The Heir of the Hill

by Lothithil

Chapter 13

Part 1:  To Adventure or Not to Adventure

Frodo pushed himself back from the table with a contented sigh. Ivy Boffin smiled at him, her round, friendly face creased with pleasure.

"Are you sure you don't want another piece of pie, Frodo-dear? You've only had two, and my Folco can eat three in one sitting!"

"Honestly Mrs Boffin, if I took another bite, all my buttons would burst off! Everything is so delicious!" Frodo patted his round stomach. "I shall have to have my trousers let out at the waist soon!"

Ivy flushed with delight, and began to gather the remains of the meal and tidy up her kitchen.

She and all the mothers of Frodo's friends always appeared to be obsessed with the quantity of food the young hobbit could eat. They seemed to think that Bilbo Baggins the Bachelor was incapable of feeding a young hobbit, and were worried that Frodo was in danger of wasting away from hunger, in spite of the fact that Frodo was a well-grown hobbit, a few inched taller than the average and measurably robust.

Mrs Boffin was, at least, polite about things. Mrs Bolger- Fatty's mother- fussed and fanned and fainted about him when he would come to tea with Fredegar. She would cook for a day before an announced visit, and Frodo had to work hard to eat all the things she prepared. If he couldn't, she would claim he was ill and fret and worry until it nearly drove her husband and son mad. It was a good thing she was such an excellent cook. Frodo would eat nothing but bread and honey for a day or two before a visit, and after he would need no victuals for another two days at least! Frodo was glad that Folco's mother was more diplomatic.

Folco smiled at Frodo across the table. He and Frodo had been friends since Frodo had moved to Hobbiton. The younger hobbit had found the newcomer from Buckland exotic and interesting, and had ever taken his side against the other hobbit-fry who would sometimes find flinging unkind words at the odd fellow Frodo entertaining.

Frodo did not listen to such teasing and he did not forget Folco's loyalty. Now they would walk the Shire paths together near Hobbiton, go fishing together on fine days, and share other pleasant pasttimes. Frodo sometimes talked about the distant lands and strange folk that his uncle had told him about, but Folco did not go much for such things. He prefered un-Adventures, but in spite of this Frodo found him a good companion.

When Bilbo had announced that he was going to be away for a few days on some business, Frodo had suggested he pay a visit to Folco during his absence. Bilbo thought it a capitol idea, knowing how lonely Frodo got when he was left alone in the huge empty smial on the Hill. And with him in Ivy Boffin's care, Bilbo needn't worry about Frodo having regular meals or walking about town or country alone.

Mrs Ivy Boffin was a very good cook, and she baked a fine pie, that was for sure. Frodo had gallantly volunteered to help pick wild berries for her when she mentioned she could use some. She would stew them and use them to make jams, jellies, and more pies. Of course, she had to feed Frodo and Folco up first, so they wouldn't eat all the berries they picked. The young hobbits stood up from the table with difficulty and accepted their baskets from her, then hurried out the door into the warm sunshine.

"We'll be back soon, mum," Folco called out, and he and Frodo strode off toward the hills, heading past the harrowed fields to the unclaimed lands that were covered with thickets of wind-sown fruit and unplanned orchards.

The summer had ripened the gooseberries and blueberries until they hung in heavy clusters on vines and branches. Strawberries were so thick under the leaves that the ground appeared spotted with patches of blood, and mulberry trees wept their purple tears with every breeze. They could have filled their baskets to overflowing within steps of the road, but Mrs Boffin had made a special request today. She wanted blackberries, as ripe and large as they could find... no groundpickings, thank you!... for the preparation of the Best Wildberry Pie competion at the Bywater Fair, only a few days hence. So Frodo and Folco had their quest.

"Everything is an Adventure to you, Frodo," Folco had said. When Mrs Boffin had suggested that they gather the fruit for her, Frodo had made such a show of accepting the mission, with a bow and a kiss on her hand, that the matron had blushed like a hobbit-lass.

"There's nothing wrong with a little Adventure, Folco. What could happen, gathering berries five miles from Hobbiton? We might as well make the afternoon fun!"

They made a competion, then, to gather the most berries in the time it took for them to circle the blackberry bushes. Each berry had to be ripe and as large as their thumbs. Every green berry was a point against them.

They split up. Though they were picking the same vast patch of berries, the bushes were so thick that they lost sight of each other. Frodo went left and Folco right, and their game would end when they met on the other side of the bushes with full baskets.

Frodo carefully waded into the bushes, wary of the thick thorns that sprouted as liberally as the berries they were meant to protect. He knew the trick of avoiding the snaring bristles, and he palmed a handful of fruit and sorted it carefully, eating the berries that were too small. He wished now that he had passed on that second piece of pie!

The berries were sweet and soon his fingers were blue-purple from the soft, ripe berries. The ground was squishy under his feet, and juice from the ground-fallen berries welled between his toes in a tickly kind of feeling. He stepped over a stretching branch and found another thick growth of berries. His basket would be full in no time.

