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On Merry Yule: 3. Familiarity
Early Evening, 24 Highday, Foreyule
Frodo sighed in exasperation at Dalin’s and Bilbo’s slowness. The last quarter mile to the door was the longest part of the entire walk. He could not contain his impatience a single second longer, and dashed up to the Lane Door, the southernmost of the three main entrances to Brandy Hall. As expected, it was locked, so Frodo yanked the bell rope to let the doorward know someone was there. Bilbo and Dalin were drawing near when Dahlia opened the door. Frodo grinned, then realized she was peering suspiciously at him.
‘Dahlia?’ he asked. She stared at him intently, and he stepped a little closer so the light from her lantern would fall on his face. ‘Don’t you recognize me? It’s Frodo!’
‘Oh, heavens above, it is you, Master Frodo!’ the plump woman exclaimed, and pulled him into a suffocating embrace. ‘Oh my, oh my, but you look so queer, Master Frodo, with your face all drawn and no hair left to you!’ she prattled on, then swung her lantern towards the other two. ‘And Mister Baggins, I beg pardon, sir, the Master said to keep an eye for you this night, and I plumb forgot. I was sayin’ to…’ Whatever it was that Dahlia might have said, and to whom, was lost as she gaped at the scarlet-wrapped mountain that stepped into the lantern light. Frodo felt her begin to sag and was afraid that she might faint.
‘Dahlia, dear girl!’ Bilbo called out, and quickly grabbed her by the elbow, relieving the weight on Frodo. ‘How lovely to see you, and just the person I need! This is Mister Dalin Steelhand, a most excellent Dwarf, who has traveled a very long way to meet the Master.’ Bilbo was pushing Dahlia back into the doorway and turning her about, which Frodo knew was no small feat, given her bulk and how she was transfixed by the sight of Dalin. ‘Now, you be a good girl, won’t you please, and go straight away to Master Rory and tell him to meet us here at the Lane Door. There you go!’ With a quick kiss on her cheek, and a strong push, Bilbo set Dahlia off down the corridor. After a few stumbling steps, she picked up her skirts and ran.
‘Come in, Dalin, and rest a spell until Rory arrives,’ Bilbo called over Frodo’s shoulder to the Dwarf. Dalin had to duck an inch or two to get in the low door, and his head came close to the roof of the tunnel. Frodo knew there were places in Brandy Hall where Dalin would not be able to walk upright.
‘Are you certain this is all right, Mister Baggins?’ Dalin rumbled nervously. ‘Perhaps I should wait outside the door until the Master gives his leave…’
‘Nonsense,’ Frodo broke in, ‘You’re a guest at Brandy Hall, and Uncle Rory would be mortified if you were to stand out in the cold!’ Though you’ll probably frighten half the Hall when you walk through. Frodo had to suppress a grin at the thought of the squeaks, squawks, and squeals that would accompany any unexpected encounter with Dalin in the depths of the smial. This will be an entertaining Yule. In particular, he wondered how Sara would react. The thought of the look of drunken stupefaction that might grace his detested cousin’s face made Frodo have to turn away, lest Dalin think himself the butt of a joke.
The three dropped their packs and stretched as they waited for Uncle Rory. Frodo leaned his back against the wall of the tunnel and closed his eyes, letting his ears and nose reacquaint themselves with the Hall. Rich earth, fireplace smoke, roasting meat, and oiled wood were the dominant scents, though Frodo knew it was all carried by an undercurrent of the smell of Hobbits. Bag End was not like this; it smelled only like Bilbo and old books. This was the smell of home. The echoes down the corridor were dull at first, but he carefully picked out a hint of laughter, clanking that could only come from the kitchens in the midst of preparing the feast for Highday table, the soft whisper of bare feet on wood or on earth, and, so very faint, the shrieks and shouts of the children down in the nursery, deep and safe inside the Hall. He was glad his eyes were closed because he knew there were some tears in them. I’ll see Merle and Merry tonight. Soon he could pick out the sound of a firm tread, and knew Uncle Rory was near.
He peeled himself off the wall just as Rory turned the corner, trailed at a safe distance by Dahlia. Frodo could not help grinning, though Uncle Rory did not look at him, only at Dalin, even while giving Bilbo a swift embrace.
‘Rory!’ The two sized each other up and then embraced again.
‘Well, Bilbo,’ Uncle Rory said, ‘What have you brought me for Yule?’ The two turned to the Dwarf, who bowed so low to Uncle Rory that his scarlet hood nearly brushed the floor.
‘Dalin Steelhand at your service,’ the Dwarf solemnly intoned, not rising from the bow.
‘Rorimac Brandybuck, at yours and your family’s,’ Uncle Rory replied without hesitation and with great dignity. Frodo was quite proud at his uncle’s manners when faced with a huge stranger after dark. I don’t think Uncle Rory’s ever seen a Dwarf up close, he considered, and compared this uncle’s calm demeanor with Bilbo’s rather frenetic one. Dalin rose from his deep bow, and Uncle Rory offered his hand in friendship. Dalin smiled broadly and gently shook the Master’s hand.
‘Rory, do please forgive my importuning you this way,’ Bilbo chattered, ‘but Dalin is the son of one of my dear Dwarf friends, and he was on the Road and had no where else to go for Yule. I remembered how you and Mac said, when we rode Hedge at Harvest, that you wouldn’t mind a visit from a good Dwarf who was a friend of mine, so I invited him to join us. Do say you’re not terribly put out at me?’ Bilbo flashed his most charmingly mischievous smile at Uncle Rory, the one Frodo knew Bilbo always used when he needed to get away with something. Even Aunt Lobelia was not immune to that look. Uncle Rory just raised an eyebrow and shook his head in mock exasperation. He ignored Bilbo, and addressed Dalin.
