Written for the waymeet challenge: Foreyule
Pairing: (Not really any main pairing, except a bit of unrequited longing between Frodo/Halbarad)
Halbarad/Aragorn as a secondary, very minor, barely mentioned pairing.
Warnings: seemingly WILDLY AU, although interestingly enough, goes back to canon by the end *winks*
Summary: Frodo longs to be like Bilbo and be able to travel the wide world outside the boundaries of the Shire, especially when he becomes intrigued by a Ranger named Halbarad. Widow Brandybuck, known for her enchantments, can help.
This takes place when Frodo is at Brandy Hall, just before he comes to live with Bilbo. I think of Frodo as being the equivalent of perhaps a human of 16 years or so. Also, in this story, I’ve fudged the hobbits’ ages a little and Merry, Pippin, and Fatty Bolger are just a little younger than Frodo.
THANK YOU, trianne, summershobbit, surgicalsteel for the betas!
Leaves and twigs crunched under Merry’s feet as he struggled to keep up with Frodo’s quick strides. The oak trees that closed in on them from either side of the dirt path filtered the thin late afternoon sun. Frodo felt a twinge of guilt and slowed down. His eager pace had no doubt been a hardship for his younger cousin, who was not at all accustomed to long hikes.
Frodo had been so bent on reaching the Outside, the Great Unknown just beyond the Bridge of Stonebows, before dark that he had pressed on at a much faster pace than usual. His leather backpack, filled with apples and biscuits, a notebook and quill, and a cloak -- just in case it should get chilly after dark -- and a flask of water, rubbed uncomfortably against his sweat-soaked shirt.
He and Merry had set out from Brandy Hall early that morning and had been walking since then. His legs ached terribly, although he would never admit it. He was supposed to be the sturdy one, always wandering and hiking, always up for adventure. Merry, who was more likely to be seen lying by the river with a fishing pole in hand, had not yet begged to turn back.
So of course Frodo could not.
The sun sank lower in the sky, and the woods dimmed into an eerie, rusty light.
“What’s the hurry, Frodo? Wait for me, for goodness sake!”
Frodo caught a hint of pleading in Merry’s winded voice, so he stopped and waited, shifting his aching feet. He longed to throw himself down on the soft dirt. But if he did, he might never get up again.
Merry looked exhausted. He wiped his brow with his sleeve, striving to catch his breath. Frodo felt another twinge of guilt, but then he remembered that Merry had absolutely insisted on coming that morning.
“Are you sure you want to go on?” Merry’s gray-blue eyes looked serious, far older than his years. Sometimes, Frodo thought with some amusement, it was as if Merry was the elder, other than the other way around. “We’ve not eaten since noon.”
“I want to make it before dark. If you want to go back...”
Merry straightened his shoulders. “And let you walk all this way back alone? Decent hobbits don’t go anywhere near the bounds. At least that’s what Father says.”
“He is only afraid of what he doesn’t know,” Frodo said. “Besides, I’ve been there before.”
“You have?” Merry looked indignant. “When? And why did you not tell me?”
“Well,” Frodo said with an embarrassed chuckle. “I didn’t quite make it. I had to turn back because it started to rain very hard and I hadn’t my cloak with me. But I know it’s not much farther.”
Merry frowned. “Well, if it gets to be dark, we ought to just turn back.” He glanced towards a shadowy wall far off the path to their right. “We’re awfully close to the Old Forest, and I’m not keen on hearing its whisperings after dark.”
As they began to walk again, Frodo put his arm around Merry’s shoulders. “You’re a good fellow, Merry. Now, just a little bit further and we’ll be the first hobbits since Bilbo to have stepped outside the Shire.”
“You forget your family history,” Merry said with some pride. “Other hobbits have left the Shire. The Brandybucks once traveled regularly to Bree. We’ve got distant cousins there, I hear tell.”
“I haven’t forgotten; I mean in recent history.” Frodo dug out two apples from his pack and threw one to Merry. He took a big bite, savoring the crunchy sweetness. That one apple was barely satisfying, and after he finished, his stomach still growled.
Merry wiped his brow again. “Why are you so determined to leave the Shire? If Bilbo’s stories are anything to go by, it seems like there’s nothing but frightening creatures and greedy Big People.”
“Not all Big People are greedy,” Frodo said thoughtfully. “In Bilbo’s tale, there was Bard, who shot the mighty Smaug. He was a good man, and noble. And don’t forget Gandalf!”
