The Heir of the Hill

by Lothithil

II   III  IV  V  VI  VII
Chapter 14

Part 1:  Girdley Island


Frodo woke from his drowsy nap as the wheels of the pony-cart rattled over the Brandywine Bridge. His head was pillowed by his mother's soft knee, and she had one arm around him. He felt warm and safe. Awake now, he continued to lay across her lap, enjoying having her all to himself for a little while longer.

He knew this wouldn't happen very often once they reached the end of their journey. They were travelling to Brandy Hall to visit his mother's kin. Once they arrived Frodo would be swept away by the eager crowd of assorted hobbit-fry that lived in and around Buck Hill. They would keep him busy playing near the river and under the eaves of the High Hay, while his mother sat with her sisters and sisters-in-law, knitting and gossiping. His father would be busy with Rorimac, discussing the news of the Shire and Buckland. Frodo would see his parents at mealtimes, from the place where the young hobbits ate together. Then he would not see them again until bed-time, when they would come and bring him to the rooms that were set aside just for them.

So often did they visit and their stays were always lengthy, that Menegilda had said that they should have their own rooms always ready for them. The young hobbits of Brandy Hall slept together in a dormatory, but Frodo was privilaged to sleep in a small room adjacent to his parent's. Often he would creep into their room and onto the huge bed to snuggle between his mother and father. But the next morning, it was off for more play and fair days.

The Brandywine River was a source of excited fear and wonder to the young hobbit. The wide brown waters were always moving, and the water never ran out, no matter how long it flowed. Frodo wondered where all the water came from. He would sit beside it and dangle his hand in the strong current, until an adult hollered at him to "Git 'way from that water, young fella! D'ya wan' ta drown?"

Frodo wasn't worried about drowning. He thought himself a fair swimmer. He practiced in the Pool whenever he visited his cousins in Hobbiton. Frodo knew that rivers were different to swim in than pools, but he was sure that he could keep his head above water. The children in Bywater said he was part fish, he was such a good swimmer. But he obeyed and stayed away from the River when he was alone.

The children ran down to the banks often, skipping stones or fishing, picking up things on the soft sandbars where the river bent and pushed the soil into heaps. There were many interesting stones to be found there. Some were as smooth as glass, others bitten and pocked as if they had been teethed on by a stone troll, and all in all the colours imaginable. Frodo found them and took them to show his mother and father. They let him keep the most interesting ones and gave him a little wooden box in which to collect them.

This visit was sure to be just like the others, and Frodo was happy to be there. His parents were happy, and when his mother smiled like that, Frodo wanted to laugh aloud with joy. Drogo puffed contentedly on his pipe and patted Frodo's head; he felt proud to be his son. The young hobbit felt a wee twinge of guilt for wanting to keep his parents all to himself. They had as much fun in Buckland as he did.

They had not even made it all the way to Brandy Hall when the hoardes of hobbit-fry appeared, clamouring for Frodo to come and play. Frodo waved to them and called, "I must greet my uncle and aunt first! I promise I will come and play right after!" Drogo clucked at the pony and they waded though the ocean of children.

On the steps of the Hall, Rorimac and his son Saradoc were waiting. Menegilda was there also, and Saradoc's wife Esmeralda, holding their two-year old son on her wide hip. Frodo leapt from the wagon and helped his mother climb down, then ran and bowed dutifully to his elders.

Rorimac frowned at him as he always did, but then his grizzled expression softened. "And good day to you, young Master Baggins. Go on with you now and play with your friends. They have been chattering like birds all day, waiting for you to arrive. Keep them out of the Hall for a few hours, while I speak to your parents, would you? There's a good lad..." and Frodo was sent away with a pat on the seat.

He paused to tickle young Meriadoc under his chubby chins, grinning and bowing to his 'Aunt Esme' before turning eagerly away. Someone tossed him a colourful ball, and soon they were playing a game.

Drogo watched his son for a while, lingering on the doorstep after the others had gone inside. Hearing Frodo's ringing laugh as he played with the other children made him feel all the more strongly about talking to his wife about having a second child. Frodo had been difficult for her, but it usually was hard the first time, so he had heard. Drogo set it aside to discuss with her, when they had a moment alone.

He heard Rory calling for him already. Time for the adults to play, too, he thought with a grin. Taking a last look at his son running beneath the trees, he went inside.


Part Two: Late for Breakfast


Frodo was famished by dinnertime, as if he hadn't eaten a full luncheon at Stonebow after he and his parents had crossed the Brandywine on their way to Bucklebury. He had been playing all afternoon, and teatime had come and passed unnoticed, and now his stomach was empty and he felt as if he were becoming transparent; he was so hungry. As he hurried to the usual table where the children gathered together to eat, he saw his mother wave to him from the head table. He obediantly went to her side.

"Did you have a nice day, son?" she asked, removing a leafy twig that was entangled in his hair. He had washed his hands, but had forgone a glance in the looking-glass. She smoothed his unruly curls affectionately.

"Yes, mum." Frodo longed to show her the stones he had found, but he would have to wash his hands again if he dug into his trouser-pockets, and he was so hungry he did not want to wait.

"Get you to the lower table, young Baggins," Rorimac rumbled, sliding into his chair next to Primula. "You are not yet old enough to dine with your elders."

"Yes, Master." Frodo said, his smile fading a little under the intimidating glower of his uncle. Primula brushed his cheek with her fingers and smiled at him, and he forgot his discomfort instantly. He walked back to the 'little' table as quickly as dignity would allow.

Frodo ate heartily, enjoying the fact that there was little 'dinner conversation' to interrupt more important business. Unlike the adults, who lingered over courses and seemed to think that every mouthful required a sentence of appriciation, the hobbit-fry merely dove into their heaped plates and filled their bellies. As soon as they showed signs of slowing, the aunties, unmarried ladies of Buck Hill who looked after the children, hustled them out of the hall to get ready for bed. There was much protest, amid a chorus of yawns and sleepy stumbling, but it was obvious that Frodo's arrival and a day of games had worn them all out. He felt much the same himself and quietly retired to a bunk in the dormatory, too weary even to find his parent's rooms. He was confident that he would wake to find his dada had collected him and placed him safely in his own little bedroom.

