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Marbles and Slingshots  by Baylor

Frodo’s first birthday after his parents died, Rory and Gilda had an enormous party for him, with Great-aunt Melilot hosting, complete with marvelous party favors, an elaborate, sugar-laden cake, an overwhelming number of well-wishers, and a brand-new suit for the growing lad. Frodo handed out gifts, allowed numerous kisses to his cheek and pats to his head, and politely thanked everyone for coming.

He then crawled into the back of his clothes cupboard and hid, and eventually was found and forcibly removed by Saradoc. Ivy, the healer at Brandy Hall, dosed him with a sleeping draught and put him to bed. That was Frodo’s 12th birthday.

He had stayed in his family’s quarters for several weeks after the accident, with various Hall nurses and a confusing number of relatives swapping turns watching over him, but just before Midsummer, Great-Aunt Melilot had come to him and said, “Frodo, dear, wouldn’t you like to come and stay in Auntie’s rooms?” Frodo had understood that this was not a request.

Great-Aunt Melilot was quite elderly and had never married. Her rooms were filled with small, breakable trinkets that children were not allowed to touch, and everything smelled of dried flower sachets. She hated drafts, so the windows were always shut tight, and the smell of the growing world outside never wafted through, as it had in Frodo’s family’s rooms. The servants moved Frodo’s own bed and trunk into the room Auntie had cleared for him, and he kept his toys and clothes and other personal items. His parents’ belongings were trundled into boxes and trunks and carried away to the storage rooms.

Primula had been Auntie’s favorite niece, and so Frodo was quite familiar with her. His mother had often taken tea with Auntie, and sometimes he had come with her. Primula had emphasized to Frodo the need for excellent manners and quiet behavior around Auntie, and now Frodo still heard her voice when he was in Auntie’s rooms. He always sat up straight, and said please and thank you, and kissed Auntie good night on the cheek. He did not cry or make noise, or touch or break any of Auntie’s treasures.

Sometimes he wondered what would happen to him if he did these things. Would Auntie make him go stay somewhere else? What if he was so naughty he had to leave Brandy Hall altogether? Where would he go? What would become of him? Other times, he wanted to do these things, just to see Auntie upset and Rory angry. He wanted to throw Auntie’s silly little porcelain trinkets against the wall just for the joy of hearing them break. But he never did.

Frodo’s old playmates were awkward with him now, and would stop talking when he came into a room. The other children only asked him to play now with that polite look on their faces that meant an adult had told them not to forget Frodo this time.

By Yule, Frodo was a withdrawn, eerily polite presence in the Hall that no one knew what to do with. The adults, as much as the children, were at a loss as to how to interact with this odd child who had lost everything and who asked for nothing. He seemed to want to be left alone, and so, not wanting to cause the lad any more distress, he most often was left alone.

Frodo hated the Yule festivities that year. His parents had loved Yule -- the parties and the decorations and the gaiety and the gift-giving. He remembered his mother in a brilliant red velvet dress, little red velvet ribbons in her black curls. He remembered watching her dance with his father and knowing that she was the prettiest mother in all the Hall.

This Yule, every delicacy caked into a distasteful mass in Frodo’s dry mouth, and he often was secretly sick after a feast. He began to make good use of his knowledge of Brandy Hall’s hiding places, and as soon as the evening’s festivities were under way, he would find a safe place to wait for them to be over.

That was what he was doing the night Esmeralda found him. As soon as dinner was over and the party had moved to the Great Hall, he had secreted himself in the cloak cupboard next to the formal dining hall. It was nice in there -- dark and quiet and filled with the soft, comforting textures of visitors’ cloaks. Frodo had brought his bag of marbles in there with him, and was examining his horde by the crack of light that pierced in around the doorframe when suddenly the door swung open and someone slipped in and shut it quickly. The person leaned against the closed door and heaved a sigh of relief.

Frodo held very still in surprise and half-fear, but his marbles clinked against one another and betrayed him.

“Who’s there?” the other hobbit said sharply.

“Frodo,” Frodo said.

“Oh,” the other hobbit said. “It is Cousin Esmie, Frodo. What are you doing in here?”

“Going through my marbles,” Frodo said truthfully, not knowing what else to say.

