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Frodo stepped out of The Golden Perch, and adjusted his pack into it's most comfortable position. He grinned at the thought that his Brandybuck kin would be surprised to see him a day and a half ahead of schedule. It was only a short walk from Stock to the Ferry. He could just imagine Merry's overjoyed reaction.
His thoughts were suddenly interrupted when he heard a voice call his name: "Frodo!"
He looked up. "Berilac?"
His cousin darted over to him, and then looked around him. Beri's face fell. "Er, Frodo you would not have seen Merry anywhere along the way, would you?"
"Why no! Why would I? I'm early. I caught a ride with a farmer's waggon just the other side of Whitfurrow and rode with him as far as here." Frodo almost always walked to Buckland, but cold as it was, the offer of a ride had been too tempting to turn down.
Beri sighed. "It was too much to hope for. I had hopes that he might have gone out to meet you on the road."
Frodo was suddenly filled with foreboding. "Why are you looking for him? And why would you not know if he was walking out to meet me?"
"Aunt Esme sent me to look for him. No one has actually seen him since yesterday afternoon. It wasn't until he didn't show up for second breakfast that she was really worried--you know how busy he always is, so she started asking around. Uncle Sara's down in Haysend on an errand for Granda Rory. Aunt Gilda had one of her turns and she didn't want to worry Granda."
Frodo gave Berilac a stern look. "There's more to this than you've told me yet, Beri. What do you know that you didn't tell Aunt Esme?"
His younger cousin squirmed under his stern regard. "I think I may know what he's done." His face flamed in embarrassment. "It's my cousin Ivy's fault."
"Ivy Proudfoot?" She was Berilac's cousin on his mother's side, older sister to Sancho, and nearly as much a troublemaker as her little brother.
"Ever since she got here for a visit, she's been flirting with Merry and teasing him. I tried to warn him that she's fickle, and she already has several lads swarming round her back home. But yesterday, she went a little too far, and they had an argument. She told him that he was rather timid for someone who had both Brandybuck and Took blood...he was both angry and hurt. He said something about 'showing her'."
"Merry? Timid?" Frodo looked at Beri in astonishment--that was the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard. Then he went pale; there was one thing that young Brandybucks would sometimes try to do to prove their mettle, usually on a dare or after one too many ales. But they were rarely successful. Most of them could not get on the other side of the High Hay. "The Old Forest?"
"I'm afraid so. And you know if anyone could, it would be Merry. He'd have no trouble sneaking the key to the Gate, after all. He is the Son of the Hall..."
"He's going to be in so much trouble," Frodo sighed. "Well, I know only one way to be sure. No one is expecting me until late tomorrow. I suppose I shall have to check and see if the Gate's been opened, and if he has done such a fool thing I will go in and fetch him out."
Frodo and Beri took the Ferry across the Brandywine, and avoiding Brandy Hall they made their way to the Gate in the High Hay, just beyond Crickhollow.
The two of them went down the slope to the brick tunnel that led to the iron gate that was the only way to the other side. The Brandybucks went inside the hedge twice a year in spring and fall to maintain the wide strip between the High Hay and the forest eaves, so the Gate was also maintained. Frodo looked at it, pursed his lips, scowled and drew in a deep breath through both his nostrils and let it out with an oath--something that was quite rare for him. He glared at the key stuck in the keyhole on the opposite side of the Gate. "I suppose we have our answer. Now, how do we get hold of the key?"
"Frodo," Beri said diffidently, "do you really suppose it's a good idea for you to look for him on your own?"
"Probably not, but if you come in there with me, who is to tell where both of us are if we don't come out before nightfall?"
Berilac blanched. "You want me to tell Aunt Esme that both of you are lost in the Old Forest?"
"I hope it won't come to that. I hope that I will find him and we will come out before dark, and then Merry can confess his own folly. But best to be prepared in case things do not go the way that I expect." He turned his attention back to the key and thought for a moment. "Go get me a stick, about so long," he held his hands a little over a foot apart, "If it branches out at one end so much the better."
