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67
Dealing with Dirna

For all of those whose birthdays I didn't dedicate a story to in the past few months, with my apologies!


~~~

Dealing with Dirna


Sam stood watching Frodo, who was uncertainly running his finger over the frame to the door to the dining room.

Rosie, who stood behind Sam at the door to the kitchen, whispered into her husband’s ear, “What’s him doing? He’s never been concerned about my housekeepin’ afore.”

Sam twisted his head to whisper back, “It’s ’cause of it bein’ Dirna Brandybuck as is comin’. Don’t think as she’s been anywheres near Bag End since the Party, actually. But from what my Master, Merry, and Pippin tell, she’s about the most complainin’ person as you could ever hope to meet. She’s his aunt by marriage, by the way—was married to his Uncle Saradas as died in 1407. She’s of a hearty age, bein’ about eleventy-five, I think, but still clear-headed, and stubborn as stubborn, I’m told.”

“But if’n she’s that old, why’s she a-comin’ here? Isn’t she goin’ frail, this time of life?”

It was Frodo who responded, obviously having heard Sam’s remarks, although his eyes continued the search for any missed details that might catch the attention of his troublesome aunt. “She’s a Diggle by birth, and her great-great niece from Greenholm is getting married in Michel Delving in two days. Why she’s decided to attend this wedding after not going out of her way to attend any Diggle family functions for at least the last three decades I have no idea. But I suspect a good deal of it has to do with her curiosity about rumors she’s heard about us—or at least about me.”

Sam could feel Rosie shiver against his shoulder. “Doesn’t sound particularly pleasant,” she commented, to which Frodo gave a single nod.

“She’s never been especially pleasant. But I don’t wish her to be carrying bad reports about you elsewhere. She’s always been prone to the most negative of gossip, you see.”

“Well, I don’t think as she’ll have nothin’ she can say bad about her room. I give her the room closest to the privy, and it does look right smart, what with the flowers on the dresser and that beautiful quilt as your mum left you. You did say as she’d most likely prefer an inside room, right?”

Frodo nodded. “Yes, that’s right. That room has a nice hearth with a good draw should she decide she needs a fire, and it’s close also to the kitchen, so it ought to prove both warm enough and handy to meals and the parlor. I only wish I could anticipate what she’ll find here to complain about, because she will be looking for just that.”

Sam shrugged. “Well, it won’t do to worry about what’s not happened as yet, I’d say, Master. No matter what we do, if’n she’s one as will find fault, she’ll do just that. We can certainly live with it. Most like, others as know her well don’t make a habit of listenin’ too close to her to begin with.”

Rosie gave a distracted nod to acknowledge the truth in her husband’s words. “And I have the room as has Mr. Pippin’s bed in it ready for whoever it is as might drive her. She wouldn’t think of drivin’ herself, would she?”

Frodo shook his head thoughtfully. “Not at a hundred fifteen. I’m surprised she’d think to come at all, really—she was beginning to look rather fragile the last time I saw her, a few months before we left the Shire. Most likely she’ll have drafted Ilberic into driving her, and it’s possible she’ll have browbeaten Celandine into serving as her companion. They are her grandchildren, after all, and neither is married as yet.” His mouth twisted wryly. “Not many who know the family well wish to marry into it while she’s still alive, to be honest.”

Again Rosie gave a slight shudder. “I see,” she said. “I’ll fix up the room next to yours just in case, then. I only need to air it some and put some flowers in—the room’s not been slept in since it was set up again, and looks quite festive anyways with them lovely curtains as your Aunt Esmeralda sent.”

Frodo gave her a sideways smile. “You are right, Rosie. And I do thank you so. I’m only sorry that there are some in my family who are—difficult.”

“Oh, it’s all right, Master Frodo. I suspect as that’s true most families, actually. I put the kettle on a moment ago, and the good service is laid out on a tray. It’s a simple matter of scaldin’ the pot and adding the tea at this point. The two of you can see to that if’n she should arrive afore I’m done, right?”

Their assurances they could handle that detail ringing in her ears, Rosie disappeared down the passageway to the bedrooms while Frodo led Sam into the kitchen. As she’d said, all was in readiness there—a tray laden with sliced vegetables, cakes, and dainty sandwiches sat on the table beside a second on which resided cups, saucers, sugar bowl, small plates, and spoons, while the tea pot stood between the stove and the stone sink, waiting for water to boil in the kettle. The cream jug, they knew, waited in the cool room that the cream not go sour, considering the summer weather outside. This room also was clean and neat, with a large vase of gladioli on the kitchen dresser and one of red poppies, babies’ breath, and delphiniums on the table. The roast intended for supper smelled delightful, and a cake cooled on the work table.

Frodo and Sam finally made their way past Frodo’s study to the parlor, where the tea table stood in readiness, and a comfortably padded chair sat across the chest that stood beside that of the Master, a gay shawl draped across its back in case Mistress Dirna, as happened too often with those who are aged, should feel a chill even in the heat of July. The windows were open, allowing in the fresh scents from the garden, with vases of flowers and greens on all surfaces (or so it seemed). Frodo sat down rather heavily in his chair, automatically reaching for the cup of cool tea that sat awaiting him, a sprig of mint sticking out of it with which he stirred it before taking an appreciative sip.

“This is good,” he sighed. He paused a moment before confiding, “I have to admit, Sam, that I’ve come to rely heavily on your tea. And I was the one who informed Aragorn so forcefully that I refused to take any more draughts. I was foolish, wasn’t I? I hope he has forgiven me.”

