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Rosie had thought she knew what to expect from pregnancy. Hunger and morning sickness, swollen feet and forgetfulness were common enough complaints, but the effect it had had on her sense of smell was a surprise.
Scent now filled her world. That which had once been a mere rumor on the air now had a keen and distinctive signature. It was as if a whole new world had been opened up to her. Some of the smells, of course, made her unexpectedly ill, but others revealed startling secrets.
There had been a faint and indefinable note in the air of the Cotton home after the Troubles. She had not consciously marked it amid the flavors of her parent's busy and prosperous hole, but now she recognized the tang of it in Bag End and, with her nose's newfound skill, at last knew what it was.
It was the taint of sickness and it lingered around Frodo Baggins.
It would have been very nearly imperceptible had her nose not become so acute. Even Sam, who'd spent so much time with the master in their travels, had not sensed it. He wouldn't have made a fuss if he had, out of respect for the master's privacy, but Rosie would have known. Sam was an open book to those who loved him. Rosie and, she suspected, Mr. Frodo, would have seen his concern at once.
Mr. Frodo was a puzzle. For as long as she had lived in Bag End and for all the care with which she and Sam tended him, he remained strangely distant. He was an excellent master; the kindest, most respectful gentlehobbit of her acquaintance, but Rosie did not remember him so quiet before the Troubles. He kept to his chambers mostly, something that was only possible because of the stately Bag End's size, and left the running of the hole entirely to her and Sam, as if he were a cherished uncle and not the master of the place.
He ate enough, or so it seemed when they dined together in the bright, sunny kitchen, and went for walks. When Sam was out and about on errands, he would join her for tea and she welcomed his company. It didn't drain her as visits with friends and family had begun to and his unobtrusive and watchful presence was a comfort. In the evenings, as the three of them sat round the fire, he would listen with affectionate interest to Sam's recounting of happenings around the Shire and smiled with a pride that impressed her when Sam described the progress of his labors.
Indeed, to all outwards appearances, he seemed perfectly healthy. Had it not been for the subtle clue of scent, Rosie would never have noted the gingerly way he stood up from the table, or how he would always lean back in his chair on the right shoulder, never the left, and the pallor on his face when he rubbed his neck, stiff after long hours of writing. But it was obvious he had taken great pains to keep his condition hidden from them, and since Sam was so full of joy at their child's imminent birth, she did not feel it was her place to speak.
One day in late February, a package arrived from Buckland. It was wrapped in brown paper and addressed to Mr. Frodo from Mrs. Esmeralda Brandybuck. Rosie brought it to him in the study and was pleased to see his eyes sparkle with delight.
"Shall we see what my aunt has sent me?" he asked, rising stiffly from the chair. Rosie smiled back at him.
"If it please you, sir. I'll set our tea in the parlour." Rosie was curious as to what had come. She had never met Mrs. Brandybuck but knew that she had raised Mr. Frodo for much of his youth.
They settled down for tea. The late winter sunlight slanted deep into the room, warming it till there was almost no need for a fire, but Mr. Frodo always had them keep one burning, even in summer. He laid the package on the table and took a sip of his cup before carefully untying the bindings.
Inside was another wrapping of fine cloth. Mr. Frodo folded it back and, atop a mound of finely sewn infant clothes yellowed with age, was a letter, a ring and a necklace with gems the color of clover honey. He unfolded the letter and read in silence. Rosie patiently spread jam on a scone.
After he'd finished reading, Mr. Frodo set the jewels and note aside and turned his attention to the garments. He lifted a tiny infant's bonnet gently from the top of the pile. Rosie was struck by the quality of the thing; knit of fine cotton thread, not wool, and trimmed with yellow ribbon. It looked too fine for an infant to wear.
He turned it over in his hands. Dainty glass beads sparkled along the crown and a delicate fringe of lace framed the edge. He seemed entranced by it and Rosie had finished her tea long before he finally spoke.
"One forgets..." he sighed.
He came back from whatever journey memory had taken him on and gave her a brief smile.
"One forgets how small a child is." He lifted the precious thing. "Can you believe that I once wore this?"
"You, sir? How lovely it is!"
