blslarner (blslarner) wrote in lotr_community,

Thistles and Beets - by Larner

Author: Larner
Title: Thistles and Beets
Rating: G
Theme: Last September's "Party" theme (Yes, it took me this long to finish it! Aack!)
Elements: Beets
Author's Notes: A double recipe fic. For Dreamflower, and for Arasia--please pray for her.
Summary: A snub at the market causes Rosie to invite two more guests to the Birthday party.
Word Count: 10,547

Thistles and Beets

Sam came into the kitchen of Bag End carrying a basket he’d used to carry out the forks, knives, and spoons needed for the Birthday feast to come, and found that his wife had returned from the market while he’d been setting the trestle tables in the garden. He could recognize the firm set to her jaw that indicated she was upset, and wondered just what had happened while she’d been out buying her beets.

“Just get in?” he asked.

“Yes,” she answered shortly.

He looked at her sideways as he put the basket back into its place, and finally asked, “And who set the ants into the sugar for you?”

She gave a short, humorless laugh. “No, no ants. Not ants this time, but thistles.”

He paused, his eyes widening with interest and surprise. “Thistles?”

“Well, not precisely thistles, but Thistle.” She poured her basket of beets into the dry sink and fetched the vegetable brush. “It was that Thistle Greensward as lives in the old Sweetbriar place with her husband Zeno.”

“What about Thistle Greensward?” He knew little of the Greenswards, who’d not lived in the region of the Hill for very long. Thistle was old Gammer Sweetbriar’s great, great niece and had grown up in Needlehole, and the family had decided now that the old Hobbitess was gone the venerable hole would be perfect for Thistle and Zeno. He’d only seen the pair perhaps twice, and he had little feel for either. Why, he’d not even heard Zeno speak as yet!

“So, what did she say as got your back up like this?”

Rosie raised her shoulder and concentrated on cleaning her beets before she finally spoke. “She asked as why I was gettin’ so many beets, and I explained that most of what we grew had been pickled and was stored away, but that with so many comin’ to Bag End for the Birthday and with my dad askin’ for buttered beets I’d decided to buy some more. These come from the Marish, and I must say as they’re fine ones.”

Examining one, Sam had to admit this was true enough.

“So she asked as whose birthday it was, so I told her. And if’n she didn’t laugh, as if it was the funniest thing as she’d ever heard, havin’ a birthday party for them as don’t even live here in the Shire no more. She never knew old Mister Bilbo, and had decided that Mister Frodo leavin’ as he did was most unnatural. So, she asked me, why in Middle Earth would we celebrate their birthdays. And how did the two of us end up livin’ in Bag End, when I was but a farmer’s lass, and you nothin’ but a gardener?”

“And what did you tell her?”

Rosie’s jaw was stiff again before she said, “You’d best set two more places at the table.”

Sam was dumbfounded. “You don’t mean as you invited them to the party for the Birthday, do you? Since they never knew either of the Bagginses, don’t you think as they’ll most like feel out of place? And you aren’t exactly actin’ as if you’re happy about them comin’.”

She gave a slight shrug. “I’m not, not really. But, it’s somethin’ as Aunty Lavender used to say. Those as love you true, keep them close. But those as you don’t quite trust or as says things that insult, keep them closer. All goes well, and they’ll become your friends. But if all goes ill, at least you know as they ain’t in your fields, stealin’ your stock.”

He had to choke back a laugh at that.

“Besides,” she continued, “maybe I’ll be able to teach her how to prepare beets. Those as she brought to the harvest dinner at the Grange Hall, them was awful!”

“I’d say so,” he agreed. “Cooked within an inch of their lives, they were.”

“And, maybe, just maybe I’ll coax out of her the receipt for those taters of hers as are cooked with cheese and ham and all. I’ve never had them that way afore, and I intend to learn how to make it.”

He smiled with the realization that his beloved wife, who was already one of the best cooks in the whole of the Shire as was true also of her dear mum, was out to learn another dish. Well, good on her!

Zeno Greensward sighed. “And just why are we goin’ to a birthday party for two folks as were probably cracked to begin with and aren’t even here in the Shire no more?”

Thistle, who was perhaps too often as prickly as her name-flower, brushed her hair back and twisted it at the base of her neck. “We’ve been asked, is why. And I want to see if it’s true as Bag End is as fine as all say. It’s supposed to be the finest private smial in the whole of the Shire, and with the most beautiful gardens. And I intend to see them with my own eyes.” Carefully she secured her hair with a comb of silver wire, an adornment of Dwarven make.

“And just why were we asked to attend a birthday party for old Mad Baggins and that layabout Frodo Baggins? We were never friends of theirs, and we certainly aren’t friends to either Sam Gamgee or his Rose.”

Thistle had to admit, “I’m not certain why, but she asked me, and as I said, I intend to go. You want to stay at home, do so with my blessing. But I am goin’ to see Bag End.”

Zeno shook his head. “Oh, I’ll go with you, all right. The food ought to be good, at least. It’s said as both Sam Gamgee and Rosie Cotton as she was are both excellent cooks. Maybe she can teach you how to cook buttered beets without leavin’ them all withered.”

She glowered at him as she went to the wardrobe to fetch her best cloak. If she was going to visit the grandest private smial in the Shire, at least she would look as if she was fine enough to visit without anyone questioning her right to be there. Adjusting the ties just so, she then went to the kitchen, removed a ceramic pot from the oven and placed it in a basket that she quickly covered with a wicker lid, and carried it to the front door where Zeno now waited impatiently. He looked at the basket in question, leaned over it, and sniffed. “Your taters and ham?” he asked.

