Frodo looked up from his book and soon had the child in view. “He’s over by the pie table, Allie. You can just see his eyes over the edge of the board.”
“Oh, I see him, now. I’d best help him before he upsets the whole table,” Allie said hurriedly, throwing down her sewing and reaching the lad just in time to help him with the piece of pie he coveted.
She ushered her charge back to the shade and handed Frodo a plate with his own slice of pie, and they ate in silence, enjoying an occasional fretful breeze. The day was sultry and the summer picnic, though pleasant for all the residents of Brandy Hall, was somewhat subdued after several weeks without rain and climbing temperatures. Only a few hardy souls ventured out into the sun, most being content to talk or play quiet games, sipping cool drinks while their food settled.
Merry, his pie finished and feeling just a bit too full (for this was not the first time he had visited the pie table today), grew restless. He tugged at the collar of his shirt and squirmed uncomfortably. “‘m hot,” he fussed. “Can’t we go swimmin’, Allie?”
“Not today, Merry,” Allie said. “It’s getting late and it looks as though it may rain.”
“It won’t rain,” the child said, obstinately. “It won’t rain ever again. Posco said so.”
“When did he tell you such a foolish thing as that?” Frodo asked, still half-engaged in his book but finding his attention diverted by the mention of his former fellow mischief-maker.
“Today,” Merry said, pushing up his sleeves, which promptly fell down again to his great irritation. “He said he’d take me swimmin’ if you wouldn’t.”
“Merry, Posco didn’t mean anything of the kind. He never does anything with the children here; he doesn’t even like them,” Allie reminded the boy, who turned a deaf ear.
“He likes me,” Merry said, his upper lip curling. “He said I wasn’t ‘fraid of the big boys, an’ I tol’ him I wasn’t ‘fraid of anything.”
“Well, of course not,” Frodo said, putting down his book and looking hard at his cousin. “What’s the matter? Has Saggot been worrying you about anything?”
“No-o,” Merry drawled, but he ducked his head and began pulling at a tuft of grass.
“What’s he been on about?” Frodo asked, his tone a little sharp now. Posco had never been anything but surly with the child, and his overall dislike of little ones was known all over the smial. If Saggot had been talking to Merry, it had been with nothing good in mind.
Merry, hot, cross and tired that he was, misinterpreted the tenor of Frodo’s voice. His chin began to tremble, and his eyes glistened. “He tol’ me, Frodo,” he said, large tears trembling on his lashes and letting go unhindered. “He tol’ me you were ‘fraid, an’ that I should be ‘shamed to call you Cousin.”
“What on earth?” exclaimed Allie, who reached to comfort her little charge, but Merry pulled away.
“He tol’ me you wouldn’t work for Farmer Maggot ‘cause you were ‘fraid to cross the river.”
“Merry, Frodo crosses the river every day. You’ve been with him in the ferry yourself,” Allie said quietly, her face registering alarm at Merry’s distress.
“He doesn’ swim it,” Merry said, scrubbing at his face and sniffing loudly. He raised his brown eyes to look into Frodo’s blue ones. “Are you ‘fraid of the river?” he asked, his lips white.
Frodo stared at him, a million thoughts colliding in his head.
“Are you ‘fraid of Farmer Maggot?”
“Merry. . .” Frodo felt his chest constrict. If the answer were given, it would take an hour. . .
The child’s jaw dropped, and his eyes grew wide. “You are,” he whispered, his face paling. “I thought. . .” Merry’s face crumbled and he broke into loud sobs, running blindly for the smial.
Allie grabbed her sewing and rushed after the boy, leaving her napkin and unfinished pie lying on the grass. Frodo stared after her and the child, who had disappeared inside, then noticed Saggot and a few of his friends lounging against a tree not far away. Saggot was grinning and the other boys muttered and laughed among themselves, casting sidelong glances at him. Frodo picked up Allie’s things along with his own and walked by the group of teenagers, returning their stares without speaking, and went into the cool darkness of the smial.
Frodo sighed and wrapped his arms around himself, looking out over the river on a wet and chilly afternoon.
Allie’s prediction had been accurate, and a tremendous storm broke up the picnic. It stormed all that afternoon, blowing limbs from trees, turning paths into small, muddy streams, and keeping everyone inside by the fire. Overnight the storm subsided into steady rainfall which lasted throughout the following day and night, proving miserable work for hobbits who must venture outside, Frodo included.
This morning had been better, what with his work with Uncle Rory—drier, anyway, though troubled. Frodo had broached the subject of Merry with the elder hobbit, telling Rory what had happened at the picnic. Rory was one of the few hobbits in Buckland who knew the true (and entire) events of two summers ago, when Frodo had worked off his theft debt with Farmer Maggot and nearly died in the process.
But Rory was not disposed to be too concerned. “Merry’s a baby, Frodo, and subject to the whims and misunderstandings of babies. He’ll have forgotten about it entirely by now.”
But Frodo knew that was not the case, as Merry hardly talked to him at yesterday’s breakfast, despite Allie’s encouragement. And today neither Merry nor his minder had been at breakfast at all. The note folded in his pocket assured him that Merry was only suffering from a slight cold and that Allie was keeping him in his room today, but Frodo could not help but think there was more than a cold keeping his favorite cousin away. He would like to have talked to Rory more about this, but Rory was not Bilbo, and that was who Frodo wanted to see most of all.
Bilbo was not due to visit until fall, and that was yet two months away. His letters were frequent, full of news, and approving of Frodo’s work with Rory, but they were not the same as a quiet hour settled in a chair by the fire with a cup of tea at hand, talking with Bilbo about anything that came to mind.
