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To Absent Friends
Legend at the Hill went that when Bilbo Baggins returned from his journey abroad he brought with him a magical cooking box. How exactly the rumour began, it was hard to say, but the wildest story went that in the months leading to Yule in the year of his return strange smokes began pouring out of Bag End’s chimney, coloured smokes that curled into the shapes of dragons and smelled like the Outlands. The smokes continued through all hours of the night, until some began to suspect that Mr. Baggins had somehow learned the art of summoning elf-shades—but ever since the fellow had had a lock installed on his door no one had been able to come in and investigate.
Then, about two weeks before Yule, the smokes abruptly stopped, and were not seen again until the thirtieth of December—but this time they appeared to be almost normal, not quite like a regular Yuletide’s baking.
But oh!—when the folk of Hobbiton came by a-wassailing, the things Mr. Baggins had for their delectation! Dark, rich cakes with—what was that mysterious ingredient in them? Jewelled shortbread, sweet biscuits with sugar icing, crystallised chestnuts, rich custard tart—only, there was a peculiar taste to it, to all of them, that was wholly marvellous but wholly unfamiliar!
And that was to say nothing of the wassail itself, which was practically swimming with new flavour. Folk tried to ask Mr. Baggins, but he just gave one of those enigmatic smiles which was now all too often his preferred response to perfectly decent questions. And so there was only one logical conclusion to be made: during his time beyond the Bounds, Mr. Baggins had gotten his hands on some sort of culinary magic which was quite dangerous to him, but perfectly harmless to those who benefitted from it. And somehow, through the years, somebody had learned that this particular sort of magic came in a box.
The box, along with everything else, went to Frodo when Bilbo mysteriously disappeared in 1401. So it was hardly surprising when, during the Yule of that year, the same oddly delicious food and drink were made available to the—numerous by now—locals, travellers, chance passers-by—anyone who had a halfway decent singing voice, a desire for hospitality, and no wassailers of their own to keep them tethered in hole. Next year there were some newer items, and strange alterations to the old ones, that better fit the taste of the Hill’s new master.
In truth Frodo had known the secrets of the box as soon as he moved into Bag End, and indeed had helped with all of the cooking and baking from the start. But he was sworn to silence on the matter, and kept the receipts locked up eleven months out of the year.
The box itself was on full display in the study, although today Frodo had it upon his desk, next to the letter he had just received. Bilbo had picked the box—and its contents—up from a trader in Laketown on his way home, who had in turn gotten it from a merchant from the Southlands. It was about the size of a small book, and even the wood itself smelled like Adventure. Frodo had loved it when he was young: the top had a copper sun laid on its centre, which he used to rub until it gleamed; and facing the sun on either side was an oliphaunt carved in relief. Just looking at a box like that stirred even the dullest child’s heart into dreams of Wilderland.
And once Bilbo had shown him how to open it, the things inside! He had known about pepper, of course, and sometimes on very special occasions had encountered cinnamon, but he had not known how many other kinds of wondrous spices were grown in faraway lands. Bilbo knew about all of them—or at least, a good deal more than any other hobbit did. Most of them looked like seeds, but there were also a few nuts, and a strange pod containing fragrant beans, and another that looked like a small, very strong-smelling nail. Bilbo knew all their names, and had invented some of them himself (when the only other option was Elvish—a very fair-sounding tongue, Bilbo said, but not really suited for cooking).
There was also peel, a preserved sugared form of the skin of some sort of fruit, though what fruit would want to make itself so difficult to get at Frodo could not guess. These usually found their way into the Yule puddings and cakes, along with a good measure of the other spices.
When Frodo had first gone through his uncle’s papers, he was rather relieved to find the names of the merchants who—through one friend or another—supplied the necessary spices each year. After all, the box only held so much, and he had a reputation to maintain.
Which brought him directly to the matter at hand. Yule would not be the same in Hobbiton without the astonishing Baggins wassail, but—
He sighed and reread the letter that lay before him.
December 23, 1408
My dearest Cousin Frodo,
I do hope that you will take my parents up on their offer! There—was that polite enough? Please understand—I have had it up to here (that is what that line above the date is supposed to mean)—with politeness and propriety and all that.
Mum says I’m just cranky because of my arm, and she might be right about that. We finally got a nice snowfall and I can’t go outside! I still say that the weather shouldn’t affect it at all, but you know how Mum gets.
At any rate, if the polite hinting was not enough, let me state myself a little more clearly:
PLEASE COME OVER FOR YULE. I SHALL GO MAD IF YOU DO NOT.
In case my parents did not already tell you, my Tookish cousins will be in Buckland this year. And we both know what that means.
Honestly, Frodo, how did you put up with me at that age? It is not that I dislike Pippin—I love him dearly—it is just that he can get so incredibly irritating, especially when one wishes to be left alone, or at least to be left with others one’s age! Did you know he’s already written to me, detailing plans for what he wants to do once he’s here? None of them hold any water (or snow, I should say!), mind, and they wouldn’t even if my arm weren’t broken, but somehow I still don’t have the heart to tell him that. Not that I didn’t wish I did…
Dad says I’m cranky because I’m a tween. Bother!
At any rate, Pippin is old enough for the wassail this year, which means that he will be more annoying than usual because he thinks he can drink* with the tweens. And you know how highly he thinks of his singing, too—never mind that he has (some) reason to!
I am rambling, Frodo, and I know it. Consider it an ample indicator of my state of mind. I am simply distracted, and I shall be even worse all the way through Yule.
Unless, of course, you come to Buckland as we’ve been asking. I miss you something terrible, but even more than that, there’s the matter of Peregrin Took. I can’t help but think that you’d know what to do in my situation—or at least that you’d act as if you knew what to do and thus cheer me up when all of your clever plans went horribly awry.
I know what you’re going to say in response, but you forget that I knew you before you were all dull and grown-up and responsible. You are a smart fellow and I daresay there’s some sort of way you can fulfil your duties as Master of Bag End and still make it here for Yule.
Consider this the last plea of a very, very desperate hobbit.
*In considerable moderation. I know how you grown folks like to monitor these things. In this case I must say I am rather grateful—Pippin drunk is the last thing I need!
Frodo sighed. The last Yule he had spent in Buckland, he was still living there. It was nothing against the place, or the people, though both were fraught with memories both sweet and bitter. It was simply that his uncle had a duty to stay over Yule, and he wanted to remain with his uncle. And in time Frodo had come to love the Bag End wassail in its own right, because he got to see the everyday folk of Hobbiton and Bywater on much more familiar terms and—more importantly—because it made them happy. Cancelling it on a cousin’s plea was unthinkable!
And yet, ever since Bilbo left, Saradoc and Esmeralda had extended the same patient invitation, and despite all the pleasantry and bustle Frodo could not deny that there was a hole in his heart that gnawed at him especially around the turning of the year. But what size and shape it was he could not say.