“You know he has, Frodo. He knows well enough as just how much you hate bein’ less’n your best.”

“I didn’t give him that good of a time as we were coming home.”

Sam gave a soft laugh. “You were a bit of a challenge, I must say. Would you like some more?”

“Before I’m even done with this? Ah, but don’t tempt me, Samwise Gamgee!”

He paused listening, and a moment later Sam, too, could hear a trap coming up the way from Bywater. “They’re here, then,” Sam said.

“Apparently,” Frodo responded. He ran his fingers through his hair as he rose reluctantly to his feet. “Well, I suppose we are as ready as we can be.”

“I’ll get the door, then,” Sam said, heading for the entrance hall. “You just take a deep breath. We’ll get through this together.” He gave Frodo a smile of encouragement, and opened the door as a trap pulled to a stop at the foot of the steps below the wicket gate, signaling the arrival of Dirna Diggle Brandybuck.

A younger gentlehobbit hopped off the box, and stood looking up the steps to the green door, distress written plainly across his face. “I’d forgotten how steep the stairs are!” he murmured as Sam came down them to open the gate for him and his two companions.

A sweet-faced younger Hobbitess descended from the back of the trap, and held up her arms to what was plainly an older relative, but she, too, was looking over her shoulder at the steps with dismay. “It’s not going to be easy getting Gramma up those,” she agreed.

“Let me help with that, then,” Sam said, coming down the remainder of the way to the lane. “Here, Missus Brandybuck—take my arm now and I’ll see you up to the door.” In a trice he had Aunt Dirna out of the trap and was supporting her up the steps to the stoop where Frodo now stood awaiting them.

At first the elderly Hobbitess went readily enough, although it was plain that she was surprised to be taken in hand in this manner. But halfway up she stopped. “And just who are you?” she demanded querulously. “And where is my nephew?”

“I’m Sam Gamgee, at your service, Mistress. As for where is Frodo,” he smiled. “Look—there he is at the door, a-waitin’ for you, so’s he can do you proper honor.”

With that he urged her on with his arm about her shoulder, and again she went, her eyes now on Frodo’s face. Only when she stood on the stoop did Sam remove his support, and she paused before the Master of Bag End. “Well, it’s been long enough since I saw you last,” she said, making of it an accusation.

“I am sorry that you did not come out of your rooms in Brandy Hall when I visited in May,” he said. “I looked for you, and I certainly saw Celandine and Ilberic at the time. Here, let me take your bonnet.” He quickly had it hanging neatly on one of the pegs in the entranceway and was leading her into the parlor.

“I wasn’t feeling particularly well at the time,” she said defensively.

“So I was told, which was why I did not pursue the matter. Now, we have rooms ready for Ilberic and Celandine as well as for you, and all three of you are most welcome. Would you wish for some tea right away, or time to tidy up first? The boiler is lit in the bathing chamber, and there is warm water in the ewers in your rooms should you prefer to go there first.”

Again she stopped short. “That Hobbit who helped me up the steps—Sam, he called himself? I don’t think I’ve ever seen him before.”

He smiled, although it was slightly strained. “I doubt you’d remember Sam that well, as the only time you’ve seen him was during the Party when I came of age. He supervised those who were serving the family at dinner. He’s gone back down to help Ilberic with the bags. Now, again, would you wish tea first, a bath, or merely time to tidy up?”

Unable to find fault with the choices offered her, she indicated she would prefer to see her room, and that all would follow from that. He led her down the hallway and through the kitchen to the passage to the bedrooms, pointed out the doors to privy and bathing room, and indicated that the next door on the right was hers. “As you’ve always shown a preference for an inner room, we took the liberty of preparing this one for you. I hope that you will find it suitable and comfortable.”

Rosie was just coming out of the third door on the left from the far end of the passage, and stopped at the sight of the guest standing by Frodo. “Missus Dirna, is it? Welcome indeed. If’n you should find you need an extra blanket or pillow or such like, do let me know so as I can fetch it for you.”

The smile Frodo gave Rosie was decidedly more open than the one he’d given his aunt. “Aunt Dirna, may I present Rosie Gamgee? She was just making certain that the room prepared for Celandine is ready. Now, if you will excuse me, I shall go assist Celandine, Ilberic, and Sam.” So saying, he disappeared back through the kitchen as swiftly as he could.

Dirna entered the room slowly, prepared to find what fault she could, although to be honest there appeared to be nothing there about which she could make any complaint. A low bench awaited her luggage to one side of the door, and the room was both larger and better appointed than her bedroom in Brandy Hall. The quilt was one she recognized from when Frodo’s mother was piecing it together many years past, and its colors were reflected in the flowers set forth upon the dressing table. A rush light was ready to be lit on a small shelf beside the bed, and a lamp burned steadily on the bedside table.

“Pardon me, Gramma, for I’ve brought your portmanteau,” panted Ilberic, carrying her large bag in and dropping it heavily upon the bench. “Celandine has your other satchel. Now, I must be off to the Ivy Bush to board the pony.” He was gone before Dirna could say a word, headed back toward the front of the hole.

Celandine entered next. “Your satchel, Gramma,” she murmured, dropping it on the bed. “Now, I must find the privy before I burst!” Again, she was gone before Dirna could insist she stay.

