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Buckland Celebration  by Baggins Babe

October 29th, 1428 SR

Rose was still brushing little Rosie's hair when the carriages arrived outside. Frodo-lad scampered out to see the ponies and the smart painted carriages full of assorted Took women and children. The coachmen continued to the top of the lane and turned so they would be facing the right way for the journey to Buckland.

       "Hello, dear," said Eglantine, smiling as she leaned out of the window. The child beamed and allowed himself to be chucked under the chin by the Thain's wife and Uncle Pip's sister Pearl. He was joined by Ellie and finally Rosie-lass and Rose carrying Merry-lad. She locked the door and put the key in the hanging basket by the door.

       "Hello, Rose!" Paladin rode up on his beautiful grey pony and doffed his hat. Gaffer Gamgee might have spun in his grave at the sight of the Thain raising his hat to Farmer Cotton's daughter, but to Paladin Rose and Sam were family. Without their devoted care Frodo would not be alive.

       "Good morning, sir. How are you?"

       "I'm fine. You look blooming, I must say."

       "Rosie!" Pippin charged up, leapt from his large pony and hugged her before pulling away and scanning her anxiously. "How are you? How's the babe? Growing, I see." He nodded at her rounded bump.

       "Kicking like a mule! I was so sorry about Diamond."

       Pippin's face clouded. "It was a shock. We thought everything was going well and then............."

       "It sometimes goes that way with a first - it's as though the body has to have a sort of practice first. My sister -in-law was the same, and she's had three healthy ones now. Di will be fine next time." Rose patted Pippin's shoulder and he smiled gratefully.

       "Don't forget - if that one is a boy he's to be named after me. You can't have Merry without Pippin."

       "Well he's fidgety enough!" Rose laughed and went to speak to Eglantine and the other women. She had once been nervous in their presence but now she acted normally and enjoyed being treated as an equal. She got on well with most people and had known them long enough to think of them as friends.

       Frodo appeared from the garden, carrying Rufus, and allowed the cat to hop down and sit on the grass.

       "Are you bringing Rufus?" Pippin enquired.

       "No, silly. Daddy Twofoot's daughter is going to feed him for a few days, and he can sleep in the shed in his basket."

       Sam made his way down from the stables, riding Bill and leading Frodo's pony, Strider. He greeted everyone cheerfully and smiled as Rose shooed the children into the carriages.

       Pearl, Pip's eldest sister, leaned out to kiss Frodo. "Are you sure you're fit to ride all the way?" she asked.

       "I'm as fit as I've ever been, Pearly-whirly," he said, and she chuckled at his use of her childhood nickname.

       Minto Hornblower, Pearl's husband and heir to the pipeweed business, gave a snort of laughter. He had heard the name before but it never failed to make him laugh.

       Frodo swung up into the saddle and the procession set off; four carriages with assorted women, children and nursemaids, and the men riding together. With Paladin, Sam, Pippin and Frodo rode Minto, Berilac Brandybuck, married to Pimpernel, and Everard Took who was married to the bewitching and exasperating Pervinca.

      In the carriage with Eglantine, Rose sat Merry-lad on her knee. She liked the Tooks - they were funny and cheerful and not in the least snobbish. Pervinca tickled the baby's feet and he squealed and kicked in delight.

       "Frodo looks so well now. He hasn't looked like that since before he went on that terrible journey. We really can't thank you enough for the way you've looked after him," Pearl smiled at Rose. "Where would he be if it weren't for you and Sam? I dread to think."

       "I'm just thankful we managed to pull him back. Can't believe he was still unconscious a year ago - doesn't seem possible he's recovered so well in less than a year. Even the fading process seems to have reversed itself - at least I'm not afraid he might ....disappear or something. I never thought he'd wake again, but Sam refused to accept that. Frodo has always said they survived that trek to Mordor thanks to Sam's determination, and I can see what he means." She bounced Merry and he gurgled and then scrambled over onto Diamond's lap, holding up his arms and chattering nonsense.

       "You're adorable!" Diamond huffed warm air on the fat tummy and tickled the child until he shrieked with laughter.

       "More! More!" He clung round her neck, giggling as she delivered smacking kisses on his stomach.

       "More, you cheeky little piggy? Do you love your Auntie Di?"

       "Yes, yes!" He kissed her enthusiastically and snuggled against her. She smiled fondly and turned to Rose.

       "Do you think I'll ever have one of my own?"

       "Of course you will, pet. There'll come a time when you tell that husband of yours to take a walk round the garden to cool off because you don't want another just yet!"

       "I'm sure you never told Sam to walk round the garden!" Diamond mock-nibbled at Merry-lad's exploring fingers.

      "No, and look at me! Mum says Sam only has to undo his trousers and I'm expecting again!"

       "Well, Sam is a gardener so he should be good at sowing seed," said Pervinca slyly. "Stop rolling your eyes, Mother. It's true!"

       "What is the little one looking at?" Eglantine asked, nodding at Pervinca's daughter. Little Persimmon was cooing and waving at the window, her face full of wonder.

       "What has taken your fancy, little one?" Rose asked, peering round and following the child's line of vision. "Ah! You've seen your Uncle Frodo, have you?"

       "Fo!" shouted Merry-lad, looking up.

       "F.....Fo?" Persimmon said experimentally. "Fo?"

       "Fro, you have an admirer here!" Pervinca called out of the window. Frodo trotted alongside and looked in.

       "Hello, little one. You are a pretty girl, aren't you?" He stroked the fat little cheek and the child smiled and held his hand. "Goodness me, she's grown! What is she now - three?" Pervinca nodded.

       "Fo!" the child said again. He laughed and ruffled her light red-brown curls.

       "That's right! What a clever girl!"

      "I think you'll have to keep in her eyeline or she'll bawl the place down," said Pearl, smiling.

       "Very particular in her likes and dislikes, our Persimmon," murmured Pimpernel. "Woe betide anyone she doesn't like! She lets everyone know about it, very loudly and at great length."

       "Well she is a Took female," Frodo said with a grin, and Pippin bellowed with laughter.

       In the carriage with the older children, young Pinto Hornblower, Pearl's eldest boy, was staring out at his heroes. He knew the stories by heart and was now old enough at eighteen to appreciate just what they had done during the War of the Ring. He knew Merry and Pippin well enough to have got over his awe, but he did not really know Frodo and Sam, and was too shy to speak to them. Frodo had been so distant before his illness and this was the first occasion where they would meet properly since. He was not aware that Sam had seen his wistful expression, or that his father had mentioned his hero-worship, until the carriage stopped.

       "Would you like to ride with me, lad?" Pinto blushed to the roots of his hair.

       "I......I........I'd love to, sir, if I wouldn't be a burden for your pony or a nuisance to you."

       "Of course you won't be a nuisance, and I don't think you have to 'sir' me. I'm just plain old Sam Gamgee, the gardener." He helped the boy up to sit in front of him, then nodded to the coachman to continue.

      "Now that is utter nonsense," said Everard Took. "You're the Mayor, the greatest gardener in Shire history and one of the Ring-bearers. Don't be so modest, Sam. Besides, you saved Frodo's life several times and you look after him wonderfully."

       Sam shrugged. "Don't know about that. I'm no hero - that's for others. I did what I did because I would never leave Frodo. Guess I'm just stubborn."

       "You are very stubborn, Sam, to keep denying your virtues." Frodo trotted up and clasped Sam's shoulder. "Now, young Pinto, what's all this about being too shy to talk to me? I bounced you on my knee when you were a baby often enough - and you puked on my shirt once, I seem to remember! Let's ride together and we can get to know each other a little better. I have to ride alongside that carriage, otherwise little Persimmon screams. Eru knows why, but she has taken a fancy to me and wants me in view."

       Pinto smiled shyly. "I remember you before you went away, sir, but I have not had a chance to see you much since......"

       "That has been entirely my fault, lad. I've lived like a recluse for a long time and I should have seen more of you. I'm happy to say I shall be doing more visiting from now on, and I need to catch up with all your gossip. Now, tell me everything."

       Pinto took a deep breath and began to talk, gradually forgetting his shyness in the face of such interest.

                                                                           ************

       It was a merry group which clattered across the Brandywine Bridge and into Buckland. They turned right onto the path to Brandy Hall, and were soon rattling up the drive. The servants were lined up outside, and Saradoc, Esme, Merry and Estella were waiting to greet them. It was like old times for Frodo, although it was Rose and Sam's first visit, and everyone was soon kissing and hugging everyone else. Pervinca hurried up and kissed Frodo. Persimmon transferred herself to Frodo's arms, smothered him in sloppy kisses and rested her head on his shoulder, where she promptly fell asleep.

       Rosie had expected Brandy Hall to be magnificent in its furnishings but everything was very homely and the furniture old and comfortable. She was unused to servants but Merry waved a hand.

       "You'll have to get used to it when we stay in Gondor. There will be hundreds of them there."

       "Are you sure you're up to such a long journey, dear?" Esme stared at Frodo, who shifted under her scrutiny.

       "I'm fine - and we're not going until the end of May, so I'll be even stronger by then."

       "And you're going too, Rose - and with a small baby? I thought we Tooks were adventurous but you have us beaten." Pimpernel shook her head.

       "Wouldn't miss it. I have to see this handsome King Elessar and his beautiful queen - not to mention Faramir, Eomer, Eowyn and the rest. I want them to be more than just names in the Red Book to me. Besides, we'll take the journey slowly and in easy stages. We're staying at Edoras for a while on our way there. The baby won't be a problem - his food is the least of our worries. Always there, no problems heating it to the right temperature or making sure the feeding bottles are clean. The other children are staying with my parents and brother Tom, so they'll be well looked after, even if they are sulking."

       Frodo sat down on an over-stuffed couch, the snoozing hobbitling still clinging to his shoulder. He patted her well-padded bottom and chuckled. Pippin grinned and fetched him a cup of tea and a sandwich.

       "Bikkit!" a little voice demanded as Persimmon raised her head and surveyed the tea table.

       "That woke you up, Madam! Smelled the food, didn't you?" Pip said, mock-biting the child's neck until she shrieked..

       "What else do you say?" Frodo prompted gently. "Bikkit.......?"

       "Pease? Bikkit, pease." She fluttered her eyelashes and dimpled at him and he sighed.

       "You are just like your Mama. She was an artless little flirt at your age, and just grew more so as she grew older." He handed her the biscuit and she sucked it carefully.

       "'hank oo, Fo."

       "I was not!" said Pervinca indignantly. "Well.........I may have been a little Madam ........" She grinned at Frodo. "Watch your shirt if she has a jam sandwich because it will be all over you."

       "Oh yes, just like her Aunt Pimmie. She was the one for smothering me in jam. I can tell you that jam is extremely difficult to remove from hair - foot hair included!" He laughed and turned to look for Sam.

       Sam was chatting quite easily to Saradoc and Paladin. They were the three senior figures in Shire affairs, and met to discuss matters, usually in an informal way over some ale. Time was when Sam would have been tongue-tied and bashful; now he was happy to exchange opinions with them as a social equal. Frodo was delighted.

       "Here comes another lot of visitors," said Merry, bouncing to the door. "You'll be pleased about this, Fro!"

       Frodo kissed Persimmon's cheek and then said, "I think this young lady is rather sleepy. Perhaps it's nap time?"

       "No!" The child protested loudly as she was whisked out of Frodo's arms and carried off, her wails echoing down Brandy Hall's passageways.

       Frodo chuckled and then stood as the door opened. In came a hobbit of similar age, leaning on a cane and walking with a pronounced limp. His auburn hair was heavily salted with grey and his face bore the lines of recent pain, but he was smiling an unmistakeable Took smile.

       "Reggie! My dear friend!" Frodo embraced his cousin and was hugged back with equal force.

       "Frodo! By all that's wonderful! They never said you'd be here. How are you now?" He held Frodo at arm's length and gazed at him for several minutes, unable to believe it. "Last time I saw you must have been Merry and Pip's weddings, and you looked so ill then I honestly thought...................I thought you'd be dead by year's end."

       He wiped tears from his cheek and hugged Frodo again.

       "I nearly was," he replied shakily. "How are you though?"

       "I'm fine. I so wanted to come and see you when I heard you were ill, but after my accident it just wasn't possible. We've had to content ourselves with letters since."

       "I should have come to see you once I was well............"

       "Nonsense! You had to take things slowly - no point overdoing things, my dear Frodo. Are you really well now?"

       "I'm very well. Come and sit down and tell me all the news." Frodo patted the couch and Reggie leaned back contentedly.

       Just before Frodo became seriously ill the previous autumn, Reginard Took had been badly injured when a wagon ran backwards down a hill and spilled its load of logs. Two of these had smashed into his leg, shattering the bones in his knee and shin. It was thought he might lose the leg, but Ivy Brownlock was a determined healer and had persuaded the doctor to try and save it. They had performed a complicated operation to put the pieces of bone together and then splinted the leg. Reggie had been confined to bed for a long time, and had then had to learn to walk again.

       "Interesting set of scars," Frodo commented, peering at his cousin's left leg. "Between us we have far too many to count!"

       Reggie barked a laugh. "At least yours were gained in exotic and strange places. I got mine in the Southfarthing, which seems very prosaic."

       "Not all of mine were from the journey. Some were self-inflicted, I'm ashamed to say." Frodo looked down at his arms. "Still, gouging my shoulder removed the last fragment of the Witch-King's blade, so I probably shouldn't be ashamed of all of them."

       "You shouldn't be ashamed of any, my dear Fro. I can't even begin to imagine what you went through on that journey, but I know the rest of us would have never returned, or if we had it would have been as gibbering madmen with no hope of a cure. Pippin says you survived things which would have killed a Big Person - or even an Elf." He helped himself to some sandwiches. "Some of us understand just what you did, even if the rest of the Shire-folk can't be bothered."

       Frodo began to laugh. "I think they know now, since the King wrote and told them. Merry and Pippin went round with Aragorn's letter and lectured everyone until they were made to understand."

       "Good for the King! He sounds a sensible fellow, I must say."

       "Yes, he is, although I doubt he thought it would result in the women of the Shire sending food parcels to Bag End and trying to turn me into another Will Whitfoot!"

       "You? You could eat from now to Mid-Year's Day and not gain an inch! You're more Took then anything, physically at least." Reggie gazed at his cousin. "You look so much better though - there's a light in your eyes again and I do believe there is even a bit of colour in your cheeks. It is truly wonderful to have you restored to us."

       "No more wonderful than it is to be here and enjoying all the small joys of life again. Sam and Rose spoil me utterly, and everyone seems pleased. I have much to be thankful for. We both do, it seems."

                                                                            ************

       After a short nap and a wash, Frodo selected a fine ruby velvet suit and silver-grey waistcoat. He was preparing for the night's banquet, but he was also about to pay a visit to an old friend. He left his room and walked down the twisting corridors without even thinking where he was going. His memory did not let him down and he took left and right turns without pausing to wonder where he was. He reached the servants' wing and knocked on a door, which was opened by an elderly hobbit woman in a rust coloured dress with a shawl draped over her shoulders.

       "Hello, Aster," he said softly. She stared at him for a moment, her eyes widening.

