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by CRB and Ladyhawk Baggins

20 December 1419sr The eve of Yule...

Hours before dawn, Frodo awoke. He lay staring at the gently domed ceiling above his bed. The inlaid wood was covered with intricate patterns of leaves, painted in varying shades of green with touches of gold and silver. He had borrowed the designs from the Elves at Lothlórien and drawn the leaf patterns for the painter. It was soothing; he was pleased to have found a local artisan capable of such fine work. Will Burrows had recommended him.

Upon learning Will was a carpenter by trade, Frodo hired him to work on the restoration of Bag End. At first Will balked at being paid. Frodo reminded him matter-of-factly that someone would need to be hired to do the repairs; why shouldn’t it be him? Will relented and brought along two apprentices; Frodo also commissioned him to hire anyone else he might need to complete the repairs quickly.

When he was not overseeing the restoration of Hobbiton and Bywater, as well as some of the outlying villages of the Westfarthing, and with a nod from Will, Frodo lent a hand. It was good to do some of the repair himself; he needed to stay busy. He had been perhaps too successful at this, falling exhausted into bed at the end of each long day. He decided it was just as well; for the most part, it kept the voice at bay.

And he hurt himself only once, hammering his left index finger. Frodo smiled to himself. He decided it was not bad at all, for a hobbit who never before touched a hammer.

Will did a fine job of restoring all the woodwork in the hole. With the apprentices, he also repaired leaks in the roof -- in two places, or three? No, only two -- in the third guest bedroom and in the kitchen. Fortunately, the hole suffered only a little water damage as a result of the leaks.

What else? Oh, yes, the water pumps -- inside and out -- those were the first repairs to be done, Frodo remembered. Getting rid of those huts and sheds had been next. He shuddered at the thought of all the trees that were cut down to build the ugly structures. After cording up the spare lumber for firewood, and giving most of it away, he still had more than enough to get through the winter.

But for the sound of his own breathing, all was quiet within Bag End. Without, Frodo heard the occasional gust of wind as it pulled at the tree atop the hill.

There were only embers left in the grate across the room. He flung off the bedclothes to work on the fire, oblivious to the cold air outside the bed. No point in putting on a dressing gown for this, he decided.

He’d never have let the fire get so low before the Quest. After the misery of the Emyn Muil, after the freezing air and water at the Gates of Moria, after Caradhras -- at the memory, he shivered -- he could not convince himself to think of this, the inside of a hobbit hole, as cold, ever again. He remembered clearly the feeling of real cold. This was warm by comparison.

A sudden memory, the iciness of the Morgul blade, came to him without warning. He stopped and closed his eyes in an attempt to stem the flood, the too-vivid details of the nightmare on Weathertop.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he rubbed his eyes and sighed deeply, pleading for help. Over the past few months he had learned that asking the Creator for His aid at the first moment of need seemed best. The darkness had a more difficult task when he remembered to turn aside, at once, to the Light. If he remembered to ask...

Frodo sighed again. The memories were silenced, for now. He gave thanks; thoughts of Weathertop had been his undoing many times before.

He began to relight the fire. It was something to do, and when guests came later in the day to celebrate the restoration of his home, he wanted each room to be warm and welcoming. He hoped, especially, that she would find it so. Distracted, he burned himself a little on the fat-wood taper, letting it burn too low.

I dare not think about her yet! There is much yet to be done today before my guests arrive... deliveries will be arriving... I must have my wits about me.

After three attempts, the fire began to lick at the pine logs, the fresh scent filling his nostrils. He did not stare into the fire for too very long. That usually brought to life images he carefully avoided. No matter how beautiful the flames were, no matter how hypnotic, it was never a good idea to stare into them. The memories of Sammath Naur were as fresh as if the events happened only ten days ago rather than nigh on ten months now.

A little of the aromatic pine smoke started to creep out into the bedroom. The damper must have fallen shut in the night; he was surprised he hadn’t heard it. I really am not myself, he thought.