“No appreciation from them,” the old Hobbitess murmured under her breath as she checked her appearance in the mirror over the dresser. Neither item of furniture was particularly new, but the mirror was yet clear and undistorted and the woodwork on both well kept and polished. “Look at my hair! So blown by the wind!” She rummaged through the personal satchel that Celandine had set so hurriedly upon the bed to find her brushes, but found that her shoulders were stiff when she went to apply her hair brush.

“Here—let me help with that,” said a voice behind her, and she turned to find that Rosie Gamgee was watching from the doorway. The younger Hobbitess entered with a smile on her face and took the brush from her hand, indicating that Dirna should turn again toward the mirror. “You have the rheumatics in your shoulders, then? My granny had them something awful afore she died. Used to brush her hair for her when we visited her or she visited us’n,” she confided. After a brief pause she added, “Sam’s Gaffer has it, too, but mostly in his legs and his back. Gives him his share of misery, I must say.” She swiftly stroked Dirna’s hair into order. “There! Would you like me t’do your feet as well?” When Dirna indicated she was satisfied with her appearance Rosie gave a pleased smile, returning the brushes to the older lady’s possession. “Then I’ll go see to it as the tea is in hand. Do join us in the parlor.” And with a smiling bob she was gone, too.

Dirna thoughtfully set the brushes atop the dresser, and followed Rosie out of the room and back toward the kitchen. The door to the privy was slightly opened, so she entered the room. It was well appointed, with a small sink basin and its own small pump and drain opposite the stool , which she found quite a modern touch. In minutes she felt well relieved, and having washed her hands and dried them on a cheerful yellow guest towel, she made her way toward the parlor, taking but a moment to peer first into the dining room and then Frodo’s study, only finding the multitude of books there anything over which she could shake her head. There was a second parlor, far more stiff and formal than the main one, but she rightly judged that most likely not even Lobelia had used it often, if at all.

The kitchen had been well appointed, with doors indicating a cool room and at least two larders as well as a door out into the gardens. Dinner was apparently already under way, and she had to admit to herself that it smelled delicious! Her appetite stimulated by the wonderful scents coming from the kitchen, she made her way to the main parlor to see what was on offer for tea.

Frodo stood up from his chair as she entered, indicating she should sit in the chair beside his, both being well upholstered and appearing most comfortable. “Would you like to pour, or shall we allow Rosie to have the honors?” he asked as she seated herself.

Rosie pour? Since when do servants pour out for tea? she wondered. Aloud, she said, “Perhaps we should allow Celandine to pour. She is of age, after all.”

Rosie, who sat by Sam upon the settle by the hearth, exchanged looks with Frodo, finally shrugging her acceptance of the arrangement. Neither Celandine nor Ilberic was in the room as yet, the old Hobbitess then noted. Oh, well, they should be along directly.

Indeed, a moment later the two of them appeared from the direction of the kitchen and bedrooms, both appearing freshly washed and brushed and eager for something to eat. “I must say,” Ilberic announced, “that that is the longest bed I have ever seen!”

“It came from the Great Smial,” Frodo explained. “Paladin has had a new bed made for Pippin appropriate to his height, and sent this one, which was used by the Old Took, to me, expecting, I must hope rightly, that Pippin will continue to spend a good deal of time here as he has always done. I’m not certain whether this was made for the Old Took to his specifications, or if he merely appropriated the one made long ago for Bandobras. Certainly both Pippin and Merry needed to have new beds appropriate to their stature.”

“Then what are they using there in Crickhollow?” Dirna asked, her tone rather demanding.

It was Ilberic who answered, “Oh, but they had new beds brought in from Bree, crafted for Men, and installed them there, and Uncle Saradoc ordered two more to put into their rooms in the Hall. They were to arrive the day after we left Brandy Hall for here, Gramma.”

“It sounds like unnecessary flapdoodle to me,” his grandmother replied. “And what business did the two of them have growing at such an unusual rate to begin with?”

Frodo smiled wanly. “I doubt either imagined that drinking Ent draughts could cause them to grow as happened, Aunt Dirna. But I am told that strange things do happen to those who drink that which is brewed by the Shepherds of the Trees.” He looked at Celandine, who was uncertainly seating herself in the corner opposite Sam and Rosie. “Your grandmother has indicated she would like for you were to pour the tea, Celandine. If you would do so, I think we would all appreciate it.”

Celandine colored prettily at Frodo’s smile, which as was often true with him was very sweet and filled with approval. “I don’t know,” she began, but Dirna cut her off.

“Don’t be silly, lass,” Dirna said. “It’s good practice for when you have a hole of your own.”

Celandine’s pleasure fled, and her expression was now slightly pinched as she moved to the chair behind the tea table and prepared to do the honors. Ilberic was clearly fighting to control his temper, while Frodo gave his aunt a glance that was decidedly neutral, and returned his attention to his younger cousin, again showing Celandine that particular warmth that had always been his. “I had expected that by the time we returned home you would be Missus Theragar Bolger. Has he not pursued the courtship?”

It was Ilberic who answered this time. “Once Lotho declared himself Chief Shirriff and had Odovacar and Rosamunda thrown out of Budge Hall, he did his best to cut off those in Buckland and the Tooklands from everyone else. Theragar apparently joined Fredegar’s gang and helped raid the food taken by Lotho’s Gatherers and Sharers. He wasn’t with the rest the night that Lotho’s Big Men caught up with them in Scary, and according to what we’ve learned since November he hid out in an abandoned forester’s hut in the Woody End. He was thin as a rail and quite ill when he was found there two weeks after you lot returned, much as we’re told Fatty and Will Whitfoot were, and word is that he’s only just now returning to proper health and vigor. I only hope that he still cares as much for Celandine as he did before.”