When he woke, however, he found that he was still in the dormer, and he thought that his parents must have forgotten him entirely. He felt a brief twinge of disappointment, then sighed and shook his head at himself. Here he was, nearly twelve years old, and still behaving like a baby! His parents could manage a night or two without him, surely! The beds in the dorm were comfortable enough, and he had slept right through anyway. He rose to join the other children at breakfast.

He was the last to arrive in the hall, seemingly. The meal was already in progress, though there was no fear of lack for the latecomer. The aunties piled his plate high after inspecting his hands and face. Frodo was glad he had taken the time to wash before coming to table. He dug into his meal, and then glanced toward the head table.

His parent's chairs were empty! Frodo stopped in mid-bite of sausage. He searched the other tables for them fruitlessly, then stood to go and find them when an auntie pushed him back into his seat.

"If you think you're going anywhere without cleaning your plate, you're still asleep, little Baggins! Eat before it all gets cold."

"But me Mum and Dada..." Frodo said, pointing to the table. "Aunt Petunia, where are they?"

"Still abed after a long night's talking with Master Rory, no doubt! I'll see that they get some breakfast, if you little piglets don't eat the pantries bare!" She patted Frodo on his head. "Don't worry so, lad! I am sure they are fine!"

Frodo sat down but could not enjoy his meal. He ate without appetite, constantly looking around for his parents. When the Master rose from the table, Frodo slipped from his bench and hurried to the rooms where his parents were staying.

The door was closed. Frodo seized the handle but could not bring himself to open it. He was suddenly very afraid. He knocked softly instead, then more loudly when there was no answer.

"Half a moment," came a sleepy reply, and Frodo sighed with relief to hear his father's voice. The door opened and showed a sleepy-eyed Drogo still in his nightshirt, a robe wrapped around his shoulders. "What's wrong, Frodo-lad? Did we miss breakfast?"

Frodo wanted to hug him frantically and let fall the tears that were filling his eyes, but his young dignity rose up in him, and he laughed instead. "Aunt Petunia said that she would be sending breakfast for you and Mum. I just... I mean, I was... needing to change my clothes," Frodo added lamely.

Drogo smiled closed the door behind his son. He never feared that Frodo would get into mischief; the lad was such a poor liar, his father could see right through his dissembling.

"Your mother and I were up rather late, but it is high time we started our day." Drogo patted Frodo's shoulder and said, "Go and wake your mother gently."

Frodo crawled up onto the bed. He found that he didn't want do as his father had instructed. Primula was still sleeping, and there was a softness and fragile beauty about her as she lay drowned in sleep, bathed in the sunlight that leaked through the lace curtains drawn over the window. Frodo lay his head on her breast, listening to her heart beating. When Drogo returned from his bath, he found them both asleep; Primula with her hand on her son's dark curls, Frodo with his left forefinger crooked, suckling on the knuckle as if he were still a babe. Both were lit now by the rising sun. It gleamed off of their white skin and the coverlets and pillows.

Drodo sighed, considering just sliding into bed beside them-- dash the rest of the morning! but a soft knock on the door stopped him. At the sound, Primula's eyes opened and she smiled at her husband, then bent and kissed the top of Frodo's head.

Petunia bustled in with a large tray, heaped with food, and behind her came Amaranth with a steaming pots of tea and coffee. "All right, sleepyheads!" Primula announced. "If it is bed you still desire, then I shall leave again with this breakfast feast. I am sure there are hungry little hobbit-fry who did not finish their breakfast who might eat it," she nodded toward Frodo.

"Please bring it inside," Drodo said. "Thank you very much! Rorimac couldn't let the tale go last night, and I fear we did encourage him with our interest."

"That one! He is naught but a very large fry himself! He is used to staying up all hours... I shouldn't wonder if you all go straight back to bed again. But eat your breakfast first, and take a stroll outside. It is too fair a morning to completely forsake!" She and Amaranth set the table swiftly and left them.

Frodo was awake, too, but he groaned a gentle complaint as Primula stirred. He clung to her like a little oppossum when she sat up, and giggled as she tickled his neck with her long dark hair.

At the table, once the first wave of hungry silence passed, Frodo glanced up at his parents and sighed, feeling foolish again for all the fears he had entertained that morning. He wondered if they might not rather be alone together today, but there was a desire in his heart that he wished to voice. He debated with himself silently, toying his breakfast with a fork.

Drogo leaned toward him and whispered loudly, "If Aunt Petunia sees you playing with your food, she might have a fit!"

Frodo laughed and took a large bite of eggs. He offered his mother some toast before taking another slice. "Mum, Dada, I was wondering... do you think we could go to Girdley Island today?"

"Hmmm..." said Drogo over his coffeecup, "I don't know, what do you think, Prim dear?"

"Girdley Island? That is a long way to go. Why would you want to go there?" Her eyes were shining as she said this, and she was looking at her husband.

"Come on, you two!" exclaimed Frodo. "You have told me all my life about Girdley Island. You said that was when you and Dada first thought about me, before I was even born. You promised to take me there, someday."

Drogo cleared his throat and stroked his son's hair. "In truth, we were just last night discussing the idea of going to Girdley Island again. That was a favourite spot for us to go to when we were courting. We went there on our honeymoon and camped for two weeks. Remember, Prim?" Primula was blushing fiercely. "Shall we take our son to our secret garden?"

"I think yes, Drogo dear, but not today." She smiled at Frodo to ease his disappointment. "Tomorrow is Saradoc's son's birthday, and there is much to do in preparation. Let us set a picnic for the day after. Does that suit you, Frodo-love?"

"Yes, Mum," Frodo said, hugging her tightly. "I forgot that tomorrow was Merry's birthday! I can hardly wait until he is older still, so I can play with him more. All he does now is eat and sleep!"

Drogo laughed, "Don't rush him, son. That lad will have plenty of play in him all his life, if he grows up to be anything like his uncle Rory!" Primula swatted Drogo affectionately for carrying on so in front of Frodo.

"Can I have some coffee?" asked Frodo. The beverage was more rare in the Shire than Buckland, and Frodo had often wondered why his father was so taken with the stuff. He drank it all the time in when they were in Brandyhall, and when they visited Cousin Bilbo in Hobbiton. It smelled good enough, but the youth had never tasted if before.

