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

 

16--Fire and Song

 

When the Widow Rumble re-entered the smial, May was at her heels, having arrived laden with several hampers. Bilbo, who had been standing oddly silent for the last several moments--with Sam unwilling to break or disturb that silence--seemed to shake himself back to the here and now with the females' arrival. He gave Sam a quick squeeze on one arm and turned as the Widow spoke.

"Has the lad been aware at all?"

"Nothing, not a sound, not even a movement, really," Bilbo answered quietly.

The Widow pursed her lips, shook her head. "Well. We'll have to wake him soon, but for now we'll get everything prepared. Can we put these things on the kitchen table for now, Squire?"

With a nod, Bilbo turned and went into the kitchen. A minute pause, then crockery rang; with an oath Bilbo silenced it. May started forward to help, but not before she gave Sam a concerned look, and he realised that she probably didn't know how he'd gotten here. He started after her, but the Widow halted him with a firm hand on his arm.

"Nay, Samwise," was her soft aside, "I don't want you in the kitchen. While we're getting things organised, you can open up that window over the young master--the night's fair and sweet, and the more fresh air the better. Save on the candles to boot, with the moon still so close to full." She grinned at him suddenly. "Just don't fall on the young master, you silly lad--I see that Bilbo's given you a bit of the ginger beer. Was he satisfied with his answers--even if gotten a bit unfairly?"

Well, and answers for that lovely bit of drink was not unfair, in Sam's eyes. "Yes, ma'am," he answered truthfully, and the Widow gave another amused snort.

"Well, pr'haps later I can get you to try and catch that pesky old rooster of mine--you know the one, that's driving Old Dad to distraction? We need to make young master Frodo plenty of broth; it'll be all he can have for a while, and th' stewpot's all that banty cock's good for any more, the rascal."

"That and spurring at the girls and pecking Old Dad's good eggs when he gets the chance," Sam mumbled, not at all pleased by the prospect of catching the wily old bird. He had scars on his own legs from the banty's remarkable aim.

"Probably afraid one of 'em'll hatch out another cockerel," the Widow opined, and Sam grinned. "One more reason he's outlived his usefulness. Tell your Gaffer I asked you, lad," she continued, retiring to the kitchen. "I'm sure he'll consider the chore a fair punishment in itself."

And that was no exaggeration. Sam contemplated the marks on his shins for a few dejected moments, then decided he'd put off cock-wrestling in favour of the first thing she had requested--that window. Beer or no, he wasn't so relaxed that he was likely to fall on anything despite what the Widow had said. The cushioned bench that Frodo was laid upon was right beneath the window and its seat; he started to understand her caution as he had to lean quite far across Frodo's well-wrapped knees to reach the hasp. Twitching the curtains aside, he shoved at the window with a small grunt; it opened with well-oiled ease and the night breeze, filled with the smell of the ginger lilies he'd planted beneath the casement last spring, teased at his cheeks. He closed his eyes and took a grand sniff, then pushed away.

The moon was still quite bright, waning from the full moon of Tithing; it all but lit up the outside scenery, stark and silvery, and tinted the golden-brown interior of Bag End into a cool grey not unlike the Water, filtering it all grainy as if the mill-cove sand had been tossed into the air. Such light did little for Frodo; deepening the shadows about his eyes and in the hollows of his cheeks and throat. But the mild breeze, fluttering through the sweat-soaked curls, seemed to rouse him slightly. Frodo swallowed and drew in a shaky breath; his lips moved but nothing uttered itself. As Sam watched further, the older lad's eyes fluttered and opened slightly--the whites gleamed almost blue, and the blue itself was dark as night, glittering. Sam thought to alert the adults to this sign of consciousness, but before he could carry through, Frodo's eyes rolled upward and closed once more.

Stillness spun itself tightly about them, both unmoving, silent. Sam reached out slowly and curiously, touched Frodo's cheek. He frowned. It was sweaty, yes, but the skin was cool beneath his fingers, almost chill. Frodo had been warm before; Sam would swear to it.

Perhaps he wasn't getting fever after all. That was good, surely. Mayhap he wasn't as sick as they all thought, and--

"Sammie!" May had come back into the parlour; hands on hips, she was frowning. "What are you doing here?" she hissed.

"Dad knows I'm here," he said just as quietly, turning away from the pale form twitching on the couch. "He told me to come, talk to mister Bilbo."

May frowned harder, bit her lip, and looked back to where the Widow and Bilbo were conversing in earnest, lowered tones as they laid out her things on the kitchen table. "Have y' talked to him, then?"

"Aye."

Her gaze, still flickering from him to the adults in the kitchen, was worried. "Then we should leave. I don't think we belong here, not right now."

Something in him didn't agree. Something in him felt uneasy in just leaving, as if he wasn't watching over that fallen figure, it would...

Would what? What was here that made him feel like he was necessary, somehow? Because he wasn't. Why should he be?

He was getting above himself, yet again.

"I'm going to let Himself and the Widow know we're going," May whispered, then strode quickly back into the kitchen. Sam's eyes darted back towards the couch, then hung there.

Frodo's eyes were open. They were dark and clouded even in the light of the waning moon, peering towards the curtains that blew lightly upon the inward breeze. One arm had disentangled itself from the tight wrap of coverlets, was creeping up the couch back, fingers trailing lightly across fabric. Then those soft, caressing fingers reached the wooden crown of the couch back, went hard as iron. Knuckles whitened as the arm strained, pulling Frodo upright.

Sam knew he should say something, do something... but he wasn't exactly sure what. There was a horrific fascination to what was happening--because it shouldn't be happening.

Frodo didn't seem to take any notice of him. He wobbled slightly once upright, but his grip upon the wooden back rail stayed firm, though it betrayed weakness in hard tremors. As Sam watched, too stunned to move, Frodo slid out from beneath the covers, grabbed with his other hand, then lurched forward, toward the window.

Even as he watched, Sam couldn't believe he was actually going to go out that window.

The Widow's voice raised in a shout, Bilbo let out a yelp that sounded like Frodo's name, and the two adults were charging into the room. Bilbo got there first, clambering up on the couch and grabbing the tail of Frodo's nightshirt; Frodo let out a small cry, tried to lurch forward but the Widow was there as well, brushing past Sam and grabbing hold of Frodo's left sleeve. With that the struggle was on.

May clutched Sam's arm, pulled him back and out of the way.

Surely a wounded, skinny tweenager shouldn't be able to fight off two adult hobbits, but Frodo was making a good job of it. Half in and out of the window he twisted, lurched forward; harsh, whimpering breaths came from him as he tried to evade the hands reaching for him. He didn't seem to know where he was, or who the two people trying to help him were.

Just as abruptly as he had begun, Frodo faltered, and it was as if his body just flat quit. He folded, almost fell out the window; Bilbo cried out and caught him barely in time. The Widow yanked at the handful of nightshirt she still held--all that she'd been able to gain purchase upon--and with that added leverage, Frodo and Bilbo both slid down over the couch and onto the floor in a tangled heap.

May gave a tiny gasp, her fingers digging into Sam's upper arm. The Widow, with a strong agility that Sam had witnessed more than once, leapt down from her perch on the couch and knelt down beside Bilbo and Frodo, preparing for more battle if necessary.

It wasn't.

Frodo lay, eyes open and unseeing, and he looked so close to dead that Sam finally found movement, made a small step forward. May's considerable grip dug further into his arm, staying him.

Bilbo propped himself upward, waggling his head sideways--obviously the fall had somewhat stunned him. He peered down at his cousin with eyes that went from confusion to sudden fear. "Frodo?"

A sharp breath hitched at the narrow chest, and it was as if that small motion enabled them all to breathe as well. Frodo blinked, rolled his head from side to side; for moments the dark haze scattered from his eyes and he looked up at Bilbo anxiously. Bilbo reached out, cupped a hand against the side of his face; Frodo shuddered and his eyes rolled back into his head.