‘Mister Steelhand, please be welcome to Brandy Hall. Any friend of Bilbo’s is always welcome in this smial, if only to escape my scalawag cousin’s interesting sense of humor.’ Frodo had to smirk a bit at that, while Bilbo sighed and put on a long-suffering expression. The Dwarf tried unsuccessfully to keep a straight face. ‘And Bilbo is quite right; both I and my son Mac did say we would be happy to meet any Dwarf friend of Bilbo’s. Buckland has not been visited by Dwarves in many years, and it is high time that we renew our ancient friendship.’
‘I am humbled by your kind words, Master Brandybuck,’ Dalin replied with a small bow, ‘and I hope that I will bring honor to Durin’s folk while in your halls.’
Frodo thought this entire exchange to be very proper and correct.
‘However,’ Uncle Rory went on in a slightly worried tone, sizing up his substantial guest, ‘I am concerned as to where we shall put you, Mister Steelhand. Brandy Hall is not one of the inns on the Road, and we do not have Dwarf-sized accommodations at the ready.’
‘As for that, Master Brandybuck,’ the Dwarf assured him, ‘a few warm blankets and a hayloft are as fine a bed as I desire. Dwarves are used to hardship, and such a couch would be a luxury.’
‘No guest of this Hall will sleep in a barn!’ Uncle Rory snapped. ‘I’ll go there myself, and my wife, too, before I will permit such things! We are a hospitable folk.’ He crossed his arms and glared at all three of them.
‘Rory, be calm, please!’ Bilbo admonished. ‘Of course no one is sleeping in a hayloft. There are certainly beds in the Hall large enough to accommodate Dalin here.’
‘But they are given out, Bilbo,’ Rory answered. ‘We’re full to the top tunnels with kin and guests for Wintermark, and while there’s a few Tooks I wouldn’t mind tossing into the stables, I’d never hear the end of it from Esmie. I wish you’d sent a note ahead. The only free rooms I have left are yours and Frodo’s.’
‘Well, there’s no problem then, Rory. I am more than happy to share with Dalin,’ Bilbo replied.
‘I don’t think it’s a big enough bed, Bilbo. But I suppose we could move some bedsteads around…’
Frodo was happy to hear that his own room had been saved for him, as he had hoped. Rat, a small voice in his head rebuked him, there’s a guest that needs tending.
But it’s my room! Bilbo’s used to sharing with Dwarves.
And your uncle is having to move furniture!
My bed isn’t big enough for a Dwarf, probably.
Well, why don’t you volunteer it, Rat, and be certain? Frodo sighed at his relentless conscience, and spoke up.
‘Uncle Rory, I think my bed’s big enough for Mister Dalin. He can have my room and I’ll share with Uncle Bilbo.’ Frodo was not sure he liked the sharp glance Bilbo sent his way, nor the thoughtful look that overtook it. He firmly refused to pay heed to small voices in the back of his mind.
‘Well, if you’re sure lad.’ Rory smiled broadly at Frodo, then pulled him into a big hug. ‘Ah, Frodo, it’s so good to have you home!’ Frodo could not help the single tear that weaseled its way out of the corner of his eye, but he did manage not to cry in front of Bilbo and Dalin. ‘You’re a good boy, tending a guest like this. Come on, you three! Let’s get Mister Steelhand settled. Dahlia,’ he called to the forgotten doorward, ‘I know fires are laid in Mister Baggins’ and Master Baggins’ rooms, but send the maid ‘round with hot water for washing up.’ Dahlia bobbed a curtsey and took to her heels again, eager to inform the kitchens of the latest gossip.
The travelers hoisted their packs and followed Rory down the corridor. After a few quick turns, they were in the Master’s family’s hallways. This was one of the oldest parts of the smial, and the Lane Door had once been the primary entrance. It was still the usual door the family used to enter and exit the Hall. Frodo’s room was almost exactly as he had left it; even his clothes were still in the wardrobe. The only thing missing was his mother’s quilt on the bed. A different one lay on it, all bright patchwork. His trunk sat in a corner, waiting for him. Uncle Rory lit a few candles from the lantern he had snagged off a hook in the hallway.
Frodo turned to Dalin and said brightly, ‘Will this do?’
Dalin clapped him on the shoulder, and Frodo braced himself to keep from falling over. ‘You are a generous lad, Master Frodo. Let’s see if this will do!’ The dwarf walked over to what had always seemed a rather large bed, but now looked somewhat puny. The bed frame creaked a low protest at the Dwarf’s bulk, but did not bow or break. Dalin lay flat for a moment, then sat back up with a friendly grin, the gold beads in his beard glinting in the candle light. ‘It will do marvelously, young master, and far surpasses any hayloft!’
A knock on the door announced the arrival of a steaming ewer of water. Frodo quickly took it, and set it on the washstand. Rory nodded a farewell to them all.
‘Bilbo, Frodo, family will gather in an hour in the old parlor, and we’ll dine within the following hour, as usual. Do come somewhat early as Gilda would like to see her boy here before the children are set loose on him! Mister Steelhand, if you would be so kind as to wait here while the family is reacquainted, I would be obliged. I’ll send one of the girls ‘round to fetch you so you may be introduced before we go to table.’ Dalin bowed his obedience, and Rory left.
