Beyond Interlude: Winter
by Laura Mason

Frodo has lived in Combe almost two months before Doc brings him to the Bree market on a cold but sunny day. While Frodo has done the daily marketing in Combe, where basic foods are available, the Market Day held the first of each month is a festival.

Early in the morning, before first light, merchants arrive and set up their stands. Most have two levels, one at hobbit height and one a more comfortable level for manfolk. By the time the villagers of Bree-land arrive, there is a stunning display of the bounty of the surrounding lands. Fabric, soaps, vegetables and fruits -- fresh or preserved, depending on the time of year -- meats and ales, candles, pottery and glassware, wines, perfumes and potions all are on display and being loudly cried by their vendors. Hot foods, too, are sold, ready to be held in one hand and eaten as the shoppers stroll and stare.

Doc enjoys seeing Frodo's excitement, though he wonders if part of the hobbit's joy comes from seeing others of his kind. Not many hobbits live in Combe these days, not since the fever took Rob Hilly and half his children. His poor widow moved back to Staddle to be with her family just before Frodo arrived.

Whatever the reason, Frodo's smile is bright and Doc watches the heads of those around them turn as the hobbit moves among the crowd. Frodo doesn't even notice the attention he's drawing to himself.

"Frodo, this way," Doc calls, and smiles as the hobbit obediently trots over to join him.

"Is there something you've bought?"

"No, but I'll be here for a while making a purchase and I don't want to lose you." Doc leads him to Old Berryman's stall, where paper and ink are sold alongside a few used books.

If Frodo looked happy before, now he is radiant. While Doc haggles prices with Berryman, he is distracted watching Frodo reverently examine each book, no matter how shabby. Doc pulls himself back to his conversation, but part of his mind is wondering how much Frodo misses his home in the Shire. It's obvious from his skills and his present delight that he had books to read in the past. How did the hobbit wind up in Combe, penniless, with only a pack of clothes to call his own?

Doc paid Frodo his first months' wages last week, but he knows none of that money will be spent today. Frodo's awed handling of the books speaks for itself. These are admired treasures, not attainable goods.

"Fine, I'll take 50 sheets." Berryman smiles and counts out the paper, and Doc watches Frodo, who is still oblivious to everyone and everything except the book in his hand. The volume looks like a story book, probably the folk tales that come from the South, full of warriors on horseback fighting over something.

"Here you go." Doc counts out the money, then turns back to Frodo, who is still reading.

"Frodo," he calls. The hobbit starts, looks over at him and the package, then blushes and carefully closes the book before returning it to the table. He quickly moves closer and takes the bundle with an apologetic smile. Doc gestures toward the street. "Let's finish our marketing and get back home."

But their progress is halted by the crowd moving toward Dillyweed field, following the horses that will be racing shortly. Bree-folk shout encouragement and wave ribbons in the colors of their favorites. Doc pulls Frodo aside to keep him from being trampled by careless big folk. It's not until three brightly-dressed women strut over to them, stopping to pinch Frodo's cheeks and coo at him, that Doc realizes he took shelter next to the brothel.

"What has caused such a crowd?" Frodo asks, his eyes wide as he watches the ladies walk away.

"Racing. There's usually a horse race or two on Market Day." Doc says shortly. He doesn't approve of the gambling and drinking that go on at the races. He's mended too many men after the drunken brawls that begin once they lose their money.

"Horses. They're much larger than ponies, aren't they?"

The crowd moves on and Doc leads Frodo back through the marketplace and to the Combe road, patiently answering the hobbit's many questions.

***

"Frodo lad, I've a favor to ask," Doc begins, pushing back his chair after supper. "You're busy enough here with our writing and your other duties. But seeing that display of books today reminded me what terrible condition my own have got into. Except for dusting, no one's given them any proper care for years."

Frodo stops clearing the table to listen, but doesn't speak. Doc glances over to the low shelf beside his arm chair and points.