He took hold of the nearest thing at hand, a poker, and raised the damper. It wasn’t the easiest way to do it, but it did the job well enough. Frodo stood up again and brushed the soot from his hands. Sam would have had this started in less than half the time, in one try rather than three, and would have double-checked the damper.

But Sam was not here; he was at his gaffer’s new smial. Sam had his own room now at Bag End; he could come and go as he pleased. Over his friend’s protests, Frodo sent him to the Gaffer’s a week ago, so he could spend some time with his old dad. Since their return, the Travelers had all been busy at work, and Frodo could see clearly that Sam was torn between doing for his master, seeing his Gaffer, and courting Rose -- mostly courting Rose. For that, Frodo could hardly blame him. He assured his friend he could ‘do’ for himself for a few days, at least.

He lay back on the bed again, put his hands behind his head, and resumed his study of the painted designs on the ceiling. Before, he’d had only a little moonlight to see by. With the fire beginning to crackle and roar in the grate, he could see with far more detail the patterns there.

He tried not to think about what had been happening to his body -- much less his soul -- after she left to go home to Deephallow on November 7th. Without her presence, he -- it was difficult to find any words for it -- he felt he was slowly becoming less substantial. Less real.

He could not possibly be disappearing, much as his eyes tried to deceive him. It must be a trick of the darkness. At times, usually at twilight, when he felt most alone, he almost thought he could see through his right hand. It was impossible. He needed to keep telling himself that. It was a trick...

He sat up in bed and closed his eyes to pray, the same as every morning since his return to the Shire. Since the Quest, waking up long before dawn was his pattern; he had yet to sleep through a whole night. Perhaps this quiet time alone was a blessing, for he could pray to his heart’s content. Then again, perhaps, it was too quiet, ever since Bilbo left for Rivendell all those long years ago. No strange guests dropping in to share news of the world outside the Shire. Now, even Merry and Pippin were busy and could only stop by occasionally. What would I do without Sam for company? he wondered.

Prayer brought him some of the only real comfort he knew. He prayed for Lily first of all, then for her family, and for the maidchild born to Daisy and Hal on the 10th of November, Pearl.

In a note sent through the post, Daisy had teased him for knowing it was a ‘she’ after all. Frodo opened his eyes and smiled to himself at the thought of little Pearl.

He was glad the post was working so well again. It had been his first concern as deputy mayor. On November 7th, the day Lily left, he had set himself hard at his tasks. He was more than grateful for having so much work to do. It filled the time until he could see her again.

Everywhere he looked, there were problems which needed fair and swift resolution. Were he not deputy mayor, he’d only have restored the Row and Bag End. Someone else would have been working morning till night on behalf of the Westfarthing, north of the East Road, and the whole of the Northfarthing. He thought of the smaller outlying villages and was grateful they had been spared much of the damage sustained by Hobbiton and Bywater. Yet most of the smaller villages -- Waymeet, Overhill, Brockenborings, even little Northway -- all needed help of some sort. Sometimes it was a simple matter of convincing the hobbits living there that the ruffians were truly gone.

Merry and Pippin had taken great care to see order restored and repairs made in their own parts of the Shire. Pip took the Westfarthing, south of the East Road, as well as Oakleaf and Southway in the Southfarthing. Merry looked after the Eastfarthing, and saw to the needs of Longbottom, Willowbottom, and Deephallow...

Frodo sighed. He had decided not to ask Merry to pay any special visits to Lily and her family in Deephallow. The strange problem he and Lily faced was too complicated, too hard to explain to anyone, even Merry. He’d have understood, but no -- it was too much to explain, and Merry would fret about the darkness he was fighting. Then Pippin would know of it, and then Fatty, and all of them would worry. It was enough for Sam to know; indeed, he fretted enough for all of them. And his cousins would gleefully and earnestly have acted the part of matchmaker as soon as they learned of his affection for Lily... Merry especially. Yes, it was best left alone. Will they be able to see it, anyway, when Lily arrives here today for the celebration? he wondered.

