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Tying Up The Ends
"He's waking," said a low, concerned voice. "Take this." And suddenly there was a brighter light in Dody's eyes. He groaned and turned away from it. Consciousness also brought pain that felt as if someone had split his head open with a hatchet.
"Easy there," crooned the voice more cheerily. Then it added, "Where's the healer?" in a soft undertone.
"Drogo's getting her," answered another, deeper one. "I don't think that villain did anything permanent to the lad. We stopped him in time, I think. And I can't imagine any hobbit, even one as contemptible as that fellow, would purposefully try and kill."
Dody shivered, remembering dark eyes glittering malevolently.
"Where?" he croaked.
"You're in your aunt's guestroom, child. We carried you here after you fell."
"No," the boy said more urgently. "Where's…?"
"Clearwater?" It was Mr. Bilbo Baggins speaking. He almost spat the name. "I hope on his way to the lockholes at Stock! Good riddance to bad baggage, if you ask me." He made a disgusted noise. "He'll be no bother to you again, my boy."
Dody let out a breath as the words sank into his still foggy head. Clearwater was gone and, even though he'd seen the manner of his fall, it took a moment to grasp what that meant. He settled into the soft pillow, feeling suddenly more at ease than he had felt in years.
"I wonder what on earth that fellow was so set on Dody for?" the other voice murmured. Dody felt his arm being patted comfortingly.
"Because he's a Brandybuck," answered Bilbo. "Considering the lengths he was willing to go through to disguise his own connections, it's no wonder he was desperate to tie himself to you folk, somehow. He couldn't marry into the family, thank goodness, but he could apprentice Dody." The chair that had been pulled up by the bedside creaked as its occupant settled back. "I shudder to think what he would have done to the lad if he had succeeded."
That comment made Dody open his eyes. Bilbo sat deep in thought beside the bed but he had a hard look on his face. The other hobbit, Dody's cousin Saradoc, stood at the head of the bed and, noting Dody's increasing attentiveness, smiled at him with unabashed joy.
"There you are! You gave us quite a fright, cousin," he said. "Mother nearly fainted when they pulled the doctor off and I don't think father will ever forgive himself for what Clearwater did to you in his smial. You'll be glad to know they've vowed to prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law; banishment from the Shire, or at least Buckland. Mother even admitted she was wrong about him in front of Drogo." Saradoc laughed. "Can you imagine it?"
Dody squinted through his headache. Surely he was more injured than he realized. It sounded like his elder cousin, who had never given him more than passing notice, was chatting merrily with him. Saradoc grinned, though there seemed to remain a touch of worry in his smile. Dody's own mouth twitched up, almost of its own volition, in response and the older hobbit laughed outright.
"Oh, you will be all right! I told them you were stouter than you looked. Well done, lad!"
The laughing shout made Dody wince, but the concern his cousin showed him was a pleasing surprise. He had not been aware that Saradoc even knew who he was.
"Why... Why are you here?" he managed to whisper.
"I was to be a witness to the apprenticeship contract," Saradoc grinned. "But I'm not disappointed I won't be needed anymore. When I was a boy, I used to dread visits from Clearwater. I rarely got sick, but when I did, I would do anything to avoid seeing him." He shuddered in mock distaste. "I see I was right to avoid him, eh?"
Dody nodded once, which was all his still aching head felt like managing, but he kept his wondering eyes on his yellow-haired cousin.
"I'm...sorry," he managed. "I didn't mean to cause such trouble. I didn't want to provoke him, I..."
"Nonsense, lad," Bilbo assured coming out of his thoughts. "You were simply the easiest victim. And if it weren't for you, that snake's true nature would not have been revealed. No one blames you for what happened."
"No indeed!" confirmed Saradoc.
Voices and the sound of the outer door of the apartment being opened made them both turn. Drogo's baritone was directing someone to the small room and a moment later the bright face of Daisy Burrows appeared in the doorway, Drogo behind her.
"Awake, bless him!" Drogo said. "We were worried Rory's tackle had crushed the life out of you, but I see you're a tough little fellow too."