“Oh, he hardly counts. He’s a wizard!”
“But he’s big – and he’s not a hobbit,” Frodo said, “as much as he thinks he is sometimes!” He chuckled, remembering with fondness how Gandalf’s eyes always twinkled while smoking the Shire’s finest pipe-weed.
Then Frodo grew thoughtful. “But Merry, just once, for a short time, I’d like to be one of them, just so I could know what it was like…to be in places where there are libraries, whole buildings full of scrolls--”
“Frodo!” Merry interrupted, clearly scandalized. “How could you want to be one of them – stomping about like oliphaunts--”
Frodo flushed, almost sorry that he had confided such a foolish desire and yet he went on in a rush. “It is only that…well, Bilbo is the only hobbit in the Shire who is not shy of Outsiders, and it is likely that he has more books than anyone in all the Shire, and the only museum that we have is the Michael Delving, and I want to learn everything there is to learn about the Outside. I want to travel, Merry, and as hobbits…well, we’d invite too much attention. We’d not be able to defend ourselves against dangers like goblins or wolves or wicked men. Bilbo had that magic Ring that made him invisible, but what would we have? We’re not trained in weaponry. If I were…” He chuckled, understanding how ridiculous he sounded and no longer caring, “…a man, for just a while, I could see all those blank, white places on the map…” He trailed off.
Merry laughed, but it was friendly, not derisive, and he shook his head in wonder. “Why, Frodo, I never knew…well, I knew you liked to wander, but…there it is – you obviously have more Brandybuck in you than Baggins.” He nodded. “That’s it. There’s not a drop of respectable Baggins in you, is there?”
At last they reached the Bridge of Stonebows, and the Old Forest curved away from them. Of course they did not need to cross the bridge, because they were already on the eastern bank of the Brandywine River.
“Here we are,” Frodo said, lifting his hands. “We’ve stepped over the border.”
Frodo did not know how they got turned around trying to get back to the trail, but somehow they did, and they came upon a simple cottage, nestled in greenery, as if imitating a hobbit hole, although it was far too big to belong to a hobbit. Frodo’s heart thudded with titillation. It was one thing to be so close to the border to the Outside but quite another to actually find the dwelling of a non-hobbit.
“What do you suppose lives here?” Frodo whispered, creeping toward the window with growing excitement. “It looks too big for a hobbit cottage. Do you suppose one of the Big Folk is here?”
“Let’s go,” Merry said, his eyes dark with wariness. “We don’t know if whoever lives here is friendly.”
Frodo stood on his tiptoes and peered in the window. “It’s dark…nobody’s there.” He crept to the front and tried the door, which swung open. Merry jumped back in fear, but Frodo stepped inside. “Perhaps we should sleep here tonight. If he’s not here now, he’s not likely to come in the middle of the night.”
“Frodo!” Merry whispered, nearly frantic. “What are you thinking? Don’t go in there!”
“Hush, don’t worry,” Frodo said. “I’m just going to take a peek. I won’t be long.”
He crept into the lodge, his heart battering. Yes, the cottage clearly belonged to one of the Big People, although he could not imagine what it was doing in the Shire, so far from everything and yet so close to the Old Forest.
Frodo found a lantern and that which he needed to light it, and so he did, shedding warm, golden light on the room.
It smelled musty and earthy, as if it had not had a good cleaning in a long time. Dust was thick on the hearth.
“So then…who do you suppose lives here?” Merry whispered in his ear, suddenly just behind him. “I don’t know that you should be using that lantern. If he comes back, he’ll see the light and know someone’s here!”
Frodo was glad that Merry had decided to join him. He fingered the wooden bowls on the table. Such meager eating tools! So crude and simple! He had heard that the Big People only ate three meals a day, hardly enough to keep a hobbit babe alive. And he had also heard that they spent hardly any care and love at all in meal preparation.
That would be one thing I’d not be liking if I were one of them.
He moved to the hearth. There he found a poker, taller than any he had seen before. More curious than that, he knelt beside what looked like a leather slipper. He picked it up, studying it from all angles. He knocked on the sole, which was as hard as the bottom of any hobbit’s foot.
“What is it?” Merry asked, touching it.
