Combe stories: Year Five
by Laura Mason
"Frodo, can you run this tea over to Mrs. Ferny's place?"
"You keep saying you've retired, but there are always new patients," Frodo teases from the kitchen table as he slices pears for Doc's lunch.
"No, she's a very old patient. I delivered her son ... must be twenty-eight years ago now. But she's seen young Brooks since I retired."
Frodo finishes his chore and turns to watch Doc, who is staring at the package of tea thoughtfully.
"Poor dear. There's nothing to be done, but the wasting disease is agony at the end. This should ease her pain."
Frodo looks at Doc, standing in the doorway, moved by this woman's suffering even after many years as a healer, and much suffering of his own. Doc is such a good, kind man.
"I can go right away, and I should be back before tea time. Where is her house?" He hops down from the table and rolls down his sleeves, then takes his waistcoat from the hook near the door.
"She lives on the east side of Bree proper, right along the main road. It's a grey stone cottage, just before the bridge over the creek.." Doc hands over the tea with a smile. "No rush to get back here, my lad. Enjoy the fine weather. A nice slow walk might put some roses in your cheeks. I'm afraid you're too cooped up here most days."
"Oh, no. Now that the nice weather is here, I'll be out every day."
"Well, go along. And be sure you give the tea to Mrs. Ferny and no other. Her good for naught son may be at home, but he'd be too lazy to make it for her, no matter how she suffers."
The walk is very pleasant, the air warm and the sunshine bright. People and hobbits are out of doors in Combe, enjoying the break from cold and rain. Flowers are pushing up and trees are budding, giving Frodo plenty to see and enjoy. And, truth be told, making him a little homesick for Springtime in the Shire, with Sam singing in the garden at Bag End and dancing with Rosie Cotton at the Festival.
He's past the Prancing Pony before Frodo comes back to himself. He'd best forget about things he can't have anymore, and just enjoy this day as Doc instructed. Frodo knows he's lucky to have a job and a warm, safe home. So he keeps walking, nodding to those he passes until he sees the creek ahead.
The cottage is there, just as Doc described, though it looks very run down. Frodo opens the gate, which is heavy and squeaks badly, then goes to the door. He knocks, but there is no response. He knocks again, a little louder. As he stands rubbing his now-sore hand, at last he hears a voice inside.
"Who the devil is that?"
A thin, pinch-faced man opens the door, cursing and rubbing sleep out of his eyes though it is well past noon.
"What do you want, rat?"
"I'm looking for Mrs. Ferny," Frodo says with his most charming smile.
"She's not seeing visitors, especially not vermin from Archet. Go away."
"But--" The door is swinging shut as Frodo shouts "Doc Thistle sent me to see her!"
The man reopens the door and looks down at the hobbit, suspicion in his face.
"Are you a healer? No, wait -- you're the rat servant to that old quack, aren't you?"
"No... well, yes.." Frodo stammers, then collects himself. He knows how to be proper, even if this rude man does not. "I'm Frodo Branburry, and I work for Doc." The man just stands there, glowering at him, without introducing himself. "Now if I could see Mrs. Ferny, please."
"Give me what you've got there and go. She's my ma."
"I'm sorry, sir, but I cannot do that. Doc asked me to report on your mother's coloring and gave me a list of questions to ask her, since he couldn't come himself." Frodo should feel alarmed by how easily he's lying. Perhaps Aunt Bertha was right when she said he'd wind up in prison. But he cannot tell this surly man the truth, that Doc will not entrust the medicine to him. "It's very important, sir."
"Ah, hell. Go in." Ferny motions him toward a hallway, then goes out the door, and Frodo sighs with relief. Only one door is open, and he peeks inside as he gently knocks.
"Mrs. Ferny?" There is no response from the figure in the bed, but Frodo enters the room.
He has never seen such an unkempt sick room. Though nothing is fancy, it's apparent that Mrs. Ferny once kept a nice house. It's also obvious that she has been far too ill to do any housework or cleaning for some time now, and that Doc told the truth about her son.
The hearth is cold and clogged with ash. While the day is warm, this room feels damp and chill. There is no water in the pitcher by the bedside, nor in the washing jug.
The woman lying on the rumpled bed is painfully thin, with dark circles around her eyes. Her grey-streaked hair is tangled and greasy. And, worse of all, her face is twisted with pain. Frodo goes to her side and touches her arm gently. Her eyes open, but she only stares at him.
"I'm Frodo Branburry. Doc Thistle sent me with some tea for you, to help with the pain."
Still no response.
"I'll make some right now." He smiles and turns away, near tears. But there's work to be done, and doing it himself will be far more helpful than crying.
