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Fear  by Ariel

The first thing Dody noticed upon entering his Aunt Menegilda's apartments was Dr. Albarus Clearwater.

He was resplendent in his emerald green waistcoat and soft chestnut colored jacket and had the look of a satisfied cat that had at last captured a very elusive mouse.  The second thing he noticed was that Drogo Baggins was not in attendance.  That observation filled him with more sinking disappointment than he had expected to feel.  Apparently, despite the warnings of logic and reason, Dody had not been able to resist building up his foolish hope Mr. Baggins would help him get out of this mess, somehow.  He sighed, resigned, and squared his shoulders.  It was unlikely Drogo could have done anything anyway.  Menegilda would not go back on her word once she had given it and she adored the doctor.  What could Drogo Baggins have to say on his behalf that could change that?  Dody stood respectfully before his elders as they picked at the remains of their second breakfast.  The resolve he had reached the day before still held him and Dody took comfort in it.  If he had to face his fate alone, he wanted do so courageously.

"Promptness is a virtue, my boy," grinned Clearwater.  "I hope you never lose it!"  He turned amicably towards Menegilda.  "Try as I might, I never manage to keep to a schedule past the first appointment of the day.  It's my patients, you see.  I am simply too interested in their lives, every little ache and pain, trial and tribulation, to bear just leaving them until I've had a chance for a good chat."

"And I thought it was just my brandy that kept you."  She winked at the doctor and Dody knew there was no way he was going to escape this trap.

Clearwater laughed and pushed himself back from the table.  "Well, my boy, are you ready to join my practice?  I've brought all the apprenticeship contracts with me, ready to be signed and witnessed.  I must say, I am pleased to have you.  I've just sent my last apprentice, Hildefons1, off on his journeyman leg and I am sorely missing his assistance.  This fortuitous arrangement could not have come at a better time."

Dody resisted the urge to wipe his palms on his breeches.  "I... I am pleased to have been offered such a position, sir," he replied correctly.  "I hope my skills will be equal to your instruction."  He could not force the response into anything more enthusiastic than a humble whisper, but the doctor didn't seem to mind.

"Oh, I have no doubt they will be more than adequate, my boy.  I have a nose for these things.  I see a great deal of myself in you, you know.  You're bright and will be going places, mark my words!"

Whether it was the presence of his aunt or the near completion of his goal, Dody did not know, but Clearwater's manner was disturbingly sunny.  Even his eyes had a merry, almost jovial light rather than the calculating clarity Dody had marked in him.  He certainly was, as Dody's father used to put it, 'one who knew what side of the toast to butter'.  Dody shifted, the warm confidence of yesterday's epiphany taking on a touch of fatalistic melancholy.  This was where his future lay.  He needed to accept it and make of it what he could.  He thought about his mother and remembered young Frodo's selfless sacrifice and his will hardened.  Self-pity was not a luxury he could afford anymore.  It would only lead to bitterness and regret and he had trod those roads for far too long.

The sound of the door opening startled him and his heart leapt, stubbornly grasping at hope again.  But it was not Drogo.  It was his uncle Rorimac, the Master of Buckland, returning home to sign the apprenticeship papers.  Rory's feet were dusty from the fields and his rolled up sleeves were a stark contrast to both his wife and doctor's sartorial excellence.  He eyed Dody dubiously.  Rory was a practical sort, not cruel or unfair, but he had never been overflowing with affection for him.  Or for the doctor, for that matter.  He likely saw this apprenticeship as a way to be rid of both with very little inconvenience to himself.  Dody could not expect salvation from his quarter either.

"Where's this contract?" Rory asked.  "I've got leaf in the lower field that's ready to be picked.  I can't just hang about."

"We are waiting for Fineas, dear," reminded Menegilda.  "We've got to have the paperwork legal and proper."  Dody watched Rory narrow his eyes suspiciously at his wife.  Fineas Brockhouse was a solicitor from the Bridgefields.  Dody had met him before, but had not seen him since the Bagginses moved back to Brandy Hall.  Rory generally preferred to use Drogo for legal work and from the looks that passed between him and Menegilda, he had not been aware of the engagement of Mr. Brockhouse.  Menegilda raised an eyebrow at her husband in return, unfazed.

