An Unexpected Disaster

by A Z ‘Telcontar’

Buckland, The Shire, 1380 SH.

Typical of the vast and convoluted home of Brandy Hall, the large and noisy anniversary dinner for Primula and Drogo Baggins had given way to storytelling, smoke rings and sleepy Hobbit children, and a late supper set out for the adults. Frodo protested mightily at being sent off to bed, despite his nearly falling asleep in the woodbin by the fireplace during one of Bilbo’s stories about Elves. “I’m not a baby, I’m nearly in my teens, you know, Mother,” he said, his blue eyes flashing. “I want to stay up and hear some more stories!”

“And eat some more, no doubt,” Drogo added from the hearth bench. “Sorry, lad, but it’s off to bed with you now. Have a bun, and be on your way. I’ve had no time to speak with your mother today, and the night’s not getting any younger.”

Saradas Brandybuck spoke up from the table, carefully balancing a full mug and plate. “Maybe you should let Frodo stay up, Drogo; that way he shan’t dream up any more trouble.”

“There’s not a Hobbit boy alive that doesn’t do that, sleeping or waking, and I should like to enjoy the night air and the moon before both are gone, if you take my meaning,” Drogo Baggins replied, irked that his relations should be so noisy about his son doing what every Brandybuck lad had, as if Frodo was different.

The others laughed, knowing quite well that it was Frodo’s mother Primula who liked the moonlight more than Drogo. There was bound to be some teasing: since Primula liked it, Drogo had found some interest in taking late night strolls along the river banks, as he was still besottled with her, even after so many years married. But the adults kept quiet: for one thing, children were still about, and for another any Hobbit could be forgiven wanting to have some time alone on their anniversary.

“Go on, Frodo,” Bilbo Baggins urged gently, puffing another smoke ring into the air. “The stories are over for tonight, my lad. You’re falling asleep standing!”

“I’m not!” grumbled Frodo, but moved off to the doorway leading to the tunnel down which was the bedroom he had recently moved to, being too old to stay in the nurseries anymore. He stumbled, rubbed his eyes and suddenly yawned. Drogo gave a low chuckle at this, and his mother smiled. “Oh, all right!” Frodo mumbled.

“I’ll just see you in, Frodo,” Primula said.

Had Frodo been any less sleepy he would have protested, but the truth was, he missed having his mother tuck him in on occasion. Primula held the lamp aloft as they made their way along the twisting hallways. The sounds of his many cousins, Brandybucks, Tooks, and Bagginses alike, all preparing for bed or already sleeping filtered though the closed doors. Frodo and Primula didn’t speak until they were in front of Frodo’s door at the end of the hall, across from his parents’ room. She carefully pushed the door open and went in, setting the light down by his bed side. The room was tiny, having hardly space enough for the bed, but it gave Frodo the advantage of not having to share it while company was visiting.

“Your bedclothes are already laid out, Frodo. Can you manage?” “ ‘Course I can, Mother,” Frodo said, unfastening his cuffs. “Just don’t forget to brush your hair, Frodo…it looks more like a bird’s nest every day.”

Frodo gave her a mischievous smile, his eyes glittering like gems in the lamplight. “I haven’t found any birds in it yet, or eggs.”

“You little imp!” she laughed. “You just see that you keep your curly head out of trouble. Oh, yes, I know about your little trips up to Farmer Maggot’s, and your messing about by the apple orchards and the fish ponds! You must be more careful, Frodo; you with your dreaming and all.”

“Oh, it was just fun, and besides, I can swim and climb just as well as my cousins now.”

She sniffed. “Better, I’d say! But that’s all the more reason for caution. I don’t know what your father would say if he knew you’d been running about like a wild pony. Likely as to blame me for not raising you as a proper Baggins!”

“Not all Bagginses are proper,” Frodo remarked. “Cousin Bilbo’s been off on quite a lot of adventures, and that’s not proper at all. I so wish I could do things like that!”

“Now who’s been saying such nonsense to you, Frodo! Bilbo Baggins is a respectable fellow, and one of the more well-off Hobbits of Hobbiton. He’s nearly eighty years old, Frodo, and more an uncle than cousin to you. I shan’t have you talking unkindly about him.”