       "Master Frodo!" she gasped. "Oh my dear child!" She burst into tears and held him tightly.

       Aster Weaver had been chief cook at Brandy Hall when Frodo's parents died. She had taken him under her wing and encouraged the lonely little boy's visits to the kitchens, finding tasty treats to stimulate his appetite and teaching him to cook. She had been warm and motherly and always smelled comfortingly of cakes and spices and reassurance. Although more or less retired, she continued to rule the kitchens with a rod of iron, supervising the 'flibbertigibbets and addle-witted maids' who bustled to and fro and were utterly terrified of her.

       "Let me look at you - I was beside myself when the Mistress went to Hobbiton to nurse you and the news was never anything but bad. You certainly look well now, my dear. Come in, come in."

       Frodo stepped into the cosy room and sat down by the fire while Aster fussed about. She was no doubt well over ninety but very sprightly. She gave Frodo another searching look.

       "You still don't look any different, Master Frodo. Such a sweet face.......and no grey hairs yet?!"

       "I'm sure there's a lot of those, my dear Aster. It's a wonder I don't look a hundred! If I look well it's because I'm spoiled and treated better than any hobbit ever was. I don't know whether I deserve it............."

       "Of course you do! You were meant for great things, my child. There was a reason you survived that bout of pneumonia when you were little - and that wizard of yours knew it. I remember him muttering something about you being destined for something special." She patted his knee. "Those friends of yours seem to be doing a good job of looking after you. I'd like to meet Master Samwise and his wife one day. The Master and Mistress speak very highly of them."

        "And so you shall. They're here with me and I want you to meet them. I'll bring them to see you tomorrow. They're dear, honest, loving hobbits and I'm sure you'll like them. Rose is an excellent cook."

       "I'm glad to hear it." She cocked her head, listening. "That sounds like the first dinner gong. I hope those wretched maids and cooks have managed to prepare a proper meal. You've no idea how flighty they are these days. Not like that in my day. Old Iris - she was chief cook when I came here - she would have boxed my ears if I'd skittered about like these young ones."

        "I'm sure they'll do their best, Aster dear." He kissed her cheek. I'll come and see you again tomorrow, and I'll bring Sam and Rose with me." He stepped into the passage, grinning to himself and was still smiling when he arrived in the Great Hall.

                                                                           *************

       The great dining chamber at Brandy Hall had not seen such a splendid gathering since the days of 'Goldfather' Rorimac Brandybuck. Tooks, Brandybucks, Boffins, Bolgers, Bankses, Goulds, Chubbs, Gamgees and Bagginses all sat down to a feast which made Pippin's eyes almost pop out. Rose would have been terrified at one time, faced with so much crystal and silver and fine porcelain, but she knew she was among friends so she just copied others if she was unsure of which knife or fork to use. Not that hobbits worried unduly about such things. Pippin told her that in Gondor there were strict rules during Denethor's stewardship which Aragorn had thrown out as soon as was decent. Wondering which fork to use was not something he had ever had to ponder as a Ranger, even in Rivendell, and he had firmly stated that he was not about to start..

       Frodo was seated, at Merry's insistence, on Saradoc's right, between the Master and the Thain. He was being treated as a son of the house and although he was slightly embarrassed, this also gave him a great deal of warm satisfaction and delight. He ate with enthusiasm and took part in various conversations as the room filled with laughter.

       When the rate of food consumption had slowed somewhat, Merry rose and banged on the table for silence.

       "My father would like to say a few words."

       Saradoc rose and surveyed the company. He was wearing a suit of blue velvet and a brocade waistcoat which Bilbo Baggins might have envied. A gold watch chain stretched across his ample stomach and a small badge of the White Tree in diamonds glittered on his lapel.

       "Well, this is certainly the largest gathering in this hall for many a year! We meet at this time to remember the vistory over the Men and the forces of evil, a victory achieved in no small part by that rascally son of mine and his cousin, together with Samwise Gamgee and a large force of determined hobbits. But there was another who was present during those days, without whom there would not have been a Shire to save. Our dear Frodo, my cousin and foster-son, who had already endured so much, was forced to go through that too." He rested a hand on Frodo's shoulder. "Ill-health has deprived him of the chance or the wish to celebrate that victory and  indeed last year he was almost taken from us. When we met here a year ago we were a small and solemn group, awaiting news from Hobbiton and fearing it would be the worst news of all. None of us felt like going through with the ritual but we did it. A few days later a letter arrived from my dear Esme to say that Frodo would recover, and he has been recovering ever since. Frodo, my lad, welcome back to Brandy Hall and to your family. You are thought much of, and may you enjoy continued good health and happiness!" He raised his glass and the whole room stood and drank, with cries of "Frodo! Good old Frodo!" echoing to the rafters.

       Frodo sat still, waiting for the heat in his cheeks to die down. He was deeply moved by Saradoc's speech and the emotion in his voice. He had always known that they loved him but to see such love expressed was almost overwhelming. When he thought his feelings were under control, he stood and looked around him.

       "I........hardly know what to say after that, except thank you, and that seems woefully inadequate. I am overjoyed to be here and to be enjoying life once again, and to experience so much love from everyone is more wonderful than I ever dreamed. I would say it is more than I deserve, but there is a glint in Sam's eye and he will not allow me to say such things these days, so I can only thank you all from the bottom of my heart." He looked at Sam and saw him smiling  encouragingly, his steady gaze full of love. "You are all my family, and Sam and Rose have made me part of their family too. May you all enjoy peace and long life!" He swallowed the lump in his throat and raised his glass, and the company applauded loudly.

       Paladin and Saradoc both patted him on the shoulders as he sat down, and his glass was re-filled. Various cousins hurried over to hug and kiss him.

       "I haven't been kissed by this many pretty girls since I was a tween," he said, as four of Eglantine's Banks relations hung round his neck, giggling shyly. "Now I know what I've been missing I shall have to attend family gatherings more often!" He smiled at another girl who was standing close by, one who looked so much like Pearl Took that she could only be her daughter. When she was born, Pearl had asked his permission to call her daughter after his mother, of whom she had been very fond, and young Primula was now almost twenty, with the light auburn-brown hair and greenish eyes of the Tooks.

       "Thank you for everything, Uncle Frodo," she whispered, her breath warm on his cheek. "We are so very happy to have you here with us."

       "Thank you, Primmie. You're such a lovely young lady now. I've missed seeing you grow up."

       "I hope you can make up for it from now on. We'd like to see you in the Southfarthing. Father says you're always welcome, and I know Mum would love to see you more often. You're so lucky, going to Gondor. I wish I could see the King and Queen."

       "The King will travel north soon and stay in Arnor. He intends to stop for a while at the Bridge, although he will obey his own edict and not enter the Shire - I'm hoping we can change his mind on that and smuggle him in for a look at the place at least. He is as anxious to meet you all and I've told him all about you. I suspect he sees us sometimes, in the Palantir, so he knows how lovely you are."

       "He sounds so sensible and kind - almost hobbity." She was blushing.

       "Oh! He will be very flattered when I tell him that! He is kind and generous, noble and fair, and very handsome too. All the ladies fall in love with him because he treats women with respect. Some Big People treat them as second-class citizens I'm afraid, but Aragorn never does."

       Hobbit women were accorded much respect. Many widows ran farms and pipeweed plantations and were extremely efficient at it. It was a rare hobbit who would treat his wife with disdain, and offering violence was not to be thought of, except (so it was rumoured) by Ted Sandyman.

       "Well I'm glad to hear it. The Queen is an Elf, isn't she? Uncle Pip says she's very beautiful. I think it's so romantic that she has given up her immortality for the King. She must love him very much."

      "Theirs is a love which will endure anything and last beyond death itself. She was his inspiration during his years in the wilderness and he adores her. It is very touching to see them together."

      "Sam and Rose are lovely too - they look so happy together, they're always looking at each other and at you too."

       Frodo was surprised. "Are they? I didn't realise that, although I know Sam keeps an eye on me, especially when he thinks I'm not likely to notice."

       "They're good people, and they love you. We all do, Uncle Frodo." She kissed him on the cheek and then skipped off to dance with one of the young cousins, her curls bouncing in their ribbons.

       By the end of the evening Frodo had been kissed and hugged by every woman in the room at least once, and had drunk more wine than he had for many years. By the time the evening wound down and the various hobbits made their unsteady was to their rooms, Frodo was sure he was very far from sober. He undressed and snuggled into bed, and was asleep almost before his head hit the pillow. He did not remember his dreams in the morning but he knew they were pleasant ones.

                                                         ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

30th October, 1428 SR

After a very impressive breakfast Frodo made his way to the side door and stepped into a fine autumn morning. The sun was shining, the sky was clear, and the trees were still carrying a little gold and red among their stark branches.

       The gardener's lad was waiting for him, almost hidden behind a huge bunch of flowers. Frodo smiled and relieved him of his burden.

       "Thank you, lad. They're beautiful. You're old Nat Brockhouse's grandson, aren't you?"

       "Aye, sir. He used to be head gardener here, and now my da's in charge. He's over there, talking to Master Gamgee." The boy nodded in the direction of the conservatory, and Frodo smiled at the sight of the two master gardeners deep in conversation, heads close together as they peered at an interesting specimen in a pot.

       "I should have guessed that Sam would find his way out here sooner or later. I remember your grandfather - and your father when he was the lad." He looked at the flowers in his arms. "My word! I never realised there were so many colours."

       "I chose some of each, Master Frodo.I hope they're what you wanted?"

       "They are indeed. Thank you." He ruffled the boy's curls and watched him trot back to his duties.

       Sam watched his master and was glad that there was a spring in his step. He knew where Frodo was going and he knew that, today at least, Frodo wished to go alone, but he was always concerned lest the highly-strung and sensitive hobbit be upset. He had been relieved beyond measure when October 6th had come and gone without Frodo suffering any pain or melancholy. Perhaps this visit to Buckland was yet another milestone on the path of his recovery.

                                                                             ************

       Frodo strode along the path which wove between the tall gnarled trees, the dry leaves crunching lightly beneath his feet. In summer the path could be quite dark, even on a sunny day, and in dull weather it was sometimes extremely gloomy, but today the sun streamed through the denuded branches and gilded the fallen leaves. Squirrels chattered and scampered about, gathering fallen nuts and squabbling noisily, their red coats gleaming but providing excellent camouflage in the leaves. Frodo smiled at their antics; no-one could possibly feel melancholy on such a day, with the delights of nature all around him. The flowers in his arms were exquisite. He had not realised that these chrysanthemums - imported from Northern Ithilien some years before - were so colourful. He examined them as he walked, amazed at their jewel-like brilliance and remarkable colours -bright red, rich sunny yellow, deep bronze, crimson, a dark purple, gold, a glowing pink, orange and white. The petals were velvety and each flower head was the size of a Big Person's teacup.

       The path wound on and came at last to a small gate, familiar and yet bringing with it a remembered sensation of dread. He stood with his hand on the gate for some minutes, thinking. He had not taken this path for many years, not since before the Quest, because he had never felt well enough to deal with the emotions this pilgrimage brought him. He hoped fervently that he could deal with them now, particularly with his experiences while unconscious still vivid in his mind. Finally he drew a deep breath, opened the gate, latching it again behind him before continuing his walk. At last the shaded path opened out into a large grassy area, enclosed on three sides by a low wall and trellis which in summer would be covered in roses and honeysuckle. A large proportion of the grass was taken up with flower-covered mounds and neat wooden markers. This tranquil area was the burial ground of the Brandybucks.

       Frodo walked forward and paused before the front row of markers. To his left was the one for Gorbadoc Brandybuck and his wife, Mirabella Took, his grand-parents. To his right he could see Uncle Rory's and Aunt Gilda's, but his attention was held by the central one with its stark inscription:

     Drogo and Primula Baggins (formerly Brandybuck) Drowned in the Brandywine River, August 1380

        Such a bald statement of fact. Drowned. He remembered gazing in horror at the bodies of his parents on the riverbank, screaming wildly until Saradoc strode up the bank and held him. He remembered the day of the funeral, when he had stared dry-eyed at the coffins being lowered into the earth, too numb to feel anything. Almost everyone said that his parents were gone forever. Only Bilbo thought differently.

       Yet Frodo's experience during his illness, his glimpse of the world prepared for hobbits, and the souls of his parents still loving and concerned, told him that Bilbo had been right. He heard again his mother's voice telling him she loved him as they sent him back to enjoy life again.

       He patted the marker gently and traced the lettering with his finger. Then he filled some of the brass containers with water from the jugs which were always kept there, and arranged his flowers. The grave itself was covered in winter pansies and primulas, which made him smile fondly through a sudden blur of tears. No doubt Esme had given instructions to the gardeners about that. She had loved his mother very much and had regarded Frodo as her own, giving him all the love Primula would have given, and finally providing the much longed-for baby brother when Merry was born two years later. He could never understand why people thought he had been unhappy at Brandy Hall. He went to Hobbiton to live with Bilbo because Bilbo needed him and wanted to adopt him, but he had remained a favourite son of Buckland and returned frequently for visits, spending time with Merry and teaching the lad as much mischief as a Baggins could. After all, had Frodo not been known as the Rascal of Buckland in his teens and tweens for his outrageous behaviour and the pilfering of mushrooms? With the benefit of hindsight, Frodo wondered if his pranks had somehow been a test, to see if Saradoc, Esme, Bilbo and the others would still love him no matter what he did. The insecurity of the orphan, he supposed.

       "Thank you for sending me back. I love you both, and I'll come to you one day."

       With a last look at the marker, he bowed and walked back along the path, the squirrels eyeing him curiously and chittering from the safety of the trees. By the time he reached the house he was whistling to himself.

       "Well now, that's good to hear." Sam looked him over with an anxious expression on his tanned face.

       "Don't know about that. My whistling has never been particularly tuneful." Frodo gave Sam one of his most beautiful smiles . "It's alright, Sam. I'm fine. In fact I felt very different this time..........I suppose because I know that I shall see them again one day, and they're proud of me..........."

       "We're all proud of you, m'dear. We love you very much and I'm sure we're all grateful to your Mum and Dad for making you realise that."

                                                                              ************

       After elevenses Frodo took Rose and Sam to meet Aster, and they sat in her room for an hour, eating cake and drinking tea, swapping stories and laughing. When Aster began to dredge up embarrassing tales from his childhood Frodo and Sam withdrew, leaving the two women in a conspiratorial huddle. They called in at Saradoc's study on the way back,and found the Master and Thain about to have a pre-prandial drink. This was clearly not to be missed and they settled in the wood-pannelled room and drank Southfarthing Red until the luncheon gong sounded.

       With luncheon over, Frodo and many of the menfolk retreated to the parlour, leaving the ladies to occupy Esme's sitting-room and swap gossip. The very young children were taken for a nap and the older ones settled in the parlour to make the masks for their costumes and help make turnip and pumpkin lanterns. It was Hallows Eve, the night of the Fright Festival when the dead were honoured and everyone told terrifying stories, and the children went through the darkened corridors of the Hall hunting sweetmeats which had been carefully hidden. They were all looking forward to it.