As Celandine handed a cup of tea and a plate of sandwiches, biscuits, and cakes to her grandmother she said, her eyes downcast, “I received a letter from him last week, only the third he’s sent me since just before Yule. He says that he hopes I still care for him in spite of how long we went without hearing from one another and how thin he is now. I hope to see him on our way back to Buckland after the wedding. Would you prefer the cress or a ham sandwich, Cousin Frodo?” she asked, looking up at him.

“Cress, if you please. And some of those vegetable fingers, please, Celandine.”

“You ought to have some cheese as well,” Sam advised.

Frodo nodded. “You are right. Aragorn did indicate I should eat what cheese I could.”

“Who is this Aragorn?” demanded Dirna.

Again Frodo gave her a decidedly neutral look before answering, “The King. Aragorn Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar, King of Arnor and Gondor. He was trained as a healer as well as a warrior and ruler. He insisted on serving as primary healer to all four of us after the war was over.”

“You didn’t really take part in a war, did you?” Dirna asked.

Frodo gave a studied shrug. “Yes, Aunt, we did. It has been building for longer than I care to think upon, or so it proved. Once we left the Shire we found ourselves heading right for the heart of it, whether we wished to be there or not.”

“So, how did it happen that you all four needed the services of a healer? And how did you come to the attention of this King you tell of?”

Sam answered for Frodo, “He didn’t start off as the King, you see, Missus Dirna. Him’s been hidin’ from the Enemy all his life, him and his people. But the Rangers as ride the roads from time to time is most of what remain of the King’s people here in the north, and Lord Strider, he’s been their chief. He led the armies as fought against the Enemy’s folks, and when the war was ended and won, the folks of Gondor accepted him as their King, while those here in the north in Arnor have been thinkin’ of him as their King for years. Now him’s been accepted as High King of the Men of the West by about everyone, includin’ the Elves and the Dwarves as well as by all those who fought against Mordor, includin’ us.

“We met him in Bree and didn’t know as who or what he really was, but we learned along the way. There at the end all four of us Hobbits was bad hurt, and since he’d gone south with us and we was all close friends by then, he did as he could to keep each of us from dyin’.”

Frodo added quietly, “If it hadn’t been for his skills and gifts as healer and King, none of us would have survived, Aunt Dirna.”

Something in his expression caused her to swallow several questions. But in the end she still found herself saying, “You ought not to have left the Shire at all, any of you!”

Frodo’s expression was now stern. “And if we hadn’t done so, things would have been far worse, and far sooner than happened under Lotho. We had to go, or at least I had to go, for the sake of the entire Shire.”

“But what do the wars of Men and other creatures have to do with our people?”

“As it happened, this time, we had everything to do with it, whether we liked the idea or not.”

Sam added, “If’n we’d not gone, the war would have been lost afore it even started, Missus Dirna. As it was, Merry and Pippin both saved a mort of people, if’n you can believe it. Merry helped kill the chief of the Black Riders, while Pippin, all by hisself, managed to do for a troll as was gettin’ ready to kill a Man as he’d been fightin’ by. They’re both heroes, they are. And what that Lord Denethor was gettin’ ready to do to his own son—if’n Pippin hadn’t of been there, Captain Faramir would of been dead now.”

Celandine looked horrified. “What awful things to speak about at tea time!”

Sam looked abashed. “I’m sorry, Miss Celandine. You’re so right! Please forgive me.”

After a moment of silence Ilberic spoke, trying to keep to the proper topics for a meal. “The sandwiches are very good, Mistress Rose.”

Rosie gave a self-deprecating smile. “I admit as I baked the cakes and biscuits, but it was Master Frodo and my Sam as made the sandwiches and prepared the vegetables and fruit,” she said. “Both of them are good in the kitchen, and my Sam is a fine cook in his own right. Even the King says so!”

Their guests appeared surprised, with Dirna looking outright skeptical. “The King says so?” she asked.

“Oh, yes, he says so in his letters. Says as he wishes Sam was there to give lessons to the new cooks on how to fix foods plainer and better tasting.”

Frodo smiled down at the plate that had been handed to him. “Some of the foods that the cooks in Gondor prepare are wonderful to look at, but not so good to actually eat,” he affirmed. He looked up to catch his aunt’s eye. “At a feast they once served a boar that had been cooked with a lamb in it, and it had a goose in it, and it had a capon in it, which had a dove stuffed into it! It must have taken hours just cutting open each beast to put the next one inside it, not to mention actually cooking the whole assemblage. And it really didn’t taste all that good at all! Aragorn had to appear to appreciate it during the feast, but afterwards he went to the kitchen himself to tell them that they weren’t to waste time or good food doing such a thing again! But they also made some marvelous foods as well. There’s one dish made with a seed they call sesame and with sesame oil, thinly sliced beef, and slivered carrots and beans and green onions that is a wonderful thing to eat. They usually serve it over rice, but it is good just by itself! Sam learned how to make it and cooks it for us once every two weeks or so. Prince Faramir himself has sent us both the seeds and the oil pressed from them and some of the other spices that we cannot obtain by usual trade with the Dwarves.”