Frodo sighed again, and shivered. The rain was still coming down in sheets, and the river fairly roared in its course, its waves lapping at the buttresses of the ferry landing. Tandy had been glad to see him after lessons, and hurried back to his cottage, anxious to get out of the wet. Frodo had spent the afternoon alone, watching for passengers that never came. The rain had deterred traveling and Frodo had spent the afternoon watching the level of the river grow higher. He looked after the ferry, checking the lines especially, not wanting the ferry to cast adrift.
Here and there Frodo saw bits of embankment break free and disappear into the already muddy river, and there were more and more bits of bracken, scrap wood and other things that floated in the water now. If this rain kept up, it could cause real damage overnight. Frodo resolved he would come all the earlier on the morrow, in case Tandy needed his help. He only hoped the rain would have come to an end by then.
For now, he was anxious to get home—to get dry and warm, to be sure—but mostly because he had made up his mind to visit his little cousin after dinner. The child was young, but intelligent, and Frodo couldn’t bear to have Merry think ill of him. He would tell him the story of the week he worked for Farmer Maggot—the week he worked to pay the good hobbit back for stolen mushrooms. The week he began to grow up. If Allie were there, he’d tell her, as well. He knew she was a fair listener, and knew how to keep her own counsel, and—next to Bilbo—one to whom he knew he could confide almost anything. Funny that he was just now realizing it. But this realization only made him miss Bilbo all the more.
There was only an hour left in the workday when Frodo saw someone hurrying along the path across the river, hunched under a bit of oilcloth in a vain attempt to stay dry. He wiped the rain from his eyes and untied the ferry, using the pole to push it across the river to meet his passenger. It had been a long, uncomfortable day, and even now Frodo’s thoughts were of Bilbo. I’ll write to him about Merry, he thought, fighting to keep the ferry straight in the river as he poled back across with his passenger. Bilbo will know what I should do about Posco, too.
Despite the rain, the chill and the discomfort, Frodo’s face lit up with a warm smile, and he hurried all the more to get his passenger safely to the other side of the roaring river.
Frodo returned to general uproar in Brandy Hall. Young Meriadoc had given his minder the slip and all the common (and not so common) areas were turned upside down in the search for him. Still dripping, Frodo soon found himself standing in front of Saradoc and Esme, Rory Brandybuck and Allie Holdfast close by.
“Are you sure you didn’t see him today?” Saradoc asked again.
“No, sir,” Frodo answered. “I was with Uncle Rory all morning, then after lunch I went straight to work. I haven’t seen Merry since yesterday morning,” he added, glancing at Allie, who stood to one side, twisting her apron in her hands. The other adults followed young Baggins’ glance and Allie met their looks.
“It’s my fault,” she said. “I left him only for a moment to fetch his willow bark tea, but the honey jar was empty and I ran to the kitchens to pick up some more. And when I got back. . .” She bit her lip and looked down at the apron, which was becoming more creased by the minute in her nervous hands.
Esme stiffened when Allie spoke, but did not chastise the girl. Saradoc spoke for them both: “We do not hold you to blame, Allie. We were both here; you had stayed long past your time, and were only helping us. How were any of us to know Merry was only pretending to sleep?” Esme nodded her affirmation and patted Allie on the arm.
“How long has he. . .been. . .” Frodo stopped, a cold niggle of fear creeping between his shoulder blades. “Has he talked to Posco since the picnic?” he blurted, looking hard at Allie, who shook her head.
“Why, yes,” Esme said, a smile flitting across her face. “He came in this afternoon for a visit. I must say I was surprised, too,” she continued. “A great boy such as himself, and quite a mischief-maker, I’ve heard, though I can scarce believe it now.”
“He is a mischief-maker, and more so than you’ve heard, Esme,” said Rory, darting a glance at Frodo. “I’ve tanned his jacket more than once.”
“I admit I’m surprised, too, for he’s no friend to the little ones, Miss Esme,” added Allie. “He must have come when I was running errands.”
“He did indeed,” Mrs. Brandybuck answered, somewhat defensively. “He brought Merry a little toy boat and a peppermint sweet for his sore throat, too. They talked for a good while and I must say Merry was in much better spirits when Posco left. He had been pining after you, Frodo, especially when you didn’t come to see him last night,” she finished, looking troubled.
Frodo felt something shrink inside him. He had meant to see Merry the evening before, but the rain and extra work with the ferry had kept him late and he had arrived back at the smial after Merry’s bedtime. Now he wished he had come anyway, and waked the boy up. Children couldn’t reason the way adults could, and Merry would have only thought that his favorite cousin in the world hadn’t bothered to come and see him when he was ailing—the cousin whom Merry had only known as wise and fun and brave—perceived now as flawed and afraid. Frodo drew a sharp breath and turned to leave.
“Where are you going?” Allie asked him.
“I don’t think we’re going to find Merry in Brandy Hall,” he called, breaking into a run. “Send help to the Ferry Crossing as quick as you can!”
Merry shivered in the early twilight, but set his jaw and walked steadfastly on. The boat that Posco gave him was tied to a long string, as Merry meant to float it at the Ferry Crossing, using the string to draw it back if the current did not carry it the way he wished.
Though he could have played with the toy anywhere, including several large puddles outside Brandy Hall, he was determined to go to the Ferry. That was where Frodo held him back the other day, wouldn’t let him play in the water as he’d wanted. Now, of course, he knew why Frodo was afraid to let him near the river—it was because his big cousin was afraid of the water himself. It must be true; Posco had told him, the great boy who had decided that Merry wasn’t so little after all and may be as brave as any of the big boys in the Hall.
Merry stifled a sob and lifted his head. He’d show Posco that he could do this, that just because he was Frodo’s cousin didn’t mean. . . He’d show them all, and maybe then Frodo would show them, too. . .