Frodo laughed as he listened to Folco yelp everytime he pricked himself on the thorns. Frodo yelled advice helpfully. "Lift the branch and pick on the bend! Move your hands in the same direction of the thorns!"

"I-- ouch!-- did! The thorns are growin' backwards!" Folco barked. "My basket is already half full! I am going to beat you, Frodo Baggins!"

"Not if you keep eating them, Folco Boffin!" Frodo retorted merrily. He was sure that the blackberries were staining his own lips as well. They were just too sweet! Especially the large ones he was supposed to be saving.

They met finally on the other side of the bushes, both laughing at the other who was spotted and stained with berry juice. Folco had torn his tunic in three places and his trews as well. Frodo was unmussed except for stains on his hands, feet and face. In his hair there were a few leaves and a spiderweb that had caught in his dark curls.

They eyed one another's baskets critically, then decided that it was a tie. Both young hobbits were full up with berries and only idly ate one or two more as they walked back to the Boffin house. Mrs Boffin met them at the door and releaved them of their baskets, forbidding them to step inside on her rugs until they had washed up. They ran to the waterpump and looked at the trough full of chilly well-water, then glanced down the slope of the hill toward the inviting waters of the Pool. Frodo grabbed Folco and tried to hold him and still run past, to beat him to the swimming hole. Folco giggled and whipped past Frodo at a run, his smaller form a speedy package. They flung off their clothes as they ran and dove into the sunwarm water.

Their splashing and laughter attracted the attention of some other children playing across the small pond. They were skipping stones, and the ripples of Frodo and Folco's sporting was unsettling the surface of the water.

Rather than complain, they joined them swimming. Frodo was delighted to see Samwise Gamgee, and he recognized Jolly, Nick, and Nibs Cotton. To his joy he saw that they had their sister Rose with them.

Folco gasped and sank into the water, blushing bright red. They were naked except for their linen shorts in the water. Frodo laughed at him and splashed his face.

"Silly Folco! It's only Rosie! Hi! Sam! Come in for a swim!"

"I don't think so, Mr Frodo," Sam called back. Frodo recalled then that the young Gamgee did not swim.

"You'll never learn unless you try," Frodo said, treading water in the center of the pool. Folco was splashing around, showing off. Frodo had taught him to swim, but he was not as graceful in the water as his mentor. The Hobbiton children maintained that Frodo was part fish, owing to his Brandybuck blood. "If Folco can do it, you can."

"I'll never need to learn, if I don't fall into a pool or river," Sam retorted. Nick and Jolly had no such reluctance. They grabbed their younger brother and tossed him giggling into the water, then plunged in after him, shouting and splashing each other. Sam settled down on the bank of the pool and watched as the others sported in the water. Rosie gathered her skirts to her knees and waded in the shallows.

"Foooool-Co!" came the call, too soon, it seemed. Mrs Boffin hallooed them from her back gate. "Bring yourselves, young Boffin and Baggins! It's tea-time!"

Frodo swam like a otter to the pool edge, then stepped out onto the grass. Rosie laughed at Folco who lingered in the water, too embarassed to come out in front of a lady. She turned her back politely so he could scramble out and hastily dress. Frodo smiled at her but said nothing. She gave him a sunny smile back, waving her fingers at him as he turned away, buttoning his shirt.

Quite unexpectedly, Frodo felt a stab of pain on his neck. He supposed it was a thorn from the blackberry bushes, and he raised a hand to pull out the barb. A small black spider scampered across his fingers and dropped into the grass. Frodo watched it hasten away in surprise, failing to surpress a shudder as he felt phantom hairy legs walking across his skin.

"What's wrong, Mr Frodo?" Sam asked. Frodo pointed to the spider, then raised his hand to rub his neck. It was sore, and there was a swelling lump under his collar.

"Did it bite you, sir?" Sam was very concerned.

"I think so, Sam. I have a pain here," Frodo said, then a wave of dizziness tipped him, and he clutched at Sam's arm. He was suddenly in excrutiating pain. "Sam...*" Frodo stumbled and almost fell.

Sam ducked under Frodo's arm and began hauling him toward the house. Frodo was grateful; he felt as though he could barely walk. What was wrong? It had only been a tiny, black...

'A widower-spider, I think it was, ma'am. My Gaffer says they are terrible poisonous! Stung him on the neck, it did." They were at the Boffin's door, and Frodo had no memory of walking that far. Folco and Sam were both carrying him with his arms across their necks.

"Should we call a doctor?" Ivy was distressed. She instructed them to set Frodo down on the settee in the parlour. Frodo's face was pale and he was perspiring lightly. The pain was going away, but he still felt dizzy and ill. His hands felt odd. It was as if they were further away than they should be. Frodo touched his own face as if using a stranger's hand. His fingers were shaking.