"Those must be covered in soot, being so close to the fire. And the covers need oiling, and the pages need airing to make sure no creatures are making a home in my bookcase."

"I'd be happy to clean them, Doc," Frodo begins.

"Well, I don't want you neglecting your work, or overtiring yourself. I thought perhaps you could take a few at a time to work on -- maybe in your room? Keep them a few days, then take another batch."

"I can do that. We should air them outdoors in the summer..." but Frodo stops and blushes. Doc is puzzled for a moment, until he remembers his reputation as a capricious employer. Frodo may fear being turned loose before the fine weather. Or he may not be planning to stay that long, no matter what Doc wishes.

"That's a good idea. But for now, you can just clean them up. There are clean rags in the pantry, and you can make a dressing for the leather with the tallow."

Frodo nods and picks up the plates before him. As he moves into the kitchen, Doc scowls. He isn't making his meaning clear. Instead of giving the hobbit access to his small library, he seems to be burdening Frodo with more duties.

There has to be a way to express his appreciation to Frodo, and to make him more at home in Combe. Doc stays at his hearth long after Frodo is in bed, smoking and thinking.

He wakes very late the next morning, judging from the sun in his window, and stalks into the kitchen to find his favorite carrot bread cooling on the table while Frodo works in the pantry.

"Good morning, Doc." The hobbit's face is smudged with dirt, and his hands are full of already-dingy rags and a large book.

"It's quite late, Frodo. You let me sleep away the morning."

Frodo looks only a little guilty as he as answers, "You were up late. And you're still early for elevensies."

"Men don't..." he begins, only to stop when he sees the mischievous sparkle in the hobbit's eyes. "You're trying to turn me into a hobbit," he complains instead.

"No hobbit sleeps through both first and second breakfast," Frodo laughs. "There's honey here, and new butter from Mrs. Hilly." He bustles around the table, laying out silver and napkins. "I can make you eggs if you'd like."

"Just tea, please."

Frodo moves the kettle onto the fire, then pulls out apples and cheese, though he doesn't begin slicing them after Doc's grumpiest look is turned on him. He instead returns to his cleaning, pausing only to pour the tea water, and again to fill Doc's cup once the brew is steeped.

Doc eats carrot bread with honey and butter and sips his tea in silence, watching Frodo's expert handling of the big old volume, an ancient medical book from the east. He made his decision last night, and he still feels certain he's doing the right thing.

"I'm going out for the day, Frodo."

The hobbit pauses in his work to look at Doc, but doesn't reply.

"You can take the rest of the day off. Clean yourself up and have some fun."

"Oh. But..." Frodo looks at the book he is working on, then back at Doc. "Whatever you say, sir."

"Fine. I won't be back until tea time, so there will be no writing chores today. Stop that mucking about. Off with you!"

Frodo puts away his cleaning supplies and leaves the kitchen with the kettle of still-warm water. Soon after, as he sips a second cup of tea, Doc hears the hobbit washing up in the back of the house.

He finishes his cup, then rises to don his coat and cloak. When he closes the door behind him, Doc turns toward Staddle.

***

Frodo knows the market place will be empty today, but he still finds himself walking toward Bree, remembering all the noise and music and laughter. He is curious about Doc's outing, too. Yesterday's marketing was the first time the old man had willingly left his house since Frodo began working for him. Doc calls himself a homebody and he truly does love being comfortable and snug in his cottage.

Perhaps Doc has gone to find a replacement for Frodo, someone who is a better cook and housekeeper. Perhaps Frodo's clumsiness and inexpertise have ruined the comfort of Doc's home for him.

Well, he still has all his wages. If Doc turns him out Frodo will be sorry, he can't deny that. He's become quite attached to Doc and his comfortable, book-filled home reminds him of Bag End. But if he's not wanted, Frodo can continue to follow Bilbo.