“A shoe,” Frodo said in awe. He tried to slip his foot into it, but it was far too wide, and the leather strained. “Humph,” Frodo said, giving up. “Hobbits simply aren’t meant to wear shoes. It always astonishes me how they walk on such tiny feet. No wonder they need shoes and boots. I think it helps anchor them so they don’t fall.”
“No, no, no,” Merry said disdainfully. “It’s because their feet are bare and delicate. If they didn’t wear these silly things, they’d freeze to death and their feet would get cut up just walking about on the grass.” He stomped his feet proudly. “I’ll take these any day.”
Several swords of varying lengths leaned against the wall near the hearth. Frodo pulled at the hilt of a long sword, nearly as tall as he was, but it was heavier than he expected, and with a gasp, he jumped out of the way as it slipped from his fingers and crashed to the floor.
“Frodo, be careful,” Merry whispered, glancing out the window. “I’m not sure this is such a good idea. Whoever lives here might return. What do you suppose he would think of trespassers? He might cut us up and feed us to his dogs. We’ve no escape.”
“Relax.” Frodo laughed and picked up the sword, which was far heavier than he had expected, and he pushed it back against the wall. “We’ll be able to hear his tread long before he approaches. And perhaps he’s friendly – and lonely. It will be an adventure!”
Merry backed up until he was at the front door. “Well, I doubt it would be an adventure we’d like. I’ll keep watch. It’s full dark now, and we should get a move on. We’ll need to find a good place to sleep under the stars. I can’t see us walking all that way back tonight.”
“All right,” Frodo said, rather reluctantly, blowing out the lantern. “We can go now.”
But while Merry wasn’t looking, he slipped the tiny shoes inside his leather pack.
“Where have you lads been?” Aunt Esme demanded, her hands on her ample hips. “Don’t think I didn’t notice that you were gone all night.”
Merry cast his eyes down, looking immediately guilty. “I’m sorry, Ma. We were just camping – under the stars and all.”
“Where have you been? I sent your friend Fatty after you…”
Frodo broke in. “I’m sorry, Aunt Esme. I dragged him along with me on one of my adventures. I--”
“We stepped outside the Shire,” Merry said, looking up again, his eyes brightening, now that it seemed his mother was more exasperated than angry.
Esme flushed and suddenly she seemed again angry. She slapped Merry with a dishtowel. “You went past the bridge? Have you lost your senses?”
“Nothing happened,” Merry said.
“It was just a bit of fun,” Frodo said, offering her a winning smile. “And it was the only way to leave the Shire without going into the Old Forest.”
“You could have been hurt, you could have been caught by one of those Big People that live in the wild there. You could have been eaten by wolves.” Esme turned her glare to Frodo. “And you should certainly know better, lad.” And she stalked away. They had not heard the last of it, Frodo was certain.
But Frodo’s curiosity about the Outside had not been satiated with that one trip. In fact, he felt more restless than ever. He fingered the shoes whenever he had a moment alone. He thought about the cottage, about the one who lived there. Frodo wanted to meet him. He seemed the adventuring type. He had weapons, but did not appear to have a family of his own, and he had not been at home. Well, then where had he been if not in his home? Most likely having an adventure somewhere.
Not only that, but Bilbo and Gandalf were planning to come for a visit on Bilbo and Frodo’s shared birthday, and this time, Frodo wanted to share with them a real adventure tale of his own.
So one afternoon, after everyone in Brandy Hall had finished their luncheon and had settled into various chores and duties, and the wee ones had been put down for naps, Frodo stole out of the Hall. He told nobody where he was going, not even Merry, and he made his way down the same path that he and Merry had taken just a few days earlier.
It was late at night when he made it to the same cottage again. His feet ached terribly, and the trip had seemed much longer without his cousin to talk to. He shivered in the chill fall breeze and clutched his cloak close to him.
This time a light glowed in the window.
Frodo crept with all his hobbit-like stealth and peered in the window. His breath caught at what he saw. Inside were two men, both craggy-faced and grim, wearing leather tunics and worn boots. They bent over a large, yellow map, far bigger than any Frodo had seen, even in the Michael Delving museum.
In the hearth, some sort of stew bubbled. One of the men ran his finger along the map and said something. They both laughed. Frodo noticed that they both had keen gray eyes – they seemed to be kinsmen. The one sitting caught Frodo’s attention. His face seemed dreamier, full of kindness.