“And them oranges and lemons and limes—ah, but they’re a wonder, and oh, so good,” added Sam. “We both got a crate of them at Yule. Once Lord Strider knew as my Master loves them, he said as he’d always make certain as we got some, and especially in the winter. They’re as good as rose hips for stavin’ off colds and sniffles, or so the healers in Gondor all tell us.”

“You receive gifts of food from the Southlands?” inquired Celandine, intrigued.

“Oh, yes,” Sam assured her. “There’s some lemon juice there in that little glass bottle as we often put in our tea now. They all use it in Gondor, so we got used to it. Only there they don’t call it tea—they call it the ‘herbal drink.’ It’s tea for all that, of course, just with different herbs added to it is all. Some blends are quite tasty, I must admit.”

“How does the King know that you are a good cook?” asked Ilberic.

Frodo and Sam exchanged glances. Frodo answered, “When we were travelling south together we took turns cooking much of the time, although by common consent it appeared Sam’s turn to cook seemed to happen more often than those of the rest of us.”

“You went south together?” Ilberic asked.

“Yes. We’d not meant to go further than Rivendell, actually, but the news we bore made it imperative that at least I should go south to see a particular—errand—met, and Sam, Merry, and Pippin insisted that I should not be the only Hobbit in the company. In the end there were nine of us, plus Sam’s pony, Bill.”

“Why did you cook more often than the others?” asked Celandine of Sam, obviously intrigued by the notion.

“Well, when Mr. Frodo here was cooking, more often than not it seemed there were questions as only he could answer, so I’d end up takin’ over from him so as Gandalf and Lord Strider and Boromir could talk over plans with him. As for Captain Boromir—well, of all those in the Fellowship it seems as him was the only one as couldn’t cook anythin’ without it bein’ a disaster.”

Frodo gave a wry smile. “He was perhaps the only person I’ve ever met who could burn water.”

“What kind of person is he?” asked Celandine.

Sam swallowed the bite of ham on bread roll he’d taken. “Captain Boromir was a Man, from down in Gondor, you see. Was the son of Lord Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, and ought to of gone on to be Steward hisself one day, only he died. Killed by orcs just after we split up. We met his brother a while later, Mr. Frodo and me. Captain Faramir’s a fine-spoken Man, and him’s Lord Strider’s Steward now. Lord Strider made him Prince of Ithilien, and nobody could deserve it more, if’n I might say so as perhaps shouldn’t.”

“You are right, Sam. Lord Faramir deserves all of the honors that have fallen to him.” Frodo’s expression had become thoughtful, almost sad. “I only wish that Boromir had survived to see the war won and his land and city made safe.”

Sam shrugged and sipped at his tea. It was clear that there was something he still held against the ill-fated Boromir of Gondor.

Dirna felt left out of this conversation, having little interest in those other races that peopled the wilderness she believed made up all of Outside the Shire. She felt herself shiver at the talk of orcs, whatever they might be, killing a former companion of these two strange Hobbits who’d left the Shire and then come back again. Suddenly she interrupted the others, addressing herself to Rosie. “You, lass—fetch me a shawl. I’m feeling a distinct chill.”

The others looked at her with surprise at her peremptory tone. “But there’s a shawl right there over the back of your chair, Gramma,” Celadine pointed out. “There’s no reason to send anyone to fetch another.” She bit back the comment that there was also no reason for her grandmother to be so rude, knowing it would fall on deaf ears.

Dirna straightened, feeling embarrassed but doing her best to avoid any criticism toward herself. “Perhaps I ought to have been advised that it was there for my use before I sat down,” she said.

Ilberic muttered, “And when it’s as gaily colored as it is, why should anyone have to tell you about it? You can’t have missed it as you were directed to the chair to sit down!”

Dirna ignored him, giving Celandine a commanding look. The younger Hobbitess gave a sigh as she rose to her feet and came forward to settle the shawl about her grandmother’s shoulders, then returned to her seat. “A bit garish,” was all Dirna Brandybuck had to say at that point.

Rosie’s face was red with embarrassment. “That was a gift to me from Sam’s old dad when we got married,” she said. “Sam’s dear mum made it years ago afore she died, and the Gaffer wanted me to have it in memory of her. I thought as you’d find it cheerful.”

Dirna only sniffed and turned her attention back to Frodo, whose face had gone distinctly neutral again. “At least you didn’t drag Rosamunda and Odovacar’s son Fredegar out of the Shire with you when you four went off as you did.”

“He might have had an easier time of it if he had gone with us,” Frodo said, giving his attention to his tea. He took a sip, refusing to meet his aunt’s gaze.

“Him didn’t wish to leave the Shire,” Sam advised her. “Was certain as it was safer to stay home. Only Lotho’s Big Men caught him and threw him into the Lockholes. They almost starved him! So much for stayin’ safe, I’d say.”

Frodo gave him a swift sidelong glance. “Not that we did much better,” he said in a soft, almost inaudible tone.

“At least we had the lembas,” Sam commented in return. “We come out of it better off than I’d looked to see.”

Frodo again gave a shrug. His brow was now furrowed.

Sam gave him a thoughtful look. “The headache comin’ back again, Master?” he asked.

“Perhaps a bit. I will be all right,” Frodo assured him.

“I’ll go and get some of the other tea, then. It should help with any pain.”

“I still have some here.” Frodo lifted up the cup with the stem of mint in it. “There is no need for more right now.”

