The warmth of the afternoon threatened to lull Frodo into sleep as he lay on the bank of the river, lazily waving a long blade of grass before his eyes.
He had walked alone for miles this day, stopping occasionally to climb a tree and survey the land or to kneel and drink from the creeks he crossed, munching on bread and apples secreted in his pockets earlier that morning.
He dawdled, reluctant to spoil this moment of contentment by returning to the warren that was Buckland.
If only Merry and Allie were here. . .
Now don’t misunderstand—Frodo Baggins never languished for want of company—he had, after all, lived nearly half his life without benefit of either parent or much supervision in general. The numerous youngsters who swarmed the Hall seemed drawn to him; indeed, though he wished them to take less notice, he never quite obtained that goal, remaining popular in their ‘set’ all the days he dwelt there. Fortunately, he had inherited his mother’s love of the Shire and his father’s wry humor (and not a little plain hobbit-sense)—an embodiment of his parents that had proved to be the cornerstone of the tweenager’s constancy, and his good nature remained a constant. That’s not to say Frodo wasn’t often in trouble, especially in those earlier years when he was first on his own—he was more eager to please, then, and often went the way of the other boys, coming up with his own ideas for mischief as often as not. But he was older now and, all told, Frodo had grown up self-sufficient and able to get along with most, though he had become somewhat of a loner. It was only recently that he began to covet the company of his little cousin and the girl who took care of the child.
Frodo’s eyes grew heavier; he was beginning to doze off when he caught sight of something in the water—something that was being swept closer to the shore by a wayward current. He jumped up and scrambled to the water’s edge to get a better look. The thing was not floating on the surface of the water, but twisting and billowing just beneath it. Shading his eyes against the glint of sunlight, his heart lurched with sudden recognition—
It’s Mum’s red scarf.
He clambered down the bank and waded out into the water, stretching to reach the scarf, but the bottom dropped away just as his fingers brushed against it. I have to get it, he thought, unreasoning desire rising in his mind. A throbbing sound, odd, yet somehow familiar, met his ears as he put his head down and began to swim after the scrap of fabric. It was sliding away fast, though he pulled himself quickly through the cold water—for like most Brandybucks, he was a tolerable swimmer. The pounding rhythm grew steadily louder as he pursued the fading bit of colour. I won’t catch it, he thought at last, despairing.
In his hopeless chase, he failed to notice how rough the water had grown, until suddenly, it swept over him in a great wave, tumbling him under and threatening to dash him against the bottom. But it was the sound rather than the motion of the thunderous pulse that gripped his heart with sudden terror. He gulped a great mouthful of water as he struggled to break the surface, lungs bursting. . .
Frodo sat up with a bolt, clutching at his hammering heart, surprised to find he was not fighting to stay afloat in the strange, pounding water—indeed he was nowhere near the river at all—but sitting in the soft mossy bed he had made in the crotch of the old elm tree that stood next to the Hedge. He realized with dismay that he’d been there all night.
He had fallen asleep in his secret place—the place where he often went when he wished to be alone. A tree-climber all his life, young Baggins never considered the fact that his "spot" might be a bit precarious. Forty feet up and nearly as thick as one of the many round doors found in Buckland, the limb of his elm crossed the Hedge and intermingled with the more ancient limbs from the other side, their spring-leaves intertwining. They beckoned him as always to explore further, but there was no time for that now.
What will Uncle Rory think? he worried, sliding down from his perch. He dropped lightly to the spongy turf and sprinted through the woods towards home, his mind racing. It had been a long time since the old dream had plagued him—why have it now?
Frodo had come to terms with his parents’ deaths years ago. Of course he missed them, but he felt sure that that was not what brought on the dream. He did not realize it was but part of an overall, growing restlessness dogging him, strengthening as the closed-in days of winter had dragged by.
He had taken to wandering afield on all but the nastiest of days, coming back to Brandy Hall after dark, half-frozen, and making his supper on whatever cold fare he could find in the pantry. He just couldn’t seem to quench his wanderlust in spite of his best efforts not to worry Uncle Rory—dear Uncle Rory, who had taken such effort the last few months to keep a better watch on his orphaned charge. Frodo had indeed been ill during the summer approaching his19th birthday, but now he suffered nary a cold or sniffle, and was as healthy as any hobbit in Buckland. True, he was a wiry lad compared to most boys his age—slender of frame, one might say. Whenever he passed the looking glass in the grand entry hall, he saw the reflection of a lad with ruddy cheeks, his face framed by a shiny (though usually disheveled) mop of dark curly hair.
And more than healthy, he was happy now—or at least content, more so than at any time since the loss of his parents. No, he felt sure that he was not mourning again for them, no matter the terror and power of the old dream. Something else was stirring in his blood. But there was no time to think on that now—he was late!
Frodo leaped over a fallen tree and ran the faster as a pink blush began to spread in the east. I just might make it, he thought, hope spurring his feet as he shot around the corner of the yew-hedge and headed for the bedroom window.
“See, I told you he was out all night again,” said Posco, one of two youths who watched Frodo scurry through the window from the secrecy of the barn loft.
“What of it?” asked the other, Grigory, with an obvious smile of admiration meant for the returning vagrant.
“He’s sure to catch it now,” Posco answered. He didn’t try to hide a smirk as he turned back to the drama that played itself out below. From their lofty vantage-point they stared expectantly as Frodo began to pull down the sash. Baggins froze for a moment, then finished lowering the window. The spell was finally broken when Frodo moved away from the casement and out of their sight. Posco turned away, his smile widening.
