Rivers and Willows - Pt. I
The pretty, dark-haired hobbit-matron stood with her arms akimbo, glaring with feigned anger at her little boy who had pulled himself up smartly, arms crossed. He threw a glare back at her, the hint of a smile quirking at one corner of his mouth.
"Mum, you know mushrooms don't walk!" he said, his chin quivering in an effort not to grin.
"Well, this one obviously does!" Primula answered, her face lighting with a smile at last, and knelt before the dirty child. His blue eyes danced with merriment and he put two grubby hands on her shoulders.
"Do I have to take a bath now? We were just startin' to have fun!" Frodo begged, as his mother began to help him off with his shirt. A copper tub sat in the corner of the room, steam rising from the fragrant water; fresh towels lay folded on a chair nearby, along with a clean set of clothes.
"Starting," she corrected him. "I'm sorry, dear, but your father and I want a little time together alone tonight. Goodness knows it's hard to find any privacy around here," she said, chuckling as she reached to undo the buttons of Frodo's braces.
"Mum!" he complained, his eyes widening. "I'm big enough to want privacy, too!" He clutched at the waistband of his trousers, a rose tint spreading across his chubby cheeks.
Primula leaned back on her heels, seeing her son in a new light. "Such a change from just yesterday! You're only a little hobbit-boy, eleven years old," she teased, her eyes twinkling.
"I'll be twelve next month," the child responded, still holding tightly to his britches.
His mother looked at him again, her smile a thoughtful one now. "So you are," she agreed. "Only another year and you'll be in your teens. It doesn't seem all that long ago when I was your age, wanting to grow up so fast." Her eyes grew distant. "So fast. . ."
"So can I take baths by myself from now on?" Frodo asked, bringing his mother back to the present.
"May I," she corrected, patiently. Really, she would have to take her young son in hand very soon, what with the words and phrases he was picking up in the smial of Buckland. Very well," she sighed, rising from the floor and tousling Frodo's hair. "First a good soak to loosen the layers," she instructed him, "wash your hair next, then scrub everywhere before you get out. All right, then?"
"All right, Mother," Frodo answered, obedient son etched on his face. Primula went out of the room, holding the door ajar momentarily. "Prepare for full inspection when you're done, my young hobbit! Especially behind the ears and around the fingernails!"
Frodo grinned. He waited for her to close the door, then scrambled out of his clothes and crawled into the tub. He sighed as he lowered his body into the delicious hot water, toying with the soapy bubbles with his toes and fingers and making rhythmic splashes with the bathing tune as he sang:
"O, water hot at end of day, O, water hot. . .
Is best to drench the body tired.
All dirt and grime are washed away
And hair is cleansed by water fired.
O, water hot. . .What is it?"
Frodo's song was interrupted by a tap at the door. "It's just your old dad, Frodo. Is that the sound of a proper washing I'm hearing in there?"
"Yes, Sir," Frodo answered, somewhat guiltily. He hurriedly picked up a wash cloth and began applying it vigorously to his sturdy little body. "I am," he said, with more conviction.
"Very well, then," came the answer from behind the door. "Don't take too long. Your mother and I want to be leaving soon."
"I won't," the boy assured his father, and scrubbed away, humming to himself, not uncommon for a hobbit. Going to Cousin Aster's burrow was always fun. There would be apples and popcorn for snacks, and a good bedtime story, something he always enjoyed, especially when it was about elves or wizards. He thought he had seen a wizard once, at a distance, talking with cousin Bilbo, but wasn't sure. He hoped someday he would get to meet a real, live wizard - after all, he planned on being one when he grew up.
His mother and father didn't leave Frodo often, but they did occasionally contrive a `Night Out', a time for them to be with each other without interruption. Their little boy knew instinctively that this was a good thing; their affection for each other was strong and spilled over onto their child like spring water. He had grown sturdy in body and spirit under their loving care, and though he had a tendency to precociousness, he never strayed too far thanks to their guidance and a firm application of the hand to the backside whenever necessary.
The youngster finished only when the water began to cool, drying off quickly and putting on the clean clothes his mother had laid out for him. He buttoned his braces and left the room whistling, looking forward to the evening's delights.