She tossed her head. “Missus Rosie asked me of a purpose to bring some, as she said all liked them so at the Harvest Festival. At least she can’t make such a dish herself, or so I gather.”

Zeno sighed as he followed his wife out through the door, closing it carefully after them. Perhaps Missus Rosie Cotton Gamgee-Gardner didn’t yet know how to make his wife’s taters and cheese dish, but he had the idea either she would coax the recipe out of Thistle, or she’d figure out for herself how to make it. It was said in Bywater that old Tom Cotton’s daughter might be plain-spoken, but all were agreed that she had quite the clever mind, and that she was encouraged by her husband to use it well. He shook his head at the thought—just imagine encouraging Thistle to think!

Before they reached the bridge over the Water, Zeno was carrying the basket. It was quite the walk, and he was beginning to feel blown by the time they reached the gate to Bag End. There they stopped, looking up the steps from the gate to the door of the place. Nasturtiums, dahlias, and chrysanthemums bloomed in a riot of reds, golds, and oranges on the near side of the box hedge that surrounded the door yard, and rose bushes raised their autumn blooms behind it. Further back in the gardens a fruit tree hung its branches over the hedge, and from near it they could hear the sound of children at play. The door, which was painted a most respectable green and was set with brass fixtures, could be seen at the near end of the hole, flanked by a round window on each side, with a solid bench on the near side from which the sunset could be most satisfactorily observed. A tall oak that couldn’t be much more than fifteen years old rose atop the hill, and there appeared to be multiple chimney pots, indicating that cheerful fires would heat most rooms within the smial as might prove needful.

“A beautiful place,” Thistle murmured, unable to stop herself.

“Oh, yes,” agreed her winded husband.

“Thank you!”

They realized that a small Hobbit lass, most certainly still a faunt, had appeared just inside the gate, her hair that remarkable golden color so common to those bairns born the year after the Time of Troubles ended, her build slighter than was common amongst Hobbit children, her eyes bright and intelligent. Apparently she was the one who had offered them thanks for their comments regarding Bag End. She asked, “You here for the party? Don’t think that I’ve met you afore.”

Thistle straightened as tall as she could. “Missus Rosie asked us herself.”

“Oh,” the lass said, and carefully unlatched the gate and pushed it open far enough to allow them to enter past her. “Mummy said she’d asked someone new. Thank you for coming to Uncle Frodo’s party.” As she let the gate close behind them, she pointed down a graveled walk that ran along the side of the hole. “My daddy’s down there, setting the last things on the tables. I’m to wait here for our other guests to come. Uncle Pippin should be here soon.”

So saying, she waved them on rather absently, peering through the pickets of the gate for anyone else who might be approaching up the lane. A doll lay on the ground under the hedge alongside a book, indicating how she might have been spending her time whilst awaiting the next guests’ arrival.

Thistle looked at the book askance. “Do you think as a faunt like her actually reads?” she asked her husband in low tones.

Zeno shrugged uncertainly, feeling uncomfortable regarding her question. “Well, it’s said as Mister Sam himself is quite a reader, and encourages folks to learn to read and write.”

“Hmmph!” Thistle responded, but their attention was drawn to the beauty of the gardens through which they walked. Roses, dahlias, and chrysanthemums were very much in evidence, and Zeno was certain that those lilac bushes must be spectacular when they bloomed in the spring. Petunias, pansies, and lobelia spilled from window boxes, showing off the final blossoms of the year in defiance of the cooling weather soon to come; outside large windows that appeared to be from the dining room honeysuckle vines rose to twist around the circular frames, one window partially shaded by a great rosemary bush from which birds chirped excitedly. Near the hedge they could see the large fruit tree that they’d noted as they’d approached the gate. A swing hung from a great limb on the near side of the tree, and on it a lad, most likely in his early teens, soared high while younger children sat in a rough circle in a recently cleared space playing at marbles.

“Stop Frodo-lad from putting that marble in his mouth,” an older lass directed a lad. “He could choke on it!”

The lad obediently turned to the faunt who sat at his side. “No, Frodo, you mustn’t do that. Give it to me, won’t you?”

Apparently, small Frodo didn’t wish to give up his prize, and it had to be taken from his fingers by the lad and another child, at which Frodo gave a roar of frustration that was not placated when the lass passed a wooden pony to him. “No! Mine!” the faunt objected, throwing the pony from him and reaching for the return of the marble.

“No, it’s not yours—it’s Pando’s marble. Take your pony.” So saying, the lad fetched back the pony and placed it again in front of the faunt.
Thistle craned her head to watch the exchange as she and Zeno continued on their way, but a planting of forsythia bushes quickly hid the playing children, although they could still hear the howls of little Frodo-lad and the voices of other children seeking to calm him.

“When you named him for Frodo, you did not do well,” someone said, and they realized they’d come in view of the table for the birthday feast. They could see Samwise Gamgee walking about the table, checking to see it was set properly. Behind him a tall Hobbit sat upon a stone bench, a pipe in his hand, his head cocked toward the sound of the children’s voices.

“He’s a right willful lad, I’ll admit,” agreed Sam. “But you know, Merry Brandybuck, as our Frodo was known as the Rascal of Buckland.”

“Perhaps you are right, Sam. But it wasn’t because he fussed. Both Bilbo and my parents said that even as a bairn he’d let you know what he wanted by directing his own attention and that of those with him toward what was desired, or he’d find a way of distracting those who had what he wanted so that he could get it from them. That was what he’d do when scrumping, too. And the stars protect anyone who made him angry, for he’d find a way to get his own back in such a manner it usually looked as if the one who’d wronged him had been caught in his own plans for further mischief—as you well know, Sam.”

