West of the Moon

A Tolkien Fanfiction Archive

 

 

Rites of Passage: Bag End
An ongoing series fondly described by readers as 'The Forging of the RingBearer', which began at 'The Hall' and is now continued at 'Bag End'. RoP deals with adult situations and 'coming of age' issues: i.e. sex will be involved somehow, somewhen. In varied 'modus operandi' and orientation.
Author: Willow-wode
Rating: to NC-17

 

15--Elegy

My dearest--

Please come back to Buckland for Yule. You know you belong here--I didn't mean it. I'm sorry, but I had to speak, I couldn't just let things continue as they were. I love you, and you know I love you, and nothing shall ever change that.

In the end Bilbo had read Esmeralda's old note, hoping that it would hold some clue to where Frodo had gone, or why. It had told him nothing that could help him today--but he wished, oh he wished he had known half of this in all the yesterdays it brought back with such painful clarity.

But you must let him go. You have a babe, now, and you no longer need any fey spell or cozening to accomplish that. I will hold your secret close, as I promised, but you must promise me you will not see him--or the elves--again. Every time you leave us so, you leave more of yourself with them...

Bilbo had sat there while the sun had set, drawn to vigil in lieu of any other possible action. The clouds had torn themselves aside for the stars, and he had rolled over old penned grief in his mind, dandled precious treasure in his hands, contemplated age and uselessness. And now he still sat, beneath the stars and half-lit by the porch lanterns, his buttocks scraping bony and cold against stone. The Ring was chill in his grasp as well, remote as the stars, cold as his heart had become, locked away here surrounded by past glories and no future's promise. Alone.

Bilbo wasn't sure when exactly he'd concluded that he would always be alone, and most days he was glad of that long-ago decision. But now, when the house rang with abandonment after barely a week of a tween lad's quiet if volcanic presence, he wondered.

Once he'd craved companionship; once he'd loved. But it seemed a faded memory, a flower flattened in a cherished book, bereft of soft touch and heady scent. He'd loved, yes. And lost them both. First Rory, with all the verdant, sharp passion of tweenhood, and then Primula, everything that Rory could not be...

The letter now burned in his other pocket, a reminder of what Esme had thought lost to Bilbo's fascinating charm, and of what Bilbo had in turn yielded to Drogo's fair and gentle devotion.

Bilbo has been nothing but grief and trouble for you since the day you began keeping company with him--and you cannot expect me to be fond or accepting of one who has only ever taken you from all that is good and sensible. Prim, please think of your husband, who loves you. Think of your son, of his place and future that could so easily be damaged if you aren't careful. And please, if you can, think of me.

Place and future? Secret? If it was anyone but Esmeralda Brandybuck, Bilbo would assume that person to be fantasising. What could she possibly mean?

I love you, I've always loved you, and I only ever want the best for you.

--Esme

Best or no, the letter had been of no help. Esmeralda hadn't understood then--and it was more than obvious from her management of Frodo that she still didn't comprehend what drove difference.

She had loved Primula, but never grasped what she was.

But had any of them, truly? Primula had always been a creature of innocent impulse, but in the moment that was to define the rest of her life she had offered up that innocence--and that by no mere whim. As to the consequences? Bilbo did not know much of Prim's thoughts those last seven years of her life, but he did know she had begun having visions. All too Tookish at heart, seemingly the Elvish contact had broadened what spare inklings of Sight her soul had possessed. She had always been protective of her only son--those last years, overly so. It was almost as if she had Seen some grievous harm coming, and to the one thing she had given up everything to possess.

Bilbo studied the dull glint of the bauble he'd tricked from Gollum, his eyes half-closing in its reflection.

It is over and done. Finished. She would not let you help her then and there is nothing you can do for her now. She is dead and gone, and regret serves no purpose...

What had Primula seen? Bilbo knew not, had reconciled himself to never knowing; as for himself he only had seen that from the moment Elrohir, son of Elrond, had laid hands upon her, Primula had been changed. The knowledge of that change had not come to Bilbo, fully-formed, in the moment it had happened--only hindsight was giving answers, though those answers were few--puzzle pieces scattered to the four winds. And though it grated to admit it, Saradoc and Esmeralda were right. Bilbo indeed had his own responsibility to bear for setting Primula's feet upon a road that had ended in utter disaster.

Regret serves no purpose. He wondered if Elrohir felt regret, or sorrow for what his actions had wrought. Or if the elf even knew that what he had done had become so inseparable from Primula's being that she had been unable to bear it.

Perhaps... perhaps it had also become an inseparable part of her son.

It was one of Bilbo's few regrets that he would never now know why, or how, or what had estranged his one-time playmate from even the simple companionship they had once shared. Perhaps the one thing he could do for Primula and Drogo was care for the son they had left behind, try to help him...

Her son? He cares no more for you than she did. He doesn't want to be here, not truly. He's gone, run away. You should have known it would come to this.

He dandled the Ring in his fingers. After all, who was he to help Frodo? Sheer folly to think that the boy might want his help. And pure arrogance to think that he might somehow be even able to help...

You need nothing from him. You already have all you could ever want. Affection is fickle and love fleeting--you need them not. Send the lad to Tooks--if he is indeed throwback to the faery-gotten, then they can help him. Send him away and go, leave it all far behind. Don't let charity or mistaken pity for a tweenaged orphan stay your feet or your wanderlust...

The Ring warmed suddenly in the shelter of his palm. Bilbo blinked, stared at it. At first he imagined it a trick of lantern glint or full moonlight--but no, the plain band seemed to glow gold-red within his cupping fingers, as if something had touched some fire from within, not without. He looked closer.

A dull shadow cast itself upon it, trailed across the stoop, and a pair of very muddy feet stumbled into his downcast field of view.

Bilbo glanced up. His gaze held; his breath gagged in his throat at what he beheld there, limned in lamp-and moonlight.

Frodo looked as if he'd been in that long-ago war with Smaug. His forehead and temples had several thickly-clotted, oozing gashes, mottling with bruises that were beginning to match the colour of his lank hair, and one cheekbone had been laid open as well. His clothes were sodden with mud and grass; his shirt, torn and bloodied, was nearly falling off his thin shoulders; his face was smeared with sweat, mud and rust-coloured streaks, as if he'd tried to wipe his injuries and done a cursed poor job of it.

The Ring flashed, copper-gold, in eyes which heeded it not.

"I... I don't feel very well, Uncle Bilbo," the boy said, listing to one side.

"Oh. My--" Bilbo shoved his ring into his pocket, lurched up from the walk. Unfortunately shock and dismay did not make up for a cold, stiff body, and Bilbo stumbled forward, right into his young cousin. They both went down.

Bilbo barked his toes painfully on the coping. Thankfully the rest of him fell either atop Frodo or onto soft soil--and not into the thorns of the rose bushes, at least. Frodo toppled like something boneless, and kept lying there as Bilbo heaved himself up into a crouch. As he looked down at Frodo's expression, every hair on Bilbo's body drew itself up in sudden agitation.

The white face was blank, lips slack. There was nothing reflected in Frodo's eyes but the field of stars, brilliant-black and never-ending...

"Frodo!" Bilbo choked out, and gripped the lad's chin with one hand.

Frodo jerked as if the touch had burned him, but his pupils contracted slightly and Bilbo felt him tremble against his hand.

"The stars..." was the hoarse whisper, "...here. I'm... not..."

Bilbo drew back his hand; with a speed he'd never have believed the lad capable of in his state, Frodo grabbed at it with a soft moan. "Please... don't go... don't let me go, don't..."

"Lad," Bilbo said softly, "I'm not going anywhere. But we have to get you inside. We have to--"

"I'm falling," Frodo chanted breathlessly. "Forever. Can't stop it, can't change it, can't... keep it... away..."

"Frodo," he said helplessly, trying to figure out exactly how he was going to get a frantic and debilitated tween into his smial. Frodo slung his head from side to side; Bilbo gripped his cheeks with both hands. "Frodo!"

The shadowed eyes met his, suddenly lucid again, and quite puzzled. "Uncle?" He blinked. "What happened? How did I...?"

Bilbo didn't understand, but took swift advantage of the sudden lucidity. "Shh, lad. Put your arms about my neck. Let's see if we can get you upwards, get you inside."

Frodo did as he was told, wrapping his arms tightly about Bilbo's neck; Bilbo pushed backwards and the lad helped him by hanging on tightly and pulling his feet beneath him. The moment Bilbo got Frodo upright, however, those eyes had gone blank and blackish once more, and the boy was shuddering in uncontrollable waves.

Bilbo was glad that he was well-preserved for his age, that he didn't shirk from activity and, moreso, that Frodo blessedly weighed barely five stone. Bracing himself against the youth, Bilbo put an arm about him and muscled him into the smial. Frodo staggered, but went without protest.