"Do mothers ever stop kissing their little boys?"
Drogo looked down at his child, whose hand was clasped firmly in his own, and smiled knowingly. "Hmm. I'm afraid they don't, dear."
Frodo's eyes widened as he scurried along beside his father's longer steps. "Not ever? Not even when they're all grown up?"
"Are you in such a hurry to grow up?" Drogo asked, giving his boy's hand a little shake.
"Aye, that I am," answered the child.
Drogo winced, remembering the conversation he'd had earlier that day with his wife. "Say, `Yes, I am', Frodo," he corrected the lad.
"Why?" the boy enquired, guilelessly. "All my friends talk that way, " he added.
Because everyone - Brandybucks, Tooks, distant relatives, household help and long-tenure wayfarers - mixes and mingles here like so many rabbits, Baggins thought, frowning. Prim's right. I need to be thinking about ending our holiday and going back home, and soon.
"I'm sorry," Frodo said quietly, looking down at his hurrying feet. He had mistaken his father's frown for displeasure with him.
"Oh, it's all right," Drogo reassured the boy, picking him up and throwing him over his shoulder, evincing a burst of giggles from the dark-haired child. He pulled Frodo back into his arms and stood still in the long hallway, momentarily eye-to-eye with his son. Their eyes matched, not only in colour and size, but in eloquence as well. For a moment, when their eyes locked, their expressions were identical.
"Let's not talk about that now," Drogo said, holding Frodo out from him and giving him a little shake, causing the boy's feet to dangle like a doll's. "Let's you and I take a little walk tomorrow and we'll talk all about growing up, shall we?"
"Oh, I'd like that!" Frodo exclaimed, throwing his arms and legs around his father, hugging him fiercely.
Drogo laughed, shifted the boy onto his shoulders, and carried him all the way to Cousin Aster's burrow. Frodo, at least for the moment, had forgotten entirely that he was `too old' for such things.
Frodo woke suddenly, his heart racing. There were voices outside the bedroom door, whispering urgently. Curious, he crawled from the bed, trying not to disturb the other two hobbit children who slept there, and brought his eye to the keyhole.
He couldn't see much; the other room was lit only by a few dying embers in the fireplace, but Cousin Aster was there--he recognized her voice--and at least two others whom he couldn't readily identify. Why are they up so late?, he wondered. Turning his head and having to balance his weight on his tiptoes, he put his ear to the keyhole instead. What he heard next would change his life forever.
"Found `em both floatin' in the water. Stark they were, too. No life left in `em," said one of the unidentified hobbits.
Cousin Aster was crying. Frodo could tell she was trying to be quiet for the sake of the children in the room with him, but her sobs were deep and heart-broken, nonetheless. The young hobbit began to feel something he had never before known creep coldly into his heart--fear. He pressed harder against the door, listening intently.
"Poor darlings. Poor, lovely darlings. I can't believe they've left us. I just can't," Aster wailed.
Who's left? Frodo mouthed, clenching his jaw.
"Shush, now," said the other unknown hobbit, a female with a high, scratchy voice--someone older. "This won't help them, dear, they're gone and no mistake. It won't help you, either, just findin' out you're expecting again. You shush, now."
"But Frodo," Aster said haltingly, sniffling. "Who will look out after him?"
Me? Frodo wondered, his eyes widening. What're they talking about? What do they mean? Who's gone?
"He can stay here," scratched the other female. "In this warren there'll be plenty to look after him, more than he'll want, I expect."
"But he's an only child, Mother Grubb! And so young! We can't just. . ."
"Now, now," comforted the newly identified elder. "I don't mean to sound cold, Aster. Goodness knows the lad will be tended to, and well enough."
Frodo's head came away from the door as he settled back to his feet. His heart was pounding so hard in his chest he could feel it thumping against his ribs. Untethered, the fear within his breast had sprung, full-fledged, into terror.
"Who will tell the boy?" he heard clearly through the door.
For this voice was not whispered, and it was Mellun, Cousin Aster's husband. Frodo heard footsteps approaching. He looked frantically around the room before his eyes lighted upon the window, unlatched and ajar for ventilation. He ran back to the bed and grabbed his clothes hung upon the bedpost. . .