Frodo fumbled at his shirt laces. “I wasn’t speaking ill of him, Mum. Did he really go off with the wizard and dwarves, and fight a dragon and goblins, too?”

“If he said he did, then he did, Frodo lad. I don’t doubt him.”

“And did he see the Elf king of Mirkwood and fight giant spiders and all? He said he did that, also.” Frodo shivered. “I should like to speak with Elves, but I don’t think I care for the spiders.”

“Silly little Hobbit, you’ll give yourself nightmares! You get into enough trouble ‘round here without looking for adventures. Bilbo will only being staying a bit longer and then he’s got to get back to Bag End, but I think I should have some words with him about the tales he’s telling little Hobbits with big imaginations.”

“Oh, no, Mother, don’t; I’ll be good, really I will. He’s only told me because he’s been writing it down in a book, and he’s been teaching me more of my letters. Even some Elvish!”

“Well, he’s got a soft spot in his heart for you, Frodo, both of you sharing the same birthday, and him not having family of his own, so to speak. It’s kind of him to be teaching you, but I don’t think you should listen to quite everything he says, if you understand me, Frodo. Wizards and dragons! Now, do you think you can manage, lad?”

Frodo undid a stubborn knot in the laces. “Yes, yes. I told you I could before.”

She stood back, looking over her son and silently marveling at how much he had grown. At twelve years old, he was still a bit thin for a Hobbit, and his twinkling blue eyes and fair skin lent him an Elven air, but he was as healthy and happy a Hobbit boy as ever there was. For a brief moment, Primula felt the longing for a sister or brother for Frodo, then quietly tucked the thought away. “All right, then, my boy. Get you into bed, and don’t be reading until dawn, either.” She leaned over and kissed his unruly mop of curls, and smiled as he clasped her around the waist the way he had when he was barely able to walk. “Good night, Frodo,” she said, hugging him back.

“Good night, Mother,” he replied, sleep already stealing into his senses again. Primula left, closing the door gently behind her. Somewhere down the passageway newborn Berilac Brandybuck was wailing, probably in protest of being wet.

Frodo quickly changed into his nightshirt and dived into bed, pulling the feather coverlet and quilt around him. It was chilly in his room, even in late Summer, and he welcomed the warmth of the down seeping into him. The full moon peeked through his small round window, casting a pool of silver around the bedstead. Frodo just had time to recall that he hadn’t brushed out his hair before he fell fast asleep.

“Frodo’s settled in, then?” Drogo asked as he and Primula walked down the path toward the riverbank. The path and the garden beyond were bathed in silver moonlight, the scent of the late roses perfuming the air. Drogo was not gifted with poetry, but he felt a certain breathlessness when Primula stood in moonlight; it was almost magic, her dark curls falling in a stream around her neck, her pale skin glowing, her smile like a row of pearls. He plucked a rose from the garden wall and tucked it behind her ear, mindful not to prick her with the thorns.

“I don’t doubt it. He’s been worn out with all the company,” Primula said.

“He’s quite attached to Bilbo.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed.”

Drogo frowned. “I’m not entirely sure that’s good for him. Frodo’s a bit of a dreamer, you know. Still, I suppose there’s no harm in it.”

“Now, Drogo, it wasn’t Bilbo’s fault he was sent off on an journey by Gandalf, and he came back safe enough. Frodo is just like any other boy; in time, he’ll settle down.”

“Ah, but what will he be like in his teens and tweens, is what I’m worried about,” replied Drogo. They continued down the path, winding their way toward the dock some distance from the house. “But for now he’s safe abed, and we finally have some time alone.”

“Not easy, is it, up at the Hall, to get some time alone together?” Prim took Drogo’s hand in her own.

He patted it comfortably. “No. No, it isn’t, Prim. And I’m sorry for it. I haven’t the riches of Bilbo, you know, but I do wish I could take you and Frodo to Hobbiton, to a proper place with a home of our own.”

“Now, Drogo, you needn’t worry about such things. You’ve always cared well enough for us; we’ve never been lacking.”

“Oh, I know, Primula, but I’m not blind, either. Being surrounded all the time by family and not having a home to call your own, a place to be the mistress of…I see it in you, Prim, I do. I’ve been thinking hard on it lately.”

