A/N: Today is my birthday! Well, in two and a half hours it will be. In accordance with hobbit tradition, I am giving you a present (this chapter). Although if you would like to give me a present too (a review?) I won't complain. ;)
10. Loss and Profit
The eventful summer of 1405 gave way to a rather dreary fall. Frodo returned to his solitary existence in Bag End by stages: first the Gamgees decamped when their own smial was set to rights, then Pippin when Paladin and Eglantine returned from the Fair to collect their son. Next, although of less direct impact on Frodo's daily life, Halfred Gamgee married Jessimine Goodbody in October and they moved to North Farthing. Finally, in early November Merry received word that Old Rory had finally forgiven his impertinence and he was to journey home to Buckland at once.
That letter sent Merry into a fit of temper.
"Could he be any more high-handed about the whole thing?" the young Brandybuck demanded. "Haughty old goat."
"Merry," Frodo said exasperatedly. "Please don't antagonize him if you can help it. As much as I've enjoyed having you here, I doubt your family would be impressed if the 'old goat' banished you a second time."
Merry sighed. "I know. And I'll try, Frodo. I'll do better this time, I will."
"I know you will," Frodo told him with a smile.
The carriage Saradoc sent arrived the following morning, and with a heavy heart Frodo helped carry his cousin's trunk outside and load it in the back.
"Well. Thank you for everything, Frodo. I mean it," Merry told him earnestly.
Frodo was momentarily too choked up to respond, and pulled his cousin into a hug.
"Safe travels, Merry," Frodo said at last, as Merry climbed into his seat. "Don't forget to write."
The wagon lurched into motion and Merry waved his hand madly until he was out of sight, just as he had done at every parting since he was a small child.
Frodo stood looking out at the chill grey October day for a moment, then turned and went back inside.
Sam was the last, and the least expected.
It was a dark morning in December when the gardener came to speak to him. Frodo knew something was wrong as soon as he opened the door, for Sam was wringing his hands anxiously.
"Oh, Mr. Frodo," Sam said as soon as Frodo invited him in out of the drizzle. "We just got word—I can hardly believe it."
"Slow down, Sam. What's the matter?"
"We just got word," the sandy-haired tween repeated, then gulped, "from my brother, I mean. It's Henna, she's awfully sick. She's been abed for almost a week, an' Ham has ta work, an' there's no one ta look after Hob an' little Petunia, so Mam is goin' out there ta help awhile… an' Dad wants me ta go with her, by your leave," Sam finished.
"Of—of course," Frodo said. "I would not keep you from aiding your kinfolk." He tried to ignore the selfish ache in his heart at the realization that he would have to make do without Sam for the foreseeable future. While his burns had healed, Frodo had been rather more listless and tired than usual, these last few months, and he had come to rely on Sam's able assistance and cheerful disposition more than ever.
"Are ye sure, Mr. Frodo?" Sam asked anxiously. "I hate ta leave you here alone, an' that's a fact."
Frodo determinedly swallowed back his thoughts and forced a reassuring smile. "I can manage, Sam. It's a long journey up to Tighfield and your mother will need you."
"Well all right, but I still don't like ta leave you," Sam said stubbornly. "You will take care o' yourself while I'm gone, won't ye?"
Frodo's mouth quirked in a half smile. "I shall do my utmost. And anyway this will give you a chance to practice your writing, Sam. You do plan on writing to me, don't you?"
"Aww, Mr. Frodo…." Sam had learned to read and write, and while he quite liked being able to read he didn't much fancy writing. The tween sighed. "Aye, I'll write," he promised at last, for he could never refuse Mr. Frodo anything.
Upon learning that they were to leave the next day, Frodo decided to walk down to Number Three, Bagshot Row that afternoon to wish the travelers well.
"Hullo, Mr. Frodo!" Marigold greeted him at the door.
Frodo smiled. "How are you, Marigold?"