Primula clucked against it, but Drogo touched her arm gently and offered his cup to Frodo. "Careful, it is still hot..."

Frodo sipped the black beverage, and made a horrible face. "Ugh! Da! That is awful! How can you drink that?"

Drogo smiled and took a drink. "It's an acquired taste, my son. Wakes you up proper, it does!" Frodo was wiping his tongue with his napkin, a look of pure disgust on his face. Drogo and Prim both laughed heartily. In spite of himself, Frodo reveled in the sound and laughed with them.

He rinsed the acrid flavour from his mouth with a long drink of buttermilk. Adults could be so weird sometimes, he reflected solemnly.

III.

Part Three: Sapphire

They went out for a stroll around Buck Hill, revived by the fresh air and sunshine. Frodo showed them the stones that he had found the day before, and Drogo and Primula praised them as if they were elven jewels.

Primula held up a small stone that gleamed bright blue in her palm when caught with the sun. "This one is the exact colour of your eyes, Frodo!" she exclaimed.

"You can keep it, if you want, mum," Frodo said, proud to have interested her in his hobby. "That one is a star-fire, if I am not mistaken. It is fairly common, but usually the pieces I find are very, very small." Primula clasped it in her hand like a treasure. "'The Brandywine River has lots of such stones in it,'" the young lad said, trying to recall each word from memory, "'As it flows through the Evendim Hills which are rich in such mi'rils'. Min-er-els. Minerals."

Drogo looked surprised, "Where did you learn that, son?"

"Cousin Bilbo has a book that the Dwarves gave him. He showed me last time we visited, and read me that part to me. I can hardly wait until I can read to myself. He has lots of books!"

"We should get busy teaching you, then. I can't believe you are already twelve, Frodo. It seems only yesterday you were born! You are growing up too fast!" Frodo danced ahead, ducking out from under another hair-mussing tustle. "Oh, think you're too quick for your old da, do you?" Frodo laughed as Drogo caught him and held him upside-down, tickling him mercilessly.

"Ai! Stop, stop it! I am losing my rocks!" The precious stones rained out of his pockets. Drogo set him down and helped him pick them all up. "Go and put them in your box, lad, so you don't lose them. We will wait for you here." Frodo ran off like a rabbit.

Drogo took Primula's hand and kissed it. He turned her hand over and looked at the little blue stone in her palm. "Our next child should have eyes this colour, too, don't you think, my love?"

Primula smiled glowingly. "Another child like our Frodo? That would be very good, but I don't know if we should try; other parents will be jealous of our perfect family."

"Let them be jealous. Shall we bring him a brother, or a little sister to care for?"

"O, Drogo! Do you think I care more for one over the other? You are so silly, sometimes I think I already have two children!"

They waited for a while, but when Frodo did not return, they went to their rooms and sought for him. They found him, asleep in the center of their big four-poster. Smiling, they lay down beside him and shared a dream.

The next day was a party day. Frodo was up early with his parents, but he saw nothing of them after second breakfast until supper. He was quite busy with games and races to celebrate the birthday of the Heir of Buck Hill.

Meriadoc was but two years old, tottering around and laughing at the bright coloured pennants, pinching the corners of his birthday cake, and cheering on the older hobbits as they ran races in the afternoon. His beaming father Saradoc watched proudly over the sports, and Esmeralda made sure there were plenty of treats and mead-must for the little ones. The young hobbits loved to drink the young honeywine, too early yet to have fermented into the beverage that the adults prefered. It was a traditional springime beverage, and it tasted like tea laden with lemon and honey.

After dinner, Frodo spied his parents slipping quietly away toward the river. He grinned, knowing they were off to go boating on the Brandywine, one of their favourite pasttime. He waved to them, but they did not see him, lost already in the gathering dusk and far from the party lanterns.

There was dancing and music into the night, and Frodo stumbled drowsily toward his room, still holding the gift that Meriadoc had given him. It was a notebook bound in leather and a quill and ink set. Frodo was sure that his parents had let slip to Saradoc and Esme that he wanted to begin learning his letters, and they had arranged this gift for him on Merry's behalf. He set them down carefully on the table. His mother and father weren't back yet from their boat-ride, but that was not unusual. The little blue stone that he had given his mother was laying next to the bed, on a white embroidered handkerchief. There was a single primrose lying there next to it, burgeoning in bud and fragrant. Frodo fetched a glass of water and set the rose it in to keep it from wilting before its time.

Frodo tottered off to his own bed and clumsily removed his party clothes, put on his nightshirt and lay down. Tomorrow morning his parents would take him to the island near Stonebow, as they had long promised. As much fun as he had had that day, Frodo knew that the promise of tomorrow would be sweeter still.

But his dreams that night were dark and horrible.

IV.

Part Four: The Things We Hold Precious

Frodo woke early, shivering in his bed though he woke drenched with sweat. Frightening dreams had kept him from resting. He climbed out of his small bed and plunged his head into the basin of water, trying to rinse away the visions that lay like shadows in him mind. He opened the door to his parent's room carefully, so as not to wake them should the hinges creak.

But they were not in their big bed, nor had the covers been turned down. The fireplace was stone-cold, and nothing seemed to have been moved in the night. Frodo went to his mother's side of the bed, and found that the rose-bud he had set in water had bloomed in the morning sunlight. It was beautiful, and yet Frodo felt unaccountably sad. Where were his parents? Why had they not come?

He dressed hastily, putting on the same clothes he had worn the day before. He ran out of the room and down the halls, all of which seemed curiously empty and quiet for the time of morning. The dinner hall was empty, and the parlours, too. Was everyone outside? Was he all alone? Frodo tried to keep himslef calm, but panic was fluttering in his heart. He raced down the hall toward the front door, and collided with Aunt Esme coming out of the kitchen.

Frodo fell back onto his seat and Esmeralda dropped the tray she was carrying with a clatter. He exclaimed and grabbed Frodo up in her arms. "Are you all right, Frodo? Where have you been, child?"