       Pippin, Merry, Sam and Berilac sat on the floor making papier mache masks for various small hobbits, while Reggie and Everard Took, Minto Hornblower and Frodo sat round the large table to make the lanterns, assisted by Pinto and some of the other older ones. The vegetable flesh had already been removed by the cooks for use in pies and stews, and the shells were ready for carving into terrifying faces.

       "You be careful with that sharp knife," Sam said automatically, glancing up at Frodo.

       Pip and Merry exchanged grins - Sam sounded much as he did when reproving his children, and at one time their cousin would have been irritated by such obvious concern. However, they had noticed that Frodo was much more tolerant about Sam's fussing since his illness.

       "What are you two grinning at?" Sam asked.

       "Just amused about the way you talk to Fro. You sound just like that when you're talking to the little ones."

       "He's just concerned. I'm being careful, Sam dear." Frodo twisted round in his chair and smiled. "What do you think - is this scary enough?" He held up a turnip lantern.

       "Now that is ugly - looks like one of those orcs in Moria if you ask me."

       "Yuk!" cried Pip. "It's scared me!"

       "Do orcs really look like that, Uncle Frodo?" asked Pinto shyly.

       "Some are even uglier than that. Hard to believe that they were once Elves, tortured and transformed into something so hideous."

       "Reckon we saw every ugly orc in Middle-earth on our journey, between us all."

        "Those Men who came to the Shire were bad enough - squint eyed and flat nosed. I remember seeing them." Pinto shuddered. "We took refuge at the Smials and they came demanding supplies. Grandpa fired at them and they ran."

       "Good for Paladin!" said Frodo. "They didn't stay here near the Hall either. Saradoc did something similar. I think some of those ruffians were half-Orcs, which does not bear thinking about!"

       Sam was making a tall pointed hat for Elanor, who would be dressed as a witch for the evening. He was a very practical hobbit who was a skilled wood-carver and carpenter, rope-maker, wall builder, cook and gardener. He srutinized his daughter as she stood before him, then altered the inside of the hat somehow so it sat better and did not slip.

       "Sam is so much more practical than I am," sighed Frodo. "Everything he does is so useful, and what am I good at? Nothing of any use to anyone else, that's for sure!"

       "Rubbish!" said Reggie. "You have many talents and skills, Frodo."

       Pip nodded. "Cooking, writing, carrying Rings of Power, speaking Elvish, being impossibly handsome ...........Ow!" A lump of pumpkin bounced off his nose and Frodo-lad laughed so hard he fell flat on his back with his feet in the air.

       Sam was crimson. "I've always been one for trying new tasks, and I followed my Da round when I was a nipper, picking up all sorts of things. You're a gentlehobbit and we don't expect you to know how to make chairs or build dry stone walls."

Frodo sighed. "I know, but look at you! You can make a well-fitting hat, cook meals, fathom all sorts of machinery." He turned to the others. "When we were restoring Hobbiton Mill he told me all about the workings. Of course I knew that there were millstones and the water made the millwheel go round and that in turn rotated the stones, but Sam knew all about the bits which connected everything and why it worked as it did. He even knows if a plant is happy in the ground and if not he knows where it wants to be. I think you're a wizard too, in your way."

       "I just like to know about things. Nosey, that's me."

       "Modest as always. You'll have to teach me all these things, Sam."

       The door into the passage was not quite closed, and there was a soft giggling sound from outside. Frodo put his finger to his lips and they waited. Slowly the door opened a little more, and round it came three small ghosts, white and shapeless, making 'Woo-woo' noises. Pippin leapt up with a shriek of pretended terror and dived behind the sofa.

       "What is this? I'm scared!" Merry quavered, hiding behind Sam.

       The effect of this was to produce more giggles, until even 'Woo-woo' was beyond the little spooklets.

       "We scared you!" one said gleefully. "We scared you, we scared you!"

       "It's us!" another managed to snort.

       "Us? Who's 'us'?" demanded Pip suspiciously, poking his nose out an inch.

       "Us, silly Uncle Pip!"

       The tiny ghosts were revealed to be Rosie-lass, Persimmon and five-year-old Peridot, Pimpernel's daughter. They laughed a great deal and Persimmon clambered onto Frodo's knee.

       "Who did your costumes?" he asked.

       "Auntie Esme, Mum and Auntie Rose." Peridot, the leader of the trio, plumped herself down beside her father and smiled with typical Tookish charm.

       "You shouldn't scare elderly hobbits like your Uncle Frodo - he's past it, you know," said Pippin, and was jumped on by assorted childen.

       "Hah!" said Elanor dismissively. "Uncle Frodo wasn't the one hiding, was he?"

      "You were the scaredy one!"

       "Elderly?" Frodo repeated. "Do you mind?"

       Persimmon had found the gap in Frodo's right hand and was examining it closely. She seemed puzzled and he nodded.

       "That's right - I have a finger missing." She frowned. "It was bitten off." He stroked her hair as her lip trembled. "Don't cry, my little flower. It doesn't hurt."

       The child kissed the stump very gently. "Tiss better?" She gazed up into his face, looking for reassurance.

       "I'm afraid not, petal. All the kisses in Middle-earth won't make my finger grow back. But never mind. That gap is there as a reminder." He bounced her lightly and tickled her until she began giggling and forgot the finger.

       When Esme entered the parlour some time later she found it almost empty. It was dark and, no lamps being lit, the only illumination was the dancing flames in the fireplace. Frodo was on the couch, his feet resting on a padded footstool, with three little spooks asleep on his lap and beside him.

       "Are you asleep, dear?" Esme whispered.

       "Not really, just dozing with these sleepy little ones." He stretched carefully as the children woke.

       "Tea-time!" cried Peridot, and they hurtled off his lap and bounded out into the passage.

       "Hungry? Or did you need a rest?" Esme enquired as they followed the children.

       "I'm hungry. My appetite has improved, even in the last three months. Oh! I meant to thank you, Esme dear."

       "Thank me? What for?"

       "The flowers on the grave - the primulas. They are beautiful, and I know you must have asked for them."

       Esme smiled. "I always have them planted for the winter. Your mother loved her name-flower, and it seems right somehow. How did you feel today, going back there?"

       "Different. I want to tell you what happened to me when I was ill. Is your sitting-room empty?"

       "Yes. Everyone else is at tea. I'll ask for a tray to be brought in. I have never wanted to press you, my dear Frodo, but I am glad you wish to tell me." She took Frodo's hand in hers and led him into the cosy parlour.

                                                                               ************

       As Frodo stepped out of his bedroom he heard laughter and squealing. At the end of the corridor he saw the children, all in costume, making their way to the Great Hall. All the lamps had been snuffed and the only light came from turnip lanterns high on small shelves, the grotesque faces casting weird shadows on the curved walls, which caused much shrieking and delicious terror in everyone, from the oldest to the youngest. The little ones were at the front of the procession, shepherded by the older children. Primmie and her cousin Sapphire carried baskets for the hidden sweetmeats. Ellie, dressed as a witch with a pointed hat, black cloak and broom, had taken charges of her siblings - Frodo-lad who was disguised as a bear, Rosie-lass in her spooklet outfit. Primmie and Sapphire were dressed as Elves, and the group boasted many orcs, dragons, pixies, goblins, ghosts, cats and monsters. Grinning to himself, Frodo fell into step beside Pinto, who had a magnificent costume in black, with slashes to show orange and red beneath, and little tongues of flame sewn here and there. He was wearing a very realistic Balrog head, copied from a drawing by Merry.

       "That's an impressive costume, lad."

       "I hope this doesn't bring back bad memories for you, s.....Uncle Frodo."

       "Not at all. It simply reminds me of this night in my own childhood."

       "I suppose I'm too old to do this really but Mum went to a lot of trouble with the costume."

       "Oh, I was always saying I was too old, but when it came to it I still wanted to take part." He laughed. "My mother, and later Esme, made my costumes, and I always remember the year Esme dressed me up as Gandalf, complete with pointy hat and long grey beard. I even had a staff, and I'm sure I half believed it would work magic. I was absolutely mortified when Gandalf turned up! He took one look at me, roared with laughter, and spent the rest of the evening calling me his 'fellow wizard.' I never found him frightening in the least."

       "I wish I could have known him."

       "Yes, I wish you could too. He would have loved this gathering - he did so love spending time in the Shire, particularly when we had anything to celebrate. I never suspected he was a Maia, sent by the Valar to aid us all. He just seemed so ordinary, apart from his talent with fireworks, and he never did any magic when he paid us a visit."

       "The other wizard sounds very different."

       "Saruman was once even greater than Gandalf, and was senior to him when they came to Middle-earth, but as sometimes happens, the greater the power the easier they fall to corruption. Gandalf was grounded in the very soil. He loved nature and growing things, but Saruman..........Treebeard told Merry and Pip that he had a mind of metal and wheels, and it was true. He began to think only of power, and then he believed he could challenge Sauron - be his equal, or even master him. It is sad to see such a great one fall."

       "Why would anyone want all that power when they can have peace and food and pipeweed?" Pinto wondered, half to himself. Frodo thought this very amusing.

       "That is how we hobbits think, lad, and the world would be a much more peaceful place if all others thought that way. Unfortunately they do not, and Men often have a great desire for power over others."

       The children were darting from side to side, peering in cupboards, looking in jars and under rugs for their hidden sweetmeats, whooping triumphantly whenever they found treasure. In the main corridor which led to the doors of the Great Hall the path was lined on both sides with pumpkin lanterns, each pair larger in size than the last. Outside the doors were two enormous specimens with the most horrible grins, which caused the little ones to cling tightly to the older children, hiding their faces.

       The doors swung back and everyone gasped. The Great Hall was dark save for a few flickering lanterns, but as they entered the lamps were lit, revealing the Hall in all its spendour. The tables were full of pies, breads, baked potatoes, spiced mushrooms, soup in vast tureens, and huge bowls of punch and mulled wine and cider. In the centre was a big barrel full of water for the apple-bobbing, and there were flaming bowls full of raisins for games of snapdragon.

       The children rushed in, squealing with delight, and Frodo followed. His cousins greeted him with much teasing.

       "Joined the little ones for the night, Fro?"

       "You could have made more effort with the mask! You don't look all that scary!"

       "Thank you for that, Pip!"

       "Pippin!" said Eglantine, scandalised. "How can you say such things! Poor Frodo......"

       "Oh Tina, I'm used to Pip's insults by now. He's just jealous because I was kissed by so many lovely girls last night."

       Ellie wagged a finger at her Uncle Pip. "Stop saying bad things to Uncle Frodo, or I'll turn you into a toad. I'm a witch, you know!"

       "Ribbit!" said Pip, crouching on his haunches and jumping around. His performance was received with much laughter by children and adults alike, and his mother found herself laughing too.

       "You are the most incorrigible hobbit, Peregrin. I don't know where you get it from."

       Pip glanced over to where Paladin was teasing Frodo-lad, calling him Beorn the Bear. "Don't you? Father was almost as bad as me when he was young - Esme said so."

       Saradoc was sitting by the fire, heating a poker in the flames. Those who wanted their cider or punch hot would take a mug, go to the fire and have the poker thrust into the mug, where it sizzled and steamed. This was the traditional duty of the Master on big occasions, and Saradoc liked to retain the old traditions.

       Frodo helped himself to some punch and went to join his cousin. He perched on the fender and sipped carefully at the steaming alcohol. He looked around at the milling hobbits, still amazed to find himself here and taking pleasure in parties again. He could see Sam, who was helping to serve the smaller children, and their eyes met. He found himself grinning, and Sam returned the smile, his hazel eyes twinkling.

       "I have to say I find Sam Gamgee one of the most sensible hobbits I've ever met," said Saradoc, following the direction of Frodo's gaze. "He seems to come up with the most inventive and well-thought-out solutions to Shire disputes. But, Frodo, do you know the most rearkable thing about him? He never allows himself to be influenced by anything, not even deep feelings or ties of blood. Most people do that now and again, but Sam always considers the matter from every side, and if there were a dispute in which he was involved, I swear he would still decide fairly, even if he were the loser. In fact, the only time he might make a biased decision is if you were involved."

       "I'm so glad you think so much of Sam. I've always known about his qualities but I'm thrilled that others appreciate him."

       "I agree," said Paladin quietly, joining then. "He really is the ideal Mayor. He does not live up to his name either, does he?"

       "Aragorn always calls him 'Perhael, who should be called Panthael' and he is right. Sam has so much common sense. I don't know how I'd manage without him."

       Paladin smiled. "He will certainly ensure you never have to. And Rose is wonderful - what a capable woman!"

       The food looked so delicious that Frodo could resist no longer. He went to the table and helped himself to a wedge of pie, a baked potato and some mushrooms, then sat down to eat. Little Persimmon scrambled up and sat beside him on one side, and the Gamgee children joined her. Frodo looked at her plate and laughed.

       "Just like your Aunt Pearl when she was little! What a healthy appetite, my little flower. Shall I cut it up for you?"

       "Pease," she said, and reached up for a hug. He cut her food into convenient pieces and watched as she tucked in. He suspected she would take after her Uncle Pippin.

       Later, when the little ones had gone to bed, the adults, joined by Pinto and young Primmie, sat in the dark and told ghost stories, some invented and some true. Frodo told them about the barrow-wights, Merry related a tale from Rohan about a phantom horse and rider seen thundering across the Riddermark, Pippin talked about the Paths of the Dead and all he had heard from Legolas and Gimli, and Paladin frightened everyone with the tale of the phantom piper at Great Smials, who was only heard when one of the Tooks was about to die. Then Sam told a story of how he had gone into a lonely, tumbledown cottage near Tighfield, on a dare from his cousins, and been frightened out of his wits by the strange rustlings and knockings. Primmie and Pinto huddled closer with each of the tales, so Rose produced a rather sweet story to end the evening, telling how she had seen the ghost of one of the farm cats every night for a week after it died.

       "I hope you two aren't going to have nightmares." Pearl addressed her children.

       "I don't know about them - we will, that's for sure," said Pippin. "I'd forgotten about the piper." He shivered.

       "That was why we knew you weren't dead," said Paladin to his son. "We did not know where you were, apart from the garbled note you sent from Buckland, but we never heard the piper so we knew you were still alive somewhere, and plaguing the life out of someone."

       "Strider and Gandalf, most of the time," Pip laughed.

       Frodo yawned. It would soon be morning. They made their way quietly through the darkened passageways and sought their beds, too tired to wake if an army of ghosts had marched through the smial.

                                                       ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~      

November 1st 1428 SR

       "Oi! You thieving Took!"

       "Calm down! Don't be so prickly!

       "Prickly?! I'll give you 'prickly' when I get hold of you!"

       "Merry? Put that fork down! Why are you looking at me like that?"

       Frodo looked up from his breakfast to find his cousins squabbling furiously. The breakfast room at Brandy Hall was usually a peaceful place, full of hobbits giving their full attention to their food, and he was startled to hear the sort of imprecations the two were hurling at each other. Merry was pursuing Pippin round the table, his face red with temper. The expression on Pip's face combined glee with a certain amount of alarm. Frodo sighed, put down his fork and stood up.