He read the letter again—you are a smart fellow—and then opened the spice box and took a deep breath. If Bilbo ever found out about this he was going to have Frodo’s hide—but, Frodo reasoned, if he didn’t want Frodo going back on his wishes he oughtn’t to have left in the first place.
Looking up, he saw Sam Gamgee walking past with an axe and wedges in his hands. Frodo tapped on the window to get his attention.
“Yes, Mr. Frodo?”
Frodo opened the window. “Sam, when you get back to your home would you ask the Gaffer to stop by? If his joints are ailing him tell him I’ll make it worth his while.”
“Of course, Mr. Frodo.”
“Thank you.” Frodo shut the window and picked up the spice box. If his plan was going to work at all he’d have to start baking!
* * *
Bag End was already smelling like Yule by teatime. Frodo was just taking the kettle off the hob when he heard the Gaffer’s rap at the door. Instantly he sprang up to get the door.
“Come in, Mr. Gamgee!” he said, taking off the fellow’s cloak and hanging it on one of the pegs. “I was just sitting down to tea; you’re more than welcome to join me if you wish.”
The Gaffer nodded, looking round. He was wheezing just a little, and, given the blast of cold air that had hit him as he opened the door, Frodo could hardly blame him. In a few minutes they were seated and enjoying a short repast.
“Now,” said the Gaffer, as soon as he was sufficiently warmed, “meaning no disrespect or the like—but since I remember you here from when you was a lad I reckon I can say sommat on the matter—but what is all this mollycoddling for? Sam’s not misbehaving hisself on the job, is he?”
“Indeed no, Mr. Gamgee,” said Frodo, smiling over his teacup. “Sam is everything I could hope for in a gardener and more. I was merely attempting to show the deference your age warrants. But”—he paused to reach for the jam—there is something I wished to discuss with you.”
The Gaffer gave Frodo a shrewd look, as if to say that he had guessed as much.
“You see,” Frodo said, “I am thinking of going on holiday for Yule this year. Not that kind of a holiday,” he added, seeing the old fellow’s look of alarm; “only to Buckland, to see my mother’s kin.”
Mr. Gamgee did not look considerably relieved; however, years under the employ of the Bagginses had taught him to keep his mouth wisely shut.
“I do not, however, wish for the Bag End wassail to halt simply because I am not there. I was thinking—if you did not mind, of course—that you could preside over it instead.”
The Gaffer was silent for a minute. “There ain’t nothing wrong with skipping it ever so often,” he said. “Mr. Bilbo used to do so, you know, once or twice, afore he adopted you.”
“I know,” said Frodo, “but I am not he, and I would rather do my part in spreading Yuletide cheer this year. My uncle trusted you, and I trust you, and I can think of no better person to oversee this in my absence. I shall still be doing all the baking, and you may leave my chair empty at the hearth if it helps you feel better about the whole matter. The only things you will need to worry about are the key, the Yule log, and the wassail itself.”
“Well, to be quite honest-like, I don’t like the looks of what you’re doing, Mr. Frodo. ‘Tain’t proper, having working class run a gentry’s wassail.” He sighed. “But the plough’s got to follow the horse, even when there’s rocks afield. I’ll do your bidding.”
“You may always chalk it up to the famed Baggins eccentricity, Mr. Gamgee, especially in the Ivy Bush—I daresay you won’t lack for talk there! But as I said, you’ll need to do the wassail yourself. What say we whip up a sample batch and I show you how it’s done?”
The Gaffer did not say anything about dwarf-magic, not even when Frodo showed him the strange spices in the spice-box. But all through the demonstration his eyes gleamed, and Frodo knew that despite any personal misgivings Mr. Gamgee was honoured to have the secret of the Baggins wassail.
By the same token he knew that the Gaffer would take the secret with him to his grave.
* * *
The next day Frodo was up early to resume his work. Bilbo had always preferred getting everything done on the last day of December—or, heavens forbid, Yule itself!—in what he termed a pleasant bustle and what Frodo termed a pleasant catastrophe. Spreading the work out over time, on the other hand, yielded a number of benefits. He was delighted to find, in the Yule of Bilbo’s departure, that getting things done ahead of time not only improved his sanity; it also improved the flavour of a number of the items as the various spices had more time to acquaint themselves with the rest of the dish.
He was pounding some cloves and cinnamon together for the spice-cakes when he heard a knock at the door. It was Sam.
“Begging your pardon, Mr. Frodo…” said Sam, right on the doorstep.
“Come in, come in,” said Frodo, trying not to let his irritation at the interruption show. “Is there aught wrong?”
“Nothing,” said Sam, following him inside. “Only I’d heard from my Gaffer as you weren’t going to be here for Yule, and I wondered—”
“I’ll only be off to Buckland, Sam,” said Frodo, returning his attention to the spices. “And I assure you, I shall be surrounded by cousins who will look after me and my every need, whether I desire it or not. Merry will be there—you remember him—and Pippin Took as well.”
“Sounds like you’ll have your hands full, Master.”
“Did you really give my dad—”
“—the wassail receipt, yes; may you have it as well, no.” He threw the spices into the bowl of meal and set some black treacle in a saucepan on the hob to melt. “You should consider yourself lucky that I let you into the kitchen in the first place.”
“That was the furthest thing from my mind!” said Sam.
“And that is why I let you in.”
“Well,” said Sam, with a sigh, “Yule won’t be the same without you, Master.”
Frodo studied him. He was still sometimes caught off guard when he realised, time and again, that Sam was now fully grown and nearly of age. He had grown so astonishingly well, too—he had been a competent gardener even when he was just a lad; he was maturing into something else entirely. “I’ll tell you what, though,” Frodo said. “If you’d like, you can help me find greenery for the hole come Tuesday, and decorate it while I’m gone, too. You remember where the Yule log’s kept, don’t you?”
Sam nodded. “Back corner of the cellar. And I’ve already found you a good log for this year, too.”
“Excellent,” said Frodo. He poured the treacle into the meal and cracked a few eggs into the bowl. “And if you’d care to come back in another couple of hours and test this batch of cakes for me you’re more than welcome to!”
Sam did so, and in fact left his mark of approval on just about everything that came out of Frodo’s kitchen that day, and the next, and Frodo did not mind. If he was going to be gone for Yule he wanted everything tasting just right, and he knew besides that Sam was taking his impending absence sorely. Late in the night on the twenty-seventh Frodo packed up his warmer travel gear, as well as provisions and a few nicer outfits for Yule in Buckland. All that remained to be done was the greenery next morning, and then—his feet itched at the prospect of the Road.
* * *
Mr. Halfpenny was just about to take up the lantern to leave when he saw it—or rather, him, he should say. Scared him right out of his fur, it did, though the cloaked figure did not even blink. As the Shire Posthobbit for Buckland he got some queer customers, but this was something else entirely. He was tall, like one of the Big Folk, but he was unusually slender, and the face… Mr. Halfpenny swallowed as he realised that this must be one of the Fair Folk.
“I have a letter to be delivered to the Shire,” the elf said.