"In-- in bed," Frodo stuttered. He rubbed his head where he had bumped it against the edge of the tray Esme had been carrying. "I'm sorry, Aunt Esme. Let me help clean up..."

"Never mind that, dear! Oh, Frodo we have been so worried! Where are your parents? Have they been with you?"

Frodo shook his head. "No, I am looking for them. They weren't in our room this morning..." Frodo suddenly stopped, his tongue frozen by the look on Esmeralda's face. Her eyes were brimming with tears, and her hands were twisting her apron. "Aunt Esme? Where are they?"

"I don't know, Frodo dear. Their little boat was found overturned in the river. We were hoping that they were sleeping late again, but when we went to their room, no one was there. We didn't even check your room; we assumed you were with them. No one has seen them yet. Maybe... maybe they are safe upriver, and the boat just drifted away." Esme was weeping, but she tried not to frighten Frodo. "Everyone is out looking for them... I was just going to go out and see if they had found.... Frodo? Wait, Frodo!!"

Frodo took off running, slamming the front door open as he flung himself out of the Hall. Down to the river where he had seen his parents walk last night he flew, dodging folk who held out hands to hail or stop him. He was caught up short at last on the very brink of the river by Saradoc himself.

The sturdy hobbit grabbed his young cousin, who looked as though he were intent to throw himself into the brown waters. Frodo writhed in his hands, begging him to tell him where his parents were. Saradoc held him tightly until the lad collapsed and began to weep on his shoulder.

"There, there! We don't know anything yet, Frodo. Everyone is out looking. We figured they went upriver last night, and it's likely they stopped somewhere and lost their boat. There's no need for grieving until we know more for certain."

Frodo gulped back his sobs, trying to find some courage within himself. He felt only a cold ache in his heart, and a fear that the dreams he had been troubled with last night were somehow not dreams at all.

He allowed himself to be led back to Brandyhall, where Esme took him in hand. She set him down with some tea and food, neither of which he touched. He merely stared at the table top and started at every sound of someone coming or going within the great smial.

As the day wore on, he grew more and more despondant, and soon ceased to respond to spoken word or movement. His blue eyes clouded with tears and did not clear. Esme, completely at a loss at how to comfort him, merely sat beside him and held his limp hand, blotting her own tears of worry away with a linen handkerchief.

The day passed, and the search parties came in from the growing darkness. Everyone was solemn and disturbed; even the children seemed subdued. Frodo refused to go to the mealhall, or touch the food Esme prepared and begged him to sample. He merely sat and stared. Suddenly he stood up and moved to leave the room.

"Frodo, dear... where are you going?" Esme asked.

"To our room. I am tired, and maybe I will wake up from this dream and find everything is okay in the morning. Mum's flower will need water..."

"Frodo, stay here... please. Until we hear something." Esme's lip quivered, fresh tears springing from her eyes.

Frodo turned back and took her hand, patting it to give comfort though his voice was wooden and faint, "Everything will be all right. Don't worry..." The words had been said repeatedly to him all day, and were now as meanless in her ears as they had been in his. He walked slowly from the room and closed the door softly.

Saradoc took his wife in his arms and held her as she wept, "O, what will we do if we don't find them safe, Serry? He's so young, and all alone!"