His heart beat harder in anticipation of her arrival. He sighed deeply, in an effort to steady his breathing, and again turned his mind away from memories of her; but it was very difficult to do. Sam; I will think about Sam.

Sam had been out surveying the damage done to the trees throughout the Shire. He took Bill for a week in mid-November to see the remote corners of the Southfarthing. Rose had complained a bit about him leaving again so soon, but he needed to assess the damages before winter came on, when travel would be more difficult. Rosie gave in; she knew he was right. What a tearful reunion they had when Sam returned!

Frodo closed his eyes for a moment. The bed was soft and still somewhat warm, but it brought him no comfort at all. It would not do to torture himself with thoughts of things he might never have. He opened his eyes again, looking at the ceiling, but seeing nothing. Oh, Ilúvatar! Why would You bring us together, only to part us? She is coming to the celebration today! What will happen? Will she become ill again? Or will she remain well? Have I prayed enough?

He started to count the leaf-tips on the ceiling, beginning at the center, and following the long strips of inlaid wood to the outer edge, then back to the center, taking the next section in a clockwise fashion. He usually finished at least three-quarters of the ceiling before dawn. The rote, empty counting cleared his mind on many a sleepless morning, allowing him to sort out his crowded thoughts, and -- mostly -- refrain from thinking of her.

On November 10th, he released the Men -- he no longer called them ruffians -- from Michel Delving, on their sworn word never to set foot in the Shire again. To a Man, they promised. He had given Sam’s older brother Halfred, who lived in that part of the Westfarthing, the task of supplying the Men with three days of provisions. It was more than enough to reach Bree. These were pulled from the reserve he’d kept at Bag End for contingencies such as this. If they were without a cloak, one was provided. It was far too cold to send them on a long journey on foot without some protection from the elements.

Frodo felt for them, knowing that even with the cloaks, they would still be cold. But they would arrive home safely, all the same, if that was where they chose to go.

Most of them wore good strong shoes. Frodo had finally become accustomed to seeing shod feet on the Quest; but Halfred had been hard-pressed to find anyone in his village who knew how to make a pair of shoes. Finally, the tanner in Michel Delving made them by copying a pair given up by a Man for the job. The tanner told Halfred that moving to Bree might be profitable after all. They all needed shoes there, he reasoned.

Frodo nearly laughed out loud then, but did not want to lose count of the leaf-tips. Five hundred sixty-six, sixty-seven, sixty-eight...

Merry and Pippin dropped in only twice to talk of the Quest and to keep Frodo informed of their progress. They had assigned volunteers to watch for trouble on the main Road and most of the larger ancillary roads. There had not been any trouble. Saruman’s death ended all of that, Frodo surmised.

He shuddered, and lost count of the leaf-tips. He could restart the count, but pacing the floor was easier. He got out of bed and paced.

Merry had helped him reorganize the shirriffs. There were far more in place than would ever be needed; Frodo set the numbers to what they had been before the Shire was assaulted. Those who no longer needed to spy on their fellow hobbits were relieved to go back to their old occupations, and the remaining shirriffs could go back to their old jobs -- looking out for mischief, and watching the borders. Nothing more was needed now.

Frodo made his way to the kitchen, but not to eat. There would be food in abundance later today at the tea, and it was far too early for first breakfast. He wasn’t often hungry now anyway, not since the Quest. He was changed; he was less like a hobbit, and it worried him. He’d had a good appetite at some time; when was it? he wondered. Oh, yes, early November, when Lily was near...

For now, he wished only to look out his kitchen window. He opened it, knowing the cold air would infiltrate the kitchen, but he did not care. He needed to see the side garden.

This was a very comforting ritual, checking his beloved garden, even though it was empty. It would be full again in spring. Sam had already planted the flower bulbs, and would plant new rose bushes soon. It helped convince him he was truly home.

But the half-frozen and dormant garden made him think of his heart, dormant too, since Lily had gone. He closed the window, and turned to start a fire in the kitchen grate.

