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2nd November 1428 SR
Frodo stretched luxuriously, yawned and looked about him. The bedroom fire was still glowing faintly since he had replenished it during the night, and the bed was warm and comfortable. Propped against the pillows, he was able to look out of the window and see the gardens and orchards of Brandy Hall, the tree branches a mass of red-gold leaves. Dahlias and the more exotic chrysanthemums gave the garden some much- needed colour, and a few late roses still bloomed as it had been a mild autumn so far. Esme had thoughtfully not assigned him to a room overlooking the river. He remembered her selecting a room for him after his parents died, always careful to ask his opinion, and finding one near her bedroom, a cheerful room which overlooked the rose garden. He liked to watch the gardeners because they reminded him of Hamfast Gamgee at Bag End. Once he was old enough, little Merry soon learned where to find his beloved Frodo and would trot in as soon as he was awake, clamber on the bed and snuggle for a while.
A tap on the door roused him from his reverie as the maid arrived with the tea tray. She bobbed respectfully as she placed the tray beside him, then stirred the embers and added more logs.
"Thank you, Bluebell."
"Good morning, sir." She bobbed again, the ribbons on her frilly cap bouncing.
Frodo wondered if he would ever get used to servants. It seemed strange having people doing everything - he certainly did not consider Rose and Sam to be servants, despite what some Shirefolk thought. He supposed he would have to get used to it if they were going to stay in Gondor, although he fervently hoped they would refrain from all the bowing and scraping and addressing him as 'Lord Frodo.'
Another tap at the door revealed Merry, an old dressing-gown loosely belted over his nightshirt.
"Quite like old times. I thought I'd come for a chat with my bestest brother Fro." He leaned over to give Frodo a hug, then flopped down next to him and nibbled a biscuit.
"I was just thinking about the old days and how you used to sneak in for a cuddle in the mornings."
Merry grinned. "I was a pest. Then Pip used to do it to me, so I daresay things work out. One day he will have a little lad climbing all over him first thing in the mornings. Neither of us are at our best before breakfast."
"Yes, I think that was obvious yesterday, with that little display in the breakfast room." Frodo laughed suddenly. "Do you remember that expression of Pip's if he had to be up early?"
Merry sputtered tea over his dressing-gown. "Yes, I remember! Wasn't it 'up at the crack of sparrow-fart'?" He mopped himself with a handkerchief. "I believe he introduced the rest of the Fellowship to that one after we left Rivendell."
Frodo nodded. "Legolas looked quite pained, Gimli gave one of those barking laughs and Boromir and Aragorn exchanged amused glances. Gandalf had heard it before, of course."
"At least he never said it in Lord Elrond's hearing - or in Lothlorien!"
"Although I gather he did say it to the Captain of the Guard in Minas Tirith. Beregond said it was a most interesting phrase!"
Merry turned to look at his cousin. "Are you looking forward to tonight? I'm so glad you're here this year. We've missed you coming to Brandy Hall you know. I know Pip and I joke about but we do love you. We were so terrified you'd .....leave us one way or another. Couldn't stand the thought of you not being here......" Merry's voice shook a little and his grey eyes were wet. Frodo wrapped an arm round him.
"Oh Merry-lad. If the love of friends alone could have saved me I would have been the healthiest hobbit in Middle-earth. I am so grateful to have been given this chance to enjoy life again - even if that does mean Pip's terrible jokes and your singing!" Merry huffed a laugh into his cousin's shoulder and wiped his eyes.
"I see that sharp sense of humour has been restored, Baggins!"
"Of course. You know you've missed it. And I'm thrilled to be here for this celebration." An impish smile tweaked his lips. "I just hope your horn blowing is better than your singing!"
"I ought to tickle you unmercifully for that, but you'll only tell Mother and I'll have my ears boxed."
"As if I would. Don't tell me she still boxes your ears at your age - can she even reach your ears?"
"You know Mother - she is not impressed by me being 'Holdwine of the Mark.' She just says, 'Nonsense! You're my baby Merry, and you always will be!' How can I argue with that?"