“What have you done?” asked Grigory.
“Let’s just say that Frodo is about to find out what it is like to have ol’ Rory warm his back side.”
“You didn’t tell the old man!” said Grigory in disbelief.
“I did, and serve him right, too! Ol’ Master Rory’s been a might high-handed with our lot lately, but I’ve never seen him so much as throw a twig at Frodo Baggins!”
“Aw, you’re just jealous ‘cause the girls have started makin’ eyes at him, that’s all!”
“Who’s jealous? Ain’t no handsomer hobbit this side of the Hedge than me!”
Grigory laughed. “Well, since you spend most of your time in front of the looking-glass, I don’t reckon you’ve had much to compare yourself to!”
Posco grunted in reply.
“You think you know everything, don’t ya?” Grigory continued. “Well, you’re wrong this time. Whatever Master Brandybuck does to Frodo, it won’t be a beatin’.”
“How do you know?”
“Cause I heard tell that Rorimac whipped Frodo once and only once, and has never touched so much as a hair of his head since!”
Posco grunted again, staring stubbornly at the now vacant window, watching in vain for movement.
“C’mon,” urged Grigory, pulling on his friend’s sleeve. “We’ll be late for breakfast and ol’ Rory’ll punish us by forbidding the second one. Besides, maybe we’ll find out what happened between him and Frodo while we eat!”
Posco stared at the window another second or two, shrugged, and allowed himself to be led away.
Frodo wanted to wash up, change his shirt, and at least make an attempt to tame his hair before sitting down at table. It was one of several changes the youngster had made within the past two years. He began to pay closer attention to what the adults had expected of him, namely presenting himself at the expected meal and bed times. A greater willingness to lend a hand with the younger hobbits followed (despite his preference for solitude), and just recently had he begun to note his appearance, making improvements as needed.
But there would be no immediate need this morning. For Rorimac Brandybuck was leaning cross-armed against the door to the hall, a look of deepest disappointment etched in his face.
Brandybuck was a force to be reckoned with, not only in Brandy Hall, but in all of Buckland. Though no tyrant, he managed affairs in the large, multi-homed dwelling with a strong hand, and he had no cause to doubt that any responsibilities he delegated would not be carried out.
Through the Hall’s history, there had always been single parents and orphans about, simply because of the variety of families that had lived there for generations. Rory left their affairs in the care of other folk living in and around the smial who managed—after a fashion—to see to their needs. Or so he had done until recently when he realized, almost too late, that caring for broken families required a more hands-on approach, for his part.
Two winters have passed since then, he thought with a grimace as he walked down a small, winding hall that led to Frodo’s room. Doesn’t seem that long.
But much had happened in that time, since the ‘Maggot Farm Incident’, as he thought of it. The events that took place then had not been made common knowledge (a fair accomplishment by hobbit standards) and Rory was glad, for he had not wanted it made public that an orphaned boy had been beaten by two well-known, substantially fixed elders who hadn’t bothered to get their facts straight. There had been rumors here and there, of course, but since Frodo had gone to stay with his cousin in Hobbiton for a few weeks after the incident there hadn’t been much to fuel the flame.
Though Rory had since been more diligent in providing proper care for the broken families in the Hall, he still felt somewhat inadequate in providing the same for one Frodo Baggins. There was the disadvantage of the boy’s having had total freedom for nearly six years after his parents had died. The patriarch had been pleasantly surprised at the good report Farmer Maggot had given him on the boy, but equally dismayed by the realization that he, Rory, had done nothing to encourage such behavior. Another disadvantage was his inability to find specific misconduct to go after. Since Frodo’s return from Bag End eighteen months ago, he had obviously made attempts to improve himself—helping with the younger children, running errands for the cooks and housekeepers, helping in the fields on harvest and planting days, and tidying himself up a bit. There were gaps in the lad’s efforts, however—times when he would disappear for a day or more, wandering around in all kinds of weather while subsisting on a few pieces of fruit and stale bread. Rory knew this because Frodo had taken to asking the cook for food—forsaking his old habit of just taking what he wanted—and then leaving through the kitchen door for one of his excursions. Rory felt that this Tookishness exerted itself too strongly upon occasion, but was at odds with himself about how to rectify it. He was pleased that Frodo usually carried a book around with him, no matter what he was doing, thankful that Prim had taken much care in introducing the lad to his letters at a young age. But sometimes he wondered if Frodo indulged too much in reading when he should be applying himself to hardier work. But Frodo was no farm-hand; he was the son of a couple who themselves were of genteel background. It wouldn’t be proper to send him out to apprentice in the fields.
“How ‘m I supposed to give the boy a proper upbringing when he’s gone and done most of it himself?!” he muttered, as he approached Frodo’s door.
He knocked softly and waited a moment or two. Getting no response, he knocked again, and harder. “Frodo?” he called, knocking again.
But still there was no answer. He turned the handle and pushed. Unlocked, the door gave way, revealing a neatly made bed and a cold hearth.
“Where has that boy gone to now?” Rory fussed, looking around the small room.
Frodo’s things were tidily put away on shelves. A stack of volumes sat on a little desk under the window, all bookmarked. A narrow bed took up one half of the room and a wash stand occupied space near the door. Frodo had managed to squeeze a table next the bed which held a vase of flowering laurel and a tiny silhouette of who could only be his parents.
The elder Brandybuck drew a breath and held it, spotting a tablet on the desk which showed a few lines of writing. Frodo’s hand looked a lot like Prim’s. . .