"Aye, ma'am, I think we should, and I'll go and get Mr Bilbo and the Gaffer."

"Mr Bilbo is away, Sam," said Folco in a small voice. He looked at Frodo with a worried face. "That's why Frodo is staying with me for a few days. His uncle's gone from the Hill on business."

"My Gaffer might know what to do, ma'am," Sam said to Mrs Boffin as she twisted her skirt in worry. "We have all manner of little vermin in the garden. Maybe..."

"Off with you, then, young Gamgee, and come back with him quick!" Ivy said. "Folco, run and get Doc Tarsus straight away!" The two young hobbits dashed off.

Not knowing what else to do, Ivy wrapped Frodo in a blanket and dried his hair, still wet from swimming. He was shivering and his eyes seemed bright as if with fever. She held him and sang softly, more to comfort herself than for any other reason.

"Mum?" Frodo called softly. His eyes were closed, long lashes laying wetly against his pale cheeks.

"It's okay, Frodo. Ivy's here," Ivy said gently.

Frodo opened his eyes slowly. "Mum... where have you been?"

Ivy wasn't sure what to say. She was aware of what had happened to Frodo's mother and father... everyone who cared about the young hobbit knew they had drowned when he was a twelve-year old lad. "Frodo, I'm not..." she began to say, but Frodo whimpered and snuggled against her.

"Mum, I missed you! Don't go away again, please?"

His tears were more than she could bear. Trying not to weep herself, she cradled him and said, "I will always be here for you, Frodo dear." That much was true, and she knew it in her heart.

Frodo did not call out again. He swooned and lay in her arms. When Doc Tarsus arrived, breathless with Folco pushing him from behind, he found her weeping over the lad.

"There, there, Mrs Boffin! Now, let me see this bite... ah, yes. Just what your son told me. A small black spider? Now what are these tears for? The lad will be fine in a little while. It is just a reaction to the spider's venom. I have just the thing to fix him up. Folco lad, " the doctor leaned down toward the bewildered hobbit. "Go and make your mother a nice cup of tea. And bring a cup of strained milk with you when you come back."

Doc Tarsus took the unconscious Frodo from Ivy's reluctant hands. He carefully examined the lad's throat, fingers, and feet. He lifted each eyelid and gently looked at the inside of Frodo's lips and at his tongue. "Ivy, please fetch me another blanket, would you?" When she left he room, he removed Frodo's clothes and made sure there were no other bites or wounds on the lad. Frodo muttered incoherently. His eyes opened briefly and closed again slowly. The doctor wrapped him back in the blanket and in the additional one Ivy brought him. Folco arrived carrying two cups with excessive care.

Doc Tarsus took the milk and measured into it a clear liquid from a small bottle he took from his bag. He stirred the cup and raised Frodo's head, setting the cup to his lips. "Drink, lad. Go on now, drink it down."

Frodo sipped and coughed, making a face. "Yes, I know, Frodo. It doesn't taste as good as one of Mrs Boffin's pies, but it is good for you. Drink it down now." The doctor's voice was soothing and gentle. Frodo grimaced but sipped at the milk until it was gone.

"Folco, bring me a bucket from the garden, would you lad?" Doc Tarsus kept his eyes on Frodo's face. Folco obeyed at once, and Doc was ready with a towel and the bucket when his medicine began to do its work.

Frodo never felt so wretched in his life. Suddenly he could not keep his stomach; the milk and medicine, as well as his lunch, made a hasty re-appearance. Ashamed, he stammered an apology.

"No, Frodo, don't be sorry," Doc Tarsus said. "It's the medicine. I have to get that poison out of your system. This is the quickest and easiest way. I'll give you some time, and then we need to do it again."

"Oh, no, doctor..." Frodo wiped tears from his face. "This is horrible!"

"Not as horrible as not getting the poison out, lad. Do you want to be sick for a fortnight? Who is the doctor, now?"

"No, sir. You are, sir." Frodo said. His face was whiter than the pillow Ivy set behind his head. He swallowed convulsively. He felt miserable.

Sam and the Gaffer arrived during Frodo's second purging. The Gaffer nodded his approval and had a few quiet words with the doctor, then gathered Sam and left. Sam clearly would have prefered to stay and help, but the Gaffer was firm. "Go'wan now over to the Cotton's, and let them know the young master is going to be all right. Lily and Rose'll be worriting." The Gaffer laid a callused hand gently on his son's shoulder. "He's well looked after now, lad. Time'll come when that will be your duty solely. For now, leave him in the missus's hands." Sam obeyed, both eager to bear good news and reluctant to leave.

Inside the house, the doctor and Mrs Boffin had stepped into the kitchen for some talk. Frodo looked up at Folco and offered his friend a weak smile. "And I thought that I would have no Adventures today!"