He’d seen Frodo of course, on the path, but had hidden in the bushes as his cousin hurried by, and now he could see the Ferry tied up to the river bank, riding strangely high in the water that lapped at the edges of the riverbank. In the waning light of dusk, Merry could not see the deeper part of the river nor the debris it carried along at an alarming rate.
He walked to the edge and unwound the string from the boat, tying it carefully to his wrist, and cast it off. Moments later the toy was out of sight; the grip of the string on his wrist was painful and jerked his arm with amazing force. Merry began pulling the boat in, hand over hand.
He could just see it in the gloom when he felt the bank give way beneath him, and the cold water closed over his head before he could draw breath.
Frodo ran full-out, jumping over puddles and gullies cut in the road by the fast-falling rain, half-blinded by the water and fast-fading daylight. He called out for Merry, keeping one eye on the river as he ran beside it, but knowing in his heart where Merry would be. He struggled up the last incline of the road, slipping on the muddy surface and nursing a stitch in his side, and paused to look down at the Ferry Landing.
There was Merry, standing on the very edge of danger, pulling on a string that was attached to a tiny boat that had become entangled in a floating branch. Frodo started to call to him when he saw the bank crumble and the child topple in.
Horror-struck, Frodo yelled and tore down the hill, fell on the slippery surface and was up again. He looked downstream and caught a gleam of white—Merry’s shirt. Without another thought, he dived in.
Rorimac and Saradoc led a contingent of 20 sturdy hobbits carrying rope, blankets and lanterns. Spread out between the road and the riverbank, they scoured the land for any sign of Merry or Frodo all the way to the Ferry Landing. By the time they reached the ferry the fear among them was palpable.
One of the advance spotters called out in the dark, waving his lantern, and the group converged on him as he braced himself against the wind.
“Look! He shouted, and pointed to the bank next to where the Ferry was tied.
A large section of the bank was gone, a gaping, bite-shaped hole all there was to show for it.
“Do you think they went in?” Saradoc asked, his voice hitching.
Rory only looked at him. “Come on,” he said, finally. “Let’s keep looking.”
The group spread out and moved again upstream, and were soon surrounded by the dark and the great sound of rushing water.
Frodo struggled to keep his head as high above the water as possible, fighting to keep Merry in view. The child wasn’t moving, and had become entangled in some uprooted bushes that slowed him down, dragging his body out of the main current.
Frodo stayed as close to the bank as he could, hindered by debris and roots jutting out from washed-away banks. Slowly he grew closer to his little cousin, though the time seemed to crawl. Frodo was beset with memories brought on by the smell of the river and the cold, black water—whether real or dream, he could no longer remember. He had lost his parents to the river, that much was true, and had watched, helpless, as they floated lifelessly out of his reach.
Spitting out water, Frodo concentrated on the outline of the child who drifted just beyond his outstretched fingers, and kicked harder. Desperate now and tiring, he was swallowing a lot of water and knew if he could not save Merry there would be no saving himself, either. With one last great effort, he snagged Merry’s braces and pulled the child to him, turning and paddling one-handed for the bank. The child was limp and heavy in his grasp, and cold. Frodo struggled along the embankment, trying to find a place where there was less overhang, but the river had undercut the bank and he could find no purchase.
Frantic now, the tweenager tried to pull himself up by a large root jutting out of the embankment, but he was too exhausted, too cold, to do anything but hold on. He realized, almost disinterestedly, that it was just a matter of time before his benumbed fingers would lose their grip, and he and Merry would be carried off.
Frodo found his thoughts wandering, and he suddenly saw—so clearly it hurt—his mother and father standing in the shallows in the warm sunshine, playing with their little boy as he splashed and paddled in the water. It wouldn’t be so bad, really, to just open his fingers, and go to them. Leave behind the loneliness, the adult responsibilities thrust upon him. And Merry would go with him, Merry would. . .
“What are you thinking?” Frodo said to himself, his teeth chattering. “I’ve got to get us out of here,” he continued, finding a measure of strength in hearing himself speak. “Somebody’s got to help us.” He shifted Merry in his arms a little and nearly dropped the boy when he felt him move. “Merry?” Frodo shook the child and called to him again. The child moved again and began to retch, bringing up alarming amounts of water, and Frodo shifted again to try to support the child better. Astonishingly, his foot landed upon a large rock which held his weight, and he brought up the other leg, still holding fast to the root. When he tested the rock and it did not shift, he put his full weight on it and rose up out of the water, freed from the waist up.
Now he could make out the line of the bank, and knew what he must do. Cradling Merry tightly, he braced his legs and turned his torso backwards as far as he dared without losing his balance, then swung around with all his remaining strength, letting go at the last moment and allowing momentum to do the rest. Merry sailed out of his arms and landed heavily on the bank beyond the water’s edge.
Frodo rallied for one more attempt and clumsily flung himself at the bank. Somehow he held on, grasping at tufts of grass, scrambling wildly for a foothold, and then found himself sprawled beside Merry on the sodden turf.
He leaned over the boy and listened. The wind was dying down a bit now, and though Frodo’s ears were ringing, he could both hear and feel Merry’s breath. Merry was alive, but still very much in danger, and must be attended to immediately. Frodo pulled the child into his arms once more and rose unsteadily to his feet. He headed directly away from the river, knowing he would hit the road nearby. Homes were scarce along this part of the waterway and he would find help sooner by going back towards Brandy Hall.
He made his way doggedly, grieved because he could move no faster. His legs were like blocks of lead; his heart laboured as he walked, and he began to fear he might not be able to make it all the way back. Then he thought of Tandy, the Ferryman. Hope washed over him again, and he took heart.