Well, now the trunk. Frodo did not relish dragging it down the hall. He took one handle and began to drag it across the floor, and was nearly lifted up by the handle when Dalin lightly hoisted the box onto a shoulder.
‘Where to, Master Frodo?’ the Dwarf teased. Bilbo laughed and led the way to his usual room. After Dalin set down the trunk and thanked them both for their kindness, Frodo walked Dalin back to his old room. By the time Frodo returned, Bilbo had opened up his own trunk and was taking clothes out of it, laying a few things out on the bed and fussing over the rest; putting them in the wardrobe, making sure they hung just so, were folded exactly thus. This could be…aggravating.
It could also be a few other things Frodo did not want to think about too closely at the moment, so he turned to his own trunk. I should go tomorrow and take a look at the clothes I left. I can probably wear those. They should even be clean. The clothes he had from Bilbo were perfectly good, but more fine than was really necessary. He always felt a little constrained when wearing them – it would not do to ruin such nice things with boyish mucking about. The few changes he had brought from here were almost worn out, for Frodo dressed in them as often as he could, much to Bilbo’s annoyance. I should certainly take all the rest back with me.
The little voice nagged, Well, Rat, maybe you won’t need to take them anywhere. Frodo tried to ignore the voice and stuffed some shirts onto a shelf in the wardrobe, where Bilbo had thoughtfully left half the space open for him to use. Bilbo cleared his throat and raised a meaningful eyebrow at the rumpled shirts. Frodo sighed and did it over, being careful to fold them neatly, and to hang the best shirts up on the hooks along the sides so their wrinkles would relax. What does it matter to him, Frodo peevishly thought. They’re my clothes, aren’t they?
‘Wash up, lad, I’ll put the rest away,’ ordered Bilbo, obviously unimpressed with Frodo’s attempts. Frodo complied, and was rather grateful to be able to scrub away the grime of the walk, warming his chilled fingers in the basin. His dirty travel shirt he tossed into the wicker wash basket by the door. The towel was rough, and felt good on his itchy arms and neck. Frodo wished there was time to go to the baths before supper to really soak off the day’s walk. Tomorrow, he promised himself.
‘I hope you didn’t use all the water,’ Bilbo teased, ‘or no one will want to say hello to this old man!’
‘Of course not, Uncle Bilbo. There’s plenty left,’ Frodo assured the old Hobbit, digging the last water out of one ear while pulling what he wanted to wear out of the wardrobe, disarranging the neat stacks of clothes Bilbo had just put together. Tossing his selected clothes onto the bed, Frodo took advantage of Bilbo’s turned back to change his pants. As he finished fastening the buttons, Frodo looked over at Bilbo’s back, and paused.
He knew Bilbo was almost one hundred years old, but his uncle’s face and manner gave no hint of that age. Neither did the old Hobbit’s torso. It was a mature form, broad and filled out, but not aged. His skin did not droop, nor was it mottled with brown spots. Bilbo’s belly had a nice, pleasing roundness to it, but not exaggerated , and his chest showed nothing of the sunken quality Frodo was used to seeing in the old men at the baths. While not muscled the way Mac and Sara were with all their farm work, Bilbo obviously was in good shape. His motions as he cleaned up – bending his face down to the wash basin, twisting to wipe off a shoulder, stretching to scrub at his side – were as smooth and lithe as a tween’s, but with a solidity that youth did not possess. Bilbo could walk out into a hayfield and do a good day’s work. He doesn’t look near a hundred at all. He’s handsome.
Frodo quickly turned around and busied himself with his own shirt. Those were not things he really wanted to be thinking, not about Bilbo. Especially not if he was to be sharing a room with Bilbo for the next several days. Stupid, stupid. Rat, try not to be so stupid for a change. He quickly buttoned up one of his regular shirts and shoved the tails of it into his pants. He was fumbling with getting his braces pulled up over his shoulders when he realized he was not hearing any sounds from Bilbo. He turned around to see Bilbo staring at him, hands on hips, towel around his neck, and a clearly disapproving expression on his face.
‘Frodo, what are you doing?’
‘Getting dressed? I think that’s what usually happens after washing up for supper,’ Frodo tried to tease. His uncle was not amused.
‘You look like you are about to go off and clean a stable,’ was Bilbo’s acerbic reply.
‘What are you talking about? No I don’t!’ Frodo replied hotly. Just because I don’t fuss and primp like you do. ‘I look perfectly fine. It’s what I always wear. What’s wrong with it?’ He glared right back.
‘What is wrong with it, Frodo, is that you look like a mussed-up little child.’
Frodo sighed, crossed his arms and settled in for a fight. It did not sound as if Bilbo was going to be reasonable. I’m home, I don’t care about how you want me look. You can just go off on one of your stupid adventures and leave me with my plain clothes. Frodo had sense enough not to say this aloud, so he contented himself with, ‘And what of it? It’s how I wish to look.’
Bilbo crossed his own arms and leaned against the wardrobe. His uncle was giving him that look he had that made Frodo feel not just stupid, but utterly ridiculous, where stupidity would be an improvement. Usually, though, he could figure what he had done to earn that stare. This time, it was mystery.