And then Frodo’s eyes were once again drawn to the map. Unlike the maps in the Shire, there was no blank white beyond the borders of the Shire. There were mountains and rivers and distant lands untold. Frodo’s heart caught fire, marveling at this new find and envying these men their sturdy travel clothes and weapons. They could wander anywhere into that great expanse.
The fire illuminated the one who was sitting, and he had a handsome face. It was careworn, but kind, and Frodo wondered if it was his shoes that he had stolen.
In a little cottage by the Old Forest Old Widow Brandybuck lived. She was somewhat of an outcast, far too hermit-like to thrive in Brandy Hall. She was said to do enchantments of all kinds. Young lasses went to her for love spells, pregnant hobbits went to her for spells to keep them safe against the dangers of childbirth or to determine the sex of their babies, vengeful farmers went to her for charms to keep pests and thieves out of their fields. Everyone knew Widow Brandybuck, but nobody made friends with her. It was also said she bore old Bilbo Baggins a sore grudge from long, long ago, something having to do with his travels, and so Frodo had always kept far away from her.
But Frodo tossed and turned at night now, because an idea had caught fire in his heart. Widow Brandybuck, at the request of a young wife of Buckland, had once changed a hobbit into a goat because he had not been faithful. This was a true and known story throughout Buckland. Aside from what she had requested done to her husband, the wife had a decent heart and she took fine care of him after his transformation, and he was the best-fed goat ever to live in the Shire.
If the Widow Brandybuck could turn a hobbit into a goat, then surely she could turn a hobbit into a man.
With feverish restlessness, his mind turned repeatedly to that kind and noble face, bathed in moonlight and lantern glow. He remembered how “namarie” had rolled off his tongue with such music when his friend had left. The man had maps of the world, he spoke Elvish, and he wore tiny leather slippers on his delicate feet.
Frodo took out the shoes and cradled them, sniffing in the worn leather, imagining that he, too, had such small feet and long legs and skill with weaponry so that he could wander the white, blank spaces beyond the Shire maps like the owner of that cottage.
But if Frodo came to him as a hobbit, this warrior man would laugh. Unlike what Aunt Esme said about horrible Big Folk, Frodo doubted he would harm him. He seemed of too noble a heart for that. But he would laugh at the very idea of taking a helpless and foolish hobbit with him on his journeys. Frodo was young, only in his tweens. He could not wield a sword. He could not shoot an arrow. He could not forage for his own food in the wild. To one of the wandering folk, he would be useless.
So at last Frodo decided to go to the widow.
“Good afternoon, Mistress Brandybuck.”
The old lady waved her hand at Frodo in scorn and at the same time welcomed him in. She looked at Frodo from top to bottom, her toothless smile sly, almost as if she could not imagine such good fortune. “And what would such a comely lad need from me?”
Frodo took a deep breath, well aware of how foolish he must sound, but no longer caring. “I want to be turned into one of the Big People. I want to be a man.”
The old widow laughed, but it was a kindly laugh. “This is very foolish of you, Frodo Baggins, but this I can do. It will not come without a price, however. My sweet, comely lad, you want to get rid of the curls on your hobbit toes and have two tiny delicate feet that can’t even bear the feel of grass? And all this so that the Ranger of the North may fall in love with you and take you on adventures beyond the edges of the maps – ah, do not look so shocked. I can read your heart better than you yourself can. I know why Bilbo Baggins favors you above all others. You’re just like him. You will never thrive in the Shire. When is your birthday, my lad?”
“September 22, Mistress. Next week.”
Was he in love with this Ranger? Frodo had never been in love before, so he was not sure how it should feel. Perhaps he was in love with what he represented – freedom and adventure and the wild. But he admitted that his face flushed and his heart beat faster when he considered again the Ranger’s noble face and imagined it turning toward him in kindness.
And then the widow laughed again, and this time it was a bitter, ugly sound, and Frodo’s heart felt a little chilled at the sound. “That is well. That is well. I will prepare a dosage for you. You must walk back to that Ranger’s cottage with it by tomorrow at sunrise. You must sit on the front stoop and drink it. Your hobbit feet will disappear, the curls will be gone, the points of your ears will round, and you will grow tall, although, I must warn you -- do not expect to be as tall as one of them. You will feel pain, as if knives are cutting into your feet and a terrible aching in your limbs, as if giant hands are stretching your body. One thing you will keep, is that you will still have the same hobbit-like stealth of movement, which will help you in that which you wish to be, but with every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon burning wood.”