Beri opened his mouth, shut it, and then walked back out of the tunnel, returning a few moments later with the requested item. Frodo nodded his thanks. "Can you get your hand through the bars at the bottom?"
"I think so." He knelt down and with a little maneuvering managed to get his hand through beneath the key. Frodo took the stick and poked at the key until it fell out of the lock and into Beri's hand; he stood up and handed the key to Frodo. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"No. But I do not think it wise to wait any longer." He took the key and opened the Gate and then handed it back to Beri. "Wait until teatime. If we are not back by then, go to the Hall and let everyone know what happened.
Berilac shuddered and then nodded. "Good luck, Frodo. And give our cousin a well-deserved smack in the back of the head for me."
Frodo chuckled, and nodded, then went through the Gate and began to walk towards the Old Forest. It was already well past elevenses, going on for luncheon. He had tried to be cheerful for Beri's sake but the truth was he was not sanguine about finding Merry before dark. His only consolation was that the trees should be asleep this late in the year.
It was about half a furlong* from the Gate to the forest; the hobbits maintained a clearing that width. In the summer it was a low meadow, but now the grass and flowers had all died, and it was easy to see the path Merry's pony had taken. Frodo hitched up his pack and began to walk. He'd been in here before, with his Uncle Rory and older cousins, but he had never been in here alone. The most logical place for Merry to go was the Bonfire Glade, which was in a straight line from the Gate if he remembered aright, about a league inside.
The meadow path that led to the wood was simply a track, worn by the hobbits who had maintained the High Hay. It was easier to see in winter, for in the fall the grass was high enough to mostly hide the path until the hobbits began to work. Frodo had occasionally been a part of the fall work parties when he had come to visit in the past. He had, of course, been too young for that duty when he still lived in Buckland.
As he passed under the trees he looked about. With most of the leaves gone, the Old Forest was not as dark as he recalled, and it was quieter. He did not hear the murmuring and whispering of the trees that he had heard in his previous times here. So that surely meant they were indeed asleep. He walked along in as straight a fashion as he could—the path did not seem as clear as he recalled it being.
At first he occasionally found signs that he thought might be Merry--an occasional mark of a pony hoof, but soon he realised he had lost the trail as no more such signs were found, and he began for the first time to worry about his errand. Shouldn't he have come upon the Bonfire Glade by now? He turned and looked back--the hedge was no longer visible. Then he turned forward again. When he found Merry he was going to let him have a piece of his mind for doing this! He had gone about five steps when he was startled by a sound off to his right; something large was out there! He turned and saw a flash of something--a large animal. He stooped and picked up a couple of hefty stones. He put one in his pocket and then tossed the other up and down a little to get the feel of it--it fit very nicely into the palm of his hand. Then he gingerly walked towards the animal whatever it was. His heart was hammering so hard he could hear it.
Then he heaved a sigh of relief. ""Brownie!" he called. Merry's pony looked up, his head jerking skittishly and the whites of his eyes showing. Frodo dropped the stone in his pocket and moved towards the pony, holding his hands outspread, and calling softly. "Here, now, Brownie," he said, his voice soothing and as calm as he could make it sound. He felt anything but calm, for he was now imagining all sorts of dreadful things that could have happened to his younger cousin. "Come here, Brownie!" He moved towards the dragging reins, but the pony jerked back. "Please, Brownie, won't you help me find Merry?" Once more he tried to reach for the reins, but the pony jerked back, and then turned and bolted and was soon out of site among the trees.
He wanted to shout out his frustration. Now that he knew Merry was a-foot, he was even more worried. He began to move forward, this time occasionally calling out: "Merry?" and sometimes "Meriadoc Brandybuck!" He tried to put aside his fear that now he too was lost, and perhaps he too had been foolish in not waiting to form a real search party. He also realised that he should have found the Bonfire Glade by now. "Merry!"
"Oy! Here! I'm here!"
The voice came from the left. "Keep calling out, Merry!" he shouted.
"Frodo? Frodo! I'm here! FRODO!"