Bilbo’s voice was low, clear, sharp. ‘Think, Frodo. I have seen you do it before, and I have every faith you can do so again. Under what conditions did you leave Brandy Hall so suddenly last Halimath? And now you are back, and you will be looked at quite closely. How do you wish to be seen? As a half-wild hooligan who steals things? As an impotent child whose wishes can be ignored and set aside? As a bad-mannered little boy who cannot decide if he wants to tend the babies or service the men? If that is how you wish to be seen and to be thought of, child, by all means, go ahead.’
For a long moment, Frodo could do nothing but gape at Bilbo. It was only when his lungs demanded a gulp of air that he realized he had not breathed. In three months, Bilbo had never once spoken to him of the specific reasons why he had to leave. You thought he’d forgot, Rat, but he hasn’t. He won’t. Ever. Bilbo’s eyes were as hard as his voice had been.
‘Shut up! I don’t want to hear it!’
‘You will hear nothing but “it,” as you so eloquently put it, should you return in almost exactly the same state as you left, Frodo,’ was Bilbo’s unyielding reply.
‘And a change of clothes will change everything?’ Frodo countered.
‘No, not everything.’ Bilbo’s voice was a little less sharp, but still firm and with no sign of his usual sympathy. ‘However, if you do not look like an unruly, unkempt, and rather inconsequential child, your relatives will find it more difficult to treat you as such, particularly before others. How do you think Sara will act if all he sees is the snot-nosed little cousin he so delights in tormenting?’
Frodo had to drop his eyes at that statement. Bilbo’s right, Rat. Listen to him. Frodo clenched his jaw, not wanting to concede the battle.
‘And it would make Gilda very happy to see you dressed nicely in honor of Yule, and in honor of seeing her again,’ Bilbo added gently.
Frodo glared at his uncle. ‘You do not play fair, Bilbo!’
‘Where you are concerned, of course not, Wilwarin. I want to see you set them back on their heels. But I shan’t stop you from doing as you wish.’ Bilbo hung his towel on a hook to dry and began selecting his own clothes.
Frodo watched while Bilbo slipped off his travel-stained pants, evidently not caring that Frodo could see him completely bare. A few neat, unhurried motions later, and Bilbo was buttoning a fine shirt and carefully tucking it into pants that looked as though they had just come from an ironing board, not a traveling trunk. Frodo had to admit that the comic, rumpled Hobbit of the trip had been transformed into a respectable, almost elegant, gentlehobbit. Bilbo walked over to the trunk and fished out a small velvet pouch that held several sets of cufflinks, picked a pair out, and began to put them in place with the ease and grace that comes with long practice.
‘So, what should I wear?’
Bilbo did not look up from the cuffs. ‘Not your best, that is for Yule supper. The cream linen shirt with all the gathers at the shoulders, the green trousers, and the second-best waistcoat will be perfect. You may use my gold-knot cufflinks, as I will wager you forgot to pack any of your own.’ Bilbo stole a sly glance in Frodo’s direction from the corner of his eye.
Frodo sighed in exasperation and retrieved the clothes Bilbo had chosen. Bilbo put the gold-knot cufflinks out on the desk, and busied himself with setting the last of his own trunk in order. Frodo quickly changed, then stood for inspection. Bilbo looked him over with a critical eye, adjusted the drape of the shirt, straightened the braces across his back, and pronounced his appearance satisfactory.
‘Well enough, Frodo, though you do need to learn how stand up properly. Slumping like that makes you look sullen.’ Frodo gave his uncle a sullen look and stood up straight. Bilbo’s eyes crinkled in amusement. Is that what Bilbo thinks when he sees me? A dirty child? A hooligan? Probably so, Rat. Frodo gritted his teeth and tried to put in the cufflinks, which would not cooperate. The more he wrestled with them, the more tricky they became. All the world became the recalcitrant cufflinks, and his inability to make them behave. He could feel his face getting red from frustration. Frodo jumped when he felt Bilbo’s hands on his shoulders.
‘Shh, Wilwarin. The right-hand cuff is always more difficult,’ Bilbo’s gentle voice spoke in his ear. ‘Now, watch.’ His uncle reached around him and took the cufflink in his left hand while holding Frodo’s right wrist in the other. ‘Shake the sleeve out like that. Curl your fingers and pinch the fabric together, then turn up,’ Bilbo’s hand guided his own fingers to hold the cuff edges, ‘now hold the link steady, and move the cuff over the end of the link,’ Frodo watched the unruly cufflink mind its manners and do as Bilbo required, ‘and there you have it, a neatly done cuff. Now, you try the left cuff.’
Bilbo dropped his arms but stayed directly behind Frodo, his chest brushing Frodo’s back, his breath warm on Frodo’s neck. Frodo made himself focus on the cuff, carefully imitating Bilbo’s example. It was not quite as effortless as Bilbo made it appear, but the cuff was secured in short order. Bilbo’s arms wrapped around his shoulders and hugged him firmly.
‘I am sorry, Frodo, for the harshness of my words earlier. But I am not sorry for the words themselves.’ Bilbo turned Frodo around and took him by the shoulders. ‘You need to think about how you appear to others, lad, and not only how you would wish for them to see you.’ The sternness had left his uncle’s face, and only concern remained. ‘I would that you need never consider such things, especially among your own kin, but there is no escaping it.’
Bilbo smiled and fussed over the set of Frodo’s waistcoat. ‘Gilda will be delighted to see you and see how nice you look. I want her to know I’ve not been neglecting you! She’s probably waiting for us now, and will give us a good rap on the shins if we keep her waiting. Shall we go?’