Daisy came forward and dropped her bag beside the bed before leaning over him. She smiled and her fingers traced soothingly over his face. "Let's have a look at you at least, shall we?" she asked cheerily.
The examination was brief but thorough and when she found the tender spots at the back of his jaw, she nodded gravely.
"Well, he knew his business, certainly," she murmured, her face hardening with disapproval. "I expect you've got a blistering headache?"
Dody nodded slowly.
"There's no permanent harm though, is there?" asked Saradoc.
Daisy shook her head and the sparkle returned to her eyes as she patted Dody's cheek. "Seems not. He'll have that headache for a while and should rest the day out, but," she grinned. "I expect my sullen helper will be fit by this time tomorrow."
"Dody?" Drogo nodded, coming forward too. "I told you I had found you another situation, do you remember?" The boy looked up at him. "It's with Miss Daisy, if you're willing. She was pleased with your work as well, and when I asked her if she'd be interested in taking on an apprentice and teaching them the healing arts, she said she would be honored to have you."
Dody blinked, again wondering if he was hearing things.
"Miss Daisy?" he asked in an astonished whisper. "Me?"
Daisy nodded vigorously, apparently delighted with his humble surprise. "Quite honored!" she said. "You've a gruff manner, but a careful touch and, from what I have seen, you respect people. That's something I can't teach, but it makes a world of difference. I think you'd make as fine an apprentice as I could ever wish for."
Dody lay with his mouth gaping for a full minute as amused and delighted smiles grew on every face in the room. This could not be possible, he thought, as he stared up at the kindly face of the healer. His lip began to tremble and he swallowed hard.
"I don't know what to say," he gasped in an overwhelmed whisper.
"Say, yes," offered Bilbo, smiling.
And at that, the grinning faces around him swirled in a blur of grateful, astonished tears.
Bilbo had heard of Frodo's fall soon after it happened. Such news was, as one might expect, spread more quickly than happy tidings would ever be, and he had asked Drogo how his son fared when the other hobbit came to Hobbiton. His inquiry had been answered with the expected assurance that the boy was improving rapidly and that nothing could keep a Baggins down for long, but Bilbo had not missed the tenseness in Drogo's jaw, nor the fear in his eyes. This had been a near thing, a very near thing, and Bilbo had felt fear tighten his own throat. He had had a sudden, absurd notion of traveling to Buckland and it surprised him to realize that, if he had not had company, he might have done it that very night.
'Frodo almost died,' was the unspoken truth that Bilbo could read in his cousin's face, and that realization was almost as painful to the old hobbit as it was to the boy's father.
Bilbo was a confirmed old bachelor if there ever was one, but he had learned to be more patient with children in the past few years. His neighbor, and now gardener, Ham, and his wife seemed to produce a new one every year, or so it seemed, and it might have been that he had simply got used to them running about. But Bilbo had another theory. He attributed his newfound tolerance to the fact that he had at last met a child in whom he could see more than just noise, mischief and a lot of bother.
He had never been able to understand how he knew it, but his cousin's son was a very special child. The bright little boy with eyes the color of autumn skies had found a place in Bilbo's heart that seemed to have been ready made and waiting for him. In Frodo, Bilbo saw what treasures could come from his people and so loved them all the more for it. He also felt that he and the child were bound, connected in some mystical way that went beyond the ties of blood. It was as if in this one child, Bilbo could see the best of himself reborn, and the knowledge that Frodo existed and would live on in the world gave the old hobbit immeasurable comfort.
And now, 'He almost died...'
The detour to Rory's chambers had been necessary, and the news brought to Drogo's in-laws had been just in time, but now, with those matters settled satisfactorily, Bilbo was eager to see his little cousin. It had been two years since Drogo moved his little family back to Buckland and, though he had missed Drogo's frequent visits, their trips to the Green Dragon for ale, and their occasional visits to the Ivy Bush, which would start the talk about 'Mad Baggins' for visiting such a working class establishment, he found himself missing the sweet and hope-filled presence of Drogo's son as well.
