Title:  Between the Woods and Frozen Lake (1/?)     

Author:  Slipstream

Rating:  PG (for illness, non-sexual hobbit nudity, and brief animal violence)

Summary:  While traveling on horse-back across a frozen Shire to visit the Tooks for Yule, a sudden accident leaves Frodo on the brink of winter and a battle hardened Pippin to care for him. 

Notes:  This is a little scenario that has been running about my head for a while and was brought fully to shape as I watched a reading of Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" on PBS, a poem that is typically portrayed as a Christmasy, wholesome tale, but in which I see much darker connotations (or maybe I'm the only one who sees the woods as a symbolic longing for death).  Anyway, the title is pulled from one of the darkest (ha ha) verses of the poem, which I have reprinted below for those who may not have read it or would like a refresher.  Geographically, I have tried to keep this as accurate to Tolkien's maps as possible.  From what I gather, the Shire is no more than 50 miles across, at most, and I've tried to stay true to the layout of things.  I may have inserted a roadway or brook here or there, but even Tolkien's maps do not show all the fairways that surely must crisscross the Shire, so I do not feel exceedingly guilty about it. 

Specific Chapter Notes:  Yes, I know that Sam's child is a girl, Elanor, but remember that while Rosie was pregnant they both thought that she would be a boy, thus my references to the unborn child as 'him'.  This chapter contains less Frodo!healers-centric stuff, but hey, you gotta have SOME plot build up!

For Febobe (a.k.a. Frodo Baggins of Bag End), who encouraged.  A great part of the heart and soul of Frodo!Healers, she is the reason that all my stories now have extensive medical notes at the end of them and the reason I now include such extensive food descriptions.  Praise her with great praises!

As always, enjoy.

~~~***~~~

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

Whose woods are these I think I know

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound's the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

-Robert Frost

~~~***~~~

In the last weeks of October, before winter began to settle in and make correspondence by mail more difficult, a letter arrived to one Frodo Baggins of Bag End from a Mr. Peregrin Took of Tookborough, which read, in all its utter lack of formality:

"Dearest Cousin Frodo,

"Greetings, thou tossel-headed ancient!  You would think there were no roads from Tookborough to Hobbiton with what little we've seen of you of late.  Even our beloved Sam Gamgee has paid a visit to these lands, though I think it was to make sure I haven't gone and done mischief to his precious saplings! 

"We miss your sorry face at our supper-table, and as the holidays are fast approaching, I wish to extend to you an invitation to join us this year for Yule.  Now don't you start, cousin.  You may bluster on about overstaying your welcome, but that is physically impossible, seeing as to all the credit you have earned throughout the years.  My memory and the official registry shows that you have not paid us an extended visit since the harvest of 1418, and even you will admit, dear Frodo, that that is a rather long time ago. 

"Come and visit!  Get out of that stuffy hole and let the newlyweds stir themselves into a right improper state with their own brand of Yule cheer (and believe me, cousin, from the off-color talks at the Green Dragon I had with a rather drunken Samwise, that is EXACTLY what Master Gamgee plans to do his first Yule morn with his beloved!)  We bachelors shall retain our modesty and hopefully get gloriously drunk on cheer while those lovebirds wrestle over who gets the last piece of Yule-cake.

"Please respond as quickly as you are able so that travel arrangements may be made.  And know this, cousin.  I will not take 'no' for an answer very lightly, and I shall write letters imploring Sam on my behalf should you refuse.  Eru knows that if I can't make you do something, Sam most certainly can.

"Much love,

Pippin"

With an argument like that, there could be little resistance, and Frodo accepted the invitation with only a little forethought.  All the proper arrangements were made, and as morning dawned a week before Yule the Bag End household was rather busy with the last-minute preparations for Frodo's journey.

