Firewood

by AuntKimby

Prologue - Last Words


The clock in the kitchen had just struck nine at night when an urgent knock on the door of Bag End caused Rosie to jump and drop her knitting and Sam’s head to jerk up as he nodded before the sitting room fire.
“Lor’, who could that be at this hour?” Rosie wondered with a mixture of concern and irritation as she started to get to her feet. Sam stopped her. “Don’t get up, Rose-wife-I’m closer to the door.”
Sixteen-year-old Tom Bracegirdle stood on the doorstep. “Hullo, Mr. Gamgee. I’ve come for…”
“Who is it, Sam?” Frodo entered the room, having heard the knock from his study.
“It’s young Tom Bracegirdle, Mr. Frodo,” Sam told him, and then turned to the lad to inquire his errand. Before he could speak, however, Tom stepped around him and addressed Frodo. “Mr. Baggins, sir, my mum sent me to get you, at Cousin Lobelia’s request. She’s very weak, sir, and…we don’t think she’ll live through the night. She…she wants to see you before...” He swallowed and then finished, “she asked for you specially. Could you come, Mr. Baggins? I know it’s late an’ it’s rainin’ and all…”
“Of course I’ll come with you, Tom,” Frodo said at once. He turned to Sam. “Would you saddle my pony for me while I get my things? Rosie, perhaps you could give Tom a bit of tea to warm him before we go-he looks chilled through.” Frodo hurried out of the room to get ready.
“Right away, Mr. Frodo,” Sam said. He smiled sympathetically at Tom before he got his own cloak and headed out to the stable. Rosie led Tom into the kitchen and gave him a cup of tea and a handful of cookies. She saw the boy was trembling, but not entirely from being wet.
“Are you all right, dear?” she asked him softly, smoothing the damp brown curls from his face.
Tom’s voice quavered as he replied, “It don’t seem right…that she was the way she was…not friendly, I meant to say, most of my life, and then just as she started actin’ like a real auntie an’ all…now we’re goin’ to lose her.”
Tom gulped and wiped his eyes, and Rosie embraced him.
“Ready, Tom?” Frodo called from the sitting room. “Sam’s come round with my pony, and of course you’ll ride with me. Your cloak is dripping wet- leave that one to dry by the fire, and you can borrow my extra one hanging by the door there. The rain seems to have eased quite a bit even in the last few minutes.”
“Thank you, Mr. Baggins,” Tom said gratefully. “And thank you for the tea and cookies, Mistress Rose,” he added.
Frodo and Tom hurried outside where Sam waited with Strider, Frodo’s pony. The animal whinnied softly and nuzzled Tom’s neck, as if sensing the lad was in need of comfort. Frodo helped Tom into the saddle and then swung up behind him.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can, Sam,” Frodo said, and then he and Tom rode away.
Lobelia had been living with her Bracegirdle relatives since her release from prison; Tom’s mother Peony met Frodo and Tom at the door while her husband quietly led the pony to the stable to be rubbed down and fed.
“She’s awake, but I couldn’t get her to take so much as a sip of tea,” Peony said softly. “I think she’s waiting just to have a word with you, Mr. Baggins.”
Already past one hundred when Frodo and his companions returned to the Shire six months earlier, Lobelia’s incarceration and her grief over her son Lotho’s death (even though he had betrayed her) had taken its toll upon her aging body. Frodo had last seen her at Sam and Rose’s wedding just a month ago, and he was shocked and grieved to see how much she had deteriorated since then. She lay in the middle of her bed, wearing a nightgown and robe now far too big for her, her eyes closed and her hair completely white. Lobelia had always prided herself on her hair remaining nearly entirely its natural color well into her nineties, but it too had changed dramatically in the past few years. She had been stiff and slow and the wedding, and had to go home after just a few hours; but now Frodo doubted if she could get out of that bed even with assistance.