Frodo stared at his uncle. True or not, the words had made plain what Frodo would have preferred remain obscure and unsaid, and he was not quite ready to forgive Bilbo that trespass. He shrugged and turned to go. The two walked in silence through the dimly lit tunnels towards the old parlor. The way was so familiar Frodo could have walked it in the dark. Indeed, most times these halls were dark. The lanterns were concessions to the Yule guests so they could easily find their way in Brandy Hall’s twisting corridors.
As they neared the parlor, Bilbo said, ‘Pay close attention to how the family reacts when they first lay eyes on you, and when they greet you. It should be interesting.’ Frodo made a noncommittal noise and opened the parlor door.
Gammer stood before the fireplace in a dark blue dress, sensibly short to ease her walking and edged with delicate lace. Her silver hair was gathered in a soft bun at the nape of her neck, and she held her blackthorn cane in a firm grip. She beamed as she recognized them and held out an arm.
‘Frodo! My boy, get over here right now!’ Frodo bounded across the room and hugged his Gammer for all he was worth. She laughed and covered his cheek with kisses, her trembling hand resting on his back. When he finally stepped back, he saw her eyes were a little wet, though no tear would ever presume to fall.
‘My lost boy, back home at last,’ she chided him, and then looked him over intently. ‘Bilbo, you’re not feeding him enough! He’s more than a finger taller, and scrawnier than ever!’
‘And I love you, too, dear girl,’ was Bilbo’s unflappable response as the old Hobbit leaned in and gave her a kiss.
‘My two rascals, here for Yule,’ she happily pronounced. ‘Now, help me over to the couch, or at least get out of the way so I can hobble there myself.’ Frodo heard Uncle Rory chuckling at the side of the room. He took one of her arms and Bilbo the other. After she was settled, Rory handed Bilbo a glass of brandy and Gammer a glass of wine, then turned to look Frodo over for himself.
Rory walked in a circle around him, staring intently, as though sizing up a horse at the fair. After a few long minutes, his uncle crossed his arms and sent Bilbo a glare.
‘Gilda’s right. He’s too thin, Baggins,’ Rory growled.
Bilbo sat on the arm of the couch, brandy in one hand, Gilda’s hand in the other, completely unconcerned. ‘Of course he’s a stick, Rory. He’s a tween.’
‘And what happened to his head?’
‘I got tired of him looking like a wool-blind sheep, and made him get a haircut. It is the fashion in Hobbiton to look civilized, you know.’
‘Civilized? It looks ridiculous. He’ll catch cold without anything on his head.’
‘I think it suits him quite well,’ broke in Gilda, ‘and you forgot to check his teeth and have him trot about to see if he’s lame, old man.’ Rory laughed and pulled Frodo into a great bear hug.
‘Welcome home, Frodo! You’ve been sorely missed!’ Frodo hugged Uncle Rory back, though he was a touch annoyed at being spoken of as if he were not standing there. The annoyance quickly went away when Uncle Rory went to get them something to drink and handed Frodo a glass with brandy in it, instead of the usual watered wine served to the children. There was not very much brandy, but it was enough. You should thank Bilbo for his advice, Rat. Frodo sipped his brandy and ignored the voice. He was not ready to feel well-inclined to Bilbo quite yet.
He had barely had time to finish the three swallows in his glass, when he heard the rush of small feet in the corridor. The door slammed open and Merle and Merry rocketed into the room. With shrieks of “Frodo!” they plowed into their big cousin, nearly knocking him down. The next few minutes were a riot of screams, giggles, yelps, kisses, hugs and tickles as the little ones showed just how much they had missed him. Frodo had finally managed to make them more or less still, when Sara and Esmie came in.
Both came to an abrupt halt and stared at him. Frodo slowly rose and tugged his waistcoat back into place. This is interesting, Rat, I do believe. Sara gave Frodo a puzzled stare and Frodo realized that Sara did not recognize his snot-nosed little cousin. Esmie obviously suffered no such confusion, but he could not figure out what was written on her beautiful face. She recovered quickly and moved towards him with a bland smile.
‘Frodo, lad, I’m glad you’re here safe. It’s such a long walk from Hobbiton. I see the imps have found you and mussed you up already. They have missed you so!’ Esmie gave him a motherly kiss on the brow and patted his cheek. ‘Aren’t you glad to have your cousin come visit?’ she asked the children. Merry and Merle vociferously agreed. ‘They will be delighted to have their playmate here for Yule. Welcome back, dear.’ With a pat on his head, Esmie turned away and extended her hands to Bilbo.
‘Bilbo, you scoundrel, do come give me a kiss!’ Frodo watched, fascinated, as Bilbo put on his best false cheer and bestowed a rather exaggerated kiss on Esmie’s cheek. The two looked each other in the eye with a rather unnerving stare, though their mouths were all smiles. Frodo did not have any more time to observe as Sara’s hand came down heavily on his shoulder.
‘Little cousin, I almost didn’t know you, all clipped short like that, and in someone else’s clothes!’ Sara boomed in Frodo’s ear. ‘Good to see you, boy.’ Sara took his hand in a too-strong grip, and then squeezed a bit harder, a mean glint in his eye.
Frodo resisted the urge to kick Sara in the shin, and reluctantly smiled back. ‘And good to see you, too, cousin. You haven’t changed a bit. How are you?’ He let his hand go limp in Sara’s grasp. Sara let go, puzzled by the lack of fight, but dug his fingers more strongly into Frodo’s shoulder and did not answer. Esmie had left Bilbo to go greet Gammer and Uncle Rory, and Bilbo was closely watching him and Sara, starting to edge closer.
