--I'd make her life miserable."

She was the more shocked because she realised he meant it, that he truly believed that to be true. "But Frodo----"

"No!" he interrupted her. "Don't think more highly of me than I deserve, Aunt Esme. You don't know what horrid thoughts that there are, hiding in the darker corners and nooks in my mind."

He held her gaze for a few minutes, then looked away, finally tapping his pipe against the chimney pot to shake out the compacted ashes. At last he said, in a very low tone, "I've been horrified, Aunt, to find that deep down I have the capability to be a monster, and I have to work hard to suppress it. I won't subject anyone I love to that."

They were quiet for a time. Finally she asked, "Is your headache still bothering you?"

"A little--mostly it was gone when I awoke."

"Then you did sleep for a time?"

"Yes."

"What woke you?"

"A dream."

She turned to look at him. "Did you dream of your moving water again?"

He reluctantly shook his head. He was turning his empty pipe between his hands, she realized. "No, not the moving water, not this time." He looked up at the stars overhead, the pipe in his hands going still. "No, this time it was the eyes...."

Suddenly he was rising. "I'd best get back to bed, for I want to leave early. I promised myself I'd go to Westhall before I returned to Hobbiton."

She rose as he stowed his pipe in his trousers pocket. "And who do you know in Westhall? Drogo's been dead for years, and Daisy lives there in Hobbiton with Griffo in Dora's old smial."

He gave her a half smile. "Family business is all, Aunt. Good night, dearling." He leaned over to kiss her cheek, then quietly but purposefully headed back down toward the Master's garden again.

By the time she rose the next day he was already gone, slipping away without saying goodbye, as usual.

*******


As they gathered in the Master's parlor, Sara looked up from the report sent him by his agents down near the Sarn Ford, his expression thoughtful as he looked at Merry as he sat, elbows on knees and face in hands, looking into the flames in the fireplace. "Do you have any idea when Frodo, Pippin, and Sam ought to arrive tomorrow?" he asked.

Merry looked surprised to find himself in his parents' presence. "Hmm? Oh, no, I don't. Probably about midday, I suspect."

"And you're all to stay tomorrow night at Crickhollow?"

"Yes--I have the furniture all placed, and do thank Mac and Beri for all the help they gave me. Mantha came over to help make the beds and set out the towels and all--she's been a gift as well, seeing to it the place is just as Frodo intended."

"I still cannot believe Frodo's anywhere near poverty as he's claimed. I know he has partnership agreements and----"

"I'm certain I can't tell you, Dad. He's been close as anything ever since Gandalf was there in April. I just wish we knew where Gandalf is now, for he was supposed to have returned immediately when he left in June."

"This isn't some scheme by that Wizard to get Frodo off on some adventure to build character or something? I think that's how he excused his attentions toward Bilbo when I confronted him at the Party."

Merry straightened. "Since when does Frodo need his character built? He's the best Hobbit in the Shire as it is!"

"I know. But any time that old grey fellow turns up it seems that somebody--usually a Took, takes it into his head to up and disappear. I just don't want it to be Frodo this time."

Merry turned his face back toward the fire, but Esme could hear him mutter, "None of us want that. But what if there's no choice?" She didn't think that Sara had caught it, though.

Sara turned his attention back to the report, finished it, and at last set it aside. "I wish I knew what these rumors mean of odd black-cloaked Big Folk coming across the Brandywine River at the Sarn Ford the other day. It's bad enough with Rangers riding through whenever they please, although they never seem to bother anyone--indeed they're always courteous to our folk when they must speak to us, and never leave a mess behind as do the tinkers and traders who go through from time to time. Wish all Big Folk were as responsible as the Rangers seem to be, in fact. But these black blokes--this report from Aldo is gibberish! Said they'd scared him out of six years' dinners or something. Doesn't sound good. And Largo Longbottom's most concerned about some of his shipments of pipeweed apparently being diverted--said he's had a wagon he'd intended for the Great Smial disappear, and word from the southern Bounders is that it apparently was seen in a line Lotho was sending off south, out of the Shire. I need to pass this on to Paladin and Will, I think."

He gave a great sigh, then again fixed Merry with his attention. "And what's this from Mac about you moving those six ponies you bought yourself at the horsemarket in Kingsbridge off Hall land?"

"I suspect one of the mares has the scours, Dad, and was afraid the others might have been exposed as well. Moved them to the pasturage we keep near the road to the Hay Gate. I don't want any of the Hall's ponies affected, of course."

"And Fatty's staying at Crickhollow house as well?"

"Yes--he's putting on the final touches tonight so it will be ready when Frodo arrives, and I'm to join him in the morning."

Sara nodded, then having apparently made some decision, asked, "And what's this about you having Treasure put up a stock of jerked meat and trail food for you to take in the morning? Certainly after a three-day tramp from Hobbiton Frodo's not thinking of going off on another walking trip right away?"

Was Merry's shrug just a bit too casual? Esme wondered. "Well, Dad, you know Frodo--he's become so restless these past few years. He's--he's spoken about maybe going to Bree for a few days--he's always been keen to go, you know." He sighed. "I'll wager Frodo Baggins knows more about the Shire and its smaller lanes than any other Hobbit there is, maybe more even than Bilbo. But for all that he's never been out of the Shire, you know."

"I hate the idea of anyone going out to Bree with the reports we're getting from the Bounders about the strange folk gathering along the roads and wandering about our borders, Merry. Discourage Frodo if you can."

"I'll try, Dad, but you know Frodo. He's a stubborn Baggins, he is."

Merry rose abruptly. "I'd best get to bed, Dad, Mum. And don't be surprised if I'm not here when you get up. We do have some arranging of the supplies to do in the morning, and I think I'll want to stop by the Bucklebury market to get some things--I promised Pippin I'd have some of Sweetwater's mints for him, you know. Is it all right if I take the smaller wagon tomorrow? I'll leave it in the stable there at Crickhollow."

"No problem, son. Give our love to Frodo on his arrival, and make certain he comes to see us as soon as he's settled in, understand?"

Merry gave each of them a hug and kiss goodnight, startling them both, for he'd not done such a thing in years. And Esme could swear that he was anxious and even excited as he held her close.

Indeed, when she rose in the morning Merry was already gone, and as she walked out into the lawns before the Hall and peered down the road he must have taken with the smaller wagon she felt a prickling of foreboding that had little to do with the fog that was creeping up toward the Hall from the river.

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