A firm knock on the door sent the maidservant popping out from the corner to answer.  Again, Dody hoped and again he was disappointed.  It was the solicitor.

The knock Dody had been waiting for finally came as the papers were being filled out.  Menegilda had arranged for witnesses to arrive later in the morning to sign the document and she told Holly, the maidservant, to answer the door and ask them to return closer to elevenses.  The young lass barely had the door cracked when an out of breath voice called from behind it.

"Rory!" pleaded Drogo.  "I must speak to you!"

Dody, seated in a corner a ways back from the table, stood up; hope, curiosity and optimism vying for control of his emotions.  Clearwater also stood and came up behind him to place a proprietary hand on his shoulder.  Dody suppressed the urge to shrug it off, but couldn't prevent his muscles bunching defiantly beneath it.

Behind Drogo entered a hobbit Dody did not recognize.  He was richly dressed, though his clothes had a layer of travel dust on them, and he carried a stout, carved walking stick and a worn pack.  His resemblance to Drogo was remarkable and, though he looked and moved like a hobbit of middle years, his eyes held a dark wisdom that seemed much, much older.

Rory gestured the two gentlehobbits inside.  Menegilda curtsied, her eyes flickering curiously over her new guests.

"Why Mr. Bilbo!" she exclaimed.  "We haven't seen you in these parts for years!  You should have told us you were coming to visit - we'd have prepared a welcome for you."

Mr. Bilbo Baggins bowed.

"I am afraid my trip was planned rather poorly, my dear lady.  I'd intended to travel with Drogo to see for myself how his lad was coming on and to partake of Buckland's excellent Mid-year's day feast, but I was delayed.  I am dreadfully sorry to be dropping in like this but must confess to being even sorrier I've missed the festivities."

"You are always welcome, whatever the occasion," Menegilda automatically assured him.  "Or lack of one, I should say.  Unfortunately, you've arrived just at a somewhat inconvenient time.  If you'll allow me to conclude my business with the good doctor I'll be at your disposal."

"Actually, Menegilda, Rory," Drogo said in a meaningful tone.  "My cousin Bilbo has some business of his own with Doctor Clearwater."

At that, Clearwater's hand spread across Dody's shoulder.  It felt like a spider settling down to take a bite of him.

"Mr. Bilbo Baggins?" the doctor asked.  "Of Bag End, Hobbiton?  The one who went off adventuring all those years ago?"  His tone sounded slightly mocking, as if he were touching on a joke he had earlier shared with friends.

Bilbo and Drogo leveled their eyes at him and Clearwater stilled like a deer that had just scented the hunter.

"I see the tale of my exploits has not been forgotten by the humble folk of Buckland," said Bilbo with a slight nod.

Clearwater's hand tightened across Dody's shirt.

"We'd like a word with you, Doctor," Drogo said firmly. "It is a matter of utmost importance that cannot wait."  He seemed to want to say more, but a glance from Bilbo stopped him.

"I believe my office is the most conducive place to conduct my personal business," the doctor soothed, his voice showing no signs of wariness.  "If you would be so kind as to meet me there after elevenses, I will be able to give you my full attention."

"Most gracious of you, doctor," Bilbo replied.  "Though there is also a matter my cousin would like to discuss with Menegilda concerning the young lad you have your hands on."

Dody's heart leapt.  Drogo had something!  He glanced over his shoulder at Clearwater, but the doctor's eyes were fixed on the two Bagginses.

"Young Mr. Brandybuck is to be my apprentice, Mr. Baggins," Clearwater told him primly.  "Drogo himself can attest to the boy's skill with the healing arts."

Drogo's eyes never left Clearwater's.  "That may be premature, sir," he replied.  "I believe we might have a more amenable situation for him.  I spent the morning making inquiries and collecting my cousin from Buckleberry, who, I do believe, has some information about your character that Mr. and Mrs. Brandybuck will want to know before they decide to engage in an agreement with you."

The hand tightened on Dody's shoulder almost painfully.

"Information?"  Clearwater's tone became as cold as Drogo's stare.  "I highly doubt that the Master and Mistress of Buckland would be fool enough to hold me accountable for unsubstantiated gossip spread by the likes of you two."  Though he sounded confident, Dody could feel Clearwater's trembling.