The lump that had formed in Bilbo's throat from the moment he heard Drogo speak had not released him since. Now, as he walked Brandy Hall's corridors behind his cousin, he could feel the fear that fed it. Frodo had almost died. The last sight he had had of the boy was of a pair of luminous, innocent eyes, peering mournfully over the cart's seat as it began its slow descent down the hill. That image was the most vivid one Bilbo had of the day Drogo's family left and now it haunted him. The realization that that light in those eyes might almost have been extinguished was like a physical pain, one that nothing but the sight of the lad himself would cure.
He wished Drogo would hurry. If it would not have been unseemly, he'd have poked his cousin in the backside to spur him onwards.
At last, Drogo slowed and turned at a small door at the side of the smial. He entered after a knock and Bilbo's eyes were struck by the sunlight that filled the room. It was an airy, pleasant hole despite the dark hall and Bilbo smiled to see Primula stand at the table and curtsey gracefully towards him.
"Oh, Bilbo!" she smiled with unrestrained delight. "What an absolute delight to see you! I have missed your company so very much." She ran to him and gave him a breathless hug. Bilbo blushed at the armful of stunning, warm hobbitess, but returned her hug with true affection.
"And I've missed you, my dear, more than you will ever know! It was so heartless of you to take my dear cousin, that delightful boy of yours, not to mention your devastatingly beautiful self, so far away from me! I don't know if I will ever recover from the heartbreak you have caused me."
Primula beamed, as happy and charmed as a schoolgirl. "I am heartless, aren't I?" she grinned, all dimples and dark curls. "But now I have you, my precious family and my childhood home all in one place! It was a plot, you see." She winked and Bilbo roared appreciatively.
"Speaking of your precious family," he began, "Where is that boy of yours? I've come all this way to see him, too, you know."
"Yes, I am well aware of who your real favorite is," she teased. "But he's resting just now. He had a bit of a setback yesterday, trying to do too much too fast, and is back to his bed under healer's orders." She winked. "But I imagine he'd be delighted to see you've come. Here, have a seat by the bed and I'll wake him."
"Oh, please, Primula. If he's in need of rest, don't wake him yet. I'll just sit by his bedside for a while and rest myself. Give me a chance to catch my breath and give him a good look over and assure myself he's all right."
Primula's sweet face softened into an understanding smile. Drogo placed a hand on his cousin's shoulder and squeezed it, also understanding.
"You sit then, and watch him while Primula and I go get some elevenses for all of us. She's been with him all morning and could use a sniff of air. With you here, we know he could not be in better hands." Drogo took his wife's hand in his, a triumphant grin on his face. "Come, my lass. While we walk, I'll tell you some news that you'd best hear from a witness, for you'd not believe it otherwise."
As the door closed behind them, Bilbo settled onto the chair by Frodo's bed, much as he had earlier done by Dody's.
His first clear sight of the boy did very little to comfort him. Frodo was still a small child with features so charmingly wrought that Bilbo could almost believe the old legend that there was faerie blood in the Tooks he so resembled. But those features were now far too pale for a young hobbit in midsummer. His dark lashes lay in an impossibly thick sweep above his wan cheeks and his thick, dark locks were shorn close to his head. Nearly healed bruises shadowed his face and the faint scabs of a multitude of scratches covered much of the skin that was visible. His arms lay on top of the coverlet and on one Bilbo could see the bulky outline of a brace under the nightshirt he wore. Frodo's injuries must have been very dire indeed for the signs of them to still remain so many weeks after the fall and Bilbo's heart lurched as that realization struck home. But even with so many signs of hurt, the child was breathing the comforting breaths of deepest sleep. Bilbo took the sound into his heart.
'He almost died, but he didn't...'
Bilbo had not realized how firmly his mind had latched onto imagining the worst what might have happened. But no, his bright one was indeed whole and would be all right. The best of his people was not lost. Blinking back an unbidden tear, he leaned forward and gratefully kissed the child's small brow.
Frodo stirred then, perhaps sensing a less familiar presence, and sighed. His eyelids fluttered open and Bilbo was again struck by the brilliance of their blue.