Frodo sweeps the hearth, then goes in search of wood and water. Nothing is to hand in the kitchen, either, so he spends time outside, exploring, until he finds the wood pile and the well. Thankfully, Ferny is nowhere to be seen.
Frodo is able to get the fire going and a kettle warming for the tea. Then he fills the drinking pitcher and the washing jug for the poor woman as well. He'd like to clean the room, but settles for emptying her chamber pot, then fetching a rag from the kitchen to wash her face and hands.
"Why are you doing this?" Her voice is raspy when she finally speaks.
"To make you more comfortable." Frodo smiles at her again, but her response is the same -- a bewildered stare. He finds a comb atop her cluttered dressing table, and climbs up next to her to carefully work it through her hair. "The tea will be ready soon. And I'm sure Doc will let me visit you again, in a few days, to make sure you're doing well."
"No need," she replies. "It will be over soon."
Frodo knows she's right, but he wants to deny it. He bites his tongue. Ferny's neglect of his mother is horrible, but this woman is not Frodo's mother. He has no claim, certainly no right to ask her to remain in a life of pain and suffering. Still, tears fall as he chats with her. Eventually he helps her drink the tea, once it's cooled a bit.
"Thank you," she finally says with a half smile as he sets the cup down, empty. Her face looks more relaxed, and she falls asleep quickly.
Frodo washes the cup and puts it back in the room beside the package of tea. He makes sure the kettle is full, though it's off the fire now, but he isn't certain she has the strength to stand long enough to make tea herself. Still, everything is there and ready if a neighbor comes -- or if she can get her son to help her.
As he leaves the house, still feeling sad, he finally realizes how late it is. Doc will understand, of course -- and he is quite capable of making his own tea and finding the cake Frodo baked this morning. The thought of Doc, happily puttering around his desk and munching cake, brings a small smile to Frodo's face.
He reaches the gate, but as he pulls it open a harsh shout stops him.
"Hobbit-rat! You there--"
Ferny is walking -- no, stumbling -- up the road from Bree proper, red faced. Frodo leaves the yard and waits at the side of the road for the man him to approach before replying quietly.
"Do you need something, sir?"
"So superior, aren't you?" The man comes closer, towering over Frodo, who stands his ground calmly. He's faced bullies all his life, though none so much taller -- or so drunk. Ferny sways on his feet, and his breath reeks of harsh spirits. "What does a little rat have to be so superior about, I wonder? Not your nasty lickspittle job, or your ugly looks, with hairy feet like some animal." He laughs. "But you are just an animal, aren't you? A very pampered pet -- Doc's little pet rat."
Frodo tries to move past Ferny but the man grabs his arms and pushes him back into the gate. Frodo bites off a cry of pain, determined to seem brave in front of this horrible man.
"Must be all hoity-toity because the Ranger scum are your friends. Isn't that right? I see them, always sneaking around Doc's house. I told Harle to stay clear that night, but he didn't listen to me. Fool."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Frodo grinds out through the pain in his arms and back. "But I must leave. Good day, sir."
"Answer me!" Ferny slams Frodo into the gate again, and this time he cries out. "Where did your friends have you bury Harle? Everyone knows the damned Rangers murdered him that night."
The slur on Estel and his men infuriates Frodo, who makes another effort and manages to pull away from Ferny. He brushes off his sleeves as he speaks in a calm but loud voice, much in Bilbo's grandest manner.
"You should tend to your mother, sir, instead of spreading wild rumors about your betters. Good day." Frodo walks away stiffly, his knees shaking with anger -- and fear, and pain. Ferny lets him go, but calls after him.
"I won't forget -- Harle was my friend. I'll make you pay, some day."
Frodo ignores him and keeps walking as quickly as he can. He is relieved when the road finally turns and he can sink down on a tree stump to think.
He remembers that horrible night during the coughing sickness, and the man named Harle with his poor dead wife. But Estel wasn't there -- Doc broke Harle's arm with the fireplace poker, protecting Frodo. And the man left, alive and well. In fact, though he never told Doc, Frodo still has nightmares about Harle's hate-filled eyes. He worried for many months that the man would come back to harm them.
But Harle never returned. If Ferny is telling the truth, the ruffian vanished from Bree-land that very night. But surely that wasn't because of the Rangers...
He thinks about asking Doc, but decides that would be foolish. It simply isn't true.
Ferny is a drunkard and he knows nothing about the Rangers. Frodo knows Estel, and he knows that his friend is not a murderer. Rangers aren't exactly lawmen, but Estel acts as a protector of these people. Even ignorant people like Ferny owe much of their safety and prosperity to the Rangers.
Frodo lets his anger at Ferny's accusations fade like the setting sun before him as he heads home.
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