Dirna gave him a critical look. “You have two cups of tea? Isn’t that a bit much, Frodo Baggins?”

Frodo was now clearly doing his best to control his temper. “This has willow bark in it, Aunt. Do you begrudge me some willow bark for my headache?”

“Probably comes from reading so much,” Dirna said as she lifted her cup to take another sip of her own tea.

Ilberic cringed, and Celandine drew into herself in embarrassment.

No one seemed to want much in the way of seconds, and no one was surprised when Frodo indicated he was going to return to his room to take a nap in hopes that when he awoke the headache would be gone.

“Not as long as Gramma’s still here,” Ilberic muttered once more.

His sister shot him a warning glance, but Dirna didn’t appear to have heard, indicating that she, too, intended to take a nap. “It is tiring, riding so long in a trap at my time of life,” she announced. She turned to Rosie, adding, “You can call me when you are ready to serve supper.”

Rosie cringed at the older Hobbitess’s tone of voice, but answered merely, “Yes, Missus Brandybuck.” All seemed relieved when Dirna followed Frodo off through the kitchen toward the bedrooms.

When Dirna awoke a couple of hours later the hole was filled with the vague stirring of an overlying quiet that indicated that she was not the only one rousing from a nap. She rose and shook out her skirts, checking to see that her petticoats were not bunched up above her knees. She washed her face carefully and slowly ran a brush through her hair until it looked decent. She almost wished that Rose Gamgee had again come in to help her, but had an idea that this wasn’t likely to happen. Most likely the lass was seeing to it that supper was ready to put on the table soon.

As Dirna closed her bedroom door behind her, she heard still another door close, and looked down the passage to see Rosie stopped before the last door on the left, carefully retying the laces first to her blouse and then to her bodice. That’s the master bedroom! she thought. Why should she be in the master bedroom with her bodice and blouse loosened? Then she thought, It would appear that our dear, peerless Frodo Baggins is nowhere as pure as it has been said! She wasn’t certain what she felt about this turn of affairs—shock at what she imagined Frodo’s behavior to be or disappointment that he wasn’t better than that, or—well, a level of smug satisfaction. Whether or not she consciously realized it, it was the last that she truly felt. She almost felt sorry for that Samwise Gamgee, knowing his wife was no better than she was. She turned through the kitchen to the front of the hole, missing that door opening again and Sam coming out, wrapping an arm lovingly about his wife’s waist and kissing her hair fondly.

The table in the dining room was already set, and she had to admit that it looked quite fine and formal. As for the flowers both on the table and the windowsills—well, it was plain that a master gardener saw to those, for they were nothing short of perfection! How she would love to see such flowers so well chosen and arranged in her own rooms in Brandy Hall.

Now she heard noises from the kitchen, and in moments Sam and Rosie both appeared with bowls and platters to set on the table. “Oh, but you’re up already,” Rosie commented. “I suppose as there’s no need to call you, then. The others is outside takin’ the air and admirin’ the flowers, I believe. Did you call Master Frodo, Sam?”

“I knocked at his door, dearling. He said he should be down directly, once he’s done with the chapter as him’s readin’.”

“Then it appears him didn’t get much sleep,” Rosie sighed.

Finishing a chapter, is he? Or merely making it appear he hasn’t been trespassing on his gardener’s flower bed? Dirna thought maliciously.

Celandine and Ilberic came in through the kitchen, both smiling and laughing about whatever frothy subject they’d been on about while outside, and Ilberic was slipping his pipe into the inner pocket of his weskit. “Is there anything we can do to help?” he asked Sam and Rosie jointly.

In moments the two younger Hobbits were helping to set supper upon the table, exclaiming with pleasure at the dishes to be shared amongst them in the coming meal. Frodo appeared in the midst of this, pale and far too thin, his clothing impeccable but his hair slightly mussed. Dirna gave an inward sigh of disappointment that he didn’t give more sign than that of what she believed he’d been doing while the others napped. He ushered them into the dining room and indicated which seat had been prepared for Dirna, and he then stood behind another chair. “Sam and Rosie have prepared a marvelous feast for us,” he told them. “Now, if you will bear with Sam and me for a moment.”

Sam and Rosie had taken the two chairs nearest the door. Sam also remained standing by his chair, and he and Frodo both looked out of the windows, giving a slight bow toward the west before they sat down with the others. Dirna was granted the first servings from all of the dishes, which she felt to be her due anyway, and she was pleased until she saw Rosie and her husband exchanging looks that she felt were inappropriate both in company and considering what she assumed had been going on earlier.

“You, lass, this fork has a spot upon it. Fetch me another one,” she ordered Rosie.

Celandine, Ilberic, and Sam all looked at her with surprise, while Rosie went, her face flaming, to take away the offending fork and to return with another.

“But I polished all the silver myself,” Sam said.

“She managed to miss a spot on this one,” Dirna said coldly.

Frodo said nothing, but the furrow in his brow, which had not been there before he left the Shire, became more pronounced.

Throughout the meal it was much the same, with Dirna constantly criticizing this or that or sending Rosie scurrying off to the kitchen again to bring her a new glass, a saucer for her to put her bones and crusts upon (not that there were any bones in the roast or crusts left from the rolls), and a cup of tea, and then the other sugar bowl from the kitchen table as she insisted she’d seen an ant in this one, although no one else saw the insects anywhere.

And the furrow on Frodo’s brow became even deeper.