Frodo felt frightened, and he paled, but he spoke in a steady voice, “I will bear this.”
“Think about it,” said the widow, looking at Frodo sharply; “for once you have your height and your new feet, you can no longer be a hobbit. You can never return to Brandy Hall or see your precious Bilbo again or run about with Merry and Pippin and your other cousins. And if you do not win the favor of this Ranger, so that he is willing to forget duty and honor for your sake, and to love you with his whole self, the spell will break -- the first morning after he lets you loose your heart will break and you will become but a crop of toadstools under a rotting log.”
“I will do it,” Frodo said, breathless. Once as a man, he knew now that he could charm this lonely Ranger.
“And here I ask my price,” said the widow, “and it is no small thing that I ask. Your voice is more lyrical than any that dwell in and around the Shire, aside from the Elves of course. You might think that you will be able to charm this Ranger with your Elvish and hobbit-like ardor. But I must have your tongue in payment for the dosage.”
Frodo stared at her, stunned. “But…what must I do without my voice?”
“And…another thing…I know you think yourself a charming writer – such lovely strokes taught by a master writer himself, but know that your fingers shall be unable to hold a quill until such time as the Ranger gives his love and favor to you. But you do have your expressive eyes, the most so I have seen in lad or lass in many years; surely with these you can bewitch a man’s heart. Now stick out your tongue.”
So Frodo obeyed.
Frodo did not stop by Brandy Hall to say farewell, for his mouth throbbed like stabbing darning needles, proof that his tongue was indeed gone forever. He did not wish to explain to anybody, not when he had no intention of changing his mind at this point. Far better to slip away quietly. His heart fluttered in farewell, and he mouthed, “Merry…Pippin…Fredegar…Bilbo…” So many dear hobbits that he would likely never again see. He wondered what Bilbo and Gandalf would think when they arrived next week for his birthday. Well, perhaps by then, it would not matter. Frodo could send word that he was happy.
Once he reached the cottage again, his tongue no longer throbbed as badly, and he collapsed on the stoop as the widow had instructed. He dared not breathe, certain that the Ranger was in there, and frightened that he should come out before Frodo had finished taking the dosage. He took a deep breath and drank the draught.
It was as the widow had warned. Horrible pain assailed his body, a terrible stretching, as if he were being pulled apart in four directions. Pain like stabbing knives battered his feet. He bit his arm to keep from crying out. Then he fell into a swoon.
When he woke next, the first thing he noticed was his feet. They were bare and utterly pale, not a bit of hair on them. And so tiny. He curled his toes, awed by how chilled they were. He tested the bottoms of his feet on the cold soil. It tickled, and he let out a sharp giggle. So cold! He stretched out his legs – his long, long legs. Of course, his breeches had ripped and were now just above his knees and the sleeves of his jacket came now only to just below his elbows. He looked ridiculous, like a lad who had long outgrown his clothing.
“It worked…” he said. Only of course he could not truly utter the words because he had no tongue.
The front door swung open, startling Frodo so that he sprang to his feet and tried to step back, out of the way, only he was unaccustomed to his extra height and he stumbled backward onto his backside.
“Who are you?” The Ranger’s gray eyes were keen and stern, and he gripped the hilt of his sword, holding the tip at Frodo’s neck. “Speak!”
“Frodo Baggins at your service,” Frodo said automatically, but no sound had come from his mouth. He touched his throat and shook his head. Oh, dear. What if the Ranger decided to slay him just because he could not tell him who he was?
“What is it, lad? Can you not speak?” The Ranger’s voice was stern still, but sounded more impatient than threatening. Frodo shook his head, staring up at him, heart thudding, unable to believe that he had at last met this man of his recent dreams. The Ranger grunted and drew the sword away from Frodo’s neck and sheathed it. Frodo sat up and clutched his arms together, shivering, suddenly chilly. The Ranger offered a hand, and pulled Frodo to his feet. His grip was very strong, and even standing to his full new height, the Ranger was still at least a head taller than he was, and much broader across the shoulders.
The Ranger invited Frodo into his cottage, and Frodo nodded his thanks. He limped. Each step was agony, just as the widow had warned, but he made no sound at all. He gazed around the cottage in wonder. The last time he had been in here, sneaking about with Merry, he had been as a hobbit. Now he was human. Human! He stared down again at his bare feet and wriggled his toes.
“Where do you come from?” The man asked. “Can you understand me?”