As quickly as possible, Bilbo took him through the lamp-lit entry and parlour, straight into the darkened kitchen. With one foot he pulled out one of the high-backed kitchen chairs and somehow managed to fold Frodo onto the seat without felling them both to the floor. Ensuring that Frodo was steady enough there, Bilbo quickly lit a brace of candles and the table's lamp--the kitchen's skylight afforded some light, but not enough to see clearly. Buoyed by the cheering spill of golden light, Bilbo then padded to the sink, grasping the pump and giving it several hard jerks. Water gushed into the clean metal dishpan. Pulling several clean towels down from their place on a high shelf, he soaked several of them in the pan, then poured a small bit from the ever-heating kettle to warm the bitter chill of the water, fresh as it was from the well.

Before he turned, he heard a chilling, high-pitched sound. Bilbo whirled, his heart striking tight warning in his breast. Frodo was frost-pale even in the lamplight, staring up at the skylight, his eyes black as sloe. The sound was coming from him--a humming, melodic whimper that didn't seem to totally pass between his lips.

Bilbo froze for several moments, horrified beyond any measure he'd thought possible. Then he saw the tremors taking the slender frame, called himself several kinds of coward and strode over to the table, dishpan and soaking towels in hand. Not knowing what else to do, he put the water on the table and took the lad's upturned face in his hands once more. It seemed to do the trick; the high-pitched tiny keen halted as if he'd bodily strangled it, and Frodo flinched, blinked, peered at him muzzily. Bilbo debated asking what had happened, but realised he would probably get no kind of reasonable answer.

What had happened? Bilbo was not prepared for the slow burn that lit the back of his eyeballs when he remembered Lotho muddied and out cold in the garden, or Sam prevaricating with the stubbornness that Bilbo knew he was fully capable of holding to for weeks. He could only imagine what had transpired, and how Frodo had gotten this beaten.

A rock in the head was nothing compared to what Bilbo would do to Lotho when next he saw him.

Wait. Why would Sam try so hard to keep all of them from finding Frodo? If Sam was protecting Frodo for whatever reason, then he had to have known how injured Frodo was, and...

Frodo shifted, nearly toppled from the chair. Bilbo made a well-timed grab, righted Frodo once more, then left off contemplation for action. Leaving one steadying hand against Frodo's chest, Bilbo took up a soaking washcloth from the pan, squeezed it out then proceeded to attempt to wash his young cousin's face. Frodo grimaced, but didn't actively resist; however his body started trembling again once Bilbo touched him, and wouldn't stop.

The old hobbit tried to be gentle as possible, taking silent inventory of what was underneath the mess of clotted blood and mud. It was not easy; the injuries were hard and inflamed. It must have been painful; indeed Frodo's tremors did not stop, but oddly enough his eyes seemed to become more and more clear with each stroke of the sopping cloth. Bilbo turned four wet, white cloths to pink and mud before he realised that they were simply not doing the job well enough. "Here, lad," The muzzy gaze turned to Bilbo in query, mutely accepting. "Can you stand? I think we're frankly going to have to hose you off and that shirt..." he grimaced at the ruined muslin. "It's... fairly nasty."

"I'm... sorry." It was a rusty whisper as Bilbo started to unbutton his shirt.

"Well, it is. This sleeve..." Bilbo inspected Frodo's arm beneath the tattered, blood-soaked sleeve, "I don't see... wait. What is this, lad?"

'This' was a piece of crumpled parchment in Frodo's left fist. Bilbo tried to open it; Frodo pulled back and clamped tighter, his eyes going wide. He shook his head, then seemed to immediately regret the motion, for he gave a soft whimper and hunched over.

In the wake of that Bilbo let the matter alone; instead he returned to his original query, peeling Frodo's shirt carefully from him. "Are you hurt anywhere other than your head?" he continued, inspecting the pale skin thoroughly. Mud and blood stained the questionable arm, and Frodo held it close as though it were tender; there were cuts and bruises everywhere, it seemed, and blood. But his head--that was the worst.

Frodo didn't answer, still hunched, his teeth settling into his lower lip. Bilbo bit at his own lip, then let that line of query go as well, dropping the ruined shirt on the floor. "Let's rinse you off then, lad. All right?" Still no answer; slowly Bilbo reached out, grasped the thin shoulders and started to louver Frodo up from the chair. "Easy now," he said as Frodo went legless for a second, and wrapped the boy's good arm about his neck. "Just hang on to me."

"Where... am I?" Another hoarse whisper. Bilbo felt his gut clench again.

"You're at Bag End, lad," he said quietly. "Do you know who I am?"

Frodo blinked, and his eyes seemed to mist over again; Bilbo took his chin in one hand and spoke his name sharply. "Frodo! Stay here, lad. Here."

"I'm... here," the boy whispered, enunciating each word very carefully.

"Good. I am, too. You're at Bag End, and I'm your Uncle Bilbo, all right? You're home."

"Home..." It was a mere whisper; Frodo's expression was blank, definitely puzzled, but at least no longer holding that frightening other-ness.

"Now, come with me. Slowly." He led Frodo forward, step by tremulous step; the sink was a mere five strides from the table but it seemed thrice as far, with Frodo bobbling against him. "Here we are. Hang on here, bend down." Bilbo angled him carefully over the sink, took each of Frodo's hands and made him grip the sink sides. Frodo still did not loose his grip on that parchment and, as they both stood there against the sink, Bilbo just stared at his cousin's bent head, taken by the sincere urge to panic. From this vantage point it was obvious that there were more bloodied spots on the back of the lad's head, that the one shoulder was angled oddly, swollen and bruising, and there were thin, jagged lacerations running down his back. "Oh, dear," he muttered, barely giving it voice, "what am I going to do, Frodo, whatever shall I...?"

The boy didn't hear; his arms were shaking, his hands white-knuckled on the sink edge. Bilbo shook himself and reached out, with one hand tilting his cousin forward and the other grasping the pump handle. Several priming pumps, then cold water cascaded over the dark head. Frodo let out a whimper and gripped the sink sides; his shoulders knotted, but otherwise he didn't move. Bilbo took up the soap round that always resided in a dish beside the sink but hesitated again, dandling it within his fingertips for bare seconds. Frodo swayed, and Bilbo realised if he were going to do this, it had best be done quickly. Taking a deep breath, Bilbo forced himself to reach out and gingerly begin to scrub the stickiness out of the filthy curls. When his fingers encountered clotted places Bilbo gently worked away at them; when Frodo winced even in the slightest he backed off, but despite this he even managed to clean Frodo's face, reaching about instead of making the lad move.

"I... I can't..." Frodo suddenly choked.

Enough was enough. "Shh, lad, we're almost done. Just another moment, no more." Bilbo reached with soapy, pink-lathered fingers for the spigot handle, pumped more water. This last rinse threw Frodo over the edge. He choked again, then lurched forward, heaved into the sink. Bilbo gave a dismayed cry and bent forward, trying to hold him until the spasms passed.

There was obviously nothing much in the boy's belly.

"How long since you've eaten, lad?"

The mention of food set Frodo off again. Bilbo cursed himself silently and inventively, waiting it out, holding his free hand atop Frodo's skull so he didn't raise up and hit it on the spigot. That was all the lad needed--another knock on the head.

Frodo's sickness passed once again; this time Bilbo said nothing, just kept his hands gently on the wet skull. The smell of blood and bile was palpable in the small area; Frodo didn't move, but he was sinking lower and lower against the counter. Bilbo realised that he'd better get the boy seated before he fell down. Raising Frodo's head slowly and carefully, Bilbo put a gentle hand to his bruised face. "Can you walk, now? Just to the chair?"

Frodo swallowed and nodded very gingerly. The motion almost made him vomit again; Bilbo watched in agony as his lips whitened, tightened. Then Frodo took a shallow breath and Bilbo had his hands full for seconds keeping him upright. Half-carrying Frodo back over to the table, Bilbo lowered him into the chair once more. Rocking back on his heels, Bilbo did as he'd seen the Widow once do when a brawl on the common had left two lads with their chimes rung pretty harshly--he held up three fingers before Frodo's blank face. The lad's eyes no longer held that unfathomable darkness, but still they were not normal. Bilbo looked closer and saw that one was different than the other; it wandered slightly sideways, and while both pupils were wide, that one was even moreso, only a ring of blue about black. Again, the wish to panic nearly encompassed him; to offset it Bilbo waggled his fingers before Frodo. "How many?"

A blink. "How... many... what?"

No, this wasn't good, not at all. How the boy had managed to walk home was anyone's guess--how he'd remembered the way to Bag End was a bloody, considered miracle. Bilbo reached out and combed his fingers through the wet curls, gently slicking them back from Frodo's mangled forehead.

"How many..." the boy abruptly said, a queer halting sing-song to the words. "How many... nights. Hanging... So many nights... nine upon nine hung he there... his enemy did bind him, take him, make him..."

"Frodo." Bilbo tried to say it sternly and rationally, failed miserably. "What happened, lad? Can you tell me who--?"