Frodo realizes he's clutching at his vest and Bilbo's ring, and stops himself. He's developed a bad nervous habit. And he shouldn't have become so attached to Doc and his life in Combe, not when he always knew it was only temporary. But the thought that he has no real home anymore, not in the Shire nor in Bree-land, makes Frodo's throat fill with tears. Even if he finds Bilbo, he will be a wanderer the rest of his days.

"Hoy!" The call rouses Frodo from his thoughts and banishes all trace of tears. He's wandered into a camp of sorts. There's a fire with a hobbit sitting beside it, staring at the flames. But who called to him?

"Hoy, you! Whatcha doing here, boy-o? If ye're looking for trouble you've found plenty." Another hobbit is behind Frodo, slightly taller, with hair lighter than Merry's mop. But there's a scowl on his face and a large rock in his hand. Frodo smiles pleasantly, but the hobbit's face does not relax.

"Good morning. I'm Frodo Branburry."

"Who cares?" the hobbit snarls. "You'll keep walking if you know what's good for ya." Despite the blond's threatening attitude, Frodo's attention is drawn to the seated hobbit, who is trying to rise. He is very pale and thin, and there is a bloody bandage on his foot.

"Are you injured?" he calls. "There's a healer not too far from here, in Combe. I'm sure--" Frodo cries out in pain as a blow to the back of his head knocks him to his knees, dazed.

"He don't listen too good, does he?"

"Aw, listen to his accent, Rob. He's not from here. Guess he's one o' them Shire hobbits."

Frodo tries to get up, only to have the hobbit, Rob, kick him in the stomach. He vomits his breakfast into the weeds where he lies, his head spinning.

"They're pretty soft, ain't they?" Rough hands go through Frodo's pockets.

"Yeah." The injured hobbit limps over. "What's he got?"

"The clothes look fancy, but there's nothing here."

"Not even copper?"

"Nothing. Hey, you, Frodo was it? Where do you live?"

Frodo has caught his breath but he doesn't answer. He's dealt with bullies all his life, but never thieves. These hobbits might rob Doc or his neighbors.

"Hoy!" Another kick and Frodo cries out in pain. "Answer me!"

"I'm from Buckland," he gasps. "I'm looking for work in Bree."

"Are ya looney? D'ya think we're stupid? Ye're no traveler, boyo." Rob grabs Frodo's lapels and shakes him. "Not in these duds, with no pack."

"Robbers," Frodo exclaims, lying as fast as he can think. "On the road. They took everything. That's why I was happy to find hobbits--"

With a final shake and slap, the hobbit drops Frodo and moves to speak to the other. Frodo can hear snatches of their conversation.

"Could ... pretty thin."

"Thinks we'd feed 'em?"

Frodo manages to get to his feet while they argue softly. He looks more closely at the camp and the meager belongings in the glade. These hobbits are poorer than any in the Shire. Frodo thinks even the most modest family in Staddle has more. Both hobbits are dirty and ragged, and thinner than Frodo, who's always been considered too slight. Their fire has no food, only a pot of water heating.

"All right, get out of here then, ya useless git," the injured one calls. "We don't want the boss getting ideas when he sees ya."

"The boss?" Frodo echoes stupidly, and they laugh.

"Our boss runs the races, and he's likely to think any hobbit'll do as jockey."

"So get lost. Keep moving. Maybe ya can find work at the inn."

"Or the brothel!" The two laugh as if it's the best joke they've ever heard, and Frodo blushes and limps back the way he came.

He's relieved they didn't hurt him more. But he can't get their drawn faces and the bloody bandage out of his mind. Even thieves don't deserve to go hungry.

Frodo can't tell Doc about the encounter; he might insist on calling the authorities. That's probably the proper thing to do, but Frodo won't do it. They don't need to be arrested, they need food and medicine. And he does have his first month's wage tucked into a drawer at Doc's house.

As he walks back to Combe, Frodo changes his mind several times. He finally decides the hobbits cannot be trusted with coins. They might spend everything on ale rather than food and medicine.