Frodo sniggered. "I wonder what she would do if she met Aragorn?"
"If she'd seen him as Strider she would probably have told him to have a wash! I really wish she and Father could meet him. They love receiving letters from him, and these days he often sends little hand-written notes as well as the official letters. He seems fond of them although he's never met them, and they now know why we took off with him from Bree. It would be wonderful if he came here soon."
"Perhaps we can persuade him to make the journey. I'm looking forward to seeing Minas Tirith restored. There was still so much damage when we left, but you and Pip have seen it and it sounds wonderful."
"I can't tell you how it feels to hear the enthusiasm in your voice. One of the worst things about your increasing lethargy over the years was your lack of interest in anything."
"It was as though there was a veil or thick glass between me and the rest of the world. All my senses were muffled and dulled, and everything became too much bother. Some days it seemed too much trouble to get out of bed. Now I have so much to catch up on - starting with today!" He threw back the covers and stepped onto the rug. "Care to join me in the bathing room?"
"Good idea! Shall we go and drag that sluggard Took out of bed first?"
The cousins set off down the corridor and met Diamond, who was on her way to breakfast.
"Where's that husband of yours, Di?" Frodo asked as he kissed her cheek.
"Still in bed - you know what he's like in the mornings."
"Mind if we haul him out?"
"Be my guest. I'll see you later."
"Wakey-wakey! Rise and shine, Peregrin!"
"Bugger off!" muttered the mound of blankets.
"Oooh! That's not nice when we've made an effort and got up early to see you."
"You've seen me - now go away."
"Certainly not." Frodo yanked on the bedclothes and dragged them off a protesting Pippin. "We're off to bathe, and you're coming with us. Work up an appetite for breakfast."
"I don't need to 'work up an appetite' as you put it. My appetite is fine as it is." Pip blinked owlishly at his cousins. "Why are you so relentlessly cheerful at this time of the morning, Frodo?"
"I'm a Baggins - we're always morning hobbits. Come along - you'll feel better for a walk and a bath."
Grumbling under his breath, Pippin rolled out of bed and followed them out of the room with a last longing glance back at his bed. However, it was impossible to remain grumpy when Frodo was so happy and Merry so talkative, and by the time they reached the bathing room Pip was joking and teasing with his usual enthusiasm.
Frodo threw his nightshirt on a chair and climbed into one of the tubs. He was less self-conscious about showing his scars than he used to be, although his cousins found it difficult to look at the whip weal and the Morgul scar without emotion.
Pip began singing his favourite bath songs and Merry joined in, to protests from his cousins.
"Who's strangling a cat then?" Sam peered round the door and surveyed the trio. "Mind if I join you?"
"You come in here and insult our singing and then want to join us?" said Merry, throwing the soap in the gardener's direction. Sam caught it deftly and threw it back.
"It was your singing I was insulting. Pippin and Frodo sing rather well."
"I think it is wonderful to see the change in Sam these days. He is no longer the nervous and deferential hobbit he used to be." Frodo smiled fondly and indicated the empty tub next to his.
"No indeed. Sam is a hero. I shall have to compose a song about him," said Pippin, winking at Merry.
"You'll do no such thing," said Sam, glowing crimson. "Frodo is the hero. I just followed him."
Frodo snorted. "Hah! And I suppose you 'just' faced five of the Nazgul, 'just' waded into a fast-flowing river, 'just' fought a giant spider and 'just' entered a tower full of orcs to rescue your idiot friend? Not to mention staggering up a mountain with me on your back, fighting off Gollum and dragging me out of the Cracks of Doom. You're the hero, not me."
"We'll be arguing over this when we're over a hundred, but I do wish you would take the credit. You had the worst job, carrying that thing. I was there to look after you," said Sam calmly.
"You two make me laugh. Will you ever realise that you are both heroes and you did it together?" Merry asked. "You're so bloody modest you each insist the other one was the bravest. Save me from stubborn Bagginses and Gamgees!"
"I gather it was Sam's stubborn determination which saved my life last year."