But he was not to reach Tandy’s cottage, because he saw lantern-light approaching, then the voices and faces of people he knew. Vaguely he felt someone taking Merry from him, felt a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. There were people walking beside him now, supporting him and talking to him, but he couldn’t understand what they were saying.
The vagueness grew, as did his weariness, and at long last he found himself in his own bed. The rain had stopped, and a new moon was peeking through the window of his room. Blissfully, he welcomed the nothingness that surrounded him, and fell asleep almost as soon as his head touched the pillow.
Coming awake again was something of an effort, a hand roughly shaking his shoulder and a loud voice in his ear. He turned away from the motion, trying to bury his aching head in his pillow.
“Frodo, please get up! You’re wanted in the Master’s study right away!”
Groaning, the dark-haired hobbit rolled onto his back and opened bleary eyes to stare at the hobbit child who had obviously been sent to wake him. “Wha’time‘s it?” he mumbled, noticing not a few aches in his body as he stretched and tried to coax his lids to stay up.
“Almost time for second breakfast,” piped the youngster, who was already heading out of the room. “Scones!” he said, grinning, and slammed the door as he left.
Frodo winced, his head feeling twice its normal size. Hastily he washed up, pulling the muddied sheets off his bed and throwing them onto the pile someone had made of his wet clothes on the floor. He wondered if he had undressed himself or if one of the hobbits who had escorted him back to the smial had done so. Either way, he was grateful he hadn’t slept in damp garments.
He poured what was left of yesterday’s ewer into the basin and scrubbed himself, shivering in the unheated room. His hair was a sight; he took a minute to wrest a brush through the worst of the matted tangles, dislodging not a few leaves and twigs before he finished.
Though not clean, he was cleaner, and the promise of a long hot bath later put heart in him, and he hurried to Rorimac’s office as quickly as his aching limbs would allow.
When he arrived Rory was seated behind his desk, and Saradoc was with him. Frodo’s eyes widened at this, and a dart of fear nicked his heart before Saradoc broke into a side smile.
“Frodo, my lad,” he called out, rising from his chair and embracing the young hobbit, his cheek fast against the top of Frodo’s head. Frodo felt the older hobbit’s body shake and realized that Saradoc was weeping. “Thank you, boy, thank you,” Brandybuck whispered, patting Frodo’s back and pulling away to look into the boy’s eyes. “You saved our Merry, young Baggins, and there’s nothing I can say or do to thank you enough.”
Frodo looked into those swimming brown eyes and blushed, smiling crookedly. “He’s all right, then?” he asked. “May I go see him this morning?”
“My dear, you may do anything you like,” Rory said, speaking for the first time. He stood and placed an arm around Frodo’s shoulders, pride in his voice. “You’ve earned my trust, my boy, and I see I was a fool to have thought you needed more careful bringing up.”
Frodo opened his mouth to protest, but Rory held up his hand and continued, “Never mind, never mind, we’ll talk about things later, shall we? You need something hot in you, I’ll warrant, and the cooks are wanting to cluck over you—which you don’t need, so off you go to see little Merry, and I’ll have ‘em bring some breakfast to you by the boy’s bed.”
“Off you go, now,” Saradoc added, and they shooed the youth from the study.
Frodo hurried to Saradoc’s apartments, his emotions in turmoil as feelings of pride, embarrassment, and fear took turns pummeling his heart. He knocked on the door and was greeted by a smiling and tearful Esmeralda, who squeezed him so hard his ribs protested as she escorted him into Merry’s bedroom.
“Merry, Merry, dear. Look who’s come to see you!”
Frodo noticed that Allie was in the room, but she moved away from the bed and for a long, uncomfortable moment, Frodo and Merry locked eyes. Then the child’s chin began to quiver, he held up both arms and wailed, “Oh, Frodo!”
Neither hobbit heard or noticed the two female hobbits leaving the room as Frodo hurried to the little boy, picking him up in his arms and holding him close as he sat on the edge of the bed. Neither hobbit was aware of anything more than holding each other, Frodo most of all, as he breathed the scent of the child whose little arms encircled his neck.
After a few minutes, Merry drew away and looked up at Frodo. “I’m awful sorry I said those mean things to you,” he said, hiccupping. “You mad at me?’
“Merry, at this moment I don’t feel I could ever be mad at you again, though I’m sure—given some time—you will rectify that.”
The child stared at the older hobbit seriously for a few moments before a fleeting smile crossed his features, disappearing quickly. “I did a bad thing going to the river aside myself.”
“If you mean by yourself, Merry, yes you did. I know you were upset with me because I hadn’t been to see you, but you must promise me you will always come and talk to me if I’ve done something to bother you, all right? Please don’t ever go off by yourself again, dear, and never go near the water without me or Allie—you remember me telling you that before, at the ferry?”
“Ye-es,” Merry answered slowly, pondering something as he played with the buttons on his nightshirt. “Now I know why you’re scared of the river,” he whispered, shivering suddenly, his brown eyes far away. “It was so cold.”
Frodo’s breath caught in his throat, feeling once again the chill of both the water and the fear that had enfolded him last night.
“It’s all right,” Merry said, reaching to pat Frodo’s cheek. “Papa says you was the mostest brave to come after me in the water. I’m sorry I said you were afraid.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being afraid of something, especially something as wild as the Brandywine,” Frodo said, easing Merry back into his bed and pulling the covers up under his arms. “But there are other kinds of fear that are wrong, even dangerous. I. . .” He looked away, quieting himself with a will. Merry was very young to have gone through the peril of the previous night, and too impressionable to burden with his own tale. Frodo shook his head slightly, realizing that the story of Farmer Maggot was not one to be told to such a young one, not yet. . .