She wrinkled her nose. "I dunno. I'm worried about Henna and the new babe, o' course. And I wish Mam would take me with her. I know I could be just as helpful as Sam, but she says I'm too little."
Of all the Gamgees, Marigold was the only one who never showed much reluctance to tell Frodo her mind, something he had always appreciated in her.
Frodo smiled kindly at her. "You're needed here, I'm sure. You're such a good cook, and with Daisy and May gone all day, it falls to you to look after your dad."
The elder Gamgee lasses had secured jobs in Hobbiton that fall; May as a housemaid and Daisy as a nanny in the grand Boffin smial.
Marigold beamed at the compliment, and then the door opened wider. "Now hang on, Mr. Frodo, ye make it sound like I've got one foot in the grave," Gaffer Gamgee objected, making his youngest daughter snicker and duck under his arm, back into the cozy kitchen. "Well, come in, lad, before ye catch your death. This wind could freeze your very marrow."
Frodo stepped gratefully inside. The smial was in a state of disorganization he hadn't often seen there. The object most obviously out of place was a large trunk in the middle of the floor, open and overflowing. Sam was crouched before it, muttering and trying to squeeze in a few more items.
"Why, Mr. Frodo!" a voice exclaimed warmly. Bell Gamgee appeared from the back room and looked Frodo over before nodding approvingly. "I'm right glad ta see roses in your cheeks again, although maybe it's just this wind."
"I feel fine, Mrs. Gamgee," Frodo assured her, smiling. He couldn't help but enjoy such motherly attentions, warranted or not. "I came to say good-by, and to ask if there is anything I can do to help." He knew the Gamgees would never accept his money, but occasionally he could persuade them to accept some other form of aid.
Bell looked at the young gentlehobbit fondly and gave his arm a squeeze. "At present, no, but thankee. Just take care o' yourself! Marigold tells me you're a fine cook, so I don't want ta come back and find you've been skimpin' on meals. You're too thin as it is, if ye don't mind my sayin' so."
"We usually just say 'yes, Mam' when she gets like this," Marigold confided in a loud whisper. "Gets it over with faster, if ye follow me."
Frodo stifled a laugh as Bell turned to her daughter. "Marigold Gamgee! I'll have no more of your cheek! Honestly."
"Yes, Mam," Marigold said contritely, before winking broadly at Frodo.
This time Frodo covered his laughter with a strangled cough. Bell rounded on him questioningly.
"Er, yes," Frodo said quickly, "I'd best be off and stop distracting you from your packing. Mrs. Gamgee? If you need anything, have Sam write to me and I will see that you have it if I can."
"That's very kind, Mr. Frodo," Bell acknowledged.
Sam got up and came over to him. "Post comes early in the morning, so I might not see you again for awhile, sir," he said, and hesitated. "I hope… I hope I shall be back before Yule, but if not—"
Frodo cleared his throat and patted Sam's sturdy shoulder. "If not, I'm sure Hob and Petunia will be very happy to have their Uncle Sam for a Yule guest."
"Aye," Sam nodded, smiling slightly. "In any case, I'll write. Take care o' yourself, Mr. Frodo."
Sam always kept his promises, and little more than a week had gone by before Frodo had a letter from him. Unfortunately, the short letter was more bad news than good. Bell and Samwise had arrived safely in Tighfield, but Henna was very ill and everyone was quite worried. Sam did not say so, but it was obvious to Frodo even in the few short sentences. They would not return to Hobbiton in time for Yule, and quite likely not for some time afterwards.
15 December, 1405
Dear Mr. Frodo,
We have arrived Tighfield without incidint. Hob and Pet send their regards, and Ham. Henna is very ill, though Mam won't tell me much. She looks after Henna and I look after the little ones when Ham needs to work. With much regret, I must tell you we shan't be back for Yule. Will you go to Buckland again this year? I enclos a letter for Dad, would you be so kind as to read it to him?
