Combe Stories: Year Two
by Laura Mason
Frodo had never seen so many sick people before. It seemed that half of Combe was ill, many quite seriously ill -- and the other half of the village was exhausted from caring for them. Doc's house was full and he was busy all day with nursing, and up late into the night concocting treatments.
Other healers from all the villages of Bree-land were using Doc's formulas, carefully copied out by Frodo -- thankfully before the constant nursing assistance, including extra cooking and cleaning, had blurred his eyes with weariness.
He needed to get some sleep, he was sure of that. And he would take rest, soon, but first he needed to draw some water. The kettles in both spare rooms were nearly empty, and the patients would cough more without the steam. Doc put herbs into the boiling water, too, which made the sick room smell much nicer and seemed to ease everyone's breathing -- even Frodo's.
He couldn't remember the Shire ever having such widespread illness. Of course, Men lived much closer together here in Combe, as did the Breeland hobbits. Doc said that the disease spread from person to person quickly because of that closeness, spread as they all coughed uncontrollably. But it had been such a mild winter, with no freezing weather at all until just this week...
Frodo carefully carried a brimming bucket into the first spare room, now housing three women and a hobbit lass, as well as one tiny baby. Doc was bent over the crib and didn't look up from his ministrations. Frodo's heart sank; the baby still wasn't doing well.
He carefully ladled water into the kettle until it was full, then moved to the next room. This was the men's ward, with three big people and two hobbits, both elderly. Before he could fill the kettle, one of the men called for water and Frodo was busy for several minutes taking water to the sick ones who were awake. By the time he finished, the bucket was almost empty. He poured what was left into the kettle, went back to the other room to add herbs to the now-steaming water there, then went back outside to the well to refill his bucket.
Once the second kettle was full, Frodo sat with the hobbits while he waited for it to simmer. They seemed comforted to have another hobbit visit, though Frodo was a stranger to both. He chatted softly with them, simple talk about the weather and last year's crops. The older hobbit, Overhill by name, reminded him a bit of Bilbo, and tears came to his eyes at the thought that Bilbo might be sick somewhere, with only strangers around him.
Frodo still missed Bilbo fiercely.
Finally Frodo left with his empty bucket, focused on finding his own bed. It had been very difficult to rise from that chair and start moving again. All he'd wanted was to go to sleep right there.
But before he could finish his final chore, banking the kitchen fire, there was a pounding on the front door. He knew Doc was still occupied with his patients, so Frodo ran to answer it.
A very tall man stood outside, a woman in his arms. He looked quite frantic.
"I need the healer."
"Please step inside," Frodo said, motioning him toward the sitting room.
"Run get Doc, you ugly rat. Nelly's been taken sick." He lay the unconscious woman in Doc's chair. Frodo saw that her color was very bad; she looked almost blue. Then he reached out and touched her hand, and knew the truth.
"Won't you come in the kitchen, sir, and have some tea while Doc examines Miss Nelly?"
"Stop your chattering and get him!" the man screamed, his arm flailing out and hitting Frodo's face. He fell backwards into the tea table and caught himself, his head ringing as it did once when Cousin Lobelia had boxed his ears. The man was weeping now, calling to Nelly. Frodo didn't want to pull Doc away from those he could still help, but he couldn't calm or subdue this man alone.
But Doc wasn't in either sick room. Frodo knocked softly on his bedroom door, but there was no answer there, either. He headed back toward the sitting room and found Doc in the kitchen, sitting at the table with a cup of tea.
"I thought you'd gone to bed, lad."
"No, not yet sir. There's a man here asking to see you." But Doc was frowning at him now.
"Your face is quite red, Frodo. Have you felt dizzy? Are you warm?" Doc was immediately feeling Frodo's face for fever, examining him closely. "Breathe deeply for me."
"Doc, I'm fine. A man came with a woman. He thinks you can still help her -- but she's cold. I think she's already gone."
Doc's movements trailed off as Frodo spoke. There was sorrow in his eyes as he stood.
"I see. I'll go speak with him."
"Do you-- Can I do anything?"
"Just get some rest. Tomorrow will be another long day with this coughing sickness."
Frodo was cleaning Doc's cup when he heard the stranger wail "No!" and the sobbing began. He finally finished banking the fire and drew another bucket of water to have ready in the morning.
As he entered the hall, headed to his room, he heard Doc still speaking to the man. He peered into the room and saw the poor woman was now covered with a blanket. The man wasn't crying any longer; now he looked angry.
"You're a lousy excuse for a healer, old man," he said, moving closer to where Doc stood.. "My Nell not good enough for you?"
"You're drunk, Harle, and I'll excuse your rudeness because of your loss. You should have brought her to me sooner."
"Bring her here when everyone in town snubs her?" The man moved toward Doc again, his hands making fists, and Frodo had to step into the room to stand beside Doc. He glanced toward the fireplace and the poker, wondering if he could use it to threaten this man if necessary.
"Even this damned rat wouldn't fetch you for her! And now he comes to gloat, now that he's helped to kill her."
Before Frodo could open his mouth to protest, the brute kicked him, catching him in the side. His breath left him and he fell to his knees, curled over, unable to speak. But Doc yelled quite loudly.
"Get out of here this instant!"