The dirty remnants of the last snow lay draped across the winter landscape.  Though fresh snow hadn't fallen in the last week, the temperatures had dropped and a hard freeze had crusted over the drifts and turned once gentle slopes into jagged sheets of ice.  It was bad riding weather, for sure, but an ache in the Gaffer's left knee spoke of a storm in less than three days, and if Frodo did not take this opportunity to make a run for Tookborough then he'd never make it at all, a fact that he reminded Rosie of again as she fussed one last time over the thickness of his cloak. 

"I know, Frodo," she replied, wrapping another layer of scarves around his neck like a young child being bundled up for his first trip outdoors.  "But I wish you wouldn't go running out as if you weren't welcome in your own home.  Sam and I would love for you to stay, this being our first Yule in Bag End, as it were."

"Exactly why I need to get out from underfoot," he smiled.  "You and Sam ought to enjoy your first Yuletide together as a proper man and wife, and you don't need me underfoot all holiday."  He winked, laughing at the resulting blush from the Mistress Gamgee. 

"And you!" he said, giving her swelling belly a rather cross look.  "Behave your mum, and not quite so much kicking whilst I'm away!  Your poor mother has already put up quite a bit with your bad behavior, and if it continues why there'll be no Yule cake for you!" 

They both laughed this time, Frodo blowing the unborn babe a rather elaborate good-bye kiss.  Sam entered carrying a tray with tea in a canteen and hot scones wrapped in a kerchief for Frodo's journey, a queer look on his face, despite his grin.  "I don't know what all the merriment is about, but it is good to hear laughter from the likes of you two."

Rosie stood on tiptoe to give her husband a gentle peck on the cheek, taking the tray from his hands and placing them instead on her belly. "Oh, he's just scolding your son for being so lively, as usual."  The babe, as if sensing he was being discussed, stirred beneath his father's touch, and Samwise blushed with pride.

The doorbell chimed, interrupting their little moment, and they all turned to look at it. 

"That would be Master Eldeberry," Frodo sighed and bent to retrieve one of his packs.  Sam hastily gathered the rest of his baggage so that his master would not be forced to shoulder their burden, and Rose followed them as they shuffled out the door and down the garden path. 

Frodo's travel plans were this— He had arranged to travel by cart from Hobbiton with a merchant bringing store wares to Bywater, where he would room for a night in the Suckling Pig, a local inn.  The innkeeper there had recently sold a pony to the Tooks, and rather than send one of his lads to deliver the mount and leave him stranded in Tookborough, Frodo would use it for his journey.  He'd return to Hobbiton with Pippin, who would stay a few days at Bag End before proceeding to Buckland to visit Merry.  "Trouble enough for everyone," Pippin had said with a grin while revealing his plans, "without any one place being over-crowded with Travelers for too long a time."

Frodo nodded his greetings to Boro Eldeberry, a cheerily round hobbit wrapped in a red scarf so long that it left little trails in the snow behind him.  The merchant's cart was hitched momentarily to the garden gate, and Sam took extra care to arrange his master's baggage among the packed goods so that they would not tumble during the bumpy ride.  While Boro unhitched his horses and checked to make sure all their fastenings were secure, Sam turned his gaze to his master and set his mouth in a firm line. 

"You take good care, Mr. Frodo.  And don't let that young Took bully you into trouble."

Frodo laughed.  "I do not think you shall have to worry much about that.  Our Peregrin may still be ever the prankster, but I believe our little trip and the watchful eye of the lasses there this holiday will be enough to keep him at his best."

Sam smirked.  "It wasn't him I was worrying about…"  Affronted, Frodo frowned and smacked him arm lightly, at which Rosie stifled a little snort.  Sam, too, smiled and laid a strong hand on his shoulder, then his expression went serious and his eyes softened.

"I mean it.  You stay out of trouble and come back to us safe and sound in two weeks time, or I'll be forced to skin that Took."

"I know, Sam.  And I will.  You needn't worry."  Frodo's smile was small and slightly sad, and Sam's eyes shone as he drew his master into a farewell embrace.