"Widow." Bilbo frowned. "He's hot, he feels like he's burning up--"

Which didn't make any sense to Sam, because he knew for a fact Frodo had been cool to the touch only moments before.

Suddenly Frodo's entire body jerked; his spine arched impossibly upwards then back. Bilbo went flying. The Widow swore, short and sharp. Quickly she reached back and yanked a cushion from the couch; as Frodo's head and shoulders flung themselves forward in one uncontrolled movement, she stuffed the cushion beneath and grabbed hold of those shoulders. As if in response, Frodo's torso bucked sideways, nearly tearing free of the Widow's strong fingers.

Sam was again paralysed, unable to so much as breathe. Bilbo, raising himself to hands and knees for the second time in as many minutes, was nevertheless as rooted to his own spot.

And May, still beside Sam, gasping out almost in timing with the lad's convulsions. "Oh... oh... oh!"

"Get my bag, Squire!" the Widow ordered, then when Bilbo still didn't move, staring at his flailing, stricken cousin, snapped, "Get my bag!"

Bilbo staggered up and forward, a sudden movement suggesting that only then had he got his limbs to obey him. May's nails dug into Sam's arm, but he hardly felt it, still stunned nigh senseless. She kept crying out, and he wished he could do as well but his throat had seized up as if he was the one writhing on the floor and not Frodo. Widow Rumble wrapped the cushion and one arm about the back of Frodo's neck, holding fast. "Spoon!" she grunted at Bilbo. Frodo wrenched against her constraint, sharp gutturals coming from his throat. She gripped tighter and repeated, sharply, "Spoon!"

Bilbo was digging in her bag with precious little caution for what he might disturb, suddenly he held up a thick, leather wrapped wooden spoon. Even from a length away, Sam could see the marks of countless teeth bitten into the leather. May let out another long moan; the Widow snatched the spoon from Bilbo, her eyes intent on Frodo's twisted face. A tremor rippled visibly through Bilbo; Sam followed his gaze to see that Frodo's writhing had not eased and, more horrific, his eyes had flown wide open. Horrific, for they saw nothing; the Widow sat crouched, hovering with the spoon held as if a dagger, waiting for he knew not what.

Frodo lurched again, making the sound of an animal in a trap and nearly tearing from her grip. Bilbo started to bend down, help hold him; the Widow growled a negation, then changed her mind. "Yes, take him!--May Gamgee, hush your caterwauling and get over here!"

May left furrows of pink on Sam's arm as she obeyed; for himself Sam still couldn't have budged an inch.

"In... my bag," the Widow ordered May, her voice choppy between being wrenched about. "The scullcap tinct... green bottle... dropper full.... hurry, May!" With a sound of triumph in the last words, she crammed the spoon between Frodo's jaws as his mouth flew open. It was only a second, but she was quick, and leather creaked as the lad's teeth cranked down. Sam flinched, his hands flying up to his mouth.

May was rummaging through the bag, found the correct bottle, opened it. It took her several tries to work the dropper--her hands were shaking so--but finally she filled the small glass with tincture and held it out to the Widow.

Frodo arched upward so violently Sam swore he could hear bones creak.

"Hold his legs, now!" the Widow gritted out, trying to aim the dropper at Frodo's pried-open mouth. Bilbo obeyed--and was nearly thrown backwards as Frodo lurched sideways again. "Aye," the dame gave forth a humourless chuckle, "they're strong when they get like this. Tie a knot and hang on."

Bilbo grabbed at the dark-furred ankles again, desperately hung on. May had gravitated back to her brother, still holding the tincture bottle. Her eyes were huge and terrified; she took his hand and he was glad of it.

"He's going to die, isn't he?" Sam whispered. "One of old Noak's dogs--a cow kicked him in the head and he kept doing... that. He... he died."

The admission tore a giant hole in his gut, as if somehow the words had taken something vital from him, something that he hadn't even known he had.

"Not yet, he's not," the Widow grunted. After several false tries, she was able to squirt the dropper into Frodo's mouth. Even then the convulsions didn't stop, and Sam numbly watched his elders barely hang onto a lad that should not have had the strength to throw one of them, let alone both. It was as if every muscle in Sam's back was going to rip in sympathy, then the Widow told Bilbo to let go. Bilbo obeyed, dodging a sharp kick as he did. Frodo kept twitching and lurching, but Sam could see that the lad's motions were becoming less and less pronounced. It seemed to take forever, but Frodo finally sunk into the healer's grasp, chest heaving and small twitches the only remainder of previous violence.

That, and the bloodied spoon that the Widow took from his now-slack jaw. Frodo's head lolled against her arm as she opened his mouth once again, checking. "Well," she said softly, "he only bit his tongue a little."

Silence spread through the smial, uneasy and thick, broken only by Frodo's rasping, spent gasps.

Bilbo was the one to break it, rising stiffly to stand. "What just happened?"

May's cold fingers twitched in Sam's grip. The Widow's brown eyes slid up to meet his. "Surely you've seen a fit before, Bilbo Baggins." He nodded, slowly. "Well, sometimes a head knock will do it. Or a fever. Sometimes taking the fit is in the blood." She frowned down at the senseless lad in her lap. "I'm thinking that we need to keep him on the floor if he's going to do this--I don't want to move him far, but you must have a tick we can use to make a pallet for him--"

"You think he's going to do it again?" Sam burst out.

The Widow's gaze met his; it was buoying, settling him like the ginger beer had only a short while before. But her words were for Bilbo, and it was to him she looked as she spoke. "He's done it the once; best to plan that it could happen again. The beating he took--well, it's as if a sickness is going to his brain, and that means he's not going to be right in his head for a time. I told you these first two nights would be the worst of it."

Bilbo stood there and Sam wondered if he'd ever seen the Squire look so beaten and old, and all to the sudden. Then, as if sleepwalking, Bilbo turned from them and walked out of the parlour, back toward his rooms.

"Go help him, boy," the Widow said, but it took a poke from May to actually get Sam's feet to respond. "A straw tick, mind," she called softly after, "He'll likely soil it anyway, and straw and duck is fair easier to clean than feathers and quilted wool. May, child, give me that vial. I'll dose him again, and..."

Her voice trailed off as Sam crept back into the smial's west end.

He found Bilbo trying to wrestle the mattress off his own bed, huge as it was. Sam swallowed and tried to speak several times before his voice would make any sort of sound. "Mist... mister Bilbo, if y' please, the Widow Rumble says we need a straw tick. Nothing fancy, like."

Bilbo paused, blinked, then ducked his head. He was silent for long seconds, and Sam started to step forward then the old hobbit spoke, his voice hoarse and threaded thin. "Of course. Of course, she's right. I wouldn't mind replacing it if I must, but... no. She's right." He fell silent and still, again for such a span of time that Sam worried.

"Mister Bilbo?"

The old hobbit straightened. "I'm sorry, lad. It's just..." He dashed at his eyes then seemed to give himself a shake. "Never you mind. We need to do what we must, now, no time for this. No time." Sam noticed that one of Bilbo's hands had fisted in his jacket pocket; with some effort Bilbo released it, drew his hand out and turned to Sam.

"Come, lad."

They went into one of the guest rooms; in silence they dragged the unwieldy tick from the bed there and started to drag it out. It was not easy--the tick was fairly light, but had the awkward knack of collapsing just as they thought they had a good grip. When they finally got the thing hobbit-handled into the parlour, May had rounded up sheets and coverlet. Her brief stint of hysteria nipped in the bud, she showed herself the capable worker she was, padding the mattress thickly then bedding it down. Sam helped, highly aware that Bilbo was watching them both a bit numbly.

For moments Sam wasn't sure who he was worried after more--the Brandybuck or the Squire.

Then Bilbo's voice snapped through the room. "Who opened that window?"

"Begging your pardon?" the Widow asked from where she sat, still hunched over Frodo.

"I said, who opened the window? Or the curtain?"

The vehemence of his query took them all aback. May looked at Sam, who said, tentatively, "I did. Sir."