After dinner the menfolk went out into the front garden to smoke a pipe and enjoy an ale together while Celandine, Rosie, and Dirna sat in the parlor, Rosie with a basket of mending and the others with small glasses of dandelion wine. “This is quite nice,” Celandine said to Rosie, lifting her glass for emphasis.

Rosie smiled. “It’s Master Frodo’s brewin’,” she said. “Old Mister Bilbo used to make it every year, and taught Master Frodo the makin’ of it. He gave the last few bottles there was in the hole to the Gaffer afore he left Bag End to Mr. Lotho, and the Gaffer never drank them, for although he loves a good beer or a fine dark ale, him never was much of a one for wine. So, when Sam and the others finished restorin’ Bag End he give them back again. Apparently the receipt was one as Missus Belladonna favored, and she always kept some on hand to share with her lady friends.”

Dirna sniffed. “It seems that you are learning all of the Baggins family stories,” she said with obvious disapproval.

Rosie again flushed. “It’s just as he says as him doesn’t wish them all forgot,” she said defensively.

“He should marry and tell them to his own wife,” Dirna returned.

Rosie shook her head. “He says as he shan’t marry now.” Her voice was sad.

“And why not?” demanded Dirna.

“It is none of your business as to why I have determined that I shall not marry, Aunt Dirna.” The three Hobbitesses turned toward the entranceway in surprise, for none had heard Frodo enter the hole. “I will thank you not to pursue the matter further, and to refrain from badgering Rosie here about it.”

“But there’s no one to take on the headship for the family!” she declared.

He gave a bitter smile. “And how much of the Baggins family remains within the Shire at this point? We have had no sons hereabouts that have lived to adulthood for many years. I fear that only Lotho and I were in any position to carry on the family name here in the region of the Hill, at least, and with him now dead and me in no condition to marry it appears only the few families scattered elsewhere in the Shire are likely to keep the name alive at all. Not that many of them were ever all that closely related to Bilbo and me.”

“What do you mean, you are in no condition to marry?”

“You may make of that anything you wish, Aunt Dirna. After all, you will do so anyway—you always have.” With that he stalked off toward his study, went in and shut the door.

“He didn’t stay out with the others to smoke?” Celandine asked tentatively.

Rosie shook her head. “Him doesn’t smoke no more,” she said. “Had to give it up, for his health. He was bad hurt, there while they was gone.”

“And just how badly was he hurt?” Dirna made it plain that she didn’t believe Rosie’s explanation.

But Rosie simply repeated, “Bad hurt. Real bad.”

Sam and Ilberic entered soon afterwards. Both set their pipes upon the mantelpiece, and stood with their ale mugs in their hands. Rosie started to stand up to take their mugs to be refilled, but Sam waved her back into her chair. “Never mind, lovey. I can see to the ale. But where’s Frodo?”

Celandine answered, “He went into the study.”

“It’s not like him to ignore his guests,” Sam murmured as he went to follow Frodo’s footsteps. They could hear him knock at the study door. “Master, may I come in?” The door opened and closed again after him. Not too long afterwards the two of them came out, and while Sam took the mugs back to the storeroom where the ale barrel was kept, Frodo reluctantly came into the parlor and sat in his chair, across the chest from his ancient aunt, refusing to look at her.

“Is it your usual habit to avoid your company by retreating to the study?” Dirna asked scathingly.

He turned his head with a sigh. “No, it is not, save when they are being unutterably rude. Oh, I know that I am now following suit by speaking openly of it, but that is what you have been much of the day, Aunt Dirna. I did not go on so long and dread a journey to expect to come home and find my own aunt insulting all and sundry here in Bag End. I realize you have reached a venerable age and undoubtedly have many aches and pains from a body gone stiff and weary with the years, but I tell you that you are not the only one to be paying with your body for what your life has done to you. Others also have suffered pain and injuries, you know. However, such pain does not excuse all inconsideration.”

“Are you saying that this has happened to you?”

Frodo was plainly exasperated with her at this point. “We told you that all four of us were at the brink of death as a result of our participation in the defense against the Enemy and his works, Dirna Diggle Brandybuck. Yes, all of us, Pippin, Merry, Sam here, and I, were badly injured, and more than once. And all of us will know at least some distress from what we endured for a long time to come. I do not say that any of us begrudges the wounds we received, for wounds are suffered by those who take part in wars. But, yes, I have my own share of physical discomfort to this day. And I do not wish to speak further on the subject.”

There was a tense quiet for a time. Ilberic at length cleared his throat. “Our Merry seems to honor the new King a good deal.”

Frodo’s expression softened somewhat. “We all honor him a good deal, Ilberic. Aragorn is exceptionally wise and dedicated to seeing to it that all he comes into contact with are well served by him. Elrond of Rivendell saw to the raising and training of him when he was yet a child, his father having died when he was little more than a babe in arms, and he was groomed all of his life for the day when we must all face Mordor at the last and seek to destroy its power utterly. He is not only the finest warrior among Men that we are aware of, but also a great strategist and leader of soldiers. He inherited the gift of healing common those of the lineage of Eärendil and Elwing, so he was trained also to use that gift to the best of his considerable abilities. I am not certain how many languages he speaks, but he has proved a consummate diplomat. He did a good deal of traveling when he was younger, and is familiar with the ways and customs of many lands. And he reads the hearts of all he meets easily, and is able to inspire others to be the best that they can ever be.”