Mr. Halfpenny’s heart hammered in his throat. “I’m sorry, sir,” he managed to squeak out. “Post’s closed for the week. Mayor’s orders.”
“That is a shame,” the elf said. “I was told this needed to reach its address by the end of the year.”
The posthobbit took the letter and looked at the address. “Well, if you’d care to deliver this yourself, you could still make it on time. I’d give you directions and all. But I’m not about to trek halfway across the Shire during my time off just to deliver one letter.”
“Alas, I have obligations myself, which cannot afford the delay of a few days.” The elf sighed. “When the Post recommences, do make sure this is delivered.” He handed Mr. Halfpenny a coin.
Mr. Halfpenny looked at it. A full silver! He stammered something to the elf, but when he looked up, his mysterious visitor was gone. Shaking his head, he laid the letter on his desk, pocketed the coin, and, taking up the lantern, left to a cold hearth and a cold home.
* * *
“I’d still like to know,” said Sam, as they walked back to the Hill, arms piled with evergreens, “who thought up the notion of mistletoe as a kissing plant. The thing’s a leech, feeding off perfectly decent trees!”
“Maybe the fellow had a bleak sense of humour,” said Frodo. “Maybe he had a wretched marriage and was trying to warn bachelors from sharing in his fate.”
“I should hope not!” said Sam, a good deal more stoutly than Frodo had expected.
“Why?” said Frodo cautiously. “Have you got your eye on someone already?”
“Mr. Frodo!” Sam was the picture of indignation. “I don’t pry into your affairs none, so I don’t see as why you should pry into mine! Meaning no disrespect, of course,” he added hastily, blushing.
“Of course, Sam,” said Frodo. “Pray forgive me.” They went to the gardening shed out back, where Sam put their findings in water to keep fresh till Yule.
“There’s not much daylight today,” said Frodo. “I should get a head start on my travels.” He began to walk around front. “I’ll leave the key with your father; I trust your gardener’s eye to put everything up beautifully. Just, you know,” he added, fingering the ring in his pocket, “don’t go through my personal effects or anything.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, Master.”
“Thank you.” Standing there at the doorway to his home, Frodo took his hand. “Glad Yule, Sam,” he said.
“Glad Yule, Mr. Frodo. Travel safe.”
And like that, within minutes, Frodo was off, savouring the winter air and the still-beautiful sensation of being on his own and beholden—for just these few days—to no one but himself. Craving the solitude of less travelled roads, he turned south at the Three-Farthing stone to pick up the road from the Tooklands to Stock. There were more trees this way, which meant more dry shelter. And there were fewer towns to tempt him to stop.
The snow only half-covered the ground here, and it was quite a few days old, so his feet made a pleasant crunch cutting through it as he left the road. There was a striking absence of colour—the sky was pale grey and the trees dark, the grass a dead brown and the snow whiter than milk. Even though he could hear the distant cry of the occasional bird, it still felt as if he were the only living thing in miles. Sound was at once magnified and muffled; he dared not disturb the tranquillity with song as was his wont. Cold weather usually kept Frodo indoors over winter—but when the clouds blew away and the moon came out and made the snow shine silver—ah! he would brave the cruellest of winds.
The first night he spent buried in needles under a tree; the second within one. By the thirtieth, when he reached the Yale, it felt as if he had been gone from civilisation for years, and he almost wanted to fly back to the countryside, even though but a few steps would have taken him beyond to the same. Once at Stock the desire for warmth overpowered the desire for the Road, so he stopped in at the Golden Perch for a hot meal and a drain.
The noise and the sudden shift from grey to gold jarred, but Frodo steeled his nerves and reminded himself that this was precisely what he could expect from Buckland. Suddenly the prospect of being greeted by Merry, Pippin, and countless others was in fact daunting, especially as he remembered his sore back and weary feet. He ate quietly, in a corner, and was content to observe the others in the pub making merry.
By the time Frodo reached the Ferry the sun had gone down, even though the day was hardly over. The Brandywine rippled by him, and his heart leapt with an urge to cross it and never come back. He did cross it, but when he was done he turned and looked at the opposite bank, quietly telling his heart, Not yet. He thought of his home, and all the little streams and fields surrounding it, and said that this was enough. Then he went on.
When he knocked at the big main door to Brandy Hall, he was hardly surprised to see who opened it. Merry Brandybuck stood there, a wide smile spreading across his face, though he seemed a little uncertain as to what to do with Frodo until Frodo embraced him. He had better not have been contemplating shaking my hand, thought Frodo, though he was smiled as widely as Merry.
“Oh, Frodo, it’s so lovely to see you again!” Merry finally said as they stepped inside. “I honestly thought that I was never going to get you out of that home of yours.”
“Well, I’m glad I got out, not least because of you. How’s your arm?”
“And your cousin?”
“Worse. Do you know, I think he’s jealous of you. I told him you were coming after I got your letter, and he told me he wanted nothing to do with you because you were grown up and dull.”
Frodo laughed. “How did you respond to that?”
“That in that case he’d best make do with a bad situation. I’m sure he’ll regret what he said once he remembers what you’re actually like.”
“We’ll see about that.”
As they were walking Frodo saw one of the younger lads look at him, then scamper off, crying, “Frodo’s here!” He sighed. “Merry, is there anywhere you can hide me?”
“Well, my parents did want to see you in private in the Master’s study if you have a minute.”
“Marvellous. I think I’ll head there now.”
“All right, but don’t forget that you promised to help me out.”
“I haven’t,” said Frodo.
* * *
The study had changed—Frodo still found that odd, though he had never really acquainted himself with how it used to look. The great oaken desk was the same, of course, but the dull brass inkstand was replaced with some sort of shining crystal and the fire let off a different smell of smoke. Perhaps that was the chestnuts, though.
“You certainly know how to bring back old memories,” he said, peeling off the brittle skin and popping the sweet flesh in his mouth. He chewed it slowly, turning it into a mash that warmed his whole mouth; he swallowed it and it smoothly went down.
“Goodness,” said Saradoc. “When was the first time we did this?”
“The Yule after my parents died, if I remember correctly,” said Frodo.
“Really?” said Esmeralda. “We surely didn’t mean—”
“It’s all right.” Frodo smiled. “You were a great comfort to me in those years.” He picked up and peeled another chestnut. “For that—and for all your other kindnesses—I thank you. I must admit I was not looking forward to being bombarded by small cousins the minute I arrived.” He sank down into one of the plush armchairs—another one of Saradoc’s additions since his father’s death earlier in the year.
“We do try to look out for you, as much as we can,” said Saradoc. “Even from this distance!... What?” Frodo was looking rather bemused.
“You’ve got that ‘I’m going to discuss something very important so you had better sit down and be quiet’ expression on your face.”
“Heavens! Is it that obvious?”
“I’d give you some credit, Sara,” said Esmeralda. “You’ve had to work on that look quite a bit in the last few months.”