Merry was seated on the ground, huddled miserably. "Oh Frodo!" he gave a sob, and stood up. "Brownie threw me!" He flew to Frodo and flung himself into his older cousin's embrace.
Frodo returned the hug briefly and then pushed Merry back. "Meriadoc! What on earth possessed you to come in here alone? It was only by chance that Berilac was able to guess where you'd gone!"
Merry's face flamed in embarrassment. "I--I don't know, really, it's just that Ivy...she said that, well, I thought that maybe...Frodo, she's so beautiful!"
Frodo shook his head. He'd occasionally been attracted to a pretty smile or a nicely furred foot on a lass, but when he'd been younger he'd been much too shy to say anything, and since he'd grown older he'd yet to meet one who would tempt him to give up his comfortable bachelor life. Merry had never been shy with lasses once he'd grown old enough to notice them, and in the last couple of years had fancied himself "in love" several times. They always seemed to set his head a-whirl and left him in a state of confusion. Such infatuations were usually ended by the lass herself when she fancied someone older. He sighed. "Merry, Merry, Merry! Ivy is as fickle a lass as I know. Beri said he told you she was fickle."
Merry shrugged. "I suppose so. But I just wanted to prove to her that I was as bold as the next Brandybuck!"
Frodo rolled his eyes. "Merry, you are as bold as any three Brandybucks put together and rasher sometimes than any Took I know except Pippin! Though it does seem it takes a pair of bright eyes and pretty ankles to bring it out."
"Oh." He hung his head. "I'm sorry."
"I know you are, sprout." It was a measure of Merry's misery that he made no objection to Frodo calling him by his baby-name.
"What are we going to do, Frodo?" Merry asked in a subdued tone utterly at odds with his usual confidence. He was shivering with cold and his breath came out in little steamy wisps.
It was with great restraint that Frodo refrained from asking his young cousin what he would have done if he had not shown up. He had already let Merry know how foolish he had been, and once they got out of this predicament Uncle Rory and Uncle Sara would both give him tongue-lashings he'd never forget, not to mention what Aunt Esme would have to say. At this point he needed to reassure Merry that they could and would get out of the Old Forest, and they would be able to get home. Once Merry calmed down, he had a fine mind and between the two of them, they'd think of something. "Well, the first thing we need to do is find out in which direction Buckland lies."
Merry looked overhead and shook his head. "It's too overcast to tell where the Sun is," he said.
Frodo looked around at the trees and then a sudden idea came to him. "Do you recall what Bilbo did when he and the Dwarves were lost in Mirkwood?"
Merry looked puzzled.
"He climbed a tree to see where they were!"
"But that didn't work, Frodo! He wasn't able to see the way out!"
"But the Old Forest is not in a valley. And we are not so very far from the High Hay that we should not be able to spy it from here if I can get high enough."
"Frodo! It's dangerous! The trees here don't like to be meddled with! Or have you forgotten that?"
Frodo shook his head. "No. But I think that maybe such tales are exaggerated. And it is winter--the trees should be sleeping!" He glanced at several trees, and then chose an oak--it was not the tallest tree nearby, but it was nearly so. And it had some convenient low-branching boughs. He took off his pack and dropped it to the ground. With a small jump he pulled himself up onto the nearest of them, and began to ascend with agility. Below, Merry was watching, wringing his hands and calling out softly, "Be careful, Frodo! Please be careful!"
It had been a few years since Frodo had last climbed a tree, but he was pleased to note he had not lost his skill in that regard. Somehow it felt different than he remembered. The tree seemed to be shivering. Perhaps it was the weather--he'd never done his tree-climbing in the winter, after all. He pulled himself up from one branch that had felt sound and was shocked when it broke off and began to fall, bouncing with a crash off the other branches on the way down. He shuddered to think he'd trusted his weight to it.
"Frodo!" came Merry's cry of alarm from below.
"I'm all right, Merry!" he shouted back. But he very nearly had not been.
