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O The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night  by Lindelea

Chapter 20. In which nearly all the adventurers are borne to their beds

The lads were safely back... or were they?

O the old healer Sweetbriar, mouthing meaningless platitudes, had shooed away the hovering lasses who with everyone else crowded around the returning heroes. The rescuers marched into the smial and down to the parlour, where they were greeted with shouts and cheers from the crowd.

‘Mum, they’re found! They’re safe!’ Pearl cried, and Eglantine slowly lifted a face bleached of all colour, to say in a trembling voice, ‘Safe? Found? Safe?’

‘Aye, my love,’ Paladin said gently, after a sharp glance from one limp figure to another, pressing into the already crowded room. He did not know if he quite spoke the truth, but he took comfort from the fact that Saradoc’s and Ferdinand’s faces were anxious rather than grim. He stood to his feet and lifted Eglantine in his arms. She felt alarmingly insubstantial... She’d lost a great deal of her substance in the illness that followed the loss of the babe, and now he realised once more just how much. ‘Come, my heart,’ he breathed into her curls. ‘Now you’ll rest.’ He hoped with all his heart that the next words would prove true. ‘All is well.’

The crowd parted a little, and he brushed between Saradoc and Ferdinand with little more than a nod of shared gratitude.

Sweetbriar went from one lad to the next, assessing the condition of each with a touch, a keen look, a sniff of their exhalations. ‘Right,’ she said, looking up from Frodo, who was last as Bilbo was behind the others. ‘Let’s get these young fellows safely into beds, and we’ll see what needs to be done.’

Bilbo carried Frodo to the bed the tween had slept in the previous night. Someone had made it up with fresh-smelling linens. Pearl came behind him, ducking under his arm as he entered the room, and she pulled the coverlet down and plumped the pillow. ‘Here,’ she said, breathless. ‘Lay him down, and I’ll fetch a basin and cool cloths for his poor head.’

Bilbo laid Frodo upon the snowy linens, wincing a little at the lad’s dirty, dishevelled state... ah, but linens would wash, and the young one didn’t seem too discomfited by the dirt. He needed rest and warm covers more than a bath at the moment. He sank down on the bed and gently stroked the discoloured forehead. ‘Frodo?’ he whispered. ‘Lad, can you hear me? You’re safe, the lads are safe, and all will be well.’

‘Merry?’ Frodo murmured, moving his head upon the pillow, though his eyes did not open.

‘Shhh,’ Bilbo hushed, smoothing back the tousled curls. ‘Merry’s well,’ he whispered. Though he’d heard exclamations of dismay from the rescuers, he’d also heard Saradoc’s gasping He’s alive! and ...moving!

True to her word, Pearl was back with the promised basin and cloths, holding the basin before Bilbo so that he could wring out a cloth in the cool water before laying it on Frodo’s forehead.

‘Is he going to be all right?’ she whispered anxiously.

Bilbo smiled up at the lass. He’d known there was some affection between the twain, for they’d both been at mischief, on one of his previous visits to the farm before adopting Frodo, when Frodo and Merry had come together to spend a summer month there. They’d taken a picnic and two ponies and been caught racing their ponies across a broad meadow at break-neck speed. Ferdinand’s wrath had been directed mostly at Frodo, him being the elder of the two, but he’d had a harsh word for shamefaced Pearl, nevertheless. Bilbo had been impressed with the way the lad had moved to stand between, as if shielding Pearl from Ferdinand’s anger. He’d shouldered the blame despite Pearl’s tearful denials and insistence that she too was at fault, and he’d taken the brunt of the punishment that followed: No tea, and no supper. But Bilbo had seen Pearl, sentenced to all the washing up with no help from mum or sisters, slip a goodly portion of food onto a plate and cover it with a cloth before turning with a start to pour out a last mug of tea for gently inquiring Bilbo. And he’d caught a glimpse of an empty plate under the lad’s bed next morning...

He came back to the present with a start, drawing his hand over his face. My, but he was feeling weary, now that the emergency was over. He’d not slept, and he’d tramped the fields the better part of the night and morning with the other searchers. Certainly he felt better than his nine-and-ninety years might warrant, but it would be good to sit, to rest, to watch over Frodo until the healer came.

‘He’ll be fine,’ he murmured, to himself, and to Pearl. ‘He’ll be fine.’