At that moment their host raised his head and noted the advancing guests. “Ah, Mister and Missus Greensward. Welcome! Here, let me lead you into the kitchen, and Rosie will be that glad to set your dish into the warming oven until the meal’s served. No, Merry—you just sit there and finish your pipe. Enjoy the sunshine, for the fall-of-the-leaf’s arrivin’ all too soon.”

He led them to a side door into the smial, and they went down a short passage past what appeared to be a small office where probably Missus Rosie kept her accounts, to the kitchen where a veritable army of Hobbitesses was bustling about, each apparently busy with a different task.

One looked up from slicing a loaf of bread. “More guests, Sammy? Sorry, but your wife’s down to the nursery, seein’ to Rosie-lass and changin’ herself. Seems the bairn’s spit up all over her front.” She gave a look at the basket Zeno carried. “Mister and Missus Greensward? Is that for the meal? Hot or cold? Hot? Then give it here and I’ll see it into the warming oven.”

“I’ll see to it, Marigold,” interrupted another, older Hobbitess. “I’m that glad as Cyclamen is seein’ to the little-uns.” She caught up mitts and reached into the basket to pull out the pan of taters, and slid it deftly into an overhead oven that still another Hobbitess had opened for her. “How lucky that Mister Bungo saw to it as his kitchen was big enough to provide a meal for an army,” she commented. “Thanks so much, Missus Philomena.”

Marigold gave a nod and continued her work. She again glanced up to catch Zeno’s eye. “I’m that sorry as most of the menfolk has gone to the Dragon t’be out of the way, like. Only our brother there and Master Merry’s still here at the moment, awaitin’ those as is comin’ from the Great Smial. Why don’t you go out t’the garden and enjoy a pipe or summat? There you go, then. Daisy’ll bring out some light ale for you all to share, if’n you’d like.”

“Shall I take the basket and set it in the office for you t’fetch after?” asked the one who’d taken the taters. “And you may wish t’go with them, Missus Greensward—we’re that full up in here at the moment. I’ll be out in a moment with summat t’drink. Would you like a mug of ale as well, Missus Greensward, or would you prefer some cider? Hard or soft?”

So they were bustled out of the door again, followed by Sam. “It’s that busy in there I daren’t poke my nose in,” he commented. “I did my bit yesterday and this mornin’, seein’ to it as the eggs was deviled and the ham made ready. I’m only glad as Pippin Took isn’t here yet, or there’d be no sweets left for the rest of us for afters.” He smiled fondly, but Zeno wasn’t certain that this was but a jest. So, the Thain’s son was coming as well? Certainly that should be expected, as he was also one of the Travellers.

Merry rose to his feet as they emerged from the side door. “Chased you out, did they? I suspect that it’s busy as a swarm of orcs in there, what with all our lady-folk seeing to the last touches on the coming feast. What are you doing, examining the table yet again, Samwise Gamgee? It’s not changed any since you made certain all was in order not fifteen minutes ago!”

“There’s somethin’ missing, and I’m doin’ my best to think as what it is,” Sam responded, his brow furrowed with concentration.

At that moment a distant rumble that Zeno had barely noted began resolving itself into voices approaching Bag End—quite a large crowd at that, he realized. Either the Tooks had arrived at last, or the menfolk to all those Hobbitesses inside were returning from the Green Dragon in Bywater, he thought.

It proved to be both, for the Tooks had stopped to leave their ponies in the Dragon’s paddock, and had encouraged those inside to return to the Hill. One was wheeling a great barrow that held a sizeable ale barrel, apparently, for others were commenting that “this will be a good deal lighter when it’s returned to the Dragon, don’t you think?”

“Don’t worry for the barrow,” said one voice. “I’ll leave it in the dooryard for Number Three as I fetch the Gaffer.”

“I’ll go down to help them carry up the ale,” Merry said, setting his pipe and mug down on a tree stump to one side of the bench on which he’d sat. He was swiftly gone down a path that must lead to the side gate for the place, as the Hobbitess who’d shown them out of the kitchen emerged from the hole with a tray of mugs and a pitcher of light ale, with one of the mugs filled with cider for Thistle.

“Here you go, then,” she said, proffering her tray to Thistle and Zeno, then setting it on the stump where Merry Brandybuck had left his pipe, catching that up and laying it on the tray as she set it down. “And, Sam, your Rosie’d like it if you’d bring Frodo-lad to her to see him changed one last time.” She took a glance around. “The high chairs for the bairns aren’t out yet? We’ll have to see about that.”

“That’s it!” exclaimed Sam. “Knew as there was somethin’ as was missin’. Thanks, Daisy—I’ll see to those as soon as I’ve finished fetchin’ the bairn to his mum."

“Don’t worry for that, brother mine—I’ll set the Cotton lads to it. They’re back now, if’n my ears don’t deceive me.”

Sam nodded, already turning to fetch the faunt from the far side of the forsythia bushes.

“You’re Mister Sam’s sister?” Zeno asked Daisy.

“Yes—there are three of us lasses, me, May, and Marigold. And we have two other brothers—Hamson and Halfast. They’re the oldest. Sam and Marigold are both married to Tom and Lily Cotton’s children, Young Tom for Marigold and Rosie for Sam. Mister Frodo conducted the weddings for each of them, bless him.” At that point Sam reappeared from beyond the forsythias, Frodo-lad in his arms, reentering the smial to take the child to his mum, nodding as he passed them.