Frodo walked alone near the High Hay, forgoing a climb into his tree and choosing rather a familiar winding path, letting his thoughts make their own way, as well. He smiled ruefully, finding it ironic that he, a hobbit nearly twenty-one, held no fear of water but was mortally afraid of Maggot’s dogs, and worse—Farmer Maggot himself. It was a deeply-held embarrassment for him he doubted he would ever willingly discuss with anyone, not even his dear Uncle Bilbo.
At least Merry’s confidence was fully restored in him, and the boy had promised Frodo over and over again that he would not go near the river or other places off-limits, despite the encouragement of any of the big boys.
Big boys like Posco Saggot.
The thought dropped into Frodo’s thoughts like a stone, and he was brought up short, his features hardening into angular lines beneath the dark hair, the blue eyes narrowing.
“Saggot,” he breathed, his fingers curling into fists. “I’ve got a few things to say to you.”
Allie hurried down the path, clutching her shawl to her shoulders. The recent storm had broken the sullen heat and freshened the air—not quite fall-like just yet, but clean and dry under a sky of blue. For the past hour she had been looking for Frodo in his familiar haunts, but she could not find him. She had been running an errand for Esmeralda when he had left, and was surprised to find Merry quiet and subdued as she tended to him. The child, normally a chatterer, had dried up and said he was tired. No doubt Frodo had talked to him long about the dangers awaiting little boys who ran away from home. But there were dangers awaiting not-so-little boys who were caught unaware, too. . .
She was near the hay-field when she heard voices, and moved from haystack to haystack, keeping out of sight as she neared the boys who were standing in the curve of the road that swept around the edge of the field.
“Stay out of it, Grigory,” she heard one say.
“Pos, he’s just asking you to leave the lad be. You’re lucky he wasn’t killed. . .”
“I told you to shut up! I don’t need you telling me anything I haven’t already heard from Mr. Brave Baggins here.”
“Using a child that’s little more than a babe to suit your own ends is the lowest thing I’ve ever seen you do, Saggot. And Grigory’s right, Merry could be dead right now, because of you.”
Allie’s breath hitched. Frodo’s voice was lower than normal, and quiet, though it cut through the crisp air like a knife.
“Well, he isn’t dead. And what do you know about my own ends, anyway?”
“I told you to shut it, Grigory!”
Allie could not stand it another minute. She fell to her hands and knees and peered around the base of the stack where she made her hiding place. Saggot was strong-arming his companion out of the way, turning to face Frodo, his features sullen and menacing. Frodo stood his ground, his arms hanging loosely at his sides, the freshening breeze blowing his curls away from his face and accenting the more angular lines of his features.
“It’s like this,” Saggot continued, a smirk playing across his face. He leaned forward, putting his finger on Frodo’s sternum. “I was using him to break you.”
Frodo blinked in amazement. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that you think you’re such a much, that you lord it over the rest of us because you’ve somehow got Uncle Rorimac twisted around your finger. I’m saying that if his precious grandson had died in the river the other night, you’d be out on your ear—or worse—and you’d be no better off than the rest of us orphans that live on the charity of others!”
“You wanted Merry to fall in the river? You weren’t just hoping I’d follow him and fall in myself?”
Allie noticed that Frodo had paled drastically, his lips bloodless. Grigory had backed away, shaking his head soundlessly, looking at Saggot as if for the very first time.
“I wanted to hurt you, Baggins, hurt you badly. I knew that better-than-us noble streak you’ve got would sink just like the boy did when he hit the water!”
Frodo did not remember throwing himself at Saggot, or falling to the ground with the bigger and heavier boy suddenly on top of him. All he knew was that he was yelling something and hitting with his fists every part of Saggot’s burly body he could reach. Posco tried to pin his arms with his knees but Frodo pushed with his own and pivoted the boy over his head, hearing with satisfaction his ‘umph’ when he landed heavily on his back. Frodo scrambled up and saw Allie and Grigory standing next to each other with matching expressions, but Saggot was getting up, too—winded but not hurt.
Saggot stood a head taller than Frodo and weighed at least two stone more, but Frodo had the advantage of speed, honed by long hours in the fields and woods. The hobbits watching the fray learned this early on, for as long as Frodo could keep his distance from the bigger boy, Saggot took a beating. But whenever Posco could manage to grapple with Baggins, the tables were turned. In just a few minutes, both boys were bloodied and bruised, but Saggot was tiring fast, his breath whistling as he circled, watching for another opportunity to pull Frodo into a bear hug and land a kidney punch or two.
Frodo saw the bigger boy falter, but knew he was reaching his own limits. His left eye was closed and he tasted salt from a split lip; one more good punch to the head would fell him. Absently, he wondered which of them would go down first.
But it was nature that brought Saggot down, a false step tripping him up over a fallen branch, and he landed hard on his back for the second time, breath driven from his body. He tried to get up but was too busy trying to draw air into his lungs when Frodo stood over him, taking care to stay out of arm’s reach.
“Posco Saggot,” Frodo began, found his voice was shaking, and cleared his throat. “If you ever so much as look at Meriadoc again I shall give you a beating that will not begin to compare with the one you got today. Do you yield?”
Still defiant, Saggot tried to snort but only succeeded in showering his shirtfront with blood.
“I mean it, Saggot! I swear it on my own blood, do you hear? You know I mean it, too. . .”
Frodo knelt down so no one but Saggot could hear him now. “Because, like you said once, I’m just an orphan, and I don’t have anything to lose.”
“Does that hurt?”
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t.”
Allie continued to dip her handkerchief in the stream and sponge her friend’s face, worried more about his aloofness than his injuries. Those would soon heal, but Frodo was troubled.