“Mr. Baggins-Frodo- is here, Auntie Lobelia,” Peony said softly, gently rubbing the old hobbit’s frail arm. Lobelia opened her eyes; though her irises were now clouded by age, they were the same sharp, piercing green they had always been.
“Frodo,” she said hoarsely. Peony Bracegirdle left the room quietly, taking Tom with her before shutting the door with a soft click.
The hobbit moved to her side at once and took her hand in his. “I’m right here, Lobelia,” he said softly.
“I can see that,” she replied with some of her old asperity. “I’m not dead yet.” She chuckled then, and Frodo smiled too, though his lips trembled.
Lobelia tried to sit up but couldn’t. “Well, I’ll have to say what I want to say from where I am,” she said weakly, shaking her head when Frodo moved to help her.
She was silent for a moment and Frodo waited, not speaking.
“Frodo…” she began.
“Yes?” he asked gently, rubbing his thumb against the palm of her hand as he held it. The loving gesture brought tears to the elderly hobbit’s eyes. “Oh, Frodo…my dear…I never told you…”
Her voice trailed away, and Frodo prompted her, “Never told me what, Lobelia?”
“I never told you…that I was sorry,” she managed.
“Lobelia,” Frodo said tenderly, “you paid a heavy price for whatever you might have done, and you’ve more than made up for it since then…”
She shook her head. “Frodo…you don’t understand…you don’t know…everything…”
A spasm of coughing shook her, and Frodo put his arms around her to steady her.
“Lobelia, whatever it is, it doesn’t matter anymore,” he began, but she shook her head.
“Frodo…I never…let myself love you…because…because of what it cost me…”
She closed her eyes. “The sun is hurting my eyes, Frodo…could you close the curtains, my dear?”
It was now nearly ten o’clock at night, and pitch dark outside. Frodo tightened his embrace briefly and said, “Certainly I will.” He moved to the window and obligingly closed the curtains; it is just as well so Lobelia would not see the tears running unchecked down his face. He returned to her side and she rested her head on his shoulder. Her breathing grew more shallow, and Frodo saw the pulse flutter in her neck.
“Frodo…” she murmured…”I’m sorry…for everything…forgive me…”
“You’re forgiven, if I had anything to forgive, Lobelia,” he whispered.
Her lips moved, and Frodo strained to hear. “What is it, dearest?”
“…next to…Pansy,” she sighed, and then she sagged against him.
On the table next to the bed, the candle spluttered and went out.
Frodo gently laid her back against the pillows, passed his hand over her eyelids to close them, and then kissed her on the forehead before he went to tell the Bracegirdles.
It was almost two in the morning when Frodo wearily returned to Bag End, and he would need to return to the Bracegirdles later to help make the arrangements for the funeral and burial. Dear Sam was waiting up for him, though, and he shook his head sorrowfully when he saw what had happened in Frodo’s expression.
“She wanted to ask my forgiveness, Sam…for not letting herself love me for what it cost her.”
Frodo was surprised when he saw Sam’s hands tremble so that he nearly dropped the tea pot.
“Sam?” Frodo asked questioningly.
“It…it were nothing, Mr. Frodo,” Sam apologized.
Frodo looked at him with love. “Sam, my dearest hobbit, I’ve spent enough time with you to know that usually ‘nothing’ means ‘a great deal of something’ when you react that way. Do you know something about Lobelia that I don’t?”
Sam sat down at the table but still could not speak.
“Her last words to me were ‘next to Pansy’, Sam. Do you know what she meant by that?” Frodo sat down across from him, his blue eyes intent on his friend and servant’s honest features.
Sam sighed heavily. “Well, Mr. Frodo…I reckon I do, an’ it were almost by accident, you might say, how I found out…”
Frodo sat back and folded his arms. “I’m not sleepy,” he said significantly.
Sam poured them each a cup of tea. “Well, Mr. Frodo…it were a month or so after Mr. Otho died, an’ you were at Brandy Hall for your cousins’ anniversary…”