Then there was too much noise and commotion for more conversation as Hobbits of several ages and apparently several classes crowded into the area about the trestle tables on which the feast was to be enjoyed. Four individuals carried in an ale barrel and set it upon horses that awaited it, two burley Hobbits likely to be brothers, while the others were the exceptionally tall Merry Brandybuck and an equally tall Peregrin Took. Zeno felt himself shiver, seeing how these two towered over everyone else in that garden. He’d seen each of them—from a distance—at the Free Fair in Michel Delving over the years, and he remembered how shocked he’d been the first time he’d realized how much taller the two of them now were than those they’d been with at the time. But seeing them up close and together, surrounded by so many others made a deep impression as to how truly oversized each was. The Thain appeared at the side of Will Whitfoot, Paladin Took carrying a beaming Elanor in his arms, the Mayor carrying the doll and book seen earlier by the hedge. “Look at what we’ve found!” the Thain bellowed. “And where’s Sam in all this?”

“He just took his son in to be changed,” Daisy answered him, indicating the smial with a wave of her hand. “You might go ’round front and he should be up t’greet you in a few minutes. I doubt as you’d be comfortable in the kitchen at the moment.”

“Full of the ladies, I’m sure,” agreed the Mayor. “Well, come along, Pal, and we’ll see to the wellbeing of your wife and sister.” He gave a wave of the book, and turned to go back around the Hill to the front door.

“You might go with them,” Daisy said, leaning close so Zeno and Thistle could hear her. “The Thain’s Lady and Mistress Esme will be there, probably alongside Master Saradoc and others come with them from the Great Smial.” She then caught the two brothers who’d helped with the barrel, and after a few words they waved over two more, and the four of them entered through the side door as Zeno and Thistle made to follow Will Whitfoot and Paladin Took, who still carried Elanor Gamgee in his arms.

The great front door stood open, and they entered uncertainly, somewhat behind Thain and Mayor. A pleasant-faced Hobbitess met them and took their cloaks, seeing those settled over the wooden cloak pegs in the entryway.

“I’m May, Sam’s next older sister,” she said, introducing herself. “You’re the Greenswards, right? I want you to know as just how much we loved your great, great aunt. She was such a dear one, was Gammer Sweetbriar. We’re glad as at last the dear old hole has a family in it again. Welcome to the region of the Hill. Why don’t you join the others in the parlor?”

Thistle gave an uncertain nod and went on through to the parlor, but Zeno didn’t follow her—not right away. Realizing he wasn’t leaving, May looked up to catch his eyes. “You have a question, Mister Greensward?”

He shrugged. “I must admit as I do, Mistress May. Remember that we’re newcomers to Hobbiton, so please don’t take offense. But, we don’t begin to understand as why a birthday feast is held for two Hobbits who don’t even live here anymore.”

May sighed. “You have to understand, Mister Greensward: to my brother, Mister Frodo wasn’t just his Master—him was Sam’s friend, and his teacher, alongside old Mister Bilbo. And at the end Frodo Baggins adopted our Sam as his brother and left him the new Master of Bag End and the Hill.”

“Adopted him as a brother? But, Mister Sam has you and your sisters and other brothers all alive, doesn’t he?”

“Yes, plus the Gaffer, our old dad. But Mister Frodo didn’t adopt our Sam ’cause Sam needed a family—he did so ’cause Mister Frodo did.” She bobbed her head. “And now, if’n you’ll excuse me….” She turned around and disappeared into the crowd of Hobbits in the parlor.

Someone appeared at the far end of the room, an older Hobbitess who carried a baking dish and a metal spoon that she crashed together. “Attention, please—we’re ready for the meal. If you’ll all come through to the gardens….”

Those in the parlor broke into two groups, with those nearer the entry turning to go out the front door while others followed the Hobbitess through the passage to the kitchen and the side door. Again feeling uncertain, Zeno stepped aside, hoping that Thistle would come by him so he could accompany her. Apparently, however, she’d managed to work her way through the room to follow those going out of it by the other way, and he stood feeling increasingly awkward until he felt a tug at his knee. He looked down to see little Elanor standing there, looking up at him. “Shall I show you which way to go?” she asked.

He nodded tentatively, and reached down to take her hand in his. She smiled up reassuringly, and led him to follow the line going out the door, pausing to indicate he should shut it as they exited. “It’s this way, the way you went afore,” she explained, taking his hand again and giving a gentle tug at it. They were a distance behind the rest, and he went slowly so as not to force her to run. “I love the gardens,” she confided. “My Gaffer helped plant and take care of them till my dad was big enough to do it for him. They member most ever’thing ’bout them and Mister Bilbo and my Uncle Frodo and all. They tell us the stories, my brother an’ me.”

“But he wasn’t your real uncle, Mister Frodo Baggins wasn’t.”

“Was too. He ’dopted my dad, after all.”

“Didn’t he have a family of his own?”

“Oh, him has cousins and such like—lots o’ cousins. But his mum and dad died when he was a li’l lad, and their other bairns didn’t live, neither. So he wanted someone closer, someone as loved Bag End as much as he did, and would care for the folks as lived here ’neath the Hill. Didn’t want nothin’ more bad to happen to those as live here, not like what happened when him and my dad and Uncle Merry and Uncle Pippin left afore. Said as ’twouldn’t be right. Said as my dad was his closer-than-brother, like Uncle Lord Strider. And since Uncle Lord Strider can’t live in the Shire, him chose my dad to ’dopt as his brother. Made my dad his heir.”

“But he’s not dead, is he, Mister Frodo?”

She stopped, looking through a thin spot in the hedge. “No, Uncle Frodo’s not dead. We’d know if’n him was dead—the Mallorn’d tell us.” She pointed westward and down the Hill, although he wasn’t certain at what.