By the third week in November, Frodo had overseen the re-laying of Bagshot Row. What remained of it had been so deeply rutted and full of holes it wasn’t safe for hobbit or pony. Once done, Frodo had #3, the Gaffer’s smial rebuilt. Will had hired a small army of workers to complete the smial in time to surprise Sam upon his return from the Southfarthing. At the sight of the new smial, Sam shed tears, as Frodo knew he would. It was a happy time; the Gaffer was pleased indeed. After that, #1 was rebuilt, just at the end of November. The last smial would be rebuilt in March, perhaps, when the worst of winter was over. Folk in Hobbiton were starting to call it ‘New Row’; but no one living there really took to the new name.

Frodo stayed on with the Cottons until December 5th, when his furniture and belongings were sent over from Crickhollow; Bag End was mostly ready, then. On the days he visited his home to check on the progress of the restoration, he could sense only peace there. He admitted to himself his fears that perhaps Gandalf’s blessing could not remove every evil from it, and realized he should have known better. The dark voice within tried to convince him otherwise, but Bag End was whole and pure, as it had once been. Each time he felt the peace, he gave thanks.

The fire in the kitchen hearth sputtered to life. Frodo was not sure how long he worked on it. He shook his head a little and went to the front door, then stepped out into the dark and the cold, leaving the door open behind him.

The view from his front step had been so lovely. Much of it was lovely again, now, barely visible in the moonlight, but the Party Tree was gone. It was so hard to believe. The tree was 361 years old when it was killed. He and Sam wept in November, as Sam counted the tree-rings. Frodo shook off those thoughts; the voice would come to him soon if he were not careful.

He was glad for the parties and dances which had been set up all round in Hobbiton and Bywater -- he and old Tom Cotton had got them going. Tom had done most of the work of organizing the gatherings. It was important for spirits to be bolstered again after all that had happened. The hobbits were weary at the end of a long day’s work, and the dancing, music, games, and food --mostly the food -- had done the job. Tom cracked open some of the hoarded ales for the parties, and handed out the best old leaf, as well.

The cold breath of wind sighed in the few branches left on the tree living atop Bag End, and suddenly Frodo felt it. It cut through him, sending him inside. He shut the door and made for the kitchen, shivering, to warm himself at the fire there. He had let a good deal of cold air into the smial.

I’d best start the greatroom fire as well, he decided. Where is my dressing gown? He searched the greatroom, then remembered it was still in the master bedroom. After fetching it, he padded back to the greatroom and set a new split log of oak in the grate. He checked the damper first, thinking of Sam, then of the hobbits who rebuilt the Gaffer’s home under Will’s supervision.

Did I pay my accounts for this past month? he wondered. I did, Monday. And I paid Will and his two helpers on their final work day here at Bag End, which was a fortnight or so back... yes, December 5th, it was. Yes. Then who am I forgetting? It would come to him. If he had to, he would have a spot of tea and look at the accounts to pass the time. The split log was difficult to kindle.

Frodo was grateful for the opportunity to get to know Will better. He was a solid, sensible hobbit who cared about his sisters, so far away. Frodo had been able to keep up with news from Deephallow very easily, thanks to Will, and to the efficiency of the restored post. It had been easy to set to rights, a simple matter of re-hiring the former post riders. There were sixteen riders before the troubles, but two had died in the Battle of Bywater. Frodo left it to Pippin to find replacements for them.

Will had been stoic about the loss of his father. It had been quite hard on Daisy, of course, and on Lily, too... Frodo sat himself down on the floor in front of the fire. Where was I? I cannot think of her just now. Daisy -- Hal, Pearl... yes, the post. Daisy had sent Will news of Pearl only a few days after her birth, and Will told him of the happy event.

Frodo sent Daisy and Hal a gift for the child, seeking out Rose for advice, not knowing the first thing about the needs of newborns. Rose suggested a blanket; they can never have enough blankets, she assured him. He didn’t want to use an errand-runner for the purchase. The markets were barely up and running again, but with winter’s approach, blankets were not hard to find.