       "That's quite enough!" he thundered. "What in the Shire is going on? You're behaving like two spoilt toddlers scarce out of breech clouts!" The pair halted, eyeing Frodo warily.

       "He stole the last sausage off my plate!" Merry grumbled.

       "Don't know what all the fuss is about," Pip muttered. "There's a dish of them on the sideboard."

       "Exactly! Why steal mine?"

       "It was nearer. All this fuss and palaver about a sausage!"

       Frodo glared at the two of them. He had not used that look for many years. "Really, Mer, you know how over-excited Pip becomes when he's hungry - he's like a flea on a griddle. And Pip, you know Merry's a grouch first thing in the morning - a real bear with a sore head. Don't look at me like a couple of sulky tweens, because you know it's true. You should be ashamed of yourselves. What an example to set the little ones."

       The wives of the two errant hobbits exchanged smug looks and nodded in agreement. Esmeralda smiled to herself. It was very satisfying to see her son and nephew, both so tall and exalted, humbled by their smaller, delicate-looking cousin, and the miscreants both had the grace to look suitably shamed. Merry drew circles on the rug with his toe. Pippin twisted his fingers in the edges of his waistcoat before being first to break the silence.

       "Sorry, Mer. I was being an idiot."

       "I'm sorry too. I over-reacted. What's a hobbit to do when food is whisked off his plate, right under his nose?" They looked at each other. Pip's lip twitched. Merry's eyebrows rose. Within seconds they were laughing maniacally.

       "Oh dear, we are a couple of fools! That glare of yours would stop an oliphaunt in its tracks, Fro!"

       "When did you learn to shout like that? You could take a job drilling the guard in Minas Tirith."

       Frodo smiled. "Sorting out disputes with all the little Gamgees is very good training for dealing with you two."

       The two went over to the sideboard and both helped themselves to several more sausages. Frodo joined them for more scrambled egg and bacon, then sat down and grinned at Esme.

       "I'm impressed," she said. "You used to do that when they were young, but you seemed too weary to bother after your travels. I feel as though my dear boy has been restored to me."

       "Thank you, Esme dear - although your 'dear boy' will have doubled in size if he eats any more egg and bacon!" She gave him a look which said she doubted that very much. "I spent so long not really eating any food because everything upset my stomach and tasted like wallpaper paste anyway, and now it all tastes delicious again."

       "It makes us happy to see you enjoying food again. It always seemed doubly cruel for a hobbit not to be able to eat properly. What are your plans for the day?"

       "I'm taking Sam and Rose to see the grave - they wanted to see it and bring flowers - and then I'm giving them a tour of the Hall and grounds." He looked around. "Where are they?"

       "Rose is in the nursery with the children and Sam went out to look at a shrub with an interesting fungus on its leaves and discuss the mating habits of mealy bugs with the gardeners." Frodo snorted with laughter at this. "You weren't up when they had breakfast but we didn't want to disturb you."

       "Well, it was a late night last night. I'd better go and find them. You two............," he leaned across the table and stared at the now cheerfully chatty hobbits, " ............had better behave - or I shall write to Eomer and Aragorn and see to it that you are both given extra duties clearing out the privvies in both kingdoms for the duration of our visit!" That said, he smiled very sweetly, grabbed the last sausage on Pip's plate and sauntered out of the room.

                                                                              ************

       The children were disappointed to be left behind but Frodo promised to take them to see his parents' grave the next day, and they were content with that. Some of the older Brandybuck children had taken them off to play while Rose and Sam accompanied Frodo along the path to the burial ground. Rose carried a little posy of autumn flowers to place on the grave as her own tribute.

       Frodo was very moved to see his two dearest friends kneeling beside the grave of his parents, speaking softly to each other. He could not hear everything they were saying, but he heard Rose thanking Primula and Drogo for sending their son back to his loving friends. She was tender and respectful, casting soft glances towards him as she talked, conducting a gentle conversation with two people she had never met but felt she knew.

       When she had finished, Rose stood, smiling, and walked towards him. As she did so the baby kicked quite firmly, almost turning a somersault. She halted and rested a hand on her bump for a moment.

       "Are you alright, Rose? I felt that from here!"

       "Yes, I'm fine. This one is a fidget-bottom and no mistake!" She looked at him shyly. "Would you like to feel the baby?"

       "Would you like to feel the baby?" His mother had asked him that on a sunny riverbank that summer, down at the end of the meadow. She had been wearing her blue dress and her eyes were sparkling as she took his hands and rested them on her almost flat stomach. Primula, with Drogo beside her almost exploding with pride and delight. His parents. A few weeks later they were lying on that same riverbank drenched in mud, cold and pale, unseeing.

       He could not understand why he started sobbing. Remembered grief and pain swamped him like a great wave as odd scenes tumbled from the locked closet of memory: Uncle Rory breaking down at the funeral, sobbing 'My baby sister!' as Primula's coffin vanished from sight; the perfume of roses and lilies not quite masking the smell of death in their bedroom when he kissed them farewell; his formidable Aunt Dora weeping as she said farewell to her brother; standing in his mother's cupboard and inhaling the comforting smell of her on her clothes. He covered his face and almost wailed. Rose was horrified and fearful that she had upset him but she ran to him and held him, drew his head down to her shoulder. She guided him to the bench and rocked him as she might have done with one of the children. On his other side Sam sat beside him, rubbed his shoulders and held his hand.

       "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to upset you. You know I would never say anything to hurt you, dearest Frodo."

       He shook his head and tried to explain, but no words came. All he could do was cling to her comfortable feminine presence and weep with an intensity which frightened him, his whole body shaking. Rose stroked his hair, murmuring soft endearments, and Sam did the same.

       "There, m'dear. Mr Gandalf did say that not all tears are an evil, and I daresay he was right. He usually was." This only made Frodo cry all the harder.

       Almost half an hour passed before he was able to lift his head. Sam fished in Frodo's jacket pocket and found his handkerchief, and Rose took it and wiped his face.

       "I am so sorry......." she began, but he hushed her.

       "It wasn't your fault. Somehow those words just triggered a memory from that last summer when my parents .......died. It was like a dam breaking. I remember they took me to the riverbank for a picnic and broke the news that Mama was expecting a baby. I was so excited, and so disappointed when they told me it would not be born until just after Yule. Then my mother took my hands and rested them on her tummy and I felt an odd sort of fluttering."

       Rose felt tears on her own cheeks. She had not known that the accident on the river claimed three lives. Her heart went out to the devastated little boy he must have been.

       "I don't really know why I fell apart like that though............"

       "You cried for a lot of things, I expect, not just for your parents. You cried for the little boy you were, for all that has happened to you since, the life you lost, the people who have gone beyond our sight one way or another, and all the pain and torment you've had to endure."

       "You're so wise, Rose. No wonder you're such a wonderful wife and mother. I'm sorry, I've made your dress wet."

       "Pffft! It's only water - it'll dry. As my Mum says, a good cry never did anyone any harm. Tears can be healing. Has it made you feel better?"

       He nodded, and then gave her a watery smile. "I've just remembered asking how the baby got in there, and my father went the colour of Bilbo's best waistcoat!"

       "I'll bet he did! Trust you to ask the awkward question!" Sam looked at his master, wiped a smudge from his cheek and straightened his jacket. "You'll do."

       Frodo held Rose's hands. "Is the baby still kicking or has he stopped. Probably thinks his uncle is a fool."

       "Yes, he's still kicking. He's always kicking, this one! And he doesn't think his uncle is a fool. He'll learn that his uncle is the bravest hobbit in Middle-earth. Would you like to feel him?"

       Frodo nodded and she placed his left hand on the top of her bump and his right just under the lower curve, slightly to her left. For a minute there was nothing, then a thump beneath his left hand.

       "Goodness! Are you sure that doesn't hurt?"

       "No, not really. That's his fist. Down there is a foot, but if he rolls over that will all change. Never stays still for very long."

       "Ow!! That is incredible. He kicks so strongly. He'll be good at ball games - or dancing!"

       "With all these strong lads I reckon Hobbiton and Bywater will win the tug-o-war title for a long time." Sam chuckled, reached round Frodo and rested a hand on the bump, which rippled obligingly.

       "I remember us winning for years when you and your brothers were in the team. None of the other villages could match us," said Frodo with pride.

       Rose started to giggle hysterically. "Do you remember when Lotho Pimple - beg your pardon, Lotho Sackville-Baggins - was in the Hardbottle team and slipped in the Party Field? He let go of the rope and everyone slipped back and fell on top of him. Never laughed so much in my life. Mr Bilbo cheered."

       "I also remember Lotho throwing beer in Ham's face afterwards and every lad in the village set on him. He was lucky Bilbo and the Gaffer waded in before things got out of hand."

       Rose stood. "Don't know how you feel but I'm hungry. I think we've missed second breakfast and if we don't get back soon we'll miss elevenses too. Come along, my lads."

       They gallantly offered her an arm each and wandered toward the Hall and some fine blackberry and apple pancakes.

                                                                             ************

       Esme had been concerned at the sight of Frodo's tear-stained face, and she was not the only one to notice. He had a hard time assuring his family that he was fine and well. Rose was correct to say he was crying for the child he had been and for the life he lost then, and the life he lost during the Quest when he lost himself so completely he thought there was no hope of recovery. Mingled grief and gratitude temporarily overwhelmed him but they had been healing tears.

       After elevenses he took Rose, Sam and the children on the grand tour of the Hall and grounds. The children were enchanted by the tales of his youth, the secret hiding places, the areas where the tastiest mushrooms grew. They wandered through the trees to the boat house and back along the river, where Frodo paused for a moment, gazing into the brown, fast-flowing water.

       "It was here. This was where they were brought out. Uncle Rory came into the Hall and I knew from the look on his face. He looked suddenly old. I wrenched myself away from Esme and ran out and across the meadow to the crowd on the bank. I was frantic, pushing between them until I came to the edge. Then I saw........Saradoc in the water with several others, and an upturned rowing boat. On the bank was a splash of blue and it was my mother in her favourite dress, curled on her side, one hand on her tummy. She looked asleep but her hair was full of mud, her face smudged. There was a graze and a huge bruise on her temple. Close by was my father - he looked terrible. His lips........they were blue and his eyes were open........horribly glazed and fixed, staring at the sky. I think I started screaming then, and Sarry strode up the bank and grabbed me before passing me to Esme." He bit his lip. Rose and Sam slipped their arms round him. The children huddled closer.

       "Did they find out.......how it happened?" Rose asked.

       "I know what the gossip said - that my mother pushed my father in and he pulled her in with him. Oh yes, I heard that. They would never have done that, they loved each other. The Shirriffs thought the boat hit a small boulder in the middle of the river. There was a very heavy storm the week before and a lot of debris was washed down from the hills. My mother could swim, like all the Brandybucks, but they believed she hit her head when the boat overturned. My father never did learn to swim, and if she was unconscious or too dazed to help him.............. I hope it was quick.......for both of them."

       Ellie threw some petals into the water and little Rosie-lass clung round Frodo's leg. Young Fro found his uncle's hand and held it tightly.

       "I haven't been able to stand on this spot since. I taught Merry and Pip to swim in the river, but not near here. We often had picnics in the meadow but I would never come down here. I think I've been running away from those memories ever since."

       "No surprise if you did," said Sam gently.

       "No, but running away from things doesn't make it any better. The awful things just get worse until you never want to face them. That seems to be the way I deal with things - I did that with all my memories of the Quest until my mind and spirit were unable to cope and I suffered a physical collapse. I hope that I shall find the strength to face the bad memories from now on."

       "Well it looks as though you're doing a pretty good job of it these days." Rose gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Come along, it's growing chilly and I should think lunch will be ready any minute now."

                                                                             *************

      On their return to the Hall the sound of the luncheon gong was reverberating round the corridors. They found some more visitors, late arrivals for the celebrations.

       "Freddy! You decided to come after all!" Fredegar Bolger found himself surrounded by excited Gamgee children as he embraced his cousin. "Where's the family?"

       "Washing their hands before luncheon."

       "Yes, and we should do the same. We'll see you in the dining-room in a minute. Come along littlies!" Frodo called and the children followed him obediently.

       Freddy smiled. "He does look well. You've worked wonders, Sam, you and Rose."

       "Yes he does look well, particularly as we've had an emotional morning visiting his parents' grave and the place on the river where they were found."

       "Frodo went there?" Merry was astonished. "He's never been there since the day it happened. Fancy him doing that! Did you hear that, Mother-dearest?"

       "I think it is a wonderful sign of his recovery. He needed these few days here. Something really momentous happened to him when he was ill and he is really healing now, even from those hurts of many years' standing."

       Frodo and the children trooped back and held out their hands for Esme's inspection. Freddy's wife, Cornflower, also arrived with her two little ones, and there were more greetings. She was a pretty little thing with fair hair and a pink and white complexion and she plainly adored Freddy but, as Frodo pointed out to Sam and Rose on the way into luncheon, there was one drawback.

       "She's a dear girl but the most empty-headed creature I've ever met! After five minutes of conversation - or attempts at conversation - I can feel my brain shutting down! All she ever talks about is dresses, and whether the woods of the Shire are full of fairies. She seems to think fairies and Elves are the same species. It is sometimes possible to force a new idea into her head but usually one of the old ideas has to fall out to make room"

       Rose chuckled. "She's not the brightest candle in the box, I must admit, but she's very sweet and kind. I think she's in awe of you though."

       "Ah there you are, my lad!" Saradoc boomed. "I've been looking through a great pile of documents recently and found several I think will interest you. Letters, your parents' marriage contract - all sorts of things. Perhaps you'd like to join me in the study after lunch and we'll go through it?"

       "I'd love to. That will be fascinating. Thank you, Sara."

       "You should have been here yesterday, Freddy," Merry told his brother-in-law as he helped himself to a slab of pork pie.

       "I...... I don't like the Fright Festival these days........not since my encounter with those....Black Riders." Freddy shuddered. "I'm surprised you were able to take part, Frodo."

       "I've avoided this celebration for years, not because of the Fright Festival but because I've felt too ill and hated being the centre of attention. As someone who saw the Nazgul as they really were, was stabbed with a poisoned blade, bitten by a spider the size of a house, and had his mind twisted by the Dark Lord Sauron, I'm hardly going to be frightened by a group of children playing dress-up. I've spent too long running away from my fears and the bad memories - was only saying this to Sam and Rose half an hour ago - but I think those fears grow if you run from them. I've learned to face them now, and they have diminished. If you were to come here and watch the fun, you'd find it much easier, Freddy."

       "We...e...ell, I suppose there's some truth in that," Freddy said thoughtfully.

       "Of course there is," said Pippin briskly. "Hear that, Stel? We won't be back this time next year, but you're to drag your brother here by force if necessary, and make him sound the Horn of Rohan!"

       "I will too," said Estella lightly.

       "Don't you start nagging," Freddy groaned. "Bossy baby sisters - that's all I need!" He grinned at her as she poked her tongue out.