Zeno was confused. “Well, if he’s not dead, then where is he?”

“He left with the Elves—with Lord Elrond and the Lady and Gandalf and all. But you can’t come back from Elvenhome, you see. I thought ever’one knew that.” She tugged again at his hand. “We’d best hurry—I’m gettin’ terrible hungry.”

Merry Brandybuck met them as they approached the table, scooping the child into his arms. “Here you are, then,” he exclaimed. “You’re just in time to sit in your new chair for the very first time. We brought it in from Buckland just today so that you can sit up to the table high enough to see without needing lots of cushions. And we had it built to resemble the seats the King had made for us Hobbits to sit in while at feasts in the Merethrond.” With that he carried her off squealing with pleasure to the far end of the table.

Zeno, feeling rather abandoned, stopped where he was, watching after them with even more confusion until he felt a hand on his sleeve. He turned to find Sam Gamgee’s sister Daisy beside him. “We was concerned when you didn’t come sooner. If’n you’ll follow me, I’ll show you to your seat by your wife. Over this-a-way, please.”

Looking down the table, he saw that high chairs were scattered along its length, each holding the smaller offspring of those here to share in the feast. At the far end were three more, one a beautifully carved piece crafted of silvery wood, venerable, sturdy, and elegant. But there were two more chairs that also had high seats and footrests with lovely turned backs and legs, on one of which sat young Frodo-lad and on the other of which Merry was settling Elanor, near to where other children were sitting. Between them sat a solid chair that appeared to have been carved from a single oak trunk, its back high and vaulted, with solid arms.

A stream of Hobbitesses flowed out of the kitchen with bowls and pots and platters of food that were set out on a long side table for those taking part in the feast to serve themselves when the time came. In pride of place sat a great, tiered cake frosted in simple white, decorated with green and blue candles, not yet lit. The Hobbit ladies were followed by Sam, who carried a large candlestick in his hand that he set down with ceremony at the head of the table, in front of the carved chair. The stick held a tall, thick candle of beeswax that bore a proud flame. An arrangement of flowers and silver-green leaves stood before the candlestick. All had gone silent as Zeno moved to stand beside his wife, who stood behind her chair with her hands on its back, as was true of most of the other guests, all eyes now on the Master of the Feast.

Sam did not keep them waiting more than a minute. “I thank you all for comin’ to this birthday party for our beloved Frodo Baggins, the Ringbearer, and his equally beloved guardian and teacher, Mister Bilbo Baggins, the Ring-finder and Its holder for sixty years. Together they kept faith with the whole of Middle-earth, even though neither could know at the time the danger they was wardin’ us from. Both are gone from us now, gone with most of the remaining great Elves to Elvenhome, where hopefully both have found the healin’ and peace they deserve for what they’d been put through by Sauron’s atrocity. I bid ye all eat and fill yourselves, rememberin’ their kindness, wisdom, humor, and simple love for us and the land in which we live. I do ask as you let the ladies go first to get food for the children and those as can’t easily serve themselves. Now, if’n all will turn west for the Standin’ Silence.”

For a minute or so all did turn toward the west, the now lowering Sun shining into their faces, most expressions solemn and hopeful, a few as uncertain as Zeno knew himself and his wife to be. Then, with no discernible signal, all looked down at the table, and those caring for children moved to pick up plates from the stacks at the far end of the serving table and began walking down it to take what they felt would best please the bairns and the few elders that could not serve themselves.

Thistle had been set beside an elderly Hobbit, who although dressed well enough was plainly of the laboring class. On Zeno’s left was a gentlehobbit who appeared to be a Brandybuck, one who wore Buckland cloth proudly, standing straight and yet with a degree of ease Zeno envied.

The Bucklander leaned behind Zeno and Thistle to hold out his hand familiarly to the old Hobbit. “Master Hamfast, but it is good to see you here. I’d feared that your rheumatics might keep you fast within Number Three today.”

The old fellow straightened some in his seat. “Ach, but they’ve been better the last few weeks. Not what my old bones might not ache again tomorrow. Never can tell with the rheumatics. Had t’come, though—show my respects for old Mister Bilbo and the Young Master, o’ course.” He took a deep breath and held it for a moment. “Not as Mister Bilbo’s still alive, most like. He was older’n the Old Took when Master Frodo left, and Sam tells me as they both went with the Elves.”

“So all three have said,” the Brandybuck agreed. “I wish I could have gone to the Havens, too, to give both Bagginses my farewells. At least old Gandalf was able to advise Merry and Pippin about them leaving so they could arrive in time to see them off and to return with Sam. Frodo owed all three of them that, I’d think.”

Daisy approached with a large plate of food that she set down in front of the older Hobbit. “Here, Gaffer—an’ if’n I’ve managed to miss anythin’ as you’d want just wave and I’ll get you more.” She kissed the top of his head and stepped away, commenting to Thistle, Zeno, and the Bucklander, “You’d best get in line afore Mister Pippin. For all him’s a gentlehobbit grown, you’d think as he were still but a tween, as much as him can eat! Mebbe it’s ’cause him growed so much while them was gone. Our Sam and Mister Merry’ll keep him distracted as long as possible, but….” She grinned and slipped away.

All three rose at this alarming pronouncement, but Zeno saw that their companion did not appear to be anywhere as concerned as he and Thistle felt about possibly being shorted at a meal. Instead, the Brandybuck was smiling over to where Merry and Sam still stood in conversation with the Thain’s son.

Zeno cleared his throat. “Hard to understand as how any Hobbit would want to be so tall.”

