To Absent Friends by Celeritas

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Story Notes:

Title: To Absent Friends
Recipient: Dreamflower

Author’s Notes: Set in the winter of 1408/9 S.R. Ages of principal characters are given below in real years and Mannish equivalent

Frodo = 40 (25)
Merry = 26 (16½)
Pippin = 18 (11)
Sam = 28 (17)


Author's Chapter Notes:

Written for the 2009 Yule Fic Exchange.


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.

Yours &c.,

Merry Brandybuck

*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 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.”

“An understatement.”

“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?”

“Better.”

“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?”

Merry hesitated.

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

“Yes?”

“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.”

“I’m scared.”

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.”

“Goodnight.”

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.

* * *




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