"Because I asked him to," the Widow said stoutly. "Bilbo Baggins, surely you en't thinking the night air's bad for the sick--you sound like one o' them superstitious So'farth' biddies--"

Sam watched as the Master of Bag End whirled on the healer, drawing breath seemingly for a hot reply; just as suddenly all the air seemed to leave him. He looked down at the dame holding his nephew in her arms and closed his eyes.

"Mister Bilbo?" the Widow asked gently.

"I'm sorry, mister Bilbo," Sam said hesitantly. "I didn't mean to--"

"You did nothing, Sam," Bilbo answered. "Nothing at all. I'm sorry for snapping at you so. It's just..." he trailed off, shaking his head. Silence laid itself through the smial, heavy and uncomfortable.

"I'm thinking," the Widow said softly to Sam and May, "it's time you two went home. Your Gaffer will be worritin' after you, and you've done all you can here. Tell Daisy she doesn't need to come 'til the morrow."

"But Widow--" Sam started a protest; once again May's fingers nipped at his arm, but this time in guidance.

"She's right, Sammie," his sister said. "P'ti'cler for you."

Sam eyed Bilbo imploringly; the old hobbit gave him a slight nod. "Go on, lad."

Sam gave Frodo one more conflicted look, then obeyed.

Bilbo watched them go, suddenly aware that he was, once again, shaking all over. The smial went silent as the door shut; nevertheless he could hear the sound of the two young Gamgees, muttering to each other in hushed tones, until they disappeared down the hill.

"Do y' care," the Widow said, "to tell me what this business with the window is all about? Now the bairns are gone?"

Bilbo wasn't sure that he could. In the light of consideration, it seemed ridiculous. An impulse--no, a compulsion, really, nothing more. Something obeyed without thought, based on nothing more than a handful of reactions and another, even more tiny oddity...

Frodo, reaching out to the moonlight as if bathing in it. The way the starlight had writhed within his eyes... and oh, those eyes, star-laced and utterly, utterly lost.

The stars... I can't keep it away... Please don't let me go... Make it stop...

"Make what stop, lad?" he whispered. "What do you see?"

"Mister Bilbo?" The dame holding his cousin queried.

Giving no answer, Bilbo walked slowly over and closed the curtain. Moonlight crept about the gently-blowing fabric, but was banished from the room. A soft moan and the Widow's voice once again broke into his downward-spiral of thought.

"Shh, boy," she murmured, angling out from under Frodo with a determined huff. "Let's get you settled, aye? And then we'll talk to your uncle."

Bilbo lit candles and stayed out of the healer's way. He watched wordlessly as the Widow carefully sponged the fit-wrought sweat from Frodo, pronounced his nightshirt still clean, settled him onto the pallet and tucked him beneath several layers of coverlets. It was all performed with careful efficiency and minimal conversation; by the time she had finished, Bilbo was ready to scream out loud. He stood there, staring down at his young cousin's slack and senseless form with his fingers clenched in his pockets--one upon his Ring, the other upon a crumpled scrap of paper.

"I... I have to get some air," he managed hoarsely, and escaped.

The gardens were silver and purple in the moonlight; Bilbo lifted his gaze to the moon's cool, pale face and felt hot dampness trail down his cheeks.

"He came home, Sam. To Bag End."

"But he en't got no home, mister Bilbo, he thinks he's nobody's."

"Frodo," he whispered to the night, "what happened?"

Blood and water trickling through his fingers, iron and bile biting at his nostrils, clutching hands and a plea for help. Those eyes, brilliant-dark, waning into scattered, senseless nothingness, then...

Then this.

"He's going to die, isn't he?"

Bilbo reached up, scrubbed at his eyes fiercely. Parchment crackled, and he realised that he was still grasping the letter that Frodo had so tenaciously held.

Slowly he opened it. He scanned it, first, letting his eyes trim the words like too-full sails; upon the culmination of that he gave a shudder. Blinked. For several moments his knees tried to buckle; with great effort Bilbo held them straight, focusing on the thing in his hand. This was no regretful love-letter between two former playmates. This was...

"I told you these first two nights would likely be the worst of it."

"No," he murmured through tight lips. "No. No. This is the worst of it."

* * * * * *

It was late, hours past sunset, but the moon was still bright, waxing from full, and lit up the fields like day. The Hall was still working.

After the scanty harvest of the previous year, no one was going to complain about too big a bounty. They were simply going to work until they dropped. And the Master and Mistress were no exception.

She had lit several lanterns despite the bright night illuminating the winery courtyard. Esmeralda held up the dregs of the latest pressing in a clear, round glass, inspecting it against the mixed light. She sniffed it and took a small taste, rolling the juice on her tongue.

"I'm thinking that two strains got mixed, Mistress," said the chief vintner beside her. "I'm not sure how it happened, but it's been a madhouse, here--"

"I know," she replied. "I understand. And you're right. One's a Bucklebury if I don't miss my guess and the other is a Stockbrook white. Not a bad combination fresh-pressed, at least."

"They're not even the same colour, mistress. But so many of my good lads are in the fields--"

"It's done," Esmeralda stated with a shrug of her shoulders. "Food harvest has to take the precedence now; none of us have much choice there. We'll keep some of this for juice, but we can't do that to a whole vat. I guess all we can hope for now is that this mistake might turn into happy chance and not swill--"

"Mistress?"

"In a moment, Marina." Esmeralda was aware that the Hall matron's voice was strained, but she was too concerned with the glass she held to heed it.

"Mistress!" Marina's hand laid upon her arm, pinching, and her voice squeaked in a tone most unlike her normal, booming voice.

That penetrated--that, and the sudden realization of a silence quite abnormal for the winery courtyards. Esmeralda turned, albeit impatiently, to see what Marina deemed so important as to interrupt this tasting.

The glass fell from her hands to shatter on the yard's cobbles.

They filled the sky, despite that there were only two of them. Brilliant and hard, white as clouded crystal, tall and slender as young trees, and above all else their eyes... huge and piercing. Alien.

"They came to the Hall as the moon rose over the river," the matron squeaked again. "Looking for yourself or the Master."

One of the pair knelt on one knee, folded his hands upon the other, earnestly met her gaze with one of his own, and spoke. "Indeed we did, Mistress Perian. I apologise for startling you, but our purpose is quite urgent, and I believe you can assist us." His voice was music, sweet and marred only by a stiffness of accent that proved his tongue was not well used to the speech of Shire-folk. "I am Elladan of Rivendell, and this is my brother, Elrohir."

Esmeralda tried to make her own tongue work, to no avail. Beyond the kneeling, slender figure she saw a disturbance in the yard's entry; Saradoc burst through, took several strides inward then halted quite abruptly, his eyes wide and gleaming in the torchlight. Esmeralda exchanged a stricken look with him then slowly pulled her eyes back to the elves.

They looked alike enough to be twins, not merely brothers. But then, Esmeralda could scarce remember if elves looked all that different from the other. It had been night then, too...

She met the eyes of the standing one, and saw recognition in them. It stirred in her own heart, suddenly, and words came to her lips before sense stayed them.

"You," she breathed. "It was you."

The kneeling one--Elladan--gave a curious look to his companion, then said, still courteously, to Esmeralda, "We are here--"

"I know why you're here." Her voice was harsh, trembling. "I know who you are and what you've--"

"Emmie!" Saradoc's voice rose sharply into the quiet, and he gained her side quickly. "Here is not the place," he told her quietly.

She looked about, saw all the curious eyes, came back to her senses.

The standing elf--Elrohir, was it? and yes, she suddenly remembered that name, remembered Primula whispering it to herself and telling Esme the sound of it, both as if in delight--Elrohir was still gazing at her, whether in curiosity or contempt she was not sure. The kneeling one had a small frown quirking his dark brows; he said, consideringly, "I bear no ill will or news, master Halfling. Only a question."

"Please," Saradoc countered, "allow us, master Elf, to retire to a quieter place. No doubt your question will be better spoken amidst proper hospitality."

A fierce rush of pride in her husband went through Esmeralda, and she gave him a grateful smile. He returned it, quickly, but his eyes were fierce upon the strangers in their court.