       The usual look of picturesque bewilderment crossed Cornflower's face. Frodo prayed she would not be tempted into another discussion in which she somehow assumed the Nazgul were evil fairies, as she assumed the orcs to be. Fortunately she was distracted by Eglantine asking about materials for dresses. Tina could always be relied upon to intervene and she seemed to have more patience with Cornflower's lack of concentration than most.

       Frodo spent the afternoon in Saradoc's study exclaiming over old letters and interesting documents. He emerged just before tea, emotional but with shining eyes as he showed Sam and Rose his father's letters to Primula before their marriage. The letters were adoring and tender and full of interesting bits of gossip from Hobbiton, and gave new insight into the love between his parents. Drogo had not really expected to fall in love and was almost swept away by his feelings for the lovely Brandybuck lass. It was clear he could hardly believe that she returned his love.

       "I kept all the letters Sam wrote to me when he was travelling found the Shire planting trees," Rose admitted. "They're all tied up with a ribbon."

       "Are they?" Sam asked, surprised.

       "I believe women are more inclined to keep love letters than men are," said Paladin.

       "That's because men are not so romantic - well, not usually," replied Esme teasingly.

       Saradoc huffed. "I think I'm romantic - I still have all your letters to me."

       "Wouldn't we like to read those!" Merry said with a whoop. His mother pinned him to the spot with a glance.

       "I'm sure you would, Meriadoc! Each generation always thinks they've invented love. Sarry and I were terribly spoony - nearly as bad as Prim and Drogo."

        Frodo laughed. "Bilbo always said he'd never seen two people so crazy about each other. He used to tease Papa but it never stopped them."

        They were interrupted by a group of hungry children demanding tea.

                                                                             ************

       "Fo! Torwy, Fo! Tell torwy! Pease?"

       "Frodo looked down to find Persimmon swinging on his leg. The rest of the children were also gazing up with pleading expressions which not even the hardest heart could have resisted. They all trooped into the large communal parlour and sat round him, until he was barely visible. Rose smiled at the sight of Frodo covered in small hobbits. Persimmon, Merry-lad, Rosie-lass and Peridot snuggled closest, but even the tweens sat on the hearthrug or the nearby settles and footstools.

       "Well, I think we need a story for the tiny ones and then later I'll find one for the teens and tweens.

       "Are we ready?" Everyone nodded. "Would you like a story about a young hobbit lad and his first kitten and how that kitten found a name?"

       "Ooooh! Kitties!" Persimmon breathed, clapping her little hands. The rest nodded eagerly.

       "Many years ago there was a young hobbit who had always wanted a kitten of his own. After much pleading and begging, his mother and father agreed that he could have one, and when they stayed at Brandy Hall for the summer, he went to look at the new kittens. The mother cat was a roly-poly calico called Petunia, and she had five kittens. Two were like her, two were black and white, and there was one little kitten who was ginger and white. The young hobbit lad chose this one for his own, but he had no idea what to call this saucy creature.

       "Something very terrible and sad happened that summer, and the little boy was very unhappy. He was only happy when he was playing with the kittens. It was thought best for this lad to go back to Hobbiton with his uncle for a while, to try and get over his sadness a little. The kitten was old enough to leave Petunia by this time, so he went too, carried in a basket - although it has to be said that the naughty little thing did not stay in the basket. He kept climbing out, or popping his head out and going 'Miaow' very loudly, or sharpening his claws on the inside of the basket.

       "One morning a few days later, the lad woke and made his way to the kitchen to fetch breakfast for the kitten, who slept on his bed but still had no name. As he neared the kitchen, he heard his uncle's voice and another, much deeper voice. It sounded as though it belonged to a giant. The lad was quite nervous but he peeped round the door and there............ What do you think he saw? Sitting at the kitchen table with his knees almost under his chin was the biggest person the lad had ever seen. He had never seen a Big Person before, not ever, and this person was huge. He was wearing a dark grey robe and he had a long grey beard and big bushy eyebrows. Although the lad did not know it then, there was a big blue/grey pointy hat on the peg in the hall. Who do you think the Big Person was?"

       There were excited shouts of "Gandalf!" from the assorted young hobbits.

       "And the little boy is you, isn't he?" asked Sapphire. Frodo nodded.

       "Yes, it was Gandalf. He was very gentle and kind, and I shook his hand. His hands were enormous - like shovels - but he was so very gentle.       

       "I collected my kitten's breakfast but when I returned to the bedroom I found I hadn't closed the door properly and he was nowhere to be found. I hunted everywhere and I'm afraid by the time I returned to the kitchen I was in tears. I'd lost my kitten and he didn't even have a name. Gandalf calmed me and told me to listen and see if I could hear anything. I went into every room, calling and then listening. In the parlour I thought I heard a faint 'Miaow' and then a lot of scrabbling, but I could not tell where it was coming from. Then there was a lot more scrabbling and more miaowing, and suddenly there was a rushing noise and a great pile of soot landed in the fireplace. And in the middle of the soot was a little ball of fluff, now absolutely black, with just two little eyes peering out. I must say he looked very indignant. He shook himself, spraying soot all over the parlour carpet, and then toddled out into the room, made straight for Gandalf and began to climb that grey robe. I was convinced both the kitten and I were about to be turned into something unnatural, and I didn't dare look at Bilbo at all. Then I noticed that Gandalf was just watching the kitten clambering up his robe, leaving sooty paw-prints everywhere, but his lips were twitching and there was a twinkle in his eye. He picked up the kitten in one hand, lifted him up until the little imp was level with his face, and said, "I believe you are quite the most mishchievous creature I have ever met!" And he laughed, and so did Bilbo, who had been staring at the mess. Eventually they stopped laughing and Bilbo sent me to bathe my naughty kitten while he swept up the soot. Gandalf helped me - you should have seen him with his sleeves rolled up, testing the water to check it was neither too hot or too cold. You've never seen so much soot either!

       "When we had finished, and I had a ginger and white kitten again, I asked Gandalf if he thought Mischief would be a good name, and he said he thought it was a very good name for such a naughty and adventurous creature, so Mischief was what he became."

       "What happened to him?" Ellie asked curiously.

       Frodo smiled. "He lived to a very good age for a cat - he was nearly sixteen when he died, and he travelled back and forth between Hobbiton and Buckland regularly. Never did like staying in his basket though."

       "Nice kitty," murmured Persimmon contentedly. "Love kitties."

       "Now we have Rufus, who is one of Mischief's great-great-great grandchildren. He is a big, fat ginger and white cat who loves his food and can be very naughty. He has done many things but thankfully he has never climbed up the chimney. I don't think Rose would appreciate the mess."

                                                                               ************

       "Excuse me, Master Frodo, but the little ones say they won't go to sleep until you go and kiss them all. Miss Persimmon threw a proper tantrum, beggin' your pardon, sir."

       The nursery maid looked rather harassed. Frodo was not surprised - a Tookish tantrum was quite something, and could be very wearing. Eglantine frowned.

       "Miss Persimmon will be having her bottom smacked if she doesn't behave. That child is even more willful than her mother was!"

       "I'll go and see what I can do, Tina. They're just a bit over-excited I suppose."

       Frodo hurried to the nursery wing and found lots of bouncing hobbits running about, screaming and giggling. The boys were having a pillow-fight. He decided the best way to calm them was to insist they all got into their beds before he went round to tuck them in.

       "Now I want all little hobbits in their beds or I'll go straight back to the parlour and bring Aunt Esme and Grandma Tina to deal with you. Come along now." He clapped his hands and the laughing children dived into their beds. He lifted Persimmon into her cot next to Merry-lad and little Rosie, then went round kissing each child and tucking them in.

       "Night-night, Fo," said Persimmon, holding out her arms. He kissed her rosy cheek and ruffled her hair.

       "Good-night, my little ones. I'll tell you another story tomorrow. Be good. Sweet dreams" He waved and the little ones blew kisses as he slipped round the door, where he found an incredulous nursemaid.

       "Well I don't know! They wouldn't do anything for me and you've got them all quiet in minutes. Reckon you must have some magic about you, sir." Frodo chuckled.

       "I simply threatened them with Mistress Esmeralda and Mistress Eglantine. Perhaps you should try that next time." He twinkled at her and strolled back to the parlour and a tale for the tweens.

                                                 ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

      

2nd November 1428 SR

Frodo stretched luxuriously, yawned and looked about him. The bedroom fire was still glowing faintly since he had replenished it during the night, and the bed was warm and comfortable. Propped against the pillows, he was able to look out of the window and see the gardens and orchards of Brandy Hall, the tree branches a mass of red-gold leaves. Dahlias and the more exotic chrysanthemums gave the garden some much- needed colour, and a few late roses still bloomed as it had been a mild autumn so far. Esme had thoughtfully not assigned him to a room overlooking the river. He remembered her selecting a room for him after his parents died, always careful to ask his opinion, and finding one near her bedroom, a cheerful room which overlooked the rose garden. He liked to watch the gardeners because they reminded him of Hamfast Gamgee at Bag End. Once he was old enough, little Merry soon learned where to find his beloved Frodo and would trot in as soon as he was awake, clamber on the bed and snuggle for a while.

       A tap on the door roused him from his reverie as the maid arrived with the tea tray. She bobbed respectfully as she placed the tray beside him, then stirred the embers and added more logs.

       "Thank you, Bluebell."

       "Good morning, sir." She bobbed again, the ribbons on her frilly cap bouncing.

       Frodo wondered if he would ever get used to servants. It seemed strange having people doing everything - he certainly did not consider Rose and Sam to be servants, despite what some Shirefolk thought. He supposed he would have to get used to it if they were going to stay in Gondor, although he fervently hoped they would refrain from all the bowing and scraping and addressing him as 'Lord Frodo.'

       Another tap at the door revealed Merry, an old dressing-gown loosely belted over his nightshirt.

       "Quite like old times. I thought I'd come for a chat with my bestest brother Fro." He leaned over to give Frodo a hug, then flopped down next to him and nibbled a biscuit.

       "I was just thinking about the old days and how you used to sneak in for a cuddle in the mornings."

       Merry grinned. "I was a pest. Then Pip used to do it to me, so I daresay things work out. One day he will have a little lad climbing all over him first thing in the mornings. Neither of us are at our best before breakfast."

       "Yes, I think that was obvious yesterday, with that little display in the breakfast room." Frodo laughed suddenly. "Do you remember that expression of Pip's if he had to be up early?"

       Merry sputtered tea over his dressing-gown. "Yes, I remember! Wasn't it 'up at the crack of sparrow-fart'?" He mopped himself with a handkerchief. "I believe he introduced the rest of the Fellowship to that one after we left Rivendell."

       Frodo nodded. "Legolas looked quite pained, Gimli gave one of those barking laughs and Boromir and Aragorn exchanged amused glances. Gandalf had heard it before, of course."

       "At least he never said it in Lord Elrond's hearing - or in Lothlorien!"

       "Although I gather he did say it to the Captain of the Guard in Minas Tirith. Beregond said it was a most interesting phrase!"

       Merry turned to look at his cousin. "Are you looking forward to tonight? I'm so glad you're here this year. We've missed you coming to Brandy Hall you know. I know Pip and I joke about but we do love you. We were so terrified you'd .....leave us one way or another. Couldn't stand the thought of you not being here......" Merry's voice shook a little and his grey eyes were wet. Frodo wrapped an arm round him.

       "Oh Merry-lad. If the love of friends alone could have saved me I would have been the healthiest hobbit in Middle-earth. I am so grateful to have been given this chance to enjoy life again - even if that does mean Pip's terrible jokes and your singing!" Merry huffed a laugh into his cousin's shoulder and wiped his eyes.

       "I see that sharp sense of humour has been restored, Baggins!"

       "Of course. You know you've missed it. And I'm thrilled to be here for this celebration." An impish smile tweaked his lips. "I just hope your horn blowing is better than your singing!"

       "I ought to tickle you unmercifully for that, but you'll only tell Mother and I'll have my ears boxed."

       "As if I would. Don't tell me she still boxes your ears at your age - can she even reach your ears?"

       "You know Mother - she is not impressed by me being 'Holdwine of the Mark.' She just says, 'Nonsense! You're my baby Merry, and you always will be!' How can I argue with that?"

       Frodo sniggered. "I wonder what she would do if she met Aragorn?"

       "If she'd seen him as Strider she would probably have told him to have a wash! I really wish she and Father could meet him. They love receiving letters from him, and these days he often sends little hand-written notes as well as the official letters. He seems fond of them although he's never met them, and they now know why we took off with him from Bree. It would be wonderful if he came here soon."

       "Perhaps we can persuade him to make the journey. I'm looking forward to seeing Minas Tirith restored. There was still so much damage when we left, but you and Pip have seen it and it sounds wonderful."

       "I can't tell you how it feels to hear the enthusiasm in your voice. One of the worst things about your increasing lethargy over the years was your lack of interest in anything."

       "It was as though there was a veil or thick glass between me and the rest of the world. All my senses were muffled and dulled, and everything became too much bother. Some days it seemed too much trouble to get out of bed. Now I have so much to catch up on - starting with today!" He threw back the covers and stepped onto the rug. "Care to join me in the bathing room?"

       "Good idea! Shall we go and drag that sluggard Took out of bed first?"

       The cousins set off down the corridor and met Diamond, who was on her way to breakfast.

       "Where's that husband of yours, Di?" Frodo asked as he kissed her cheek.

       "Still in bed - you know what he's like in the mornings."

       "Mind if we haul him out?"

       "Be my guest. I'll see you later."

       "Wakey-wakey! Rise and shine, Peregrin!"

       "Bugger off!" muttered the mound of blankets.

       "Oooh! That's not nice when we've made an effort and got up early to see you."

       "You've seen me - now go away."

       "Certainly not." Frodo yanked on the bedclothes and dragged them off a protesting Pippin. "We're off to bathe, and you're coming with us. Work up an appetite for breakfast."

       "I don't need to 'work up an appetite' as you put it. My appetite is fine as it is." Pip blinked owlishly at his cousins. "Why are you so relentlessly cheerful at this time of the morning, Frodo?"

       "I'm a Baggins - we're always morning hobbits. Come along - you'll feel better for a walk and a bath."

       Grumbling under his breath, Pippin rolled out of bed and followed them out of the room with a last longing glance back at his bed. However, it was impossible to remain grumpy when Frodo was so happy and Merry so talkative, and by the time they reached the bathing room Pip was joking and teasing with his usual enthusiasm.

       Frodo threw his nightshirt on a chair and climbed into one of the tubs. He was less self-conscious about showing his scars than he used to be, although his cousins found it difficult to look at the whip weal and the Morgul scar without emotion.

       Pip began singing his favourite bath songs and Merry joined in, to protests from his cousins.

       "Who's strangling a cat then?" Sam peered round the door and surveyed the trio. "Mind if I join you?"

       "You come in here and insult our singing and then want to join us?" said Merry, throwing the soap in the gardener's direction. Sam caught it deftly and threw it back.

       "It was your singing I was insulting. Pippin and Frodo sing rather well."

       "I think it is wonderful to see the change in Sam these days. He is no longer the nervous and deferential hobbit he used to be." Frodo smiled fondly and indicated the empty tub next to his.