When the adult hobbits entered the room, there was one less hobbit in the bed, and the window was swinging.
Little Frodo Baggins was gone.
The child ran aimlessly for a few seconds, his frantic mind trying to wrap itself around the words he had heard spoken behind the door. Found in the water, they had said. That could only be the Brandywine. The little Baggins family had often gone boating there when they visited Brandy Hall, and Frodo had of late heard his parents talking about a moonlight outing.
He made for the wooden dock where he had spent many a happy hour playing in the shade, while his mother and father looked on, and where they often had embarked in the small boat his father had made himself, `going on adventures', his mother had teased. As the boy neared the riverside, he heard voices and saw lantern-light under the trees. Several hobbits stood chest-deep in the river, casting nets and ropes with hooks on the ends into the deeper water. Though the moon shone, so intent were the workers and onlookers that no one noticed the child. Frodo got as near the edge of the water as he dared, clutching his bundle of clothes to himself. He peered out over the river, shading his eyes from the lamp-light. He could just make out something bobbing on the surface, caught in a back-current that flung itself up on a tree fallen from the other side. It appeared to be two bundles of clothes, much like his own rumpled burden. Closer to him, however, was a small piece of cloth, smoky crimson in the moonlit light. The current had brought it within ten feet of where the boy stood.
He recognized it, of course, straight away.
It was the scarf his dad had helped him pick out for his mother on his eleventh birthday.
Only months--only lifetimes ago.
With a cry, Frodo flung aside his clothes and rushed headlong into the river. His nightshirt clinging to his legs, he scrambled and plunged, inadvertently pushing the scarf further out as he tried to reach it. Struggling, he felt the current take him, and his head went under. His foot hit something hard and he bent his knees and pushed off as hard as he could, breaking the surface again. This last effort brought him close to the bundles against the downed tree.
Too close. . .
Frodo saw the limp form of his mother, face-down in the water, bumping woodenly against the tree. Beside her was the boy's father, his cold face staring at nothing, the blue eyes glazed over. Frodo found himself looking into those eyes, searching for some sign, some glimpse of the life he had seen there such a short time ago. . .
But there was nothing.
Young Baggins screamed, but the water covered his head once again, and the river filled his lungs. . .
Frodo felt the sensation of being carried--at a run. There was a roaring in his ears and breathing was hard--he coughed harshly and brought up water, but could not speak to his bearer. In and out of consciousness he drifted, until the rough motion finally ceased and he found himself on a bed. Someone was lifting him, pulling at the mud-stained nightshirt.
The boy moaned in protest and clutched at the damp garment. But his grip was too weak, the shirt was soon replaced by a clean, dry one, and he felt warm covers being drawn up over his shivering body.
He felt hot and cold by turns, but the shivering stayed with him as the night slowly passed. Frodo was aware that things were going on around him, but he was unable to do anything except open his mouth when water was brought to his lips, and turn toward the cool hand he felt upon his brow from time to time. He was unaware of his fevered calls for his parents; there was only a vague sense that something was wrong, that try as he might, he could not find what he was looking for in his restless dreams.
Towards morning, yet too early for the birds to leave their nests, he wakened, jerking from slumber and calling frantically for his mother, his father. An old hobbit-matron tried to soothe him, but he struggled against her, his hoarse cries echoing through the rooms. She held on, showing remarkable strength for one so old.
"Shush, lad," she said, gripping his upper arms. "That's enough," she said primly, trying to reach a more sensible part of the boy's troubled heart. "You've seen more than a child your age should, that's certain. But lad, you've seen it, and there's nothing for it. Stop your cryin' now," she urged.
She talked to him for quite awhile, soothing and admonishing him by turns, until he settled down and finally raised his eyes to hers. "I couldn't reach the scarf," he whispered, his throat raw.
"I know, lad. I know," Mother Grubb answered, stroking his cheek with her withered hand. His skin was hot to the touch.
"I dreamed I was looking for something," Frodo said, his eyes confused. "I saw something in the water, but. . ." His brow furrowed. "That wasn't the dream. That wasn't. . ."
