Pippin was not in when they stopped by the cottage at Crickhollow, so Frodo and Sam continued along the back road that curved around the foot of Buck Hill and went past Bucklebury. It was twilight when they arrived at Brandy Hall. They left their ponies at the stable and walked to the front of the Hall across the wide, green lawn.
Sam gaped up as the last lights of the sunset glittered in the scores of westward-facing windows around and over the three front doors. On the quest with Frodo, he'd been in the great cities of Men and Elves and Dwarfs, and seen towers that nearly touched the sky, but he'd never before seen a hobbit-hole of this size, nor one with a second and third story. Brandy Hall tunneled through the entire hillside, and outbuildings extended from the earth atop the hill and away from its slopes.
"The old warren hasn't changed a bit," Frodo said wistfully as they approached the nearest front door. "I was born at Brandy Hall, you know, and spent my childhood here before I went to live at Bag End. Do you remember when Merry and I came to visit Bilbo that first time, the summer after my parents died?"
"I remember," Sam answered. As if he could forget! It had been years before Mr. Bilbo had adopted Frodo. Sam had only been a small hobbit-lad then, helping his father to tend the garden at Bag End. When he wasn't needed in the garden, he would go up to the house for his lessons. Mr. Bilbo had not only taught him to read and write, but the peculiar old gentleman had also amused himself by giving the gardener's boy poems to recite and by telling him wonderful stories about faraway places, goblins, dragons, and best of all, the Elves--filling his head with all sorts of nonsense that the Gaffer had said would give him ideas above his place and never do him a lick of good.
But when he'd gone up for his lessons on that memorable afternoon, Bilbo had said there would be none.
"I have a special job for you, Sam my lad," Bilbo had announced instead. "Some of my young cousins are coming to stay with us for a few days. They're boys near your own age. One of them has lost his mother, just as you have, and his father too. I'd like you to make them welcome. Show them about. Play with them."
Sam had agreed, but with some bashful doubts. Until that day, his only playfellows had been the Cotton boys and other country lads from the farms around Hobbiton. Little gents, such as the two that had arrived that same afternoon, dressed in their best clothes for their visit, high-spirited and skittish as a pair of unbroken colts, were even more strange and foreign creatures to his experience than girls. What could he do to make friends with them?
As much as he would like to say that it was love at first sight, the truth was that, at that first meeting, he could only tell Frodo apart from Merry in that one boy was dark-haired and the other fair. He'd learned to distinguish between them later on, when Frodo took an interest what Bilbo was teaching him and wanted to hear some of the poems he'd learned. They had begun to be friends over that. Merry, on the other hand, was always looking for ways to get them all into trouble.
He had been in a tug-of-war with Merry over Frodo since then. Sam didn't want to be jealous, but sometimes he couldn't help it. He'd felt the pangs of it this morning when Frodo had wanted to come racing here to help Merry, and again when they had hugged for so long in the guardshouse.
It wasn't that he suspected there had ever been anything between the two--Frodo had told him there wasn't, and Sam trusted that he wouldn't lie about it--but that there was a whole, long history they'd shared before he had come into it. Merry and Frodo had known each other since they were practically babies and had been brought up almost as brothers. On the other hand, Frodo was twelve when he'd come to visit Bag End that first summer; Sam had never seen him before then, and had only had little pieces of Frodo's life afterwards until Frodo had come to live with Bilbo nearly ten years afterwards. It was all that time that he was jealous of, all those years that Merry had had with Frodo that he hadn't, and the strong bond that lay between them because of that.
He felt as if the balance had only tipped in his favor since he'd accompanied Frodo on his quest into Mordor. Awful as it had been in so many ways, that experience had given him a bond of his own to share with Frodo that no one else in the world could ever have, not even Merry Brandybuck.
Frodo pulled on the bell-rope; after some clanging within and an interval of silence, the imposing figure of Bramblebanks, the chief porter and majordomo of the Hall, answered at the door.
"Bramblebanks, hello," Frodo said as if his appearance were not completely unexpected. "It's been quite awhile, hasn't it? I've come for a visit. Will you tell Aunt Esmeralda and Uncle Saradoc that I'm here, please?"
Bramblebanks let them in and left them standing in the front hall with their luggage while he went "to inform the Mistress of your arrival."
"I call them my aunt and uncle, but they aren't really," Frodo explained while he and Sam were waiting. "Uncle Saradoc and his brother Merimac are actually my first cousins, and Aunt Esme's a second cousin on the Took side--but she really is Pippin's aunt, his father's sister. Uncle Bilbo isn't an uncle either. You know that, Sam. He's my mother's first cousin and my father's second." He smiled. "I'm afraid it all must sound terribly complicated."
Sam shook his head. He had the usual hobbit love of genealogy, and even though he had heard parts of Frodo's family tree before, he liked hearing it again. In the first place, he was rather proud of Frodo's pedigree--some of the best blood in the Shire had gone into his making--and in the second place, it helped him to keep all these people straight in his head.