"Have a merry Yule, Mr. Frodo."

Frodo squeezed back.  "You too, Mr. Samwise.  Take care of your wife and babe." 

They withdrew, Sam wiping at his eyes as if a sudden piece of dirt had landed in them, and Frodo embraced Rosie as well.  As the newlyweds stood by, he climbed into the waiting cart.  Once he was settled Boro shouted a merry "Gid-yup!" to his team, and they were off.  The cart rumbled and bumped down New Row, and Frodo sat turned backwards to watch Sam and Rosie wave him off before the cart took a final turn and they disappeared. 

The cart was slow, being heavily burdened with trade goods, but it was better than walking.  The ride to Bywater took the remainder of the day, and Frodo was content to relax and watch the landscape around Hobbiton roll by as he made polite small talk with the merchant.  He listened as Boro Eldeberry recounted tales of his five children, the eldest of whom, a daughter, would be wed to Joko Smallburrow next spring.  They talked of inns (Boro was delighted to hear he was staying at the Pig and praised their ale verbosely), next year's crops, Mistress Glory Westbank of the north farthing who had the previous month birthed an astonishingly fair-haired set of healthy triplets, anything and everything except the War, and Frodo was careful to keep his maimed hand wrapped in the lap blanket.

Though it was dark when Boro Eldeberry finally deposited Frodo and his baggage at the Suckling Pig, Erlan Hardbottle, the innkeeper, was waiting at the door with a lantern and a cheery smile to usher him in. 

"Greetings, Master Baggins!  I take it your journey was well?  Right cold out here, it is.  Let me give you a hand with that baggage and we'll have you in and settled in no time!"

Together they gathered Frodo's belongings and the innkeeper led him inside the cheerily warm tavern.  The common room was strung with garlands and evergreens, and a small queue off hobbits with mugs of cider and ale were roasting their toes near the crackling fire, chattering quietly amongst themselves.  Boro nodded to several of his customers (Frodo was spared any social obligations as he knew none of the hobbits clustered in the room), and continued on his journey to the back hall.  "Here we are," he motioned, stopping at a small red door and nudging it open.  "Not the most lavish of lodgings, I might say, but mighty comfortable and close enough to the ale in the other room for anyone's liking."

The lodgings, though cramped, were very much to Frodo's liking, indeed.  It was a cozy room, with a small table and chair near the single rounded window.  There was a fire popping merrily in the brick fireplace, and a well-worn arm-chair was drawn up next to it, lap blankets and small pillows draped across its plush red covering invitingly.  The bed was against the inner wall that retained the most heat, and though the weaving of the cloth was simple, the blankets looked thick and wooly and warm and the pillows were freshly plumped. 

Frodo smiled.  "The lodgings are just fine, Mr. Hardbottle."

"May I interest you in some supper out in the common rooms?" The innkeeper inquired as he set down his portion of Frodo's bags near the door.  "The grub is excellent, if I do say so myself, and the ale is even better."

Frodo hesitated.  He was hungry, yes, but tired as well from his day's journey, and as all the inn's patrons were strangers he would not be able to escape them without spending a long while answering their questions.  The stump on Frodo's hand ached with the cold, and he longed for a quiet evening to himself. 

"No thank you, Master Hardbottle.  I am rather tired, and think I should prefer a light supper in my room, please."

Erlan gave a little bow.  "Whatever pleases you, Mr. Baggins."  He quickly exited the room, letting the door click softly behind him. 

Frodo, alone at last, could no longer resist the tempting call of the fire-side chair, and he sank into its softness with a long-repressed sigh.  It was an old chair and lumpy in all the right places, and Frodo felt the tension begin to ease from his aching lower back as he let himself melt into a gentle doze.