Folco puffed his cheeks out, exhaling with relief. If Frodo felt good enought to jest, then he would problably be all right. "Perhaps you will see my point now, Frodo. Sometimes it is better to have a nice, quiet, boring afternoon."

Frodo lay back and closed his eyes, "I haven't the strength to argue with you, Folco. Will you do me a favour?"

"Anything, Frodo," Folco said eagerly.

"Find that little bottle in the Doctor's bag for me, and then hide it!

I   II   III 

Part 2: Blackberry Hills: The Female of the Species

Ivy retreated into the kitchen when the doctor touched her elbow gently. She asked Folco sit and watch Frodo, telling him to inform her instantly if he moved or spoke. With shaking hands she made some tea for herself and the doctor. Tarsus watched her and said nothing.

"Are you sure he's going to be all right, Doctor?"

"Yes, ma'am. He just had a bit of a reaction to the venom in the spider's bite. Not at all uncommon. If he gets plenty of rest, he will be fine in a day or two," Doctor Tarsus sipped his tea and added, "Until the next incident."

Ivy looked at him in surprise. " 'The next incident'? Don't tell me this has happened before?"

"Not as such, ma'am. But, I regret to say I've paid many a hasty visit to the Hill these years since young Baggins has come to live in Hobbiton. Far more frequently than I ought, in my opinion." Ivy's eyes grew round. "Now, it's not my way to speak of such things freely, Mrs Boffin. It's just that... well, the lad has only Mr Bilbo as a guardian. Mr Baggins is a capitol fellow, now, don't misunderstand me! He's never let harm come to the lad, nor inflicted it directly. But he's not skilled in raising a child and frankly, I worry about the boy. This 'adventurousness' that Bilbo encourages... well, your own lad has more sense, Mrs Boffin. When one goes looking for trouble, one tends to find some.

"I guess what I am trying to say, Ivy," Doc Tarsus set his cup down carefully, without a clatter, "Is that it would put my mind at ease if you would take as much interest in the boy as you felt inclined. The lad may be nearing his full growth, but he still needs the touch of a mother in his life."

Tarsus finished his tea while Ivy thought about his words. "I'll look in on him again tonight after supper, ma'am, but I am sure he will be fine. He may mention some pain or have trouble sleeping; that will be normal. Just dribble a drop or two of this in his milk or tea," the doctor handed her a tiny glass vial filled with a black, syrupy liquid. "Just a drop or two, no more! He'll sleep deeply afterward."

Tarsus picked up his bag and set his hat on his head. He looked toward the parlour for a moment, then smiled at Ivy. "He is lucky, you know. The bite of the widower-spider is painful, but the sting of his mate can be deadly. I have observed that the female of the species is usually the more dangerous... present company excepted, of course!" He tipped his hat to Mrs Boffin and departed.

Ivy closed the door behind him, absently slipping the vial into her apron pocket. Doc Tarsus's words burned her ears, and she wasn't sure what to think of it all. She knew Bilbo to be especially conservative toward Frodo's health and welfare, even if he was unconventional about his education. He had brought Frodo up to be unfailingly polite, proper, and genteel. Certainly, he was still a child, but not so careless as some.

She peeked into the parlour and smiled gently. Folco was sitting patiently and quiet in her rocking chair, watching Frodo sleep. He looked up when he heard her sigh. He stood up, careful not to let the rocker clatter against the floor, and came to her side to whisper, "Is everything all right now, mum? How's Frodo?"

She smiled tenderly at him. "Everything is going to be just fine. Let's have some tea and let him sleep."

But Frodo was not asleep. He had been lying quietly listening. It was strange how clearly he could hear everything in the house. He wished he could turn off his ears. His heart was cold and he felt sick still. He wanted to move, but he was worried that it would unsettle his stomach again. When he heard them creep out of the room, he sat up carefully, unable to suppress a groan. All his joints ached as if he had fallen down a mountainside.

Ivy came back instantly. She put her hand behind his back and helped him sit up. "How are you feeling, dear?"

Frodo tried to smile at her, but it was rather stiff and unconvincing. "I'm fine, Mrs Boffin. I feel a little tired and very foolish. I am sorry to be such a bother."

Ivy smoothed his hair back from his brow with a light touch. "When you become a bother to me, Frodo Baggins, I shall make mention of it. It's nobody's fault that you got a spider in your collar... except maybe the spider's!"

"Yes, ma'am." Frodo rubbed his hands and arms. Why did he ache so? "I should not have left my shirt on the grass like that. Uncle Bilbo warned me to shake out clothes and blankets left on the ground. He takes me camping, and that is one of his first rules! He'll have words for me for being so careless." Frodo was trying to sound light-hearted, but Ivy noticed the crease in his brow that did not smooth away with his smile.

"Are you hurting, Frodo?"

"Well, I don't want to be a both... er, maybe a little. My hands are sore..." his voice trailed to a mumble. He didn't want to be a crybaby.