"She did it. She... wouldn't... let me..." The sing-song was again starting to hold that eerie whine behind it; Frodo's eyes darkened beneath darker lashes.

"She..." Bilbo repeated in a puzzled whisper. "Frodo, what ha--?"

"Bound... silenced... she was silenced, all was silenced... bound... so she kept it all close... close... to protect her lost child... but... if she cannot let go... shall their home wither away, frosted flower and stunted vine--"

"Frodo!"

The pie-eyed gaze opened again and stared up at him. "No..." The voice was faint, fading. "Can't... too much... falling..." Frodo's eyes closed and his head bobbled backwards senselessly; fear twined within Bilbo's nerves and he lurched forward, gripped the narrow, slumped shoulders.

He had to get help. But neither could he leave the lad, not like this. What in the nine thousand names of the Valar was he to do? Maybe he should just gather Frodo up and carry him to the Widow's. Maybe...

Definite panic began rumbling within his gut. Some guardian he was--living alone, not knowing what to do, where to go, how to stop this from even happening in the first place--

"Bilbo?" It was a tiny, hoarse query.

Once again he quelled panic. "I'm here, lad."

The uncertain gaze was fastened to his again, bewildered and somewhat lucid. "Please..." Frodo whispered. "Make it... stop..."

"Make what...?" he trailed off as Frodo's gaze started turning in on itself once more. Bilbo could no longer see his reflection in the boy's eyes; once again they roiled fathomless indigo-black. He'd never seen anything like it.

His grip tightened. He had seen this before, once. In the eyes of an elf.

"You've come..." Frodo's words were once again of a cadence more suited to jongleur's rhyme than an injured boy's murmurings. "Come to take me down... from the cliff..."

Jongleur's rhymes. Stories. The realisation clicked audibly within Bilbo's skull. "What are you seeing, lad?" Bilbo murmured, very softly. "Make what stop? Tell me."

Frodo's eyes rolled up in his head and he slumped in the chair. "Frodo!" Bilbo hissed. "Frodo, please--"

A knock on the door nearly made him jump from his skin; Bilbo sucked in a huge breath and tore his eyes away from his injured cousin, his voice wavering upwards as he greeted this new salvation. "Come in! Now!"

Frodo made a small sound as Bilbo raised his voice, then slumped back into insensibility.

"Mister Bilbo, sir, I'm sorry it's so late, but things have been all t' sixes and sevens." Gaffer Gamgee came about the corner, still speaking, and his daughter May was behind him. "I've been trying to get up the Hill and get those lanthorns lit, and May came on with me to take that ruined load of laundry back--" he trailed off into silence as he took in the strange tableau: the Bag End kitchen alight, Bilbo's alarm, Frodo reeling half off the chair, the bloody shirt in the floor's middle.

May peered from about her father's shoulder, her eyes wide as saucers.

"Save us, mister Bilbo, whatever...?" the Gaffer suddenly flung aside his normal hesitancy of attitude beneath the momentary emergency. Neither did he stop to question or to wait for Bilbo's direction; he took charge. Striding into the smial on quick, bandy legs, the Gaffer half-knelt down before Frodo, taking in his injuries with a considering glance. He carefully gripped the boy's face, pulled his eyelids wide, grunted to himself. Frodo stirred fitfully at the touch.

"The lad came back." May trailed behind her father. "Sammie has been beside himself, Dad, askin' whether did the lad come back or no--"

"Enough of that, now!" the Gaffer said firmly. "Go fetch the Widow, lass, and be quick about it." May didn't heed, staring blankly at Frodo. "Go on, I said!" he repeated.

She shook herself, threw a last glance at them then fled.

The Gaffer turned to Bilbo. "How long has he been like this? These hurts en't fresh and that's a fact."

"I... I don't know," Bilbo stammered. "He came in not an hour's half ago--"

"How long's he been in this chair?" the Gaffer turned back to the wobbling youth. "Can't leave him like this, no sir. He's no business sitting up, mister Bilbo." The tone was moderate but nonetheless chastising, and Bilbo coloured beneath it like a boy caught stealing apples.

Worse--he knew how to steal apples. "I... I didn't--"

"No matter, no matter. We can't all know everything, can we? Just help me with him now, sir." He leaned over Frodo, considerately if swiftly taking the boy's shoulders and head against his chest. "We'd best get him lying down. He's about to go under on us, and that's purely fact."

"Under... going under!" Frodo's voice rose so suddenly both the older hobbits started; it went harsher, hoarse with panic as he struggled against the Gaffer's hold. "N...no! Don't take me... don't take me with you!"

The Gaffer muttered something sharp and short, grabbed tighter.

"Can't... breathe... can't...!" Frodo gasped; his hand came up, pulled at the lanyard about his throat as if it were choking him. The Gaffer grabbed it, yanked at it several times before it came free; the lad tried to pull away then gasped and slumped. The sudden capitulation nearly made the old gardener drop Frodo; Bilbo gave a little horrified noise and lurched forward, grasping at the slight frame.

Frodo was merely unconscious. Even his breathing had steadied. Without a word the Gaffer handed Bilbo the lanyard and its tiny key.

Together they lifted the youth between them. Frodo was limp as a rag in their hold; panic curled hard within Bilbo, burning as if someone had lit fires in his belly.

If the Gaffer saw it, he made no reference. "The couch'll do for now. We'll want him close to water, no doubt. The Widow'll know what to do. Here... gently, now. I've got him--you grab that pillow. Nay, sir, not for his head--put it under his feet. We got t' get those up, prop 'em so... There."

It took a while, but soon enough they had Frodo supine on the couch, his feet on one armrest and held there with an additional pillow, head lolling against the seat cushions. Gaffer Gamgee seemed to be disturbed by this; he took Frodo by the chin, spoke directly and loudly into his face. "Here, lad! Wake up! Open your peepers, now--let us know you can hear us!"

Frodo's eyes wobbled in their sockets yet showed no signs of opening, of responding.

The Gaffer tapped him lightly on the chin and, when he got no further response, fetched a sharper rap. "Wake up, now! Open your eyes, boy!" Bilbo started to protest the treatment, then fell silent as the method gained results; Frodo drew in a quick, surprised breath and murmured a negation.

"Aye, it seems harsh, but we have to keep him awake, mister Bilbo. I've seen strong hobbits with this kind of hurt fall asleep and never wake up."

"Never... wake up?" Bilbo once again felt the dire mix of helplessness, pain and fear.

"Where is that lass?" the Gaffer rumbled to himself. "We can only hope the Dame's not gone to Bywater or the like for the evenin', and May not be able to find her. Daisy can help, surely, but she's merely 'prenticed... Glory, but the lad's been in for a beating. I knew something was going on here that my boy wasn't..." the Gaffer trailed off, took up one of Frodo's limp hands and began to chafe at it. "He's cold. Do you have any spare blankets, Squire? We need to keep him warm; he's no shirt and a wet skull to boot."

Surely enough, the lad's chest was prickling with chill in the bright star- and moonlight coming through the open window. Bilbo scurried over to a large trunk, threw it open, rummaged deeply for quick seconds. Papers flew. At the bottom he found three woolly throws, smelling of moth-sachets but clean and warm. He flung them outwards, opening the creased folds, then dragged them, one by one, over Frodo. The Gaffer helped tuck the coverings close to the prone lad, re-propping Frodo's feet on the pillow, then leaned over and put two thick fingers to the pulse-point of Frodo's throat. For moments there was no response, either to the touch or the added warmth, then one hand riffled itself from the blankets, raised toward the night. A bizarre smile, almost one of repletion, quirked at Frodo's lips as he spread his fingers in the pale silver spilling in the parlour window. His neck arched into the gardener's palm; the Gaffer drew back, frowning, and an anxious noise came from between Frodo's lips. Bilbo reached out, grasped Frodo's extended hand quite firmly, drew it away from the starry light and against his own breast. The slender fingers were chill within his own, and Frodo murmured, sighing.

"I'm thinking that he's been smoking something a bit stronger than old Toby," the Gaffer muttered sourly from beside Bilbo, then drew in a dismayed breath as Frodo's eyes opened wider. There was no sign of blue, save for a thin ring; they were once again black as pitch beneath swollen lids, glinting as if filled with the dim, pure light from the window. They were thoroughly rapt, spellbound... lost.

"Save us!" the old gardener breathed. Bilbo was torn between being grateful for his gardener being pulled from his judgmental guesses as to how Frodo had gotten in his state, and disconcerted at what exactly that state implied.

He took stern hold of himself, held Frodo's hand tighter. "Draw the curtain, Gaffer," Bilbo said and when the old gardener didn't respond, repeated louder, "Hamfast. Please, the curtain!" As the Gaffer moved to obey, Bilbo murmured, "Frodo, can you hear me, lad?"