"I'll speak to Rory, my dear. It's too soon, still, but I will speak to him. Frodo will have a home here, if the worst comes to pass."

~~~~~


Frodo walked as if asleep toward their rooms. Folks stepped back into doorways to let him pass, and their soft words meant to encourage but were hollow and forced. He ignored everyone, and turned down the corridor to find the door to their rooms open. His heart beat suddenly with life and he ran forward, hope flairing.

"Dada?! Mum?!" he flung himself inside, but found only Uncle Rorimac and another strange hobbit who had mud dried on his boots... boots? Frodo rocked back, his mind focusing on the strange sight to drive off his confusion. He blinked at the stranger.

"Frodo, go back to Esmeralda," Rorimac said, his harsh words stinging the young hobbit, for all they were spoken softly. Frodo hesitated, then turned and fled. But he did not go back to Esmeralda.

He went to the mealhall and sat at the little table, staring at the place where his parents normally sat. The hall was dark and empty, quiet except for the echoes of movement in the adjacent kitchen, a late working cook preparing the bread that would bake tomorrow morning.

He sat thus for a period of time that meant nothing. He became aware after a while that he was not alone. Saradoc was sitting next to him, patiently waiting to be noticed. Frodo raised his eyes to meet his cousin's; he saw no hope in them, only pity and sorrow. He knew then that his bad dreams were coming true.

When Frodo did not speak, Saradoc nodded. He dropped his gaze down to his hands, large and workworn and empty. Useless for this kind of hard work. He kneaded his fingers, searching for words.

His voice came very gently, "I know you don't want to hear this, Frodo, but it is better to know than to dwell in fear and doubt. Your parents were found late this evening, down near where the Marshish borders the River. They must have drowned when their boat overturned. It was an accident, we are certain. There seemed nothing wrong with the boat. They can be tricky on the river, and that water runs deep and swift.

"Frodo, I loved your parents like a brother and sister. This is all so unbelievable and sudden, but it is just times like this when you need your family. Esme and little Merry and I, we are your family. And Rorimac, for all his coarsness and cobbly-nature, cares about you, too. You aren't alone, and you never will be. There are too many folk living in Brandyhall for anyone to be alone."

Frodo listened, but said no word nor made a sign that he had heard, except to close his eyes. He made a wish, feeling that for the first time in his life he truly had something to wish for, so that might make the wish more likely to come true. He opened his eyes, but only Saradoc was there, in the dark hall beside him.

"It didn't work," Frodo said, his own voice sounded strange in his ears.

"What do you mean, Frodo?" asked Saradoc.

"I made a wish, and it didn't work. Wishes aren't real." Frodo felt the tears rising again, so he closed his eyes and fought them.

"You made a wish that your parents would come back safe?" guessed Saradoc cautiously. The child seemed to be curiously unshaken.

"No. I wished that I was with them, wherever they are. I wished I was dead, too. But I'm not."

"No, Frodo, you aren't dead. You are going to be all right. Your parents would want you to go on and have a good life. They loved cheer and food and visiting family and friends, and they had parents once, too. They loved them a great deal and missed them terribly when they died, but they went on living. And they will live inside of you for as long as you live. You are a part of them both."

A tear escaped from each of Frodo's tightly closed lashes. "What do I do next, Uncle Saradoc?"

"Now we hold vigil. Tomorrrow we eat bread and remember Drogo and Primula. Then we will lay them to rest. And then... we will live." Saradoc stood up. He did not wipe the tears from his own face, nor did he try to stop Frodo from grieving. He held out his large empty hand to his young cousin and said, "Come with me, Frodo."


V.

Part Five: Goodbye

Saradoc led Frodo into the room where his parents had been brought. The little hobbit clung to his cousin's hand and shrank back from the other hobbits in the room, each wearing faces full of sympathy or grief. Frodo saw Rorimac with his face wet with tears, Menegilda was standing behind him, her hands on his shoulders. Esme was there, and many others that Frodo knew in Brandyhall. The empty chairs would be filled as word spread.

Rorimac looked at the young hobbit and then shot a look at Saradoc that Frodo could not interpret. He seemed angry- he was always angry- but he was also sad. Saradoc merely returned his gaze evenly and said, "He needs to be here, Father. He is old enough to learn the truth."

Frodo felt gentle hands guiding him forward. He could see around the hobbits that were standing, circling a bed or a wide table that was covered with linen. His parents were there, lying as if asleep. Frodo forgot everyone else in the room, and he released Saradoc's hand and walked forward slowly.

At first they appeared to be asleep. Mother always looked like that; her skin pale and translucent. But now there was no softness or warmth in her repose. Frodo stopped, not wanting to go closer, not wanting proof but prefering to wonder and hope, but Saradoc was there behind him and he caught Frodo when he backed into his stout legs and nearly fell.

Saradoc looked down at him with kindness, but there was firmness in his face, too. He said gently, "Go to them, Frodo. Tell them goodbye. We are all here to do the same, and no one will speak of what is said and done in this room. We are all family here."

Frodo swallowed with difficulty. He turned and came to his father's side, climbing up on the chair that was set beside the bed. Dada looked very cold. Frodo wished he could cover him with a blanket, but there was none there. He raised a small hand to his father's face. There was no warmth of breath from him. Frodo withdrew his hand.

He went then to his mother, who looked merely as if she were resting deeply. He touched her curling long hair, brushed and laid about her face like a halo. He lowered his head onto her breast, as he had just a day earlier, but the only sound he heard was the seashell roaring of his own heartbeat. A sob shuddered through him, and he felt himself raised by strong arms. He did not fight, but clung to his Uncle Rory, who hugged him tightly and wept onto his hair.

They were gone.



The next two days were hard for Frodo, and for all the folk in Buckland and the Shire who had known and loved Drogo and Primula Baggins. Waggons began to arrive the morning after the vigil, bearing dark-clothed hobbits who came to say their goodbyes. Appearantly an erroneous message had been sent, claiming that the two had perished with their only son. When Frodo was found undrowned, there were many joyful tears amid the grief. Frodo felt uncomfortable, but he let them hug him and cry. He had learned how important it was to be allowed to cry when it was needed.

The breadfeast was a solemn and strange affair. Frodo had little memory of being at such an occasion, though he had as a young fry been present at his grandfather Gorbadoc's funeral only a few years before. He had not known then why everyone was sad, nor that only bread and hardboiled eggs were served for meals. He had been kept with the younger children away from the affair, fed regular meals and entertained away from the main hall.

Now he sat at the family table, where the Master had said a few days before that he was too young to attend, and he broke the bread that Rorimac passed to him, sharing it out to all who came to mourn. Sometimes he wept, but mostly he sat and remembered happy days with his parents. There were many to recall. He did not speak aloud of them, as some folk did, rising from their chairs to regail everyone with a tale or anecdote about sweet Primula or dashing, daring Drogo. He was surprised to find himself sometimes laughing along, brought away from his grief for an instant before recalling the pain of his loss.