Merry sobered. "We were falling into despair but Sam came up with the idea to use the Phial of Galadriel to light your way home. We would have lost you......"
"But you didn't lose me. Gandalf and the Lady gave me a talking to and sent me back, and here I am, enjoying life again, surrounded by those I love." Frodo poured a jug of water over his head to rinse the soap from his hair. "What are we doing today? Anything planned - apart from this evening's festivities?"
"No idea. Just loafing about and eating all day. Unless you have other ideas?"
"I promised I'd take the children to the grave this morning, but otherwise loafing around and eating sounds fine." He paused as the sound of the gong announced breakfast.
"Let's go, otherwise Fatty and the children will scoff the lot!" said Pip, and they all hurried the rest of their ablutions, dressed and hastened towards the breakfast room.
In the drawing-room Frodo found Pip's three sisters, all giggling together. They squealed with delight when they saw him and implored him not to leave.
"We've seen so little of you and we have a lot of catching-up to do. Have a scone. It's time for elevenses anyway." Pearl gestured to the cake stand and Frodo helped himself, covering the scone with a generous helping of jam and cream.
"So what are you gossiping about - or should I ask who?"
"We were just talking about tonight, and what to wear. You know how ladies chatter." Pimpernel poured Frodo a cup of tea.
"Pity Cornflower isn't here. She loves to talk about dresses."
Pervinca rolled her eyes. "Unfortunately that is all she ever talks about! And I've never known such a lass for putting her furry foot in it. She only asked poor Viola Grubb how her husband was - and the poor lad died three months ago! I was so mortified I didn't know where to put my face. The silly goose had forgotten. She has a head like a sieve!"
"Poor girl, she means well, and she loves Freddy. It isn't her fault she's not a clever lass like you Tooks."
"I noticed you out with the children this morning, Frodo. You looked like the Pied Piper of Archet - you remember the tale? There was a great crowd of children all round you." Pearl smiled.
"It's such a pity you never had any of your own, my dear," added Pimpernel. "You would have made a wonderful father."
"There's still time," said Pervinca. "I'm sure there's lots of lasses who would jump at the chance to be Mrs Frodo Baggins."
Frodo laughed. "Now what sort of lass would want a crocked old hobbit like me? I'm far too old now for all that. Besides,..............." His face grew solemn for a moment. ".............I'm not........ interested........."
"There was a time during Bilbo's party when that wasn't the case," Pearl murmured. "Pim and I dragged you behind the tent for a spot of canoodling and you seemed very interested............." She broke off when she noticed him blushing.
"Oh I was! Very! I was very naughty and had been flirting with you both all evening. I shouldn't have taken advantage of you. Your mother would have killed me!"
"I think we were the ones taking advantage when we hauled you behind that tent," said Pimpernel, chuckling. "That was my first proper kiss." Frodo's jaw dropped.
"Good heavens! Your first kiss? But.....but........some of the things you were doing when you kissed me are probably illegal in parts of the Shire! How on earth did you learn how to.......?"
"I'm a Took. It's a natural talent," said Pimpernel smugly.
"Yes......well....... Unfortunately that was the night I inherited the Ring, and I'm afraid it took away my desire and ability to love a lass in that way. Just as well really. It would have been difficult to just up and leave the Shire the way I did if I'd had a wife and family."
"And now that thing has gone?" Pervinca poured more hot water in the tea pot.
"Ah! Sadly that is one aspect of my life which has not been restored, although Sam is convinced there is still hope. The Quest, my wounds and the terrible things which happened to me........things I still cannot talk about........ finished what the Ring began. No lass is going to marry someone who cannot give her children or even be a proper husband."
"It's not fair!" Pimpernel burst into tears. "Why did this have to happen to you?"
"Pimmie, Pimmie, don't cry, my dear. I have lots of children - yours and Pearl's and Vinca's and Sam's brood. Those dear souls have shared their family with me and filled Bag End with laughter. It doesn't matter that they're not physically mine - despite what the Hobbiton gossips say about Frodo-lad." He held his cousin in his arms and stroked her hair.