Silver light was replaced by soft lantern-light, and the darkness in Frodo's eyes rent and swirled itself back into some normalcy. Those eyes closed, the expression on the young face vacillating between vacancy and sudden anxiety. "Frodo," he said again, louder, and felt the cold hand twitch faintly in his. Clearly Bilbo's voice was penetrating; how far, Bilbo wasn't sure.

"Dad! Mister Bilbo!" The green door banged open so wide it nearly shut back into the face of the lass who'd made such a precipitous entry. "I've brought her, she's here!"

Behind May's panting, red-faced form, the Widow Rumble was also out of breath and dishevelled, but calm. She looked as if she'd been in the middle of some serious chore; her hair was braided and tied back with a kerchief, her ample form clad in a plain, brown shift which secured about her middle with a stained, but clean apron, and one hand held an extremely-worn carpetbag. She took one look, espied the young hobbit lying on the couch and strode over, her authoritative presence parting the hovering males like pages in a book.

"I'm sorry we took the while--poor May found me down the valley, with Amber Tunnelly's confinement. The bairn's a bit yellow, came into the world upside down and at sunset to boot. I'd say that's an omen, but all those Tunnellys can be a bit on the cantankerous side." All the while she spoke her large, capable hands were drawing back the blankets, feeling along Frodo's breast, ribcage and neck. With one hand she pressed two strong fingers beneath his jaw and with the fingers of the other pulled his eyelids apart. To Bilbo's relief, the odd glimmerings of reflected light were no longer writhing in his cousin's dis-focused eyes--but the cant to them made the Widow frown.

"How long's he been like this?"

"Been upright too long, I'd say," Gaffer inserted.

"Hamfast Gamgee, when I want opinions I'll ask. I want facts, not your bucolic guesses. How long?"

"I don't know. All I know is that he came home about an hour past sunset, all..." Bilbo's voice choked him mid-sentence, "...all over blood."

The Widow didn't respond to this for moments, her expression intent on the boy's breathing and heartbeat. She didn't seem pleased with what she found as she turned to the ones standing behind her. "May. Pump out, child. Fill me a pan with well water, then another with the kettle's warm water, then stir up the fire nice and hot, see to it th' kettle's freshened and set to boil."

May, still panting, gave a quick nod and went to do as bidden.

"And what happened after he came home? What did you do?" the Widow queried of Bilbo. Her eyes, matter of fact and laced with keen intelligence, buoyed him. Bilbo quickly told her all he knew of Frodo's return--not much.

She sniffed at intervals during his words, her broad hands moving to feel the boy's neck and skull, running lightly over the bad shoulder, fingers combing the bang from his face and probing there. This last--and the pain it undoubtedly caused--was Frodo's undoing. His chest gave a great spasm and he turned purple, eyes flying open. The Widow acted instantly, yanking him over on his side, cradling his shoulder and the back of his skull forward, cupping her apron beneath his mouth. He stopped choking and was lost in another fit of vomiting. Absolutely nothing came up but bile.

The Widow took a perfunctory whiff at it then muttered to herself. "Aye, and it's been too long. Ham," she sharply addressed the gardener who was standing several steps behind her, staring with wide eyes, "hand me my bag, please--it's by your foot."

He complied.

"What has been too long?" Bilbo demanded testily. The sunken, pinched look to Frodo's face, once he ceased heaving and the healer laid him gently back on the couch, frankly terrified him.

"Since this happened. I won't lie to you, Squire, this en't good. He smells of fever."

Bilbo clenched his fists--the fever took more hobbits than any sickness.

"We're going to have to be very careful with him tonight--" she broke off as Frodo lurched sideways again. Widow Rumble held him tightly, holding her apron just beneath his face and, as he didn't cease his paroxysms, she barked a quick command to the Gaffer. "Reach in, Ham, and hand me the largest of those brown bottles... nay, not that one, the... yes. That's it. Open it up for me."

Frodo's entire frame shook; his lips were moving as if he was trying to speak, and the Widow, bent over him, gently shushed him. With her free hand she took the top of the brown bottle--Bilbo saw that it was comprised of a small eyedropper.

"Now, lad, just relax for me, just--" With a quick economical movement of her fingers she parted Frodo's lips and squirted the dropper beneath his tongue. Frodo gave a small groan and part of the brownish liquid spilled from the corner of his mouth; the Widow stroked his throat to make him swallow, still murmuring soothingly. As he swallowed he tried to choke again; Bilbo involuntarily lurched forward but the Widow shook her head in warning, kept stroking the cords of his throat. "Eh, this'll ease him," she reassured. "Got to stop his heaving and right now. 'Tis doing only harm."

As if to prove her words Frodo gave a soft whimper and twitched, then slowly relaxed in her hold. With a satisfied grunt she replaced the dropper back into the small vial which the Gaffer still held.

Bilbo realised he was holding his breath, took in air and said, "He'll be all right, though?"

"Well, we'll see if he's addled his brains once he's well enough to use them. The worst of it is... Feel here--gently, mind!" She took Bilbo's fingers, led them to a large, hard, knotted gash just upwards of his temple. "He's more than the one, but this? It's worrisome. Something's busted here. Not his skull, I'm hoping, but I can't feel beneath--it's risen too hard and been too long since 'twas bashed in."

Bilbo was starting to lose track of the icy, fearful fingers runneling along his spine, he'd had the sensation too many times in too few hours. He tried to speak, found that he couldn't; the Widow Rumble's fingers closed comfortingly upon his and drew his hands away from Frodo's skull.

"Aye, you're right to be worried. But the fact that it's been so long and he's still with us tells me it's mayhap not bad as it could be. He'd not have made it home if so."

Bilbo had the sudden vision of Frodo lying in the road somewhere, unable to get help or to make it back to the gate of Bag End, and tears rose to his eyes with a swiftness he didn't bother to halt.

"There now, mister Bilbo, " The Widow clearly approved his sentiment. "It's ours to see to it that this lad's time hasn't ended, as sure as that new Tunnelly babe's has begun." She smiled encouragement at Bilbo. "He's a responsibility next spring to the Bel-fires, 'tennyrate." Giving Frodo another keen look, she nodded to herself and untied her soiled apron, wadding it up and tossing it aside. Her next words were thoughtful, only pitched high enough for Bilbo to hear. "He's surely been in a scrap, Squire. This kind of beating--it's not just a tussle. This is..." she trailed off, shaking her head. "It's all too purposeful, this."

"Yes," Bilbo said through his teeth. The Widow glanced at him.

"Two lads I've seen, both muddy and hurt. You're thinkin' that miz Lobelia's boy had sommat to do with this, en't you?"

"They've... history," Bilbo replied.

"A bit more than I've heard tell of, from your tone," the Widow murmured, meeting his eyes with a sudden, piercing understanding.

"I think..." Bilbo looked down, swallowed hard. "I think, Widow, that you should check him very carefully."

The dame's face slackened at the possibilities his words sought to bring forth. He wasn't sure she totally understood what he meant. He wasn't sure he wanted the need for understanding.

"What's wrong with his eyes, Widow?" the Gaffer voiced tentatively from behind them. "I've seen more'n a few hobbits with their bells rung, and never have I--"

"Ham Gamgee," the Widow raised her voice back to normal pitch, looking away from Bilbo, "I see naught to the lad's eyes but that he's been thumped in the head too hard. You stick to your flower beds and your taters, and leave healing to those as knows that. May Gamgee--where's that water?"

The Gaffer started to reiterate her request, but fell quiet as May came immediately padding into the main room, her hands steadying two pans of water that nearly sloshed over the metal rims with her haste. "The kettle's on, Widow. Shall I run for Sister--you'll be needing her, surely?"

"You're a fine enough help now, lass, you truly are." As she spoke the Widow was taking jars of tightly sealed ointment, more dark bottles, clean cloths and wrappings from her bag. "No doubt Daisy will be having her work here before long; now you can be more help, you and your Gaffer both. Your job is to hand me my things as I needs 'em. Ham, take the lad's feet, if you please. And mister Bilbo, if you'd come here to his side, hold onto his hands--take 'em like so," she gestured and Bilbo hastened to follow her lead, "cross them on his chest. Good, that's it... eh? What's this, then?" She hesitated, then turned over Frodo's hand, opening it to reveal the crumpled bit of parchment.

Frodo twitched; his eyes fluttered open but they were still unfocused, shimmering with the beginnings of panic. He tried to pull away, but Bilbo tightened his grip on the cold hands within his grasp, leaned forward.

"Frodo?"

"N... huh..." the lad stammered, his eyes opening wide, his torso curling in on itself.

"Talk to him," the Widow directed. "Hold him."

For seconds Bilbo was mute, unsure of what to say, or to do. He remembered the other few times he'd cornered Frodo, and how unfortunately those times had ended, and he shook his head. "No. We can't..."