Frodo nodded and smiled.
The man hesitated, as if Frodo’s smile had disarmed him, just for a moment. Then he turned away, stirring the fire in the hearth.
“You must be cold,” he added. “I have extra clothing. Change into these.” He glanced at Frodo from head to feet. “They may be a bit large on you.” He smiled then. “And I am called Halbarad.”
To Frodo’s utter delight, he handed him clothing of a similar make and fabric as those he was wearing. As Halbarad had warned, the clothing sagged on him quite a bit. But at least he no longer looked ridiculous.
Frodo laughed a bit as he stretched his arms out, feeling the fabric roll over his hands. “Thank you,” he mouthed.
“So you do speak our language,” Halbarad said. “Can you write?”
Frodo nodded very vigorously, but then he remembered what the widow had said, about his fingers being unable to hold a quill. Then he shook his head sadly.
“Are you hungry?”
Again, Frodo smiled and nodded. He wondered if he had still been granted his hobbity appetite, for he knew that Big People ate far less than did hobbits.
“I shall heat up the rabbit stew from last night. I’m afraid that is all I have that is not dried meat or roots.”
After Halbarad heated up the stew and served Frodo a bowl of it, he leaned forward. His hawk-like face had turned to suspicion, and that alone, stole the smile from Frodo’s lips. “I must know from whence you came.”
Frodo glanced at the map, rolled up in the corner of the cottage. He pointed to it.
“Ah, that is a good plan,” Halbarad said with an admiring chuckle that was still grim. Frodo’s heart soared. He would do this…he would charm this man. It was wonderful to be around him. If only he had his tongue!
Halbarad spread the map on the table, smoothing the edges out with strong fingers. Frodo’s heart soared to see such a marvelous, detailed map up close. In fact, Frodo had to study it for quite some time before his finger found the Brandywine River. Halbarad watched while he ran his finger along it until he found space between the river and the Old Forest. He tapped his finger there.
Halbarad raised his brows and shook his head. “I’m afraid you are wrong, my friend. That is part of the Shire, the land of the Halflings. Men do not live there.”
Frodo pointed again, insistent.
Suddenly, he felt the cold point of a sword on his neck again, and he looked up in alarm, heart pounding.
Now Halbarad’s voice was harsh, and it cracked at Frodo’s heart. “Where do you come from? No more riddles, please.”
Frodo swallowed, and he had never been so frightened in his life. Nobody had ever threatened him with a sword. Of course he knew, because of Bilbo’s tales, that the Big People were prone to fighting and quick to draw weapons, but somehow he had never related it to himself. Somehow he had come to believe that swords were drawn against giant spiders or goblins or wolves – not other men. Tears filled his eyes that this noble man with the kindly and handsome face might now slice his throat and think little of it.
Halbarad’s face changed to pity and he sheathed his sword. “I am sorry I frightened you, lad. Likely you don’t know how to read a map properly. I did not think of that and I am deeply ashamed by my quick ire. Are you lost then? Do you have family worried for you?”
Frodo was shamed to find that a tear had slid down his cheek and he wiped it away. And worse than that, Halbarad saw him as a child, a lad. Hobbits looked far younger than men did at the same age, and without a tongue, without a way to write, there was no way to make Halbarad understand that.
“Fear not,” Halbarad said. “I will help you get home.”
But Frodo’s heart nearly broke right then because of course he no longer had a place to go home to if he did not charm this Ranger. And in fact, should he fail, he would find himself growing under a rotten log until some unfortunate soul came along and plucked him.
Frodo traced his finger around the mountains and rivers, smiling to himself, and then pointed to himself and then to Halbarad and then swept his hand over the map again.
Halbarad looked at him, puzzled.
Frodo repeated the gesture.
Then Halbarad smiled. “Oh, you like to travel then. Well, if you like, you can come with me tomorrow as I hike around this border of the Shire. Today, however, I must go alone to take care of some possibly dangerous business. You may stay here until my return.”
Frodo’s cheeks flushed and his heart soared. Although he wished to go with Halbarad today, too, and fretted that Halbarad was walking into danger, he had tomorrow to look forward to – an entire day of walking about, possibly in areas outside the Shire he had never seen, during which time he had to charm this Ranger. He could show him the stealth with which he could walk. He could not forage food, but he could help the Ranger find the best mushrooms. He would be unobtrusive, yet charming.