Pearl sniffed. "Completely ignoring the fact that the child is the image of Sam. They're as alike as two peas in a pod. Bunch of blockheads! Do they really think you're his father because he's named after you? What else would Sam name his first son?"
Pervinca handed her sister a handkerchief. "Well, Frodo, if you're not going for a young lass, what about an older one with a bit of sense? Someone who knows there are other ways to keep a wife happy?" She winked.
"All the young lasses I had my eye on are now respectable wives and matrons with husbands. There aren't many eligible widows - Widow Rumble is a bit too old for me - and the only woman who seems to think I'm worth chasing is Hyacinth Bracegirdle! And I am praying to the Valar that Mr Bracegirdle lives to a good old age, otherwise I'll have to move to Gondor!"
All three sisters laughed at this. Pearl cut the large fruit cake in slices and handed it round.
"As for children - I have the best of both worlds. I can hand them back when they're misbehaving, and if I wish to go hiking round the Shire for a week I don't have to worry about leaving them behind. I love them dearly but I'm too old to start a family now. I was never very conventional and I'm an ancient hobbit you know."
"Rubbish! You're still the most handsome hobbit in the Shire. Bilbo may have aged after giving up the Ring but you haven't." Pimmie gazed at him. "But you are welcome to share our children, my dear. They adore you and you're wonderful with them. Any time you wish to come and stay, just turn up. There will always be a welcome for you at the Smials."
"And in the Southfarthing," added Pearl.
"I'm sorry I missed those ten minutes behind the tent," said Pervinca. "I think I'd have enjoyed canoodling with you, dearest Frodo."
"You were too young," her sisters retorted.
"In that case I'm claiming my kiss now," she said with a wicked chuckle, and kissed Frodo very firmly, full on the lips.
"Vinca, you're outrageous! Everard will thump me if he finds out," Frodo mumbled, catching his breath just in time for her to kiss him again.
"I won't tell him if you won't," said the unrepentant Took lass. "And these two won't either. And if Everard ever raised a hand to you - or me - he'd never see the inside of my bedroom again!" She giggled. "My Evie knows which side his bread is buttered, believe me."
"I'm sure he does.He's a very lucky hobbit - all your husbands are lucky to have you three."
"Flattery will get you everywhere," said Pearl. "Now you can escort us round the gardens if you would be so kind. Remember when Vinca was a baby and I left her in the maze and forgot her?"
Laughing, the four left the drawing-room and made their way into the sunshine.
After lunch, Frodo and Reggie sat together in the parlour, talking of old times. Reggie had been at Brandy Hall when Frodo's parents drowned and he remembered the drama and the horror of it all. He had done his best to distract his friend with games and walks, visits to the stables to see the kittens, and the prospect of flying his new kite. He did not realise it at the time, but something died inside Frodo that day. It gave him great pleasure to see his friend so cheerful now. Frodo was relating incidents from his youth after moving to Hobbiton.
"I remember Pip's first encounter with Gandalf. Not unlike my kitten in a way. He had been allowed to stay at Bag End for three nights and we were outside in the garden when Gandalf arrived. Pip was supposed to be having a nap. Suddenly out toddled this apparition, smothered in flour which he had pulled down from the pantry shelf. He waddled over to Gandalf, flung his arms round this enormous being's legs and said, 'Hello, Mr.Big Person. I'm Pippin Took!' and Gandalf looked down and said, 'Hmmm, yes, you would be!' I laughed so hard I nearly fell over!" This brought loud laughter from everyone.
Pippin bowed to the rest of the company. "True. I must have looked ridiculous, covered in flour and barely out of nappies. Gandalf was so gentle that I really didn't notice his size too much."
Merry and Sam were sitting at the table with a large book between them. They had been out to look at Brandy Hall's fine herb garden, the design of which had been Merry's idea. He was very interested in plants and herblore and was presently engrossed in the origins of pipeweed. His father and Paladin were helping and Saradoc had managed to find a book on the subject in the Hall's extensive library.
Reggie glanced over at Fredegar, who was talking earnestly with Everard and Berilac. "I would have come on your journey if you'd asked, Frodo."