Saradoc sighed. “Well, I was trying to tell you something. We worry for you, you see, out there in Hobbiton all on your own, and of course with the duties of the Hall there’s even less that we can do, now…”
“What we were wondering, Frodo, is when are you going to settle down?”
Frodo laughed. “I beg your pardon? I’ve been master of Bag End for the past seven years; you practically had to pry me away to get me to spend Yule here… how is that not ‘settled’?”
“Frodo,” said Esmeralda, “when are you going to get married? When are you going to start a family of your own?”
“Ah,” said Frodo. He sighed. “I don’t know if there’s any way I can tell you this, in a way that won’t make you upset, or disappointed, or sad—I don’t think I shall.”
“You shan’t—whyever not, Frodo?”
He laughed. “Well, first there’d be the matter of finding someone willing to have me… Which, I know, would not be nearly as difficult if I didn’t insist on making myself so daft all the time—but that’s just the thing, you see? Maybe it’s just not something I’m suited for.”
Saradoc placed his hand on Frodo’s wrist; Frodo could see he was troubled. “Don’t say such things about yourself, not unless you know they’re grounded in fact. I, for one, think you’d make an excellent husband and a wonderful father. Just because you haven’t found anyone—”
“But I haven’t been looking! I know, I know—you’ve always wanted me to be as happy as you. But we all find joy in different things, don’t we?” He stood up. “And besides, there’s that excellent Bag End hospitality, home for the weary traveller, and all the folk of the Hill who already try looking—or peeping—after me, in their own way, and I’d be yielding the coveted ‘bachelor uncle’ position to some other less fortunate fellow… I could give you half a dozen more reasons; believe me, Aunt Dora wanted me to continue the family name until the day that she died.”
He walked over to one of the glass windows and opened it, breathing deeply of the air and looking west. “Truth is, I’m already married.” He shifted over so that Saradoc could join him. “The brooks and the rivers, the meads and the forests, the stars shining under heaven… What need do I have for a wife when I can find all this beauty in the Shire herself? And she is a lover as complex as any hobbit I have ever met—sometimes coy, hiding her best secrets so I have to work at discovering them; sometimes intoxicating under the moonlight; sometimes so utterly vexing that I’d rather be quit of her altogether!—but always, in the end, loving, fruitful, bringing out the best of herself, just for me. And one lifetime will be quite insufficient to get to know her.”
“I don’t understand,” said Saradoc.
“I know. And the only one who did is gone and has been these past seven years.”
Esmeralda came up behind him and rested her hand on his shoulder. “Frodo, we just don’t want you to be lonely.”
Frodo turned around, resting his elbows on the window sill, and smiled. “On the contrary, Aunt Esme, I find loneliness and solitude to be two different things entirely!”
* * *
He ran into Pippin on the way to supper. Seeing Merry close behind him with an irked expression on his face, he rather suspected that his younger cousin had darted past the elder at some inopportune moment.
“Hullo, Pippin!” he said.
“Hullo, Frodo!” said Pippin. “Have you heard what the cooks are making for dinner tomorrow? It’s splendid! There will be capons and goose and pheasant and beefsteaks and venison, and plum pudding and trifle for afters, and of course later on when the wassailing starts…”
“Hullo, Frodo,” said Merry, half-smiling and half-shaking his head, with this peculiar look in his eyes expressive of the desire to do violence.
“Hullo, Merry,” said Frodo, trying not to laugh. “So, if I end up giving him all the cream fudge I brought with me, in one go…”
“I’ll throttle you in my sleep.”
“With your one hand.”
“Oh, do be quiet.”
Frodo smiled and entered the dining room. Then he looked at the faces of the various children already there, who were gazing at him with mixed curiosity and rapture. “Merry,” he said, “why are the children looking at me as if I’m a living legend?”
Merry swallowed. “I may have told them about the time your ghost story sent me to your room for safety in numbers.”
“Oh, right—ghost stories on the night before Yule! I’d nearly forgotten.”
“Well, I hope you have one prepared. I was only trying to get them to go away, you see, and that was the first thing that came to mind…”
“Of course I have one prepared, Merry! I said ‘nearly forgotten,’ not ‘utterly,’ and at any rate I’ve had years to think of a good tale to spin. You did tell them you were six at the time, didn’t you?”
“I may have exaggerated my age.”
Frodo tried to ignore the looks all throughout dinner. “Tell them I’ll be going last when the tale-telling starts, Merry,” he said.
“All right—though I don’t know if I’ll be doing it this year or not. A number of us were thinking of sneaking around to learn what it is the adults do, and I might want to go.”
“Fine, then,” said Frodo with a smile, “you won’t get to hear my story.”
“You could tell it to me afterwards!”
“I could, but I won’t.”
“Frodo, I thought you were supposed to be helping me!”
“Maybe I am,” said Frodo.
Merry muttered something under his breath about ‘grown-ups’ and ‘elf-talk.’
* * *
The fire was down to embers. Some of the youngest children were asleep, but most of them would have difficulty for the rest of the night.
“And so,” said Frodo, “in the morning, the hobbit knocked out the false wall, just where the shade had told him it was, and found the poor lass’s bones. He buried them in a green meadow, but not before cutting off the little finger of the left hand. And from it he fashioned a pendant, which he wore around his neck the next market day.
“And sure enough, just as the shade had told him, one of the hobbits in town reached out and touched that pendant, and when he did, the finger stuck to his hand like solder. Try as he might, he could not get that finger bone off his hand, not even when he tried cutting off the skin it was stuck to.
“Finally, filled with madness and despair, he confessed to having locked the girl in her home when the floods were due, to barring the door, wedging all the windows, and blocking up the chimney, and to having hid her body behind a false wall in the kitchen.
“He was sent before the Master of the Hall, was sentenced to be banished from the Shire for the rest of his life. I don’t know what happened to him after that, but the story goes that the finger bone did not leave his hand, not even in the grave.
“As for the hobbit who was brave enough to spend the night in that haunted smial, he cleaned and scrubbed the place out until it was as good as new, and the Master gave him the deed to that home as a reward for his good service. And every springtime he laid fresh flowers at the grave of the young girl. And though the Brandywine flooded twice again during his lifetime, all his home and all his goods remained perfectly dry.”
The last of the logs cracked and burst open in a flurry of sparks. Frodo saw Pippin flinch and cling to Merry’s leg.
“And I think that is the signal for bedtime,” said Frodo. “Sleep well.” Those who were sleeping were nudged awake, and the children filed out in clumps of twos or threes. He heard one of them whispering to another, “How in the Shire are we supposed to do that?”
“Merry,” said Pippin quietly, “could I stay with you tonight?”
“I’ll take him if you’d like, Merry,” said Frodo. “That is, if you don’t mind being with a grown-up who’s dull, Pippin.”
“That’s all right,” said Pippin. He took hold of Frodo’s hand; Frodo gave it a quick squeeze.
“He wasn’t supposed to tell you that!” Pippin hissed as soon as they had parted company for the night.