The day passed slowly, followed by the night and another sunrise, as if nothing had happened to change a young hobbit's world.

They were buried on a fair hillside, amid the marker of other loved ones, long departed. There were flowers growing everywhere, except for the two patches of fresh overtured earth. Frodo came there after they had been interred, custom being that he was too young yet to attend their final service; he did not mind. He knew they had been placed there with care; he trusted Rorimac and Saradoc.

He lingered in that place for a short time only. They were not there. They weren't anywhere, anymore. He turned and never went back to that place.

Before the burial, when he had gone to say goodbye one last time, he had taken the little blue stone that his mother had cherished, and he placed it in her cold hand, closing her fingers around it. While the elders buried the dead, he took his little box of precious things, the tiny stones he had loved to find and share with them, and he asked Esme to walk him down to the river. He stood on the bank and tossed the stones back into the water, where he had found them. He placed the rose, the last flower his father had given to his mother in love, inside the empty box, pressed between the pages of a blank book bound in leather.

What do I do next? he asked himself. The only answer was the soft beating of his own heart.


VI.

Part Six, Tug-of-War

"Quiet down now! Everyone, take your seats, please, and listen." Rorimac showed his clouded face to his company, daring them to continue their idle conversations. Rory's study had proved too small for the gathering, so Menegilda had seamlessly moved them all to the second parlor, which was rather too comfortable for the uncomfortable business at hand. As much as Rory liked having his kin about him, he intensely disliked some of his more extended family, particularly those related to his late son-in-law.

Otho Sackville-Baggins had arrived in a huff the previous evening and had found something to complain about with every breath he had drawn since he came inside Brandy Hall. Rory was glad his wife had not accompanied him; one Sackville-Baggins was enough.

There was Dora and Dudo Baggins, Drogo's brother and sister, who had shown up in tears and upset because they had missed the funeral. Dora cared for their aging mother Ruby and for everyone's business, and wasn't afraid to offer her advice to any ears. Dudo had a family of his own and a daughter named Daisy. Of the two, Rory would have favoured Dudo as a guardian of his nephew, but the hobbit lived very far away. Rory did not want the entire Shire between him and his sister's son.

Brogo Goodbody had come, a cousin of some wealth who lived in the Northfarthing. He was a reedy, busy-eyed sort with a nervous habit of chewing on his fingers. He had come to see that Frodo was well-placed, but offered no invitation to accept that placement. It was clear he was afraid he would be saddled with the boy.

Posco Baggins had sent word, unable to travel so far too quickly, that he recommended that the Master of the Hill be consulted before Frodo's placement was agreed upon. Rory would have liked nothing better, but unfortunately, Bilbo Baggins was not at home at this time, and no one knew where he was off to. His message had been accepted by the ever-helpful Otho, who just happened to be on the road to Bag End when the messenger came past, and who was now compaining about how drafty the parlour was, in spite of the warm fire burning in the hearth on this early summer day. Rorimac surpressed a sigh.

Paladin Took, along with his cousin Ferdinand had come, full of sympathy and support for Rory and his family. Of all present, excepting his own son Saradoc, Paladin would have been the most likely one to which Rory would release Frodo to be cared for.

They had all arrived to discuss the placement of the now orphaned Frodo Baggins. Rorimac had sent out requests for the closely related family members to come, all correct to Hobbit customs, to make sure the lad was placed in the best home available to him. But Rorimac had only sent the messages to maintain ettiquette; he had no intentions of letting anyone raise Frodo but himself. And he had said as much at the opening of their meeting, which had triggered a chorus of arguments. But his mind was set. All he had to do was look in the child's face and he could see his sister; he could not bear to be parted from the lad. But sadly, he also could not often bear to look upon him at all.

Rorimac thrust these thoughts from his mind. It was too soon still, his grief had not ebbed in the mere week since Primula and Drogo's accident. In time, he was sure he could warm to the boy. Frodo was an intellegent, promising lad. Saradoc was very fond of him, and had emphatically suggested that Frodo be placed with him, to be raised with his own son, but Rorimac had refused even him.

"It would be awkward, boy. There's Meriadoc to consider. He is the clear heir of Brandy Hall. If you adopt Frodo, there may be contention. I shall ward the lad, as is my right as closest relative. He'll keep his name and all his family's deeds, and you can still care for him as much as you like, here in the Hall. He must be raised just like the other children. It will do him good to be part of a large family. It won't do to coddle him; that will just make him soft. His is half-Brandybuck; he's tough, even if he is young." And Saradoc could say nothing to dissuade him.

Rory knew the law and he knew his rights, and he told as much to the group. Half of them seemed relieved by his decision, the other half was perversely opposed. And so they had set to arguing with one another. Rorimac called again for peace. His patience beginning to seriously errode.

"Well, all I know," cut in Otho in a loud tone that broke the other muttering off, "is this: Master Rory, you have a vast hall and many, many members of your family around you, but I have only myself and my dear wife, and we would welcome the chance to give little Ofo a good home and the attention a young boy needs."

Otho's false piety nearly gagged Rorimac. He glowered at Otho and would have spoken cuttingly, but his son interrupted him.

Saradoc's face was flushed red with anger as he said, "Weren't you the one who was going on about the family fortune and how the Brandybucks were trying to 'undermine the bloodlines of one of the oldest families in the Shire'?

"Serry, that's enough," said Rory, preventing Otho from expressing his offense. Actually, Rory was pleased that Saradoc had said it before he did. His son was still young enough to get away with a show of temper. Rory used it to his advantage.

"We aren't here to bicker about money or titles," he said gruffly, winking stealthfully at his son. Saradoc subsided. "We are here to see that a young hobbit gets placed in a home where he can be provided for and protected until he is of age to come into his own. I will see that his interests are taken care of, and he will retain the name of Baggins that his father left him, as well as all his property and goods. And that is the end of the argument!"

"But," started Otho obstanently, and Rorimac turned to him to repeat his last words, but stopped and looked toward the door that had just opened.

"Bilbo! We had word that you were not to be found in the Shire!"

Bilbo stepped into the parlour, his coat and hat still over his arm. Everyone began to talk at once, with Otho trying to shout down the others. Bilbo let the roar roll over him and when he heeded no one, the talking ceased. "Rorimac. I would have come sooner," Bilbo began, as if there had been no interruption, "but I was indeed away from Bag End. Is it true what I have heard, about dear Primula and her family? I am so terribly sorry! Is there anything I can do?"