Cousin Esmie was quiet for a moment, and then she sat on the floor beside him. “Well, let’s see them, then,” she said.

Frodo blinked in uncertainty. Cousin Esmie was a grown-up hobbit, married to Cousin Saradoc. True, they were two of his favorite adult cousins, but still, he could not imagine that Cousin Esmie wanted to see his marbles. But he dutifully produced them and began cataloging each one, placing them carefully in Esmie’s hands for inspection. She paid close attention, and lavished praise when it was due. Then she said, “We should go back out there and face the masses again before we are missed, Frodo, don’t you think?”

Frodo knew that no one would miss him, but it seemed mean to send Cousin Esmie back out to the party alone, when she clearly did not care for it any more than he did, so he put his marbles into his coat pocket and took her by the hand.

The next night at dinner, Cousin Esmie winked at him from a table over. He soon discovered two beautiful agate marbles in his tea cup. He gave Esmie a hint of an uncertain, hopeful smile as he pocketed them.


The week after Yule, Frodo received an invitation to tea from Cousin Esmie. It was common for hobbits to pen letters and invitations to relatives, even ones living in the same burrow, but Frodo seldom received posts from anyone other than his cousin Bilbo Baggins in Hobbiton, or from some of his Took cousins in the West Farthing. He had never received an invitation to tea from a grown-up hobbit in the Hall.

Auntie was delighted, and dressed him in the suit he had received for his birthday, already getting a little short in the limbs. She gave him a mathom to give Esmie as a hostess gift -- a silly thimble -- but Frodo put his best lucky taw in his pocket.

Cousin Esmie had no children. She and Cousin Saradoc had had two little lasses, but both had died during the scarlet fever outbreak when Frodo was 10, along with six other Hall children. Frodo had been ill himself, and he had vague, fever-riddled memories of hearing the horrific cries of bereaved parents, and the sobs of siblings left behind.

Frodo had cried when his mother had told him that Lilias and Linnet had died. They had been sweet, fun babies, and he had often played with them. Cousin Esmie had laughed a lot before the outbreak, and would get right down on the ground and play with the children. After, she was sharp-tongued and brisk and had no time for playing, making the invitation to tea even more surprising.

He took tea with Esmie in her cozy parlor, on a little round table in front of the fire. Cousin Esmie did most of the talking, as Frodo was too tongue-tied by this grown-up event to make conversation. She filled the hour with amusing gossip, and Frodo laughed right out loud when she described Cousin Ada falling over backward and displaying her bloomers to the room after having too much wine during a Yule luncheon. Cousin Ada was quite large, and it had taken two hobbits to set her upright again.

Before he left, Frodo gave a little bow and shyly presented Esmie with the thimble, somewhat embarrassed. She set it on her desk and said, “Be certain to tell Auntie I said thank you, now, Frodo.”

Frodo nodded, and reached into his pocket again. “I -- I brought you something from me, cousin,” he said awkwardly, now thinking that perhaps his gift was silly, but Esmie had her hand out, so he was stuck. He snatched up the marble and plopped it into her palm.

Cousin Esmie took the marble over to the window to better inspect it in the afternoon sunshine. She held it up between her thumb and forefinger and squinted critically at it.

“Frodo,” she said, “this is a marvelously fine marble. Thank you.”

Frodo was choked with joy, so he just nodded, croaked out something that may have passed for “Good-bye” and bolted from the room. He ran all the way back to his room, shut the door, and bounded on the bed for a half hour. He did not stop until a bewildered Auntie opened the door and declared, “Whatever did Esmeralda feed you for tea, a bowl of sugar?!”

Years later, Frodo would tell Esmeralda that she had made him so happy that day that he had wanted to marry her. Esmie would laugh uproariously at this confession, and then open her desk drawer to show him the best lucky taw of his childhood still carefully stored within.


“None of them understand, do they, Frodo?” Cousin Esmie said at their third tea together. “They think if they eat enough and dance enough and drink enough and make merry enough, it will be as if nothing has changed. They don’t know that there’s nothing wrong with just being sad.”

No one had talked to Frodo like this since his parents had died. In fact, it was rare for anyone at the Hall to even mention his parents. It was almost as though they had never been. Cousin Esmie did not mind if he talked about his parents. She didn’t fuss if talking about them made him cry, she just wiped his face when he was done and poured them fresh tea.

