18. School's Out
Once everyone was helping with the construction, the Mill was finished pretty quick. And then, sooner than seemed possible, harvest was beginning. We'd got a month of school in, more or less. The last day Mr. Frodo invited Sam and me into the schoolroom after breakfast, so the lads could show off what they had learned.
They had each written the alphabet, great letters and small, on their slates. The slates were lined up on the big table and in the middle was a large sheet of parchment listing their names. Frodo Baggins, Schoolmaster, was written across the top, and below that each lad had penned his own name as neatly as might be. The letters were wobbly, in some of them, and Balco's name was barely legible, the B marred by a big blot of ink, but the names marched down the page bravely, for all that.
"It's an historical document, the roster of Hobbiton's first school," said Mr. Frodo. "And we want you to sign it, too. There'd be no school, if Master Samwise and Mistress Rose weren't here to help."
He led me over to the table and put the pen in my hand, and I near laughed out loud at the expressions on the lads' faces. For certain they never thought I could write my name! I signed Rose Cotton Gamgee at the end of the list, trying to write as neat and elegant as Mr. Frodo, without leaving a blot. Sam wrote his name under mine. His letters weren't elegant, but square and strong.
"And now the recitations," Frodo announced. "I've been telling stories all these past weeks since we began. Today the lads will show how well they've been listening."
He brought us over to three chairs lined up by the fireplace, and we sat. Balco stood before us, looking a little nervous, and the lads gathered around him.
"You told us we had to pick a tale and tell it back to you, sir, but you didn't say it had to be one you told us. So we decided on a different one, that Master Samwise told Fosco while they were working in the garden."
I sneaked a look at Mr. Frodo, and his face was a study -- he hadn't expected this. Fosco came forward and began,
"Outside the Shire, on the edge of Buckland, is an old, old Forest. Dangerous it is, and full of malice, and wise hobbits don't go in the place. But in time of peril you go where you must, and one foggy morning there were four hobbits went through the Forest Gate, carrying a ring of power and doom…."
He went on how they got lost and turned around in the Old Forest, and then Hob Goodbody took over and told about Merry and Pippin falling asleep by Old Man Willow, and being swallowed up by the tree. One by one the lads stepped out and carried the story forward, all the way to their escape from the Barrow-wight and Tom Bombabil leaving them outside the gates of Bree.
"So if ever you're forced by need or fate, to travel from the Shire, see you take a few trusty friends along, for cheer and help along the road," Balco ended at last, and the lads stood all in a row and bowed. Sam and I clapped enthusiastically, and Mr. Frodo joined in, laughing.
"The pupils have turned the tables on the master today, it seems! Well done, lads, very well done! We'll have Master Samwise in to tell tales for us, when school starts up again, shall we?"
"Can he tell one today, before dinner?" Fosco asked eagerly.
Frodo eyed Sam as if he thought he owed him something, a gleam in his eye. "Yes, I believe that's a good idea, Fos. Not his own adventures, either – something from his schooldays. Gil-galad, Sam?"
I brought in elevenses, and all the while we ate Sam sat in the chimney corner, muttering to himself. When we got done and cleared away, and the lads came in from their break, he stood before the window, his hands clasped behind his back and his eyes on the opposite wall.
"Gil-galad was an Elven king, of him the harpers sadly sing –"
When he ran out of words – he told me later he never had known the whole thing – Mr. Frodo went and stood next to him, a hand on his shoulder, and recited the rest, all the way to the end. And the lads sat quiet before them, drinking in the old story of courage and sorrow.
Fosco kept coming to Bag End, even after school ended. He was too puny to be much use in the harvest field, and it seemed like his mother was afraid to have him home, now Ted was awake in the daytime and working at the Mill.
"Can you find something for him to do in the garden, Sam? I know he's been helping a bit in the afternoons, but I mean a real job – something I can pay him for. Will he be too much trouble for you?"
We were at breakfast, and Sam took a bite of egg while he thought about it.
"I can keep him busy," he said finally. "It's a waste of your coin, though, Mr. Frodo – it's not like I need the help."
"Not my coin – Lobelia's. And I can't think of a better use for it than helping Fosco and his mother. I think they've suffered almost more than anyone else in Hobbiton, from Lotho's mischief. They went through all the hardship everyone else did, during the Troubles, and add to that the scorn of their neighbours because of Ted. The bad times are over for the rest of the Shire, but not for them."
"I hadn't thought of it like that, but you're right, Mr. Frodo. I'll have the lad work with me, if you say so."
"Keep on telling him stories, Sam. As much as his mother needs the coins, Fosco needs to hear about friendship, and courage, and kindness. He's seen all too little of any of them."
Sam nodded thoughtfully, buttering a scone. "I'll do that," he said.
So Fosco came to be gardener's lad, and he was there early and late. He was loitering outside the door when Sam went out after breakfast, and after a few days of this, Mr. Frodo went and called him in to eat with us, and then worked with him on his reading a while, before he went outside to help Sam. He was supposed to go home at teatime, but he rarely did. He haunted Bag End like a stray cat you've fed once too often.
