I. Air – October, S.R. 1380
Soundtrack: "Wonder Why" by PFR
Frodo stood solemnly beside Rory and Bilbo, trying not to cry. Uncle Rory, he reminded himself, for the Master of Brandy Hall had insisted that Frodo call him by that name these last few days. Frodo knew he should, kept telling himself to just speak the word, whatever his heart thought of it. But no; Bilbo was the uncle of his heart, and Rory – for all he was an uncle by blood – was little more than a stranger to Frodo.
Should have always been a stranger. How he wished he’d never been to Buckland! How he wished his parents had stayed away, too, stayed safe in Hobbiton.
He gulped hard to keep himself from crying, and he felt Bilbo’s arm around him. The sleeve of his uncle’s woolen coat itched against his cheek, but Frodo hardly cared. Those strong arms – still so strong, for all that Bilbo was a full decade older than Rory – wrapped around him, and Frodo buried his face in his uncle’s side. He felt tears well up in his eyes and was grateful for the seclusion his uncle’s coat provided.
After a moment Bilbo squeezed Frodo’s shoulder, and Frodo straightened up a little though he still leaned against Bilbo. The grave-diggers had finished their work, and his grandfather Gorbadoc had stepped forward to say his piece. To either side of Gorbadoc stood two boxes fashioned from planks of pine-wood. Frodo, had he been alone, would have spat on those boxes. As it was Bilbo kept a tight hold on Frodo’s shoulders, so he just looked away as often as he could.
He hated those boxes, hated the need of them. Why should his parents be hidden away like that? Why shouldn’t they be laid out for all to see, like when his grandmother Ruby had died from a fever last winter? They had dressed her in her finest clothes, and put a fine wool blanket around her and shoveled the half-frozen earth on top, and then drained a beer-barrel to her honor.
But not so for his mum and dad. No, they had gone out after dinner and no one quite knew where, and it had taken the better part of two days to find them, bloated and floating in a creek off the Brandywine, their faces half eaten away by fish. No one wanted to see that, nor wanted Frodo to have to see that, all through the funeral. Still, Frodo wished they would burn those cursed boxes. He’d see his mum and dad one more time, no matter how frightful they looked. And he’d have the warm earth keep them company, if he couldn’t do it himself any longer.
He longed to look away, longed to get away, longed to scream until his voice went hoarse.
But he couldn’t do any of those things, he knew he was old enough to know better, and was a Baggins in Buckland as well. He had to be resolute, had to breathe, so all these Brandybucks didn’t think that he was touched. He knew his cousins thought him odd, for everything was so different across the River, and he only acted as he’d been taught his whole life. But Bilbo had talked to him last night, and Frodo knew that he’d be staying here when Bilbo went back to Hobbiton. He knew Bilbo’s reasons, for Bilbo was sure Frodo would fare better among a swarm of children than all alone in Bag End. Frodo disagreed, but he had not the heart to argue. Things being as they were, Frodo had decided to try to make the best of it all, so he fought the urge to run far away from here.
He ran his fingers over the waistcoat that Bilbo had given him the night before. Silver thread and buttons, and the black velvet fabric Frodo had been wheedling his uncle for all winter. Bilbo had bought some fine velvet off of dwarf-traders just after last year’s harvest, and Frodo had begged for a scrap to keep tucked away with his other treasures: the old hornet’s nest, the jars full of tadpoles, the flute he’d carved out of a river-reed, and all the rest. Bilbo had smiled at the request and said they would see what was left over once the tailor had cut off what he'd need.
Frodo never got the scrap, but he was still intrigued by the cloth. Where did it come from? Rivendell? Dale, even? Or from Gondor? Bilbo had told him stories about the days after the Battle of the Five Armies, of those messengers from far-off lands, and their wondrous banners fluttering in the wind. Yes, Gondor seemed just the type of place to make such a treasure. Now Frodo owned not just a scrap but a whole waistcoat, and knew he should be glad. Bilbo had commissioned it some time ago, as a birthday-gift he said, and it wasn’t Bilbo’s fault that the giving had been pushed up a week by what had happened with his dad and mum.
He pinched the pocket between his fingers and heard the air squelch out of it. What would it sound like wet? What would it feel like, to have the air forced out of you by other wetness, to have the waters crushing over, to grasp up and find nothing but the river-scum and call out and have your lungs fill up so you couldn’t even –
Frodo squirmed out of Bilbo’s grasp and ran away as fast as his legs could carry him. Just then he didn’t care about what came next, about fancy waistcoats or his cousins, or any of the rest. He longed – needed – to get away. As he ran away he looked over his shoulder and saw Bilbo holding Rory back. So they understood, and so they wouldn’t chase after Frodo just now.
Frodo ran around the Hill and into the woods behind it. He needed the cool air from under the forest eaves against his skin, needed the scent of green all around him. He kept running even as he felt a stitch in his side and his breath came in ragged gulps. He ran as if Death Herself was hot on his heels. He would come back in an hour or so, by tea at the latest. But just now he would run as far as he could, and farther still, and then –
As for then, Frodo did not know. He knew only that now – that now – he needed to get away.