"Doctor said that you might feel achy. He left you something for that." Ivy prepared a cup of tepid tea and let fall two drops from the small bottle in her apron.

Frodo drank it cautiously. For once, the medicine was not bitter. He handed her back the cup with a "Thank you, ma'am."

Ivy looked at him for a long moment, then she sat down next to him and gathered him under her arm. She drew Folco to her other side and the three of them snuggled together under a quilt on the settee.

"Will you tell us a story?" Folco asked, leaning against his mother's warmth and softness.

"Surely, my dear," Ivy thought for a moment, then said, “Lads, have you ever heard of the kukkow bird?” Both boys shook their heads no. “Well, the kukkow bird is a very strange bird. It doesn’t build nests like other birds do. Instead, they find a nest that is already built, with unhatched eggs a-laying. The lady bird leaves her eggs in that nest, and then flies away and never comes back.”

“Why would she do that, mum?” asked Folco. “Doesn’t she care about her chicks?”

“I’m sure she does. I can’t imagine a mother who doesn’t care about her young ones. But the kukkow can’t stay and hatch her own eggs, for some reason. So she has to find someone who can take care of her chicks for her.”

Frodo was slowly leaning more heavily on Ivy’s side until his head sank gradually onto her knee. He was trying to listen but everything was so soft and warm and soothing. “I like birds,” Frodo murmured, “They eat spiders.” Ivy laughed gently and stroked his hair as he cuddled in her lap.

Folco pulled the corner of the quilt more snugly under Frodo’s chin, then asked his mother, “Why does the mother bird sit on an egg that is not her own? Wouldn’t she know that the strange egg wasn’t hers?”

“She may not realize that it isn’t, Folco. Birds are not people. But even if she did know, I think she would take care of it anyway. It doesn’t matter to some mothers, if the chicks are just like hers or different; she loves them all the same, because her heart knows no limits.”

Frodo drifted to sleep to the sound of Folco’s questions and Ivy’s soft answers. All his discomfort was gone, and he felt safe. Perhaps it was the poppymilk, or maybe his long day had caught up with him; he closed his eyes and drifted to sleep.

Folco looked at his friend lying across his mother’s lap. “Mum, I wouldn’t mind sharing a nest… if the other little bird was like Frodo.”

Ivy hugged her son and kissed him soundly on top of his head. “I love you, my darling Folco. You are such a big-hearted lad!” She smiled down at him. “We aren’t kukkow birds, and Frodo can’t come live in our nest, but we can still take care of him, right?”

“Of course!” Folco said firmly, laying his head on his mother’s other knee. “There is always plenty of extra love around here!”


Part 3:

A fair day in the Shire, for it is Fair Day in Bywater!

The Races

Three days later, Frodo felt very much like himself again. He went with Folco and his parents to the Bywater Fair. It was a fine summer day, with a sky high overhead and the sun warm all over. There was enough of a breeze to keep the pennants flapping merrily and strings taunt on all the kites being flown. They littered the sky like colourful ships sailing without water, their long tails moving sinuously in the waves of the air.

But it was not only kites and flags flying in the air that day. Everywhere they went, heads turned toward them, and Frodo was greeted warmly by many folks, all seeming surprised and delighted to see him. He felt warmly happy at first, but that speedily changed to concern when he was repeatedly questioned about his health. “I am quite well, thank you,” he repeated for the tenth time, before they had even reached the baked-goods judging tent.

“Hullo, Mrs Chubb! I feel fine, thank you for inquiring. How is your family?”

“I’ve never felt better, Mr Brockhouse. What a fine day it is! How is your farm?”

“Splendid, Mrs Banks-Burrower. I can’t complain at all. How is Master Banks; was the winter good to him this year?”

Frodo felt a little breathless after the first wave of well-wishers finally ebbed. He walked close to Mrs Boffin and she laid a hand across his shoulders, offering him a puzzled smile. They walked on, and Frodo watched the faces full of curiosity turn to neighbors and the whispering began. He turned away and tried to ignore them.

There were many entries to the pie baking and decorating competition, but Ivy Boffin’s pie won first place, as usual. This year, as a joke for just her, Folco and Frodo, she had decorated the pie with a fine spiderweb pattern. The hobbit-lads laughed as they ate their victory slices.

After lunch, Ivy let the lads run about the fair together while she visited with the other ladies. Frodo and Folco headed immediately to the racing grounds. Many of their friends were already gathered there. Frodo saw Samwise and the Cotton lads, as well as Fredegar Bolger and some other young hobbits he was friendly with from Hobbiton and Bywater.

Sam smiled at him, but didn’t get a chance to speak to Frodo as his other friends descended upon him like crows.

“Hullo, Frodo! Coming to race with us?” asked Fredegar, or Fatty as all his friends called him. “I heard you were laid up, sick.”

Frodo suppressed a sigh. “I am perfectly fine, Fatty. But I cannot race with you today.”