Rory felt a fresh incursion of guilt. It was wrong that Frodo was in this back room, so far from everything and everyone. Being on his own so much had to encourage the boy’s predilection for wandering and a certain oddness that some of the older hobbits had commented upon. Some believed it was the memory of the deadly accident; others believed his cousin, Bilbo Baggins, had influenced him in some way. But Bilbo was several hours’ travel away and there had been no visiting between the cousins since Frodo had returned to Buckland near Yule a year and half ago. There had been many letters, however, and Rory suspected the sheet he had spied on the desk was an unfinished one.
Thinking back, Rory had very few recent memories of Frodo actually socially engaged with boys his own age, spending most of his time with adults or the little ones—when he wasn’t alone. Even so, Frodo had not quite shed the reputation of a rascal, and some of the tales Rory overheard must have had an element of truth. The boy’s own recent adventure with Maggot proved it.
An idea began to form in Brandybuck’s head—one that was interrupted by Frodo’s arrival, but soon finalized by it.
Frodo’s eyes were still adjusting to the dimness of his room as he climbed in through the window, but the outline of Brandybuck’s form was unmistakable. He froze a moment, then continued to lower the window sash, feeling something shriveling inside him.
“Good morning, Frodo,” said Rory, his tone unreadable. “You’re cutting it rather short, aren’t you?”
Frodo nodded and walked over to the washbasin, next to where Brandybuck stood, and poured some water into the basin. “Yes, Sir. I was out in the w— .”
Rory turned and opened the door. “Breakfast is in five minutes. We’ll talk after that, shall we?”
Frodo stood for a moment after his uncle left, looking blankly at the closed door, somewhat amazed at the restraint the Patriarch of Brandy Hall had exhibited. He plunged his hands into the cold water and splashed his face before dipping his fingers into the soft soap next the basin. The shriveling sensation slowly grew—he had a sinking suspicion that the outcome of this after-breakfast conversation would not be one to his liking.
Frodo picked up the big bowl of steaming porridge and squeezed his way through the crowded first dining room, where early-risers were vigorously engaged with their breakfasts.
Entering the second dining hall, he paused a moment, looking around. There were less hobbits here, at least temporarily, and many were heavy-eyed and yawning—the not-so-early-risers. His eyes brushed across the features of one of his acquaintances, Posco Saggot, sitting with his cronies. Posco winked and grinned at him—neither gesture appearing very friendly to Frodo—and nudged the hobbit next to him, muttering something Frodo could not make out. The whole table burst into boyish s!@#$%^s and Frodo had the uncomfortable feeling they were laughing at him. Ignoring them, he continued to look through the noisy crowd until he spotted Merry and Allie in their usual corner. Pushing through the crowded benches, he squeezed into the spot they had saved for him.
“Frodo, Frodo, you’re here,” said Merry with glee, bouncing with exuberance.
Frodo tousled the brown curls of his seven year old cousin, “I’m just a little late this morning; you know I wouldn’t miss breakfast with my favorite hobbit in all the world.”
“Your fav’it two hobbits in all the world,” corrected Merry, patting Frodo’s arm with his chubby hand then motioning toward Allysum, the girl who had been Merry’s minder since he had grown old enough to leave his mother’s arms.
“Yes, Allie too,” said Frodo, meeting her eye with a look that was half embarrassment and half earnest familiarity.
It was no secret that Allysum Holdfast could have been one of the most eligible hobbit-lasses in Buckland. An orphan of twenty-two years, she had not yet developed the roundness of her peers, retaining a more girlish figure than most. The auburn-haired lass had to work harder than most, too, chasing after various young charges throughout the day—young Meriadoc Brandybuck being the most prominent (and the biggest handful). Her hazel eyes were like the waters of the Brandywine—brown, green and gold by turns—and they sparkled as though hiding some hidden delight. At least they did whenever she was with Merry or Frodo.
But the young lads her age, who usually teased and flirted a bit with the other lasses, had little to do with her. She was not of their class, not of their peerage.
For Allysum, whom they called “Allie”, was not just an orphan. She was not like Frodo or Posco, or Grigory Soundbottom—children who were related somehow to the Oldbucks or the Brandybucks either by blood or marriage. She did not bear one of the old, proud names as did the others; she could not claim kinship with one single hobbit in Brandy Hall, indeed in all of Buckland or even the Shire. She could not, because she was a foundling, an infant left on the kitchen doorstep for one of the cooks to find. Holdfast was the surname that was given her because she had gripped her tattered blanket so tightly they had to pry her tiny hand away from it.
It was in Allie’s capacity of Minder for the infant Merry that she met Frodo Baggins. She was only a lass of fifteen then, but years of servitude and a bright spirit had earned her the position at such a tender age—at least that was what Saradoc, Merry’s dad had told her. But if truth be known, it was when she offered to take an unhappy, teething eight-month-old from her harried mother’s arms, hushing him as expertly as a Nanny of vast experience could have, that Esmeralda decided Merry would have no other Minder but Allysum Holdfast.
Frodo, only recently orphaned when Allie met him, had been a bright lad of indifferent disposition, often getting into trouble, often going on ‘rambles’ that kept him out for days. She’d even heard he ventured into the Old Forest once, though that was just idle talk. But there was something about him that she liked—it was hard to pinpoint, because he often infuriated her with his pranks and wild behavior—but there was a way about him that was solid and good.