"I'll show you both." Frodo saw the man swing at Doc and saw Doc fall back. He reached toward him with a moan, but that just brought Harle's attention back to him. Big fists grabbed him and shook him, then slammed him into the wall. Frodo saw stars.
The next few minutes were a blur of pain and noise. When it was over, Doc stood over him, protecting him, the poker raised in his hands. Harle's right arm hung strangely, and Doc was telling him to find another healer. But even injured, the ruffian was dangerous. There was great hatred in his eyes, and Frodo was sure he would kill them both.
But he backed away, muttering curses and threats, and picked up the dead Nelly with his good arm, slinging her over his shoulder.
"I won't forget this, Doc. You'll pay." Then he moved off. Doc didn't relax until they heard the door close. Then he dropped the poker and stooped over Frodo.
"Stay right here, don't try to move. I'm just going to lock the doors, then I'll be right back."
Frodo nodded, knowing he wasn't able to move just now anyway. His head hurt and it hurt to breathe, too. He closed his eyes for just a moment.
When he woke, Frodo was in his own bed and the sun was low in the sky outside. He sat up quickly, then moaned and fell back onto the soft pillows.
He heard footsteps and the door. Then a very familiar voice softly called "Doc. He's awake."
"Estel!" Frodo didn't try to sit up this time, but his eyes popped open and found the face he loved to see. "When did you get here?"
"Too late to help you, it seems," the Ranger said as he sat beside Frodo's bed and put out a hand to grasp Frodo's.
"Is Doc all right? That Harle hit him, too."
"He is bruised and sore, but not seriously hurt."
"That's right, I'm fine, Frodo, and I wish you took such care about your own health." Doc was at the door, looking very much himself despite the bruise around his eye. "What in Middle Earth were you thinking, putting yourself in danger?"
"I was thinking of the fireplace poker, Doc, just like you," Frodo responded tartly, and the two men laughed with surprise.
"He's fine, Doc. Just listen to him."
"My dragon slaying hobbit," Doc smiled at him, coming close to the bed. "But you mustn't do such things. You could have been killed."
Frodo didn't reply, though he did submit meekly to Doc's exam, breathing deeply when so ordered and simply drinking in the sight of Estel watching over him, his eyes soft. Frodo loved him so much. Estel was everything noble about the race of men. He would never harm one smaller or weaker, no matter how distraught he might be.
That led to thoughts of Estel's beloved, the unknown woman he was pledged to wed. Estel wouldn't be here, of course, if anything were wrong with her... And a thought popped into Frodo's head. Perhaps the mysterious love was an elf, not a mortal. After all, Estel had been raised at Rivendell. And elves were very beautiful.
Frodo wondered for a moment what it would be like to love someone who was immortal and ageless. But he couldn't imagine it; Frodo's heart was rooted in Middle Earth. The love he felt for Bilbo, Merry, little Pip, Sam, and even Doc was all the stronger because he knew too well how those you love can be snatched away.
With that thought he looked to Doc and saw the same knowledge in the kind old man's eyes. He'd lost his beloved son, and both his parents as well, though he was much older when they died than Frodo had been when he lost his family. He was glad he'd told Doc the whole story. It brought them closer together.
Then he realized, still looking up into Doc's face, that tears were standing in his eyes.
"Thank the Lady you weren't hurt more seriously, my boy. Now get some rest." With a soft touch to Frodo's cheek Doc stood and bustled noisily. "Estel, only one song or tale, then you must leave him."
"But..." Frodo whispered.
"What is it?"
"Who's helping with the nursing and doing the cooking?"
"Not you, not for several days. You look exhausted as well as bruised."
"My feelings exactly," Doc added. "Mrs. Bayfield and several other ladies have been here to help out. And two patients have improved enough to go back to their own homes, now that their families have had a rest. Even better, Estel has brought me more herbs so I can send medicine along with them."
"Oh, that's very good news," Frodo said with a worshiping glance at his Ranger. "And -- the baby?"
"I think he'll pull through, though it was close." Doc bustled out with a final smile at Frodo's relieved face.
Estel offered Frodo some water, and when he was finished drinking sat back down beside him, stroking the hair off his face and then picking up his hand again. Frodo was very happy until he realized Estel was looking him over closely. Then he blushed, wondering how bad the bruises were. He didn't want to appear like a foolish weakling to Estel, who would never be caught off his guard -- or be tossed around so easily.
"Well, I have my orders. A tale or a song?"
"Oh, a song please! Perhaps an elvish song -- that tells a tale?" he wheedled.
"Trust you to try to get both! Is that hobbit greediness?" Frodo nodded eagerly, and Estel laughed. "Very well." He began the song, mournful as many elvish songs seem, but full of light as well.
It told of an elf maiden, and Frodo relaxed into his pillows and let the melody wash over him. He couldn't follow all the words; his elvish wasn't very fluent and singing was confusing sometimes. But the song wanted to be understood, that was the only way Frodo could explain it. It seemed to paint pictures in his head, visions of a time long ago when the world seemed sharper, all the colors new and just-named. There was a beautiful elf maiden, tall, slender and fair, her dark hair hanging down her back as she sang by a river.
But then Estel was there, in the song somehow, crying out "Tinuviel!"
Frodo woke with a start, but it was fully dark and Estel was no longer in the room.
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