Where Many Paths and Errands Meet
By Dolores J. Nurss
Chapter 5 Part 5
(September 22, 1451)
Night had long since
fallen by the time the ponies stumbled over the
bridge and into Buckland, in a thick, misty gloom that
beaded the hobbits' hair and the wool of their cloaks with dew,
and smelled heavily of river. Even Frodo missed his
supper by then, though Bleoboris did sometimes pass him
dried fruit and jerky from his saddle-bag. Frodo looked
at Bleo with new respect, for the young Brandybuck hardly
seemed fazed by the long ride. His father, too, had
legendary endurance, and if he felt any fatigue he wasn't
about to show it. Frodo's back ached and his legs ached
and his sitting-parts never wanted to sit again, thank
you very much.
"Riding!" Frodo thought.
"Why couldn't we have walked? It would've only taken
one extra day, and I'd have spent that much more time
enjoying the Shire."
But then Bleo noticed how Frodo
crouched in the saddle, trying to find one scrap of
hindquarters not rubbed raw, and passed him a flask of
the family beverage (never mind that the Brandybucks were
named after the river and not the other way around) and
the trip became a bit more endurable. By the second pass
Bleo's endless chatter became tolerable, even pleasant,
if not any more interesting.
At first the travelers encountered only houses, for the
damp riverside land did not lend itself well to
hobbit-holes. Still they were nice enough houses,
thatched and rounded places of cob and beam, with arched
doorways and platter-windows like golden coins of light.
Then, as the road wound up again from the river, they
came into the rambling district of Brandy Hall itself,
where the light spilled out from windows in the hillside,
with their autumn-painted vines draped all around them
like outdoor curtains, illuminated from behind by
fireplace and lamp. Brandy Hall's innumerable wings and
tunnels spread out all around them (and indeed, sometimes
under them) until at last they reached the front gate.
Bleo hopped off his steed and gave a bell a resounding
ring, and younger Brandybucks came out to tend their
horses. Frodo dismounted more slowly, wincing to discover
that it hurt even more to stop riding than to continue. His pony whinnied with entirely too much relief as he did so.
"Come, come, lass!" he said, stroking her big, furry face as the Bucklanders unsaddled her. "Surely I am not that much heavier than a picnic lunch!"
Nobody ever faulted the Master of Buckland for his hospitality, not
since the Oldbucks crossed the river and became the first hobbits to
build an empire on trade. With so many relations living under one roof,
the Brandybucks dedicated an entire chamber to baths and the art of
bathing, each tub in its own alcove of willow-screens, and there
certain members of the family plied their craft, proud to carry the
title of Tenders of the Bath, who did no other work than to heat and
carry water, mop spills, keep inventory of all towels, and perfect
their secret recipes for the best soaps in the Shire. It was but one of
many homely crafts celebrated in the self-contained maze called Brandy
Hall. Frodo soaked in utter bliss and soon forgot the trials of the
road, letting his worries drift away in clouds of steam.
But it's a funny thing about partitions; people tend to
assume they have more privacy than they've got, as though
a willow screen could block out sound as well as sight.
Frodo heard the splashing wallow of his father to his
right, but to his left he heard two tenders cleaning up
after a mother had bathed some especially muddy children.
"That Gamgee and his oldest boy had the nerve to
visit today--did you see them come straight in at the
front door, just as bold as brass? As though he hadn't
grabbed Bag End right out from under our noses--and then
had the gall to name his son after our cousin,
like that could legitimize his claim."
"Now, now, mind your tongue. Our ditch-digger mayor
won't stick at naught for power--or haven't you heard how
he got Bag End in the first place?"
"Undue influence on his ailing master if ever there
"But that's not the half of it. That's just how he
got his name into the will. And no sooner does our poor,
crazed cousin sign the final paper, than Sam Gamgee ups
and takes him for a little ride out into the woods, and
only Sam comes back."
"That's right--I hear he put about that Frodo sailed off with the
elves. And now you've got me thinking--since when do mortals ever sail
with elves? Still, I do wonder about that jewel coming back on the neck
of a bird..."
"What's to wonder? He must have stolen it long before,
hid it away for awhile, and suddenly produced it again.
Have you ever heard anybody claim to have actually
witnessed it coming back that wasn't in the hire of the
Gamgee family? Paid with money that by rights is ours, no
question of that!"
Frodo remembered his father's tears upon that day, and he
began to rise up out of the water.
"Don't!" said his father's voice on his right.