22 December, 1405
I will always be happy to read a letter to your father, or indeed to be of service in any way. I enclose the Gaffer's response with this note. I am sorry you will not be home for Yule. Do try to be cheerful; although it is not a happy time you are serving a very important office in looking after Hob and Petunia. I do not doubt you are helping to keep their spirits up. I have also enclosed something I hope will help you with that responsibility.
In answer to your question, yes, I believe I shall go to Buckland. I promised Merry I would visit, and it will be good to see how he is getting on. Please give my regards to your mother.
With best wishes,
Frodo looked around at the chill dreariness of Bag End in the wintertime, with no Bilbo and now no Sam to liven it up, and decided he would indeed go to Buckland for Yule. He packed his warmest clothes and set out on foot, remembering all the trips he had taken this way with Bilbo. It was fine weather for such a jaunt, clear and crisp and sunny, and Frodo enjoyed it, save for the lethargy he could not seem to shake. Each day he walked as far as he could, but it wasn't as far as he used to walk in a day. He stopped to rest as needed, but he needed a rest more often than on past trips. A dull ache would start in his chest after awhile, and each breath would get harder and harder until he had to stop and rest. Frodo could think of no reason why the cold, dry air should disagree with him so much now when it never had before.
"Hullo, Cousin!" Merry greeted him when Frodo happened upon him in the crush of hobbits outside Brandy Hall's enormous dining room at supper-time. "We were expecting you yesterday! Well don't just stand there, come along to supper. You look as if you need it. Hold on—are you quite well, Frodo?" the young Bucklander stopped his prattle abruptly to focus a concerned gaze on Frodo.
It made Frodo wonder what he looked like. "Fine, yes, I'm fine. Just need a hot meal and a rest, I'm sure."
Merry brightened immediately. "Well, you've come to the right place!"
Later, alone is Saradoc's rooms, Frodo found he did feel better. He leaned back to rest his full stomach and eyed his cousin. "You're looking rather cheerful, Merry," he commented. "Things are going well, I take it?"
"Yes, rather," Merry replied. He bounced on his toes, which made Frodo smile. "I've been given a job!"
"And the responsibility agrees with you, it seems?" Frodo asked, raising his brows.
Merry nodded importantly. "Father made me administrator for the farmlands in Crickhollow."
Frodo couldn't help a gasping laugh. "And the mushroom farmers are managing to trust you?"
"Well, they do seem to keep a sharp eye on their stores when I visit." Merry rolled his eyes. "And Farmer Greenhand said I was a good choice for this post, seeing as how everyone knows what a mushroom enthusiast I am."
"I'm glad they took it in good spirit, anyway," said Frodo.
"But I'm making myself useful," Merry continued. "Farmer Mugwort brought me a type of mushroom they've started cultivating in Bree; he thinks it would do well for us in next year's planting. His brother goes back and forth regularly, so I wrote a letter to the Bree farmer Mugwort mentioned, asking about this mushroom, the yields they're getting and so forth. He wrote back and if he's to be believed, which Mugwort says he is, then it could be a very promising crop. And as no one in the Shire grows it yet, it could be quite profitable for us. He's willing to sell us enough spawn to do a planting in the spring, and if it does well we can expand."
"Spawn? I thought mushrooms made spores," said Frodo, puzzled.
Merry nodded. "Yes, they make spores, but those are too tiny even to see. You have to combine them with grain or something so that you can plant it. The farmers call that the spawn."
"You've really been working hard at this, Merry," Frodo said. "How did you learn so much about mushrooms?"
"We've plenty of books in the library, as I'm sure you remember, Frodo. I wasn't as familiar with the collection, but I was able to find quite a few books on mushroom cultivation. It's actually quite interesting, more than I expected. And I've been meeting with the farmers to ask them questions and find out what concerns they have."
Frodo was briefly speechless, he was so proud. "Merry, you are a wonder," he said finally, reaching out to ruffle his cousin's messy light brown curls.
Merry actually blushed a little, but he'd never looked more pleased.