She took his hand and began to gently bathe his split knuckles. Allie was not unintelligent; after Frodo returned to Brandy Hall, having been away for two months at his cousin Bilbo’s, an accidental revelation and some sharp observations had made it possible for her to put some things together on her own. She pondered these things now as she worked, realizing it was only right that she tell him what she knew.
She took a deliberate breath before raising her eyes to look at him. “Frodo,” she began.
“Hm?” He didn’t look at her, his hand lying limply in hers as she bathed it.
“Two summers ago I was in the kitchen, fetching an apple, when Master Rorimac came in. I was startled and stayed in the pantry, not making myself known.”
Frodo said nothing, but his fingers had grown stiff in her grasp.
“He was crying, Frodo. Something had upset him very much. And soon after that, you went away – to Hobbiton.” She glanced at Frodo, who still looked away.
“I heard rumors, Frodo, and I heard snatches of Mr. Sara’s conversations with Mistress Esme. I – I know you were punished for stealing something from Farmer Maggot, Frodo. I know you were very ill, and both Master Rory and Mr. Sara felt themselves to blame.”
She felt Frodo move and glanced up at him. His eyes met hers and darted away, but not before she saw they were bright with unshed tears. She reached to touch him but he stood up and walked a few paces away, out of her reach. He turned slowly to face her, speaking so quietly that she barely made out the words. “I never meant for anyone to find out about that,” he choked. His face, which had first been pale, burned bright now. “It was my own foolishness that got me into such trouble.”
Allie leaped to the defense he would not take, going to him and taking his injured hand back into hers. “But you’ve no cause to be ashamed. It was nothing that all the other boys haven’t done. . .”
“Boys like Posco Saggot?” Frodo asked raggedly, turning his eyes away again.
“You’re not at all like Posco, and neither is Grigory for that matter. Posco has burned himself into a wicked rage with his jealousy, Frodo. You have always been the one to have adventures—roaming the countryside, spending nights out by yourself. And though you’re not the biggest or the strongest, you can climb the highest tree and swim, and. . .” Her upper lip curled. “And cuff boys like Posco Saggot.”
Her attempt at humor was lost on her friend, however, as he continued his inward struggle. She tried again. “Posco sees that you are different—that the young ones look up to you – that Master Rory sees something special in you.” Frodo slowly turned towards her again, swallowing hard.
“But I never wanted to be different,” he said haltingly, his eyes searching hers. “A boy. . . a boy. . . with no parents just wants to be liked, you know? To do things with the other boys. . .” His face hardened. “All that changed when the fun turned to thievery, and what followed was my full and just due.”
Frodo paused, fighting the growing ache in his throat. “I’m no different than Posco, Allie, or wouldn’t have been if Maggot hadn’t caught me with his mushrooms.”
“That’s not what I see,” Allied replied gently, looking down at his bruised hand. “I see a lad who is trying a bit too hard to grow up, perhaps.” She smiled gently and looked into his eyes. “But I also see a boy who is brave, and smart and kind, too.” She raised his hand to her cheek. “And I see the way that you love our little Merry.”
Frodo stared hard at her for a minute, exploring the depths of her almost golden eyes. He leaned in—very close now—his dark curls brushing her auburn ones, and he touched his lips lightly to hers for a moment. Then he quickly pulled away and turned to face the sinking sun.
But he kept her hand firmly in his.
September marched on and with the passing of days, Frodo’s heart became a little lighter. Uncle Bilbo was coming to visit!
They had corresponded often, Bilbo ebullient over Frodo’s act of bravery in saving his cousin Merry (it was Saradoc who had written to Bilbo, effusive in his story-telling and his praise—which was just as well, as Frodo had never written a word about the whole affair). He would arrive on the 20th, celebrate his birthday with Frodo’s, and stay on an undetermined number of days after that.
Frodo loved his uncle and rued the lack of time they could be together, but Bilbo was an old bachelor who found it hard to change his ways—forged by years of habit. Frodo was disappointed and saddened when Bilbo brought him back to Buckland after he had convalesced, but he had reconciled himself to it as best he could and relished all the more the times they could be together. Still, he often found himself wishing things could have been different.
But life was full, nevertheless. He had talked with his Uncle Rory, expressing the desire to continue with his studies and his work in Rushy, and the consequent work was beginning to keep him over in the barrister’s office, deciphering old wills and annuities. It wasn’t so much the tedious work he liked as the good that often came of it as families were availed of bequests, properties, and sometimes united with long-lost relatives. In fact, some of the local folk were actually coming to him with requests for help in these areas. Because of the extra work, Frodo finally had to concede that he couldn’t keep up his job at the Ferry and complete his other duties, too. Grigory gladly took up the post and was soon adept in the work, not to mention his elevation in the eyes of a certain lass who lived across the river.
Merry was growing like a weed, well over his adventure in the river, and often accompanied Frodo and Allysum whenever the two young hobbits could find time to get away from their increasing responsibilities. Today they walked toward the High Hay, though there would be no tree-climbing. Frodo considered it better to err on the side of caution and save exploring the heights for another time when Master Merry was not with them.
Merry had skipped on ahead as they walked, poking his nose into every scrub of bush and tuft of grass that ventured too close to the path. At times he nearly disappeared into the tall stands of purple coneflowers and yellow and black daisies that filled open areas in the trees, which were thinner this side of the Hay. The child hummed busily as he continued his investigations, stopping only to call back to Frodo and Allie some important piece of information about the bug crawling on the vetch or the scratchiness of the thistle.
Allie had been keeping a careful eye on her charge since the disaster with the river, so she didn’t seem to notice Frodo’s broken glances in her direction. He drifted closer as they walked silently behind the child, the sounds of the tree frogs and Merry’s chatter a background to his thumping heart. Taking a deep breath, he reached across the small gulf between them to take her hand as it swung lightly at her side. Allie stiffened and turned wide eyes upon him. Then relaxing, she blushed and smiled before looking up the path again at Merry.