He began to test each branch with a good hard tug now before pulling himself up to it. When he was finally in the tree's upper canopy and he saw he could go no higher, he turned his attention to the view. Because it was winter, there were no leaves to hide it. Straight ahead there was nothing to see but more trees, and it was the same to the right. He turned to the left and then--was that the High Hay to the left, off near the horizon? There was a hazy mist that made it hard to be certain. He crawled along the branch a little further, leaning forward. He felt a strange tension in the bough, and then...
One instant Frodo was trying to get a glimpse of the hedge, and the next he found himself flung like a stone from a sling, There was no time to even gasp as he flew through the air.
He landed with a bone-crushing jolt on the hard and frozen ground, and rolled several feet before coming to a stop. He felt searing pain in his chest, his head. Beyond the pain he felt dizzy and sick. Like an echo at the end of a distant tunnel, he heard Merry cry out.
"NO!" Merry's cry of shock and grief echoed through the chill morning.
After an instant in which he could neither move nor speak, he raced to Frodo's side. Blood covered the side of Frodo's face. Merry's relief when his cousin took in a brief shuddering breath was short lived as Frodo gave an anguished whimper.
"Hurts...breathe..." Frodo whispered, as he lapsed into unconsciousness.
Merry's heart gave a lurch. What if Frodo had broken a rib or even several ribs?
He longed to take Frodo in his arms, warm him and ease his pain--but he feared that he would only make things worse. He knew that it could be unwise to move a broken rib.
It was as cold as death, and the creaking and groaning of the trees sent a chill to his heart completely unrelated to the cold. All the tales of the danger in the Old Forest came back to him. They were in danger not only from being lost in an unfamiliar place in the dead of winter, but Merry had no way to take care of Frodo, to warm him or ease his pain. He checked Frodo's pack, but there were only a couple of spare changes of clothing and a few small wrapped parcels that were clearly Yule gifts, and Frodo's hair and footbrushes. His cousin had other clothing and necessary items that he kept in his guest room at Brandy Hall. He took out Frodo's spare jacket and spread it over him.
Gently he took Frodo's head in his lap and took out his handkerchief. The water in his waterskin was icy cold but not frozen, and he had to see the injury to Frodo's head. He recalled that his cousin Dodinas, who was a healer, had taught him that sometimes head wounds were not as bad as they looked. But he also seemed to recall that with some kinds of head wounds the victim should not be allowed to sleep. He dampened the handkerchief and as carefully as possible began to wash away the blood just above Frodo's forehead. The gash was not deep, he was glad to see, but already a knot the size of an egg was forming as well as a bruise.
Frodo began to shiver, and as he shook, he also gasped in pain. Merry took off his own cloak and placed it over the extra jacket covering his cousin's pale form. He immediately gasped himself at the cold, but he tucked the cloak around Frodo nevertheless. I deserve to freeze, he thought, it's all my fault this happened. How could I have been such a fool! We can't get out of this fix. I've killed us both...
He bent over and kissed Frodo's forehead, and then gave himself over to grief, curled up in a little ball as close to Frodo as he could safely get, trying to share his own body warmth. He wept until his throat was raw, how long he did not know.
"Hoy now, young hobbit, why are you a-weeping? Why are my trees awake when they should be sleeping?"
Merry sat up in astonishment to see a strange person standing there. He wore a jacket of bright blue, boots of an astonishing shade of yellow and a jaunty hat with a feather in it. The hair on his head and the beard on his face were brown, but his dark eyes twinkled like a starlit night sky. His cheeks were rosy, but his face showed concern. He was taller than any Dwarf Merry had ever seen, but not so tall as any of the Big Folk he'd ever seen. Still there was something about him that made Merry trust him.
"Please, sir, can you help us? My cousin is badly hurt," he rasped, and swallowed painfully. "I am sorry. Meriadoc Brandybuck at your service. And this is my cousin Frodo Baggins. Please, please, can you help?"
"Fear not, young Brandybuck, Old Tom will try to help you. Tell me what happened here, mind you tell me true." As he said this, he knelt down next to Frodo and began to check him over, his blunt fingers moving with surprising gentle skill.