"Don't be a dunderhead," murmured Frodo. "You had three children and your wife was expecting a fourth. It would have been criminal to even mention it and I would never try and twist your loyalities. I couldn't take you away from Clover and the little ones."
"I just wish I'd known you were leaving. I was frantic when I heard you'd gone, and Fatty's story about what happened at Crickhollow was hardly reassuring."
"I know, my dear friend, and I wish it could have been otherwise. But you are much too honest to keep a secret and I didn't want the whole of the Shire to know the truth. It was hard not being honest with you but I didn't want to drag everyone into it with me. I tried not to take Merry and Pip but they wouldn't listen."
"Since when have those two ever listened?" Reggie asked with a chuckle.
"Even Lord Elrond couldn't over-rule them. He looked quite bewildered when they rushed into the Council, saying they were coming too and they would have to be sent home tied in a sack to stop them." Frodo laughed. "Sam had already announced that I was not going anywhere without him, but I think Elrond already knew that. He just wasn't prepared for Merry and Pip."
"Is anyone ever prepared for Merry and Pip?"
"Elf-lords, kings, wizards........ it doesn't matter to them. They made friends with Boromir when I found him rather formidable. He was twisted round their little fingers before he knew what had hit him. He spent long hours teaching them sword-play, and thank the Valar he did, because they both used those skills in battle and then came back here and saved the Shire. We owe him a great deal. I'm just sorry that my last meeting with him was so unpleasant. I wish I could thank him for all he did for my cousins - and for me."
"Perhaps you will be able to when you're in Gondor. There must be a memorial of some sort?"
Frodo's face lit up. "That is a wonderful idea. Yes, I'm sure there must be a memorial in the House of the Stewards. Faramir and Aragorn would have made sure of it. Thanks, Reggie. I feel happier about it now. Perhaps Boromir knows what happened...........If I can feel sure I saw my parents in the next world, then surely Boromir would be aware that Evil was defeated and the White City restored to its former glory? I hope he knows."
"I'm sure he does, m'dear," said Sam softly. "I'd like to speak to Lord Boromir myself. I said some pretty harsh things when I heard what he'd done to you, but I reckon it's time to let bygones be bygones. I daresay he didn't really know what he was doing, and he couldn't help what happened any more than.........."
"Any more than I could help what happened when it took me? You're right, Sam. We shall visit Rath Dinen and make our peace."
"We must have tea soon, and then change for tonight's ceremony. Hope you've found a really extravagant outfit, Fro." Pippin glanced out of the window to where the beacon stood on the green in front of the main entrance.
Frodo smiled. "I don't know about that. I've brought the clothes Aragorn supplied us with when we left Minas Tirith. I have never worn them since I made the speech when I became Deputy Mayor. We had to check them over for moths but they are fine, and Rose aired them thoroughly. Sam's brought his too - that ornate tunic and cloak look very Mayoral on him."
"Ooooh! The ladies will be all a-flutter - you in sage green velvet tunic and that rich plum-coloured cloak. You'll need bodyguards to fight them off! It's a good thing Merry and I are here."
After tea the hobbits went their separate ways to wash and change before assembling in the entrance hall. Merry and Pippin were wearing their uniforms and both saluted Frodo when he appeared, presenting arms with a brisk flourish.
"Oh do stop that!" he muttered, embarrassed.
"We are saluting you in the name of Gondor and Rohan. We have our orders to do honour to the Ring-bearer."
"Do honour? I'll personally do you both a mischief if you do that again," he said, but he was smiling.
Pip's sisters arrived and gathered round Frodo with appreciative murmurs. The velvet cloak drew much attention, and little Persimmon was very taken with its softness.
"Nice. Fuwwy," she declared, stroking the material gently.
"And you have a sash for your dress which is almost the same colour, little petal."
"You should wear a scarf, dear," Esme said. "Don't want you catching a cold at this stage."
"I'll be fine, Esme. My cloak is warm and it's not that cold out there."