Then, in the early fall of 2987, just before Frodo turned 19, he had gone away from Brandy Hall for a couple of months. Rumors were that he had gotten into some mischief yet again and had suffered severe consequences for it, but the details were vague. She had known at least that he went to stay with his cousin, Bilbo Baggins. For awhile, everyone thought it was a permanent arrangement, and so it was a bit of a surprise when Frodo returned to Brandy Hall just before the Yule season. But folks were busy with putting up the vast provender from harvest and getting ready for the end-of-year holidays, and young Baggins’ adventures were soon forgotten.
It was after his return to Brandy Hall Allie began to see that Frodo had changed—and for the better. There was a certain seriousness about him, now. One had to look for it, of course, because Frodo had lost none of his wit or love of food, a good fire, and laughter. Rather he had mellowed in some way, aged like a fine ale. Allie marveled at his depth of character that—despite his boyish failures and mistakes—had grown steadily during the last two years. Indeed, he was only 20 years old, and she must make some allowances for him.
And he was the only close friend she had in all of Brandy Hall, after all.
“Finish your breakfast, Merry,” said Allie, giving Frodo a wink. “Now’s your big chance to beat Cousin Frodo at table.” She passed the basket of cooling bread to the older hobbit. “Do you want the jam, too?”
“Of course,” Frodo said with a broad smile, as Merry set to his bowl with a speed that, barring his usual penchant for talk between every bite, would indeed bring him his first victory.
“Were you out again last night?” whispered Allie.
“I didn’t plan to be; I fell asleep and didn’t wake up until dawn.”
“Well, at least you got back before you were missed.”
The look of concern in her eyes did more to reprove him for his waywardness than the confrontation with Rory had done. “Not exactly,” he confessed, bound for some unknown reason to bare his shame before the girl. “Uncle Rory was waiting for me in my room; he says I’m to have a talk with him after breakfast.”
Allie reflected for a moment then nodded. “Good, I think it’s time you two talked.”
Frodo was baffled by her reaction. It had certainly not occurred to him that anything good could come of his talk with Uncle Rory. He was about to ask her what she had meant when. . .
“Hallo, Frodo!” Posco interrupted, slapping the back of Frodo’s head. “Heard you had a little run-in with Master Rory this morning,” the youth added, looking around at the other youths who had followed him to Frodo’s table.
“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about,” Frodo answered quietly, picking up his toast and examining it. Allie took Merry into her lap and said nothing.
“Of course you do, Baggins! I happen to know you had company waiting for you when you sneaked through your window this morning.”
Allie saw Frodo tense, closing his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, they softened momentarily when he met her gaze, then he grinned impishly, looking much like the scoundrel she’d met seven years ago. He turned and looked full into Posco’s face. “I’m one up on you, Saggot. As soon as I saw Uncle Rory in my bedroom I knew you’d sent him.”
Grigory, who was standing behind Posco, grinned in spite of himself. This was more like the old Frodo who’d wandered the woods and halls with him and his friends just a few years ago, getting into mischief and having the full run of Buckland. He tried unsuccessfully to smother a giggle.
Saggot shot Grigory a withering look before turning back to Frodo. “Maybe I did, but you deserved it. You’ve put on airs since you came back from Mad Baggins—think you’re too good for us now.”
Frodo rolled his eyes and turned back to his breakfast. “That’s ridiculous, Pos. I just have other things to do.”
Saggot turned a cunning eye on Allysum, who felt his gaze before she met it. “I can see that,” he sneered.
Frodo’s hand clenched around his spoon, knuckles white. He slowly stood up and again turned to confront the other boy. Grigory and the others unconsciously moved back a little. In a voice so low Allie had to strain to hear, Frodo said, “You leave her out of this, Saggot. If you have a problem with me, fair enough, but you will not meddle with Miss Holdfast, who, I’ll remind you, is Official Minder of Master Merry, here—an office of standing in this smial, whether you want to acknowledge it or not.”
Posco bristled but said no more about the young lady. “You talk well enough, Frodo, but I think the reason you don’t go about with us any more is because you left what little pluck you had back there at Bag End.”
Frodo crossed his arms. “Bravery and bravado are two entirely different things, Pos,” he said, not unkindly. “I think you’ve got them mixed up.”
This reply did nothing to elevate young Saggot in his friends’ eyes and he knew it. He sensed they were waiting to see what he would say or do and blurted out the first thing that came to his mind. “We’re going down to Buckleberry Ferry tonight,” he said. “We’re going to sneak past the ferryman’s hut while he’s sleeping and take the ferry over to the other side, then drop the rope so he’ll have to swim over to get it the next morning, or at least find another boat to take him across.”
“You gonna swim?” piped young Merry, who had remained wide-eyed and silent during their entire discourse.
“You know any other way to get back across, brat?” sneered Posco, who did not much care for little ones.
Merry glared back at the big boy and stuck out his dimpled chin. “I don’ like you,” he declared. Allysum shushed him, but he continued to scowl defiantly.
Ignoring the child, Posco pressed his point. “You coming, then? Or are you too cowardly to get into the water?”
Frodo knew Saggot was reminding him of how his parents died, knew that the boy had seen him in the water many times, had himself thrown Frodo into the river once or twice. Posco’s friends knew this, as well, rendering his position weaker by the minute.
“I can swim,” Merry piped, sticking out his little chest, and Allie hushed him again.
“I’m not about to pull such a prank,” Frodo answered. “We could damage the ferry for one thing, and it’d be a great injustice to make old Tandy have to fetch it back across the river.
“Look, sorry to cut you short,” he continued, ending Saggot’s retort before it could begin, “but I have to be somewhere.” Frodo turned his back on the gaggle and bent over the table, grinning at little Merry, who was still shooting daggers at Posco. “I’ll see you later, young hobbit. You take good care of Miss Holdfast until I get back, will you?”