The hobbit-lads gasped in disappointment. Frodo was the one to beat; he had won many races against them, and they had wanted a re-match. “But why, if you’re as well as you say?”

“I promised Folco’s mother that I wouldn’t overtax myself. Of course, running against you lot could hardly be described as overtaxing…” Frodo laughed to show he was jesting, and they chucked and objected in mock-injured tones. They begged him to join the race, but he firmly refused. “You’ll just have to take on my protégé Folco. He’s half rabbit, you know. I don’t think even I could catch him!”

There was a rousing chourus of protests, and Folco was gaffed into the race. He smiled happily, pleased to be in the center of the merriment. Frodo himself dropped the handkerchief to start the race, then cheered on Folco enthusiastically. Sam, who had also refrained from entering the race, stood at his side, holding the string across the finishing line to judge the winner.

Folco showed the other taller lads his paces that day, his small quick frame outrunning the larger, stronger boys by a length. Shouts of excuses and denial were drowned in merry laughter, and challenges were made for the next races at the Pumpkin Fair come next month. Frodo vowed that he would be there to take back his title from Folco, “…Come wolves or high water!”

The rest of the day went splendidly, right through to the evening. Frodo saw more of his friends and kindred; Samwise with his Gaffer, of course, and little Peregrin turned up with his mother and father. Paladin always had firm handshake and a word of advice for Frodo whenever he saw him and Aunt Eglantine a warm smile. But today at the supper banquet, they wore faces of worry and stress when he came to say his greeting to them. They appeared relieved when he spoke to them cheerfully.

"We'd had news you were ill, Frodo," said Paladin, when Frodo asked what was wrong. "Plain idle gossip, I am glad to see. Why, you look very healthy and able to me!"

Peregrin winked at Frodo from behind his mother's skirt. Frodo knew he'd hear the full tale from the young Took. Pippin's ears were as quick as his appetite.

"I am fine, I assure you, sir. Thanks to Mrs Boffin's excellent care, I am fully mended."

Aunt Eglantine looked less than fully convinced. "I heard that you had been poisoned."

"Egla..." Paladin said gently.

"Not poisoned, dear aunt," Frodo said hastily, "Bitten by a wee spider, no bigger than that lovely pearl on your blouse-button! I still have a welt under my collar!" He showed her the slowly fading bite mark. "I was the unlucky one that day. Why, Folco, Samwise and all the Cotton children were playing in that very same spot, where the spider got onto my shirt. Any of us could have been stung."

"I think it is clear that rumours have been exaggerated about this, Frodo," Paladin said with a look at his wife, who appeared somewhat ashamed. "Where is Mrs Boffin? I think we owe her a word of thanks, for taking care of our favourite young cousin..."

Peregrin grabbed Frodo's sleeve and almost dragged him into a tent nearby. His eyes were dancing with mischief.

"What have you heard, Pippin?" Frodo asked.

"Oh, me dad is angry! He heard it from the seed-merchant, who spoke to the blacksmith at Nearbarns, who learned from the baker in Hobbiton that you were dead poisoned by one of Mrs Boffin's jars of spoilt jam!"

Frodo was shocked. "What on earth... and Aunt Egla believed that?"

"Da didn't. He said it was..." Pippin giggled and whispered the offending word in Frodo's ear, what his father has said when he thought his son wasn't listening. Frodo's ears turned pink.

"Peregrin Took! He did not say that! Well, maybe he did..." Frodo coughed and looked at him sternly, the corners of his lips twitching as it they wanted to smile. "I don't ever want to hear that word from your lips again!"

"I'm just telling you what Da said." Pippin was unintimidated. "Mum said Cousin Bilbo would answer to her for leaving you in someone else's care. And I heard that Merry's mum fainted on the spot when she heard the same news... though Saradoc did not believe a word of it."

"Aunt Esme! Is she all right? Oh, how do these silly rumours and falsehoods get started? It is ridiculous that lies should run so fast, and the truth be trailed through the mud behind! I must send them a message at once..."

"They'll be here by tomorrow. I heard Da say he'd sent for them."

"Sent for them? To prove I am alive?" Frodo was overwhelmed. Bucklebury to Hobbiton was no small distance. To ride so far just because of a rumour…!

"Among other things. Cousin Bilbo's due back then, and I heard Da say that..."

The tentflap was flipped up at that moment, and Pippin was hauled off by one ear by his mother. Paladin laid a hand on Frodo's shoulder and glowered a little.

"I meant to tell you myself some of the things my nosy son has shared with you, Frodo. You see, this is how rumours get started and spread... folks listening and talking without knowing. Come and have a cream ale with your Uncle Paladin and we'll do some real talking."


Part 4:
The Things We Want Most

Paladin took his younger cousin to a quiet table and set him down with a mug of ale. He politely asked Eglantine to take Peregrin to find some food, making it clear that she should take her time. She nodded, but did not look wholly pleased to be excluded from the conversation. She towed Pippin away, who looked even less pleased not to hear what his father would say to Frodo.