"Showing up on time for an important meeting would be a start," muttered Otho loudly.

Rorimac turned to him and said, "Mr Sackville. Since you have come only because the Master of the Hill could not otherwise be found, to represent the Baggins's interests, you may leave now. You are no longer required."

Otho stood up, redfaced. "I only came to see that the child is taken care of. I love that boy..."

"And his name is 'Frodo', not 'Ofo', Mr Sackville," added Saradoc. He rose and held the door open for the wrathful hobbit, and closed it softly behind him.

Bilbo was wearing a face that dared to hope. "Forgive me, Rory. I have heard only rumours on the wind, so to speak. Am I to understand that the child is alive and unharmed, contrary to what I have been told?"

"Yes, Bilbo." The hobbit's relief was visible. "There was a boating accident and Drogo and Primula were lost. Frodo is safe, and I have decided to ward him."

"That is a relief to me, Rory. You have already raised a fine lad, if young Saradoc here is any example. I only wish that there was something I could do. If anything occurs, you will inform me at once? Drogo was a dear cousin and Primula also; a jewel of a lady. I will miss them both."

"I need to make the guardianship official." Rorimack laid a sheet of parchment on the table. "If everyone here could sign this document, witnessing that I have taken guardianship of Frodo Baggins, and that he should hereafter bear his own name and at the time of his coming of age should take possession of all properties and fortunes that are entitled to him. There's a bit more legal gobbly-gook, which you are all familiar with. Read it if you want, but sign it before you go. I shall have some tea brought up. Bilbo, a word, if you don't mind..." The hobbit drew Bilbo aside. "I appriciate your coming, Baggins."

Bilbo nodded, "I apologise for inflicting Sackville on you. Believe me, that was not my idea! He is not who I would want to see in my darkest hour."

"He's as comfortable as a silk hedgehog, that's for sure and for certain," agreed Rory. "You said, if there was anything you could do...?"

"Anything," repeated Bilbo.

"Can you take a moment and talk to the lad? He is very confused and desolate, and I am still..." Rorimac cleared his throat, blinking back the tears that threatened yet.

Bilbo nodded and clasped Rory's shoulder, then turned from the room to seek the child. Rory watched him go, marveling again at the unusual hobbit. Bilbo was twelve years he senior, and yet it was Rory who looked old and worn, even before the trauma of losing his sister. Bilbo was odd, but he was wise and kind. Rory hoped he could reach the child.

"Yes, read it aloud so they all can hear, Serry. Then we'll have a pipe and talk of other things. This day had been heavy enough."



Bilbo did not have to go far to find Drogo's son. Frodo was sitting on the step outside one of the lesser entrances, near Saradoc's family's quarters. Menegilda had set him there in the sun for some air, giving him a task of shelling peas to fill his hands and mind. The child had finished, but was staring at the bowl as if deep in thought. Bilbo sat down on the step next to him.

Frodo looked up, startled. "Excuse me. I did not see you, sir." Then he really saw who had sat down with him, and Bilbo barely caught the bowl before it overturned as the child threw himself into Bilbo's arms, suddenly weeping. He set the bowl aside carefully, then hugged Frodo tight.

They did not speak, but merely sat together. Frodo stopped crying, accepting a handkerchief from his cousin to dry his eyes. Bilbo let the lad lean against him and think, since that was what he seemed to want to do. After a while, Frodo stirred. "Can we go somewhere, sir?"

"Anywhere you like, Frodo-lad."

"Will you take me to Girdley Island?"

Bilbo frowned. "That's a good ways away," and Frodo's face fell as he spoke, so he said added, "but if that's where you want to go, so be it. I have a cart ready. Let's tell your... aunt that we are going for a ride."

"Okay, but not where," insisted Frodo. "It's a secret place..."

"Secrets, eh? Well, I can keep a secret. Pick up that bowl and come with me. We'll go after we get our coats."


VII.

Part Seven, The Island

They were riding within the hour. Frodo was a little surprised that they had let him go with Bilbo. He hadn't been allowed more than a few minutes alone for a week, and almost never outside. Someone was always watching him, as if he would suddenly break apart or melt if they took their eyes away.

Bilbo said nothing, just talking to the pony or humming softly. Rorimac had wanted him to say something to comfort the boy, but Bilbo couldn't see anything wrong with him. Surely, he was grieved, and who wouldn't be? He was pale and looked a little thin, but that, too, was normal. He was a light-skinned child and was likely off his feed about all that had happened. There didn't seem to be anything that Bilbo needed to say to Frodo. Perhaps it was Rory who had the trouble...

"Mr Bilbo, sir?"

Bilbo smiled down at the child. "Call me Uncle Bilbo, if you want to, Frodo-lad. I am actually your cousin, but that it too bulky to say with every mouthful, eh?"

"Yes, sir. Can I ask you something?"

"Certainly."

"Where do people go when they die?"

Bilbo knew that Frodo was not speaking of interments and ashes. He pondered an answer, knotting the reins in his hands. "How old are you, Frodo?"

"Twelve, sir. Uncle."

"I see... well, you ask a difficult question of me, Frodo-lad, one that a hobbit your age wouldn't normally ask. And for all my years, I am not sure I have a firm answer. All I can tell you is what I think, and a few words I have learned from... other sources."

"Please, tell me what you think, sir, and what sources do you mean?"

"I have traveled far, and seen many people who are different than we hobbits. They all have different beliefs and customs. We hobbits generally believe that when a person dies, his soul becomes part of the earth, like his body."

"So there is nothing... no thoughts or dreams after we die? No pain?" The child's face was streaked with tears, but he was controlling himself. He wanted to hear these answers.

"I can't say for sure, Frodo. But I can tell you this," and Bilbo led the pony aside and halted him under a wide oak tree. He turned and looked Frodo in the face, wiping a tear away with his careful thumb. "I like the story the Elves tell about what happens to us when we leave the earth. Would you like to know what they say?" Frodo nodded slowly. "The Elves admit that they do not know all there is to know about we mortals and what happens to our souls. The Elves, you see, they never die, but their spirits fly to the uttermost west, where after a while they can come back again to live on the earth. Elves aren't like you and me. We are mortal, and when we die, we don't come back. We go westward, too, for a little while, in a seperate place from where the Elves live. Then we go on, to a place outside of the Circle of the world, to dwell with Ilúvatar."

"Who is Ilúva-lúvatar?" asked Frodo, his head cocked with curiosity.

"He is the one that the Elves say created our world, through the Valar. They are his hands and eyes, and his tongue, toes and tonsils, too." Bilbo smiled to show he was being a little silly, but was still in ernest. "Through them He made the world, and He made the Elves and us to live here. It is His gift to us."

Frodo thought for a while, and Bilbo clucked to the pony to get them moving again. "Why have I never heard of Illuver before?"

"'ehl-oovah-tar'. Hobbit don't normally know about him. I know about him from the Elves, because their lore goes back for many many hundreds of thousands of years. Hobbit history doesn't reach that far yet."

Frodo accepted that. "Do you think that someday, after I am old and I die, I can see my parents again in this place were Ilúvatar lives? Is that possible?"