His sharp intake of breath startled Mother Grubb and the other hobbits in the room. Before they could react, Frodo had jumped from the bed and darted out the door.
"Here! Come back, Frodo!" Mellun called, but the boy never stopped, never wavered. He knew where his parents were.
Aster sat next to Prim, who lay stretched out on a makeshift table in the room that had once been her sitting room. Dro was in the bedroom beyond, covered with a sheet until he could be made ready for burial. Aster held her friend's hand in her own; though cold, the fingernails blue, the skin was still soft and dimpled over the knuckles. Such loving hands, Aster thought, such a wonderful wife and mother. She brought Prim's lifeless hand to her cheek, her tears bathing the motionless fingers, and held it there a moment before continuing her task of washing the body.
Somewhere in the distance a door slammed; the footsteps clattering down the hall neared the suite. Aster heard the door open, banging against the wall, and turned to see who it was.
It was Frodo, breathing hard; the colour drained from his face as he stood there. Aster stood and reached a hand toward him, but he avoided her and was at his mother's side in an instant.
"Frodo, dear, you shouldn't be here. You shouldn't see. . ."
"I have to," Frodo said quietly, standing there beside his dead mother. He looked at Primula, hardly blinking, for a long time, before raising his eyes to Aster's, their blue orbs dry, their expression blank.
"Father?" he asked, in a voice devoid of feeling.
Involuntarily, Aster's eyes darted to the bedroom door. Without a word, Frodo turned, opened the door, and entered, closing the door behind him.
Aster waited, her heart beating in her throat, for what seemed a very long time. She waited in silence, tears for the small orphan spilling down her cheeks, one hand on her tummy where her unborn child lay. She waited, all the while listening for a wail, a call, a cry of grief. But when she at last did hear something, it was none of these things. There was, instead, the unmistakable noise of a bureau being opened, a few more minutes of unidentifiable activity, and then the bedroom door opened. Frodo stood there, fully dressed, his nightshirt lying discarded on the floor behind him. Aster could see beyond the child the still form of his father; the sheet had been moved and Dro's face was uncovered.
Aster looked back at Frodo, who stood utterly still in the door. "Frodo?" she whispered, and took a step toward him. Frodo backed up hard against the door frame, shaking his head slowly. "No," he said, his jaw tightening. "No," he said again, his small hands curling into fists.
"Frodo, dear, let me take you back to my burrow. It's been a wearisome night, and..."
He met her sympathetic gaze with fire in his own. "NO!" he yelled, and ran from the apartments, slamming the door behind him. Aster stood transfixed for some seconds, listening to the child's running footsteps receding down one the many halls of the great Hall.
Frodo fled out of the first exit he could and, finding himself in what he recognized as the kitchen garden, he found a bricked pathway and scurried away, his course lit by moonlight. Long minutes passed by while he walked: minutes which, had they eyes, would have seen a transformation taking place. For as the boy distanced himself from the smial, he began to distance himself from the knowledge of his parents' deaths, as well. Tears dried on his cheeks, and the look of intense pain began to slowly drain away. His features cleared, replaced by a blankness which might have been confused with peacefulness. The hurried steps slowed by degrees, and developed into a slower, more languid pace.
Though his thoughts were no longer nightmarish, having receded into a closed corner of his mind, his heart was still troubled. Young Baggins was searching for something, but who or what it was loomed just beyond his reach. He began to wander, letting his feet take him where they would, and the boy soon found himself deep in the country-side, glow-flies all about, a soft breeze stirring the dark canopy of scattered trees around him.
Frodo was not afraid of walking in the dark. In fact, he relished it, having been taken on many such trips by his parents, who enjoyed such things. Granted, Drogo would have enjoyed sitting by the fire and reading a good book as much as anything, but he would have given the world to his Primula if she'd asked him for it, so he first accepted, then relished their evenings out while everyone else slept. When Frodo came along, they took him with them without a second thought.