Frodo was fighting them--feebly, but with what he had left. He twisted, trying to get away from the hands clutching his own; Bilbo almost loosed him but the Widow abandoned the crumpled note and clamped her own fingers hard about his, and Frodo's.

"Bilbo!" she ordered tersely, "hold him, talk to him, he can't be doin' this, not now!"

Beneath his hands Frodo's heart was hammering like a trapped rabbit's; a whimper burst from the lad's chest. Suddenly words Bilbo didn't know he had, in a voice he'd rarely used before, came spilling forth. None intelligible, none making sense, but soft and reassuring, words that a mother might use to her bairn, or a tamer to a wild pony. Beneath them, Frodo's eyes met Bilbo's, hung there. Slowly he ceased struggling. Bilbo was aware of the surprised gazes of the two Gamgees, and of the Widow's pleased expression, but moreso was he aware of the way Frodo's face untwisted itself, the intense relief it gave him, and of the sudden, unique wrench in his gut that followed that relief.

"Aye, that's better," the Widow muttered softly, moving to Frodo's head. "Keep talking and holding. He might struggle a bit--this is going to hurt, but I have to get these gashes seen to and I need you to keep him steady. If he starts to heave, though, let him go." Very gingerly, she began raising Frodo's head, sliding her hand down to between his shoulder blades.

Frodo stiffened and gave another whimper; without taking his eyes from the lad's, Bilbo said, "He's got marks on his back, Widow. Go carefully."

She nodded acknowledgement. "This shoulder's been set almost to rights, as well--a neat job, but it's not quite in place yet. I wonder how--?" She broke off with a shake of her head, said, "Put those cushions beneath his shoulders here, May... those, yes. Now, I have to raise him up a bit, so be ready." Following words with action, the dame motioned with her chin where May was to place the cushions.

As he was lifted, Frodo's eyes scattered and wobbled back in their sockets; his lips moved, but no sound came out. The slender hands seized, then went lax. Bilbo gripped tighter, said again, louder. "Frodo!"

"Nay," the Widow said, busy at Frodo's head, "'tis for the best, if he's out for this." Her gaze slid to meet Bilbo's. "I'm thinking that now's a fair time to take that bit of scrap from his palm, though, if you're wanting it."

Glad that at least one of them was somewhat clear-headed, Bilbo opened Frodo's clenched palm and dug the crumpled parchment from it. It wasn't easy; the boy's grip seemed almost glued there, as if even unconscious he knew he had to hold to it. Bilbo started to open the scrap, was thwarted by a sudden twitch from Frodo's loose hand and the Widow's warning hiss. He shoved the parchment into his coat pocket and gripped Frodo's hand once more.

With her patient unconscious, the rest of the healer's ministrations were indeed more easily done. First she attended to the half-set arm. "May, take my place, kneel down. Pull his head--gently, mind--back against your breast." The dame grinned slightly as she knelt down beside Bilbo and took Frodo's arm. "At least y' don't have to be explaining this time to yer dad why your bodice is so mussed, eh?"

May flushed and smirked; the Gaffer gave a conspicuous cough.

"Cross your arms over his breast, now, and hold tight." The Widow took firm hold of Frodo's arm and yanked. There was a low grind and loud click of bone against bone; Frodo gave a loud gasp and jerked against May, but didn't rouse further. "That's done it," was her satisfied remark as she rose. "Good job, May-lass; I'll need me place back now. Get the warm water and rags to hand."

Frodo was still unconscious, and the Widow took advantage of it. She scrubbed harder than Bilbo had dared to, with castile soap and warm water, ending by dabbing generous amounts of witch hazel. As she worked she held out her palm and briefly displayed to the watchers several large bits of detritus there. "Bark, of some kind," she said softly. "Amidst the mud and the grass. No doubt anymore he's been rolling on the ground, or being rolled." Taking up a pair of clean scissors from May's held-out assortment of instruments, she inspected their sharpness by drawing them across a strand of Frodo's hair, nodding satisfaction. Bilbo flinched as she fearlessly started cutting away loose flaps of skin, and fiercely told himself he was not a coward as he looked away, unwilling to see razored steel carving away at flesh. Seconds later he convinced himself otherwise and had returned his gaze to his prone cousin. Frodo lay unmoving, and the Widow was still using the scissors, but now she was snipping close the dark curls about the torn spots so they wouldn't mat with blood or ichor.

"He's a lot of hair, so he shouldn't miss this much," she commented amidst the 'snip' of the shears, "but we might have to sacrifice all of it if he gets fever."

"Do as you must," Bilbo answered a bit woodenly. May shot him a tense, worried glance and the Gaffer looked uncomfortable.

Bilbo was not so brave when May handed over a needle and a length of gut.

"You don't have t' look, Squire," the Widow said, "partic'larly if you're going to faint away on me. I need you to hold the lad's hands in case he wakes."

"I'm all right," Bilbo answered stoutly, then added, "But yes, I'm not looking."

The Gaffer had no such qualms--no doubt he'd spent enough time stitching up his fair share of gashes, animal or hobbit--but he gave Bilbo a reassuring smile. "With those cuts, the boy'll scar bad if she en't sewing them. 'Tis for the best."

It seemed to take forever. Frodo didn't so much as twitch during any of it; by the time Bilbo had settled his gorge enough to peek a second time--fool he for peeking the first!--the Widow was salving and sulphur-powdering the lighter wounds, bandaging the sewn up injuries on his forehead and temple. The gash on his cheek had also been neatly stitched and powdered. Rinsing her bloody hands in a fresh pan of water that May had brought, she pushed back from her work and met Bilbo's gaze. But when she spoke, her words were for May.

"Lass, I'm needing you and your Dad to do me a another favour or two. I know it's getting late, but I need you to go down to my smial and get my other bag, the big string one. It has some things I need, including several fresh changes of clothes. Then I need you to parcel out some of the broth I've got stewing on the stove... you know, I believe, where I keep my crocks and baskets?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Good lass. It'll be enough to be getting on with 'til we get a bird started here--there en't a bachelor I know what has a good broth simmering as a matter of need. Eh, Squire?" Bilbo grimaced in agreement; the Widow smirked and went on to May, "So take your time and do it right. And Gaffer?" She turned from Bilbo's gaze to the gardener standing rather awkwardly beside Bilbo.

"Aye, Widow?"

"I'm needing you to let Daisy know I'll need her come the morning--it's going to be a long night, I'm thinking. But even more, I need you to go get your boy now, bring him up here."

Bilbo's breath hissed through his teeth. May's eyes widened, then she looked down. The Gaffer stiffened.

"Samwise is being punished. He en't going nowhere."

"I need to know what happened, Hamfast Gamgee, and right now your son's the only one can tell me, unless he's knocked silly as that Sackville-Baggins lad, or this one lying here. Tell me, Ham, did y' cold-cock the boy in your zeal to correct him?"

"Yarrow Rumble, ye're an interfering old cow, and you know I wouldn't--"

"Hamfast," Bilbo suddenly voiced, quietly, "do you really think that Sam took Lotho down?"

"He said that he did."

"All right then," Bilbo allowed, "but do you think he did it for no reason?"

"Nay, Squire. I'm sure there's a reason. But to be plain, I'm not sure what's worse," the Gaffer said. "That my boy would shoot a rock at master Lotho... or that he'd lie to all of us trying to cover for some lad he's not known a week."

Bilbo had no answer to that.

"And," the Gaffer lifted his chin as if determined to say his piece no matter the consequences, "to be truthful and begging your pardon, but I'm thinking your Brandybuck cousin's at the heart of this mess."

"Ham, you stubborn mule, considering this lad's state that's no great shakes of detection!" the Widow snapped. "It doesn't matter now where anyone's from or what they've done or not. This tween's hurt, hurt bad, and we need to talk to your boy!"

Bilbo added, soft but firm, "Hamfast. I need to talk to Sam. Surely you understand that."

The Gaffer looked at Bilbo for long moments, his silver-black eyebrows quirking. Then he gave a sigh, looked down at Frodo's pale, still form. "Aye, Squire. Ye're right. This needs knowing, and if my boy came upon Lotho doing this to the young master... well." He straightened. "I'll bring him, but I can't promise he'll talk to ye. He's saying naught to any of it."

Again, the wrongness of it niggled at Bilbo. Why would Sam hide this? Why would he say nothing if Lotho had so hurt Frodo? Bilbo shoved his fists into his pockets, and Frodo's scrap of parchment crackled. "I imagine," Bilbo said softly, "that if you give me some time alone with him, he might talk to me."

At Frodo's head, May held her breath. Bilbo kept his gaze upon his gardener. The Gaffer frowned, then sighed and nodded.

"Aye, and well I know it." There was a hint of acerbity in the statement. "I'll bring him."

The two Gamgees let the smial, and it was quiet save for Frodo's soft, quivering breaths. The Widow's brown eyes were steady upon Bilbo; he returned her gaze with equal concern. Finally she shook her head and looked down at the prone tween.