Merry's cheeks flamed, and he hung his head. "It's my fault. I came into the Old Forest for no good reason, and got myself lost. Frodo came to search for me, and then when he found me, we realised we both were lost. Frodo climbed up one of the trees to see if he could see the way to the High Hay. and...and" Merry hesitated. The next part seemed so daft. Yet their odd rescuer had asked for the truth. "I would say he fell out of the tree, but the truth is that the tree threw him out of it; just flung him to the ground as hard as it could!" He looked at this Old Tom person in despair, sure that he would not be believed.
"Ah! So that is why Tom felt them waken out of season! Such folly would anger them past all rhyme and reason!" Tom finished his examination of Frodo, and sat back on his heels. He looked at Merry's terrified face. "He's a cracked rib or two and a knock on the head, but Tom is here and there's nothing to dread." He looked at Merry who was fair blue with cold and shivering hard. He stood up and gave a sharp whistle, then he frowned, shook his head and bent over to take up Merry's cloak.
"He n-n-needs th-that!" Merry could scarcely force the words between his chattering teeth.
Tom shook his head, and leaned down to wrap him in it. "Your kin needs you whole and well, and when you get home you've a tale to tell."
Just as Merry was beginning to wonder at their rescuer's odd mode of speech, he heard the sound of hooves, and his wayward pony came into the clearing. Brownie had his head hanging down as if he felt guilty. He walked up to Old Tom and stopped Tom looked at the pony severely, and then whispered in his ear. The pony whickered and then looked sadly at Merry as if to ask his forgiveness. Merry put his arms around Brownie's neck and breathed in his horsey smell. Then he turned to see Tom carefully picking his cousin up like a child, his arms carefully supporting Frodo's back and knees. Tom jerked his head towards the pony, and Merry mounted, after putting Frodo's pack behind the saddle.
Tom walked beside Merry with a sure step as he led them from the clearing. Frodo looked like a sleeping child in his arms.
"Where are we going, Master Tom?"
He answered by bursting into song:**
"Hey come derry-doll, merry dol-a-ding-dong!
Merry lost track of the words now, as they seemed mostly to consist of "derry-dols" and "ring-a-dongs", and he seemed to fall into a waking dream as he plodded beside their strange rescuer. The sky faded into a deep indigo, and the trees looked like black lace against the star-spangled sky. The air was frosty, but it was too clear for snow. After a while—Merry had no idea of how long they'd been riding when he felt Brownie's tread change; the ground was softer here. He looked up, and there upon a grey knoll he saw the twinkling lights of a house. The path dipped down briefly and then rose once more. Up they went, towards the light. A bright yellow beamed flowed out brightly from an open door. Merry felt all the heaviness melt from his heart. Here was welcome and hope for his cousin.
Frodo felt gentle soft fingers brushing aside the curls on his forehead. He hurt abominably all over. His chest was sore; it hurt to breathe. And he had a headache. He must have fallen and hurt himself somehow. But it was very nice to have Mama's touch.
The bed was soft and warm, the blankets were just right, the pillows fluffed up behind his head. He wanted to open his eyes and see his Mama's face, but it was just too much effort to do that.
"Here now, little one," spoke the gentle voice, as she lifted his head carefully. "Can you swallow this?" A spoon touched his lips, and he opened his mouth obediently. The bitter taste of willow-bark and the earthy taste of herbs was almost disguised by the honey. He'd never tasted such wonderful honey. He swallowed it down with only a slight twist of the lips--but he felt the rim of a cup, and cool sweet water came to wash the bitter medicine down.
The soft hand began to stroke his hair again. He did not remember his mother's fingers being so long, but who else would be so careful of him? She began to sing, a song like no other song he'd ever heard:
Wait, that wasn't right...the voice was deeper and richer than his mother's voice. And where would she have learned such odd words? He felt a twinge of fear, and pushed it away. Of course it was his mother! Who else could it be? Who else would care for him like this?
"Please, my lady, when will he wake up?" he heard Merry say mournfully...
No, no. That couldn't be. No. Merry couldn't be there; his mother had not known Merry...
He felt a twinge of sharp loss…
"He is on the edge between waking and dreaming now, Master Merry," was the mellifluous reply.