"My dear Frodo, I think that is exactly what will happen. It certainly doesn't hurt to hope, does it? There are many folks I would like to see there, who have gone on without me. I am very old, you know! I have outlived almost all my family. Do you know how old I am?" Frodo shook his head 'no'. "I am ninety years old!"

Frodo whistled low. "You are very old! But you don't look that old! Master Rorimac looks older than you. Will I live to be that old?"

"It's possible. You are a Baggins, and we are a long-lived family, on our Tookish side. I'd say it is very likely you could live to be a hundred, at least!"

Frodo's smile faded a little. "I don't want to wait that long to see them, but I think it would be interesting, living for so many years."

They talked on about living and souls, and Bilbo told Frodo some more about Elves. Frodo's acceptance of his strange tales of 'outlandish folk', as other hobbits would phrase it, appealed to Bilbo. He was unused to being able to discuss this favourite subject without scorn or open denial. Frodo listened carefully, and Bilbo received the impression that he was memorizing every word.

"Now, you know that few other hobbits hold any of this lore as truth or important. You and I, we can discuss these things, but I wonder what your uncle and cousins would say if you told them about it."

Frodo snorted. "They wouldn't believe it. But I do. I want to meet an elf someday. Do you think I might? Someday, if I am good?"

"If you are good, and maybe if you aren't!" retorted Bilbo, gently proding him in the ribs with his elbow. Frodo giggled. "I think it is high time to stop for a bite to eat. What say you, Frodo Baggins?"

"Not yet! We're almost to Stonebow Bridge. Let's eat on the island. Can we, s... Uncle?"

"If we can find a boat. I can't swim to the island! You don't mind riding in a boat, do you, Frodo?" Bilbo asked hesitantly.

Frodo shook his head briefly. "I would be more afraid of swimming. I know how, but..." His young face grew a little bleak. "Why didn't they swim?"

Bilbo took both reins in one hand, and placed his arm around Frodo's shoulders. "Rivers are different than creeks and pools. That water looks slow, but it is strong and deep." The bleak look on Frodo's face deepened, so Bilbo sought about for something to cheer the lad a bit.

"Did I ever tell you about the time I rescued thirteen dwarves from the dungeons of the Wood Elf kingdom? I nearly drowned myself, that day..." and Bilbo launched into the tale. Frodo listened to him and was soon riveted to his words. The last miles flew by, and soon they were riding right along the river, the bridge visible just ahead.

"Can we ride across? Just for a minute?" Frodo asked. Bilbo laughed and complied. The wheels of their cart clacked on the stone arches that spanned the wide river in two graceful leaps. They paused on the grass on the Shire side, getting down from the cart to feel the grass on their toes. Then they rode back to the Buckland side and a little ways further upriver, where a small dock was built.

In the center of the river swam a thick grove of trees. This was Girdley Island, once just a sandbar in the wide river, but it had grown as the river had pushed more soil up and trees had blown their seeds there, and grass and flowers, too, for years and years until it looked like a garden in the middle of the river, a green jewel surrounded by brown waters. There seemed to be a thousand birds nesting, flying about, and swimming in the water all around it.

Frodo stared at it, thinking that he understood why it had been such a special place to his parents. It was like a little bit of wild woods, cut off from everything; a pocket-sized adventure.

Bilbo was speaking to a hobbit that kept boats on the riverbank. When Frodo heard his father's name on the stranger's lips, he focused his attention on their words:

"... to cross, sir. Have to make my own way, you know! These boats aren't free to build!"

"Of course. A penny to cross and back for two, then. I would pay as much to make sure we arrived safely. I am no boatman!"

"No, sir, I think not," said the hobbit, eyeing Bilbo's rich clothes. "You look like you are not from round here at all. Visiting from the Shire?"

"Yes. Bilbo Baggins is my name, and this is..."

"Baggins? My goodness, you must have heard about the accident, then!" The hobbit was suddenly anxiously excited, and Bilbo could not get a word in edgewise. "Poor Mr Drogo Baggins and his wife, sir! I saw them the very night they say they were drowned, I did!"

Bilbo harked to him hard. "Did you now?"

"Aye, they came boating up the river, as was their habit. Loved to visit the island, they did. He was a real boatman, that one, for all he was a Baggins. Handled a boat just like a Brandybuck! I tell ye," said the hobbit, in a loud whisper, "whatever tipped that boat, you can wager if anyone could have survived it, it would have been Drogo! It is a loss, sir! A terrible loss!" The hobbit then espied Frodo, listening intently.

"Who's this wisp of a lad, then? Your boy, Mr Baggins?"

"My name is Frodo Baggins," said Frodo proudly. "Drogo was my father."

There was no talk of pennies for passage then. The hobbit bowed low to Frodo and offered to take him and Bilbo across right then, if they were willing. They were, and soon they were standing in the middle of a minature forest, alive with singing birds and bedecked with summer blooms.

Frodo walked around the place, enchanted by the beauty that surrounded him. Not only the fresh unspoiled grass and trees, and the soft air and sounds of the river nearby, but the fact that this was a place his parents had loved, and they wanted to share it with him. Standing there, with the sun dappling through the trees and the crack of bird's wings snapping in the air, Frodo felt again the love that his parents had given him. It was inside of him, and now he knew how to find it, and let it out.

He walked back to where Bilbo was talking softly with the boathobbit, and he took his cousin's hand.

Bilbo smile at him and squeezed his hand. "How about that bite to eat, eh? This looks like a good place for a picnic."

Frodo smiled, looking around again. "Yes, this is a special place."

They set out a meal from Bilbo's back, that Menegilda had prepared for them, sharing out generously with their boatman. The hobbit produced a wooden vessel that he had toted along. He handed it to Bilbo, who broke the seal and inhaled a little wiff of steam. "Ahh! Still warm!" He poured some of the fragrant beverage into two mugs, but hesitated over the third. "Frodo, would you rather have some water than coffee?"

Frodo shook his head. "I'll have some coffee. I don't like the taste, but it reminds me of Dada. It doesn't hurt as much to think about him here."

After their meal, they prepared to go. There was still a ride back to Brandyhall, and the sun was westering already. Frodo turned and took one last look at the island before stepping into the boat.

The hobbit poled them back to the shore skillfully. Frodo arrived on the bank without getting so much as a toe wet. "Thank you, mister... er," he stumbled, realizing he had not heard the hobbit's name.

"Girdley. My name is Girdley, young master Baggins."

"Does the island belong to you, then, sir?" asked Frodo, returning his bow.

"No, no!" laughed the hobbit. "If anything, it's the other way 'round! My folks were happy to visit there, too. They named me after the island!"

Frodo smiled and thanked the hobbit, Mr Girdley, who said he could come back anytime and he would be happy to take him across to visit the island. Bilbo insisted he accept the penny, for his children, and then they were back on the road and riding to Bucklebury.

Frodo was silent, remembering the last waggon journey he had taken on this road, seeming so long ago. He felt a little pain and shed a tear, but his heart was still warm and the sun was on his face. He sat beside Bilbo and watched the brown waters of the Brandywine flow past, never running out, going on down to wind toward the Sea at last.