"I remember hearing," said she, "'bout this lad's doin's at Brandy Hall with master Lotho. When I first heard 'em, I was willing to believe miz Lobelia. After all, the Buckland lad had a name for the running, for trouble. Tweens 'r tweens and sometimes the play can get out of hand, the teasin' be taken too far. And," she shrugged, "Lotho was one of our'n. 'Tis a foolish way to be thinking, but there it is. And my foolishness came to me, threefold, when I looked into this lad's eyes at the Tithing grounds. 'Twas then I knew there was more to it than any knew. There were secrets in his eyes, he kept his soul close, but there's not many who can close their hearts when they're taking the Maiden from my hand, and this boy no diff'rent.

"Neither could Lotho be hiding, in his time, but the Mother needs all of strength in Her court, not just the light but the dark, and 'tisn't ours to question the choice when it steps forth. Just as I didn't question the rightness of this lad, even with the darkness in him."

Bilbo started to protest, she held up a hand. "Nay, sir, I en't saying he's a bad 'un, not as the one did this to him--an' that'll be put paid. It's just there's shadow in your young lad here, runnin' through 'im like water, glitterin' all dark and light. Ah, and the light in his face when he took the Maiden from my hand..." The Widow smiled at the memory, then sobered. "There was no light in Lotho's face as he took the Maid; all I saw was the want in him then... just want, certain and fearsome, enough want to never be easy satisfied."

"Enough want to take what isn't his," Bilbo growled.

"It's a poor day indeed when one of our own thinks to take something so unwilling." Reaching out, the Widow started unbuttoning Frodo's trousers. "Let's get the rest of this over and done, mister Bilbo. We need to finish cleaning him up, if naught else. I only hope your suspicions en't correct, and we've no more hurts to deal with."

* * * * * *

"Pippin's sleeping," Esmeralda said as she closed the nursery door behind her. "And Merry's snoring away beside him."

Over by the well-stoked hearth, Saradoc put another log onto the fire, took a small bit of kindling from the grate and his pipe down from the mantle stand. There was already leaf in the bowl, put there earlier in the evening and never lit; now he did so. "You stay here, then, with them," he stated between puffs. "I'll go on, back out to the vineyards."

"At least finish your pipe and warm up a bit." Esmeralda came over, feeling chilled to bone herself and glad of the warming hearth, reaching out toward it. Silence fell between them. The smoke from her husband's pipe drifted across her outstretched hands and up the flue, like drawn to like.

As usual, he read her hesitation like a book. "It's barely been a week, Emmie," Saradoc finally stated. "What could happen in a week?"

"We thought that about a certain fortnight," she reminded, very slowly. "And everything came to a head."

He muttered about his pipe and took a deep draught of it, letting the smoke curl from his nostrils. Silence once again hung within the smial; from without there was, as always, the river run, the 'plish' of copper water against red rock, echoes of wood and stone, voices calling, carrying from the ferry.

"Pippin's just a bairn," he said, low. "It was most likely a dream, nothing more."

Esmeralda was silent.

"He's been listless all day, running a fever. You can't know, not for sure, that he's gone into one of those fits like your brother's."

"I know that. But after seeing such things with Pal--"

"Emmie, your brother waited to do this thing until he was ripening into his change. Pippin's too young. It skips generations. It could be anything--"

"It could be. But I don't think it is." She shivered. "It's wild. It goes where it pleases, when it pleases. I'm just thankful it rarely visits the lasses. I'd rather empty my veins than be caught beneath something like that. And now..." her gaze went to the closed nursery door. "Poor little lad. I think it's come to him, Sara."

Saradoc's eyes were steadily upon her, gleaming with the firelight. "Then do you really think something's happened to Frodo?"

Dread burrowed its way into the pit of her stomach.

"Surely Bilbo would send word," he said again, low.

"Has he had time to send word?"

"Em--"

"Would he send word?"

"Emmie, what did the little lad see?" The sharp snap of his voice stopped her pacing, made her take a deep breath.

"See? Pippin... he saw nothing. He said he was cold. That his head hurt. That he was lost, and the stars were... singing." She took a ragged breath. "He kept calling Frodo's name, but none of the rest of it made any sense. It was like a dream."

"Well, then." Saradoc huffed thoughtfully. "A dream is likely all it was."

She looked at him, then closed her eyes and nodded.

"I'd send a rider to Bag End, but I can't afford even one body away from the fields this week." Saradoc continued slowly. "Not on the say-so of a child's nightmare. Not with the vintage and the ripening happening all at once, and likely to rot, stalk or vine, if we don't get those crops in quickly. We're working night and day as it is, and drafting help from the outlying crofts."

"I know," Esmeralda said quietly, fingering her sleeves. "I just hope..." she trailed off.

"What?"

"Nothing," she said, staring into the fire.

Near silent tread behind her, then strong arms stole about her waist, rocked her back against her husband's broad chest.

"I wonder," she said, "if your brother might know of--"

"My brother," Saradoc said quietly, "is miles down-river by now. Gillyflower left the docks without Merimac bothering to grace the Hall with his fair presence or disclose to anyone the details of his Hobbiton visit. And Frodo was not with him."

For a while they stood there, peering into the fire together.

"I know, Emmie," Saradoc finally said, low. "I'm worried, too."

* * * * * *

At first he didn't want to go.

He'd lain face-down in his bed, smarting and light-headed and spending alternate fits of ire and misery into his pillow, and he hadn't expected his father to even come in and speak to him, let alone to say to him what he had.

Sam didn't sit up--that would have added more discomfort atop what he already had--but he did prop himself onto his forearms and blink at his father. The Gaffer stood in the doorway, and Sam had to ask him to repeat himself, he was so taken aback.

"I said, get yourself decent, wash your face and take yourself up to the Squire's."

And then the resistance swelled in him again, and he knew he didn't want to obey. He didn't want to go up there, be subject to the questions he knew would follow, or the looks, or to see that Brandybuck lad.

He'd heard the shocked comments when his father had returned, talking to Daisy in the hall, and how he'd said the lad been in some fearsome row. And relief that the lad had indeed returned was now twisting itself into trepidation, because his Gaffer then went on to say the Widow was up there now, tending to master Frodo.

He didn't want to see him. He didn't want to know. Knowing was landing him into naught but more and more trouble.

"Boy, do as I say!" the Gaffer snapped at him, and his body obeyed as instinctively as ever. Sam pulled himself quickly to his feet, stood swaying there for a moment. The Gaffer eyed him. There was something, flat and almost fearful, behind his father's brown-grey gaze. Sam frowned. He'd never seen such a look on his father's face before, except...

Except earlier that day, in the shed, as Sam had left it.

"Dad," he started hesitantly.

"I said, get cleaned up. The Squire wants you, you need t' hie y'rself up-Hill to him." His father turned away.

"But Dad--"

The bent shoulders twitched; the Gaffer stopped at the doorway, laid one hand to it. "What, Samwise?"

"En't... en't you going with me?"

"Nay." And his father closed the door behind him.

Sam got dressed with more than his usual alacrity. His father wasn't in the main smial when he left, and Daisy was cooking supper, Marigold slicing bread. May had not returned, and neither of the girls met his eyes as he exited the front door.

The night air welcomed him; he stretched into it then winced as the long motion shot discomfort down his buttocks and thighs. Instead he settled for breathing the air in, deep and slow, and steadily climbed the hill path, realising that he was going to be a bit crippled tomorrow and this walk was a good thing. The realisation made him more anxious--usually the Gaffer didn't whale him so hard he was useless the next day. His father was more than unhappy with him, that was plain.

But he couldn't tell him. He couldn't. And he couldn't tell mister Bilbo, either.

He could see candles flickering from the windows, lots of them. The green door was open to the mild evening, light spilling from the lintel lantern. Sam crept closer, heard a trickle of water against tin, then Widow Rumble's voice as his toes brushed the door sill.

"...fortunate. Those scratches on his back are ugly, yet I'm seeing no marks, no bruises or blood below the waist--'cepting those scrapes on his legs and th' one swollen ankle. Something grabbed him there--"

"Or someone." Bilbo's voice was chill as the Water during Solmath. It gave Sam hesitation.

A soft, dour mutter from the Widow, then silence. More water splishing, then she said, a bit louder and with some satisfaction, "That's him clean, then. Does he have an old nightshirt we could put him in for now?--nothing good, mind."

"I'll just go and check; surely he does." Bilbo's voice grew stronger as his footsteps audibly brought him nearer to Sam; swallowing hard, Sam opened his mouth to speak, was silenced once more by Bilbo's startled voice as he rounded the entry. "Why, Sam! You're here already!"

"Yessir," Sam sent his voice quaveringly into the entry. "Me dad said you needed t' see me?"

With two steps Bag End's owner had gained his side, put a woollen, pipeweed-scented sleeve across his shoulders and drawn him in. "Yes, indeed, lad--wait right here, will you, while I get a nightshirt for Frodo? That is, if I can find it."

