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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.
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