Once, on one of the days when Frodo wanted to break things just for the satisfaction of seeing them ruined, Cousin Esmie told him to stop slamming her tea things around and put on a cloak. They walked out to one of the back fields, where a dead tree groaned and creaked on a hillock. Esmie hunted about on the ground until she found a good-sized rock and then addressed Frodo.

“Now, here is something worth smashing,” she said, and threw the rock at the tree with all her might. The rock connected with a heartening whap and a branch came crashing down. Cousin Esmie had very good aim.

Frodo found a rock so large he had to use both hands to pick it up. He swung it back and forth a few times for momentum, and then set it flying with such force that he continued to spin around after letting go. When he looked at the tree again, there was a large hole in the trunk at hobbit-lad level.

Frodo took great gulps of air, delighted with the destruction he had wrought, yet somehow afraid. Then he looked at Cousin Esmie, and she was grinning. Frodo grinned back at her and suddenly they were both laughing. Frodo picked up a handful of small stones and peppered the tree with them, and ran forward with a whoop and kicked the tree for good measure.

He ran in circles around Cousin Esmie all the way back to the Hall, and they sang a nonsense song about the pussy cat that went to see the Queen.


Frodo’s second birthday after his parents died, there was no party. There was cake in the Children’s Hall at luncheon, and gifts for Frodo’s young cousins and friends, especially the young teen-aged lads he had begun playing roopie with that summer. That evening, Uncle Rory and Aunt Gilda had him and Auntie to their quarters for a special dinner, and Saradoc and Esmeralda joined them. All of Frodo’s favorite dishes were served, and he ate everything that was put in front of him. He had another new suit, and Cousin Bilbo, who had the same birthday, sent him a box of wonderful new books and oddities from far-away lands.

Frodo gave Cousin Esmie a wonderful new slingshot for her to use on their tree, along with a collection of perfect slingshot stones he had gathered all summer. Uncle Rory in particular seemed greatly amused by this gift, but Esmie had winked at him when no one else was looking.

The next week, Cousin Esmie never invited him for tea. By the end of the week, Frodo was so anxious about the non-invitation that he mentioned it (as casually as he could) to Auntie, who said in surprise, “Oh, Frodo, I forgot to tell you, dear. Esmeralda is not feeling well this week. I am sure she will have you for tea as soon as she is feeling better.”

Reassured, Frodo penned Cousin Esmie a cheery letter, and delivered it along with one of his new books, for her to read while she was in bed.

The following week, there again was no invitation from Cousin Esmie. Frodo did not mention it this week to Auntie, but holed up in his room with the new books and Cousin Bilbo’s other gifts. Not even an offer to practice roopie from some other teen-agers could entice him out.

One more week passed, and one day Cousin Esmie showed up in Auntie’s quarters with her cloak over her arm.

“Auntie,” she asked, “may I borrow Frodo for a walk?”

“Oh, I suppose, dear,” Auntie said, clearly more flustered than usual. “Are you sure it is wise?”

“Yes,” Esmie said, and Frodo could see her clenching her jaw. He silently gathered his cloak and followed Cousin Esmie outside and across the fields.

She made straight for their tree, walking with purpose and grim determination. When they arrived, she produced the new slingshot and Frodo’s carefully selected stone collection.

Cousin Esmie loaded the slingshot, took aim, and neatly clipped off the end of a limb with a well-aimed shot. She continued to fire accurate, fast, destructive shots at the tree, until every stone was spent. By the time she was done, her chest was heaving with effort, and her face was flushed. Frodo stood silently beside his cousin during this display, awed and somehow afraid.

When the last stone was gone, Cousin Esmie put the slingshot back in her pocket. “I am going to have a baby, Frodo,” she said, her face turned from him.

“Oh,” Frodo said, then added uncertainly, “Congratulations, cousin.”

Cousin Esmie laughed, but it sounded bitter and wild. “Yes. Congratulations,” she said, and wrapped her arms around herself. A moment later, she turned to look at Frodo. Her nose and ears were red.

“They think it will make me forget,” she said. “They think it will be like nothing happened. But I won’t forget. I won’t ever forget.”