"I have spread nothing," Bilbo smiled.  "I don't hold much with gossip and never repeat it, but a situation has come to my attention that I must act upon.  It concerns a dear lady of my acquaintance, and yours, by the name of Lily Bottoms."

Clearwater hesitated and drew Dody closer.

"I would very much prefer to keep my personal affairs private, sir," he said, for the first time in Dody's acquaintance, sounding unsure of himself.  "We have other business to attend to here and as this matter can hardly be of any concern to these good folk, I strongly suggest we address it later in my offices."

"Excuse me."  Dody pried himself out from under the doctor's intense grip.  He recognized the exit Drogo was presenting and knew he had to speak, and quickly.  "Uncle, I would be most interested in hearing what Messrs Baggins have to say.  What is this other situation?  If there is a question about Dr. Clearwater's character, shouldn't you at least hear the particulars?"

Rory blinked, slightly surprised.  "Hmmm…  The boy may be right.  Considering the circumstances, doctor, perhaps we should hear Bilbo out.  Dody is our responsibility and we have a right to know if there is a shadow on your character."

"'A shadow on his character'?"  Menegilda looked at them all with extreme disapproval.  "Honestly, Rory, you are quite ridiculous sometimes!"

"Nevertheless," Bilbo bowed.  "The boy has requested to hear the particulars.  The business I have to discuss is of a somewhat personal nature, but I think would illustrate the Doctor's character quite clearly.  However, I do respect his privacy and will not speak unless the doctor gives his leave.  Perhaps you good folk could impose upon him to let me, and thereby settle the boy's concerns?  I am sure he will be able to clarify the whole matter to everyone's satisfaction."

Clearwater did not look pleased and glared at Dody with veiled malice.

"It's always best to nip things like this in the bud, Albarus," Rory agreed.  "Let Mr. Bilbo have his say and then you may have yours.  That'd be near as fair as any judgment of twelve good gentlehobbits.  Will you let him?"

A subtle shift was occurring.  Menegilda's disapproving frown was slowly softening into an expression of uncomfortable curiosity.  If Clearwater refused to explain himself, it would do irreparable harm to the favor he had worked so diligently to keep.  Dody almost laughed.  Clearwater would not risk that.

"If it would ease your minds, Master, Mistress, I will most certainly explain, to the best of my ability."  He examined Bilbo with sad tolerance though beads of sweat had gathered on his brow.  "What would you say to me, sir, of Mrs. Lily Bottoms?" he said.

Bilbo bowed in return and began.

"I was on friendly terms with the family; Mister Tom, Mistress Lily and their daughter Meribell Bottoms.  A dustman, he was, and a stout, proud fellow.  He died several years ago leaving Lily and Meribell alone, but not penniless.  Or at least most assumed Mr. Tom had set something aside for them, for they continued to live in much the manner that they had used.  I thought no differently until Lily became ill."  Bilbo paused and squinted severely at Clearwater.  "Several days later, Meribell visited me at my home with a strange request.  Her mother was in desperate need and only a person of influence and means might be able to help her.  I was the only one who fit that description she felt she could turn to, so I agreed to meet her.

"Lily was dying.  Even I could tell it.  She told me then the matter of her finances and why she was so desperate.  She spoke of a fund that had been set up in her name through one of the local solicitors.  It was a trust that paid a small monthly stipend and was set up for her by YOU, Doctor Clearwater.  The account was to be closed upon her death and Lily feared for her daughter.  Meribell is unmarried and has few prospects.  Without the money from the trust, she would be left with no means to live.  Unfortunately, the trust was most strict in its terms.  It was for Lily only and would continue to be paid through her life only if she abided by them.  One of the terms was that she never try and contact you; a curious requirement, though only one of many peculiarities that engaged my interest.  She could not contact you to request a change in the beneficiary and her entreaties to the solicitor had been met with silence.  She implored me to journey here to see what I could do in person, and as you see, I have done so.  What Lily instructed me to request is that you transfer the benefit of this account to Meribell.  Meribell would agree to all existing stipulations."  He made a short, politic bow.

Clearwater listened to Bilbo's account with little emotion on his face, save a frown when Mrs. Bottom's illness was mentioned.  When he was finished, the doctor subtly relaxed, though only someone watching him as intently as Dody was would have noted it.