He worked willingly enough in the garden, Sam told me, though he was quite as likely to pull up a row of beets as the weeds he was after. Sam had to watch him pretty close. When the day's work was over he lingered, sitting against the wall of the garden shed watching the sunset, or hanging around outside the chicken run.
I called him over to me one afternoon and gave him a basket. "Want to gather the eggs for me? I'll pay you in seedcake if you don't crack any, and if you find more than the six I need for breakfast, you can take the rest home to your Mum."
He was sullen-looking child most of the time, but at that he gave a big grin. He came back in half an hour with nine eggs, uncracked and clean as a whistle.
"I wiped them off with some leaves for you, Mistress Rose. There's one hen hiding a nest in a hole under the floor. Can I honest take some home?"
Did he really think I'd promise that and then go back on my word? What kind of hobbits did this lad run with, anyway? I gave him enough seedcakes to fill his pockets and helped him wrap up the extra eggs in one of Sam's old handkerchiefs, padded with leaves. He gathered the eggs for me from that day forward.
At week's end Mr. Frodo paid him, and he pranced off home happy as a new lamb in clover, with his few coins and his little bundle of fresh eggs. I watched him down the Hill with a warm feeling in my heart – what a different-seeming lad he was now, from the shifty-eyed urchin who'd come to the door when school began!
I was plenty busy the next day. Merry and Pippin were coming for a visit, to help Mr. Frodo with the book. They'd be at Bag End by teatime, probably, so I wanted it to be a special meal. And of course with company staying, we'd be going back to late dinner – we'd been having it at noon because of the school, and Mr. Frodo said to just leave it that way when school ended.
"I seem to sleep better, without that big meal in the evening," he said, and I thought he looked better, too. He was filling out some, not that he was ever what you'd call stout, but he was losing that peaked look he'd had for so long. But we couldn't serve noon dinner and a cold supper to Mr. Merry and Mr. Pippin, like as if they were farmers.
With one thing and another, that day, I didn't notice Fosco wasn't around. Sam mentioned it at lunchtime, wondering where he was, but I had my mind on dinner and didn't pay much attention.
I set the dining room table for three and put on a clean apron to serve them, and Sam went down cellar for the wine. The next thing I knew, Mr. Pippin burst into the kitchen and just scooped me up and carried me off! Mr. Merry was holding open the dining room door, laughing like it was the best joke he'd seen in a month, and Pippin set me down in a chair by the table and kept his arms either side of me so's I couldn't get up. And then Mr. Frodo came out of the dish closet carrying plates and silverware and set two more places at the table, and by the time Sam got there I was sitting at table with the three of them, and they were holding their sides from laughter.
I held my breath when he came in with the wine, wondering what in the Shire he'd say – and he didn't say nothing at all, just looked at Mr. Frodo, accusing like.
Mr. Frodo stopped laughing and went over to him. "I'm sorry Sam – we thought if we made a jest of it –"
"You can blame it on us, Sam," said Mr. Merry. "I understand how you feel about serving my cousin, and I'm grateful he has you to take care of him. But – well, Frodo asked us to talk about our part of the Quest, you know, and we'd like for you to hear it too. You and Rosie. Will you indulge us just for this visit, and have dinner with us? Next time we come we'll keep our proper place, I promise!"
The stiff sort of look on Sam's face softened and he chuckled.
"All right, Mr. Merry. I'll hold you to that, mind! Sit down now, sir, and let me serve the wine."
We settled down to eat, and Mr. Pippin began telling about what happened after Frodo left the Fellowship at Parth Galen, but he didn't get far.
"I'm sorry, Frodo – this just won't work. I can't sit here over beef and mushrooms and talk about an army of orcs bringing Boromir down with arrows –"
His voice trailed off and he took a gulp of wine, looking a bit sick.
"It's not exactly dinner table conversation, Frodo," Merry said quietly. "Do you and Sam really sit over dinner night after night and talk about Mordor? I'm not surprised you're thinner than any hobbit has a right to be! How do you keep your appetite, Sam?"
I'd got so used to tales of terror at dinner, I never gave it a thought – Sam was helping Mr. Frodo with his book, was all. Now that Mr. Merry said that, I could see what he meant, but Sam kind of half smiled and took another bite.
"I just think how thankful I am to be eating good Shire cooking instead of lembas – not meaning no insult to the lembas; I was mighty grateful to have 'em, once upon a time, and I'd have been glad to have a good bit more of 'em! But lembas can't hold a candle to Rosie's cooking, and that's a fact."
Mr. Frodo looked embarrassed. "You're right, Merry – I never thought about it. It's not fit conversation for dinner. We'll save the Quest for morning, and hope for a sunny day. What's the news from Buckland?"
Mr. Pippin kept us laughing with his tales of their exploits – they were cutting a wide swath among the lasses of the Shire, seemingly, and had more invitations to dinner than there were nights in the week. When they weren't being dined round the Shire, they were throwing their own parties at Crickhollow.