Rose stepped beside him, surrounded by the children. She was wearing a white and yellow dress and a midnight blue cloak lined with fur, which had been Frodo's gift to her on his last birthday.
"Well? How do I look?" she asked tentatively.
"Beautiful! It really suits you, Rose. That should keep you warm."
"Pumpkin? Scarf!" Esme said insistently, waving the offending object, and Frodo went to her at once. Merry shook his head slowly.
"Look at him! The pre-eminent citizen in all the lands of the West, beloved of the Valar, friend of kings, and Mother still calls him 'pumpkin'!"
Pip grinned. "My mother calls him 'honey-bun' as well!"
"And what is wrong with that?" Eglantine enquired, materialising silently behind her son. "I called him that when he was a baby, just as Esme called him pumpkin. Prim always called him 'lambkin' I remember."
"Yes, but he's grown-up now, Mother - or hadn't you noticed?"
"It's comforting sometimes to be reminded of the happier parts of childhood. You two were lucky and had parents. Poor Frodo was so young when everything he loved was taken from him. We used such endearments to try and show him that he was loved. Poor lad, he's had more than his fair share of suffering."
The Captains were still trying not to howl as they watched their cousin submitting to Esme's ministrations. She arranged the scarf for him, tucking it under his cloak and buttoning his jacket.
"There! Now are you are you don't need anything else?"
"Esme, if you suggest I wear mittens and socks, I shall run back to Hobbiton now!" he replied, laughing. "I'm warm enough."
"Go on then - off with you! Go and join Merry. He's just gone outside."
Frodo joined his cousin on the steps. He looked at the Horn of the Mark, which Merry was twirling in his hand. "May I?" He took the object and examined it closely. It was a magnificent piece of work, silver with a finely wrought relief of horses, burnished to a rich red in the light from the torch Pip was holding. The baldrick featured white horses running on a green field.
"So............what happens at this ceremony?"
"I sound the horn-call of the Mark and then the horn-cry of Buckland, and then usually Pip lights the beacon. He has the experience, you know."
"Only this time is going to be a little different and special," Pip added.
"This time you're going to light the beacon." Pip thrust the torch into Frodo's hand.
"To celebrate the fact that you're here to light the beacon, you blockheaded Baggins!"
"Oh! Still, I suppose it isn't difficult."
"Pip manages to light it without setting fire to half of Buckland or his own cloak, so it can't be."
"Do you mind! I'm an expert at beacon-lighting by now."
"Expert? Expert my arse!" Merry scoffed good naturedly.
"Language, dear," Esme murmured
Finally everyone was outside. Frodo looked around: there was Saradoc in one of his dazzling waistcoats - so that was where Merry got his ideas from - and Esme standing within her husband's encircling arm. Paladin and Eglantine stood with their large extended family, but Frodo sought and found Sam and Rose. Sam twinkled warmly at him, Merry-lad seated comfortably on his hip, the other three children standing tucked in front of their parents. Ellie and little Rosie waved and young Fro made a face.
Merry waited until he had everyone's attention. A hush settled as all turned towards the heir of Buckland. He lifted the horn to his lips and blew.
It was extraordinary, Frodo thought. The sound went in through his ears, bypassed his brain completely and went straight down his spine into his legs. He would have followed that sound anywhere. No wonder the Rohirrim were willing to follow Theoden onto the Pelennor Fields and smash into the armies of Mordor. He remembered Sam describing how Bill had reared and tried to turn back when Merry first sounded the horn in the Shire. It was totally compelling.
Merry changed the note and the horn-cry of Buckland rang through the night.
Awake! Awake! Awake! Fear, Fire, Foes! Awake!
Fear, Fire, Foes! Awake!
When the clarion sounds finally died away in the crsip air, Frodo stepped forward, raised the torch high above his head and then lowered it into the great wood-pile. There was a soft 'whump' as the oil soaked wood caught. Yellow flames began to lick hungrily at the wood and soon it was blazing. A great cheer went up and was echoed elsewhere in Buckland as other beacons were lit. Soon there were glows across the river into the Marish and on towards the Shire as the hobbits celebrated their liberation.