"Bilbo?" he gasped and smiled, struggling to rise on one arm. He managed it very handily, Bilbo noted. "Oh, Uncle, you've come to see me!" The little child wrapped him in a tight embrace that drew a deep and delighted chuckle from the old hobbit.
"I came as soon as I could manage, lad," he replied. "Though if you aren't careful, you'll choke me before we've had a chance to visit."
"Oh!" Frodo leaned back, holding his splinted arm only slightly more gingerly than the unharmed one. "Sorry, uncle! I didn't mean it! I'm just so very happy to see you! Did you bring me anything from Hobbiton? How long have you been here? Why didn't you come with father? I have missed you so terribly!"
The questions followed one after another so rapidly that Bilbo, laughing, held his arms up as if to staunch the stream of them. "One at a time, boy! I've only two ears, and one mouth, and a doddering mind in between them."
Frodo sat back, obediently quieted, but beaming with obvious joy.
"First, I did bring you something in my trunk, and I will retrieve it later, when you are up and about. I intend to have a full, long visit and I wanted this first reintroduction to be mine and not have your attention diverted by some trinket from Dale."
"From Dale?" squeaked Frodo not hiding even an ounce of his delight.
"You see what I mean?" the older hobbit admonished. "Now how would I know if it was me you were happy to see, or just what I brought you?"
Frodo grinned broadly at the silly old hobbit but bounced with excitement, knowing Bilbo would not make him wait too long for his present.
"I have been here only a few hours. I didn't come yesterday because of some business I had to attend to, but you know nothing could have kept me away long, once I'd heard of your predicament."
"Oh, I am much better now, uncle," Frodo assured him. "Daisy says so!"
"Yes," Bilbo said carefully, looking down at him with as much severity as he could manage. "This is the same Daisy who has instructed you to remain in bed after some business yesterday?"
Frodo's face flushed and he shook his head. "I just wanted to show father how much better I was. Mother wouldn't let me walk anywhere after the accident and so I didn't have much chance to practice. I'm afraid I didn't do very well."
"What did you do?" Bilbo asked.
Frodo looked down and picked at the coverlet, but he was grinning shyly. "It doesn't sound like much, but I walked from the main door almost to the picnic grounds." He looked up then, his eyes shining with pride. "I hadn't been able to do that before."
Despite the sunny room, Bilbo felt the chill of concern returning. "Why couldn't you walk?" he asked. "Did you hurt your legs too?"
"Oh, I got these terrible headaches, uncle! They were so bad I'd get sick to my stomach and it would feel like the world was spinning like a top! And there were these shadows that would come out from the sides of my eyes and make everything look like you were peering through a little bitty smial. Oh, they made me feel dreadful! And they got worse if I tried to walk or do anything." He shook his head. "Mother and Daisy said that things would get better if I just took care, but it's hard to just sit for so long, especially when the other children are playing and singing and laughing outside." Frodo's eyes took on a look that reminded Bilbo sharply of a hound begging for forgiveness after being caught chasing the chickens. "And I'm so dreadfully tired of being ill," he sighed.
Bilbo's heart lurched in pity and tenderness. He remembered a summer or two of his own youth, spent recovering in a sickbed.
"It's hard to keep quiet and rest when the sun's shining brightly," he offered softly. "But you know your parents simply want to see you well as quickly as you can be."
"Yes, uncle," came the mournful reply.
"Well," said Bilbo slapping his knees determinately. "I see what my task shall be this visit."
Frodo looked up. "Uncle?"
"I shall endeavor to make your remaining convalescence so pleasant and busy that you will be fully recovered before you are even aware of it."
"Oh, yes, please, Uncle! What shall we do first?"
"Well, the very first thing, you've already done. I haven't had a proper hug since you left Hobbiton." The older hobbit's eyes twinkled. "And I suspect you haven't had a proper tickle since then either."
The boy squirmed back, ready to counter the attack he could see coming, but his grin broadened almost to his ears. "You wouldn't dare!" he challenged.
"Oh, my dear boy, I've dared dragons and spiders, what's a diminutive Baggins after that?"
When Primula and Drogo returned, their arms laden with the still warm second breakfast, they could hear the peal of breathless, excited giggles all the way down the tunnel.
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