A/N: This story was written for B2MEM 2017.
The Perfect Gift
3002 Year of the Third Age, Steward’s Reckoning:
The beech leaves were beginning to turn.
Traces of bright gold tinged the edges of every leaf, soon the entire canopy would be gilded in yellow and orange foliage. Leaning heavily on his walking stick, Frodo carefully picked his way down the embankment that bordered a small creek. He was a league north of Hobbiton, having left the road some time ago in favor of an overgrown game trail that led deep into the woods that formed the northern border of the Shire. The creek bed was narrow, less than a body length across, and the small stream that ran through it was scarcely wider than himself. If anyone had bothered to ask him where he was going, Frodo would have pointed to the canvas rucksack slung over his shoulder and insisted that he was going to find a brake of hazelnuts that had not yet been picked over by hungry tweens.
This was not entirely truthful.
It was his birthday in a few days and Frodo felt he needed some time to himself so he could think. He was turning 34 years old. It would be the first birthday in a long time he'd be celebrating without his uncle. A part of him did not want to have a party at all. But as the inheritor of Bilbo's estate, he was not sure he could endure the gossip he would incur by not celebrating his own birthday. He had never cared what people had said about him and Bilbo before. Yet his uncle's absence had made Frodo more sensitive to the market chattering of women and the tavern gossip of men. Ever since Bilbo had departed, he'd never felt so alone, not even when he'd lived in Brandyhall and had been often overlooked with his many cousins underfoot.
He had never realized that he had no true friends at Bag End other than his uncle. Without his influence, Frodo had only been invited to one birthday party this year by Hamfast Gamge. Frodo had been touched by the Gaffer's gift of a rather fetching pheasant feather quill. "I thought you like it, seein' as how Mr. Bilbo was kind enough to teach my boy his letters and how you take after him with your love of learnin' and such," the old man had said. Frodo had decided to organized a small party, inviting only the Gamgee family and the Master of Buckland's son, Merry. The lad was a young cousin of his who'd taken to coming around Bag End asking questions about Bilbo's adventures and generally making a cheerful nuisance of himself.
Frodo did not know how to thank him.
He was fourteen years Merry's elder, too far apart to ever be close friends. The lad had only just entered into his tweens and Frodo was full grown. Though he had to admit that Saradoc's son had a great deal of sense for a boy his age. The new master of Bag End had rarely seen a boy so observant, even if he spent half his time causing mischief with his friend Fatty Bolger, who was around the same age. Still, whenever the loneliness seemed to be about to crush him, Frodo would find that Merry had invited himself over for lunch and to hear stories he must have heard dozens of times before. Merry had been one of many bairns to visit Bag End over the years to hear his uncle's tales and songs but he'd been one of the few that returned often so that Frodo felt he knew him fairly well.
And he was still at a loss for what to give the Brandybuck for his birthday.
The Gamgee's were easy to purchase gifts for. Their eldest child, Hamson, was appreciated to his uncle in Tightfield and would not be able to attend the party. The Gamgee's second son, Hamfast, had just come of age this year and Frodo was giving him a handsome pipe and some Longbottom leaf. To the Gamgee's youngest son, Samwise, he was gifting a pair of leather gloves and a half dozen goose feather quills. For Mrs. Gamgee and her two daughters, Frodo had bought three silver cloak clasps. They were expensive, but he wanted to thank Bell Gamgee for dropping by so often to make sure he had enough food in his pantry. The woman seemed half convinced he'd starve after his uncle left, seeing as he had no one to look after him. As for the Gaffer himself, Bilbo had always given Mr. Gamgee a firkin of the best beer from the Ivy Bush on their birthdays and Frodo had decided keep up this tradition.
Hitching his pack up higher on his back, Frodo maneuvered around a thick stand of black alder only to find himself standing in front of a large outcrop of rock, dark grey in color and covered with greenish bracken. It protruded into the creek so unless he was willing to get his feet wet, Frodo would have top either backtrack or climb over it. After a moment’s indecision, he placed his hands and feet some in the many crevasses of the rock and pulled himself upward. The craggy surface made for an easy ascent and soon Frodo was standing on top of the outcrop that rose over a body length above the embankment. He gazed at the woods, smiling at the sea of color for he was now level with the forest canopy.
In the distance he spotted a mass of brown branches that contrasted with the yellow and green leaves surrounding him. Frodo knew it must be a tree that was either dead or dying. He glanced at the Sun and then scrabbled down the rock, not back into the creek bed but onto the bank. He headed in the direction of the dead tree though he could no longer see it now he was back on the ground. Such trees were the best places to find a wide variety of mushrooms. Since Frodo knew of no other Hobbit other than Bilbo that ever ventured so far into these woods, the tree was unlikely to have been picked over. He walked swiftly, excitement driving all thoughts of his birthday out of his mind.
Before long, he saw the bare bark of a massive beech rising above him. After making a brief detour to avoid a dense patch of flowering stinging nettles, and pushing through a brake of hazel that grew between two large oaks, Frodo emerged into a small glade with the dead tree in it's center. A little gasp of surprise escaped his lips as he realized that there was a tall, lithe figure standing against the tree, reaching up to pry something white off of its trunk. The person turned at the sound and Frodo saw that it was an Elf. Clad in a leather shirt and brown trousers with chestnut hair, he almost blended in with the tree, save for the pale skin of his arms and face. Frodo had meet those of the First Born several times in his life, mostly while wandering in the wilds of the Shire with Bilbo, though he did not recognize this ellon.