"Remember what I told you, Frodo-Lad. You don't leap
into a sty and wrestle with a hog for snortin' at
you." The voices to his left went dead, though Frodo
heard the drop of a washrag. Then, as he dried himself,
he listened to a hasty conclusion to the clean-up, with
something knocked over clatteringly and a hiss of words
more suitable to orcs, then the patter of retreating
feet. Whatever they knocked over sent its aromatic
pungency seeping through the screen.
Sam said, "It don't matter, son. Everyone who knows
me knows those rumors can't be true. And those who don't
know don't count." Frodo heard his father emerge
from the water, then the brisk whiffle of a towel in use.
"Honestly--I can't imagine why any Brandybuck'd
think he needs more money, anyway."
"Neither can I," said a booming voice.
"Uncle Merry!" Frodo threw on his robe and
rushed out of the alcove into the arms of the biggest
hobbit in the world. The dark curls had silver edges
these days, but he still looked like a storybook hero,
and the lines that crinkled around his eyes and laughing
mouth only made it more so.
"Careful," said the Master of Buckland with a
chuckle. "Call me 'Uncle' too often and those
fools'll think I plan to disown them and adopt you for my
nephew instead. Can't say I'm not tempted." Merry
threw an arm around the emerging Sam as well. "But I
wouldn't deprive your father of his privilege like
that--he'd never forgive me."
"Enough of this nonsense," said Sam, but
grinning. "Let's eat!"
"Right this way."
As Frodo went on down the hall towards the dining-room,
he noticed how the older hobbits deliberately dropped
back a ways, so he pricked up his ears. He barely heard
Meriadoc say, "Are you sure, Sam? He's young for
this business--not quite of age, even."
"He's about the same as Pippen was when we took off
together. And he's got twice the sense."
"Still, we could find other gardeners to
"Strider asked for our best," said Sam.
"And Frodo's our best already. He's learned
everything I could teach him, everything the Gaffer
could've taught him, he's wandered up and down the gardens
of the Shire askin' questions of everyone he could find
with dirt under their nails ever since he was a wee lad,
and he's even struggled through an elf-book on the
subject that I got my hands on, translated every word of
it by hisself, referring back to old Master Bilbo's
notes. I've never seen anybody so keen on gardening in
all my days."
"I don't know if I'd want to send any son of mine to
a land like that."
"I believe in my son enough to think he can handle
it." And Frodo blushed to overhear it.
Then silence followed Frodo for awhile, nothing but the
soft sound of bare hobbit feet behind him. Then he heard
his father say, "Merry, I had that dream again last
night--except I dreamed I was Frodo-lad, this time."
"The Mordor dream? Maybe it's a warning. Look, we
can send out teams to search the countryside; we'll
surely find about a dozen hobbits qualified who..."
"...who would flat-out refuse on the mere mention of
where they'd be goin'. Frodo guessed without bein' told
and didn't bat an eye. Anyway, I didn't stop with that
dream. I woke up, as usual, but after I fell back asleep
I went back right back where I left off, but this time I
passed through the Moranon gaping wide open and creakin'
on its hinges, with nobody for miles around, and I walked
straight from there into the Dead Marshes."
"That hardly sounds like an improvement, Sam!"
"Not at first, no. But this was spring, in my dream
at least, and they didn't look so dead. I saw
water-lilies, and irises, and other flowering reeds out
there. And birds, Merry--birds with plumes of pink, and
yellow, and of pale sky blue, long-legged birds with
beaks as long as swords, swimmin' or wadin', or dancin'
for their lovers, or flyin' in great flocks of color
overhead. Even so, the marsh still stank, and the water
looked every bit as foul as I remembered. Until..."
After a moment Merry asked, "Until what, Sam?"
"This is the most marvelous part, Merry. I came to
one pool entirely rimmed by a kind of floating hyacinth,
all in bloom, ruffly white petals with streaks of pale
green edged in violet. And the water in that pool was
just as pure as pure could be. Soon I looked up and saw a
whole series of such pools within pools, and I saw too
that that's where the birds went to get themselves a
drink. The plants purified the water in some way."
"So you're saying that Young Frodo can find some
good out there in the midst of all the waste? Is that
what the dream means?"
"It's more than that, Merry. As we rode over here I
had time to think. I remembered seeing such pools in real
life, though they weren't flowering or calling attention
to themselves right then, and I had so much more on my
mind at the time that I hardly noticed. I didn't even
know I'd stashed that memory away until today. But there
really are literal pockets of good water in the Dead
Marshes, Merry. And if they exist even there, what else
might Frodo find?"
Up ahead Frodo could smell fresh bread and meat steaming
in mushroom gravy, hot buttered turnips, and a mess of
autumn greens, and he wondered when he'd see another meal
like that. Just as he entered the dining-room he heard
his father behind him say, "No, Merry--that dream
didn't come to warn me. That dream came as a