"Now we're here, Frodo, we'll have to start on your birthday – it's only three weeks off, hardly time to plan a proper celebration, but –"
"Just as well; I don't want more than just a few friends, Pippin, not what you'd call a party at all! I do want you two, though – I hope you're planning to stay?"
"Of course we're planning to stay, cousin; just try and get rid of us! Who else do you want? Fatty Bolger, of course, and Folco –"
"Yes, and I think that's all. The same old friends who were here the birthday before I left Bag End – it'll come full circle, having the same group now I'm home again. And this time when we drink Bilbo's health, we'll know where he is – we didn't, last time!"
Merry nodded. "That's a strange thought, isn't it? Only two years ago – there's a lot we didn't know then that we've learned since. Good and bad."
After dinner Pippin and Merry were bound to go into Bywater, to the Dragon, and they wouldn't let Mr. Frodo off, for all his wish to stay home.
"I'll tell you about every horrible, terrifying moment of being dragged across Middle Earth by a band of orcs, and any other unpleasant memory you want to hear – but you've got to be a proper host, Frodo! And that means if your guests want to go to the pub, you say 'There you go, mate, I'm right behind you!' "
Merry chuckled as he handed Frodo his cloak. "Our young cousin has become a very gracious host, and he knows what's what, Frodo! Don't argue."
They went off laughing, but they came back sober, in more ways than one. Mr. Frodo was dead silent, but his eyes blazed and I realized with a start that I had never seen him angry. He was angry now, cold furious, and he went straight to the sideboard and poured a draught of brandy, tossing it down and shaking his head after.
"Who was that fellow?" Pippin asked. "I mean, he was unsavory enough, no question, and I wouldn't want to be his little brother, but what is it to you, cousin? I've been hearing stories of the Old Took and his masterful ways all my life, but I never thought I'd see a demonstration! And certainly not from you!"
Sam had taken Frodo's cloak and hung it up. He took his arm now and drew him to a chair before the fire.
"Sit down, master, and have a smoke, peaceful like. Who was it – Ted?"
"It was Ted. all right, treating his cronies to rounds of beer with my – that is, Lobelia's – coin. Bragging all the while how his good-for-naught runt of a brother was paying the tab with Mad Baggins' gold. I never thought I'd wish to kill another hobbit, Sam – I'm a fine one to talk to Fosco!"
"Ted took his earnings, then. Poor lad."
"Poor Ted, as well, I'd say." Merry's voice was quiet, but it held an undercurrent of amusement. "Your master rose up and threw the lot of them right out of the place, lordly as Elrond himself – you'd have thought he had an army of Elves at his back! The worthies of Bywater saw a side of Frodo Baggins they never knew was there – they'll be careful to stay the right side of him, after tonight!"
Sam stood by Frodo's chair, gripping his shoulder. "Good for you, Mr. Frodo! Ted's been needing that all his life, to run up against someone who won't tolerate his nastiness." He gave a short laugh. "You done a service for the Shire tonight, in a small way, as much as when you sent Sharkey packing."
I had been listening in, mending the fire and getting brandy for Merry and Pippin. Sam is making this too simple, I thought. What happens when Ted gets home, angry and shamed before his friends?
"What about Fosco?" I asked. "He wouldn't have given Ted that money, not unless he was forced. And he didn't come today."
Sam and Frodo turned to look at me. "Oh, no," Frodo whispered. 'If he's harmed that child –"
Sam was taking his cloak down from its hook. "We'll soon know," he said grimly.
"Hold on, Sam, you can't just go rushing off without a plan. Where do they live, this Ted and his brother?"
"The Mill, Mr. Merry. Ted's the miller – and his poor, undersized brother is one of Mr. Frodo's pupils, and my helper in the garden. If he's done that lad any real hurt, I'll throw him in his own millrace!"
"Come on, we'll plan as we go. Coming, Merry? Pippin?" Mr. Frodo was headed out the door, but Merry caught his arm.
"Half a minute, Frodo – get your sword, and that mithril shirt. Sam, into your mail and bring your sword along – quick, now!"
Frodo stared at Mr. Merry, horror on his face. "I'm angry, Merry, but I'm not ready to do murder, not yet!"
"Nor I wouldn't want to face Ted with my sword in hand, in case I might be tempted," said Sam.
"Not in your hand, just hanging at your side!" Pippin gave a crow of laughter and ducked into the guest room. He came out wearing his mail shirt, pulling his helmet on his head and buckling on his sword. "If the Ringbearer in his wrath isn't enough to settle this bully, a visit from the Travellers – and the King's Messenger – may do the trick."
Sam smiled slowly. "It might at that – and Master Ted's face should worth seeing!"
Moments later they filed out the front door, looking ready for battle. "Ponies?" Pippin asked. "It will take a few minutes to saddle them."
"It'll be worth taking the time; much more impressive if we arrive mounted. Now, hobbits!" It was Captain Merry back again, as he'd been before the Battle of Bywater. I smiled a little as I shut the door behind them. Ted Sandyman would never know what hit him.
If only Fosco was unharmed!
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.