Relief and pleasure flushed Frodo’s face and neck as he realized that Allie felt it too. Often they had taken hands as they walked, thinking no more about it than when they took Merry’s hand, for they were children themselves. But everything was different now. Who could have known that a kiss would change so much?
Merry bounced out of the brush and skittered toward them at a great pace. He veered around Allie and came up from behind, breaking the grip of their hands and inserting his own chubby, dirty hands in each of theirs. He heaved a sigh, then looked up at them sheepishly.
Frodo laughed. “What’s got you in such a fright, Master Merry?”
“I—I’m not afraid,” stuttered Merry. “I jus’ sawed something I didn’t like.”
“There’s no harm in having a little fear, Merry, we’ve talked about this before,” Allie gently admonished as Frodo swung the child to his shoulders.
“I know,” said Merry sagely. “I’ll just stay up here ‘til my fear is jus’ a wee bit littler.”
Frodo looked over at Allie, who smiled at him before returning her gaze to the path ahead. It was a beautiful day with no hint of cloud, the sun had taken on the first hues of early fall, and his pockets were full of apples for walking. Uncle Bilbo would be here in just a few days, and he was currently keeping company with two people (save one) he cared most for in the world. He stole another glance at Allie, who walked beside him with an easy stride, and realized with a start that she was taking up more and more of his thoughts every day.
His heart tumbled in his breast as he pondered this new idea, a strange, turning-over sensation he was not unused to since the days of his fever in his 19th year. But this time he wondered if it were something more than a heart murmur, for it made him feel strong and alive and carefree as he had not felt since the days his parents were alive.
“Did I ever teach you Bilbo’s walking song, Allie?” he said, handing an apple to Merry and fetching one for the lass walking beside him.
And as the three hobbits moved further into the forest, a clear voice rang out in the shadows, and the High Hay that loomed nearby listened intently and long.
“Sara, Frodo has entirely too many responsibilities for a boy barely in his tweens!”
“I absolutely agree with you, Bilbo, and if it were in my power to have done something about it, I would have, but Frodo is happy with this arrangement.”
“Nonsense!” Bilbo pushed himself out of his chair and walked over to the fireplace, his color high. “I’ve never heard such balderdash—work at the ferry, work in Rushy, sharing duties in nursemaiding babes. . .”
“It is hardly that, my dear Bilbo. The boy no longer works at the ferry. And Merry and Frodo are nearly inseparable; always have been since Esme first laid the boy in your cousin’s arms.”
Bilbo’s face softened and he waved a conceding hand. “I know, I know. Don’t think me unkind in my hasty words, Sara. I know he loves Merry. But dash it all!” he exclaimed, jamming his hands into his pockets. “The boy’s got to have some fun—he’s still a child!”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, Bilbo. He doesn’t act like a child. Hasn’t since the day he came back from his visit with you two falls ago.”
Bilbo stopped his pacing and looked at Saradoc in disbelief. “I don’t follow. What. . . what do you mean he doesn’t act like a child?”
“Surely you must have noticed it in the letters he’s written you? His turning away from his old associations with the other mischief-makers, his wanting to help more with Merry, his lessons with the Master of Buckland himself. Didn’t he write you about these things?”
Bilbo sat down heavily, staring at the fire, recalling the many letters he’d received from his young relative. They had been light-hearted and full of news—mostly news about other doings in Buckland and Brandy Hall—not much concerning himself, now that Bilbo thought on it. What a fool he’d been not to notice!
“I’ve been away too long,” he muttered. “When does Frodo usually get back from Rushy?”
“Not until nightfall as a rule, though he’ll probably get back a little early tonight, wanting to get ready for your arrival. He doesn’t expect you until tomorrow, you know.”
“I know,” Bilbo said half to himself. “I wanted to surprise him.”
Frodo sat on the steps of the Barrister’s cottage, his mouth open in amazement, the letter dangling from his hand. Slowly he brought it up to read it again and grasped the parchment with both hands.
They were shaking.
Mouths were wagging almost before Frodo reached Brandy Hall—news traveled in an alarming way in the Shire and he had to find Allie before she heard it from anyone else—he found her in a side yard, taking in some laundry for Merry, and pulled her down onto a nearby bench.
“Frodo, what on earth! What’s the matter, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Frodo lied, trying to feel happy for Allie, trying to deny the panic that gripped him. “Nothing at all. I’ve just come from Rushy. You know I’ve been working with old deeds and wills. . .”
“Why yes, of course. But what’s gotten you so upset?” Allie saw emotions flitting across Frodo’s face as fast as the swallows in the twilight, and felt her own heart quicken.
“It’s just. . .” Frodo held his breath, wanting to postpone the moment when everything would most likely change forever. He sighed and reached into his weskit pocket, pulling out the letter he had received earlier that day, the letter he had read so many times he knew it by heart.
“You had better read this.”
Allie took the letter from his hand, laundry forgotten, and began to read. Frodo walked away some distance and watched her silently, his hands jammed deep into his pockets. But her face was closed, her lips pressed tightly together as she read. When she reached the end, she turned the letter over in her hands as if trying to glean more from the ink-covered pages, then read it again. Finally, she lowered her hands into her lap, the pages of the letter fluttering in the breeze, and slowly turned her head to look at Frodo, who had not moved. The only sound around them was the quickening wind and the snapping of Merry’s shirts on the line. Frodo could not even hear his own heart – in fact, right now it felt as if it had stopped beating altogether and lay like a cold dead thing within him.