“I will,” piped the youngster. Frodo shot a grin at Allie, then pushed himself through the crowd of boys and out of the dining hall. He had an appointment to keep and he wasn’t going to be late for it.
“Sit down, lad. I’m not going to bite your head off.”
Frodo grimaced, recalling the last time he had been in the Master of Brandy Hall’s library, and as he sat, his eyes darted involuntarily to the long reed lying on the mantle.
Rorimac Brandybuck sat behind his desk and played with a dry quill, turning it in his fingers for a few moments before looking up at Frodo. He put the pen down but remained silent, which was agony for the lad sitting across from him.
“Uncle Rory, I never meant to stay out ‘til this morning,” Frodo blurted, unable to stand the quiet any longer. “Truly, I—”
“No matter, no matter,” Rory remonstrated, holding up a hand to silence the youth. “I expect I pulled a few all-nighters myself when I was your age,” he said, unsuccessfully hiding his smile. “The teen years are never easy, Frodo, for anyone. They certainly weren’t for me and, in truth, I couldn’t have expected them to be easier for you. Believe me when I say, the early tweens hold no better promise on that score.”
He paused and cleared his throat.
“The reason I wanted to talk to you isn’t because of the past, Frodo, but what lies before you. I know thirty-three seems a long way off for a lad your age, but the day will come when you’ll turn the corner and wonder where the time has gone.
“Coming of age is more than just accomplishing a number of years, Frodo. It is fundamentally taking on a mantle of responsibility, of accountability, that is usually shored up by long years of a father’s instruction and a mother’s guidance—something you have been deprived of.”
“Sir, it’s not your fault I haven’t exactly been—that I haven’t. . .”
“It’s my fault you’ve been left to your own devices for eight years, lad. No getting around that, and to my shame.” Rorimac got up from his chair and began to pace, casting an eye on Frodo occasionally and sighing, which made young Baggins more uncomfortable by the minute. Was his uncle about to take drastic measures, put him in some way of work to teach him responsibility—send him away from Brandy Hall? He felt a sharp pain in his thigh and realized he was gripping the material of his trousers so hard the nails had pinched the skin.
“I should have taken a hand in your education long before this,” Brandybuck continued, getting his steam up. “Manners, deportment, mathematics and literature. . .” He seemed to be ticking them off in his mind, those things that boys despise and youths dread. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks and looked at Frodo full-on. “Frodo, have you been in school at all since. . .”
“Of course I have,” Frodo answered, bristling a bit at yet another reference to his parents’ death, still a matter of gossip in the Hall and a sensitive spot for him. “I sat with the other children my age, and had since—since my mother could no longer teach me.”
“Oh,” Brandybuck said, at a loss. He really had let things slip with this child. “Well.” He hemmed. “The point of seeing you today, Frodo, is your inheritance. Or a lack of it, I should say.”
“What?” Frodo perhaps should not be excused for his rudeness, but there had been many times he had thought of the small but comfortable home his parents had owned near the border of Buckland and Tuckborough. Except for dreams, he had never been back there, and assumed it sat empty and decrepit, waiting for him to return and reclaim it some day. But now his uncle was saying something about it not being his. . .
“Frodo, there is no way to tell you this but plainly. There was a—a hole—in your father’s will. I won’t go into the details; I don’t pretend to even understand it all. Suffice it to say that due to a technicality in the wording of the will, your parents’ home passed to the Sackville-Bagginses.”
Frodo’s chin dropped as the full meaning of his uncle’s words became evident.
“I am sorry, Frodo, but I realized that if am to play a larger—and I hope a better—role in the last years of your bringing up, I need to be completely forthright with you.”
“I. . . I appreciate that, Uncle,” Frodo whispered, still in shock at the revelation. He sat up straighter in his chair, trying to get a grip on himself. “Then, I am not. . . I mean, I won’t. . .”
“You are an heir to your parents’ memory, Frodo, and if I may say so, that is a great deal, for you are much like them. But no, you are not a hobbit of property.” Rory, standing in front of Frodo now, put a hand on the lad’s shoulder. “But you are a gentle-hobbit, born and bred, and it’s time I saw to it that you act—and are treated—thusly.”
“What for?” Frodo said, his face blank as he rose from his chair and away from his uncle’s hand. He walked to a side table and fingered the carved-work around the edge. “If I’ve no income. . .” Frodo turned suddenly, staring at his uncle. “You’ve been supporting me all this time?”
“Not I, but from a portion of the interest on a small investment your father made in your name the year you were born. You are not without means, Frodo, but your parents were not rich and neither are you.”
“I see.” Frodo turned away from Rorimac and crossed his arms, thinking hard. It had finally come to this, where the child must become the adult before his time. There was nothing for it but to do the best he could. He wasn’t, after all, the first orphan who had to make his own way. There was Allie, for instance, who had been supporting herself long before she ever entered her teens, and now possessed a position of importance and great responsibility. She was independent, smart, and well-spoken, possessing a kind and generous spirit. If she could manage, never having had the benefit of parents, then he, Frodo, could do just as well if he tried.
“It’s enough to provide you with something to live on when you grow old, at least, if you leave it alone,” Rory was saying, but Frodo heard him only vaguely. He kept his back to his uncle, his eyes prickling suddenly.