"There were many things about this meeting that puzzled me," continued Bilbo.  "Not least, why, if Lily Bottoms was on such friendly terms with such a renowned physician, was there no one by her deathbed?  Why was she so fearful that you would refuse to transfer the account?  Why was she so secretive that she drew a salary from the trust?  It was most peculiar, and I am very interested in hearing your explanation of the particulars, doctor."

Clearwater bowed very respectfully towards Bilbo in return, but he exuded an air of wary satisfaction.  Dody sensed something in that exchange had gone his way.

"She's a distant cousin," said Clearwater with a tolerant sigh.  "Several years ago, when I was beginning my medical career, I found the connection and went to visit them.  I've few relations of my own and was eager to meet them, but…"  He paused and sighed again.  "They were not what I had hoped.  Good people and honest, but not the same sort, if you understand me.  Common.  Nothing of breeding in them.  I stayed for a time and did what I felt was my obligation by the family, but they were very needy.  Lily especially, seemed to regard me with hungry eyes.  She was very kind, but I knew the type.  They had a claim on me, from the ties of blood, and would drain me if given the chance."

He straightened and drew a deep breath.  "So, I 'nipped it in the bud' as you so eloquently put it, Master Brandybuck.  I felt the obligation and so set up a fund for the family.  Mr. Bottoms would have nothing to do with my charity, nor would Meribell, so I made Lily beneficiary.  She kept it to supplement the family's income - and provide it after Mr. Bottoms had passed.  I… I did not know about Lily's illness until you spoke, Mr. Baggins.  I do not understand why the solicitors have not passed her request on to me, but I will most certainly journey to Bywater immediately and do what I can."

"There is no need," said Bilbo icily.  "Mrs. Bottoms died 3 days ago."

Clearwater blinked once, then twice and passed a hand over his eyes.  "Excuse me," he said and returned to the table to sit and take a drink of his tea with a tense hand.  He looked like he was trying very hard to retain his composure.  After a moment he spoke again.

"That was very sudden," he said softly.  "She was strong.  I would not have expected such a rapid decline."

"She had been ill for a long time.  It was only known of when she could hide it no longer."

Clearwater nodded.  Menegilda came forward and draped a comforting arm over the doctor's shoulder.

"Your charity and concern are admirable, doctor.  I grieve with you," she said patting his arm.  Dody shifted uncomfortably, but could not look away.  Either Clearwater was putting on the most flawless performance of his career or he was truly grieving from Bilbo's news.  From what Dody knew of the hobbit, the latter seemed unlikely, but he couldn't help feeling just a little sorry for him.

Clearwater looked up at her and smiled gratefully.  "You are a jewel among hobbits, my dear Madam Brandybuck.  I did what I could for them.  I wish I could have done more, but I had my own life to consider.  How would it look to have an up and coming physician tied to a family such as that?"

Now it was Menegilda's turn to blink in uncomfortable surprise.  "Family is family, doctor," she said, taken aback.

"Yes, but some relations aren't exactly people we would want others to know we were tied to," he said with a bitter chuckle.  "I am sure you understand."  His eyes flicked over to Dody and the boy felt a rush of heat wash his face.

"What exactly do you mean, doctor?" Menegilda asked.  Dody could hear the warning in her voice, but Clearwater was so wrapped up in his own grief that he seemed unable to see what dangerous ground he was treading.  He usually played the subtle game of influence and favor so effortlessly that Dody could hardly believe he could make such a misstep.

"Now I understand."  Drogo said, completely disgusted.  "I couldn't, before.  I could not even imagine what drive could possibly make someone abandon their family, but now I can."

"What do you both mean?" demanded an increasingly irritated Rory.  "Come now, if you fellows have something to against the doctor, let's be out with it.  So far you've accused him of nothing more than missing a funeral and feeling superior to poor relations.  Those are less than admirable, perhaps, but hardly damning."

Bilbo's eyes blazed fiercely.  "No," he agreed.  "Those would not be damning accusations if that was all there was to the matter.  If Ms. Lily Bottoms had been the distant relative he claims, there would be nothing to reproach him for, but I have it on good authority that she was, in fact, his own mother."

Clearwater's head snapped up.  The wild panic in his eyes testified that the older hobbit had struck true.  He fixed furiously on Dody and then on Bilbo, who brought his stick up in defensive answer.