There was a light knock on the door.   Frodo stirred from his dreaming long enough to nod at the hobbit maid who brought in his supper on a tray, placing it silently on the small table before exiting with a quick curtsey.  It took some moments for Frodo to gain the will to leave his cozy nest, but he was surprised at how tempting the food smelled.  He eyed the tray with some laughter, measuring the contents of his "light" supper.  There was a platter containing several strips of lightly fried fish, a pile of potato spears, some lemon halves, and a fresh loaf of bread with a small tub of butter and several thick slices of cranberry preserve.  There was also a large bowl of a steaming vegetable soup with whole chunks of hearty carrots and onions floating through its thick broth, and Frodo inhaled its rich scent.  To drink there was a cool pint of ale, courtesy of the barkeep, of course, and…  Frodo smiled.  …and a steaming mug of hot apple cider set next to one of the largest slices of pumpkin pie he had ever seen. 

Hearing the internal chiding of Sam and Rosie, Frodo forced himself to sit awhile at the table and pick at his dinner.  He thought he did rather well.  After three bites of fish, one whole lemon, half a cup of soup, and a slice of bread with a thin spreading of butter atop it, he gave up all pretences of a reasonable dinner and brought the pie and cider back to the arm-chair with him.  He ate these while gazing into the golden glow of the burning logs; some days his chest and mind burned and he could not stand to gaze at a fire for fear of seeing some lingering visage of the Eye, but today what remained of the Ring was mostly silent, and he ate in contentment. 

That night he slept as well as he ever had since his return to the Shire and awoke early the next morning so that he might get a good start on his journey.  Still feeling full from the night before, he skipped breakfast and had Erlan ready his pony while he repacked his small bags.  After bidding the cook a farewell nod (and appropriate compliments for her pumpkin pie), Frodo slipped out the front door to be greeted by the innkeeper leading a young roan mare with bright eyes and a shock of dark mane by the halter.

"This here is Strawberry," said Erlan Hardbottle and patted the little pony on the nose.  "A right beaut, and gentle as they come.  We'd a kept her but for having enough ponies to do all the needed business several times over, and seeing as how the Thain was looking to buy a good strong mare to breed with it seemed right to sell." 

"She is beautiful," Frodo agreed, stroking the roan red coat of her flank.  "Paladin will get many good ponies from her in years to come."

"Fast ones, too," the innkeeper laughed.  "Her mother's won the Mayfair race three years running.  She's a mite skittish, but then again she's still young and not seen much of the world.  You should be able to handle her well."

They loaded the saddle bags with Frodo's baggage and tied his pack to the back of the saddle.  Strawberry stood as still as stone throughout the fuss, even as the stirrups were adjusted to fit Frodo's slightly taller than average frame, and the Ringbearer was feeling very comfortable around her as he mounted. 

"Turn west down the East Road," Erlan instructed, pointing out the direction.  "After a few miles there will be a less traveled road that will branch off and run south towards Tookborough.  It's a bit rough in areas, and goes through mostly wilderness, but it's well enough for winter travel and you should have no major problems.  At some point you will cross the repaired bridge over Ederbourn Creek.  The water's a bit nasty there, but the bridge is all right and even if it wasn't the next crossing is so far off you'd be better just going home.  That will take your journey well into the afternoon, but you should reach Tookborough shortly before nightfall.  I take it you know the way from there."

"Yes," Frodo affirmed, adjusting himself in the saddle.   "I am meeting my cousin where the trail joins up with the main road once more, and he and I will continue on to the Great Smails."

Erlan nodded and gave Strawberry a final loving swat.  "Best of journeys to you then, Mr. Baggins.  And I hope you keep the Pig in mind when you next pass through Bywater.  We'd be glad to have your business again."

"I shall," Frodo responded, and clicked the pony into a walk.  "Farewell!"

The first few hours of his journey were uneventful and rather enjoyable.  The morning sun was spectacular and, despite the old snow, the winter landscape of the Shire was still as beautiful and stunning in a way much more familiar and home-like than the soaring geography of the lands he had seen in his travels.  As he looked upon the winter landscape Frodo remembered with a sad chuckle a summer that seemed an age ago where he had bid each and every one of these dales farewell. 