“It’s all right,” said Frodo. “I knew you didn’t mean harm by it. After all, I am forty years old, and I know myself well enough to know that I can be exceedingly dull if I have a mind.”
“I think Merry’s trying to make himself dull,” said Pippin.
“Now, Pip, do you really mean that, or do you mean to say that you wish he’d spend more time with you?”
Pippin frowned. “A little of both, I think.”
Frodo reached down and ruffled Pippin’s hair. “Don’t worry, it’ll all make sense to you in a few years.”
“Ugh! Everyone’s telling me that!”
“Sorry, Pippin. Let’s see—you know how sometimes, when you first step outside on a beautiful summer day, you feel so full of energy that you think you’ll burst, so you have to run around and sing?”
“Imagine that, only instead of energy, you’re filled up with half a dozen conflicting feelings.”
Pippin opened his mouth in dismayed horror.
“That is what being a tween feels like. He’ll grow out of it, same as the rest of us.”
Frodo opened the door to the guest room he had been given, and opened his knapsack to pull out his outfit for the next day.
“Frodo?” said Pippin.
“Do hobbits really kill each other?”
Frodo sat down on the bed. “Can you think of anyone that you hate so much you’d want to kill?”
Pippin thought for a minute. “No. But that thing you said about tweens—”
“Doesn’t go so far as killing.” He took the washbasin from the bedside table. “Get ready for bed, Pip.”
“My nightshirt’s in the other room.”
“Go and get it, then.”
Frodo sighed and found a spare shirt he’d packed. He handed it to Pippin. “Long enough?”
“Yes.” Pippin began to undress. “But they say things about Pearl.”
“Yes, and they say things about my parents, too. They, Pippin, say a lot of things, and most of them aren’t true.”
“Pearl was a tween, though. Frodo, are ghosts real?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen any hobbit-ghosts, if that’s what you’re asking. But my uncle used to tell me terrible tales about the houseless spirits of elves, or men who were cursed, or men who were tricked by the deceits of the Enemy into thinking they’d seen ghosts. It’s hard to say.”
“Frodo, you’re supposed to make me feel better, not worse.”
“Maybe, but I’m also supposed to tell you the truth and not comfort you with lies.”
They finished their preparations in silence. Finally, when Frodo was about to blow out the candle, Pippin said, “You’re a good cousin, you know that, Frodo?”
“So I’ve been told,” said Frodo. “Goodnight, Pippin.”
Frodo blew out the candle, and Pippin fell asleep readily enough.
But Frodo remembered Pippin’s words, and Saradoc’s, and the warm weight of the child who had fallen asleep on his lap while he was listening to the other ghost stories, and lay awake long hours thinking.
* * *
He was wandering a lovely, barren, windswept landscape when he heard it.
Not fair, he thought, not today, but already the sound of the waves had awakened in him that sweet heartache, the longing for he knew not what, and in spite of himself his footsteps turned westward. Maybe, this time, just this once, he’d get to see it…
He crested a rocky outcrop, and a sudden gust of wind blew his hair back. He tasted salt when he breathed in; tears sprang to his eyes and blew back so strongly that their track reached his ears. He ploughed on, against the wind, muttering imprecations against himself and his own persistence.
But though it roared in his ears as if he were standing in the surf itself, he could not find the Sea, no matter how far he walked.
Not fair, he thought again, sinking to the ground against the wall. He allowed himself a brief fit of the weeping that normally did not become a gentlehobbit. The wind howled.
Standing up again, he turned and saw that—quite out of nowhere, he was sure—there was now a small thatched cottage with a square door, right behind him. It had been painted once, but what colour he could no longer tell, and the door creaked in the wind. It did not look very hospitable, but it was shelter and he did not have the heart to continue westward just yet. He knocked on the door twice, waiting for an answer and half-expecting none. When nothing but the wind and the waves greeted his ears, he finally pushed the thing in and stepped inside.
After shaking the spray from his hair, he looked up and was startled to see a substantial fire casting a cheery glow on the entire room. Even more startling was the hobbit matron sitting next to it in a rocking chair and knitting as if there were nothing at all wrong in the world.
“I beg your pardon,” Frodo stammered.
She set her knitting down and looked up with a slightly irked expression on her face. “My, you’re rather far afield tonight, aren’t you?” She sighed. “This had better not be another one of my brother’s jokes…” She closed her eyes, as if in thought, and then picked up her knitting again. “Never mind that. What exactly are you doing here, Frodo Baggins?”
“The… the storm outside,” he muttered, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the door. “And what do you mean, ‘rather far afield’? I thought I was allowed to do as I pleased in dreams.”
“And who told you that, I wonder?” She tsked. “No matter; you’re here now, whether you ought to be or not.”
“But where is here, and why can’t I be—” An idea suddenly entered Frodo’s mind, one that at once filled him with hope and dread. He studied the hobbit’s face, trying to see if it fit with hazy memories and the passage of time…
“No, lad, I’m not your mother, bless her heart, and you couldn’t see her even if you asked nicely. You ought to be worried if you could see her, at your age. No,” she said, studying her work, “you’ve still got several years before it comes to that. Which brings us to the matter of why you are here, especially at this point… Let me look you in the eye, lad.”
She beckoned for him to come closer. He came to the fire and looked into her eyes. It was like falling into falling, faster than an arrow and his head was reeling, spinning—she blinked, and he fell heavily down upon his bottom. Who was she? “My—my lady…”
“Now, now, there’ll be none of that, not after you’ve already barged in here.” Strong hands pulled him back to standing. She shut her eyes again. “Hum,” she said. “Nothing that a cup of tea and a strong bit of advice won’t fix.” She unhooked the kettle from the hearth—had that been there before?—and poured some steaming water into a teapot. She pulled out a stool for Frodo; he sat down without thinking.
A warm teacup was pressed into his hand. He took a sip and was rather astonished to find that it was perfectly ordinary tea.
“Now. You have two full days ahead of you with family that love you—which is, I might add, considerably more than many of the people I know. So. No moping around, wishing, wondering, or dallying in what-ifs. You’re stuck with the ‘is,’ and your ‘is’ is pretty nice, so you’d best make the most of it. Do you understand?”
“I think so…”
“Good. You’d better take it to heart, lad, because—” She looked around her. “Let me show you something.” She thrust the knitting into his hands. It was marvellous—the strands were airy-thin, and the cables more intricate and fantastic than any he had ever seen before, but the web it made was strong and warm. “Do you know much about knitting?”
“Only a little.”
“Well, I should hope you know about this here.” She pointed to the place where it had been knotted off. “See, if this thread comes loose, the whole thing unravels. You, Frodo, have got to make sure you have it in you to last all the way to this point, because if you don’t—hey! That’s cheating!” She snatched the knitting back from him. He had only been trying to trace the string back…
“Anyhow,” the lady said, “you’d best make merry this Yule. Make yourself some memories for later, eh?”
“All right,” said Frodo.
“Good. Now please get out.”