"We have no time for this," Elrohir said tersely. Esmeralda peered at him, was shocked to see lines of tension in a face she remembered as outlandishly smooth.

"This is not the place," Saradoc repeated firmly, and just as firmly gestured to the courtyard gate. "At least let my workers continue on. We are in the middle of harvest, and they have no time for this, either."

Elrohir stared at him. Elladan took his arm and dipped his head to Esmeralda and Saradoc.

"Our horses wait by the road, and none lingered by. Will that do?"

Saradoc gave a few terse orders. In a matter of moments they were striding from the gate, a buzz of hobbit voices rising behind them.

The horses were huge--taller and more gently-bred than any Man's horse the Master and Mistress had seen about the Ferry. Esmeralda halted as Elrohir turned to her and knelt down once more, levelling his gaze with hers.

"You're looking for Frodo," Saradoc stated, putting a hand to her shoulder and a metaphorical rock to her back.

"We are," answered Elladan. Elrohir kept peering at Esmeralda.

"He's not here," she said, low. The elf's eyes widened and he leaned closer; Esmeralda nearly recoiled, instead stiffening and refusing to back away despite her fervent wish to turn tail and run. Those eyes--fathomless, all clear and crystalline sky--bored into hers.

"It was not so long ago I and my friends frightened you, in the night with our fire and drink and dancing. We did not mean to," he told her softly.

"It was a lifetime, to me," she retorted, suddenly furious beyond all fright. "And neither do you ask after her, do you?"

"In the Forest behind us, the vaninyo told me that his mother was dead," Elladan said, quietly, "But I knew it before he spoke; the stamp of kin-loss was upon him."

"What did you call him?" Saradoc asked quietly.

"Does it matter?" Elrohir said tersely; Elladan put a hand on his arm.

"I called him vaninyo--son of the lost one--but now it is the boy, not the mother, who is lost," he told Saradoc. "We must find him, and names are power."

"So you were the elf that ensorcelled him in the Old Forest, and you," Esmeralda turned on Elrohir, "were the one that took his mother. Did you also tell Frodo that? Did you tell him that what you did to her ended up killing her?"

Elrohir's eyes flashed brilliantly, and Esmeralda sucked in an uneasy breath, yet she did not back down. Saradoc put a hand on her shoulder, strength and support and understanding; she could tell by his touch that he too was furious and thwarted and uneasy.

"I understand that you speak in grief," Elrohir said slowly, with an edge to his tone that seemed ill at ease with itself. "But regardless, you speak without understanding."

"I understand more than you think I do," she said between her teeth. "He has your eyes." Satisfaction rippled through her as those eyes wavered, blinked.

"Please," said Elladan from behind him. "We have no time to ease your pain, and our question is not without urgency. We must know where he is."

"Why urgency?" Saradoc asked. "Why...?" he trailed off behind her, then said, "Something has happened."

The elves frowned at each other, exchanged strangely musical and accented speech, then Elladan turned back to the hobbits and said quite bluntly, "Something was happening when last I saw your child in the forest."

Fear and anger rose up within Esmeralda so tightly they choked; she clenched her fists.

"We mean to know where he is," Elrohir spoke sharply. "He needs our help."

"Please," Elladan said very gently, "we mean no harm, to you or the boy. But we must know where he is."

"He's in Hobbiton. With that same Bilbo Baggins," Saradoc's voice became heavier, even as the elves' miens lightened once they heard the name. "You've come to take him, haven't you?"

"Why should we do that?" Elladan queried curiously. "Nay, we've come to free him."

And they mounted their great horses and rode off, leaving the two hobbits standing on the road.

* * * * * *

He had read it, over and over. First out in the garden, the waning moon illuminating the parchment as brightly as sunlight. And now here, standing by the hearth, candlelight outlining the words even as those words clove darkness, bit by bit, into his heart.

My dearest Husband:

I can no longer keep silence, nor continue to practice this deceit. I have wronged you. I have wronged Frodo...

Please forgive me. If I had it to do over again, I would not have chosen this path, not when it has resulted in such harm and heartache.

On the pallet, Frodo let out a sharp moan; the Widow bent over him with a soothing murmur. Bilbo looked up, frowning, from his stance beside the hearth. Once assured that Frodo was quiet, he bent back to the crumpled, stained parchment. The sepia ink was faded with age, the weft of the paper creased deep and indeed in some places separating, as if it had not been opened in years.

The fold of it corresponded to the size of the secret pocket in the little book Frodo so treasured and which now lay, all but ruined, within reach of his fingers atop the mantelpiece. One mystery solved--where the note had come from--but ten more popping up about it.

For there was no possible chance that Primula herself had put this away into the book. The note itself made that clear--the note, and the date at the bottom.

I never thought I would ever say this, never thought that I would regret any of it, for without it I would not have my son. I should have known there would be a teind to pay for even a gift of love. And the greatest of that teind is due you, my husband. I owe you this much--an explanation, however feeble, of why I did as I did, and what I must now do. But even as you curse me, please, please remember this--I have always loved you. You have given me and my son a home and a name and, whatever comes, I love you, and I love Frodo. Everything I have ever done, or will ever do, is to protect you both.

Water trickled into tin and glittered in the firelight from between the Widow's fingers as she squeezed one of the wet rags out over its pan. Taking the rag from Frodo's forehead, she replaced it with the fresh one and dropped the spent one back into the water.

I cannot express to you how painful this decision has been. You know how long we tried to have children, and how many we lost. Five, Drogo. Five times I bled our children's lives away, and five times we wept together, and I thought that maybe, just maybe, there might be another way...

Bilbo closed his eyes. Her voice... he could all but hear the soft, Buckland drawl to her words--the same sound that Frodo, every now and then, let slip in his own speech. He thought he had been prying reading Esmeralda's letter; this one was even more raw, and personal.

But was it the answer? Or did it merely bring forth more questions?

Frodo belongs to the elves, Drogo. You have never accepted it, but he is not yours, he never really was. I do not say this to hurt you, but to warn you and tell you why 'tis so. The elves... made him, and in doing so I fear they unmade me. You and I used to laugh at the faint and feeble Tookishness from my mother's blood--knowing where a misplaced spoon was or sensing when the ewes would kindle--but this was more, much more. The elves granted me not only the boon of a son, but the ability to see, truly See, what is to come... what will happen to my son. Frodo will not survive what firestorm purpose they have made him for.

Purpose? Made? It was impossible, all of it. Madness. Bilbo clenched his fingers hard into the mantle; his teeth gritted audibly in the silence and he read on. No matter the repetition, the reading kept undermining what control he still possessed.

Please try to understand. I cannot let Frodo be taken from us, not for this. He already sees too much, and I am not sure if he sees it through my eyes, or his own. But I think it is the latter. They will come for him, Drogo. They will hurt him. He cannot leave the Shire, he cannot go with them. I love them, but I cannot let them take him.

The words drew more cramped, as if Primula's panic had transferred itself to her fingertips. Tears rolled down Bilbo's cheeks at this--the final proof of what he had suspected but had never truly wanted to admit. The words--and what they meant--fairly screamed it to him.

The madness had indeed claimed her life.

One last deceit I must confess, so you do not blame yourself. This night I gave Frodo a draught to make him sleepy, so that I could bring him home early from the gathering. He will know nothing. I surely deserve what suffering I have made and will face--but my love, you deserve none of what suffering we have caused you. I know what a burden we have become to you. I hear how people whisper in the lanes and pubs about your mad wife and her changeling son. You will no longer be chained to us, by love or duty. You will be better off without us. By the time you read this, it will be over.

Please, forgive me.

All my love--Primula

03 Afterlithe 1380

The very day they'd drowned.

Bilbo hunched against the mantel, his back to Primula's stricken son, pressing his fists, the letter clenched in them, against his forehead.

He remained there for some time.

There was one persistent thought that rose to his mind amidst all the chaos.

How was it that Drogo, and not Frodo, had drowned with her?