The Bucklander glanced briefly his way. “It wasn’t because he wanted to grow so,” he answered, a wave of his hand indicating they should join the line. “But how were Merry and Pippin to know that accepting an Ent draught would affect them this way? It’s not as if Hobbits and Ents meet one another on a regular basis. In fact, the Ents were surprised to learn our race exists as it wasn’t listed in their ancient lore.”

Zeno and Thistle exchanged puzzled glances. “And what are Ents?” Zeno asked.

“The Shepherds of the Trees. They live in the Forest of Fangorn, far, far to the south, almost to Gondor where the King dwells now.”

They were passing the child Elanor, who sat in a high chair near several of the children they’d seen in the garden, and heard an older lass telling the others, “The roast chicken was brought by Mistress Esme. ’Tis said as she taught Cousin Frodo how to roast a chicken, and that his was even better’n hers. He even won a prize for it at the Free Fair one year! Mister Merry says as Cousin Frodo made his roast chicken for the King hisself one night, and that the King said there wasn’t none better he’d ever tasted anywhere.”

Thistle gave the Brandybuck a questioning look, to which he responded, “So they’ve all told me—Merry, Pippin, and Sam. Cousin Esmeralda taught him well.” He smiled as they drew closer to the carved chair at the head of the table, the one that appeared to have been carved from a single tree trunk. Zeno and Thistle gawked at it.

“Looks like what thrones must be like,” Thistle commented.

The Bucklander gave a brief shrug. “Sam has commented that it reminds him somewhat of King Elessar’s throne, although Frodo didn’t like the comparison. We don’t know if the roof tree for the Hill was cut on Pimple or Sharkey’s orders—I rather suspect it was the latter. Whoever cut it down appears to have been a particularly tall Man, however. The trunk split some as it fell, and afterward young Tom Cotton shaped what remained of the tree into a seat for Frodo to use when he looked out over the Shire from the top of the Hill. But as autumn arrived Frodo had Tom and Nibs cut it off even with the ground, and they stored it away in one of the store rooms in Bag End.”

“And it’s brought out for Frodo’s birthday?” asked Zeno, intrigued by the idea.

The Brandybuck nodded. “Nibs has done more work on squaring it up when he’s here visiting his sister, and added the stars on the back to match what the Travellers tell of the carving of the King’s throne in Gondor. They say it was appropriate for Frodo in particular as he and Sam were both named Princes of the West for the service they gave to all of Middle Earth in the last battle against Sauron. The day that the great winds blew from the west and tore apart the brown darkness for good—that was the day that Frodo and Sam won through with their errand, destroying the token of Sauron’s power and ending all hope the Dark Lord had of again covering all of Middle Earth with his shadows. The chair is brought out for the Birthday meal, and will be returned to storage tonight until Sam’s birthday in early April.”

Thistle and Zeno glanced back at Sam, who was now in conversation with Mayor Whitfoot, leaning down to hear what the old Hobbit had to say. “And just what does a ‘Prince of the West’ do?” asked Thistle.

“I’d say that this Prince of the West will be the Shire’s next Mayor, particularly if our current one has anything to say about it. Since Frodo’s not here to run this time, Will is working hard to see to it that Sam is elected Mayor next. Says he doesn’t want to do it again.”

Both Zeno and Thistle sought to say something, but it was Zeno’s objection that was spoken first. “But Will wouldn’t of been Mayor again if Baggins hadn’t begged off, insisting after Will said all those things about how good he’d been at fulfilling the Mayor’s duties that Will was the better Hobbit for the job. He could have been our Mayor, but as deputy Mayor apparently found it too hard a row to hoe.”

The Bucklander sighed. “You don’t understand just how much his part of the War out there scarred him.”

Zeno snorted. “Didn’t look that bad off to me. A bit thinner, perhaps, than he was last time as we saw him at the Free Fair a few years earlier, but that was all the change I could see.”

The Brandybuck shook his head. “A bit thinner, you say? How about a lot thinner! And he grew worse. He had problems with his stomach all the time he was back, and him without the healers’ aid he knew after the battles. He had to eat small meals frequently, and had to watch what he ate or he’d just lose it all again. Suffered from bad headaches, and couldn’t smoke anymore. Couldn’t be around others who smoked. Anyone who wanted a pipe had to exit the Council Hole completely so as not to set Frodo coughing fit to die. Nor could any of us smoke here in Bag End. That journey Outside nearly killed him several times over, yet he never regretted it. But it left him unable to remain here for long. He was being eaten away from the inside every day he lingered here in Middle Earth, so he left with the Great Elves. If he hadn’t, it’s likely he’d not have lived long.”

Thistle peered over her shoulder at Sam Gamgee, who’d now joined the line. “And so why did he leave Bag End to his gardener?” she demanded in low tones, reaching for one of the plates that were stacked at the near end of the serving tables.

“As he never married and left no children of his own, why should Frodo not leave the smial to one of his choosing?”

“And is he also now the Baggins?” Thistle asked.

The Brandybuck gave his own glance Sam’s way. “Sam was declared Family Head for the Gamgees and Ropers after his return from Outside. He has quite enough on his plate without piling on those Bagginses that are left, too. As for that, Frodo left the Baggins Family Book to his twin cousins who grew up in Westhall, who have no need for yet another family home as they are already heirs to several properties due them as the younger children of Frodo’s Uncle Dudo Baggins.”

“You seem well informed,” Zeno commented as he took up a plate of his own and prepared to serve himself well. He and Thistle both noted that the great pot containing Thistle’s taters had been given pride of place on the second table, and had already been relieved of a good portion of its contents. Nearby stood another great stoneware bowl of buttered beets that steamed alluringly. As Thistle glared, her husband carefully added two generous spoonfuls to his plate, then tipped a single slice of beet onto hers.