Servants moved through the company, carrying trays with small cups of hot punch and plates of roast chestnuts. The children ran about excitedly, rushing up to hug Frodo round the knees before dashing off again, squealing and laughing. Persimmon, Peridot and Rosie-lass were talking as earnestly as only little girls can, waving their hands in animated fashion and giggling.
"Little lasses are so different from lads, aren't they?" Sam enquired, joining his master near the beacon and nodding at the trio of tiny hobbits.
"I wonder what they're talking about? They are so engrossed. It looks as important as any diplomatic discussion in Gondor."
"It probably is to them. Look at 'em - jabbering away like three old gammers in the market-place. They take their friendships seriously, even at that age." Sam looked at Frodo. "Are you warm enough?"
"Don't you start! Bad enough with Esme bundling me up with scarves. I'm standing next to a large bonfire and swigging hot punch." He laughed. "Stop worrying, Sam. I'm having a wonderful time."
"So am I - made all the better by seeing you enjoying yourself. Pip tells me there's going to be dancing too, in the Great Hall."
"You know the Tooks and Branybucks - any excuse for a dance."
"Yes," said Pearl. "And we're claiming a dance from you. We all want to get our hands on that lovely velvet tunic, I'm sure."
"Not to mention what's underneath it," chuckled Pervinca, congratulating herself for making Frodo blush.
"Stop embarrassing poor Frodo, you scandalous minx!" said her husband, wrapping his arms round her and kissing the back of her neck.
Inside the Great Hall the tables had been pushed back against the walls and a group of musicians were tuning up in one corner. Pip was tightening the strings of a lute. He waved at his cousin and sisters.
"Hope you're all going to dance. The food's good too."
The food certainly looked good. There were large cauldrons of soup, dishes of spiced mushrooms, piles of sausages, pies, pasties, baked potatoes in their jackets, and great glass bowls full of trifle. The children were staring at the array, their eyes like saucers as they wondered where to start.
For nearly an hour there was little activity except eating, but when the rate of food consumption had slowed and the hobbits were engaged in the delightful task of 'filling up the corners' the band began to play some of the favourite and familiar dances such as 'Gathering Peascods' and Lilac Time'. Frodo found himself claimed for several, first by Pip's sisters, then young Primula, Sapphire and Emerald, and after them came Diamond and Estella, and the little ones.
"Don't let them wear you out, pumpkin," said Esme when he wandered over to help himself to some trifle. It was one of his favourites and old Aster had given orders that there should be plenty.
"I won't. Can't believe I'm in such demand though." The band struck up a slow dance, and he bowed. "May I have the pleasure of this dance, Mistress Esmeralda?"
"La, Master Baggins, how you turn a lady's head!" Esme laughed, primping her hair and taking his hand as he led her into the centre of the room.
Sam beamed and whispered to Rose. "Look at him! Never thought we'd see him dancing and laughing ever again, did we lass?"
"No. It's a real miracle. I think I should ask for a dance too - that soft velvet looks too inviting to miss." She patted his own velvet-clad arm. "You look very handsome too, my Sam. I'm a very lucky girl."
When the younger hobbitlings had been carried off to bed, the adults and some of the tweens sat around and recited poetry or sang. Pippin handed Frodo the lute - he much preferred to play the mandolin himself - and Frodo played a wistful Elven air which he had first heard in the Hall of Fire in Rivendell. It spoke of loss but also of acceptance and peace.
Merry and Pip decided to liven things up a little and began singing one or two tavern songs, despite warning looks from Esme and Eglantine. Pip produced a Bree-land ditty called 'Watkins' Ale' which turned out not to be about ale at all but something else altogether, and was a cautionary tale for unwary maidens who might live to regret partaking of this 'ale' - nine months later! There was much laughter from all, even if young Prim and Pinto were scarlet at the sentiments.
Not to be outdone, Merry sang a lusty song from Rohan, and Berilac followed with a couple from the Buckleberry taverns. It was late when a happy and slightly tipsy company made their unsteady way to bed.
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