"My mother was very skilled at needlecraft, though she was fonder of walks in the countryside. Most of my things were passed on to younger cousins, but she kept these. I remember her showing them to me when I was but a lad as proof of how big and strong I'd grown."
Rosie poured herself another cup of tea, sensing more was forthcoming.
"They were good folk, my parents," he sighed. "Devoted to me."
"You must miss them," she said.
Picking up the small gown, Frodo hesitated. "I hadn't for many years." He passed his maimed hand over the fabric thoughtfully. "But I have of late."
Rosie sipped at her tea. In her belly, she felt the soft flutter of movement. The baby was stirring. She looked up to the master's elegant profile and felt the stab of pity. In silhouette, lines of age and pain on Frodo's face leapt out in sharp relief and she saw an old sorrow there, hidden even more deeply than his malaise. What would it be like never to see her little one grown? How would he fare tossed into the currents of life without the strong arms of his father or the tender love of his mother to protect him?
Her hand spread protectively over her rounded belly.
Frodo's glance flicked to her movement and then away. For another long moment, he was silent. Rosie did not speak either, not knowing if he welcomed her pity or scorned it, but feeling it nonetheless. At last, he laid down the little gown. He glanced briefly at the jewelry, pocketed the ring, necklace and letter and carefully gathered up the fabric again.
"I want you to have these," he said, passing the tiny garments across the table. "My mother made them to be worn."
Rosie gaped in astonishment and almost dropped her cup. "Lawks, but sir! These are your heirlooms! I can't take them from you. Your mum'd've wanted you to keep them in your family."
The old pain was clear in his eyes as well as a new emotion that smote her to the heart. Sam had once described what Elves were like; both old and young at the same time, gay and sad, but with a deep wisdom. That was how she suddenly perceived Mr. Frodo. He smiled slowly and nodded.
Rosie set down her cup. She wanted to tell him that he would surely one day regret this, that he should save the precious things for his own children, but the cloying taint that she had sensed in him struck her then with new meaning.
He will never have a child of his own. His time is growing too short.
She had not dreamed his malady was so serious. He didn't look or act sick, but his gradual dropping out of doings in the Shire and relinquishing the office of deputy mayor, letting her husband handle more and more of his estate and this startling gift suddenly made bitter and ominous sense. She choked back her sob, but could not keep tears from brimming in her eyes.
"Oh, sir..." she breathed.
His smile was gentle. "Then you'll take them?" He meant more than just the garments.
She did not trust her voice, but nodded.
"Thank you, Rosie."
She looked at him again and her lip trembled. Sam always said Mr. Frodo was more than just a good master, that he was the best of hobbits and had been honored by kings. She didn't know any kings. She didn't know what it meant to be honored by one, but she wondered what could compensate this dear, gentle soul for what he had lost. No mother or father, wife or child nor even, it seemed, life left to live. Whatever he had done in that land so far away, whatever sacrifice had he made, that could possibly have been worth losing what a hobbit held dearest?
She wished there were something she could say to him, but his smile held her tongue. In his bright and fathomless eyes was the answer to her question. Its worth was in the renewed green of the Shire's fields, in its barns filled with corn, and its people free and innocent once more. He saw it returned tenfold in her husband's joy filled face and in the fruitful swell of her belly. She opened her mouth to speak, but he stood and stepped away from the table, showing little sign of the old strain.
"They will look lovely on her. My mother would have been most pleased, I think."
At that, he gave her a nod and a smile and bade his leave. Rosie watched him go and wiped her eyes. No wonder he had kept his condition from Sam. Her husband's heart would be broken. She touched the fine cotton of the little gown. The master would leave a great hole in many lives, hers not the least. Though there would be a babe, sanctified by Mr. Frodo himself, to ease the ache, it would always be there. Especially for Sam. She stroked the tiny bonnet and the beads caught the light and flashed. Mr. Frodo had entrusted her with his secret so that she could prepare, so that she would be ready to help her husband when he needed it. She would not let either of them down.
Though the moment had been burned into her memory, it wasn't until Elanor's birth a month later that Rosie marked Mr. Frodo's comment. 'They will look lovely on her.'
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