As the day wore on, however, the journey became less and less comfortable.  The wind was sharp and biting cold, and he rearranged his scarf to cover the lower portion of his face with numb fingers.  The saddle of the borrowed pony was unfamiliar and rode strangely, and Frodo found himself having to constantly readjust his footing in the stirrups.  He didn't suffer alone, however; the roan's coat was now speckled with icicles and frost, the pony's steps slower and less sure on the muddy road.  It was a lonely journey, and Frodo was looking forward to meeting Pippin at the crossroads. 

When the sun had just begun to make its last downward arc the woods suddenly disappeared and Frodo and pony stumbled upon the Ederbourn Creek Bridge.  A slight flood from the last spring had washed out the middle of the old stone cart bridge, and a temporary structure of wooden planks had been erected in its steed until the labor could be spared from repair of the main roads. 

Frodo eyed the little bridge with trepidation, but knew that even if he did not trust the inkeeper's assurances, this was the only crossing for miles and backtracking now would mean at least a three day detour down the main road towards Waymoot.  Besides, the creek was not that wide.  In the rush of spring thaw, when the water tables were at their highest, this little mockery of the Water would stretch no more than twenty feet at its widest some ways downstream before it joined with the Shirebourn River.  In the dead of winter the icy water ran only a few feet wide half a mile upstream, revealing a wide, rocky stretch of beach on each bank. 

The only reason the little stone bridge had been constructed at all was that by some chance, the particular point where it intercepted the road was the deepest portion of it's journey, with large, loose boulders and fast moving miniature rapids that prevented safe fording.  A small natural dam created an unnaturally wide pool seventy feet long and twenty five feet wide.  The bridge had been built of solid stone to resist the swirling waters of this treacherous stretch of the creek, but even that had crumbled after a hard freezing winter followed by the rush of spring rain.

Not liking the look of the repair job at all Frodo held a brief mental debate, finally deciding that he would not have been sent this way had the bridge not been suitable, and eased Strawberry into a gentle walk.  The moment the mare's feet touched the boards, Strawberry nickered at the hollow sound her hoofs made on the wooden planks and laid her ears flat against her skull. 

"Easy, old gal," Frodo soothed, tightening his hold on the reigns, feeling his own nerves tense as the horsed snorted and pranced on the wooden bridge.  "I don't like that noise, either, but if we keep our wits and move right on forward then we'll be on the other side in two jiffies."

It took nearly a minute to coax the pony to move forward again, and by that time Frodo was deeply rattled and thought he could hear every tiny shift of the bridge beneath their weight.  The wooden planks were dark with saturated water and ice.  Each step of the horse's hooves echoed in the frozen dell like whip-cracks.

'Come on,' Frodo thought.  'Faster.  The sooner we get off this cursed bridge, the better I will feel about it.'  He stroked Strawberry reassuringly on her flank.

A lone winter cardinal let out a brief shrill of song just as they reached the crest of the bridge, and as if that was some signal the wooden planks beneath the pony's' hind quarters suddenly gave way.  

Frodo gasped in surprise as Strawberry whinnied her alarm, hooves scrambling at empty air.  He threw himself forward in the saddle, thinking there was still time to get the pony moving and onto a stronger portion of the bridge.  Strawberry struggled as well, attempting to heave her bulk back out of the ever-growing hole, clawing frantically with her front limbs at boards slick with ice.  Her frenzied snorts turned to puffs of frost in the freezing air.  With his senses enhanced by a rush of adrenaline, Frodo thought he could hear his warm breath crackle as it froze and shatter again as it fell in a minute blizzard against his eyelashes.

There was another low groan as more of the bridge shuddered and finally gave way, and then horse and rider were falling.  Frodo was thrown from the saddle, and he had only a few lightning-short moments to panic before he hit the icy wall of the water and darkness took him.