Frodo sat and waited for the Thain to speak. He was aware of the eyes upon them; curious hobbits who had greeted Frodo warmly that day but spoke nothing to him of these strange tales. For a moment Frodo felt keenly frustrated that no one told him the things that were being said, but his anger was brief. Bilbo treated him as an adult always, but in everyone else's eyes, he was still a child.

Paladin watched Frodo and said nothing until the ruddyness faded from the young hobbit's face. He didn't want to hurt Frodo's feelings or rouse his anger. He knew from raising several children of his own that they listened with their hearts instead of their ears when they were angry. He wanted Frodo's full attention.

"I know that you have heard this question all day, Frodo," Paladin began, and immediately Frodo noticed that Paladin's manner toward him had become different. There was no note of patronization, however kind or correct considering the position of his elder. He looked Frodo straight in the eye and spoke to him as an equal.

"I know that you have heard this question all day, Frodo, but I do truly wish to know if you are in fact feeling well. Plus, with this shock come so sudden... are you truly all right?"

Frodo's voice sounded hollow in his own ears, "I am fine, thank you for inquiring." He felt a strong urge to lower his eyes, but he wished to maintain this feeling of equality for as long as possible. It was Paladin who looked away first, though he did not change his manner of speaking.

"I don't think I have told you, though I trust you do know it; how pleased and proud I am of you." Frodo's eyes widened slightly. This he hadn't expected. "You are a fine-grown hobbit and you have exceeded all my expectations. You are a credit to the memory of your father and mother. I know that Bilbo has had a lot to do with that.

"He's given you things that none of the rest of the family could have given, not just time and money and a hole to live in. He has invested himself in you, and you have proved his trust. If he hasn't made it clear to you, you should know: the family is proud of you, Frodo."

Paladin took a drink from his mug, allowing Frodo a moment to collect himself. His eyes brimmed with tears, threatening to undo his new mature self-image. He allowed himself a smile and took a drink from his own mug. It tasted sweet.

"If I could change one thing about your childhood, Frodo, other than sparing your dear parents, I would have had you raised in the Great Smials with my family. I should have made more of a kicking all those years ago, and brought you home with me. But I think things have gone as well or better than they might have. Do you have any lack, Frodo? Are you lonely or unhappy in any way? Even now, I would make room for you in my life, if you so desired it. I mean no disrespect to Bilbo; he is a capitol fellow for all his oddities. I don't think you could do better in the Shire or out of it, truth to tell."

Frodo nodded in agreement. "I am completely happy, Paladin, sir. And I am most gratified by your words. If it were possible for me to be happier, I could only imagine it would be in Tuckborough."

"I'm pleased to hear you say that, lad... I mean Frodo," Paladin said, determined to maintain their new understanding. "Listen, Frodo; when its us talking, you use my right name and forget the 'sir', all right? I will never doubt your respect." He winked then, and leaned in to whisper, "Egla loves it when you call her 'Aun'tine'!"

"Yes, s... Paladin." Frodo grinned back, and Paladin raised his mug and clicked it against Frodo's. They drained their mugs together.

As they set them down, two fresh pints appeared on the board, along with two more. "My complements, gentlehobbits," said Rondo Boffin. Ivy smiled at Frodo and bobbed a curtsy to Paladin. "May we join you?"

"Make room, there, Frodo-lad," said Paladin with a wink, and Frodo scooted down the bench to allow Ivy and her husband to sit. Eglantine, with her daughters and Peregrin, appeared with platters of food. Folco slid onto the end of the bench on Frodo's other side with two cups of pressed apple cider. Frodo smiled at him.

"Room for one more?" Every head at the table swiveled, and Bilbo chuckled at their surprise.

"Uncle!" Frodo was sandwiched in, but he tried to stand up to greet Bilbo. "You're back early!"

The older hobbit waved him to sit down. "Yes, finished business quicker than I thought I would! Glad to be back in time for the feast. Best part of the faire, I have always thought. Eglatine and Ivy; you both look lovely tonight! Is there an extra mug of ale lying about for a road-weary hobbit?"

Frodo offered Bilbo his mug of ale. "I've had one already, Uncle. I think I'd prefer juice." Frodo shot a glance at Paladin who was beaming at him from behind Bilbo's back. "No need to grow up, too fast."


Frodo went home that night with his uncle, saying goodbye to Folco and his family at the faire. He hugged Ivy and left a kiss tingling on her cheek. "Thanks for taking care of me," he said softly.

Glad as he was to have Bilbo back, Frodo was a little nervous when he closed the door behind them. He wasn't the only one who was upset. Bilbo hung up his cloak and leaned his walking stick against the wall, but it fell with a clatter, startling them both.

"Bilbo?" Frodo touched his uncle's sleeve. The old hobbit was trembling.