‘Get a grip on yourself,’ he thought, angry at what he perceived to be self-pity. Truthfully, he was only missing—not for the first time—his dad or mum putting an arm around his shoulders and telling him it would be all right. Collecting himself, he turned and walked over to Brandybuck, who had wisely kept quiet. “I don’t think it’s so very important that I learn to be a gentle-hobbit, Uncle Rory,” he said. “If I’m to do for myself, I should start now. Can you help me find work? I don’t mean here,” Frodo hastened to say, for somehow he knew he would always feel his uncle were still providing for him if he remained in the Hall.
Rory studied Frodo’s face, searching the blue eyes deeply, and saw something that both surprised and pleased him—for they were Drogo’s eyes, and in them was resolve, for all the lad’s dearth of years.
“I’ll have to study on it,” he began, scratching his chin. “Maybe Farmer Maggot would have a place for you.”
Frodo paled, but said nothing, holding his breath.
“Yes, Frodo, I do think there is merit in your beginning to earn some of your own wages. There’s no reason you can’t buy your own house and property some day, if you work hard.”
Frodo had his doubts about that, but kept silent as Rory continued to speak.
“But you must agree to submit to my tutelage as well, let us say twice a week, shall we?”
“For what, Uncle?” asked Frodo, uncomprehending.
“Your further education, of course. You have in fact finished your under-education, correct?”
“Well, yes, over a year ago, but. . .”
“Then it’s settled. There is far more to being a gentle-hobbit than perhaps you perceive, and I won’t have it any other way—for Dro’s and Prim’s sake if nothing else. Now, let’s see.” Brandybuck scrabbled on his desktop for a blank piece of parchment. “I must first make some arrangements. Let us say, beginning Monday next.” He picked up the quill and dipped it into the well. “We’ll meet Monday and Thursday mornings for elevenses. No need for this to be entirely hateful for us, eh?” Rorimac winked at the youth, and for the first time during their interview, he saw the ghost of a smile on Frodo’s lips. “And don’t worry about work. I’ll find something for you within walking distance, so there’ll be no need to spend the night.”
With that, Frodo did grin, and a large weight fell off his shoulders. He’d worry about Maggot later, if it indeed came to that. But for now, he would allow himself to think on their lessons. The future would have to take care of itself.
“Where are we going?”
“Keep your apron on, Allie, it’s not far.”
“I tired, Allie.”
Miss Holdfast stopped in her tracks and reached down for Merry, picking him up in her arms and hurrying after Frodo, who was setting a fast pace on the path. He turned and saw that she now carried her little charge, and was hampered by the uneven weight on her hip.
“Here, let me take him,” he said, reaching for the child and shifting him onto his back.
Merry grinned and promptly wrapped his arms and legs around his dark-haired steed. “I’m sorry, Allie,” Frodo said, slowing his pace and walking beside Miss Holdfast. “You should have said something.”
“Oh, I would have if you’d kept up that infernal pace. What can be so important to see in this direction? There’s only the High Hay and we can’t go beyond that.”
“You think not?” Frodo asked, his eyes glinting, and continued: “We’re going to the wood that borders the Hay, and—I say, are you afraid of heights?”
“No more than I am of water,” she replied, reaching behind Frodo to hand a blueberry to her young charge. Merry accepted and promptly squashed the hapless fruit before popping it (accompanied by a few fingers) into his mouth.
“That’s not an answer,” Frodo said, looking at her sidelong. “We will just have to wait and see. Come on, we’re almost there!”
Frodo took off at a run, Merry giggling and screaming with glee upon his back. Allie, though not first upon the mark, was agile and young and filled with jubilation to be on a rare outing, and was soon upon Frodo’s heels.
They ran full out, like two children turned loose after a long lesson, and their laughter blended with little Merry’s chortles. They passed under the branches of the first trees, and their joy blended with the sunlight filtering through the leaves.
The wood deepened and the two older hobbits slowed their pace, nursing stitches in their sides and holding Merry’s hands as he walked between them. Not long after they stopped beside the smooth bole of an ancient elm. The High Hay was just beyond, only a few yards away, dark and unbroken by any cleft or gate. Sounds were hushed here, for the breeze was diverted by the yew and boxwood that formed a solid, twiggy wall many times higher than a hobbit’s head.
Allie looked around, wondering why they had stopped. “Well, where is this special place you wanted to show me?”
“You might not like it,” Frodo said, looking suddenly hesitant. “If you cannot climb, you won’t even see it.”
Allie, perceiving at last, looked up the trunk of the giant tree, her eyes narrowing. “We’re going up there, then?”
“Yes. Don’t you want to?”
“What about Merry? I’m afraid he’d fall off, even if you carried him.”
“I’ll tie him on. Like this–” Frodo pulled a large, thick towel from his rucksack and handed it to Allie. He placed Merry on his back again and showed Allie how to wrap and tie the towel around the child and Frodo so that Merry was cradled, so securely that he could ride without holding on if he wanted.
“Are you scared, Merry-lad?” Frodo asked, reaching over his shoulder to touch the child. “May I carry you up to my special place in the treetops?”
Merry, fearless in his innocence, whooped with glee and kicked Frodo’s sides. “Yes, yes, giddy up, Frodo!”
“All right, then. Allie, I know all the best hand and foot-holds. I’ll go slowly and you just do what I do, all right?”
“Lead the way, Squirrel,” she said, wondering if she would survive this questionable jaunt, and rejoicing in their adventure all the same. She was, after all, only twenty-three, and adulthood was still so very far away. . .
At least, it was for today.
Frodo stretched and scratched his neck, hissing as pain from his sunburn flared. He checked the rope again; satisfied it was secure, he ran down the embankment and turned a somersault right into the river.