He took a kerchief from his pocket, mopped his tear-wet cheeks with it, stuffed it back into his pocket. The intent of the letter was quite clear. Primula had been terrified enough of some imagined horror to contemplate destroying the one thing she had prized above anything else in her existence... including her own existence.

Slowly, Bilbo turned to peer at the youth lying on the pallet. Frodo twitched and whispered in Widow Rumble's embrace; caught in some night fret none else could behold. His eyes were half-opened, unsighted even when water from the rag she wielded dribbled into them. The scene blurred before Bilbo, and he passed his hand over own recalcitrant eyes, smearing the salt and wet upon his fingertips. The Widow was, thank the Valar, not looking his way.

But she had looked his way, several times in fact, and he could tell it was only by the grace of her place and his that she had not demanded what was in that paper that first Frodo, then he, had held so tightly.

Bilbo turned back to the mantel. Not that he would tell her. No one should know this. No one should have ever seen this... especially the one person who had, undoubtedly, read it. He had re-enacted this last in his mind, guessed and imagined and re-enacted and puzzled it all until his brain bled with the continuance of it.

The book, halved and gutted. The letters--one from Esmeralda, one penned by Primula herself--that had been there. Frodo had found the opening, somehow. Perhaps Lotho had found him reading the little book and taken it from him and in the resulting struggle--for Frodo would not have given up his precious book without a fight--perhaps the binding had given, the parchments fluttering into the air. Frodo snatching them up, refusing to let Lotho have them, refusing to let go even when he had come home...

Sam, interrupting Lotho's attempts to claim Frodo. A struggle. Frodo ending it with a well-aimed rock.

Frodo had run. And, unlike all those other times Bilbo had heard of, this time he'd come back of his own will. Bilbo turned and once again catalogued the boy's state--as if he'd not done it enough in the past hours--yes, Frodo had returned, in this state, with this in his hand.

It had been opened. Frodo had to have read it. And, having read it, having found that Bag End was not the haven he'd thought and knowing, as Sam had said, that even the Hobbiton inhabitants thought him... Other...

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

What he is. What he is...

Bilbo gritted his teeth as the memories of the past week returned, small clicks of a timepiece, belated answers slotting themselves in place. Frodo's reactions upon hearing about his father, his seeming disinterest in the 'faery grandmother'. His unwillingness to reach out to strangers, his recoil from first Saradoc, then Bilbo himself. His attraction to Merimac, and his struggle with even that. His need to protect his young cousins, an enduring compulsion that fought all reasonable bounds. His wish to accept and his stubborn wariness of all offers of friendship, as if they might prove too false or too close. The way he clung to his mother's book, as if it were a talisman against foul and false reality...

In the end, the little book had betrayed him worst of any. This letter had, perhaps, been final fuel upon an already smouldering fire. Frodo had believed he was not Drogo's son--now penned evidence of it had resurfaced at Bag End, clutched tightly within Frodo's own hand. A terribly logical, twisted thread followed: rumour taken for truth, at Brandy Hall and here in Hobbiton as well. Esmeralda must know this, and thus Saradoc, and how many others?--and a raw, furious shudder took Bilbo at the realisation that every person who could have been a grounding pole for the lad had been held ransom by the belief that their fostered child was not truly all their own.

Save himself. He was held ransom by nothing. He had never believed or disbelieved. He knew. He had been witness to what boon Primula had asked of Elrohir on a starry, dark-moon night over twenty years ago.

He knew who Frodo's father was, and now it looked as if he would never get the chance to tell him any of it.

Stop it, he told himself. He'll be all right. He will.

A soft, high-pitched sound came from Frodo; Bilbo angled about to see the Widow bent over him, the back of her hand laid to Frodo's cheek. The boy's lips were slack, and the noise he made was like to the one he'd made earlier that night, propped up in the kitchen chair...

Bilbo walked slowly forward. Frodo's face was pale, limned in silver, and his eyes were open, staring upward into the skylight.

The skylight. Bilbo looked slowly upward, saw the stars shimmering like jewels through the tempered glass. Then he looked down once more, saw those same cold and brilliant jewels winking, teasing darkling shadows within Frodo's rapt gaze.

Bilbo lurched forward. "Move him!" he ordered tersely and, as the Widow blinked at him in hesitation, bent over and grabbed the foot of the pallet, pulling it out from under the skylight and closer to the fire. The Widow helped him belatedly; between them Frodo hummed to himself in a strange, ethereal delight, arms arching upward with liquid grace. Bilbo took those hands, pulled them to his own breast, spoke the lad's name firmly.

The Widow took in a sharp breath as Frodo turned upon them a gaze literally writhing with pale fetch-light.

"Frodo," Bilbo leaned forward, chafed at the suddenly-chill fingers. "Frodo, listen to me, lad."

Eyebrows quirked in a seeming mixture of bewilderment, then Frodo's eyes closed. The song upon his bruised and swollen lips became words--halting and rhythmical, but still more his voice. A plea. "B-Bilbo?"

"I'm here, lad," Bilbo said, feeling the Widow's puzzled gaze upon them both but not caring enough to turn his attention from Frodo.

"P-please... please. I c-can't... make it... stop..."

"Frodo," he started, but the slender frame shuddered and went limp again, taking Frodo down into what Bilbo could only hope was quiet and stillness.

More crimson dotted the bandage on Frodo's head; his nightshirt clung to him, sweat-damp, with every breath.

"What," the Widow spoke from behind them, "is going on?"

For long seconds he wasn't sure what she meant, or how--there was too much that made no sense, too much that was chasing through his brain, too many questions, too many...

"First the window, now that skylight, and you not wanting him to be there, and..." she trailed off, met his eyes; beneath hers, he saw an uncertainty and fear rarely expressed there. Yes, Yarrow Rumble, you think you've seen it all, but not this. Never this.

"I don't know why," he said frankly. "I don't know why, but it's the light. The starlight on his face, the moonlight on his skin, and he does... this."

"He went cold," the Widow said, kneeling down once more beside her charge. "He was burning up, then he went cold, all to th' sudden, and--"

"But surely that's good. If he's chill, maybe the fever's breaking?" Bilbo asked.

"Nay." She shook her head. "I mean his skin went chill; from fevered-hot to chill as brass left out on midwinter night. Feel him, Squire. He's still cold." Bilbo did so; Frodo's skin was damp from drying sweat, but indeed cool. "And I'm thinking you're right, because now that I ponder on it, he went all still and cold and soft when I shifted my seat. It was when I got out of the skylight's way, I'll warrant. It's not natural, this," the dame added beneath her breath. "None of it."

Bilbo was silent, his eyes flickering from the uncertain healer to the now-quiet lad on the pallet.

"He can't... stop, he said?" she ventured slowly. "He's talking nonsense, like a fever's still on him, but he's cold. And you," she hesitated, "all worried-like, reading that letter and looking into the fire as if you've seen a ghost."

Several, he wanted to say, but forbore it. Instead he was as candid with her as he could be. "There are... things in that letter. Things that, did Frodo read them, would be... devastating."

"And you think he read it."

Bilbo nodded, swallowing hard, looking down at the boy who, but for a twist of fate and choice, might have been his own son. "If he was scared, and upset, if he ran, not watching where he was going... he could have fallen. Hurt himself. He spoke of hanging on a cliff..."

The words had been familiar, hearkening to some story or tale that he couldn't immediately place, but Frodo had spoken them as if they were real.

"Aye, well, then," the Widow said softly. "But what's making him do that?"

Soft humming, barely heard, and Frodo once again twitching against the pallet, lost in some inexplicable fever dream.

"I can't begin to guess," Bilbo answered slowly.

* * * * * *

Number Three was uncharacteristically quiet, had been for the past two days. Sam had been taken out of the loop of family gathering, sentenced to take meals in his room instead of at board. Even the tracking and eventual snaring of the Rumble's rooster--and the resultant spur-marks and pecks on his legs--hadn't made his sentence any the lighter. Of course he'd been expected to do his chores and work with his father--and he'd made sure that he was arranging things for the new greenhouse up-Hill--although yesterday he and his Gaffer had gone nowhere, because it was Trewsday, and Trewsday they usually worked at the Sackville-Baggins'.