Doc is still out when Frodo reaches the house. He carefully counts out half his October wage, then quickly finds clean linen and moonwort herb in Doc's supplies. Two silver coins go in Doc's sugar bowl, which is where Frodo leaves payments from his patients when Doc is out. The supplies go inside a clean kerchief, and Frodo runs toward the Combe market.

It's late enough that many merchants have closed for the day. Frodo finds fresh bread, and some good cheese. He has enough money left for a joint of venison. Then he gathers his bundles and heads back to the area where he found the hobbits earlier.

When he is close Frodo moves more slowly, using his ears and being as stealthy as a hobbit can manage. When he hears voices, he stops.

"Nothing in the traps, Will."

"You never could set a snare proper."

"We'll eat taters until you can walk, then." Frodo creeps closer, careful not to snap twigs or rustle branches.

"At least roast 'em up tonight. I'm tired of soup."

The two are huddled together by the fire, looking cold and fairly miserable. Frodo knows he's done the right thing, but how to get the food to them without being injured himself?

"Boss'll be sober soon, and he'll want to move on. We didn't earn enough."

"No one told him to bet the horse."

"I know," Rob begins, then stops abruptly. "What's that noise?" He rises and picks up a thick branch from beside the fire, then heads to the spot where Frodo was listening.

But Frodo is no longer there, only the bundles of food and medicine. He has crept away behind a tree, and the stone he tossed was to draw their attention to his anonymous gifts.

Rob crashes through the underbrush, swinging his stick, then loses his footing and falls heavily.

"What's there?" Will calls from beside the fire, trying to rise.

"Can't see... something..." with a curse Rob is back on his feet, his stick forgotten and his arms full of bundles. "It's food, and some kind of medicine." He moves back to the fire, his face creased with puzzlement. "Who'd ya suppose snuck in here to leave this? And when?"

"Dunno. Gimme some of that," is the response as Will grabs at the bread, taking a mouthful.

"It might be spoiled--"

"It's fresh. Get that on the fire, and let's eat right for once." Rob's face relaxes as he sees the smile on Will's face, and Frodo smiles in the shadow of his tree.

"The boss won't like it. You need to stay light."

"The boss ain't here, and I'm never gonna heal on tater soup." Frodo watches them set the venison to roast as they eat cheese and bread. Then Rob unwraps the injured foot and washes it, re-bandaging it with the moonwort tucked inside. There is a world of difference in how he treated Frodo and how gentle he is with his friend.

Frodo stays just long enough to see that they knew how to use the medicine he brought, then slowly works his way back toward Combe. It's full dark by the time he reaches the path and he hurries to Doc's as quickly as possible. His ribs are aching, but he doesn't want to lose his position for staying out so late. It's well past tea time, when Doc was planning to return.

***

The door opens and Doc looks up from his cup of tea to see Frodo, quite dirty, peeking in.

"Hello, Doc. Do you need anything?"

"I'm fine, Frodo, but what have you been up to today? I thought you'd relax, but it looks like you've been digging ditches."

Frodo laughs, a guilty little giggle, before quickly apologizing. "I'm very sorry to be late, I was in the woods."

"That sounds like hungry work, lad, so go wash up a bit and let's have toasted cheese for our supper. I'm afraid I finished the carrot bread with my tea."

"I'll bake again tomorrow morning," Frodo assures him as he goes to the kitchen to heat water.

As Frodo washes up, Doc thinks about his day with Rolly Hedges. Not many Bree hobbits have desks. Reading and writing are scorned by most hobbits and many men. Doc had to sketch out what he wanted, but once he did Rolly caught on quick enough. In a month he'll have hobbit-size furniture for Frodo, a desk and chair just for him.

Surely that will express his intent to give Frodo a home for as long as he needs one.

Doc sits back, listening to Frodo's cheerful whistle, and picks up his teacup again.

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