Frodo took her cold hand in his own. “I won’t ever forget, Cousin Esmie,” he said seriously.

She scrutinized him for a moment, as if to determine if he told the truth, and then smiled sadly but sincerely. “I know, Frodo,” she said, and squeezed his fingers. She shivered. “Come on, it’s cold out here. Let’s go back.”

Frodo did not let go of her hand until they were in sight of the Hall.


Frodo and Cousin Esmie did not talk about the baby. He brought it up once and she wrinkled her nose and said everyone else could speak of nothing else, and she would much rather hear of his roopie lessons. Frodo did not ask about the baby again.

As the months went by, he took tea and walks with Cousin Esmie less often. She was getting round, her body and her face, and there were tiny outfits to sew and rooms to rearrange and long talks with other ladies to be had. At first, Frodo secretly thought that it would be fun for Cousin Esmie to have a new baby. He remembered playing with her and the lasses, and how much fun they had all had. But as autumn turned to winter, and winter melted into spring, he came to understand that once the new baby arrived, there would be very little time in Cousin Esmie’s life for an orphaned teen-aged cousin.

One day in May, he knocked on Cousin Esmie’s door in response to an invitation to tea, only to have Ivy’s apprentice answer the door. “Whatever are you doing here?” Nora snapped. “Missus Brandybuck is not well, and Ivy’ll not have her stirred up by some lad,” she said the last as though it were a naughty word. “Get off with you, and don’t poke your nose around here again!” Then she shut the door in Frodo’s face.

Frodo did not know much about babies coming into the world, but he knew it was not time for this one to appear. A sudden fear that something was dreadfully wrong with Cousin Esmie seized him, and he ran back to Auntie’s rooms.

“Bed rest, dear,” she said, shaking her head when he reported what had happened. “I tried to find you before you left, for I heard it at luncheon. Esmeralda is to stay in bed for the next few weeks, until the baby arrives safe and sound.”

“Bed rest?!” Frodo asked incredulously. He had never heard of such a thing. “She is just to stay in bed and see no one for weeks and weeks?”

Auntie clicked her tongue at him. “Oh, I am sure she will be allowed some visitors, dear. Don’t you fret about Esmeralda, Ivy knows her business. But you do as she says and let Esmeralda rest. Why don’t you write her a nice letter?”

Frodo filled the letter with false cheer, and then went out to their tree and knocked off two branches and stamped them to bits, but not even that could disperse the frantic feeling beating inside his breast.


The next day, Auntie had Frodo report for tea in her sitting room. This was a meal she usually took with the other women of her generation in the fussy and elegant Blue Parlor. She presented him with all his favorite delicacies, saying, “I thought you must miss your teas with Esmeralda, dear.” Frodo thanked her graciously, and was appropriately polite in responding to her nervous, concerned chatter, but the food stuck in his throat. When the meal was over, he kissed Auntie on the cheek and said, “Thank you for having tea with me, Auntie.” She smiled, pleased that she had made Frodo happy, and patted his cheek.

“Don’t forget to send Esmeralda her letter,” she said. “I don’t think you ever took it to her yesterday.” Frodo forced a smile at her.

“I’ll go deliver it now,” he said, but when he left their quarters, Frodo promptly went to the nearest privy and was sick, his body violently rejecting the well-intentioned meal. He had neglected to lock the door, and his young cousin Posie found him on the floor, head dangling over the bowl as he waited to see if it had passed.

“Are you sick, Frodo?” she asked. “Do you want me to get Auntie?”

Frodo shook his head. “No, I’ll be fine. Just go away, Posie.” To punctuate his answer, he brought up a little more bile.

Posie’s chubby little face scrunched up with distaste and concern. “What about Ivy or one of the nurses? I’ll go get one of them. Ivy made me better after I ate all those sweets at Yule.”

“No,” Frodo said with more force, and ire. “Just go away and let me alone, Posie.”

The lass’s lower lip protruded. “I only want to help you, Frodo. You needn’t be so nasty about it. I don’t think I ought to leave you here sick and not tell a grown-up, do you? I’m going to get my nurse for you.”