"Mae govannen," Frodo greeted, careful to enunciate properly and gave a short bow. He had not spoken the Elvish tongue since before Bilbo had left and felt a pang of guilt, knowing his uncle would be disappointed if he knew. He hoped he would not embarrass himself.
The Elf's expression changed from surprised to delighted and he smiled, placing a hand over his heart and bowing far more gracefully than Frodo himself had managed. "Mae govannen!" He replied with a laugh. "I did not know that the Periannath had knowledge of the Noble Tongue. I am Corudir son of Gwinor. Elen sila lumen omentielvo."
"I am Frodo son of Drogo," Frodo introduced himself. "Not many Hobbits know any of the Elvish tongues, I'm afraid. My uncle Bilbo taught me when I was a child."
"Bilbo is your uncle?" Corudir asked, surprised.
"You know him?" a bubble of hope swelled beneath his breast at the thought.
"I know of him," the Elf corrected with an apologetic smile. "He dwells in the Last Homely House. I also call Imladris my home and have heard of the Periain that is a guest of Lord Elrond."
"Then he arrived safely," Frodo murmured.
"Indeed, and as far as I have heard he is in good health," the Elf added.
"You are far from the Hidden Valley, Corudir. Or any Elvish land," Frodo commented, striving to keep his disappointment out of his voice and expression.
"I remember when this was all Elvish land," Corudir said with a half shrug. "Until the end of the last Age, all the lands west of the Branduin belonged to Lindon. We often go wandering this time of year to gather in the wild what we do not grow ourselves and to seek out that which does not grow in the east." He gestured to the large basket beside him that was full what appeared to be of various herbs, roots, bark and lichen.
Frodo nodded. That explained why he had most often met Elves during autumn.
"I just retrieved this when you surprised me. An impressive feat for a Mortal," the Elf said with a rueful smile, holding out his left hand so that Frodo could see that it held a lump of hedgehog mushroom.
"You are fortunate!" he said. Hedgehog mushroom were rare—Frodo had only had them twice in his life—and even if one was found they often grew high up on the trunks of dying beeches, far out of the reach of a Hobbit. They didn’t look like most mushrooms. They had no cap and stem but were cushion-like with white, pendulous spines that made them resemble their namesake. They were considered a delicacy in the Shire and the most sought after mushroom.
Corudir laughed. "Indeed! It is strange that a mushroom would taste like lobster or scallops."
Frodo frowned. He did not recognize those words. “I am afraid I don’t what those are,” he said. "What are they called in the Common Tongue?"
"I do not know. Perhaps they have none for I know no Mortals that dwell by the Sea." Corudir gave another graceful but insouciant shrug.
"They are Sea creatures?"
Corudir nodded. "Scallops are much like the freshwater mussels you find in streams, only their shells are white instead of black. Lobsters are shelled creatures whose meat is much sought after. They look somewhat like woodlice only much larger, about the size of a rat, and with claws."
Frodo grimaced, wondering why anyone would try to eat anything that resembled woodlice. He had eaten some once on a dare as a lad and they had tasted much the way stale urine smelled.
"I have never seen a Periain in these woods before," Corudir commented. Frodo couldn't help but shift under the Elf's intense gaze.
"No many of us enjoy hiking in the woods," he explained.
"Yet you do?" Corudir asked, head cocked inquisitively.
"It helps me think," Frodo answered, somewhat defensively. He'd been criticized to no end once it was clear he intended to keep up Bilbo's habit of trekking about the Shire.
"Indeed it does!" the Elf laughed. "You are a queer Periain, master Frodo."
"So everyone insists on telling me," Frodo muttered. Corudir made the words sound like a compliment but he had heard them often enough this last year, mostly in a chastising tone.
The Elf frowned at him for a moment before he picked up his basket, glancing up at the Sun, probably to check the hour. "I have tarried here too long and must depart. I am pleased to have met you. Perhaps we shall encounter each other again someday."
"May I ask a favor? Will you tell Bilbo that I am doing well?"
"Are you?" the Elf asked, features inscrutable.
"Are you doing well?" Corudir sounded doubtful. Frodo hesitated, wondering how much the Elf had discerned about his life from their short conversation.
"I'm doing as well as could be expected," he said firmly. And to his surprise, he meant it.
Corudir smiled. "Then I shall relay your message! But only if you take this." He proffered the hedgehog mushroom.
"You don't want it?" Frodo asked, taken aback.
Corudir shrugged. "I have not the means to fry anything nor any butter to go with it. I intended to dry it for Lord Elrond, as the mushroom has medicinal uses, but that seems a sorry fate for such a delicacy. I would rather you take it and enjoy it."
The Elf placed the mushroom into Frodo's hand. He lifted it up to inspect. It was very moist, slightly larger than his fist and appeared to be quite delicate, but it was quite solid and heavy for its size.
Corudir smiled. "Farewell, Frodo son of Drogo." Silently, he slipped into the woods and in a moment was gone.
Glancing back down at the mushroom, Frodo felt himself smile. He had found the perfect gift for Merry!
Ellon (Sindarin): '(male) Elf'.
Mae govannen (Sindarin): ‘well met’.
Periannath (Sindarin): ‘Hobbits’.
Elen Sila Lumen Omentielvo (Quenya): ‘A star shines on the hour of our meeting’.
Periain (Sindarin): ‘Hobbit’.