And with that his dream was shattered altogether. He felt a sob of disappointment force its way out, and with that a horrible pain in his chest, he sat halfway up, gasping, and opened his eyes. He found himself looking up at a woman more beautiful than any he'd ever seen before. Her golden hair flowed down her shoulders, her eyes were ageless, wise and gentle. She was no Elf, for her ears were rounded, but he knew she was no ordinary woman.
He tried to speak, to ask who she was, but found himself painfully coughing instead. He saw stars and he thought his head was about to burst. She gently pushed him back down on his pillow, and gestured to Merry, who then refilled his cup with water from a ewer on a nearby table.
She held the cup up to his lips once more and helped him to sip slowly. "I am Goldberry," she said, "My Tom brought you to me, that I might help you with your injuries."
The memories came flooding back: the Old Forest, the tree; surely the tree had not thrown him out of it? It certainly felt that way! That was as far as he could recall.
Merry was gazing at him mournfully from behind the lady…Goldberry, had she said? "Frodo, I'm so sorry! Please forgive me! I would not have had this happen for the world!" Tears stood in Merry's eyes, and Frodo could not bear it.
"Of course I forgive you, Merry!" The words took almost more breath than he had to spare. His head was spinning, and he suddenly felt green. It must have shown in his face, because the lady quickly held a basin for him as he retched and retched. When he had finished, Merry handed her a damp cloth with which she wiped his face, and she gave him another sip of water, which he swished around his mouth before spitting it into the basin.
She stood up, taking the basin. "I shall leave you two hobbits to talk, and will be back in a few minutes," and taking the basin with her she went from the room.
Merry came over, and almost shyly climbed up onto the cot with Frodo. "I was so dreadfully worried about you, Frodo," he said. He was very pale and subdued, and his eyes were puffy and red from tears, his voice slightly rasping. He pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose. Frodo hoped that his younger cousin was not going to be ill as well.
"Where are we, Merry, who are these people?"
"We were found by an odd fellow calling himself 'Tom Bombadil'. This is his house and the lady is his wife Goldberry. He brought us here to tend to you, and now he's gone off to send messages about us—I suppose to Grand-da. He seems to know about Brandybucks."
"It's the morning. It was getting late by the time Old Tom found us, and it took a while to get to his house. And then Goldberry tended to you, and then you slept some more—I mean really sleeping and not just being unconscious…"
Frodo felt uncomfortable—he had been asleep or unconscious for a long time. "Merry, can you help me with something before the lady comes back?"
Merry looked hesitant. "I'd do anything for you Frodo, to help you get better. But she might not like it…"
"Merry, it's nothing wrong that a chamber pot won't fix."
Merry blushed. "Oh. Well, in that case. But take it very slowly!"
Frodo thought that advice was wise, as he was quite light-headed and dizzy as he sat up. But his need was urgent. Very slowly, with Merry's support, he slid from the bed. He had to stand still a moment or two, as Merry slid a chamber pot from beneath the bed. He helped Frodo to stand as he relieved himself, all the while looking up at the ceiling—the only thing he could think of to give Frodo a smidgen of privacy.
Then he carefully helped Frodo back into the bed. Merry was still shorter than Frodo by half a head, but he was strong and sturdy, and he kept a grip on his cousin until he was fully back in the cot. It was slightly higher than a hobbit bed, and somewhat longer.
Frodo was exhausted by the time his head hit the pillow, and his head was throbbing again. "Whew!" he puffed. "Thank you, Merry."
Merry nodded and hovered over him. "I'm so glad you are going to be all right, Frodo. I was so horribly worried!"
Frodo patted the bed. "Come up here, cousin, and get some rest."
Though there were other beds in the room, Merry did just that, and clambered up, curling up at Frodo's feet, "for I won't risk hurting you if I turn in my sleep," he said, and soon Frodo heard his soft and familiar snores. He smiled wearily. "Poor lad. You've been through a lot, haven't you?" he murmured.