An older Hobbitess stood behind the next table, ladling servings of golden mushrooms into bowls and presenting said bowls to those who presented their plates to her. As their Bucklander companion paused to receive his bowl, he addressed her in a familiar manner. “Ah, and Missus Twofoot, how good to see you again. Are these the mushrooms from the Party Field?”

She dimpled as she handed him his serving. “That it is, Master Brendi, sir. We’ve named them now. We calls them Mister Baggins’s Buttons, in memory of the story as old Mister Bilbo used to tell of him losin’ his when he was escapin’ from that Gollum critchure and them goblins as blocked the door out of the caves under the Misty Mountains, like. I member him tellin’ us that story when I was a wee lass, and so do all of us as grew up here in Hobbiton. Seemed a fittin’ name, you know.”

Master Brendi gave her a wide smile. “Fitting indeed, Missus Twofoot. Both Bilbo and Frodo would be well pleased, I think. I wish a fine day to you!”

It seemed odd that this one dish would be doled out in such a manner, but they heard Missus Twofoot answering the next one in line after Master Brendi, “I believe as there’ll be just enough of the mushrooms for ever’body as is here. May not be as many as most’d like, but enough for ever’body. That’s the way as they always seem t’work out.”

It was as they were returning to their seats that Brendi Brandybuck finally answered Zeno’s comment from earlier. “Frodo Baggins and I were born the same year, and as our mothers had always been close companions, we knew each other all our lives. I wasn’t as close to him perhaps as Merry or Pippin or Sam or Fredegar Bolger or Folco Boffin, but we played together as faunts and small children, and in our teens we ran in the same gang. He stood by me for my wedding, and let me grieve on his shoulder when my Merilinde died. And I was his personal lawyer for years, so, yes, I knew a good deal about his personal business as well as why he adopted Samwise Gamgee as his brother and left Bag End to him. And just like those over there—” he pointed to where Merry Brandybuck, Pippin Took, and Sam Gamgee worked their way down the line of the serving tables, “I miss him terribly now, but do not regret that he left when and how he did. Frodo deserved more than what that Ring did to him. They told him in Rivendell that he’d never fully recover from the wound dealt him at Weathertop, not as long as he remained in Middle Earth; and we could all see how he was beginning to fade away after his return.

“No, he decided not to run after all to become Mayor, and insisted we should vote again for Will Whitfoot to be Mayor one last term. But he recognized as the rest of us did not that he most likely would not be able to fill the office for a full seven years. It was hard enough to serve as deputy Mayor after they returned until the Free Fair that summer. Ask any of the Took lawyers that worked with him to set things right in the Mayor’s office while Will recovered from what they did to him in the Lockholes.”

They’d reached their seats by the time the lawyer was done, and saw that while they were following the line around the table someone had come to lay a present at each place. There was a brooch in the shape of a thistle for Thistle Greensward, a fine wooden pipe with a black band about it for Zeno, and a silver pen for Brendi Brandybuck, whose eyes were suspiciously moist as he picked it up to examine it.

“Bless him,” the lawyer whispered, laying it down again beside his knife and spoon. He then sat down and, with a nod to his companions, began to eat.

“It’s been a wonderful meal!” Zeno finally admitted past his napkin as he finished his last bite of his wife’s taters. “I’d never thought to enjoy myself so much!”

Thistle agreed, if somewhat reluctantly.

Brendi Brandybuck nodded pleasantly, also finishing a bite of the tater dish before reaching out for a bread roll lying on a dish in the midst of the table. “And whoever brought these potatoes with cheese and ham,” he commented as he split and buttered the roll, “is a mistress of the kitchen! I salute her!”

Thistle colored nicely and, for the first time in some months, appeared truly lovely in her husband’s eyes. “It was Missus Greensward here who brought this dish,” Zeno explained proudly. “It seems as everyone as tries it truly loves it.”

“Did you really?” Brendi asked. “I must admit that I was heartily impressed. I would hope one day any new wife I might take to myself would do anywhere as well.”

Thistle explained, “It was Missus Rosie who asked especial that I bring it. Seems everyone who tried it at the harvest festival liked it.”

Mister Brandybuck smiled and took a last bite of it, obviously relishing its flavor, following that with the roll. “Delightful! But then everything has been excellent today.”

They had to agree.

An older Hobbit came down the path from the front of the smial, a post bag hanging from his shoulder. He approached the head of the table and Samwise Gamgee, leaning down to take off his hat, shake Sam’s hand, and offer him a thick parcel from the bag. Sam accepted the offering, examined it with pleasure, and apparently indicated that the old fellow should take up one of the last plates and help himself to whatever might remain in the dishes on the serving table. With a broad smile of pleasure, the post Hobbit took Sam up on his offer, and soon was sitting down at a hastily vacated place where one of the older children had been sitting to eat a hasty meal before finishing his duties for the day.

“And even got some of Mister Baggins’s Buttons!” he exclaimed loudly enough for Thistle and Zeno to hear. “Oh, but what a way to member the boths of’em!”

After opening the parcel and unfolding a thick wad of parchment, Sam eventually picked up his spoon and tapped it loudly against his ale mug.

“If’n ye all would listen,” Sam announced for all to hear, “I just received a message from our beloved Lord Strider—that is, the King Elessar. He intended as this should arrive today, just on the Birthday of the Ring-finder as well as the Ringbearer. I’d like to read it out now to all gathered here today in Mister Bilbo’s and Frodo’s honor.”