Rose accompanied him, suggesting he purchase the softest wool they could find. She assured him the softness was far more important than the colour and such. Newborns had very tender skin. As it was, they found a very soft one which was beautiful as well; a light-yellow blanket with delicate daisies all round the edges.

Frodo smiled. Hal had sent him a note of thanks directly. He wrote that they were all well, including little Pearl. They were grateful to be able to pray and give thanks to Ilúvatar. It was a very satisfying thing, he had written. He added that Lily prayed daily. It seemed to bring her greater comfort than anything else. She was doing well, but, Hal wrote, she seemed very distracted. Lily stayed with them often, partly to help care for the child, which allowed Daisy some sleep, but partly because she did not want to be alone in their father’s house. She would stand at the window of the smial and look due west, sometimes for hours.

Frodo gave up, and let his thoughts go where they would; he let Lily in. He was still sitting in front of the greatroom fire. It was crackling merrily now. He knelt by the fire and closed his eyes.

He prayed, as he did each day, that somehow he and Lily could be together, that his darkness would no longer make her ill. But six weeks had passed since he last set eyes on Lily, and in her absence, the darkness had its way, more often than not, preying on his fears. His thoughts drifted away from the prayer.

Still kneeling, Frodo wondered about the hobbit her father had spoken of as he lay dying at the Battle of Bywater. But Lily never, ever spoke of that hobbit in the four -- nearly five -- days he had known her. Was it only five days? It seemed impossible. He felt he had known her the whole of his life; why was that? Gandalf said it was love. That he loved her... love must do those things to one’s heart, he thought.

For himself, he was afraid to call it love, even if Gandalf had. He felt certain he was never destined for a love of his own, not since the Ring had come to him. It was too much to hope for... was it not?... and especially not one as compassionate and warm and beautiful as Lily...

He got up and went to the bedroom, already too warm in his dressing gown. Taking it off, he lay down again, settling into the pillows once more with his hands under his head.

Now his other nightly ritual, thinking of Lily, took hold of him, and was a little like torture; although it was torture of the sweetest kind he could imagine. He carried her image in his mind always, and carried something much deeper than affection for her in his heart. He recalled, night after night, things she had said, smiles she had given him, their last embrace before her departure...

And she was coming to the tea today. Will had mentioned several days back that Lily was coming to see him in Bywater for the Yule celebrations, as well as for her birthday, December 21st -- tomorrow. It was only polite to invite her to the Bag End celebration as well; she could come along with Will, who had gone to fetch her and bring her back from Deephallow... who else was coming with Will today? For a moment his mind was blank -- Bell Proudfoot. Bell and Will had been seen stepping out together at the dances. He spoke of her with such affection...

...but Lily! How will I ever be able to pay attention to my other friends today if she is near? And will she be all right?

He sighed, a deep, ragged sigh, full of hope and fear, misgivings and joy. The thought of seeing her again pushed any thought of sleep away for good. Dawn would not come for another two hours, he guessed. Two hours of dreaming about Lily.

The voice crept in. He could sense its approach easily, in the still calm of his bedroom.

He sat up, shaking his head and rubbing his eyes. It was a bad way to start each day, the dark voice creeping in to cast doubt on all his hopes. You will be alone forever. You cannot have her. She is promised to another. You have failed again...


She has forgotten you.

“Has she?”

It was the beginning of another morning ritual: talking back to the voice.

Frodo resorted again to prayer. It had always -- nearly always -- helped him push the darkness away.

"Give me strength, O kind Creator, to withstand this evil. Give my friends safe passage today on their travels. Bless my home. Bless Sam and Rose..."

In the middle of the prayer it occurred to him to wear Arwen’s necklace, the white gem she had given him. He got up and opened the wardrobe at the opposite end of the room, pulled out a tiny drawer within the wardrobe, and found the gem. It glowed faintly where it lay, but when he picked it up it glowed more brightly. Why had he not thought of this before? Perhaps it would help ward off the evil. Perhaps Lily would not become ill.

He lay down again, still clutching the necklace in his right hand. Drowsiness crept upon him so quickly he had no chance to feel surprise; he was asleep within moments.