Frodo stepped outside, and his dreams swiftly turned to other things until he had quite forgotten about the strange encounter. But throughout it all, he still heard the faint crash of the waves…
* * *
“Frodo!” A pair of small hands pushed at him. “Frodo! Frodo!”
“Hm?” He turned over in bed and slowly opened his eyes.
“It’s Yule! Glad Yule, Frodo!”
“Glad Y—” Frodo sat up in bed and rubbed at his eyes. The room was dark. “Pippin, what time is it?”
Pippin got off the bed and opened the shutters. “Oh, the sun’ll be up in an hour. When do you suppose we’ll start opening gifts?”
“Because that’s how they do things in Brandy Hall.”
“Then what are we going to do today?”
“That’s in the evening. What about today?”
“Today, Pip my lad, we are going to reform Merry. But first let’s get you back to your family.”
* * *
One of the benefits of living in Brandy Hall, Frodo mused, was the breakfast. Shirred eggs, three kinds of toast, stewed tomatoes, fish—when was the last time he’d had fish for breakfast, anyhow? And that was for only one of the two!
He left his relations to their own devices for most of the morning, deciding to take a walk in the winter air and scheme. All his plans were in order by eleven o’clock, and he sought out Merry at the start of that meal.
“I didn’t manage to ask you,” he said, without preamble. “How was my story last night?”
“Grisly,” said Merry. He smiled. “Everyone in the Hall now thinks it’s on account of your having left Buckland for Hobbiton.”
Frodo laughed. “More on account of my cracked uncle, I think. Bless my heart, I do wonder where the old fellow is now.”
“What about my tale? I daresay it sounded familiar.”
“Yes—I believe there’s a law against stealing someone else’s story, Merry.”
“Look, I wasn’t planning on going this year! What was I supposed to do?”
“Do my story justice, or at least ask me how it went twenty years after the fact! But—speaking of plans, have you decided what you’re doing tonight?”
“I was intending to go with the big group—Berilac and the lads.”
“Well, I had a bit of a plan of my own that I wouldn’t mind you giving ear to. See, Pippin may think a bit too highly of his own singing, but when you consider how small he is and how ridiculous he looks with that smug expression on his face—mothers eat that up like mushrooms. Only they can’t give him anything but food, so…”
“And again, my noble plan to have you help me out has backfired. I already spent half the morning with him—”
“Merry, I got him off your hands last night. And if you would just look at my plan objectively… We could compare our two approaches tomorrow morning if you’d like and see which one of us reaped more success.”
“Not fair. You’ve got the whole ‘I remember you from when you were a wee orphan lad’ thing going for you.”
“In which case it’d be most logical for you to join us—”
“Frodo, what if he embarrasses me?”
“He’ll be no more an embarrassment to you than you were to me at your age.” He leaned in. “Merry, let me let you in on a secret, one which Bilbo imparted to me after long years of hard-won wisdom. ‘The biggest part of growing up,’ he said, ‘is learning that being grown-up is not a farthing of what it’s cracked up to be.’ Pippin is giving you a wonderful excuse—an excuse to be as young and gay as you’d like, and if anyone worthless enough to ask you asks you about it, you just say it’s for him and not yourself. So, Merry, try Yule my way this year, and then all of next year be as much of those tween approximations of adulthood as you can, and tell me which one’s actually more fun.” He pressed something cold and wet into Merry’s hand. “I know you’ve been itching to get outdoors.”
Merry looked at his hand. In it was a perfectly round, perfectly formed snowball.
* * *
Pippin was on his way to elevenses with his family when he heard a strange whisper from a nearby hallway. Curious, he stopped to investigate—
—and, before he could so much as take a step into the hall, was struck in the shoulder by a snowball.
“Ouch!” he said. Quickly he brushed up the remnants of the snow for a return volley, but after he threw it he heard the snow ‘pffff’ in the distance—the unmistakeable sound of a miss. He rubbed at his shoulder. There was more in that snowball than snow…
Looking round, he saw what else had hit him—a walnut, which was slowly rolling away down the edge of the hall. Grumbling to himself about low tricks, Pippin picked it up, and was astonished to find that it had already been cracked open and tied back shut. He bit at the string to tear it off, then opened the walnut shell and found a small slip of paper, tightly rolled, reading as follows:
If Merry has made you the recipient of this present (as I suspect he has), you will find a pail of fresh snow in your room with which to retaliate after luncheon. Please avoid his broken arm, though.
* * *
Merry was leaving the kitchen (to ‘check on dinner,’ as he liked to put it) when it happened.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” he gasped, as what felt like an entire barrel of snow slid unceremoniously down the back of his shirt and into the seat of his breeches. He whirled around as a pail clanged to the floor and a pair of feet scampered off behind a large kettle.
“PIPPIN!” he bellowed, following in hot pursuit. His cousin led him only a short chase, as Merry knew the ins and outs of this particular kitchen as he knew his foot-hair. Shortly thereafter Pippin was cowering before Merry like a whipped cur.
“I’m… I’m terribly sorry, Merry, really I am…”
“I am this close,” said Merry, holding his finger and thumb a grain apart, “to putting an end to your miserable life.”
Pippin shrank into a sack of flour. “But the pail was already there, and after you hit me…”
Merry stopped in his tracks. “Frodo put you up to this, didn’t he?”
Merry smiled like a cat and held out his hand to help Pippin up. “Are we getting even?”
Pippin took it, and stood up, terror falling from him like an ill-fitting cloak. “I think we are.”
* * *
Frodo came back to his room just before dinner to put on his finery, but something seemed a little off. His mouth worked as he realised what it was—his bed was made! What was more, there seemed to be a slumbering form inside it, though the shape was vague enough that he could not tell which of his relations had decided to take a nap in his bed.
Tiptoeing closer, he snatched up the corner of the quilt and flung it off…
To discover that his visitor was not made of flesh and blood but snow! “Merry…” he said in a warning voice.
His bed erupted in laughter. Frodo kicked underneath it and came into contact with something soft and warm. “Both of you, out,” he said, for his bed had distinctly had two voices. While listening to their grumbling he scooped into the snowhobbit on his bed and readied himself.
Merry and Pippin were thanked for their troubles by a handful of snow to the face.
“Frodo!” cried Merry, wiping the snow off his face, “That was a work of art!”
“I cleared off half an acre to get that much snow!” said Pippin.
“Well, it’s ruined now,” said Frodo, and he lifted the sheet from his bed so that the mauled snowhobbit rolled off and splattered itself on the floor, powdering his cousin’s feet in the process.
“Why, thank you, Frodo,” said Merry, bending down with a grin, “for supplying us with all the weaponry!”
With a cry Frodo dove underneath the bed, narrowly ducking several small missiles and almost colliding with the chamber-pot. Quickly he reached out the other side and wrapped his hands around Pippin’s ankles.
“Merry! Help! Help! He’s going to pull me under! Aaaaaah!” By this final shocked cry Frodo had to assume that Merry had turned on his cousin and just rubbed an excessive quantity of snow into his hair.