"By Meribell's word," Bilbo growled, now trembling in righteous anger.  "You were born Albarus Bottoms, but changed your name to Clearwater when you came of age.  Your father and sister would have renounced you for it, but your devoted mother would not let them.  You offered her money to never reveal your name and for love of her son, she agreed."

Clearwater started up from his chair.  "You LIE!" he screamed, trembling.  "You have NO proof of this!  Meribell is nothing but a bitter, spiteful old maid.  Her word isn't worth the breath it took to speak it!"

"Your mother had in her possession the agreement she signed," spat Drogo, at his cousin's side and looking ready to defend him at need.  "And the record of your birth.  She may never have revealed your secret, but the only thing that keeps Meribell's silence now is Lily's last request; that she continue to honor this agreement if you transfer the trust to her."

Clearwater was livid and, for the first time that Dody had ever seen, losing control.  His fists shook with rage as he looked frantically about the room.  All parties were allied against him now.  Even Menegilda, beyond astonishment and ready to collapse, stared at him as if he had become some kind of monster.  Her mouth gaped wordlessly and her hands worked obsessively over her handkerchief.  Rory stood by her elbow, grim but looking less than surprised at the developments.  The poor little solicitor, nearly forgotten in the flurry of activity, had stopped in the midst of stuffing documents into his case and watched, aghast, as Clearwater's face turned a red that nearly rivaled Menegilda's handkerchief.  Bilbo and Drogo were poised as a pair of hunting dogs who had their quarry cornered, and Dody…

Dody smiled.

It was a cold, involuntary gesture and it crept across his face almost before he'd been aware of it.  Clearwater was beaten and he knew it.  Though Dody had not orchestrated the fall, his actions had cleverly served it.  He had spoken at precisely the right time and in the right manner to rock Clearwater's carefully orchestrated composure.  He had trapped this snake as cleverly as Clearwater had tried to entrap him.  Suddenly, he saw in himself the rudiments of the skill the doctor used so successfully.  He too could learn to toy with the hearts and minds of others, maneuvering them as if they were playthings and taking from them what he desired.  Such power could become addictive.  But even as he thought it, Dody realized he had something the doctor did not.  Something his mother had given him.  Something he had forgotten he possessed until a young boy showed it to him.  Compassion.  He could never use people as Clearwater had.  Not anymore.

But, he could still take pleasure in watching the spectacular demise of one who had sought to use him.

When Clearwater's gaze fell upon Dody again and he saw the boy's smile, it was as if the last strand of his reason left him.  He seemed to explode.

"YOU!" he screamed, his face now turning a shade of purple.  "A lifetime's work destroyed and you SMILE?"

Without another word, he fell upon Dody and wrapped his fingers around the boy's throat.  His rage lent him astonishing strength.  He lifted the wiry lad off his feet and slammed him bodily into the parlor wall behind them.  Stars danced before Dody's eyes and he heard shouts and screams above his own constricted breath.  Clearwater's fingers began to close about his throat and Dody clawed desperately at them.  He could see the maniacal look in the older hobbit's eyes and suddenly knew this was an enemy who could kill him.  Even his enraged father had not been as deadly an opponent.  He kicked at Clearwater's legs but the other hobbit crushed him against the wall with his own body.  Other hands were pulling at the doctor's arms and other voices were shouting, but Dody fixed on the words the doctor whispered sickeningly in his ear.

"I'll teach you to smile," he hissed.  His forefingers pressed hard into the hollows between Dody's jawbone and throat from both sides.  Hobbits were attacking the doctor but he stood like a mad thing, resolute, immobile, and laid his forehead on his near-apprentice's own.  A swift roaring began in Dody's ears and darkness began closing the periphery of his vision.  He saw Clearwater's dark eyes glittering and sensed a cruel smile on his lips.  Clearwater was going to kill him.  Then he glimpsed Rory as if from far off.  His uncle was rushing at them but instead of growing larger in his sight, the burly hobbit was getting smaller and smaller in the center of a darkening field.  A great weight slammed into Dody with the force of a charging bull and the stars returned, but this time they were snuffed out by blackness.


1 - The name 'Hildefons Brownlock' is used courtesy of the darling Ghyste Mortua, author of the scathingly funny 'Physician, Heal Thyself'  and one of the most wonderful haremites I know.  : Thank you, my dear.

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