Frodo felt he could not bear it. He had been polite to Auntie, hadn’t he? He never bothered any of them or asked for anything, did he? Why should he have to suffer through the attentions of a healer or nurse when he just wanted to be alone with his misery? Couldn’t they all just leave him alone?

Posie leaned over to pat Frodo’s hair reassuringly. “I’ll be right back with Nurse,” she said kindly, and before he knew he had lifted his hand, Frodo slapped her right across her face. Eyes round, she staggered back, hand flying to her reddening cheek.

“NO!” Frodo yelled. “Just go away! Go away and let me alone!” Posie fled, and Frodo hunched in misery on the privy floor.

When Ivy declared him calmed down and fit some hours later, Frodo found himself in Uncle Rory’s study, and for the first time in his life he was beaten. His father had spanked him when he was small occasionally, but no one had ever used a strap on him before. Old Rory was neither unfair nor unnecessarily harsh, but Frodo wept in great, harsh sobs until his face was wet and his nose ran freely. When it was over, Rory helped him pull up his breeches and then wiped his face off. “There, there, lad,” he murmured, and drew Frodo into an embrace. It was the only time other than immediately after his parents’ deaths that Frodo could ever recall his uncle doing so. “There, there, I know,” Rory murmured, rubbing the lad’s back.

Frodo cried all the harder, knowing not if he cried for the pain and the humiliation, or because he had hurt poor, sweet Posie, or because Auntie was clumsily kind, or because Cousin Esmie could no longer take tea with him, or because he missed his mother and father so very much. It was all one massive lump of hurt inside his chest, and not even all of his tears could dissolve it.


The next few weeks, Frodo was dully, forlornly well-behaved. Auntie had Ivy come to see him twice, certain the lad must be ill to be so listless, but Ivy found nothing amiss. “Lads this age are moody,” she told Auntie in a low voice. “And it’s no wonder he is more so than most, with all he’s been though. Feed him well and he’ll grow out of it is my advice.”

This just added to Frodo’s misery, as he was not hungry in the least and Auntie now watched and accounted for every morsel that went into his mouth, and would not leave off until she felt he had eaten enough for a growing hobbit-lad. Some days he felt all his time was taken up trying to swallow one tasteless mouthful after another.

When he was not being plied with food, however, Frodo paid close attention to the chatter at the Hall, so he knew when the evening finally came that Cousin Esmie was to have her baby. He allowed Auntie to tuck him in, and then hastily re-donned his clothing and crept out of the rooms. There was a long, rectangular umbrella rack just around the corner from Saradoc and Esmeralda’s rooms, and Frodo squeezed behind it to wait out the night.

Wait out the night he did, and he had, in truth, fallen asleep behind the umbrella rack when he faintly heard the sound of a crying baby through the wall. There was a great deal of coming and going and chatter, and so he learned that it was a lad, and that Cousin Esmie was just fine.

So, that is that, he thought to himself, and climbed out from behind the umbrella rack. He lingered for one moment outside the familiar door, and told himself he must get back to bed. Before he obeyed his own sensible advice, the door opened and Old Rory himself came out and nearly ran him over.

“Frodo!” his uncle exclaimed. “What are you doing out here? It is the middle of the night. Does Auntie know you are up?”

Saradoc appeared in the door behind his father. “What’s wrong, Frodo?” he asked.

Frodo flushed. “I just, I just wanted to know if Cousin Esmie was all right. And the baby. Auntie thinks I am in bed. I’m sorry,” he said.

Rory sighed heavily. “Well, Esmeralda is just fine, and so is the baby. Now, off to bed with you,” he ordered. “I don’t know what has been wrong with you lately, lad, but this simply must stop. Think how worried Auntie would have been if she’d found you missing from your bed.”

“Yes, sir,” Frodo muttered, looking at the floor.

“Here,” Rory said, gripping Frodo’s shoulder and steering him into Saradoc’s front room. “I’ll take you back myself in a moment, to make certain you get there. And I suppose Gilda or I will have to talk with you tomorrow.”

Frodo looked up and found that Cousin Saradoc was looking at him with a puzzled expression. He remembered, suddenly, that this was Saradoc’s new baby as well, so he dutifully said, “Congratulations, cousin.” Saradoc smiled.