Sam had felt the entire afternoon burning like a brand over his head. And this despite the chill wind that descended upon Hobbiton just after lunch.

His father hadn't spoken to him at all, not even to ask him about what had happened at Bag End. May had been the one he'd spoken to; Sam had seen them yesterday after Daisy had taken the wrung rooster up-Hill; May hanging up her laundry in the fitful wind while Sam was splitting wood.

At least the laundry had dried, and Sam himself had split an entire cord before the rain had started.

Daisy hadn't returned from Bag End for hours, and when she had she'd told May in hushed tones that it wasn't likely the Brandybuck lad would survive the night, and Sam had dropped and broken the milk pitcher he was returning to the cool cellar.

The worst of it was, Daisy had merely given him a sorrowful look, and May had mopped up with none of her usual comments about clumsy, half-grown and half-wise brothers. Sam had watched them clean up his mess and wanted to burst into tears, and wished that his Gaffer wasn't out sharing a smoke with Daddy Twofoot and instead inside giving him another walloping for spilling precious milk and breaking his mother's jug.

Surely that was why he fled to his room and started sobbing into his worn, clean pillow-case. Why else would it be?

He was glad that he no longer had to share a room with two opinionated older brothers, who would never understand him snivelling into his pillow all night for reasons Sam wasn't sure he himself understood... and he didn't sleep the whole night, lying in the dark and listening to his Gaffer snore two holes down and, just across, Marigold muttering in her sleep. Sam was still wakeful when rain started to patter on his window, when Daisy rose, and May soon after. He lay listening to the girls puttering as they always did in the early mornings; May stoking the stove and making her trip to the cellar for breakfast makings, Daisy starting the bread to rise--without her usual soft humming. The Gaffer was up soon after, and Marigold grumbling as she always did upon being woken--the girl would sleep until elevenses was she left--and Sam rose silently to put on his own clothes, knowing that, separated from the family time or no, there would be work today. Thankfully.

The Gaffer went uphill to douse the lanterns. He said nothing of what was transpiring at Bag End.

They spent the entire day at Overhill, taking care of several places and making preparations and adjustments beneath the weight of the ill weather. The rain came and went all day beneath a dark sky, the wind interfering so with some of their duties that it took thrice as long. Many of the smials they passed on their way were lit by candle or lantern-light, but frightful weather or not, the daily business was seen to--including a bit of gossip. Everyone had their opinion to share upon the thing with the Sackville-Bagginses; everyone seemed to know, one version or another, that the Gamgees had been sacked because Sam had raised his fists to Lotho. The old shepherd who ran Violet Goodbody's herd leaned on her wicket corner gate as they'd shaped the thorny hedges there, and informed them that just about everyone thought the Gamgees had been hard done by. He also gave Sam an admiring grin and said that anyone who'd clock miz Lobelia's nasty lump of a tweenie was all right by him.

Sam usually would be all chuffed by such a thing; his father's scowl made Sam wish that the shepherd would just shut his seedcake-hole. And sure enough, on the way home his father gave him a terse lecture on how he wasn't to let this thing go to his head, no matter what people thought.

His father still didn't ask him what had happened, not a word. It was as if he didn't want to know. Or knew that he'd get no answer, which chewed deep into Sam's conscience and lay there, sore and heavy.

All the while they were travelling back to the Row, Sam's conscience was resting ill, but his mind was gainfully occupied with Bag End. With mister Bilbo so stunned and fearful. With the garden that he intended to save. With the Brandybuck lad lying so sick and hurt.

Sam wished he had been the one to clock Lotho Sackville-Baggins with that rock. The more he thought of what he'd seen, and how master Frodo had run off, only to return so badly hurt--Lotho hadn't swung those blows, mayhap, but he would've, given any chance, and needed to be held to it nevertheless.

And mister Bilbo would see to it. Sam felt that, now, felt it strong, remembered the words that had started unknotting the hard lump in his chest:

He came home, Sam...

Home. He'd have to tell master Frodo that, somehow, because he had a feeling that it would be important to an orphan lad with nothing to call his own...

If he ever got the chance.

As they arrived on the Row road, Sam's eyes strayed up the Hill, to the smial spread out beneath the oak.

"Samwise."

Sam blinked, turned his gaze from Bag End to his father, waiting by the door for him.

"We'll be there tomorrow, soon enough," the Gaffer said tetchily, "so stop ponderin' on things that en't your business and come to board."

And so he was informed that his punishment had come to some ending, at any rate.

As his father went in, Sam stole another look at Bag End. It loomed over the lintels and roof of Number Three. Normally it was a comforting, protective presence, but not this evening. Bag End looked unearthly, quiet, ominous-like. There were lights in the smial, but not many, considering the dark sky and the time of day. It looked...

Haunted. Like one of those stories about smials that held ghosts and nightmares and things no hard-working hobbit would bother to believe in, but that nevertheless came mid-nights and gave a body shivers past reason.

"Sam!" Marigold's reedy voice rose from within. "Daisy says come wash up and eat!"

Sam wiped his broad feet on the straw bristles of the iron hedgehog scraper hunched before the front door, and obeyed.

He wondered if mister Bilbo was sleeping, if master Frodo was even well enough to entertain nightmares of any sort.

* * * * * *

There were no more convulsions.

Neither did any sign of the brain fever come back--itself suspicious in the Widow's eyes--and she kept placing her wrist against Frodo's cheek to insure so, not willing to trust the seeming reprieve. But he remained cool to the touch; in fact he seemed too much so, and they layered blankets atop him, only uncovering him to spoon-feed him small quantities of lukewarm broth. Daisy had brought that earlier, and stayed to see it properly dressed and cooked, doing small chores about the house at the Widow's behest. She'd left once the broth was ready, promising to return and help the next day. And help would be needed, for it took both Bilbo and the Widow to feed the lad: Bilbo supporting the lax frame while the Widow skilfully coaxed nourishment down an unresponsive throat.

They changed his bandages, found the wounds wet and weeping, but unswollen. Much of the same held for his other injuries--no sign of infection, but no sign of healing, either.

For most of the night, Frodo lay quiet--quiet enough for the Widow to retire to her cot set up against the far wall and grab a few hours of sleep--until dawn, when a front started to blow in from the southeast.

Delirium returned, as if carried upon the risen wind. Frodo started whispering and jerking in his sleep--if it was sleep. The Widow had woken to Bilbo's concern and dosed the lad quiet for lack of any other solution; to her confusion, the powerful infusion had somewhat relaxed his stiff frame, but not quieted his murmuring tongue or muted whatever was going on behind his closed, twitching eyes.

Any thoughts of sleep Bilbo might have had promptly fled. While the Widow went into the kitchen to stir up the fire and heat water for a good strong pot of tea for the both of them, he had ensconced himself on the couch. Such a watch was thus made much more comfortable for older bones--he'd already seen enough of the floor for the night. From the kitchen came the familiar sounds of morning preparation--scrape of ash bucket, thud of wood being replenished, crackle of new fuel and the tick of iron reacting to such.

Unknowingly, he had drawn the golden ring from his pocket, twiddling it between the fingers of his right hand as he watched Frodo, and pondered so many things that they ended up being as nothing. Instead he tried to discern what words were spilling out from Frodo's lips--but they made no sense, many of them. What words that did were names, and familiar. Merry. Merimac. Bilbo's own.

And some were gasped out with more ragged assertion.

"Mumma," Frodo whimpered, throwing his head from side to side. "Mumma, no. Dad. Help me. No..."

Fingers clenching upon his ring, Bilbo's eyes darted toward the mantelpiece, where Primula's damaged book lay atop her last-penned letter.

Frodo's cries, though soft, were growing desperate. He slung his head from side to side, body jerking beneath the coverlets. Bilbo reached out, realised he had his ring in one hand and grimaced, closing his fingers about it as he placed both hands upon Frodo's breast.