Sweetbriar followed Esmeralda and Saradoc, bearing Merry off to their room, for her instinct told her in that first hasty examination that he was worst off of the three. ‘Lay him down,’ she said unnecessarily, and immediately she pulled his shirt away from his body, forcing her face to go still and serene though her eyes were scanning the obvious injuries, and her mind was going over the possibilities of unseen hurts. ‘A fox, someone said?’ she muttered.

‘Someone,’ Saradoc affirmed. He’d stood back to let the healer work, pulling Esmeralda with him, steadying hands on her shoulders, both watching eagerly.

Sweetbriar hummed softly to herself as she moved gentle fingers over the bruising. She felt of Merry’s neck, and prodded gently at his abdomen, which made the lad moan softly though he didn’t waken. ‘He’s lucky,’ she said at last, looking up. ‘I don’t feel any serious damage, underneath the skin. Time will tell, of course.’

‘Time?’ Esmeralda whispered.

‘Sleep’s the best healer now,’ Sweetbriar said briskly, rising to her feet and rubbing her hands together. ‘I’ll send Viola with soothing cream for the bruising, and he’ll bear watching. I’ll sit with him for a little, that you may wash and eat and rest,’ (she took in Saradoc’s rather rumpled condition, quite unusual for the heir to Buckland), ‘and then you’ll watch over him and call me when he speaks.’

‘Speaks, yes,’ Saradoc stammered gratefully, his heart settling once again into a steady beat. He sank down on the bed a moment, forgetting the healer’s injunction to wash and eat, and smoothed his little son’s wayward curls, and Esmeralda sat herself down on Merry’s other side, wincing a little at the bruises she could see, wanting to take him in her arms but refraining as he seemed to be peacefully sleeping.

The old healer’s gaze went from mother to father with their little lad between them, and she nodded to herself. She didn’t like the grayish tinge to the Brandybuck’s countenance... bit more o’ strain, perhaps, than had been good for him. She’d send a meal along, with a pitcher of soothing draught, and if the parents fell asleep watching over their little son, well none of the three would be the worse for it.

After she’d stopped in at the kitchen, to order meals for Bilbo, Brandybucks, and Tooks watching by loved ones’ bedsides, she went to see to tiny Ferdibrand. Barely out of faunthood, that one, and to have been stalked by a fox! ...and likely to have witnessed Merry’s sacrifice, why, she wasn’t surprised to find him curled into a tight ball, and unresponsive to Stelliana’s tearful pleas.

It was difficult to ease away the tot’s filthy clothing, and after she got a peep at his torso Sweetbriar desisted. Little Ferdi showed none of the marks of being shaken by a fox, much less bitten. ‘We’ll leave him be,’ she said. ‘Just keep talking to him, singing, letting ‘im know he’s safe. Poor little ‘un. He’ll be better after a night’s sleep...’

A night's sleep! Aye, that's got a grand sound to it. I've always thought sleeping a good occupation in the middle night.

Estella, my love...

Merry, dearest, what are you doing? You said you'd smoke a pipe and perhaps have a sip, and come to bed thereafter...

Just let them finish, my darling, sweet, obliging cousin. I'll never have the end of the story out of them if you stop them now...!

(wisely, finger to one side of her nose) Ah, one of those stories, is it, Pip? Or is it that you're leading my beloved into mischief, keeping him up well past his bedtime, and...

(all innocence) Only babes and doddering oldsters have bedtimes, Merry? Which is it, in your case?

Hold your tongue, Ferdi-you-rogue! Or my Merry will never come to his pillow, and I'll have nowhere to stick my cold feet...

Abusing my dearest, are you, Estella?

Ah, Nell, you're awake as well? Aye, he's behaving abominably. Look at him! Now he's keeping you up as well as myself! How many more poor innocents will suffer at this rate, I ask you? It's a scandal!

We cannot have that! Abuse away, dear cousin, and I'll kiss Ferdi and make up for it later (and perhaps that'll encourage him not to go on about it all night as some long-winded Tooks have been known to do).

My Nell...

Now you're in trouble with your wives! You had better finish the story, and quick!

You have the right of it, Master Jack!

(Yes, much worse to be in trouble with our wives, than, say, with the King of North and South and places between...)

(several voices) Hush, Ferdi!

Merry, tell on.

With pleasure, Strider.

(At this rate we'll be up past the dawning...)

Hush, Estella.

Ahem. Tell on, I say.

Who can gainsay both Thain and King, I ask?


O very well. Merry, tell on! Or shall I?

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