Primula sighed. “But to Hobbiton, Drogo? I’ve lived my whole life here, and so has Frodo. What would we do there?”

“I’m not sure yet, lass. But I’ve been speaking to Bilbo, and …”

“Oh, Drogo, you didn’t!”

“Well, yes, I did.” They paused on the dock, Drogo taking Primula by the shoulders and looking deep into her eyes. “I want the best for you, Prim, for you and for Frodo.”

“I won’t beholden to any Hobbit, Drogo. We can get along fine without charity.”

“It isn’t charity, Prim, it’s just a bit of a gift, like. Bilbo and I grew up together in Hobbiton, and he’s a kind and generous Hobbit, love. He’s said many a time that we would always be welcome at Bag End, and he’s rooms a-plenty there.”

“Must we discuss this now, Drogo? I think…I think I’d rather just sit with you.”

Drogo fell silent for a moment, listening to the water wash gently on the banks of the river. “All right, then, let’s do that. I’m sorry, my sweet, I didn’t mean to upset you, not tonight of all nights, certainly.” He kissed her hands in the moonlight. “Come, let’s go out on the River. The moon is full tonight, and I know you like the water.”

“Do you remember how frightened you were when you proposed to me, out there?” said Prim, lifting her skirt and petticoats as Drogo helped her into the small boat by the dock.

“I certainly do! We don’t go out much for boats in Hobbiton, but I was determined to bring you out there to ask you. It was like something from a story, under the laden apple trees and stars and all; how could I not, with your cheeks as rosy as the dawn, and, well, you were just a vision to me, and I wanted the moment right.”

“That it was, Drogo my love. I still remember it.”

Drogo untied the mooring and they pushed off into the middle of the river, the moonlight dancing over the ripples on the surface. They floated downstream for a long time, enjoying each others’ company, not talking. The water lapped quietly against the sides of the boat, rocking it gently. Primula watched the moon high overhead, then looked over at Drogo, finding him staring at her. “What is it?” she asked, laughing, her voice like silver bells.

“Why, you!” Drogo said. “You are the most lovely Hobbit lass that ever graced the Shire, do you know that, Primula?”

Primula blushed so deeply it could been seen even by the moonlight. “Oh, Drogo!” she replied, waving a hand as if to shush him.

He responded by leaning across the boat, as if to kiss her. The sudden motion rocked the small craft, and the oar fell over the side with a splash. With an annoyed exclamation at his inopportune clumsiness, he reached out to grab at it. Primula gave another laugh, in sympathy, imagining how embarrassed they’d be if the whole family found them stranded in the little boat tomorrow, and that perhaps it would be worth it, if they got to spend the night alone.

The oar had floated out of reach, and Drogo, reaching out to it in the dark, suddenly toppled over the edge of the boat. With a gasp, Primula grabbed the sides of the rocking craft, shocked at this abrupt turn of events. They were quite far out on the river, past the houses and closer to the forest, and the water ran deep in the middle. “Drogo?” she called, searching the surface for him. For a long moment there was no sign of him but the violent ripples and bubbles roiling away from where he fell.

He broke the surface some way away from the boat, sputtering and choking on swallowed river water, his hands flailing in a panic. “Drogo!” Primula called out, frightened. “There, grab the oar! Grab the oar, Drogo!”

Drogo couldn’t hear her in his desperate attempt to keep his head above the water. The boat had already started floating away from him, the oar floating beyond them both. “Prim!” he gasped, his hand slapping at the water around him, reaching for her. With a shout, his head slipped beneath the surface again in a flood of bubbles.

Without thinking, Primula dove off the side of the boat, her petticoats billowing out around her. Frantically, she waved her arms under the water, feeling and grasping for any part of Drogo. She found nothing. She kicked her feet, reaching deeper and deeper, her head turning desperately from side to side, scanning to see any sign of him at all. The water grew eerily more quiet and still. “Drogo? Drogo!” she called again and again. The rose slipped from the wet mop of her curls, and her skirts collapsed around her legs in a tangled net, pulling her down. Drawing a deep breath, Primula ducked under the dark river, feeling her way along the slimy reeds and gnarled tree roots. Her hand brushed up against what might have been Drogo’s coat, and she grabbed and pulled.

