1. Hobbits On Ice
But others insisted that ice-skating originated in the Shire itself. Rumor had it that the art was invented shortly after the Shire-hobbits' famous victory at the Battle of Greenfields, when Bandobras Took escaped from a roving band of Orcs by strapping the pieces of his broken sword to his feet and skating blithely away. The sword was hung in the museum at Michel Delving, and the Tooks skated ever after in honor of their illustrious if unconventional ancestor.
The Tooks, however, were exceptional in this as in many other matters. In Hobbiton folk prided themselves on being more settled and sensible. Skating, like rope-dancing, was primarily a pastime among hobbits of the lesser sort. Among hobbits of good family it was relatively rare, and any who practiced the art past his irresponsible tweens was likely make himself a subject of comment at the Green Dragon or the Bywater Inn. Such eccentricity might be tolerated, but it was hardly thought respectable.
Then again, Frodo Baggins had never been in much danger of being thought respectable.
"He's skating backwards," Merry said unbelievingly as Frodo flew across the ice. "How in Middle-earth does he do that?"
"It's not that hard when you put your mind to it, Mr. Merry," said Sam. From their place by the side of the pond he glanced at the skaters. Merry twitched impatiently, longing to join them; he had been sidelined by a broken skate lace and now stood -- flustered, annoyed, and helpless -- as Sam fixed it. The skates felt awkward and heavy on Merry's feet, and he wondered how anyone could feel comfortable in such things.
Sam turned his attention back to Merry, looking at him appraisingly. "Reckon you could probably learn if you gave it an afternoon and you were willing to fall a time or two."
"I expect I could," said Merry, with the thoughtless arrogance of the naturally graceful. "But Frodo of all people?"
Suddenly the cold winter afternoon seemed to Merry about ten degrees colder. Sam was still looking at him: not frowning, not scowling, not, apparently, doing anything at all other than look. But that look gave Merry some suspicion of what it might be to encounter a wolf in the middle of the woods when you have just made the mistake of threatening its only cub. Oh, dear, he thought. "I mean," he stammered, "well, what I mean is, well, Frodo couldn't skate half so well when he visited us at Brandy Hall last winter. I just didn't expect -- oh, hang it all, Sam, don't look at me like that. You know perfectly well that Frodo is my favorite cousin."
Sam smiled, and the temperature returned to normal. "Aye, I do at that," he said. "And you'll be joining him in a moment, sir, if you just stop squirming like a fish on a line so as I can mend that lace on your skate. Though what you did to get it in such a mass of knots is more than I can tell, if I may say so."
And Sam returned his task, leaving Merry with the question that had been teasing at him since he'd arrived for a visit at Bag End that morning.
What, exactly, had happened between Frodo and Sam? Something was going on, that was certain. Or perhaps it wasn't so certain. Frodo was in general about as communicative as an oyster, so one never quite knew what he was thinking -- though it was often possible to guess with a tolerable degree of accuracy.
Merry had been guessing about Frodo's feelings for Sam for several years now, though Frodo had never once confided in him about the subject -- at least, not in so many words. But during his last visit to Brandy Hall, Frodo had somehow found occasion to mention Sam at least once in every three sentences. And each time, Frodo had sighed heavily and somehow contrived to look as if he'd been beaten by ruffians and left for dead.
Merry's heart had bled to see it. Frodo was in many ways an admirable hobbit, but Merry had feared that his quiet, reclusive cousin could conceivably manage to live out his whole life without once managing to get to the point -- even with a hobbit as fanatically devoted to him as Sam so clearly was.
But this morning an entirely different Frodo had welcomed Merry to Bag End, a Frodo who, well -- dimpled. Yes, he definitely dimpled. Merry had never noticed the dimple in Frodo's right cheek before, and yet there it was as plain as day. And it never quite disappeared, either, despite the fact that Bag End was in relative chaos: the breakfast-things were not yet cleared away, Frodo was not completely dressed, and an uncharacteristically muddled Sam hastened out the door soon after Merry entered it. Had something changed at last?