It was dark in the smial. No one had been in for almost a week, and as they hadn't been expected back until tomorrow, the Gaffer hadn't been in to light the hearth. Frodo sought with knowing fingers for a candle and a tinderbox, and by the time he had the beeswax lit, Bilbo had composed himself.

"What really happened, Frodo?" Bilbo asked. "I really hadn't planned on being back so soon, but I got news on the wind that you... that something bad..."

"I am fine, Uncle," Frodo said firmly. "I am perfectly fine. Mrs Boffin took good care of me, and someone made a dog's tail into a dragon's. I am sorry your business got interrupted, sir."

Bilbo coughed and kept his face turned away from the candle. Frodo busied himself lighting a fire in the parlour hearth. When the light had grown and some warmth was spreading into the rooms, Frodo turned and looked at Bilbo.

He looked the same as he did when he left, but some how he looked older, too. He had his hand in his waistcoat pocket, and he seemed to be thinking hard about something.

"Do you want a cup of tea, Bilbo?"

"Yes, lad, I do. But first let's talk some. I know I should have listend to my heart when I heard those lies about you being poisoned, but I had to hurry back to make sure. Forgive your old uncle. The things we want most to hold onto are the very things we cannot keep."

Frodo looked at Bilbo with a tilt to his head, "What do you mean, sir?"

Bilbo sighed. "This 'business' I have been about, Frodo... well, I don't know where to start. Sit down, lad and let me shuffle my thoughts." Frodo sat down and studied the pattern on the carpet below his feet while Bilbo settled into his chair.

"Frodo," he began at last, "I haven't been entirely forthright with you. Once I said, 'no secrets between us', but I confess, I have been planning something without telling you about it wholly. I really didn't mean for it to be a secret, but there seemed no good time to discuss it..."

"You're going away, I know," Frodo said quietly.

Bilbo glanced at him sharply. "Well, now! Either I am not as clever as I thought, or you are skillful at keeping a secret yourself! I would have wagered dragon's gold that you did not know."

Frodo smiled at Bilbo. "We do live in the same smial, uncle. You must give me credit, being the heir of the famous Burglar of Bag End."

"Indeed! And it is credit that you deserve, my boy. I have heard other things as well... not this trip, I mean. When I go about, when I mention your name, everyone wishes you well. They all say what a fine hobbit you've become, and that you'll be well capable of taking care of yourself once I have gone."

Frodo returned his glance to the carpet. After a few long moments, he spoke, "I wish that there was some way that I could go with you, Bilbo. I would go with you, if you asked me to. I want to see the mountains and the wild country, and know the strange places and creatures you have described, and maybe even find some that neither of us have seen. An Adventure, just like we have always spoken about.

"But I also want to stay here, in the Shire. There are people here who I care about, whose birthdays I would miss, and who I would think about as I moved farther away, until I was lost from myself. I never really realized it until now, Bilbo, but I do love the Shire. I know it seems mundane and boring to you, when you have seen the halls of the Mountain King and dined with Elves in the Last Homely House." Frodo laughed, though he felt as if his heart was being torn in two. "Would you forgive me, Bilbo, for wanting to stay here?"

Bilbo smiled, and the last vestiges of chill left Frodo's soul. "Lad, I am so pleased to hear you say that! Of course, I would welcome you on my Adventure, but then I'd have to go and find another heir, and well... there is none better than the one I picked already! And there isn't time, anyway. Not that I plan to leave tomorrow or the next day, mind you! I'm not going anywhere further than Sarn Ford before your thirty-third birthday, my lad, so don't plan on moving your things into the Master Bedroom yet!"

Frodo and Bilbo both laughed. A weight seemed to have been lifted from both of their heads, and now that the darkness was broken and the cold driven away, weariness of the day came to them, and they began to yawn.

"I think I'll have that tea tomorrow morning, lad, if you don't mind," Bilbo said. "Paladin and Saradoc are expected for second breakfast, I hear. So I'm for bed now, in a real bed, for a welcome change. No leaves in my hair or moss on my toes tonight! Good night!"

"Good night, Uncle," Frodo answered. He banked the fire, but remained in the parlour for some time. There was a map that his uncle had set in a frame and placed on the wall near the hearth. Frodo lifted it off of its hook and took it near the fire to see it more clearly.

It was old and worn, and had been rolled and folded many times. Frodo brushed a finger lightly over the dry parchment, as if the ink might still be wet some how, even after so many, many years. A little red dragon flew over a solitary mountain. For a moment, Frodo could hear the crackle of its breath in the hearthwood. He carefully replaced the picture on the wall, and retired to his own bed.

'Someday', Frodo thought as he sank into sleep, 'Someday, I will go and maybe find a treasure, or solve my own riddle in the dark. Maybe I will fight a dragon, or see a mountain, or travel to the Elves' lands. But not tomorrow, and not the day after...' and he fell into a pleasant dream that enfolded him in warmth throughout the night.