"As have you," said a soft voice. Goldberry came in, bearing a new cup of medicine, and a candle. Frodo wondered at that, for the room was quite bright: one whole wall was made of tall square windows. There were three other beds in the room as well, all covered with white bedcoverings. She placed the candle on the table by Frodo's bed, and paused to smile at Merry, asleep at Frodo's feet. "He has been very worried about you; I am glad that he rests at last," she said quietly. When Frodo would have answered, she put one finger to her lips.
She helped him to sip the medicine from the cup—this one had different herbs than the last, as well as willow-bark. When he had emptied it, she put the cup on the table and went over to close the shutters on the windows. It darkened the room considerably. She went out silently as a hobbit, casting one last smile at Frodo.
He snuggled into the pillow; the candle smelled of lavender and chamomile. He tried to puzzle out the mystery of their hosts, but before he had put much thought to it, he drifted off to sleep.
When the sound of the shutters being thrown back awakened him several hours later, he was feeling much better. He noticed that at some point, Merry had moved—or been moved—from the foot of his bed to the cot on his left. Merry was still sound asleep in a familiar position, flat on his back, his right arm flung over his face, and his left arm bunching up the blankets. Frodo smiled at him, and then looked up at his hostess.
"Good afternoon, Frodo." It was Goldberry who had pulled open the shutters. He noticed two laden trays, one which had been placed on his table, the other on the table next to Merry's bed. "You and your young cousin have slept right through elevenses, and luncheon, and it is nearly past teatime…" she stopped and laughed at Frodo's astonished expression. "Does it surprise you to know of hobbit customs? We have dwelt here as neighbours to your Shire for a long time."
She turned now, and shook Merry awake. It took quite a bit of shaking. Merry could be a very sound sleeper. Merry blinked and sat up, shaking his head.
Now she gestured for Frodo to sit up as well. She placed the tray across his lap, and lifted the cover. There was a light soup of dried mushrooms in a golden broth; he could see leeks and herbs floating atop, and he thought he caught a whiff of saffron. Next to it was a piece of yeasty smelling brown bread with a pat of butter. There was also a baked apple drizzled with honey, a pot of tea—and another cup of the medicine. Since his headache had begun to come back, he did not object to downing that first. Suddenly, he realised he was ravenous. He took up the soup, and drew up a spoonful, to see if it was as delicious as it smelled.
Merry's tray was similarly arrayed—though there was a large mug of something that exuded a very strong smell of mint and horehound. Merry picked up the mug and frowned. "My lady, I think perhaps this is meant for Frodo. I'm not sick."
Goldberry shook her head. "That is for you, Meriadoc. You are not yet ill, but you are on the verge of it. That draught will prevent it from getting any worse. Now, down it, young hobbit."
Frodo tried not to laugh at him. Once Goldberry had seen them both finish their medicine, she left them to their meal.
The two of them chatted a while. Merry talked a little about his crush on Ivy, and confessed that he now did not feel at all the same. "She should not have taunted me so, Frodo! Why would she do such a thing?"
"I'm no expert on lasses, Merry, but I have known a few who seem to like to see how many lads they can attract. It seems a game with them. Once they have one in their toils, then they seem to think that tormenting their suitors is a way to see how strong their hold is over their swains."
"I was a fool, Frodo. But she's so beautiful."
Frodo shrugged. "At your age that's important, Merry. But a kind heart is where true beauty lies."
Merry sighed. "I think I shall just give up on lasses until I come of age."
Frodo laughed, clasping at his chest, because laughter was painful. "How many times have you resolved that over the last two years?"
They spent two days in a similar manner, mostly sleeping and eating in the little guest room. Merry was soon up, and when Frodo slept, would go and help Goldberry in the kitchen or around her house.
The third day Goldberry allowed Frodo to get out of bed. He walked slowly into the homely kitchen, leaning heavily on Merry. He was given a cushioned stool to sit upon, and allowed to sit there and pare a few potatoes as Merry bustled to help their hostess to prepare luncheon. It felt good to be doing something useful.