"They're in that smaller dresser, second drawer from the top," Sam supplied then broke off, embarrassed, as Bilbo gave him an incredulous look.

"Merciful Valar, lad, how do you know that?"

"Well," Sam shrugged and told the truth. "He was rummaging through it when I was sent to fetch sommat for Tithing, and there was several nightshirts all strewn from the drawer."

Bilbo pulled him along. "Then come help me, if you would, lad."

Moments later they were exiting Frodo's room, which had seemed chill and emptied without its occupant--a ridiculous thought, because it hadn't even been occupied before this fortnight--and Bilbo was twisting a worn-soft, wheat-coloured nightshirt in his nimble hands.

In the parlour, the Widow was bent over a thrown-aside huddle of blankets that permeated the smial with the smell of cedar and pennyroyal. At Bilbo's step on the flooring she straightened, tossing the large bath-towel she held over one shoulder, and turned to them, nodding approval at what Bilbo carried. On the couch beneath her, Frodo was spare, almost spindly, even; his torso pale as a fish's belly. Sam glanced away. Sure, and he'd run bare as summer sunrise across the hills with his friends, and none of them caring save for the occasional comparison or play, but there was something different here, something not right about seeing Frodo laid out and splayed all mother-naked and helpless. Sam was glad when Widow Rumble carefully manoeuvred Frodo into his nightshirt and even more grateful when Bilbo covered him with the thick blankets.

It was only then Sam got his first good look at Frodo, and a small cry of distress escaped his throat. If Sam had thought the rest of him pallid, Frodo's face was even moreso, pale as the grey cushions cradling those dark curls, pale as the muslin wrapped about his head, his eyes sunken small into his head, like bruises. There was a splotch of crimson dotting the bandage near his right temple, and the slender, ink-stained fingers were abraded where they lay on the coverlets, curled like wilted leaves.

Sam became aware that Bilbo was watching him closely, hands in his pockets and a steely gaze akin to a cat at a gopher's burrow. Waiting. "You seem," the old hobbit said slowly, "startled by what you see."

"I..." he hesitated. The Widow looked between them, back and forth, started to speak then fell silent as Bilbo sighed.

Sam waited for long moments beneath Bilbo's compelling gaze, then retreated to the Widow's inspection--her expression was softer, but nevertheless stern and worried. Then his eyes were drawn undeniably to Frodo, lying stretched out and senseless, wrapped in linens that too much resembled a shroud for his liking, and Sam burst out, "Will he be all right?"

Bilbo's return silence, and the twist within the Widow's normally-composed features hit him harder than Sam had ever dreamed could be possible. He took another step forward. "What happened?"

The Widow threw a sharp, puzzled glance at Bilbo; Bilbo's eyes narrowed suddenly.

"What do you mean, 'what happened'? I thought you saw what happened."

"I did, sir. But I didn't... I mean he wasn't... I mean..." Sam trailed off uncomfortably.

"What are you saying, lad?" Bilbo stepped closer to him, and despite the fact that he'd already passed the older hobbit's height, Sam felt two hands smaller. "Were you there, or weren't you? Do you know what happened, or don't you?"

Sam felt as if his tongue had suddenly swollen to thrice normal size, seizing his ability to speak. He'd thought he'd known, but the lad lying on the couch was worse, much worse than he remembered seeing him... or was he wrong? Had all this been there, covered in mud?

But he'd wiped Frodo's face, and there had been no blood amidst the mud. Head injuries bled, he knew, a lot.

Impasse. He didn't know what had happened... but he did.

"Samwise," Bilbo said quietly, and coldly, "I have to know. Did you see what happened? Was it Lotho that did this?"

Still his tongue wouldn't work. Sam swallowed hard, shot a glance back to Frodo, who barely looked as if he were breathing. The sudden frantic thought of the tween dying right there while they were talking struck Sam to marrow, and he found himself staring at Frodo until a sharp, shallow rise of chest informed him that yes, Frodo was indeed alive.

"Samwise!" Bilbo's voice rose, angry and clipped, into the smial. "What happened here, boy? This is my smial, and I have the right to know what happened in my own garden!"

A small wince rocked through Sam. "Mist' B-b-Bilbo, I can't..."

"You were there. I was certain that you knew something, just as I was certain you didn't knock Lotho in the head with that rock. Then once Frodo came back, I was unsure of what I thought and presently I know nothing, not at all. Because if you tried to protect Frodo by striking Lotho, why did you not tell us that Frodo was so badly hurt? How was that protecting Frodo?"

Sam had never been more confused, more conflicted in his life. Unsure of where to turn, what to say, he dropped his eyes to his toes and elected to say nothing.

"Now that's quite enough," the Widow said softly, stepping over to put an arm about Sam's shoulders. "Mister Bilbo, he's just a boy, no matter what grown hobbit's work he does next to his dad." She shook Sam gently in reproof. "And Sam-lad, the Squire's asked you a question. He's worried after his cousin, and rightly so, because the lad is fair hurt."

Sam's eyes went to Frodo and something twisted, hard and knotty, within his gut.

The Widow's eyes went steely, following his, and she murmured, almost too softly to hear, "Setting himself to despoil the young laird... this shan't be forgotten, or taken lightly. Justice will be seen." Giving herself a shake, she turned once more to Sam, her gaze still narrowed. "Now, Sam, if you know something, you need to tell it. Because if Lotho did indeed do this, then we've a hard problem on our hands, do you understand?"

He nodded, still staring at the prone, pale form, unsure of what to say. Or how to say it, more like. Because it seemed to him altogether too possible that Lotho could have done this--or would have, if Sam hadn't stopped him. Or that he himself was somehow responsible, because he didn't know how to stop Frodo from running, or what words to say to keep him here, or that he'd even wanted to keep him here. Because there was no doubt that Sam had seen something in that garden between the two tweens, something that repulsed him and drew him, all at once, with both horror and fascination. And Frodo's reaction...

That had scared him even more. Frodo hadn't been this hurt, not before he'd run. And now he was. There had been something in those blue eyes, something trapped and wild, and Sam well knew, as any hobbitlad did, what a panicky wild thing would do if it got caught and held, still with the fear on it.

The Widow sighed, loosed him. "Perhaps I need to let you two talk on your own. I'll go and have a smoke in the garden, mister Bilbo. Think about whether you've a cot I can inhabit next to the boy for tonight, and sing out if he so much as twitches wrongly."

Sam watched her leave, the gait that was so normally strong and steady now slowed, ponderous-seeming. That, and the realisation that she wasn't leaving, loosed his tongue, made him turn back to Bilbo. "She's... she's staying tonight? Here? Master Frodo's that bad off?"

That face was no longer set like to stone but unspeakably wearied--the Master of Bag End seemed old, suddenly, old past bearing. Taking his hands from his pockets, Bilbo sat on the end arm of the couch, his hip next to Frodo's bandaged head and one hand reaching out to brush lightly against Frodo's uninjured cheekbone. "Yes. He's that badly off."

The younger lad stood uncertainly, his brows drawing together.

"He showed up here after dark," Bilbo murmured, still tracing his fingertips across Frodo's face. "He was muddy, and bloody, and barely could walk, but he came home, Sam."

"He en't got no home, mister Bilbo, he thinks he's nobody's--" Sam said before he thought, and snapped his mouth shut.

Bilbo looked up at him sharply. "How do you know that, Sam?"

Sam hesitated, then said, "He's an orphan, so everyone says."

"Everyone says, do they?"

Falling uncomfortably silent, Sam kept staring at Frodo.

"But it's Frodo who thinks he's nobody's?" Bilbo continued quietly. "He said this to you?"

Sam hesitated, peering at Bilbo from beneath his thick bang, then gave a quick, tight nod.

"Then he's told you more than he's told me," was Bilbo's furtherance. "You seem, at this moment in time, to somehow know much more than I do." The blue eyes had once again become piercing with demand, odd contrast to that aged hand so gently touching Frodo's cheek. Sam once more focused on his furry toes, rocking uncomfortably back and forth.

"Sam." The sounding of his name was somewhat desperate. "I must confess I don't understand what you're playing at, or why, but--"

"I'm not playing at nothing, mister Bilbo!" Sam's head snapped back up in protest.

"Then why won't you tell us what happened?"

His stomach was wrenching itself in two from the inside out. "You don't understand--"

"Do you understand, Samwise?"

"Mist' Bilbo--"

"Do you understand what it means if Lotho actually did this? That one of my relatives is able for this?"

"He was able for--" Sam broke off, looked away and closed his eyes, clenching his teeth over small, silent curses.

"For what?" Bilbo asked. A hand placed itself on his shoulder--the hand that had only seconds ago been so gentle upon Frodo, and was somehow both now gentle and unforgiving fierce. Sam wished that he could say it, break down and let all of it loose, not hold it tightly any more. But the words wouldn't come, wouldn't form. He didn't want to speak them.