It was his coat, stuck fast among the weeds, and he was still in it. But he was limp and unresisting as she struggled to free him, and her breath went out of her in a rush. The moonlight danced across him, filtered by the water from above, and by its dim light Primula could see his eyes, half-closed staring out of the gloom, dead and unheeding of her, as if watching the boat now drifting, empty, down the river, far from them . Primula pulled harder, her feet sinking into the mud of the riverbed, her hair raveling around the weeds. Her tugging grew more feeble, her air a faint trail of bubbles sighing from her numb lips. The weighty petticoats held her fast, flopping about like a giant fish’s fins, until the only motion she made was with gentle rocking of the water’s eddies, swirling around her and her husband in a macabre dance. Above them rose petals floated quietly downstream, undisturbed in the moonlight.

It was Reginard Took who found them the next morning. He had been teasing his sisters, and, growing tired of the game and getting hungry—it being nearly time for a second breakfast and most of the adult Hobbits sleeping in late--he had filled his pockets with apples from the pantries, and made his way along the river bank, hoping to spend the morning fishing. He had trotted just a bit past Bucklebury Ferry when he spied something bright yellow in the water, and turned aside to see what it could be. When he did see, he let out an awful shriek and ran all the way back to Brandy Hall. He was so frightened that the only words they could get from him for several minutes was “the river…yellow…in the water…”

It was Primula’s embroidered yellow overskirt, sodden and smeared with mud, that he had seen. Adelard and Paladin Took, together with Saradoc Brandybuck [who was by far the best swimmer of them all] rushed to the spot and dredged the bodies out of the Brandywine. It was a horrible sight, and quickly the word spread that two Hobbits had drowned.

Brandy Hall was in an uproar. Reginard had been bustled off to the kitchens to be tended to, and hopefully to stop him from rousing the rest of the household. Those womenfolk that had been awake and present when the young Hobbit had burst in were murmuring and sobbing softly amongst themselves, and trying to sooth and calm upset infants while at the same time speculating as to what could have brought about such a terrible turn of events.

It was into this hubbub that Frodo awoke. Quickly dressing and running his hand through his arrant curls, he made his way along the passage. Tucking in his shirt, he nearly collided with Pearl Took, who was running down the tunnel clutching her doll. She was all of five years old, with red rosy cheeks and a sharp little chin. Her eyes went as round as saucers when she saw him, and she let out a little gasp.

“Sorry, Pearly White,” said Frodo, that being her nickname. “Did I step on you?” She shook her head, and then her chin began to quiver. “Why, Pearl, whatever is the matter?” asked Frodo, alarmed. Pearl was usually all song and smiles, but she was quite the opposite now.

“Oh, cousin Frodo!” Pearl wailed, bursting into tears. “I’m so sorry!” Still holding her doll tightly to her chest, she rushed past him and around the passage toward the nursery.

Puzzled, Frodo stared after her for a moment, then continued up to the common dining hall. His nose had already told him that breakfast was not being served as he had hoped, considering the noise, and the gloom and sadness that hung in the air confirmed his growing feeling that something was very wrong.

His aunts Amaranth and Hilda Brandybuck were brushing away tears and turned pale when Frodo burst into the room. Esmeralda Took, the cousin who treated Frodo as if he were her own son, stood up suddenly when she saw him. “What’s wrong?” he cried out. “What’s happened?”

She went to his side, gently placing a hand on his shoulder. “Sit down, Frodo,” she said.

“What’s happened?” he repeated, an unnerving sense of dread gripping him.

Esmeralda gripped his shoulder. “There’s been…an accident.” She paused, drawing a deep breath as if to steady herself. “Please, Frodo, won’t you sit down?”

“An accident?” Frodo stood in shock, ignoring her pleas to be seated. “What kind of accident?”

“Oh, Frodo…” began Esmeralda. She stopped abruptly, her hand falling to her side.

“You shouldn’t be the one to tell him, Essie,” Amaranth broke in. “Sit down, Frodo!”

“Tell me what? What accident?”

“Your parents, Frodo, “ Esmaralda let out in a gasp. “They’ve…they were…”

“Esmeralda!” barked Amaranth. “You’ve no right!”