This was the first time he had been out on his own, though, and he felt the exhilaration of adventure in his young heart. He strayed, following the flight of first one, then another glow-fly, `til he was far away from the path. There was a magic in the night, a palpable essence that flowed like slow-moving water around him--even through him. He felt light and moved without effort, his arms rising to embrace otherworldly texture and sensation, his outstretched fingers to caress it. Slowly the night wore on, and the child wandered far into the enchanted darkness, entranced by its loveliness and, if he but knew it, its balm of forgetfulness.
He was awake. Most certainly that, as he felt the roots of a great tree under his back, heard the birds' morning-song, and saw two booted feet just in front of his nose.
A tall, grey-clad figure stood before him, leaning on a gnarled staff of oak. His hat was pushed back on his grey head and he beamed at the child from under thick, bushy eyebrows.
"Ah! You are awake, Master Baggins," the stranger said. "Have you any idea of the ruckus you've caused in all of Buckland?"
"No, sir. I... "Frodo stared hard at the stranger as he sat up. "Are you ...one of the big folk?" he asked, his eyes wide in wonder, then narrowing. He cocked his head sideways. "I know you! You're Bilbo's friend!"
"That I am, young hobbit," the tall man answered, kneeling to bring himself down to Frodo's level. "Gandalf Greyhame I'm called, though you may call me Galdalf. I'm very pleased to meet the cousin of Hobbiton's most infa- erm! - famous hobbit," he said, holding out his hand. Frodo took it, grinning shyly. "So now, you haven't told me what you're doing out here all on your own, scaring all the folks back at Brandy Hall. Why, half of them are scurrying around everywhere east of the Big Wood looking for you!"
"Oh!" exclaimed Frodo. "I didn't mean to. . . I mean, it wasn't. . ." The boy's eyes clouded for a minute, his brow drawing down in a frown.
Gandalf eyed the lad closely, then put a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Don't you know how you got here?" he asked.
"Yes, I think so. Well, not exactly. I was in someone's room, I think, then I was walking. But. . ."
"But what, Frodo?" Gandalf asked, his voice kind.
The child's countenance changed in a heartbeat. There was a flash of pain in his eyes, then a dark look of denial. "Nothing," he said. "That's all I remember." He was breathing hard; Gandalf could see a vein pulsing in the boy's neck.
"That's all right, boy," Gandalf assured him. "We'll worry about that later. Let's get you back home so we can call off the search parties, shall we?" The wizard stood up, offering his hand to Frodo who, without hesitation, took it.
As time passed - Gandalf speaking about such things as the weather, harvest, and food - Frodo visibly relaxed and began to swing his arm in the man's grasp. He was soon chattering away while Gandalf engaged him in many interesting topics of conversation.
But as they walked and talked, Gandalf's thoughts were troubled. How was he going to handle this? It wouldn't do for them to come into Brandy Hall and present the boy's dead parents to him again, after what Aster told him had happened. Frodo had seen his parents, both in the river and back at the smial, but his subsequent actions in Aster's presence made the wizard fear for the boy's soundness of mind. It could be devastating to the child to force him to acknowledge what had happened before he was ready. It could break his reason, perhaps beyond mending. Gandalf hoped Bilbo would soon arrive, but since word only went out to Bag End early this morning, it may yet be awhile.
Several options crossed the wizard's train of thought, but none seemed feasible, and every step drew them closer to Brandy Hall. All too soon, they crested the last hill before the lane descended into the dell where the ancestral home of the Brandybucks lay. Gandalf paused to look around, his glance lighting on the youngster, who still held his hand. Frodo looked troubled.
"What is it, Frodo?" Gandalf asked, bending low to see the child better.
"I don't want to go in," the boy whispered.
"Well. . . " Gandalf dithered. "Why not?" he asked, hoping the boy may open up a little.
"I. . ." The boy's face contorted in pain. "I won't--I can't!" he cried.
"Well, of course not," Gandalf answered, half in understanding, half in relief.
For he had seen that which brought him sudden hope, the one Frodo needed most. He threw up a hand in greeting. "Look, Frodo!" he exclaimed, pointing down the hill. "Look who's come to see you!"
Frodo looked, and his haunted eyes lit up. There, in the distance, was his cousin, Bilbo Baggins, coming up the lane toward them.
End of Pt. I