The water closed over his head and the stinging on his neck receded. He surfaced, turned over on his back, and lazily paddled back to the bank. He held on to tough tussocks of grass as he hauled himself out of the water, dripping. No matter his clothes were soaked through, his knees muddy—for he wore his old things, a bit too small for him anyway and soon un-wearable.
There was a freedom in wearing garments that no stain, no tear could damage. He could wet himself as often as he liked, curl his toes in the cool mud in the shallows as much as he liked, with no fear of reprisal.
For Frodo was the new deputy Ferry-hobbit, assistant to old Tandy, who was getting a bit stiff in the joints and welcomed the help (not to mention further nap time). Two weeks on the job and already locals called him by his first name, exchanging shouted pleasantries as they waited for him to pole the ferry over. The lad had yelled himself hoarse the first day and squeaked alarmingly for a couple of days after that, but now near the end of his third week, his vocal cords had managed to overcome the initial insult and he was quite back to normal.
He kept forgetting to wear the wide-brimmed, floppy hat Tandy had given him and had consequently twice suffered sunburn on his unprotected neck and face, but he was learning to stay in the shade or in the water whenever he wasn’t ferrying or checking the ropes or harness.
To say that Frodo enjoyed his work would not give justice to his feelings. The boy was outdoors most of the time (excepting his tutelage with the Master of Brandy Hall), either alone or in Tandy’s good company. So far the weather had been fair, with only a morning fog or two, and Tandy’s widowed daughter-in-law brought them their elevenses and nuncheon every day, which they enjoyed sumptuously and at length (for no hobbit in his or her right mind thought of crossing a river during mealtimes).
Saturdays and Sundays were “off” days—where journeyers hauled or poled the small ferry themselves if they must make their way to the other side. Frodo spent these days and evenings after supper with Merry and Allie, entertaining them with descriptions of his passengers, newsy gossip, and tales of minor accidents which naturally occur when working around water.
Monday and Thursday mornings were vastly different, though not hateful, for Frodo. Six weeks of meeting with Brandybuck had taught him that being a gentle-hobbit was nothing he had supposed. He was set to keeping records of his income and expenses—small though they were—in an account book provided by his uncle, using a hard-lead pencil which he sharpened faithfully with the pocket-knife Bilbo had given him on his last visit to Bag End. He was also required to walk over to Rush every other week, there to consign the greatest portion of his earnings (he went the first time with Rory, who introduced him to the proprietor and signed the necessary papers, giving Frodo sole access to his tiny inheritance). Rory told him that, in time, he would also be given the responsibility of managing additional annuities for other hobbits in Brandy Hall who found themselves in similar circumstances as his own, but were yet too young (or too old) to manage their accounts.
“This, Frodo, is what a gentle-hobbit must know how to do. Often he finds himself benefactor to subordinates for whom he finds himself responsible.”
“But Uncle,” Frodo had replied as they walked to Rush on his first day of Further Education, “just because I may help other hobbits with their affairs hardly makes them subordinate.” He soon learned, however, not to broach this particular subject again, as Rorimac immediately went off on the responsibilities of the ‘nobler’ families, the lot of the working-class and poor relations, etc.—to the point the boy was ready to scream. It caused young Baggins to think of Bilbo who, while a gentle-hobbit in every way—likewise possessed of an inheritance and untold treasures of his own (so some said)—was himself a bit hazy when it came to ‘class differences’.
Dear Bilbo, Frodo thought as he slapped at an insect bite. What would he say if he knew what Uncle Rory was trying to teach me? He frowned, realizing the letter he had started over three weeks ago still lay, unfinished, upon his desk. He would finish it tonight and hand it over tomorrow to Toby, the post-deliverer, who would put a stamp on it for a ha’penny while Frodo poled him over to the banks of the Eastfarthing.
The frown disappeared when he heard two voices behind him, preceding their owners who were yet hidden by the hill. He shook his head like a dog, droplets of river water falling around him like rain, wiped his hands on his sodden breeches, and ran to meet his visitors.
He was met at the crown of the rise by a bundle of energy that wrapped itself around his legs in a fierce grip, and only managed not to fall on top of the dynamo.
“Hallo, hallo, hallo!” Merry sing-songed, leaning back and swinging from Frodo as if he were some kind of May pole. “You can’t ‘magine what we been doin’!” he said, beaming up at the larger boy. Allie stood nearby, smiling upon the scene. Frodo shot her a grin, then returned his attention to the child.
“Good heavens, Merry! I’m far too famished to try to imagine anything except lunch. What’d you bring me, eh?” Frodo grabbed Merry under his arms and began tickling his ribs. Merry immediately released his hold on Frodo and collapsed into giggles and squeals.
“I think you should consider a good wash while I spread out the nuncheon,” said Allie, walking toward a large tree that leaned out over the water and provided a grassy, cool spot to eat. “Do you ever dry out, Frodo?” she teased, beckoning Merry to follow her, though the child would far rather have gone down to the water with Frodo, who proceeded to do a better job of getting the mud and grass stains off his hands.
“The walk home takes care of that,” he called, wiping his hands on a towel hanging from a nearby tree branch. He hurried back and plopped down on the blanket Allie had provided, practically smacking his lips over the good food that lay before them. “And,” he added, puffing himself up grandly, “I don’t have to take a bath—since I’m in one practically all day!” he finished, leaning over and ruffling Merry’s hair.
“Frodo Baggins, you know that is positively an untruth, and to tell it before my innocent and highly receptive charge! For shame!” Allie shook her finger at him, but her smile told him it was all right.