It was nearly ready when they heard Tom returning, his song coming clearly through to them as he came into the house. Goldberry threw off her apron and rushed into the other room to greet him. And then they heard other unexpected voices tendering greetings to the lady of the house.
Merry and Frodo stared at one another, then with a joyful shout of "Da! Grand-da!" Merry bolted from the kitchen to greet them.
Frodo moved more carefully, supporting himself by placing a hand on the tables, chairs and shelves that he passed along the way. He was puzzled—there had been a third voice besides that of Uncle Rory and Uncle Saradoc, a vaguely familiar voice. He entered Tom's front room, and then stopped, leaning against the doorjamb, an expression of horror on his face. "Farmer Maggot!" he said hoarsely.
"Why, Mr. Baggins!" said that worthy. "You don't look too well!"
Merry rushed over to him, and assisted him to a nearby chair. "I'm sorry, Frodo! You should not have walked so far without me!"
Frodo felt relieved. The Farmer showed no sign of recognizing him as the mushroom thief of nearly two decades before. Perhaps he had forgotten after all these years.
Saradoc placed an arm around Merry's shoulders. "Come with me, son. We'll see to the waggon ponies, and I'll have a few words with you…"
Merry winced, but did not object as his father led him out.
Uncle Rory came over to Frodo, who looked up at him in surprise at seeing him here. His uncle was nearly a hundred-and-seven, and though his mind was as sharp as ever, he spent most of his time by Aunt Gilda's side, for her health had been very bad.
"Frodo," he said, "Merry wasn't the only one to do something foolish."
Frodo started to speak, but Rory held up a hand and shook his head. "Hear me out, lad. I know you are an adult now, but you've still a long way to go before you catch up to me. You thought if you could bring Merry home before we learned what he'd done, you'd spare him some trouble and embarrassment."
Frodo nodded. "It's Merry," he said.
Rory smiled. "And you've always indulged him. But there's something more, Frodo. Ever since you can remember you have been Merry's hero. In his eyes you can do no wrong. It's only natural that you wish to bolster that opinion by running to his rescue, be his hero again."
Frodo looked up at his uncle in surprise. For years he had thought that his Brandybuck family could never understand him as well as Bilbo had. But in this case his Uncle Rory understood him all too well."
"You are a good hobbit, Frodo, but you need to think of yourself once in a while." Rory smiled and leaned over to drop a kiss on his nephew's forehead.
Rory took a seat, for he was very tired. Frodo worried over him—this was a long trip at his age. He glanced over by the hearth, where Farmer Maggot sat with Tom and Goldberry, chatting as though to an old friend.
In a few moments Saradoc and Merry returned, Merry looking very chastened, yet somewhat lighter of heart.
After a luncheon of potato soup, bread, cheese, butter and honey, Frodo was bundled up in blankets and escorted out to the waggon that the others had arrived in. Goldberry gave Saradoc several vials of medicine and instruction on their use.
Tom guided them out, and they arrived at Brandy Hall in time for tea. They had arrived in time for Yule, but Frodo had suffered a little setback from the waggon ride home, and had to spend it in bed; and Merry was unable to enjoy the festivities. He spent the evening of First Yule waiting on Frodo hand and foot, though that was no hardship to him; Second Yule was to be spent in the kitchen scrubbing pots, which was.
"Berilac told me that Uncle Merimac sent Ivy home to her parents in disgrace," said Merry.
"Good!" was Frodo's response. It was the last time that subject came up between them.
*Four furlongs are about half a mile.
**Tom's song and parts of the paragraph following are adapted slightly from FotR, Chapter VI, "The Old Forest".
My thanks to Fiondil for providing the Quenya phrase for the refrain to my song!
Here are his notes on the translation of the phrase— "Come ye waters, Ulmo calls you to the Sea"
Á tulë le neni, Ulmo yaleldë ëarenna.
Á tule: Imperative of 'to come'.
le: you (plural)
neni: waters (plural of nén)
yaleldë: calls-he-you (plural)
ëarenna: toward the sea
In speaking this phrase _yaleldë_ is shortened to _yaleld'_ as the final vowel is assimilated into the initial vowel of the next word.
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