The boy's response was immediate--and violent. His eyes opened wide, black as pitch, and with a strangled grunt he flung out an arm. It hit Bilbo's right arm, knocking him back onto his haunches; the ring went flying, hitting the hearth with a small, sharp sound. Bilbo leapt across, snatched it up--it was warm against his fingers, though it had come nowhere near to the fire. It glinted as he shoved it into his pocket; Bilbo took a long shaky breath then turned to see Frodo curling tightly into the covers, shaking his head and muttering. This time the words were clear, but still made no sense.

"Too close..." Frodo moaned, and his breath hitched, "too close. It burns... fire... in the water... burns..."

Bilbo reached out, took hold of Frodo's shoulder; the lad gave a hoarse cry, trying to pull away. The Widow came in from the kitchen, drawn by the sudden noise with bowl in hand. Within a matter of seconds she took in the scene before her--Bilbo crouched by the fireplace, Frodo, eyes open, voice rising into a strangled cry as Bilbo moved toward him--set down her bowl with a slosh of broth over the sides, and hurried over.

The more they tried to hold him, the more he fought them. Finally, they released him and his cries abated into small sobs that only occasionally became words.

The Widow stared at Bilbo, and he saw the fraying of her hard composure.

"Burns," Frodo whimpered into his pillow. His eyes were fixed on the hearthfire, blue-rimmed black lit golden, his frame curled up so tightly that he seemed half his true size. "Too much... fire..."

As they watched--and only watched, not reaching out with touch or voice--the boy's words quieted into tiny hitches of breath, and his eyes closed against the firelight.

Still, there was no fever. What warmth had engendered itself during his struggle was quickly spent. Widow Rumble didn't ask, and Bilbo didn't offer answers. He had none.

* * * * * *

Soaring on air, on light and wisps of shadow...

Song carries him, song cradles him, song tries to lift him up and take him, and he's no longer sure he can stop it.

He's not sure he wants to, any more. Be lost. Always lost, be lost, little one... no home, no place, always orphan to the waters. Sea calling him home, earth pulling him close, sky cradling him above, and then...

Then, something else touches him. Promises him home. Promises him belonging, and sweet abandon, and warmth. Warmth, twisting into...

Fire.

Fire blossoms in his chest, twines tight about his heart; the Song threads through it, starflame and air, maker and making, being. It sings to him; a different note, a different key, dissonant and channelled inexpertly through the hands laid upon him. The touch burns... burns... and any promise of home is wrapped treacherously within the fire circling him.

But it opens him further to the unending ceiling, with infinity opening beneath his feet--in the awareness come both phantasms and truth. The starlight fills his eyes and shows him what the promise is: a tightly spinning inferno, a gilded wheel of dread and hunger, a never-ceasing longing of empty promise. A lie...

no, don't touch me, don't...

Maddening feel of cloth against skin, of ragged breath echoing into darkness, of touches that burn chill and he's falling... falling...

Song whirls about him, containing all the chords and colours of forever.

* * * * * *

They tried, half an hour later, to spoon some more broth into Frodo. He fought them, refused; a soothing hand seeming only to cause distress. With some effort, the two adults managed to get a tiny amount down Frodo, and that with so much fighting that the Widow deemed it more hurtful than not.

The wind did not cease, blustery and threatening. Grey morning passed into darker afternoon, the only acknowledgement of such passage of time traced upon the clock on the mantle. Bilbo dozed on the couch, off and on, unable to just go to his own bed, uneasy with lack of sleep and wary vigil. Daisy again arrived, offering her assistance; she did quietly what the Widow asked of her and left as dusk arrived. She did all of it with a look on her face that suggested she did not have much hope of seeing the lad alive come morning.

Odd, how the hollow look in a young lass' eyes could demoralise Bilbo where nothing else had. For it was no secret--Frodo was getting worse, but not from his injuries. He only acknowledged those when he would try to rip the bandages away.

"How can I help him if I can't even touch him?" the Widow had burst out. "I don't know what's wrong with him, Squire, I've never seen anything like this. I'm groping in the dark." She'd shaken her head and gone outside, for a smoke beneath the pergola's shelter and a visit to the necessary.

They were all giving up, had all but given up.

"No," Frodo said, suddenly clear. "I won't go."

Except Frodo. He was still fighting. Something. Somehow.

"Won't look. Won't listen... You can't have it."

Bilbo started to shush him; instead he frowned thoughtfully and lowered himself slowly to the floor, closing his fingers against the wish to touch his cousin. "Lad," he murmured gently, "what can't I have?"

"No," Frodo insisted. His eyes fluttered, half-opened, but Bilbo was not deceived that they truly beheld anything. The pale face twisted, eyes closing once more, and Frodo's body clenched, hands stiffening outward as a babe-in-arms would do when dropped, instinctively clutching for any purchase imaginable. Bilbo longed to take the spread fingers in his own, try to soften them--it was a foreign sensation, but not unwelcome. Instead he kept murmuring all kinds of nonsense to the unaware boy. So far, speech was the one thing that still seemed to painlessly reach Frodo.

So Bilbo started to hum, a nonsensical, crude little tune that he had written himself; anything to try and overcome the thin, almost-inaudible whispers coming from Frodo's parted lips.

A woven blanket of hobbit verse--the only weapon Bilbo had left, and maybe with it he could fight the flat void eclipsing his young cousin's eyes.

He wasn't sure what else to do.

He realised, suddenly, that those eyes were once again half open, and glinting in the candlelight.

Watching.

* * * * * *

It sings to him of belonging, strokes him with sensation, fills him to bursting with brilliance..

Yet still, even as the golden fire-wheel, it burns if he lets it draw too near.

He is tired. Abandoned and battered, too much knowing screaming for attention in the confines of his small skull, and... so... tired. But there is something within him that won't stop, that won't give in, that screams and wails and refuses to submit.

writhingrunningbitingscratchingkicking running away...

no you can't have me, no you can't, no youcan'thaveme...

He is the only thing he has left, and he knows it, and he won't give this last thing up, no. Not easily. Not quietly.

But it wants him. It has him. It is part of him. Somehow.

please...ohpleaseoh... don't touch me... don't... hurts... too much...

Flying...falling...

Burning.

no... no... too muchtoomuch it's takingoverandmorethanme... and...

everything... is... in me...!

Suddenly another song enters the all-pervasive one. He tries to edge away from it, shut it away, but he can't and thankfully, oddly, it is not a song which tries to take him away, but one that brings him back in.

He knows this voice. He knows this song. It is not alien, or incomprehensibly vast, or filled with starlight--

stopthelight... stopit, i... hear it, i... feel it, i...i...

--but warm and earthy and here.

Here.

Now.

Here...

* * * * * *

Bilbo lowered his pipe, leaned forward, kept humming. Frodo's eyes closed, then opened again. His lips were moving, still; whispers and broken, discordant sounds occasionally rising above a whisper... and was it his imagination, or did it sound like the lad was hitting some of the same notes as himself?

He sat back against his backrest, then pitched his voice slightly louder. And added words.

"There is an inn, a merry old inn," Bilbo started the tune gently, "beneath an old grey hill..."

Frodo's brows drew together, ever so slightly.

"And there they brew a brew so brown," Bilbo continued, intent upon his cousin, "that the Man in the Moon himself came down--"

"Down," Frodo suddenly said, and several more unintelligible mutters, then his voice rose, his body tensing. "Not here... Flying. The moon, the stars... coming down... fire... can't..."

Bugger. Not the proper sort of song. For not the first time that evening, Frodo's hands reached up to his face, rubbing fiercely as if he could wipe away visions, or the clarity of such. Before he thought better of it, Bilbo grabbed the boy's hands, pulled them gently if firmly away. The first time he had been more hesitant to touch or cause more hurt, and Frodo had ripped open one of his bandages and drawn blood with remarkable ease for someone lacking any length of fingernails. "Frodo..."