I don’t want Sara touching you. Bilbo’s words from that night came back to him, and Frodo began to worry what Bilbo would do if Sara did not remove his hand, and soon. Bilbo took a true step in their direction. Frodo looked up into Sara’s mean face and laughed happily.
‘You’re not the only one who had to look twice, Sara. Just look at how much this fellow has grown!’ Frodo dropped down on a knee, making Sara let go, and held out his arms to Merry, who hugged him tightly around the neck. ‘I swear, Merry, you’re half again as big as you were at Harvest!’
‘I am bigger!’ Merry happily agreed. ‘I can climb into the willow by the Ferry without being boosted up now! You’ll have to come see.’
‘Of course I will! You’re such a proper young giant I don’t know if I can pick you up anymore,’ Frodo teased in return.
‘But I still can!’ Sara said. In a moment, Sara was holding a giggling and squirming Merry upside-down. Frodo stood, scrambling back to keep from accidentally kicked or hit by one of his little cousin’s flailing limbs.
‘Is Merry big enough to start riding a pony yet?’ Frodo asked.
‘No, but I am,’ Merle primly informed him. ‘I’m getting my own pony this Yule, aren’t I Papa?’
‘That’s right, you’re getting a pony,’ Sara replied with a grin.
‘I want a pony, too!’ Merry protested, trying to wiggle his way out of his father’s grasp. Sara laughed, and the next few minutes were taken up with Merle’s chatter about her pony while Merry wrestled his way back down to the ground. Sara somehow managed both to correct Merle’s more enthusiastic pronouncements with patience and to not drop Merry despite the boy’s energetic struggle. How can you be so good with them, and be such a bastard to me? Frodo’s musing were interrupted by a call of welcome from the door.
‘Frodo? Is that you? You look so fine!’ Dilly exclaimed as she waded her way through the children to give him a hug and kiss. ‘All grown up! I’d hardly know you. Doesn’t he look fine, Mac?’
Mac looked over from where he had been greeting his parents. ‘Oh, hullo, Frodo! Aye, wife, he looks fine enough but he hasn’t any hair. Don’t they know they’re supposed to shear sheep, not Hobbits, out in mid-Shire?’ Mac’s genial teasing set all to laughing, and Frodo took the opportunity to put some distance between himself and Sara.
‘Well, Dilly, I must return the compliment and say you look quite lovely yourself,’ Frodo replied, meaning every word of it. Dilly was usually rather drab, but tonight her face had color in it, and she seemed filled with great cheer. She blushed at Frodo’s words and hid her face in Mac’s chest. Mac chuckled and pulled his small wife into a firm embrace.
‘Well, and she has good reason to look beautiful,’ Mac said proudly, eyes fixed on Dilly. She looked up at him with a shy smile, and for a moment they were oblivious to all the others in the room. Frodo looked quizzically at Bilbo who had a knowing smile on his face.
‘What is it, Dilly?’ Esmie teased.
‘Well, it looks like we’ll be having a Harvest babe come mid-Summer,’ Dilly replied, eyes still on Mac. The family all cheered. All except Gammer, who thumped her cane strongly on the floor.
‘Foolish girl!’ Gammer snapped, ‘Do not go speaking of Harvest babes until after the Yule is a fortnight gone! The sun’s turning saps life, and it is ill to speak of a babe aloud until it is done. You should have kept quiet and not drawn the sun’s notice to you!’ Dilly blanched and hid her face in Mac’s chest again.
‘Gilda, really! How can you say such dire things to Dilly?’ Esmie scolded. ‘Time enough has passed for the child to settle. All will be well.’
‘When you have midwifed as many women as I, child, then you may correct me,’ Gammer shot back. ‘It is not good to speak of a new-settled child at Yule. It draws the notice of what it shouldn’t.’
‘Enough, Mama,’ Mac firmly said. ‘We’ll speak no more on it, and you’ll say no more ill things.’
‘No more, Mistress,’ Uncle Rory added when Gammer looked as if she would protest. After a moment, Gammer stiffly inclined her head to Uncle Rory.
‘As you wish, Master.’
Uncle Rory nodded in return, then addressed the family. ‘Cousin Bilbo has brought us a guest for Yule. I just sent Dahlia to fetch him. I hope you will join me in making him welcome in Brandy Hall.’ He directed Sara to help him get glasses filled, and Frodo was pleased to receive another small serving of brandy. He exchanged a conspiratorial glance with Bilbo when there was a knock on the parlor door. Uncle Rory strode over and threw open the door.
‘Mister Steelhand, please come in.’
The children screeched and dashed behind their parents as Dalin walked into the room. Mac and Sara both stepped in front of their wives, while Bilbo helped Gammer struggle to her feet. Dalin came to a halt and bowed.
‘Dalin Steelhand, at your service.’ He had changed from his plain traveling clothes and wore a pale grey tunic with bright geometric embroidery on the cuffs, collar, placket, and yoke. His silver belt gleamed softly, and his boots had been brushed clean.
‘Mister Steelhand is an ambassador of the Dwarves to Buckland and will be visiting over Yule,’ Uncle Rory informed his sons in dignified manner, ‘so I shall count on the two of you to make certain he is introduced properly to the right people while he is here.’ The Hobbits nodded dumbly, still trying to adjust to Dalin’s size. Mac hardly reached Dalin's shoulder, and he was the tallest Hobbit Frodo knew. Uncle Rory steered Dalin over to where Gammer stood, braced on her cane, an imperious expression on her face.