“You’re going with him, then,” he heard himself say, his voice unnaturally calm.
Allie held his gaze, her eyes large and shining with tears, and slowly nodded. “I have to, Frodo,” she stammered, her lips trembling. She held up the letter in her trembling hand. “Family, Frodo,” she whispered, showing the parchment to the boy standing so near, and so far away. “Family. . .”
He saw her try to control the conflicting emotions that were fast overwhelming her, and the cold lump in his breast snapped like fast-thawing ice. He walked toward the bench, his shadow overlapping hers, and put his hand on top of her curls, burnished red-gold by the setting sun. He sat next to her and pulled her to him, stroking her hair, feeling her tears wetting the front of his shirt and the trembling in her body slowly subside as he held her.
“I know what you’re feeling,” he said, his voice strangely thin, his throat aching. “You feel torn in two, but it won’t always be that way. . .” She straightened and pushed away from him enough to look into this eyes.
“Truly?” she breathed, and Frodo was suddenly very aware of how close she was, how lovely she looked, how she smelled of lavender. . .
His heart racing, Frodo kissed her, savoring the sweetness of her as she returned his embrace, and holding her close as if he would never do so again. He looked at the purpling sky over the treetops and sighed. “Truly it won’t,” he repeated quietly as his heart betrayed him with doubt. It cannot, he thought desperately.
The two young hobbits sat on the bench while the sun set behind the hills, not speaking. They held hands and waited, wondering what would happen to them on the morrow, the day Allysum Holdfast’s half-brother would come to meet her for the first time, and return to the Southfarthing—taking her with him—to meet the rest of her family.
Where has the time gone? Here I am, resting after a long morning with Mr. Gamgee in my garden, realizing that nearly six months have passed since I last visited Brandy Hall.
That is not to say that you have not been much in my thoughts, my boy, but I find that even our frequent letter-writing has not begun to make up for the time we could have been spending together.
This brings me to a point I have longed to discuss with you for over two years, something I think – had I given you opportunity – you would like to have talked about long before this. You see, I’ve been an old fool, Frodo. Yes! An old fool who thought that he was too set in his ways of doing things to make room for the changes a younger member of the household would bring. An old fool who convinced himself that the responsibility of raising a youngster was too great and outweighed the company of a loved one. It is easy, Frodo, for me – a hobbit who enjoys privacy and comfort far too much for his own good – to justify his aloneness, his allowing communion with others to go only so far. In short, it is easy to be lazy and not work at relationships. Far easier to maintain a distant benevolence while pouring my efforts into writing or losing myself in the writings of others, in places and events of long ago. . .
But as time goes on I am haunted more and more by the expression on your face when I left you at Brandy Hall after your illness. I told myself it was a passing fancy of yours, that you would be far better off among your peers, with the Brandybucks, with your own kind. And now, as I come to recognize my thoughts and feelings on the matter, putting aside at last those silly arguments I’ve written about in the lines above, I see that in fact it is you and I who would be better off with each other.
I know this because I can see that you are troubled, Frodo, deeply troubled, and you are in pain of a nature that I have never known, but can perhaps understand, at least in part. You tried to hide it when we threw our joint birthday party last September; you labored at spending time with me those few weeks when I could tell you only wanted to wander in the woods and climb your favorite tree overlooking the High Hay – oh, yes! I know about it. You may not remember who showed you that tree in the first place, it was so long ago and you were so young. But you remembered it all the same and I have it on good authority that it has been a place of retreat for you since your parents died. But you hid your sadness when I last visited, as best you could, and fooled most everyone except myself, though I suspect little Merry, too. He was of course devastated by the leaving of his Minder, and don’t think I didn’t notice how you comforted him and spent extra time with him. However, I saw something extraordinary in a child so young, in that he sensed something was wrong with you, and wanted to make you feel better. I witnessed his loving pats and hugs and eye-contact between the both of you, full of compassion.
I am not so old, Frodo, or such a bachelor that I do not remember certain fond thoughts I had for young hobbit-lasses when I was in my tweens. Nothing came of them, for the most part, but there was one. . . No matter, that story is old and ragged, and I am content where I am. But Frodo, do not think me blind to your heartache, nor insensitive to what you are feeling. I will elaborate no further on this other than to say: no matter what is breaking your heart right now, it will get better over time. I do not say it will pass, for that is a cold philosophy and without feeling. Better to say it will remain a part of you as you grow older, to keep your heart tender and your hope strong against future heartaches, if you will but let it.
So, as the summer of your 22nd year approaches, I find Bag End has become too big for me, and too quiet. It needs life, Frodo – it needs to be lived in. It needs sprucing up, and cleaning out, and putting to rights. A bit like the life of the old bachelor who lives among it’s cluttered rooms, perhaps? I know I said it in an off-hand way at our birthday party last fall (and yes, I was a little in my cups) so perhaps you did not take it as seriously as it was meant, so let me repeat it, and in writing this time: You had better come and live here, at Bag End, Frodo my lad, and then we can celebrate our birthday-parties comfortably together. No more long morning trips to Brandy Hall for me, no more wondering when or if you will be invited to Bag End for you.
My dear boy, I have so much to make up for. Summer is a lovely time to spend here, and there will be plenty of new things for you to experience and to do. You will never be too far away from your cousins, especially your beloved Merry, to be able to visit them as often as you wish. Do say you will come, come to stay forever and a day, and truly become the nephew I so long for.
Say you will come. Put your affairs in order, of course, but you name the day and I will personally come to fetch you. When our birthdays come around again, I wish with all my heart that we share it at Bag End, and we will toast the memory of your mother and father, and look to the day when we will see them again.
May Ilúvatar guide your heart, your happiness, and your journeys. . .
Uncle Bilbo “