       "No indeed. Sam is a hero. I shall have to compose a song about him," said Pippin, winking at Merry.

       "You'll do no such thing," said Sam, glowing crimson. "Frodo is the hero. I just followed him."

       Frodo snorted. "Hah! And I suppose you 'just' faced five of the Nazgul, 'just' waded into a fast-flowing river, 'just' fought a giant spider and 'just' entered a tower full of orcs to rescue your idiot friend? Not to mention staggering up a mountain with me on your back, fighting off Gollum and dragging me out of the Cracks of Doom. You're the hero, not me."

       "We'll be arguing over this when we're over a hundred, but I do wish you would take the credit. You had the worst job, carrying that thing. I was there to look after you," said Sam calmly.

       "You two make me laugh. Will you ever realise that you are both heroes and you did it together?"  Merry asked. "You're so bloody modest you each insist the other one was the bravest. Save me from stubborn Bagginses and Gamgees!"

       "I gather it was Sam's stubborn determination which saved my life last year."

       Merry sobered. "We were falling into despair but Sam came up with the idea to use the Phial of Galadriel to light your way home. We would have lost you......"

       "But you didn't lose me. Gandalf and the Lady gave me a talking to and sent me back, and here I am, enjoying life again, surrounded by those I love." Frodo poured a jug of water over his head to rinse the soap from his hair. "What are we doing today? Anything planned - apart from this evening's festivities?"

       "No idea. Just loafing about and eating all day. Unless you have other ideas?"

       "I promised I'd take the children to the grave this morning, but otherwise loafing around and eating sounds fine." He paused as the sound of the gong announced breakfast.

       "Let's go, otherwise Fatty and the children will scoff the lot!" said Pip, and they all hurried the rest of their ablutions, dressed and hastened towards the breakfast room.

                                                                           ************

       In the drawing-room Frodo found Pip's three sisters, all giggling together. They squealed with delight when they saw him and implored him not to leave.

       "We've seen so little of you and we have a lot of catching-up to do. Have a scone. It's time for elevenses anyway." Pearl gestured to the cake stand and Frodo helped himself, covering the scone with a generous helping of jam and cream.

       "So what are you gossiping about - or should I ask who?"

       "We were just talking about tonight, and what to wear. You know how ladies chatter." Pimpernel poured Frodo a cup of tea.

       "Pity Cornflower isn't here. She loves to talk about dresses."

       Pervinca rolled her eyes. "Unfortunately that is all she ever talks about! And I've never known such a lass for putting her furry foot in it. She only asked poor Viola Grubb how her husband was - and the poor lad died three months ago! I was so mortified I didn't know where to put my face. The silly goose had forgotten. She has a head like a sieve!"

       "Poor girl, she means well, and she loves Freddy. It isn't her fault she's not a clever lass like you Tooks."

       "I noticed you out with the children this morning, Frodo. You looked like the Pied Piper of Archet - you remember the tale? There was a great crowd of children all round you." Pearl smiled.

       "It's such a pity you never had any of your own, my dear," added Pimpernel. "You would have made a wonderful father."

       "There's still time," said Pervinca. "I'm sure there's lots of lasses who would jump at the chance to be Mrs Frodo Baggins."

       Frodo laughed. "Now what sort of lass would want a crocked old hobbit like me? I'm far too old now for all that. Besides,..............." His face grew solemn for a moment. ".............I'm not........ interested........."

       "There was a time during Bilbo's party when that wasn't the case," Pearl murmured. "Pim and I dragged you behind the tent for a spot of canoodling and you seemed very interested............." She broke off when she noticed him blushing.

       "Oh I was! Very! I was very naughty and had been flirting with you both all evening. I shouldn't have taken advantage of you. Your mother would have killed me!"

       "I think we were the ones taking advantage when we hauled you behind that tent," said Pimpernel, chuckling. "That was my first proper kiss." Frodo's jaw dropped.

       "Good heavens! Your first kiss? But.....but........some of the things you were doing when you kissed me are probably illegal in parts of the Shire! How on earth did you learn how to.......?"

       "I'm a Took. It's a natural talent," said Pimpernel smugly.

       "Yes......well....... Unfortunately that was the night I inherited the Ring, and I'm afraid it took away my desire and ability to love a lass in that way. Just as well really. It would have been difficult to just up and leave the Shire the way I did if I'd had a wife and family."

       "And now that thing has gone?" Pervinca poured more hot water in the tea pot.

       "Ah! Sadly that is one aspect of my life which has not been restored, although Sam is convinced there is still hope. The Quest, my wounds and the terrible things which happened to me........things I still cannot talk about........ finished what the Ring began. No lass is going to marry someone who cannot give her children or even be a proper husband."

       "It's not fair!" Pimpernel burst into tears. "Why did this have to happen to you?"

       "Pimmie, Pimmie, don't cry, my dear. I have lots of children - yours and Pearl's and Vinca's and Sam's brood. Those dear souls have shared their family with me and filled Bag End with laughter. It doesn't matter that they're not physically mine - despite what the Hobbiton gossips say about Frodo-lad."  He held his cousin in his arms and stroked her hair.

       Pearl sniffed. "Completely ignoring the fact that the child is the image of Sam. They're as alike as two peas in a pod. Bunch of blockheads! Do they really think you're his father because he's named after you? What else would Sam name his first son?"

       Pervinca handed her sister a handkerchief. "Well, Frodo, if you're not going for a young lass, what about an older one with a bit of sense? Someone who knows there are other ways to keep a wife happy?" She winked.

       "All the young lasses I had my eye on are now respectable wives and matrons with husbands. There aren't many eligible widows - Widow Rumble is a bit too old for me - and the only woman who seems to think I'm worth chasing is Hyacinth Bracegirdle! And I am praying to the Valar that Mr Bracegirdle lives to a good old age, otherwise I'll have to move to Gondor!"

       All three sisters laughed at this. Pearl cut the large fruit cake in slices and handed it round.

       "As for children - I have the best of both worlds. I can hand them back when they're misbehaving, and if I wish to go hiking round the Shire for a week I don't have to worry about leaving them behind. I love them dearly but I'm too old to start a family now. I was never very conventional and I'm an ancient hobbit you know."

       "Rubbish! You're still the most handsome hobbit in the Shire. Bilbo may have aged after giving up the Ring but you haven't." Pimmie gazed at him. "But you are welcome to share our children, my dear. They adore you and you're wonderful with them. Any time you wish to come and stay, just turn up. There will always be a welcome for you at the Smials."

       "And in the Southfarthing," added Pearl.

       "I'm sorry I missed those ten minutes behind the tent," said Pervinca. "I think I'd have enjoyed canoodling with you, dearest Frodo."

       "You were too young," her sisters retorted.

       "In that case I'm claiming my kiss now," she said with a wicked chuckle, and kissed Frodo very firmly, full on the lips.

       "Vinca, you're outrageous! Everard will thump me if he finds out," Frodo mumbled, catching his breath just in time for her to kiss him again.

       "I won't tell him if you won't," said the unrepentant Took lass. "And these two won't either. And if Everard ever raised a hand to you - or me - he'd never see the inside of my bedroom again!" She giggled. "My Evie knows which side his bread is buttered, believe me."

       "I'm sure he does.He's a very lucky hobbit - all your husbands are lucky to have you three."

       "Flattery will get you everywhere," said Pearl. "Now you can escort us round the gardens if you would be so kind. Remember when Vinca was a baby and I left her in the maze and forgot her?"

       Laughing, the four left the drawing-room and made their way into the sunshine.

                                                                             ***********

       After lunch, Frodo and Reggie sat together in the parlour, talking of old times. Reggie had been at Brandy Hall when Frodo's parents drowned and he remembered the drama and the horror of it all. He had done his best to distract his friend with games and walks, visits to the stables to see the kittens, and the prospect of flying his new kite. He did not realise it at the time, but something died inside Frodo that day. It gave him great pleasure to see his friend so cheerful now. Frodo was relating incidents from his youth after moving to Hobbiton.

       "I remember Pip's first encounter with Gandalf. Not unlike my kitten in a way. He had been allowed to stay at Bag End for three nights and we were outside in the garden when Gandalf arrived. Pip was supposed to be having a nap. Suddenly out toddled this apparition, smothered in flour which he had pulled down from the pantry shelf. He waddled over to Gandalf, flung his arms round this enormous being's legs and said, 'Hello, Mr.Big Person. I'm Pippin Took!' and Gandalf looked down and said, 'Hmmm, yes, you would be!' I laughed so hard I nearly fell over!" This brought loud laughter from everyone.

       Pippin bowed to the rest of the company. "True. I must have looked ridiculous, covered in flour and barely out of nappies. Gandalf was so gentle that I really didn't notice his size too much."

       Merry and Sam were sitting at the table with a large book between them. They had been out to look at Brandy Hall's fine herb garden, the design of which had been Merry's idea. He was very interested in plants and herblore and was presently engrossed in the origins of pipeweed. His father and Paladin were helping and Saradoc had managed to find a book on the subject in the Hall's extensive library.

       Reggie glanced over at Fredegar, who was talking earnestly with Everard and Berilac. "I would have come on your journey if you'd asked, Frodo."

       "Don't be a dunderhead," murmured Frodo. "You had three children and your wife was expecting a fourth. It would have been criminal to even mention it and I would never try and twist your loyalities. I couldn't take you away from Clover and the little ones."

       "I just wish I'd known you were leaving. I was frantic when I heard you'd gone, and Fatty's story about what happened at Crickhollow was hardly reassuring."

       "I know, my dear friend, and I wish it could have been otherwise. But you are much too honest to keep a secret and I didn't want the whole of the Shire to know the truth. It was hard not being honest with you but I didn't want to drag everyone into it with me. I tried not to take Merry and Pip but they wouldn't listen."

       "Since when have those two ever listened?" Reggie asked with a chuckle.

       "Even Lord Elrond couldn't over-rule them. He looked quite bewildered when they rushed into the Council, saying they were coming too and they would have to be sent home tied in a sack to stop them." Frodo laughed. "Sam had already announced that I was not going anywhere without him, but I think Elrond already knew that. He just wasn't prepared for Merry and Pip."

       "Is anyone ever prepared for Merry and Pip?"

       "Elf-lords, kings, wizards........ it doesn't matter to them. They made friends with Boromir when I found him rather formidable. He was twisted round their little fingers before he knew what had hit him. He spent long hours teaching them sword-play, and thank the Valar he did, because they both used those skills in battle and then came back here and saved the Shire. We owe him a great deal. I'm just sorry that my last meeting with him was so unpleasant. I wish I could thank him for all he did for my cousins - and for me."

       "Perhaps you will be able to when you're in Gondor. There must be a memorial of some sort?"

       Frodo's face lit up. "That is a wonderful idea. Yes, I'm sure there must be a memorial in the House of the Stewards. Faramir and Aragorn would have made sure of it. Thanks, Reggie. I feel happier about it now. Perhaps Boromir knows what happened...........If I can feel sure I saw my parents in the next world, then surely Boromir would be aware that Evil was defeated and the White City restored to its former glory? I hope he knows."

       "I'm sure he does, m'dear," said Sam softly. "I'd like to speak to Lord Boromir myself. I said some pretty harsh things when I heard what he'd done to you, but I reckon it's time to let bygones be bygones. I daresay he didn't really know what he was doing, and he couldn't help what happened any more than.........."

       "Any more than I could help what happened when it took me? You're right, Sam. We shall visit Rath Dinen and make our peace."

       "We must have tea soon, and then change for tonight's ceremony. Hope you've found a really extravagant outfit, Fro." Pippin glanced out of the window to where the beacon stood on the green in front of the main entrance.

       Frodo smiled. "I don't know about that. I've brought the clothes Aragorn supplied us with when we left Minas Tirith. I have never worn them since I made the speech when I became Deputy Mayor. We had to check them over for moths but they are fine, and Rose aired them thoroughly. Sam's brought his too - that ornate tunic and cloak look very Mayoral on him."

       "Ooooh! The ladies will be all a-flutter - you in sage green velvet tunic and that rich plum-coloured cloak. You'll need bodyguards to fight them off! It's a good thing Merry and I are here."

                                                                            ************

       After tea the hobbits went their separate ways to wash and change before assembling in the entrance hall. Merry and Pippin were wearing their uniforms and both saluted Frodo when he appeared, presenting arms with a brisk flourish.

       "Oh do stop that!" he muttered, embarrassed.

       "We are saluting you in the name of Gondor and Rohan. We have our orders to do honour to the Ring-bearer."

       "Do honour? I'll personally do you both a mischief if you do that again," he said, but he was smiling.

       Pip's sisters arrived and gathered round Frodo with appreciative murmurs. The velvet cloak drew much attention, and little Persimmon was very taken with its softness.

       "Nice. Fuwwy," she declared, stroking the material gently.

       "And you have a sash for your dress which is almost the same colour, little petal."

       "You should wear a scarf, dear," Esme said. "Don't want you catching a cold at this stage."

       "I'll be fine, Esme. My cloak is warm and it's not that cold out there."

       Rose stepped beside him, surrounded by the children. She was wearing a white and yellow dress and a midnight blue cloak lined with fur, which had been Frodo's gift to her on his last birthday.

       "Well? How do I look?" she asked tentatively.

       "Beautiful! It really suits you, Rose. That should keep you warm."

       "Pumpkin? Scarf!" Esme said insistently, waving the offending object, and Frodo went to her at once. Merry shook his head slowly.

       "Look at him! The pre-eminent citizen in all the lands of the West, beloved of the Valar, friend of kings, and Mother still calls him 'pumpkin'!"

       Pip grinned. "My mother calls him 'honey-bun' as well!"

       "And what is wrong with that?" Eglantine enquired, materialising silently behind her son. "I called him that when he was a baby, just as Esme called him pumpkin. Prim always called him 'lambkin' I remember."

       "Yes, but he's grown-up now, Mother - or hadn't you noticed?"

        "It's comforting sometimes to be reminded of the happier parts of childhood. You two were lucky and had parents. Poor Frodo was so young when everything he loved was taken from him. We used such endearments to try and show him that he was loved. Poor lad, he's had more than his fair share of suffering."

       The Captains were still trying not to howl as they watched their cousin submitting to Esme's ministrations. She arranged the scarf for him, tucking it under his cloak and buttoning his jacket.

       "There! Now are you are you don't need anything else?"

       "Esme, if you suggest I wear mittens and socks, I shall run back to Hobbiton now!" he replied, laughing. "I'm warm enough."

       "Go on then - off with you! Go and join Merry. He's just gone outside."

       Frodo joined his cousin on the steps. He looked at the Horn of the Mark, which Merry was twirling in his hand. "May I?" He took the object and examined it closely. It was a magnificent piece of work, silver with a finely wrought relief of horses, burnished to a rich red in the light from the torch Pip was holding. The baldrick featured white horses running on a green field.

       "So............what happens at this ceremony?"

       "I sound the horn-call of the Mark and then the horn-cry of Buckland, and then usually Pip lights the beacon. He has the experience, you know."

       "Only this time is going to be a little different and special," Pip added.

       "Oh?"