Frodo’s eyes went quite wide. “But they’re all right. My parents—they’re not hurt, are they? Are they, Aunt Essi?” Frodo turned to the others, his face pleading with them . “Where are they? Where are my parents? You must tell me!”

Amaranth shook her head, but Esmeralda bit her lip, then said, “By the river, Frodo, by the Ferry. But, Frodo, you must stay here! Frodo, listen to me!”

But Frodo was not listening. He had already bolted for the front door, racing away from Brandy Hall, away from his crying aunts and the babies, rushing along the riverbank to the ferry. He didn’t heed the shouts that went up after him, just ran and ran, a cold fear gripping him in his middle. He saw the ferry and the footbridge where it was moored, and in the distance, he could make out a small group of Hobbits gathered by the bank, surrounding what looked like laundry laid out to dry on the grass. A Shirriff was there, the morning breeze playing with the feather in his hat. Frodo’s uncle Saradoc was standing in the water by the reeds, soaked to the skin. Many others from the Hall were standing about, also; Bilbo Baggins was among them, off to the side at a distance, closer to Frodo but with his back to him.

Frodo saw none of this, however: his eyes were riveted on the forms on the grass. The sun seemed to disappear from the sky, as if a sudden cloud had hidden it from view. There was a crushing weight in his chest, and he felt as if he had rabbits running about were his heart should have been. A loud wailing rose from him and burst forth, and suddenly he was moving again, toward the grass, toward the things he both wanted and didn’t want to see. The others turned toward him, startled.

Bilbo reached out and grabbed Frodo around the middle, surprisingly strong for a Hobbit his age. Frodo struggled, sobbing. “Let me go!” he cried. “Let me go!”

“Frodo, lad,” said Bilbo quietly in his ear, still holding him tightly. “Come away now; this is no place for you to be.”

“I want to see them! I must see them! Let me go, let me go!” Frodo yelled, then abruptly collapsed in Bilbo’s arms, weeping. Bilbo led him away to the trees, sitting him down and settling next to him. For a long time, he said nothing, just held him and patted his head.

“How could this have happened?” Frodo said eventually, his tears spent and his breath slowed to ragged gulps.

Bilbo gave him one of his handkerchiefs for him to wipe his nose. “We don’t know, Frodo, but it seems they went boating and somehow fell in. I’m so sorry, lad.”

Frodo bent his head, wiping his face. He felt utterly wretched. “What shall I do, Uncle Bilbo?” he muttered. “What will become of me?”

Bilbo set his face in a stern expression. “Now don’t worry about that. First thing we must do it have you back to the Hall. You’ve had a horrible shock, and you must rest. Have you eaten anything? No, I thought not. Up with you, Frodo, come along now!”

They walked together back to the Hall. Bilbo settled Frodo in a seat in the parlour and brought him some tea, and waited to see that he drank it. “Now you just sit here for a bit, Frodo,” he said after some color returned to the lad’s cheeks. “I’ll send someone around to see to you, but you must rest. Will you do that?”

“Yes,” Frodo answered wearily, staring out the window. A sudden sleepiness stole across him, and at the moment he very much wanted everyone to go away, even Bilbo. He was very much afraid he would burst into tears again.

With a last look, Bilbo left the parlour, scattering the dozen or so Hobbits who were trying to look busy standing around the door. There was a great deal for Bilbo to arrange and discuss with the other adults, and he wanted a moment to have a smoke and collect his thoughts.

Frodo sat still for some time, half-asleep, as the sunlight fell across his hands and lap. A small movement from the doorway made him glance up. Pearl stood there, looking shy, her doll dangling from her little hand. She looked like a doll herself in the sunlight, her frock all done up and her curls held back with a ribbon. She smiled a sad smile at him. “Hullo,” she whispered. “They said I shouldn’t bother you.”

Frodo smiled back. “You’re not a bother, Pearly white,” he said.

“May I come in?” she asked. Frodo nodded. Pearl scampered across the floor and leaned on the arm of the chair. She lay her head down next to him, closing her eyes and giving a soft sigh. Looking up at him with a serious face, she said, “I want to give you this.” She held out her doll to him, the smudged face smiling with half a smile and well-worn button eyes. “Really, you should have it, Cousin Frodo. Poppy always makes me feel better, and she listens very well, too.”