‘Mistress, may I introduce Mister Dalin Steelhand, a Dwarf friend of Bilbo’s.’
Dalin dropped to one knee in front of Gammer, swept the ground with the tips of the fingers of one hand, then touched his forehead, lips, and breast with that hand.
‘Command me that I may serve you, Mistress,’ he said, his voice deep, yet hushed.
Gammer reached out with her cane and rapped him on the knee. ‘Well, first of all get up! I cannot talk to you if you are all hunched over and staring at the floor!’ Dalin quickly scrambled to his feet. Gammer waited until he was standing and then extended a trembling hand. Frodo wondered if Dalin realized it was illness, not fear, that made Gammer shake. Bilbo tricked a dragon – Gammer would have beaten it to death single-handedly. Dalin gingerly took the proffered hand.
‘I am Menegilda Goold, wife of Rorimac Brandybuck, and Mistress of Buckland,’ she firmly informed the dwarf. ‘You may call me Mistress Gilda. If you call me anything else, I shall remind you.’ She thumped her cane on the floor for emphasis, and Dalin grinned.
‘I am commanded and so I shall serve, Mistress Gilda.’ Dalin bowed over her hand before releasing it.
‘We have a some time yet before we are called to table,’ said Uncle Rory. ‘Mister Steelhand, will you not tell us a bit of your journey to the Shire while we wait?’
Dalin assented, and Uncle Rory and Bilbo helped Gammer back to her seat on the couch, sitting to either side of her after she was settled. Mac and Dilly retreated to a couch some distance away from Dalin, Dilly clutching Berry’s sleeve in an iron grip. Sara took his usual chair, with Esmie sitting on the arm and Merry in his lap. Merle hid behind Esmie, peeking out around her mother’s rump every now and then.
Dalin sat on the floor opposite Uncle Rory. When Rory started to protest him taking that seat, Dalin softly replied, ‘I think the little ones will be less alarmed if I am smaller.’ Not that much smaller. Sitting on the floor, you’re almost as tall as Dilly, Frodo thought. Frodo sat right next to Dalin on the floor so the guest would not be left alone and awkward. Bilbo nodded approval of Frodo’s seat, and Dalin began to tell bits of his journey, stopping to answer Uncle Rory’s questions. There was no talk of orcs and dark things, only of fine weather and friendly folk.
After a few minutes, Frodo felt a touch on his shoulder. He turned to see Merle standing behind him, crouching a bit and using him as a screen between herself and Dalin. Not long afterwards, Merry snuck up and climbed under his arm and into Frodo’s lap. Merry used the loose fabric of Frodo’s shirt sleeve to hide behind, peeking out to stare curiously at the hairy giant in the parlor. Frodo could hardly keep from laughing. He could tell from the smile teasing the corners of Dalin's mouth that the Dwarf knew of these stealthy observers. Merle sidled behind Frodo, and reached out to bestow a feather-light touch on one of Dalin’s braids, then darted back behind her big cousin. After a few advances and retreats, she stood just off Dalin’s shoulder and touched his hair and the embroidery across the shoulders of his shirt.
Merry peered over Frodo’s arm and began his own forays into alien territory. Soon he was touching the edge of Dalin’s sleeve and staring intently at the gold beads in the Dwarf’s beard. Finally, Merry looked at Dalin's feet and drew in a shocked gasp. He whirled around to Frodo and stared, horrified, at his cousin.
‘He’s only got one toe!’ Merry exclaimed.
Dalin started laughing, though he tried not to. It was more a sensation than a sound, like the feeling of a heavily loaded wagon rumbling by on the road. Bilbo and Frodo laughed out loud.
‘You goose, Merry!’ Merle indignantly exclaimed, ‘He’s got boots on! Don’t be stupid!’ She crossed her arms and glared at her little brother. Merry face got red with shame.
‘I’m not stupid!’
‘Are too! And you insulted a guest!’
‘Merle!’ Esmie warned her. Merry started sniffling, and Frodo was afraid tears would soon follow.
‘Now, miss, I’m not insulted,’ Dalin said in a soothing voice, ‘and it certainly looks like one big toe. It’s a big boot that looks like a big toe.’ Merry shot a triumphant glance at his sister. ‘Would you like to see the whole boot?’
‘Yes, please, Mister Dalin.’
Dalin carefully extended one foot, exposing the full boot to full inspection. Merry hitched himself out of Frodo’s lap to get a closer look. He touched the boot, then tapped on it firmly, the started following the lacings and found his way up the tooled designs, which utterly fascinated him. Dalin sat still as stone while Merry traced the intricate whorls in the leather, and Frodo wondered if the Dwarf had little cousins of his own back in Erebor.
Merle leaned against Dalin’s shoulder, watching her little brother. Dalin sat very still, letting the Hobbit children figure out the stranger. Frodo saw that Berry had escaped Dilly’s grasp, and was approaching Dalin, too, though one look at Dilly’s distressed face almost made Frodo send the boy back to his mother. He looped an arm around Berry’s waist to keep him from getting too close.
Merle decided the matter. She threw her arms around Dalin’s neck, or as much of it as she could reach around.
‘I like you! You’re nice,’ she firmly announced. Merry scrambled up from where he was admiring Dalin’s boot and added his hug as well.