Merry certainly hoped so. He itched with curiosity, but there had been no time to get Frodo alone and make cautious inquiries. Only minutes after Merry's arrival, Frodo had practically dragged him off to go skating at the pond just south of the village. And that, too, seemed odd. Frodo had never once within Merry's memory managed to skate for more than five minutes without falling. Sam was a splendid skater, of course; he'd been the center forward for Hobbiton's ice-brumble team for the past three years. But it was unlike Frodo to be so eager to humiliate himself in public -- for the skating pond would be crowded with hobbits, as it was on every fine winter afternoon from Foreyule through Afterlithe.
It was all very strange. Still, Merry decided, as Sam finished with his errant lace at last, he would stifle his curiosity for the moment and enjoy himself. The afternoon was perfect for skating. It was cold enough so they could be sure of the ice, but not so cold as to turn the skaters to ice themselves. Heavy gray clouds sailed across the sky, but enough clear blue was interspersed to dapple the pond and the fields beyond with brilliant winter sunshine. A hospitable farmer had started a cheery bonfire not far away, where the skaters could warm themselves and take a cup of hot cider from a pot suspended from over the flames. The smell of the cider and of roasting chestnuts wafted through the air.
Meanwhile, on the ice, most of the younger folk from Hobbiton and all the surrounding country were skating. Hobbit-lads from the ice-brumble teams whizzed across the ice like hornets; children staggered along in giggling clumps; a half-dozen hobbit-lasses hand in hand played crack-the-whip, the last one in line shrieking happily to find herself going so fast.
And there, among the others but somehow not of them, was Frodo.
No one, Merry thought, could help noticing Frodo as he glided effortlessly in and out among the other skaters. Frodo hardly seemed to be skating at all: he danced, he floated across the ice, changing direction as quickly as a swallow in flight; now forwards, now backwards, always perfectly balanced with one hand slightly extended behind him. The sun and the wind played through his glossy dark curls and gave his cheeks the first blush of a cold winter dawn.
Merry had known Frodo all his life, but now he wondered whether he'd been blindfolded the whole time, for it had never once occurred to him that his cousin was beautiful. And yet Frodo was beautiful, almost eerily so. Among the other hobbits he looked like a swan among chickens. For half a second, watching him, Merry felt his heart skip a beat, but then he remembered two things that restored him at least partially to his senses. First, he recalled a memorable afternoon in Buckland many years before, when Frodo had pitched head-first into a pig-sty, rising uninjured but covered with -- well, he'd been less than a vision of perfect loveliness at the time.
And second, Merry remembered Sam. It was odd, but for a moment Merry had almost forgotten him.
He looked at Sam and realized that Sam was now watching Frodo too, intently following Frodo everywhere with his gaze. To Merry it seemed as if a steel band stretched between them, going everywhere that Frodo went but tying him back to the single still point that was Sam. So vivid was this illusion that Merry started a bit when a group of hobbits skated across the invisible line; he'd half expected the other skaters to trip over it as if it were a physical barrier.
Merry glanced back at Sam, who was plainly unaware that anyone but Frodo existed. In the depths of Sam's brown eyes he saw fire. Whatever had or had not happened in the master bedroom of Bag End, Sam's feelings at least were clear. Frodo was spoken for, and would remain so until the stars fell from the sky and all the lands of Middle-earth sank beneath the Sea.
"Sam," Merry said hesitantly. He felt a bit awkward but forced himself to go on. If what Merry suspected was true, then Sam was in every meaningful sense of the words a part of the family now -- whatever his station in life might be. With the heartfelt if somewhat free-form courtesy of a true Brandybuck, Merry felt he should acknowledge this fact as quickly as possible.
"Mr. Merry?" Sam said absently, not taking his eyes off Frodo for an instant.
"Frodo -- he's looking wonderful," Merry said. "Sam, I've never seen him so happy in his life."
Sam looked up at him. "Aye," he said carefully, giving the word several syllables more than it usually had.
"You seem happy as well," Merry said, and then threw all caution to the winds, where it belonged. "Oh, Sam, I'm so glad for you both."
Sam smiled. "Kind of you to say so, Mr. Merry," he said vaguely, and looked back at Frodo.