"As a general rule, we call them aunts and uncles if they're more than 20 years older," Frodo continued, "and nieces and nephews if they're 20 years younger. Everyone in between is a cousin. It's much less confusing that way."
He turned at the sound of footsteps approaching. Bramblebanks appeared around the curve of the main tunnel, accompanied by Esmeralda Brandybuck, the Mistress of the Hall and Merry's mother.
In normal circumstances, Esmeralda's strawberry-blonde curls and that Tookish impishness which she had passed on to Merry made her seem more like a young girl than a grand hobbit-lady, but today, her spirits were subdued. There was a haunted look instead of the usual sparkle in her eyes, but she smiled with genuine happiness as she came forward to embrace Frodo and give him a kiss on the cheek.
"Frodo, darling! How sweet of you to come."
Frodo returned her kiss. "It's good to see you too, Aunt Esme."
"How have you been, dear? We haven't seen you at the Hall in ages, not since before you went away on your travels." As she took both his hands in hers, she noticed the missing finger. "How did you do that? No, don't tell me. I don't want to know any more about the dangers you boys were in while you were away. Merry and Pippin are always telling horrible stories about battles they've fought in, walking trees, Big Folk on horseback, and hordes of orcs. I ought to be grateful you've all come home alive. Merry has a scar..." She put one hand to her own brow, indicating the place where Merry had been struck by the hilt of an orc's blade. "You've heard about Merry? If it weren't bad enough that poor Berilac should die, we must have this-!" Tears filled her eyes, and she quickly pulled a handkerchief from her bodice to dab them away.
"Yes, I've heard all about it. That's why I've come. I've just been to visit Merry at the guardshouse, to see what I can do to help him."
"Dearest Frodo!" She gave him another kiss. "I'm certain Merry can count on you, even if it's only to say that you don't believe that these awful accusations are true. You've always been his friend. If only Saradoc..." The corner of Esmeralda's mouth turned down, but she stopped before she said anything against her husband. "Will you be staying with us awhile?" she asked Frodo instead.
"As long as you'll let me," he answered.
"As long as you like!" she responded affectionately. "I'll show you to your room. After he carries your bags, Bramblebanks will find a bed for your servant in the staff quarters."
"If you don't mind, Aunt Esme, I'd like Sam near me," said Frodo. "I have... bad spells now and again, and shouldn't be left alone at night."
"You poor thing," she murmured sympathetically, and considered Sam for the first time; he squirmed and colored slightly under her gaze. "Yes, I think that can be arranged. Bramblebanks, the big guest room near the master suite. That will do."
The porter nodded and picked up Frodo's bag. Sam carried his own, following the lady and Frodo from the front hall.
Like most hobbit-holes, Brandy Hall had no stairs. The main tunnel wound around within the hill in a spiral, starting out very wide at the ground level as it passed the main rooms, but growing more narrow as it went up to the bedrooms above. Esmeralda led them through a full circuit of the tunnel, until they came to one of the outer rooms with a window that looked out on the gardens on the southwestern slope of the hill.
"It's one of our nicest rooms," said Esmeralda, "and there's a cot in the dressing room your servant can use. The bath is just across the hallway, but I'll have some hot water sent to you so you can wash quickly before dinner. You're just in time to join us." She squeezed the fingers of his undamaged hand. "I'll leave you to freshen up."
After she and Bramblebanks had gone, Frodo peeked through the connecting door into the dressing room. "You ought to sleep in there tonight, for appearances' sake," he told Sam. "If I'm to do Merry any good, Uncle Saradoc shouldn't hear any gossip about us. Will you be comfortable with that little bed?"
Sam joined him at the dressing-room doorway: the spare bed tucked between the massive chest of drawers and towering wardrobe was small, but no smaller than the one he'd slept in for years in the room he'd shared with his brothers in Number 3 Bagshot Row. "I think I'll be able to squeeze in," he answered. "We got spoiled at Minas Tirith. We were sleeping on rocks and dirt for weeks before that, and wishing for a mattress as soft as anything in the Shire!"
Frodo laughed, and leaned closer to put an arm around him. "You don't mind playing the servant for a few days, do you, Sam?"
"No, I don't mind." Sam never minded. He wished Frodo could understand that. Frodo had been so insistent when he'd asked Sam to come live with him that he was not to be a servant, and he was always apologetic whenever he asked Sam to do something that might be seen as waiting on him. But this was what Sam wanted to do. He liked that Frodo relied on him so naturally; he wouldn't know what to do with himself if he didn't feel useful and needed. It was not a duty, but a pleasure. Whatever he did to take care of Frodo was as much an act of love as anything they did in bed. "It's what I came to Bag End for, to look after you."
Frodo smiled. "Is that the only reason?" he teased.
"No," Sam answered, teasing in return, "not the only reason. There's a bit more to it than that."
They were drawing into a kiss, when there was a knock at the door--and they both jumped back from each other, startled. Frodo laughed at their foolishness and said, "It must be the hot water."
Sam let in the maidservant, who had brought up the promised cans of hot water. "You'd better hurry up and wash," he said as he poured water into the washbasin. "You don't want to be late for dinner."
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