‘I think you’re quite nice, too,’ Dalin replied, ‘so it is only fair that I like you right back. Both of you.’ Berry lunged out of Frodo’s grasp and piled onto the Dwarf. ‘All three of you,’ Dalin corrected himself, beaming happily at the affectionate children.
Mac answered a light knock on the parlor door and let the family know supper was ready. Dalin carefully got to his feet, so as not to startle his new friends, and patiently allowed the three Hobbit children to cling to his hands. Esmie collected Dilly and they left the room first, Esmie’s arm wrapped firmly around Dilly’s waist, the two exchanging whispered confidences. Dalin followed with the children tugging in various directions. Frodo saw Uncle Rory and Bilbo assist Gammer to her feet and support her steps, then was almost yanked off his own feet when Sara tossed an arm around his neck. Mac grabbed him around the waist from the other side, much as Esmie held Dilly, and his older cousins hustled Frodo out into the hallway a few strides behind Dalin.
‘Hullo, Rat!’ Sara grinned, but speaking low so only the three of them could hear. ‘We’ve missed you.’
‘Indeed we have, Rat,’ Mac added in a more amiable tone.
Frodo tried, without success, to twist out of their grip. ‘Let go!’ he ordered, but he was grinning now, too. As long as Mac was there, it would just be some roughhousing.
‘What? Can’t I give my little rat cousin a hug?’ Mac chuckled, and gave Frodo a squeeze that almost hurt, then tickled him a bit. Frodo giggled and tried to pry Mac’s fingers off his ribs.
Sara loosened his embrace, moving his arm so he could run his fingers up the back of Frodo’s neck and into his hair. ‘Look at this, Badger! All Rat’s pretty curls are gone.’ Frodo tried to jerk his head away, but Mac’s arm around his waist kept him from moving too much. Sara shoved into Frodo with his hip, and Mac good-naturedly joined in the game, helping pin Frodo between them. ‘Just like a sheared sheep, he is, just a little innocent lamb.’ Frodo glared at Sara, who leered a little bit back, and ran his thumb along Frodo’s scalp just behind his ear.
Mac snorted, ‘We know better, don’t we Snake?’ He reached over and gave Frodo an affectionate chuck under the chin. ‘What we have here is no lamb. This is a Rat in sheep’s clothing!’ The older cousins laughed and Frodo tried to break away. They grabbed him a bit tighter.
Sara started working the hair on the back of Frodo’s head with his fingers, tugging at it a bit. ‘Too bad it’s all gone though, Badger.’
‘Why’s that, Snake?’
‘Well, when little Rat is kissing some sweet thing, brother dear, there’s nothing for – her – to tangle her fingers into and hold on with.’ Sara laughed unpleasantly, and splayed his hand low on the back of Frodo’s head. Frodo tried to elbow Sara in the ribs hard, but was too tightly caught between his cousins to put any force in the blow.
‘See, see, Badger? I told you so! Rat’s been kissing a girl somewhere!’
Mac guffawed. ‘I believe you’re right, Snake, but just where’s he been kissing her?’ Both the cousins laughed loudly at the joke and Frodo again tried to wriggle away. Then Mac moved a little to side and began tickling him in earnest, and Sara dropped his hand and joined in the tickling. Frodo broke away, and whirled to face the two.
‘Stop it!’ he ordered, trying not to shake.
‘Aw, come on, Frodo,’ Mac protested, ‘Don’t be sore! We’re just teasing you.’ He looked a bit contrite. Sara grinned, malice in his eyes.
‘Boys, cut it out,’ came Gammer’s stern admonition from down the corridor.
‘Yes, Mama,’ chorused his cousins.
‘Yes, Gammer,’ Frodo called. He looked back at the elder Hobbits. Uncle Rory and Gammer had gone back to chatting now that the roughhousing had stopped, but Bilbo had his eyes trained on Sara. Finally, the old Hobbit looked at him and raised his eyebrows. Frodo shrugged. Bilbo motioned him back with a jerk of his chin. Frodo turned his back on Bilbo, and threw a playful punch at Mac. They tussled a few moments, then Frodo moved so Mac was in between him and Sara, and gave his cousin a little shove so Mac bumped Sara, which set his cousins to a tickling and shoving match between themselves. They continued this until the family arrived at the Great Hall.
Significant Characters introduced this chapter:
Rory – Rorimac Brandybuck, Master of Buckland. Bilbo’s maternal first cousin, and Frodo’s maternal uncle
Gilda/Gammer – Menegilda Goold Brandybuck, Mistress of Buckland. Wife to Rory, Frodo’s aunt, the most experienced healer and midwife in the Shire.
Sara/Snake – Saradoc Brandybuck, Heir to the Master of Buckland. Rory and Gilda’s oldest son, Frodo’s first cousin, Bilbo’s first cousin, once removed.
Esmie – Esmeralda Took Brandybuck. Wife of Sara, sister of Paladin Took, Heir of the Thain, Frodo’s second cousin, Bilbo’s first cousin, once removed.
Mac/Badger – Merimac Brandybuck. Rory and Gilda’s second son, Frodo’s first cousin, Bilbo’s first cousin, once removed.
Dilly – Daffodil Burrows Brandybuck, OC. Mac’s wife.
Minor Characters introduced this chapter:
Dahlia – OC, doorward and serving woman at Brandy Hall.
Merry – Meriadoc Brandybuck. Son of Sara and Esmie.
Merle – Emerald Brandybuck, OC. Daughter of Sara and Esmie, Merry’s older sister.
Berry – Berilac Brandybuck. Son of Mac and Dilly.
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