       "This time you're going to light the beacon." Pip thrust the torch into Frodo's hand.

       "Me? Why?"

        "To celebrate the fact that you're here to light the beacon, you blockheaded Baggins!"

       "Oh! Still, I suppose it isn't difficult."

       "Pip manages to light it without setting fire to half of Buckland or his own cloak, so it can't be."

       "Do you mind! I'm an expert at beacon-lighting by now."

       "Expert? Expert my arse!" Merry scoffed good naturedly.

       "Language, dear," Esme murmured

       "Sorry, Mother."

       Finally everyone was outside. Frodo looked around: there was Saradoc in one of his dazzling waistcoats - so that was where Merry got his ideas from - and Esme standing within her husband's encircling arm. Paladin and Eglantine stood with their large extended family, but Frodo sought and found Sam and Rose. Sam twinkled warmly at him, Merry-lad seated comfortably on his hip, the other three children standing tucked in front of their parents. Ellie and little Rosie waved and young Fro made a face.

       Merry waited until he had everyone's attention. A hush settled as all turned towards the heir of Buckland. He lifted the horn to his lips and blew.

       It was extraordinary, Frodo thought. The sound went in through his ears, bypassed his brain completely and went straight down his spine into his legs. He would have followed that sound anywhere. No wonder the Rohirrim were willing to follow Theoden onto the Pelennor Fields and smash into the armies of Mordor. He remembered Sam describing how Bill had reared and tried to turn back when Merry first sounded the horn in the Shire. It was totally compelling.

       Merry changed the note and the horn-cry of Buckland rang through the night.

                                      Awake! Awake! Awake! Fear, Fire, Foes! Awake!

                                                  Fear, Fire, Foes! Awake!   

       When the clarion sounds finally died away in the crsip air, Frodo stepped forward, raised the torch high above his head and then lowered it into the great wood-pile. There was a soft 'whump' as the oil soaked wood caught. Yellow flames began to lick hungrily at the wood and soon it was blazing. A great cheer went up and was echoed elsewhere in Buckland as other beacons were lit. Soon there were glows across the river into the Marish and on towards the Shire as the hobbits celebrated their liberation.

       Servants moved through the company, carrying trays with small cups of hot punch and plates of roast chestnuts. The children ran about excitedly, rushing up to hug Frodo round the knees before dashing off again, squealing and laughing. Persimmon, Peridot and Rosie-lass were talking as earnestly as only little girls can, waving their hands in animated fashion and giggling.

       "Little lasses are so different from lads, aren't they?" Sam enquired, joining his master near the beacon and nodding at the trio of tiny hobbits.

       "I wonder what they're talking about? They are so engrossed. It looks as important as any diplomatic discussion in Gondor."

       "It probably is to them. Look at 'em - jabbering away like three old gammers in the market-place. They take their friendships seriously, even at that age." Sam looked at Frodo. "Are you warm enough?"

       "Don't you start! Bad enough with Esme bundling me up with scarves. I'm standing next to a large bonfire and swigging hot punch." He laughed. "Stop worrying, Sam. I'm having a wonderful time."

       "So am I - made all the better by seeing you enjoying yourself. Pip tells me there's going to be dancing too, in the Great Hall."

       "You know the Tooks and Branybucks - any excuse for a dance."

       "Yes," said Pearl. "And we're claiming a dance from you. We all want to get our hands on that lovely velvet tunic, I'm sure."

       "Not to mention what's underneath it," chuckled Pervinca, congratulating herself for making Frodo blush.

       "Stop embarrassing poor Frodo, you scandalous minx!" said her husband, wrapping his arms round her and kissing the back of her neck.

       Inside the Great Hall the tables had been pushed back against the walls and a group of musicians were tuning up in one corner. Pip was tightening the strings of a lute. He waved at his cousin and sisters.

       "Hope you're all going to dance. The food's good too."

       The food certainly looked good. There were large cauldrons of soup, dishes of spiced mushrooms, piles of sausages, pies, pasties, baked potatoes in their jackets, and great glass bowls full of trifle. The children were staring at the array, their eyes like saucers as they wondered where to start.

       For nearly an hour there was little activity except eating, but when the rate of food consumption had slowed and the hobbits were engaged in the delightful task of 'filling up the corners' the band began to play some of the favourite and familiar dances such as 'Gathering Peascods' and Lilac Time'. Frodo found himself claimed for several, first by Pip's sisters, then young Primula, Sapphire and Emerald, and after them came Diamond and Estella, and the little ones.

       "Don't let them wear you out, pumpkin," said Esme when he wandered over to help himself to some trifle. It was one of his favourites and old Aster had given orders that there should be plenty.

       "I won't. Can't believe I'm in such demand though." The band struck up a slow dance, and he bowed. "May I have the pleasure of this dance, Mistress Esmeralda?"

       "La, Master Baggins, how you turn a lady's head!" Esme laughed, primping her hair and taking his hand as he led her into the centre of the room.

       Sam beamed and whispered to Rose. "Look at him! Never thought we'd see him dancing and laughing ever again, did we lass?"

       "No. It's a real miracle. I think I should ask for a dance too - that soft velvet looks too inviting to miss." She patted his own velvet-clad arm. "You look very handsome too, my Sam. I'm a very lucky girl."

       When the younger hobbitlings had been carried off to bed, the adults and some of the tweens sat around and recited poetry or sang. Pippin handed Frodo the lute - he much preferred to play the mandolin himself - and Frodo played a wistful Elven air which he had first heard in the Hall of Fire in Rivendell. It spoke of loss but also of acceptance and peace.

       Merry and Pip decided to liven things up a little and began singing one or two tavern songs, despite warning looks from Esme and Eglantine. Pip produced a Bree-land ditty called 'Watkins' Ale' which turned out not to be about ale at all but something else altogether, and was a cautionary tale for unwary maidens who might live to regret partaking of this 'ale' - nine months later! There was much laughter from all, even if young Prim and Pinto were scarlet at the sentiments.

       Not to be outdone, Merry sang a lusty song from Rohan, and Berilac followed with a couple from the Buckleberry taverns. It was late when a happy and slightly tipsy company made their unsteady way to bed.

                                                        ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

                                                  

3rd November, 1428 SR

After breakfast everyone gathered in the Great Hall, as Pippin had requested. Pip entered, in his uniform, and presented Frodo, Sam, Saradoc and Paladin with letters, bowing as he did so. The black seals clearly indicated that the letters were from the King, and there was great excitement from the assembled company as those seals were broken. Over the years Aragorn's letters to Master and Thain had changed from the formal address of Right Trusty and Well Beloved to a tender informality. Saradoc read through his letter eagerly, smiling as he did so.

       "Shall I read mine first?"

       "Of course. You're the host, Sarry." Paladin grinned. "Hurry up, or the rest of us will be overcome with curiosity."

       Saradoc cleared his throat and began:

       My Dear Master Saradoc and Mistress Esmeralda,

       It is to be hoped that these letters reach you before or during the gathering at Brandy Hall. I only wish I could be there with you, to see a proper hobbit celebration and to witness Frodo's recovery. I shall no doubt peep into the palantir in the hope of seeing you dancing and enjoying yourselves and we in Gondor will raise a glass to our friends in the Shire. You are all dear to myheart and none shall ever disturb your peace again if it is in my power to promise such a thing.     

       We feel such gratitude to all of you for the love and care you have given Frodo, and for helping to bring him through his ordeals to the realisation that he is loved by everyone. The people of Gondor are looking forward to his visit next year as they have long desired to show him how they feel. We celebrate his birthday with great style, with alcohol and fireworks in abundance, and the citizens are already working on tableaux and processions for the great day.

       Arwen blooms and grows, as does the lady Eowyn. These babies are expected at much the same time as Sam and Rose's latest, and I hope that all these children will grow to be friends in the years to come.

       I wish you all good health, happiness, peace and prosperity, my friends. And tell those rascals Meriadoc and Peregrin that they are much missed in the taverns of Minas Tirith.

       Yours ever,

       Aragorn Elessar

       "He doesn't even sign himself King!" exclaimed Primula.

       "It is a personal letter to friends. He likes informality wherever possible."

       "Such an honour to have such letters. His letter to us is just as friendly." Paladin read Aragorn's flowing script with ease.

       My Dear Thain Paladin and Mistress Eglantine,

        As always, it was a joy to receive your last letter and read of Shire affairs, which sound so much simpler and more enjoyable than anything we can manage in Gondor. I hope that your lives continue to be peaceful and as joyful as they have been since those incorrigible and courageous scoundrels returned and raised the Shire. I'm sure you are proud of Gondor's smallest knight - small in stature by our standards but with the heart of a lion - and be assured that he and his friends are held in enormous esteem by all our people.

       I have been trying to guess who is who when seeing you all in the palantir of Gondor. I can see that your families are all strong and healthy, and that Pippin's sisters are very lovely. Their daughters are beauties too, and I would guess that the lovely young lady with the long auburn hair is Primula. I can hardly wait to meet you all and when I come to my Northern Kingdom I hope to finally put names to those faces.

       May the Shire live forever unwithered, my friends.

       Yours always,

       Aragorn Elessar

       "Oh my goodness!" Primula was scarlet, covering her face and laughing to cover her confusion.

       "What did I say?" Frodo laughed. "I knew he would think you beautiful."

       "Shall I read mine?" Sam asked after showing the letter to Rose. The children squealed with excitement and Sam grinned and began to read.

       My dear Sam, Rose and family, 

       Well my dear friends, it will not be long before I can greet you face to face, and I am certainly counting the days until you arrive. Arwen tells me I'm as bad as the children, and I think Faramir is beginning to dread my appearance with yet more plans for your visit. He has taken to hiding under tables and ducking into closets when he hears me approaching.

       I see that Rose is flourishing as she carries another babe beneath her heart. Bag End is a joyous and happy place, full of love, and you have both made it a proper home for Frodo. I am full of admiration for the care you give him and his recovery is due to your love and the love of his family. The children clearly adore him and I have to say his nappy-changing skills are a good deal better than my own or Faramir's.

       Arwen, Faramir and Eowyn send their love. The ladies will be writing to Rose, no doubt to compare experiences of babes and birthing.

       May the peace of the Valar be with you all.

       Your loving friend,

       Strider.      

       "Strider?! He signs himself Strider?" everyone cried.

       "Why not? It's how we first knew him. He doesn't mind us calling him that, and we're not being disrespectful."

       "He changes nappies?" Eglantine asked, her face a study in disbelief.

       "Not very well, apparently!" Merry laughed. "And poor Faramir being reduced to hiding under tables!"

       Everyone laughed at the idea of the Steward of Gondor diving under a table at the approach of his King eager to share more ideas. Cornflower looked impressed and overawed.

       "Does King 'Lessar know 'bout me?" asked Peridot, tugging on Frodo's sleeve.

       "An' me?" Persimmon added.

       "Yes, my dears, he knows about you all, and he sees you sometimes in the seeing-stone, although I gather he tries to be sparing in its use. Since my illness he has used it to see how I am doing, and I feel sure he was watching us last night. Would you like to hear my letter?"

       "Of course - if it isn't too private, dear," said Esme.

       My dear Frodo, dearest of all hobbits,  

        The hours are determined to crawl by until your visit, but I am contenting myself by planning all sorts of interesting things for you, and driving Faramir and Arwen to distraction - which, you will no doubt write and tell me, is a little village half a day's ride from Bree. The children are my fellow conspirators, being just as excited by the prospect of finally meeting you.

       Young Elboron - known to everyone as Boromir - is an imp and is always in trouble of some sort. You would laugh to see his mother go through his pockets looking for frogs, lizards and mice which he constantly carries about with him. Eowyn says she has two small boys to deal with, not just one, because Faramir is forever encouraging him. I have often heard her scolding the pair of them, and I find it almost impossible to hide my amusement. Thankfully Eldarion is less inclined to mischief, having a certain Elven gravity and calm, although he has his moments. Last week the two boys were overheard discussing the possibility of climbing the White Tower. I now live in fear that we shall wake one morning to find that the standard of the White Tree has been replaced by one of Eowyn's petticoats or Faramir's most disreputable shirt. (Arwen has just read this and says the situation will be a hundred times worse if they use my most disreputable shirt).

       The Easterlings have been rather troublesome, making incursions into neighbouring territory, and I was forced to lead Gondor's armies into battle last month, but the ring-leaders have been overthrown by some of their own people. It seems the ordinary citizens there have no more love for warfare and wish for some of the prosperity which Harad is now enjoying. I hope this sensible attitude will spread. We are now holding discussions with the new rulers and a treaty is being prepared. Thankfully others are realising how costly war can be, in both lives and money.

       I can see that you are thriving and growing increasingly strong and healthy under the care of your family and that you are doing justice to Rose's cooking. Thank her for the wonderful jam, and the very rich fruit cake which was devoured very quickly. Just as well she sent four of them. They were superb and vanished in no time.

       A parcel should be arriving soon, containing oranges, which I know you enjoy, chocolates and other sweetmeats and some fine peaches in brandy, which should make good Yuletide fayre. We are also sending similar parcels to the Thain and the Master and their families.

       Take care of yourself, my friend, dearer than brother, for there is no-one more precious to me in all of Middle-earth. Enjoy your health and happiness, for you deserve it, and I await the day when I can say these things to your face and embrace you in the Courtyard of the Fountain.

       Your loving friend and devoted servant,

       Strider

      PS. Arwen, Faramir, Eowyn and all the children send their love.

        "He writes so normally - and he really loves you, Uncle Frodo." Pinto looked at Frodo with shining eyes.

       Frodo smiled. "Yes, he does. He is a remarkable person and a remnant of the race of Numenor. His like has not been seen in Middle-earth for many generations."

       "He seems to have many names," Esme said. "He appears to be known by different names in different places."

       "Yes, he was born Aragorn but he is Estel to the Elves - it means 'Hope' - and Stick-at-naught Strider in Bree. He was Thorongil, the Eagle of the Star, in Gondor and Rohan years ago, because of the brooch he wore, and he is Elessar Telcontar, otherwise known as Envinyatar - the Renewer. Elessar means 'Elfstone' and was the name forseen by the Elves, and Telcontar is the Elvish translation of Strider."

       "So 'Strider' is the name of the royal house? That denotes a certain sense of humour I would say," said Saradoc.

       Ellie and Frodo-lad were thrilled to receive little notes and drawings from Prince Eldarion, Princess Gilraen, Elboron and Finduilas, and they read them several times. Rose was equally pleased with her letters from the two ladies, which spoke of the discomforts and pleasures of childbearing and the joys of motherhood.