Was that a yes or a no? Merry wondered. He sighed. Really, this was getting ridiculous. Sam had never before been slow to say what was on his mind, and say it bluntly too. But now he seemed as discreet as -- well, as discreet as -- Frodo. Merry watched his cousin glide by, and began to feel, without knowing why, quite irritated at the whole affair. He shook his head. What in the Shire was wrong with him?
Sam interrupted this unproductive line of thought with a groan. "Oh, no," he said, "there he goes, now."
"Who goes where?" Merry asked. Sam was still watching Frodo, who as far as Merry could tell was skating just as before.
Sam pursed his lips. "He's going to jump."
"Frodo? Jump?" Merry said, honestly puzzled. "You mean jump on the ice? How do you know?"
"I can tell," Sam said. "And he'll break his head with his fool tricks some day, like as not. Wish I'd never taught him to . . . Oh, Lady, any minute now."
Frodo had shifted his weight lower onto his body and was skating a complete circuit of the pond, easily moving twice as fast as any of the other skaters. As he streaked past the bank where Merry and Sam stood, he flashed them a look -- or rather, Merry realized, he flashed Sam a look -- that said: Watch.
And Sam folded his arms and watched. "You're a handful and half, is what you are," he muttered, but he wasn't frowning. A little expectant half-smile played across his lips, and Merry, seeing it, felt very much the unwanted third party. In fact, if the Shire and everything in it had vanished into dust, Merry very much doubted that either Frodo or Sam would have noticed or cared.
Frodo shifted his weight down even further, his dark curls whipping behind him now in the wind created by his passage. "Almost there . . . almost there . . ." Sam said, his voice low, as Frodo glanced behind him, extended an arm, twisted slightly, and -- abruptly switched direction and slowed, skating backwards in unhurried s-curves. Sam laughed softly, deep in his chest. "Not just yet, then, I reckon," he murmured.
Frodo slowed even more. With his head cast downward, so his curls fluttered across his face and his thick black eyelashes shadowed his pale skin, he performed a figure eight in aching slow motion, leaning into each curve with languid grace, slowly, slowly, as if he had all the time in the world, as if he had come to the ice for no other purpose but this. When at last he eased gently out of the last curve, he raised his head and glanced back at Sam. Even from the other side the pond Merry could see the flash of blue from those incredible eyes. Merry felt rather than heard Sam shift restlessly beside him with a low noise of combined impatience and appreciation in the back of his throat.
As Frodo's next circuit of the ice brought him past them again, he twisted to skate backwards at exactly the right moment to make eye contact impossible, and Sam's grunt of frustration must have been audible to Frodo, for the next time Merry could see his face he was smiling broadly.
But suddenly playtime was over, for Frodo lowered his weight again and moved faster and faster in an unrelenting rhythm, his eyes wide and blank in a trance of concentration. Then Sam gasped, and Frodo let one foot drop back slightly and sank lower on the other, frowning as his whole body tensed to spring and his skate sent a spray of ice into the air, and then he --
"Now," Sam breathed.
-- sailed upward, higher than seemed possible, his hair whirling around him in a dark halo as he spun, and for a heart-stopping moment he seemed to hang there suspended, his moist lips parted as he gasped for air and met Sam's eyes and smiled; breathless, beautiful amid flying fragments of ice that glittered in the sun like a storm of light --
-- until he landed on a single skate, glided demurely to other side of the pond, and at last came to a stop, flushed and panting.
Sam sat on the bank as if his legs would no longer support him, and he rubbed his palms on his cloak. He chuckled quietly to himself.
Merry's question had been answered, and he knew he should be happy for his cousin. But to his surprise he did not feel happy at all. Well, yes, of course, he found himself thinking, but not for me.
It was as if he had lost something forever, and lost it, too, at the very moment that he had discovered he wanted it.
But Merry was a Brandybuck, and the heartfelt (if free-form) courtesy that he had learned as a child could be a harsh master. So with one last look at Frodo -- ah, but he was beautiful -- Merry locked his grief inside him and threw away the key. And then he smiled. "So, Sam," he said after a short pause. "Have you been teaching Frodo to skate?"
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.