After Halbarad left for the day, Frodo practiced walking on his feet that still burned with every step. He must not be a burden to Halbarad when they traveled. His new height felt odd and dizzying, and he practiced reaching upward and outward, pleasantly surprised by what he could reach.
A knock on the window startled him. He was especially surprised to find Merry, and so he rushed to the front door and smiled down at his friend.
Merry’s mouth fell open when he saw him, and he staggered backwards. “Frodo…oh, dear. She said you had been changed, but…Oh, Frodo! I knew you’d come here…”
Frodo nodded. He grinned and pointed to his boot-clad feet.
“Oh, Frodo,” Merry repeated, clearly in no mood to respond to Frodo’s light-hearted mood. “Oh, my dear. Will you never come home again?” He looked up in dismay. “Oh, you’re so tall! And your ears are round and small. And you’re wearing those…shoes -- the curls on your feet must be -- gone. Aren’t your feet cold?”
Frodo shook his head and longed to tell him how warm the leather of the boots was, how it caressed his skin.
“Why will you not answer me?” Merry asked, his eyes serious.
Frodo touched his throat as he had done earlier with Halbarad and shook his head. He opened his mouth to show Merry where his tongue had been cut out.
Merry turned away, struck by grief. “Oh, Frodo,” and tears filled his eyes, “you must come back. Widow Brandybuck has it out for Bilbo and that’s why she’s done this to you, really, but we’ll fix it! You must come back! Bilbo and Gandalf are on their way for your birthday – surely Gandalf can do something to change you back!”
But Frodo knelt and embraced Merry and they held each other a long time before Merry took his leave.
In the coming days, Frodo grew to love Halbarad more and more. And in return, it seemed that Halbarad had developed a fondness for his new quiet companion with the expressive eyes and silent feet and eagerness to see the world. Of course it never seemed to come into his head to think of Frodo as more than a dear companion, because of course in his mind, Frodo was young, someone to be protected and nourished. Unless Frodo convinced him to think otherwise, he would soon be naught but toadstools under a rotting log.
“But could you not love me?” Frodo asked with his eyes, one day when Halbarad kissed his brow with casual affection.
“You are dear to me,” said Halbarad, as if he read Frodo’s thoughts, “for your heart is pure and you are a most devoted and eager companion; long have I wandered in the wilderness with few companions, and those who deign to speak to me, do so mostly in crude tongues and with scorn.”
Frodo leaned forward, smiled, and sipped his tea.
Halbarad grew very serious. “Come morning, I must travel alone,” he said; “I must see to a growing shadow near Isengard, a threat to the Shire. I need no companions on this quest, but if I could, I would certainly choose you, with your stealth and tranquil friendship.” And he gave Frodo an easy kiss on the brow again, and absentmindedly ran his fingers through Frodo’s curls. “You are not afraid of anything, my brave and silent lad, are you?”
And then they drank tea together at the table and Frodo’s heart cracked, knowing that his Halbarad would be going into danger and not coming back for many, many days. Halbarad told him about the rolling hills of the Shire, of small folk who dug their homes into these hills, of Elves that passed through the woods of the Shire, glowing with ethereal light, singing as they passed on their way to the Havens; and Frodo smiled sadly at Halbarad’s descriptions, for he knew far better than he about the Shire and its inhabitants.
“And now, my sweet lad, come morning, I must take leave of you forever, or at least under this darkening sun. My kinsman, Strider, shall be soon arriving, and I shall have him accompany you to wherever your home is. For I know you have a home, and I am certain that those who love you are waiting with great concern. As for me, there are dangerous days ahead for me, and sleepless, watchful nights, and I must travel a far distance.”
Frodo clapped his hand over his chest in desperation and gestured at Halbarad. “Take me with you,” he mouthed.
“Nay,” Halbarad said. “It is far too perilous. I can not take you with me.”
Frodo clasped Halbarad’s hand with both of his and kissed it, letting his tears freely fall on the Ranger’s hand.
“I shall always cherish this friendship you have offered me,” Halbarad said, holding Frodo’s face in his strong hands and wiping away his tears with his thumbs.
Strider, his kinsman, did indeed arrive, and Frodo recognized him as the second man that had been in the cottage that first night Frodo had spied in the window, the one to whom Halbarad had bid “namarie.”