Frodo jerked at his touch; Bilbo realised what he had done and started to draw back but suddenly one of the boy's hands grabbed his wrist, trembling. "Make it... can't make it... stop!" The last word rose to a smothered yip.

Bilbo tossed his pipe aside, placed both hand firmly about his ward's cheekbones and bent close. "You're here," he said softly. "Nowhere else. Here."

Another trembling hand grasped his other wrist, the boy shaking like a leaf half-ripped from its moorings. "H... here?" Frodo's gaze scattered, then focused. "Merry... Mac?"

"No, lad. Merry's not here. Mac's not here. It's Bilbo."

"Bil... bo?" Slow, so slow--and enunciated with such care, as if only by physically willing it said could it be understood.

"Yes, Frodo. I'm here. So are you." The black-blue eyes blinked, wobbled in their sockets and Frodo took a sharp breath, lips quivering with more silent syllables. "Stay with me, boy," Bilbo said, desperately trying to read what was upon those lips. "Stay..."

Frodo's eyes squinched shut; he burrowed back into the covers, loosing Bilbo's wrists, his head jerking back and forth. Once again, the high-pitched babble started to spill from him... but it was clearer, and more coherent, and Bilbo suddenly realised the sound of it.

It was impossible--Bilbo knew exactly how much of the Elvish tongue Frodo possessed, and it was not enough to even touch at this.

Frodo writhed in his grip, tried to pull away; Bilbo gritted his teeth and held to him, pitched his voice above Frodo's own. Another song.

Another story, not of magic and starlight, but of earth and home.

"A fire is lit within the grate, A light shines through the gloam'

"A blaze of warmth to shed the night, beckons the wand'rer home."

Frodo took another harsh, rasping breath, let it out in a voice that did not sound solely his own; but the face within Bilbo's palms relaxed, ever so slightly. Bilbo bent closer, continued:

"A dear one waits for his return, tends garden, home and fire..." Was he imagining it, or were the husky notes coming from that pale throat starting more to resemble his own song?

"Anxiously he wends back there, with softly-keen desire."

He was not. There was the barest echo: home and fire. Bilbo took in a faltering breath; his voice faltered, then grew steadily. "His feet are light and quick and glad, his eyes, they touch the skies..."

Frodo knew the verse. His lips moved, in time and synch, with Bilbo's.

"And though he wends both far and near, home bides where dear one lies."

Silence, for scattered seconds. Then...

"Please," Frodo whispered. "Keep... singing. Keep..."

Realising the little round was too short for this sudden breaking-through, Bilbo began it again. And felt his heart swell upward to almost choke him as Frodo followed, his voice barely above a whisper, but singing the second answer in the round, still going as Bilbo finished his turn, and began again. It rose above the fire's crackle, above the wind keening outside the smial, then Frodo wavered into silence. Bilbo kept going, hopeful, then also fell silent as blue-black eyes opened, wide and conscious, almost puzzled.

"Bilbo?" Frodo murmured.

"Yes, lad. You're in Bag End."

"The wanderer... always returns home?"

"Yes. Wherever home is, they return. Even though they wander, they long for home."

"The hearthfire... is safe. But... the other... it burns. Don't let it hurt me, Bilbo. Don't let..."

"I won't let it hurt you," Bilbo said, unsure of what he was promising but just as sure he needed to promise it. "I won't."

"I... I see it. It's in you, too--"

"Frodo--"

"No return, Bilbo. No... home. They want me to wander... always... to follow..."

Bilbo felt a chill, mastered it by brushing a lank curl of hair back from Frodo's forehead. The bandages were once again spotted with blood, his lips and cheek oozing; carefully Bilbo dabbed at them with his handkerchief. "Who wants you to follow, lad?"

Frodo looked as if he wanted to reply for second, then his face went startlingly lax; Bilbo gripped his hands tightly, spoke his name sharply. "Frodo!"

"I'm... here." Slowly, as if drugged.

"You need to stay, lad. You can't go with them right now. You're not strong enough to wander, to travel."

"I can't go? But I can't refuse, and... and..." The glassy gaze fastened to his almost desperately. "Will you still be here? Even if I wander?"

How to answer that? Bilbo swallowed. "Frodo, I don't want you to go too far, not now. Some other time we'll go, tread new paths, but not today. Today I want you to stay here, with me."

"You... want me? To stay?"

Uncertain of where any of this was leading him, Bilbo answered, "Stay, Frodo. Stay here with me."

"I don't know if I can." Those eyes were dulling by the moment. "They keep calling me."

"Who keeps calling you, lad?" Bilbo spoke gently, if desperately. "Who are 'they'?"

"Voices." It was tiny, soft. "Can't you hear it? The stars have voices..."
 

Bilbo again wasn't sure how to respond, only that a tremor of fear iced his spine.

"I... Uncle Bilbo?"

"Yes, Frodo?"

"Uncle Bilbo," the boy said with a sudden, matter of fact and quiet lucidity, "I think it's quite possible that I'm going mad."

To that Bilbo had absolutely nothing to say.

And Frodo's gaze once more slipped from its moorings, and the battered head sank deeper into the bedclothes as he succumbed to unconsciousness.

The Widow came back in, her skirt flapping about her as she closed the door. "The weather looks to be threatening. The entire eastern sky is black as pitch..." she trailed off as she saw Bilbo leaning over his cousin, hand firmly cradling one of the lad's cheeks.

"He spoke to me," Bilbo said as she hesitantly walked over.

She knelt down opposite him with a grunt, looking at Frodo. "What did he say?" she said softly.

Bilbo released Frodo and sat up, peering at her. Surely she should be heartened--he was, despite the disturbing quality to what Frodo had said. But she didn't look encouraged. She looked resigned.

"He said..." Bilbo started, then mentally edited much of it, unwilling to repeat it. "He said that someone was calling to him. He called for his mother and father, for his cousins. For me."

"Who was calling him, Squire? Did he say?"

Bilbo shook his head. "But he spoke to me, quite coherently. And he's sleeping calmer, I think. That's better, isn't it?"

"It could be, but..." she trailed off, then took in a deep breath. "Sometimes they get better, just before they get worse."

* * * * * *

It was a farmer, using the Ferry to take a load of unsold produce from the Hall's market to his home across the River, who found Merry stowed away in a pile of his tarped boxes. It was nearly dark, but despite Merry's protests to the contrary, the old farmer knew immediately who the lad was--as did most of Buckland know their master's only son by sight--and swiftly collared and returned him with the next crossing. The taciturn runaway was marched briskly to the Hall and handed over to the old porter, who took him straight to the Master's smial.

Saradoc had closed the door and asked one simple question: What do you think you were doing?

And the storm had erupted.

"I'm leaving! I'm going after Frodo!"

"You are not going anywhere," Saradoc told his son. "Particularly twenty leagues, at night, by yourself. What has possessed you, to think of running off like this?"

Merry's eyes blazed to match the hearth flames. "They said elves came! Came for Frodo! And you didn't tell me!"

Saradoc closed his eyes. Esmeralda watched her son rage with a flat spot of pain marring her heart.

"You wouldn't send a rider to see if something's wrong, even when Pippin had that nightmare! And now those elves have come for him and you just sent them to Bag End and they'll take Frodo away!"

"Merry--" Saradoc began.

"They'll take him away where I won't ever see him again and you! Didn't! Tell me!"

"Merry." Saradoc strode over, grabbed him. "Son, that's enough. We can't--"

Merry wrenched away from him. "You sent him away in the first place because you hate him!"

"Merry, that isn't true--" Esmeralda said.

"It is!" Merry gave a little growl as his father grabbed him once again. He tried to win free again but Saradoc was prepared and shook him. It didn't stop the torrent of words, or the sudden rash of tears. "It is! You used to love him and now you hate him and you don't want me to be with him, and I hate you, do you hear? I hate you!"

And with that last cry, he wrenched free once again and fled the room.

"Merry!" his father roared.

The slamming of the door answered him. Then, seconds later, a second slam announced that Merry had found his room.

Behind him, his parents were driven silent.


* * * * * *

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