“He’s a Man of honor, and makes all he meets wish to be folk of honor as well,” Sam added as he reentered the parlor and set each mug in place. “I don’t think as we could have a better person as King.”

“He didn’t keep those ruffians from coming into the Shire,” Dirna snapped.

Frodo pulled himself up straighter. “He wasn’t King as yet when they came in, and neither he nor his Rangers could have kept all of them out. He went south with me to face down the threat of Mordor, and those of his people who could be gathered most swiftly, which included most of those who were guarding our borders, followed after him not that long after we left Rivendell. They brought word that they feared more Men were entering the Shire from Bree or by way of the Sarn Ford than were leaving it, and at Lotho’s behest; but how could they deny entrance to any who appeared to come here on legitimate business? All of us heard these reports as they were told to Aragorn, but none of us had any idea that Lotho was using them as his own personal army to take control over most of the Shire. But most appear to have entered the Shire after the Rangers went south to join their Chieftain.”

“But what could Hobbits do against any enemy?” Ilberic asked. “And I always thought that Mordor was only in stories!”

“If only,” Frodo murmured. He picked up his mug of ale and took a sip, then held the cup close to his chest as if using it as a shield against whatever further verbal attacks might be launched at him.

“You’d be surprised as what Hobbits can do,” Sam said. “Everyone as fought the Enemy says as if it wasn’t for us Hobbits the war most likely wouldn’t of been won.”

Celandine asked, “You two fought in the war, too? Then why don’t you have swords like Merry and Pippin?”

“We do,” Sam said. “But we didn’t fight with the armies. We fought in a different way, and neither of us thinks as we need to carry swords no more. It’s not like either Mr. Frodo or me will be likely to ever fight anyone again. Mr. Merry’s now a sword thegn to the King of Rohan, while Mr. Pippin is a guard of the Citadel of Gondor and serves as one of Lord Strider’s own personal guards when he’s in the King’s company. They are soldiers, and fought as soldiers, and they both helped win battles. And both suffered soldier’s wounds. Our work was different, and we didn’t win through by usin’ swords. Although I have to admit as we did fight at times, there with them wargs and in Moria, and against that horrid Shelob. But mostly it was our job to get through unseen—real Hobbit work. And we managed in the end.”

“You mean you were spies?” asked Celandine, obviously thrilled at the thought.

Frodo shook his head. “Not spies—saboteurs.” He took another small sip of his mug and sighed, putting the mug back on the chest and rubbing at his eyes and the bridge of his nose using his right hand.

“The headache again,” Sam sighed. “I’ll go get you some of your tea.” With that he was up and off to the kitchen again.

It was at that point that Dirna decided to draw the attention back to herself. She turned to Rosie and ordered, “You lass, go off to my bedroom and fetch that shawl for me. It’s getting cold!”

Rosie rose to her feet, clenching her fist so hard that she was digging into the palms of her hands with her nails. “Missus Dirna, you might just try usin’ the word please.”

“And just why should I say please to a mere servant?” Dirna sneered.

Sam returned from the kitchen, his face white, and put his arm about his wife protectively. But it was Master Frodo who faced down the Hobbitess.

“I will have you know, Dirna, that Rosie is the Mistress of this hole, and is not to be treated as a servant.”

Her worst thoughts apparently confirmed, Dirna Brandybuck looked, widening her eyes purposely, from Frodo to Sam and back. “You mean, you share her?”

“What do you mean, share her?” Frodo asked.

“I saw her come out of your room!”

“And when did you ever see such a thing?”

“After I woke from my nap. I saw her come out, retying her laces.”

Frodo was shaking his head. “To my knowledge she was never in my room today at all.”

“She came out of the master bedroom—I saw her!”

Sam started to laugh. “The room at the end of the hall? But that’s our room, not Mr. Frodo’s.”

But Frodo’s face had gone stark white, and for the moment all saw in him the majesty of Lord Iorhael, as Sam had told Rosie he was known in Gondor. “You would think that of my brother’s wife?” he said, his voice dangerous. “For know this--Samwise Gamgee is my adopted brother, and not merely my gardener. He sought to give his life for me and for all of Middle Earth. There is nothing I would not do to honor him--and his family--as he deserves. And I suggest that if you question the propriety of me sharing my hole with the brother of my heart and his family, that you write to the King Elessar himself. I am certain he would be glad to set you straight. But I gave what was Bilbo’s room to them when they consented to come live with me, for I’ve never wanted to change mine from what it’s always been, and if anyone deserves the best bedroom in the hole it is these two.”

He rose to his feet, leaving his mug on the chest between them. “I will allow you to remain for the night, Dirna Brandybuck, and we shall have first breakfast ready for you when you awaken in the morning. But although Ilberic and Celandine will always be welcome in Bag End, the same shall not be true for you. When you return this way, if you like I will arrange for you to stay at the Ivy Leaf. But I do not wish to see you anywhere near the Hill from tomorrow on. Good night, Aunt. And may you learn not to be so swift to make judgments from this day on.”

With that he left the room, his head raised regally. Sam and Rosie followed him, and after giving her glaring looks Ilberic and Celandine headed for their rooms, also, leaving Dirna Diggle Brandybuck alone in the parlor, for the first time in many years feeling less than an inch tall.

~~~

-~0~-


An expansion on a double drabble I did a few years ago. Somehow Dirna started nagging at me lately, so I decided to deal with her once and for all!


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