Just then they all three heard a pounding at the door. Immediately Frodo’s hands released Pippin and shot back under the bed.
“I’m opening the door!”
It was Esmeralda’s voice. She did not sound pleased. Frodo heard the window open and a scraping of snow as Merry and Pippin struggled to dispose of the evidence.
The door swung open. “Merry! I said no outdoors!”
“We’re not outdoors!” said Pippin.
“First the damp spot in the hallway, then the kitchens, now this—what have you two been up to?”
“Three, to be precise,” said Frodo, popping his head out from under the bed.
“Oh, for pity’s sake,” said Esmeralda. She turned and walked away.
Frodo crawled out and stood up. “Clean up my room, both of you—and hang my bedclothes up to dry! The straw could get mouldy.”
Pippin turned around. “Why do we have to do all the work? You started it.”
“I, Peregrin Took,” said Frodo, “am going to get both your sorry hides out of trouble.” He hurried out of his room to find Esmeralda.
Catching up to her, he touched her shoulder to get her attention. “I accept full responsibility for any tomfoolery you may have just witnessed.”
“Merry wrote to me complaining about not being able to go outside in the snow. I thought…”
“You did not think of how dangerous a snow fight could become indoors. Frodo, we have people living here past their century, and not everyone is fit as your uncle was at that age!”
Frodo was silent for a minute, chastened. “If it’s any consolation, I did explicitly tell Pippin to avoid the broken arm.”
“Frodo, he’s eighteen. He’s not going to be able to avoid anything, whether he wills it or not. You should know that.”
“Well, they’ve stopped now, and they’re cleaning things up. If you have to replace the mattress I’ll pay for it.”
Esmeralda stopped again and sighed. “For all your being forty, Frodo, sometimes I wonder how much of you is still the lad that liked to raid for mushrooms.”
Frodo gave her a bright, wistful smile. “He’s still alive and well, that’s for sure—somewhere. I try to keep him quiet most of the time—or to make amends when I can’t.”
“Well, Merry seems a good deal happier—which is what I suspect your intention was, tomfoolery or no—so I guess I’ll be lenient this time. Keep his mind off that arm of his and that’ll be amends enough.”
Frodo bowed. “The Lady Esmeralda is most gracious.”
“Oh, go on with you!”
* * *
Gaffer Gamgee tried to pay no heed to how his son was festooning Bag End like he owned the place. It was, after all, Mr. Frodo’s express orders, and Yule wasn’t a right day to go about complaining.
Even worse was how he was making the Baggins wassail like he owned the place! Not that he didn’t have his reservations on how it was done after Mr. Frodo showed him, oh no! What kind of a ninnyhammer would waste perfectly good ale (he knew; he had sampled it himself) on baking apples—apples that were going into the drink nohow?
Tutting to himself, and keeping half an eye on the door to make sure Sam wasn’t peeping in and a-learning the process, he opened up Mr. Bilbo’s queer box and carefully counted out the number of each type of… well, he wasn’t sure what; he wasn’t prepared to call anything like that food. There was a nut that had to be grated into the ale, and a dried-up foreign-looking root that had to be ground, and sticks and berries that had to go in whole; and he’d already been lectured—at his age!—on getting all the amounts just so.
The door creaked. The Gaffer turned around with an admonitory finger.
“Just getting you the punch bowl, Dad,” said Sam, carrying in an enormous golden monstrosity.
The Gaffer nodded. “Set that thing on the table, Sam,” he said. “And no peeking!”
* * *
Dinner was everything Pippin had said and more. Saradoc’s voice shook not once during the welcoming speech, and Merry started the Yule Fire with such dexterity that Frodo almost thought he had cheated and doused the fireplace with brandy—until he realised that the flames were entirely the wrong colour for spirits.
Best of all, Merry spoke to him and told him that he was obviously needed if Frodo and Pippin were wassailing together, since neither of them knew the Hall’s wassail as well as he.
So, once Frodo managed to convince Paladin Took that he would keep an eagle’s eye on Pippin’s constitution, the three met outside Frodo’s door at precisely seven o’clock. Pippin had somehow gotten it into his head that part of wassailing—even if you were indoors the whole time—was dressing up in cloak, scarf, and mittens; and arrived thus attired.
“What?” he said, when Merry tried to explain to him that these accoutrements were in fact completely impractical. “I’m supposed to look cute so you two can get drunk on everyone else’s coin, right?”
“Pippin!” Merry and Frodo spoke as one.
“We are all three of us supposed to have fun,” Frodo added. “You would be surprised at how independent ‘fun’ is of beer, or brandy, or anything else.”
“Right,” said Pippin, subdued.
But Merry did not try to get him to change after that.
Part of Merry’s extensive knowledge of the wassail was which apartments to go to first because their owners never baked enough. Frodo himself also remembered from years past a particular wassail that was not too strong, and not so honeyed that Pippin would drink it quickly. After confirming its location with Merry, they decided to head there first.
He quickly realised his error in bringing Pippin along. That sweet high voice coming out of such a little body, combined with the comical facial expressions that could only come from an inflated ego, meant that people loved to listen to him, and thus would not invite them inside for a biscuit and a cup until they were satisfied. True, Merry and Frodo got much more out of each stop than they ever had prior, but the wait in between was so long!
There were other problems as well. While in the Master’s sitting room Merry and Pippin got into a vehement argument over the placement of a particular verse in a particular song, an argument which quickly spread to the Master himself and his wife, and rapidly deteriorated from there.
But the problems only seemed to accent the joy of the evening. After long years of staying put and hosting wassail, Frodo had forgotten how much variety could come in a single drink! Not that everyone served wassail, though—there was also negus, and eggnog, and syllabub. Frodo’s personal favourite of the evening, however, was a little something Saradoc and Esmeralda had thought up—a sort of sherry-based drink served on snow that they called a ‘cobbler’ on account of its having been cobbled together on a whim.
When they were walking from the Master’s apartment to the kitchen (the cooks never permitted themselves to be outdone), Merry said, “Your accent’s returning.”
“What?” said Frodo.
“You’re starting to sound like a native Bucklander again.”
“I beg your pardon!”
“You do sound different from yesterday, Frodo,” said Pippin.
“Well, maybe it’s because I’m surrounded by all these infernal Brandybucks! Bucklandish was never my native tongue; it was learned out of inconvenient necessity.”
“As was your getting along with me, I suppose,” said Merry.
“I wish I had an accent,” said Pippin.
“Nonsense!” said Frodo, in a perfect imitation of the imperious tones of Thain Ferumbras. “Do you take so little pride in your heritage, Peregrin Took, that you cannot recognise your glorious speech for what it is?”
“Merry,” said Pippin, clutching his shoulder, “Frodo’s scaring me.”
Merry laughed. “Haven’t you ever heard Frodo’s impressions before? He’s even done Gandalf’s voice on occasion, and Gandalf himself said that it was excellent.”