“I don’ wanna take bavs either, Allie. Nasty things,” Merry said, crossing his arms.
“Oh, they’re all right, Merry-lad,” Frodo hastened, noticing a slight frown fret across Allie’s features. “Especially at the end of a long day—hot water soothing sore muscles, clearing away all the cares of the day—and when you get out,” he tossed a muffin to the child, who caught it easily, “you’re all clean with hardly any trouble at all.”
“No trouble that a handy cloth and some soap won’t put right,” Allie answered, securing a large napkin around Merry’s neck.
“Well, that too, yes,” Frodo admitted, winking at Merry.
For some time afterward there was little talk as the threesome partook of the excellent meal Allie had brought. It was a nice arrangement for the last day of the workweek, allowing Petal, Tandy’s daughter-in-law, to shorten her day’s work. Frodo felt he would be sorry not to have this to look forward to, despite his love of the work and Petal’s good cooking.
The meal finally over, Frodo shook out the blanket while Allie and Merry put away the remaining food (a small matter). He placed it under the tree again and lay upon his back. Merry soon found his usual comfortable spot, his head resting upon the crook of Frodo’s arm, his tiny fingers interlaced across his stomach. Allie sat a little to the side, her back against the tree, and pulled out some bit of sewing to work on while she and Frodo talked.
“Tell me about your lessons with your uncle, Frodo,” she said. “You’ll have finished. . .what, twelve of them by now?”
“Eleven, actually. We spent one day over in Rush—I told you about that. They haven’t been too bad, really.” Frodo shifted his arm a little. Merry, now fast asleep, was heavy. “I still don’t see the need, but Uncle insists upon it.”
“Do you spend all your time with your account books?”
“No, usually an hour or less, now that I’ve grown more used to the work. The rest of the time Uncle and I talk while we eat.”
“What do you talk about?”
“Well, eating for instance. How to ‘comport one’s self at table’,” he recited. “What the two-tined fork is for, what the three-tined fork is for, when to use the inside spoon and when to use the outside spoon, that kind of thing. I thought it would quite take my appetite away, but our elevenses are quite excellent.”
Allie grinned, realizing Frodo was using his ‘gentle-hobbit’ speech for her, and played along. “I have always preferred nuncheon to elevenses, Master Baggins, as it settles more delicately upon the palate.”
“Aye, I can fancy nuncheon as well as any,” Frodo drawled, his accent suddenly rich. “Long as it’s fresh and tasty, is all.”
“Don’t let Mr. Brandybuck hear you talking like that, Frodo Baggins,” Allie admonished.
“Oh, I won’t,” he promised, easing Merry off his numb arm and pushing up into a cross-legged position. “It would break his heart, I think.”
“What else do you do?”
“Well,” Frodo paused, looking out over the river, “there’s no set schedule, you see. We just talk about things that he thinks are interesting, or relevant. We discuss them in great detail, usually in the form of his own experience, and sometimes mine. But he reminds me frequently that my own experience is either faulty or totally lacking, especially in such things as. . .” He brought himself up short, darting a glance at the girl.
She merely raised her eyebrows.
“Um, deportment—how you conduct yourself, how you address others, how you behave at social gatherings, like—uh. . .”
“Dances?” Allie looked down at her work, a smile playing at the corner of her mouth.
Frodo cleared his throat. “Yes, um– certainly, among other things,” he finished hurriedly. He was feeling decidedly hot around the collar, despite the shade and breeze.
But Allie did not pursue that particular topic and the threesome spent another lazy hour under the tree before a passenger or two broke up the party. Merry begged a ride and Allie waited while Frodo took him to the other side and back, the child chattering away all the while. Frodo kept a close eye on the boy and grabbed him by his braces more than once to keep him from toppling over the side. When they made landing Merry began telling Allie about everything he had seen and done (never mind that she had watched him the entire trip, prepared to jump in after him if necessary).
“Such a lot of fishes, Allie, silver and grey and pink. I a’most had one, but Frodo pulled me back. I bet I could catch lots of fishes!”
“Well, perhaps we can try our hand at fishing next week,” Frodo said, tying up the raft and helping the child onto the dock. “But Merry, you must never go into the water, or even close to the water, unless one of us is with you.”
“Why?” Merry fiddled with a button on his braces, his brown eyes stubborn.
“Because the water is very deep, and the banks are crumbly. Do you understand, Merry?” Frodo knelt before the child, placing his hands on Merry’s shoulders, an odd sensation coming over him. “You must never go near the water unless you are with us or your parents.”
“A’ right,” Merry muttered, looking away.
Frodo exchanged a look with Allie which said ‘we shall have to keep a sharp eye on this one’.
The moment passed, Allie and her charge were soon on their way back to Brandy Hall, and Frodo went back to work, looking forward to the weekend and its luxuries.
Upstream, near a curve of the river when the trees and bushes crowded the bank, a hobbit crouched in the shadows behind the cover of thick leaves. Posco Saggot had watched Frodo as he visited with Allie and Merry, confirmed to his own satisfaction Frodo’s strong attachment to the child, and began to form a plan which would take Rory Brandybuck’s protégé down a step or two. It had rankled when Frodo had more or less given up his irresponsible habits; it positively galled now that young Baggins enjoyed the attentions of the Master of Brandy Hall. Posco, though misdirected, was no fool, and he knew the rumors and tales that rattled around the huge smial must carry some measure of truth—that Frodo Baggins had crossed Farmer Maggot two summers ago and came away from the experience not unscathed. Saggot determined he would use this knowledge to best advantage, and soon.
This story is finished in Part Two of Two
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