       In response to the clamour, Merry fetched his sketchbook and revealed some of his drawings from the journey - Boromir, Legolas, Treebeard, Theoden, all appeared in vivid strokes, caught by Merry's quick eye and hand. He had left most of the drawings in Rivendell when they embarked on the quest, and Lord Elrond returned them to him in Minas Tirith after the wedding. Most of those present recognised Legolas and Gimli, who were regular visitors to the Shire, and there was astonishment over the picture of Treebeard. Merry had never revealed the pictures before, unable to bear the memories they evoked, but now he was glad to see them, although he shuddered at the picture of the Witch-King. He was afraid that Frodo might react badly to the sight but to his relief his cousin simply looked interested. Near the back of the book were some pictures drawn by Sam. He was not such a skilled artist as Merry but if something was particularly vivid in his mind he could put that experience on paper. One showed Shelob, and made everyone cringe as they saw the deadly creature who had almost killed Frodo. Another was of Gollum, hunched and twisted, crouched on a tussock in Ithilien, looking speculatively at Frodo. The look on his face would give Esme nightmares for weeks. The third one was of Frodo at Cormallen, still pale and weak, his hand swathed in bandages and his eyes distant and full of anguish.

       Saradoc looked at the picture of Strider in the Prancing Pony and smiled. "This is the King?"

       "As Strider the Ranger, Chief of the Dunedain, yes," replied his son.

       "Then I have seen him! I often travelled to Bree on business and saw this Man several times. I wished I could sit and talk to him but he always looked careworn and occupied and I didn't like to trouble him. He was unfailingly polite though."

       "You must tell him in your next letter. He'll be so pleased." Merry flicked to the pictures of Arwen and Galadriel. "I could never capture the beauty of these two. You have to see them to understand - that incredible ageless quality, the sadness and the wisdom of thousands of years in their eyes." He ducked Estella's affectionate swat. "I would never deny your beauty, my dearling, but it is the beauty of a healthy, happy hobbit-lass, which is quite different."

       The picture of the White City from a distance provoked much comment. Few of the hobbits had ever seen anything bigger than a village and the city's size seemed overwhelming. Rose wondered how on earth she would cope in such a place, but she told herself that hobbits were held in great esteem there and that people were people, even if they were six feet tall. If Sam had walked around Minas Tirith then so would she.

       "Isn't it frightening to be surrounded by so many people?" asked Eglantine.

       "Oh no, it's very exciting after a while," said Pip. "Imagine the Free Fair gathering multiplied by thousands and you'll have some idea of the numbers of people in the city. There are markets and inns and shops and workshops and little courtyards hidden behind the buildings, and gardens and great houses, and the Citadel right at the top."

       "My little baby Pip is so grown-up," Eglantine sighed. "A Knight of Gondor! Who would have thought it?"

       Frodo stood up and stretched. "Now, who is coming on that walk through the maze?"

       There were shouts of 'Me! Me!' from everyone. Frodo was the acknowledged expert in finding his way through the maze at Brandy Hall and had promised the others a trip. Despite the fact that he had not been through it himself for at least fifteen years he hoped he could remember the route. Even Merry did not know it well and had never bothered to go through it without his cousin. It had been planted by old Marmadoc Brandybuck when they were the latest fashion and he was attempting to outdo his Took relations who had a splendid maze. Lalia Took had had this removed when she considered herself the head of the Tooks, despite the fact that her son was Thain, and this left the Brandybucks as sole possessors of a labyrinth.

       Cloaks were donned and everyone set off from the south door. The children scampered ahead and then ran back, jumping around in excitement.

       "Now I want you to listen very carefully. You must all stay together because we don't want anyone getting lost and missing luncheon, do we?" Frodo addressed the little ones and they shook their heads in unison.

       "How do you know the secret of the maze, Uncle Frodo?" Pinto asked.

       "When I was young I spent a lot of time in the library - we'll have a look in there after lunch - and I found the book with the plans for the maze when it was first planted. It was much easier to work it out once I'd seen it on paper - from above, as it were. There is a bit of a trick to it and once I was confident I'd worked it out I went in and came out the other side without any trouble. It pays to be curious!"

       The maze consisted of yew and box hedging in an intricate pattern. it was now quite tall and there was no possibility of peering over the top. Frodo was glad he had been into the library and sneaked a look at the plans to refresh his memory. He steered the large group round corners and down what looked like blind alleys until suddenly there were gasps and they all found themselves at the very centre of the maze, in a large circular area with seats and a flowerbed. The children cheered and danced round their uncle, clasping his hands and singing.

       "And I thought we'd be lost out here till tea-time!" said Pip. He fished in his pocket and handed Sam some coins.

       "Were you wagering against me being able to navigate my way in and out of this place?" Frodo demanded.

       "Against you getting us here anyway. That's a point - I should wait until you've proved you can get us out as well before handing over my cash to Sam."

       "Sam who was sure you could get us in and out," Merry added. "Sam thinks you can do anything."

       "I shall prove I can get us out again. Come along - we're not going back the way we came. We'll go right through and out the other side."

       He did indeed lead them out. Then they turned and walked round the outside of the hedging, back to the hall. Frodo found himself walking with Cornflower. She had been quiet, almost subdued for most of the morning, and he wondered if there was anything wrong.

        "Are you well?" he enquired. She nodded, but the way she twisted her hands told a different story. He offered her his arm and they waited until most of the others had walked on before falling in at the back.

        "It's just..........I worry sometimes that I'm a disappointment. I let Freddy down because I'm such a goose and I say silly things. He's such a dear and everyone in the family seems so clever.......... When I'm nervous I babble and say all sorts of things and ..........I know he didn't marry me for my mind but I'm frightened he'll grow tired of me." She sniffed and wiped her eyes.

        Frodo stopped and turned her towards him. "Listen to me. You have transformed Freddy's life! He was so sad and melancholy after his terrible time during the Troubles, and now he is very contented. You have given him a wonderful home and two beautiful daughters and he loves you dearly. You must never believe otherwise. Stop blaming yourself, Cornflower. Freddy loves you as you are and he wouldn't change you for all the riches in Middle-earth. Self-blame is never a good idea." He gave a little laugh. "I should know about that after all. It is very easy to blame oneself for things beyond our control, but it won't do."

       "I feel uncomfortable when I'm with such clever people, because I know I'm stupid, and I talk too fast without thinking.........."

        "Dear old Bilbo gave me some very good advice about that, when he adopted me. I knew I would have to be the head of the Baggins family one day, and I was worried about public speaking. He told me to speak more slowly than usual, because that would allow me time to think. He also said that when you speak slowly people think you are very clever and important!" He smiled. "We Bagginses, Tooks and Brandybucks are dreadful show-offs really. You are most certainly not stupid, and you have a loving and generous heart and a cheerful disposition which makes your home a happy one. Your daughters adore you - and your son will love you too," he added, nodding down at her stomach.

       "How do you know? I haven't even told Freddy yet.......... And how do you know it will be a boy?"

       "I ......see things. My contact with the Ring has left me with the ability to foretell sometimes, and to see things far off."

       "I do so want to give Freddy a son. He is so anxious that the Bolger name should continue."

       "And it will. He'll be thrilled, I'm sure, as will everyone. We'll be in Gondor when the babe is born but you can be sure we'll pay a visit as soon as we return."

       "I know why everyone loves you, Frodo," she said shyly. "You are a very special hobbit, and I want to learn more about your journey, if you don't mind and you can spare the time one day. You may need to explain lots of things for me but I'll try not to be tiresome. I can't imagine what it must have been like to leave the Shire and not know if you would return. You must have been terrified."

       "If I'd known what I would have to face I most certainly would have been. Thankfully, at the time my only thought was to get the wretched thing out of the Shire and as far as Bree. Even that was not without its horrors and difficulties, with Old Man Willow and the Barrow-wights, but I never suspected the ghastly things I would encounter later in the journey." He was startled when Cornflower suddenly threw her arms round his neck and kissed him.

       "I'm so glad you never went into the West. The Shire would be a much poorer place without you!" she said breathlessly. "May I name the new baby after you? I know Sam and Rose have their little one but I should love to have a son named Frodo."

       "Well, of course I'd be delighted - so long as Freddy agrees." Frodo chuckled. "Goodness me! All these little Frodos running about!"

       "I do like Rose. She's so sensible. I wish I was like that, instead of being a scatterbrain. She's very nice to me. I hear she's a wonderful cook. Fancy sending cakes and jam to the King!""

       "You and Freddy and the girls will have to visit us soon and try Rose's cooking. The meals she serves are absolutely superb. I suspect she will cook for Aragorn while we're in Gondor. He has mentioned it hopefully in his letters. She'll be unable to resist his charm if he asks her - few women can." He held out his arm and they set off for the Hall, and Cornflower was smiling and asking questions about the Quest.

                                                                          ************

       Sam and Rose were impressed by the library. The older children looked around in awe at the shelves of books stretching away. Frodo showed them the garden plans and Sam was very interested. He admired the design of the gardens, which had been carefully planned, although he was disappointed that there were no formal designs for the Bag End gardens.

       "My old Gaffer told me that Mr Bilbo's father designed the gardens with Da's cousin Holman, and he let Mistress Belladonna have her way in everything."

       "That's the secret of a happy marriage, dear," Rose murmured with a twinkle, to approving nods from the other women present.

       "The rose garden was said to be her pride and joy and few were allowed to touch it. My Gaffer swore that when Mistress Lobelia ordered it dug up, her ghost came back and chased the workmen off."

       Frodo chuckled. "I can imagine the great Belladonna Took doing something like that. She would never have allowed anyone to damage that rose garden. And how like Lobelia to want to."

       Pinto and Primula found a book of maps and were anxious to see where the Fellowship had travelled. Frodo traced the journey, taking care to show Cornflower and include her in the conversation.

       The family sat and marvelled as Frodo talked of the Quest and his own feelings. Since he had completed the Red Book he had shunned all mention of the journey, leaving the room if it was mentioned. They had read the tale and heard Sam, Merry and Pippin tell their stories, but they had never heard Frodo speak of his own feelings and emotions. Esme was concerned lest he become distressed but she sensed that talking about it was a sort of release, and her love and respect for him increased as she listened.

       "The Ring began to realise that its only influence on me could be through those I loved. That and my pity. Once it determined my character it began to work, whispering constantly that I could do much good with it, repair the evils wrought by Sauron. I tried not to listen but it became harder to ignore that constant chafing at the soul, the soft voice in my mind which never gave me a moment's peace. It also tried to part me from Sam, setting us against each other and trying to force me to send him from me - or worse! After all, Smeagol killed his friend within minutes of seeing the Ring. At the very least it hoped Sam would tire of this and turn back." He laughed suddenly. "There it made its most serious misjudgement - thinking that Sam would leave my side." He reached out and draped his arm across his friend's shoulders. "Though the Pit itself should gape, Sam Gamgee would stay beside those he loves, and I count myself the most fortunate in Creation that I can number myself among those."

       Everyone was deeply moved by this. Cornflower looked at Sam with new respect, and Merry and Pippin nodded in agreement.

       The old Sam would have blushed and looked bashful. Now he merely smiled and returned the hug. "When I carried it it whispered to me too. It always seemed to find a way in, it knew what would work on each person. Told me to take it and help Frodo, relieve him of the burden, and then, after Shelob's attack, when I had to take the blasted thing, it tried to show me how I could turn Mordor into a garden. At first I listened, but then I thought what a nonsense it was! It was just trying to get back to its Master and thought silly old Sam Gamgee would oblige! What more garden did I need than the gardens at Bag End, and my Master to admire them? Elves and dragons! I called myself a few names then, even ones the Gaffer hadn't found for me, and I took it off and closed my ears to it. Half-wise I may be, but I weren't going to listen to a ....a......piece of jewellery!"

       "Sam, you are certainly not 'half-wise.' As Aragorn says, Perhael who should be called Panthael. Never was there a less accurately named being in all of Middle-earth." He chuckled. "Only you could dismiss the One Ring as a 'piece of jewellery'!"

       Everyone laughed at Sam's indignation. Rose rested her head on her husband's sturdy shoulder and twined her fingers in his.

       "We have never wanted to press you before, lad," said Saradoc, "But it is good that you can now speak of these things."

       "Until my recovery I just could not speak of it. It wasn't that I was being rude. The pain in my shoulder and my neck seemed to worsen at the mere mention of the Quest, and I felt sick and faint. It was as though I was being smothered - I couldn't breathe. Aragorn said it was because I was reliving the fear and anguish. Sometimes the memories were so vivid that I thought I was actually experiencing them again. I would fight and struggle so much that I had to be restrained." He smiled. "I'm sorry I put you all through that."

       "We're rewarded by seeing you now," said Freddy. "And the answer to your remark to Cornflower earlier is that I'd be delighted!"

       Everyone clamoured to know what this was about, and Freddy took his wife's hand and announced the news that a new Bolger was on the way, and that he would be called Frodo. Sam and Rose were thrilled. As Sam said, what better name to give a child?

       "I hope he will have plenty of opportunities to know his uncle Frodo and if he grows up to be half as strong, brave and compassionate he will be a credit to the Shire."

       Cornflower nodded. "And I hope he is as clever too - not like his silly mother."

       "Not silly at all. Now I suggest we go to tea. Aster promised me cherry cake and I'm not missing that."

       It appeared that no-one wanted to miss Aster's cherry cake, and there was a general rush for the dining room.

                                                                         ************

       The evening of their last day at Brandy Hall was spent eating, drinking, singing, and telling tales. Sam made everyone giggle when he told stories about his brothers and their defence of Frodo against Ted Sandyman and Lotho.

       "My Mum always said Ted would come to a bad end. He threw in his lot with the ruffians and watched while they destroyed his mill. Never had an ounce of sense, that one."

       "I've heard that he beats his wife and children when he's drunk. That's unusual among hobbits. The older girl looks as weary as her mother and I saw the older boy last week when I was in Bree, and he had bruises on his face and legs." Saradoc shook his head. "I can't understand it. How can he do such a thing?"

       "I was talking to Ivy Sandyman's sister last month, and she is afraid Ted will kill her or one of the children sooner or later. She's begged Ivy to leave him but she won't." Rose sighed.

       "Too afraid, perhaps?" Estella murmured. "You know what the Shire gossips would say. And he might go after her."

        "Hmmph!" Rose sniffed. "I'd allow a man to beat me, I don't think! He'd feel the weight of my extra large rolling pin!"

       "It's true!" Sam said, cowering in mock terror. "Beats me every week, she does!"

       "No, only when you misbehave." Rose grinned. "You don't need beating, dearest Sam. You're good and kind and you'd never raise your hand to a woman."

       "It must be difficult to resist when you're as downtrodden as Ivy Sandyman. She's endured Ted's nasty ways for years and her resistance has been worn away. I wish she would leave him though, or a tragedy may result." Frodo looked serious. "My burden wore me down, and marriage to Ted is her burden. I hope she will find the courage, for the sake of the children."

       "Speaking of children, they are suspiciously quiet," murmured Eglantine. "What are they doing?"

       "Rehearsing. They want to dance for us so Ellie has taken charge and is putting them through their paces," Sam replied.

       The children arrived a little later, very excited, and danced 'Nuts in May' for the company. Then Sam took out his whistle, Pip grabbed the mandolin and Freddy played the fiddle, and they danced and sang until well after midnight, the children gradually falling asleep where they sat.

       It had been a wonderful time, and all were reluctant to end it, but in the morning they would go their separate ways for a while. Frodo re-read his letter from Aragorn, and fell asleep with it still in his hand, and dreamed of a white city and a tree by a fountain, and the sound of trumpets.

                                               *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

      





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