Frodo held the tattered thing gently, moved by Pearl’s generous gift. “Maybe I could borrow her for a while, eh, Pearl? Then we could share her.”

Pearl’s smile was a genuine happy one at this, and she settled herself back on the armrest, resting quietly near him. Frodo found her presence comforting, and they both eventually drifted off. Esmeralda found them both later, and set down the tray of elevenses she had made up on the side table without disturbing them.

Frodo spent much of his mourning in his room, wanting to be as far away from sympathetic well-wishers and the morbidly curious as possible. There had been a great deal of meetings and arguments among the adults when they thought he couldn’t hear them as to what Frodo’s fate was to be. Bilbo seemed to have gotten into his head to take him to Hobbiton and raise him there, but Esmeralda was beside herself at the idea, and Amaranth was quite adamant in insisting that Frodo stay in Buckland. “Primula was my sister, after all,” she said firmly. “And that boy needs someone to look after him. He’s not even in his teens yet!”

“He will be thirteen in a few weeks,” Bilbo remarked, “as you well know, Amaranth. And Frodo shan’t be alone in Hobbiton: he’ll have me, for one thing, and Dora and Prisca can help look after him, too.”

“Why Dora isn’t married, Frodo; what does she know of raising children! And Prisca Bolger…really, Bilbo, what a suggestion! Frodo’s lived here his whole life, and I don’t see how uprooting him is going to be for his benefit.”

“The boy’s a Baggins, Amaranth. He should be with other Bagginses.”

“Meaning Brandybucks aren’t good enough, I suppose?” Old Rory broke in.

“Of course I didn’t mean that, Rory,” Bilbo said, exasperated.

“Look here, Bilbo Baggins, I know you’re right fond of Frodo, but he’s staying here. Bad enough he’s lost his parents, but to have to up and go all of a sudden would be more bitter to him now, I should think,” Esmeralda said. “We’ll see that he visits Hobbiton often enough, and you’re always welcome here, I’m sure,” she added, looking over Old Rory and her husband, Saradoc, “But Frodo needs some time, is all. He’s already hiding away in his room. Please, Bilbo, let him be for now.”

Bilbo frowned. “Well, all right, if you all insist. But I shall have to speak to Dora and the others. And you’ll let me provide a bit for the lad, won’t you? I would very much like to have him up to Bag End on holiday at least, when he’s ready. Poor boy’s not likely to enjoy his birthday this year, but perhaps you can bring him up my way for a bit of a celebration if he’s up to it. Might do him some good.”

“We’ll see, Bilbo,” was all they said.

Frodo did go to see Bilbo off a few days later, although it pained him to see the cart pull away. Before he left, Bilbo pulled him aside to speak with him. “Now, look, Frodo-lad,” he said, “I don’t suppose anyone’s bothered to discuss this with you, but if you ever want to come stay at Bag end, all you need to do is send word. You’re a Baggins, Frodo, and you should be proud of it. Your father and I were close, and I’ll see to it that you’re well cared for.”

“Thank you, Uncle Bilbo, but I don’t quite know what I want yet.”

Bilbo nodded, then pulled Frodo to him in a hug. “Mind your manners, lad. And don’t forget to practice your letters! You can read quite well, and you’ve a head for languages. Your writing is going to be much better than mine, someday, if you keep it up!”

“Oh, Uncle Bilbo, I shall so miss you!” Frodo burst out.

“And I shall miss you, Frodo. Keep busy, though, and you’ll see that time will pass quickly. Oh, that reminds me; I have a gift for you.” Bilbo reached into the cart and pulled out a small bundle. “Go ahead, open it.”

Frodo unwrapped the bundle to reveal a journal. It was well-made, bound in leather, with the pages stitched with waxed sinew. “It’s beautiful, Bilbo.”

“And I hope it will be useful. I’ve always found it comforting to jot down my thoughts. Do a little bit each day, Frodo, and it will become quite a habit.”

Frodo hugged him again. “I will try,” he said.

“Well, I must be on my way. Do take care of yourself, Frodo! We’ll see each other soon!”

Frodo stood a long time watching the cart rattle away down the road, until it turned the bend and vanished from sight. The sun was high in the sky by then, but Frodo looked down at the journal in his hand, and decided to spend the afternoon on his first entry…after luncheon, of course.