“Well, of course he does the voices for storytelling, but that—that was—”
“Uncanny?” Frodo laughed. “And that’s why I like my own speech best of all. As do you, I suspect. See, we none of us have accents, when we’re by ourselves. I still think I sound perfectly normal, but Merry thinks…”
“That you’ve consciously reverted back to Westfarthing and that’s unfair.”
Frodo nodded. “And Merry doesn’t sound ridiculous to himself at all.”
“I don’t know…” said Pippin. “If I were Merry I’d sound ridiculous to myself no matter what accent I had!” He swiftly took a step back to avoid Merry’s retaliating swat.
“But where do these dialects come from, anyhow?” said Merry after a few more steps.
“Family and friends, I suppose,” said Frodo. “You heard how I started trying to match your own speech without even realising it. It’s just the same as with songs, really—someone changes it somewhere, it passes down the years, and soon you have two beautifully different versions of the same thing!”
“Of course,” said Merry, “changing the words to the songs is easier when your head’s addled.”
“Then you just have to make up more!” said Pippin.
“Say, among the three of us, I think we could come up with a pretty good list of Yule songs that no one else would be able to match, since we’re all from different families,” said Frodo.
“Or at least verses,” Pippin put in. “We could even add some of our own.”
“And I know from last year that the Bolgers have an entirely different set,” said Merry. “If we want to write these down, I could pen him a letter after Yule and we’ll get even more.”
“But what would we do with it?”
“Bind it into a book,” said Frodo. “They’d make lovely gifts for next Yule.”
“Well,” said Merry, with hardly any regret, “there go all my fine plans for tomorrow!”
* * *
The night was wearing on, but spirits in Bag End were still lively. Over half of Hobbiton and Bywater had stopped by so far, but no one had sat in Mr. Frodo’s chair, per the Gaffer’s injunction.
Ham and Hal both had decided to come home for Yule this year, bringing along their families, and Daisy had managed to drag her husband and daughter along, too. Truth be told, it was much easier for all of them to be together in Bag End than it ever had at Bagshot Row, on account of there being more room. The Cottons had dropped in, too, and did not show any signs of leaving soon. Sam did not mind.
During a lull in the visits, the Gaffer cleared his throat. “Well,” he said, “Mr. Frodo’s not here, and he said as I was to do his duties, so—To absent friends!”
“To absent friends,” the room echoed. To Mr. Frodo, and Mr. Bilbo, Sam added, before raising his own glass.
There was a knock at the door. “I’ll get it!” cried Marigold, sliding from her seat. After a minute she came back, not with any wassailers but a weary-looking hobbit with a posthobbit’s cap.
“I know this is going to sound right daft,” said the hobbit, “but I have here a letter for a Mr. Frodo Baggins that couldn’t wait till after Yule.”
“I hate to set your troubles to naught, sir, but Mr. Frodo ain’t here,” said the Gaffer. “He’s spending Yule with his kin in Buckland.”
The posthobbit’s mouth fell open. “Well, of all the worst luck in the world!”
“Steady a moment,” said Farmer Cotton. “The Post’s shut down. What are you doing here and not with your own kin for Yule?”
“Well, the fellow that delivered it paid handsome, and I didn’t have no other plans. My wife and daughters got taken by the fever this past year, and home just don’t feel right without them. So, I figured, may as well make someone else’s Yule just a little brighter. But now I see I’ve gotten it all wrong.”
“Well, the least we can do is give you something to raise your spirits,” said Tom, ladling the posthobbit a measure of the wassail. “Do you have a place to sleep tonight?”
“I’ll fix up one of the spare rooms,” said Sam. “It’s what Mr. Frodo would want,” he added, seeing his father’s dismayed expression. “Can I see the letter?”
The posthobbit handed it to him. Sam looked at the address and raised his eyebrows. “I’ll just put this on Mr. Frodo’s desk, sir.” He walked out through the back hallway and spread his mouth into a grand smile. Mr. Bilbo was still alive—and writing! That was all that Sam needed to make this Yule glad!
When he came back in after setting up one of the rooms in back, he had an idea. “Gaffer,” he said, taking his father aside, “that there posthobbit’s in need of a good deal more Yuletide cheer. And I got to thinking—Mr. Frodo’s lost his family, too. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if we let Mr….”
“Halfpenny’s his name.”
“—Halfpenny have Mr. Frodo’s chair for the night, so all the rest of the folks as come by can wassail for him.”
“I don’t rightly know,” said the Gaffer. “All this gentrying and presiding stuff makes my head reel worse than a pint of brandy. It don’t seem proper…”
“But it is Yule, and there’s none as ought to be cheerless on Yule. I’ll tell Mr. Frodo about it when he comes back, and I’m sure if he don’t like it he’ll do something.”
“That he won’t. Mr. Frodo is a gentlehobbit, but he’s too soft on you. Gentlehobbits can do as they like, but I won’t be having you putting on no airs, Samwise.”
“Of course not, Dad.”
“Then again, it is Yule…” The Gaffer sighed. “All right, Sam, do as you think right—but don’t expect this to keep up past tomorrow.”
“I wouldn’t dare,” said Sam.
So Mr. Halfpenny was installed in the master’s chair, and had a good deal of wassail, and a good deal of food, and a good deal of songs, and a good deal more cheer than he had expected to get when he had set out with the letter two days prior.
“Who do you suppose that letter was from?” Tom Cotton asked Sam.
“I don’t rightly know,” he replied.
* * *
Frodo’s sheets were still damp, so Merry offered the use of his room for the night when at last, after what felt like hours on hours of singing, and eating, and drinking, and talking, and generally making merry, they retired. Frodo readily accepted, and he and Merry whispered far into the new year, about old memories and new ones and the changes in both of their lives. When at last Merry began snoring softly, Frodo repeated to himself the old toast, spoken many times throughout the evening, and wondered how Bilbo was ringing in the new year, wherever he was. Then he rolled onto his side and shut his eyes. It had been a good Yule so far, and tomorrow there would be presents, and the song-book, and who knew what else?
* * *
“If you don’t mind me asking, sir,” said Sam, “what did the letter say?”
“Eh?” said Frodo.
“Mr. Bilbo’s letter. I recognised the hand.”
Frodo smiled. Of course—Bilbo had been dear to Sam, too. “Not much. Just that he is well, and hopes that I have been well, and best wishes for Yule and the new year. He didn’t tell me where he was, either—the sly old codger! He’s probably afraid I’ll up and follow him!”
“Would you, Master?”
“If he asked me—which he won’t. And since he won’t, why should I leave, when I have so much to hold me here?”
“That’s good. I shouldn’t like you to leave.”
“Thank you. I heard about your idea with the posthobbit, by the way.”
“I hope it wasn’t crossing no lines—”
“Bless you, no! It was very clever, and very considerate.” He paused. “You have a good heart, Sam.” Then, without quite knowing why, he added, “Take good care of it for me, will you?”
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