When Strider crossed the threshold into the cottage, Halbarad embraced him, and they held each other for a long time. With dawning devastation, Frodo saw that they were kissing on the mouth and with great tenderness. A chill spread down Frodo’s chest and down his long limbs until his bare feet were chilled and his heart utterly shattered inside his chest.
Long after Halbarad and Strider retired to sleep, Frodo sat on the front stoop, listening to the breeze rustle the colorful autumn leaves. Now they sounded like rattling bones, and Frodo shivered.
It could never have come to be between himself and Halbarad. Halbarad had loved another all along. He had seen Frodo as a dear companion and nothing more. He would not even take him on his perilous adventure.
Frodo had given up being a hobbit forever, and all for nothing.
Perhaps even the Widow Brandybuck had known this all along. This had been her vengeance on Bilbo and his most beloved cousin.
“Halbarad,” he said soundlessly, and his heart ached until he could hardly breathe.
And this was the last evening that he would breathe the same air with him, or gaze on the starry sky or listen to the flow of the river. Soon it would be dark, everlasting night for him. Frodo looked towards the east, waiting for the sky to turn pink, the symbol of his coming death.
Just then, he heard the crackle of brush and the shadows of several hobbits came into view. As they drew closer, Frodo recognized Merry and Pippin and Fatty Bolger. Then, under the moonlight, he saw that their feet were all as bare and pale as his were.
“We have given our foot hair to the widow,” said Merry, “to get help for you. We cannot let you die, Frodo. We just can’t -- the widow has given us an Elvish knife to give to you. Before the sun rises you must plunge it into the heart of the Ranger; when the warm blood falls upon your feet they will grow foot hair again, and you will be back to the proper height, and you will be once more a hobbit, and return to us to the Shire. Go now!”
“I cannot,” Frodo gasped, holding the knife in his hands.
“You don’t want Bilbo to mourn for you,” Pippin added. “Come now! Kill the Ranger and join us! It’s already starting to get light! In a few minutes the sun will rise, and you must die. Now we must flee. If we watch you do it, it will not work.” And the hobbits ran away again. If Frodo did not have the knife in his hands, he might have thought it all to be a dream.
Frodo stepped inside again and stood above Halbarad. He bent down and kissed his fair brow so softly, then looked at the sky, which was now streaked with pink lines growing ever brighter; he stared at the sharp knife, and again looked down at the Ranger.
The knife trembled in Frodo’s hand, he who had never before used a knife to maim or kill.
He could not.
He ran back outside and flung it far away from him into the woods; he cast one more lingering glance at Halbarad, and then ran into the woods, preparing for his end.
Frodo opened his eyes. He looked around him, puzzled, trying to take in the scenery around him. Finally he recognized the hearth that crackled with warming fire, the trunk, the scattered bookcase, and the laundry basket at the foot of the bed. Why, he was in Bag End – but how? He had no recollection of traveling there.
Had he been ill?
His limbs felt sore, and his mouth ached as if he had eaten scorching food that had burned his tongue. But he was comfortable and slid fast again into sleep.
Later, he heard voices, and he was certain one of them was Gandalf’s and the other Bilbo’s.
“…is awakening…shouldn’t be long…”
“…sure he won’t remember?”
“He will be sore for a time, especially in the mouth, but I think he shall suffer no ill effects. There is more to this hobbit than meets the eye, Bilbo.” He paused a moment. “If he had used the knife that the hobbits gave him, I think I would not have been able to turn him completely back. His heart is pure and brave.”
“I know,” Bilbo murmured.
Frodo opened his eyes. “What has happened?” he asked. “How did I get here?”
“Ah, it was a surprise for your birthday, planned by Gandalf and I,” Bilbo said, his eyes twinkling. “My boy, I’ve been thinking about something long and hard, and I’ve something I must ask you.”
Frodo smiled. He was certain that Bilbo was not telling him all there was to tell about how he came to arrive at Bag End, but for now, he did not mind. He felt utterly at peace, sitting in bed surrounded by two of his favorite people in Middle-earth.
“Frodo, lad, how would you like to come and live with me here in Bag End? That way we could always celebrate our birthdays together, without a lot of confounded traveling.”
Frodo broke into a wide smile. He thought that perhaps just now, while he had slept, that he had dreamed something melancholy, like one of the old stories about Elves that Bilbo had told him, about the parting of lovers never to be reunited again.
But he had awakened to the most joyful news possible. He flung his arms around Bilbo. “Yes, Uncle Bilbo, I would dearly love to!”