“Thank you, Frodo. He is a beautiful, healthy baby. Come back tomorrow and you can see him. Here, Father --” But he did not finish the rest because Ivy’s apprentice came out of the bedroom and interrupted.

“Missus Brandybuck thought for some reason that young Frodo was out here and wanted to see him. And here he is,” she said, clearly disapproving. “Come in and congratulate your cousin, then, lad.” Frodo looked uncertainly at Rory and Saradoc, but then Saradoc put a hand on his back and guided him inside.

Cousin Esmie was sitting up in bed with her dressing coat on. There were circles under her eyes, and her hair was mussed, but she was smiling. She held a tiny, blanket-wrapped figure in her arms. “Hullo, Frodo,” she said. “Come meet your new cousin.”

Frodo moved hesitantly toward the bed. Cousin Esmie looked different from when he had seen her last, and it wasn’t the mussed hair or her wan face. He did not know what it was. He moved to the bedside and she pulled back the blanket around her bundle so he could see the chubby-cheeked baby within. He looked like most babies, Frodo supposed. When he’d had a look, he turned his face back to Cousin Esmie’s. Closer up, he realized that her brow was not furled. Nor were the corners of her mouth set in hard, vertical lines. He had never noticed before, that Cousin Esmie’s brow was furled or that the corners of her mouth were set and firm, but now that this had changed, he knew it had once been so. This was why she looked different. She looked, she was -- Cousin Esmie was happy.

She smiled at him, and it was the same smile Frodo’s mother always had for him, though different on Esmie’s face. But this smile was for the new baby, Frodo realized with a pang, not for him. The new baby that had made Cousin Esmie happy again, when there was nothing to make Frodo happy again.

The big lump of hurt in Frodo’s chest ached horridly, but bigger than that was the knowledge that he wanted Cousin Esmie to be happy, because he loved her. He wanted her to be happy even if was because of a new baby that would take her away from him. He wanted her to be happy even if he could not be.

“Congratulations, cousin,” he heard himself say. “I am happy for you,” and that much was the truth.

“Thank you, Frodo,” she said. “Sit down there and you can hold him.”

Frodo really had no interest in holding the baby, but he did not want to be rude to Cousin Esmie, certainly not on this night. So he sat in the chair beside the bed and Nora came over and helped put the baby in his arms and showed him how to hold it.

Newborn babies, Frodo realized, were very, very small. He sat very straight and held very still, lest he jostle or hurt the baby. In his arms, his new cousin yawned and opened his eyes. They were blue-grey, and they looked right up at Frodo and blinked sleepily. The baby smiled in contentment and went back to sleep.

“He smiled at me,” Frodo said, stunned and a bit awed.

“Oh, babies that young don’t smile yet,” Nora said. “He was just moving his mouth about a bit.” Then she took the baby from Frodo and put him back in his mother’s arms.

“Nora, could I have some water, and then Frodo can be going?” Cousin Esmie asked, and Nora scooted out of the room to fetch the water. As soon as she was gone, Esmie said, “I saw him smile at you, Frodo.”

Frodo leaned over to look at the baby again. Not quite just like every other baby, he thought. This baby had a nice, round face, and a tiny little version of Saradoc’s funny nose, and soft honey-brown fuzz on his head. Frodo reached a tentative hand out to touch it and it was as soft as silk. The baby kicked at the touch and opened his eyes. He made a tiny “blet” sound and smiled again.

Frodo laughed, and the lump inside his chest eased a bit. Esmie laughed with him, and then said to the baby, “Well, you are a happy one, aren’t you?”

“Do you think he will be a merry baby, cousin?” Frodo asked, and was bewildered when she laughed again in response.

“I suppose he will be,” she said. “His name is Meriadoc.”

“It is?” Frodo had not known. “Are we to call him Merry?”

“So it would seem,” Esmie said. “I hope you will be great friends with him, Frodo. He does not have a big brother, and I certainly would welcome your standing in as one.”

Frodo did not know quite what to say, so he just murmured, “Of course, cousin.” He reached out a finger and Meriadoc promptly gripped it as he waved his arms about. Frodo laughed again, very softly, and though the lump in his chest bleated for attention, it was not so demanding as it had been.

“Hullo, then, Meriadoc,” Frodo said. “Hullo, my Merry-lad.”




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