"Capable of hurting his own cousin this badly? Or just capable of watching, and waiting, and planning?" Bilbo continued. "Capable of biding for a time when no one else was here, and choosing that time to try and take what he wanted from Frodo--whatever that was?"

Sam paled.

"What if I told you that I already know what Lotho wanted from Frodo? That the two lads had an uncomfortable history at Brandy Hall? That Frodo himself told me about Lotho's attempts to force his attentions, and more than once?"

Tears welled in Sam's eyes, and Bilbo let out a curse. Through a blur, Sam saw the old hobbit padding away, vanishing into the kitchen. For long moments there was nothing but the sound of cabinets and cups; Sam took an uneasy breath and wiped at his eyes, looked down at the subject of their unsteady conversation. Dark hair was escaping the bandages to wilt in wet ringlets across Frodo's still face, and the covers rose and fell all too shallowly. Sam reached down and drew his fingers across one pale cheek, as much to convince himself that there truly was warmth there as anything else. He found it entirely too warm. Frodo shuddered at his touch, and Sam quickly drew his hand away, found it damp with sweat. He rubbed his fingers together, stared at that bruised face and wondered how it was possible that, even broken-winged and pinned to ground, he should still think mister Bilbo's nephew more some creature of firth and sky than plain, good earth.

Bilbo came back with two pewter mugs and a bottle, and a quiver of agreement stole into Sam's breast as he watched Bilbo pour him a half mug of ginger beer. "Sit down, lad."

"I'd rather be standing now, mister Bilbo. M' Gaffer's right handy with the birch rod, if you take my meaning."

The old hobbit regarded him, then nodded and held out one of the mugs to Sam. "All right. Then let me tell you what I think happened this morning, shall I?" Bilbo said, pouring a beer for himself. "I think that you came upon Lotho and Frodo in your garden."

"It... en't my garden," Sam muttered, his throat closing up again, "sir."

"But you love it as your own. That does count for something, my boy." Bilbo leaned forward, as intent as one of old Noak's collie dogs penning a sheep. "The patch of ground outside Frodo's window was all torn and slopped--the same mud Lotho was covered in, Samwise. And Frodo. You came upon them, didn't you, and found them there. Not so unusual, two lads fooling about. But Frodo and Lotho weren't playing, were they?"

Sam took a drink and stared into the mug. "No," he said hoarsely. "Leastways, I thought they might be at first, but then it seemed master Frodo didn't think it was play. And master Lotho was dead serious." He shook his head. "Mister Bilbo, it doesn't feel right, me telling you what--"

"Sam. Please." Bilbo reached out, put a hand over Sam's fingers where they'd clenched tightly about the cup. "Frodo's safe, here in Bag End."

"Bag End's not safe," Sam said with a hiccup. The ginger was strong. "Not if such a thing can--"

"Yes, it is," Bilbo said, gripping more firmly to Sam's cupped hands. "And it will be even more if I know what I need to do to protect Frodo. And maybe you, too. Which means you have to tell me, Sam. If you don't tell me, I can't rectify what's happened. Did Lotho do this?"

Something loosed within his chest at the strength of touch, untwining from the hurt and the stoppered words. "Not... all of it."

"All of it?"

"He didn't... well, I mean, he did. He did beat master Frodo, pretty hard, and he had him face down in the mud so's he couldn't breathe... I think that he'd have done more if he'd had the chance..." Sam shivered and took another drink. "Mister Bilbo, I... I en't sure how master Frodo got all those knocks to his head. He didn't have those when he run off--"

Bilbo's eyes were firm upon him, buoying. "He didn't? You're sure?"

"Nossir. I mean, he'd've been bleeding like a stuck pig with all that, and he wasn't... well, not on his head, 'tennyrate. That Lotho... master Lotho, I mean... I didn't see all of it, but there were... some nasty marks on master Frodo..." He looked into the glass, took another noisy gulp, then said with satisfaction, "But master Frodo knocked him about good and proper, too. From the looks of it, he gave a terrific fight back. I mean, there's no doubt that master Lotho had the upper hand; he beat master Frodo, and pulled his arm out of its socket--and I put that back in."

"You did?" The strange, hooded demand was gone, replaced by concerned attention. "The Widow was wondering how that had happened--she said it was a neat job, Samwise, well done." A flush of satisfaction filled Sam--or maybe it was the beer, which was settling nice and warm into his belly. Bilbo took a sip of his own mug, prompted, "And?"

Frodo shifted, let out a muttered sigh. Sam watched as Bilbo tensed and peered down at his nephew; when Frodo made no more movement he turned back to Sam. "And? You said you were here to bring the washing for May--that was when you saw what was happening?"

Sam nodded, licking his lips nervously. "An' I tried to stop it, sir. I did."

"You hit Lotho with the rock."

"I..." Sam paused, then said resignedly, "I pulled him off master Frodo, and... well, I don't rightly remember all of it, it all happened so fast. But master Frodo wasn't moving, and I'd laid Lotho out--and in your favourite mums, mister Bilbo, but I'll set 'em straight--"

"Hang the mums, lad, they'll recover. So far, then, Lotho was trying to force Frodo. And he'd beaten him, trying to--"

Tears sprouted in Sam's eyes again, and he fully met Bilbo's gaze. "Why'd he do it, mister Bilbo? It wasn't right, he should do something like that!"

"I know, Sam. I know. And that's why I need to know what happened, so I can ensure it never happens again, all right?" Sam hiccupped; Bilbo poured him more ginger beer from the bottle and Sam gladly took another sip. The drink was beginning to warm him from the belly out. "Believe me," Bilbo stated, "Lotho will never get near Frodo again if I have anything to say about it."

"But... master Lotho's your cousin, mister Bilbo. He's your blood family."

"So? Lotho has done something unspeakably vile. And Frodo's my family, as well."

"But he's not..." At the gleam that suddenly rose in Bilbo's eyes, Sam hesitated.

"What do you mean by that, Samwise?" Bilbo asked slowly. "Frodo? He's not what?"

"Well." Sam looked down. "He said it, master Frodo did. He's nobody's. And everyone talks about him, you know. Talks about what he is."

The old hobbit went still, immobile as the lad lying on the couch. "What he is, you say?"

"Well, he don't look like most hobbits," Sam shrugged then said, a bit confidingly, "You know, mister Bilbo, a lot of people know what's said, and that Fr... master Frodo's... different. It en't that they don't like him, sir," he quickly stated as Bilbo's expression drew even tighter and darker. "I mean, sure, there's folks as like nobody, but that en't it. It's how he's... different, see? Everyone thinks so, even the lads."

"Sam," Bilbo said slowly, "has Frodo heard any of this?"

"Oh, yessir. And he doesn't care for it, what they say. I didn't think he minded, you know," Sam told Bilbo quite honestly. "I thought he was made of some rock, like, that he didn't care what people said. But he does. He hates the talk."

Bilbo was silent, and for so long Sam began to fret that he'd said something wrong.

"He hates the talk," Bilbo finally said, again slowly, almost as if tasting the words, "about being different. About 'what' he is?" Another hesitation. "You can't possibly mean all that gossip about him being part elf?"

"I think it's right near wondrous," Sam answered, peering at Frodo.

"But Sam, it's--"

"I'm sorry, mister Bilbo--I think that beer's a little strong and I'm not telling you what happened, am I?"

Bilbo got a funny look on his face, then took a breath and nodded. "It's all right, Sam-lad. Tell me as you can."

"Well, when I was trying to help master Frodo, well... I didn't knock master Lotho hard enough to keep him down. So he dragged me over to the pear tree and pinned me up against it."

Bilbo's expression darkened further. "And that was when you hit him with the rock?"

"No, sir. That was when master Frodo did." Sam swallowed, peering at Bilbo and feeling uncertain once again. "I mean, he was trying to help me, you see. Only Lotho fell so hard that I think we both were scared for seconds he wasn't going to get back up."

"Oh." Bilbo took a hard breath. "No."

"An'..." Sam was once more feeling uncertain about what he was saying. "And master Frodo, he..."

"That was when he ran?"

"Yessir," Sam finished with relief.

Bilbo held out his hand for Sam's emptied mug; Sam handed it over with a tiny, wistful look at the remaining ginger beer in the bottle. Bilbo turned and walked towards the kitchen, then stopped, angled back to take in the parlour and the two lads there. He stood there for some time, silent, pondering something unknown.

"Mister Bilbo?" Sam finally prompted uneasily.

"The question remains, Samwise," Bilbo said, "how did Frodo get this hurt?"

"He looks like he wasn't looking where he was going when he ran. That he fell off a cliff or sommat, mister Bilbo," Sam ventured into the quiet. "Do you think that's what happened?"

"Fell off a cliff." It was a whisper, and Bilbo's eyes fixed upon, but seemed not to see, the wounded lad on the couch.


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