He cleared his throat and began to read:

My dearest Samwise Gamgee, it is with joy I think on you, Pippin, and Merry today, celebrating with those who loved them the joint birthday of our beloved Frodo and Bilbo Baggins. My dearest Lady and I both grieve for their absence from our side, but rejoice that they were granted this grace for their faithfulness in fulfilling the doom laid upon them to carry and guard the One Ring for the time It remained in their keeping.

I send you this message from Glorfindel, who, as you know, is considered a High Lord among Elves of both realms, having died as did Gandalf battling against a Balrog and who was afterward rehoused in a new body, and who returned to serve the House of the son of Eärendil that remained here in Middle Earth, that of Elrond of Imladris. He did not sail with Lord Elrond and the Lady Galadriel, Gandalf, Frodo, and Bilbo, but remained to serve my Lady Wife’s brothers to their comfort for when the day comes that she accepts the Gift to Mortals and must leave the Circles of Arda. He has arrived within Minas Anor, and has spent the days since his arrival enthralling the Citadel’s pages with his tales. He would have you know that Frodo does well, and is healed in spirit at last. No longer does he feel weakness or pain, and he is now once more filled with joy and curiosity, although it appears for the most part more temperate yet infinitely deeper than it was ere the Ring came to him.

He never ceases from missing you and all he has loved, but patiently awaits the time when at last he might be reunited once more with each of us.

Rejoice to see this day, and know that we celebrate it here in Gondor as well, remembering how the Ring was lost by Gollum, found by Bilbo, left to Frodo’s keeping, and was brought to the Fire in the nick of time by him, with your aid, and then taken into the Fire once again by Gollum. All of you are so honored in both Arnor and Gondor.

Eglerio, our beloved Lord Panthael. A laita te! Laita te!

Sent from the Citadel of the White City of Gondor by Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar, Lord King of Arnor and Gondor, and High King of the West.

Zeno and Thistle exchanged puzzled, amazed looks before turning their questioning gaze on Brendi Brandybuck. The lawyer, however, had cocked his head, his own attention still fixed on their host as Sam carefully rolled the papers and returned them to the package they’d arrived in. “Is he flushing?” Thistle whispered.

Without looking at her, Brendi nodded. “He tends to blush when he receives praise,” he murmured back, “no matter how well deserved.”

Sam, having pulled the loose cloth of the letter’s packaging over the opening, turned briefly to Pippin Took, who stood near his shoulder, and handed the missive to him, the two briefly exchanging comments before Pippin stepped away, closer to Merry Brandybuck. Sam turned back to those gathered around the table and pulled himself to his full height. “I first met our Frodo the day he come here to Bag End with old Mister Bilbo as Bilbo’s ward and heir. I was but a little lad of eleven. Him was twice that, a tall, slender tween of twenty-two. He’d been but my own age when his parents died in that horrible boating accident, just weeks after I was born. He’d not seen me afore, although his dad had. Last bit of carvin’ we know as Mister Drogo Baggins did was addin’ me and my mum to the map of the Shire as he’d carved into the great dresser as he’d built for the banquet hall in the Council Hole.

“Why a tween like Frodo Baggins would want to have a lad like me taggin’ around with him I couldn’t of said at the time. I didn’t understand as how close he was to Merry here, who was littler’n me then, even. I only know as him seemed happy to have me along and to show him the village and all, and that old Bilbo was right pleased to see me always at his lad’s side. I’d been gettin’ lessons in readin’ and writin’ already; now I was there in the study with my lessons, listenin’ as Frodo got his own lessons, and what he learned I heard, not what I understood it all. No, I didn’t begin to understand it all until we was well upon our quest, although once we woke up in Ithilien under the King’s own care I—finally—began to put it all together.”

Merry and Pippin were nodding their own appreciation of that statement.

Sam continued, “Most don’t have any idea as what Frodo Baggins did while we was gone, much less why he felt he had to do it. Most have but a vague idea as to him almost dyin’, as was true of all four of us. But tryin’ to explain just how bad hurt Frodo was, not once, but over and over, is hard for us to do. If’n it wasn’t for my pony Bill and Lord Glorfindel, the Elf as Lord Strider named in his letter, we’d not of reached Rivendell in time for Lord Elrond to get that Morgul shard out of his shoulder. If’n it hadn’t been for Boromir when that thing with the snaky legs outside the doors of Moria caught hold of him, Frodo would of been drug under the water and most likely drowned like his folks—if’n it didn’t eat him. His mithril coat saved him twice, once in Moria when he was stabbed with a spear, and the second time here at Bag End when Sharkey tried to stab him in the back. I was sure Frodo was dead when that Shelob got him and bit him, poisonin’ him in the tunnel outside Mordor. Then he didn’t have the strength to finish the trip up the mountain, and I had to carry him.

“And at the end, the Ring took him, and that Gollum bit his finger off to get hold of It for hisself. I could only find him ’cause Gollum had It when he fell into the fire, and again I had to carry Frodo out of the Sammath Naur to the top of Sauron’s road, and then convince him to crawl down till we was away from the fire as it spewed out, and the whole top of the mountain was blowed away. That was when we both thought as it was only minutes until we’d be dead, and we just give up.

“It was a shock to finally wake up and learn as we wasn’t dead after all. It was a shock to find Gandalf had been sent back, just as ages ago Glorfindel was give a new body and sent back to be by his old Lord’s great-grandson. It was a shock to be brought out to meet the King, and to learn as it was Strider hisself! Oh, Frodo lived all right, but it wasn’t ’cause there weren’t lots of tries to kill him by all sorts of folks.

“Face it—the Time of Troubles was bad, right bad, for those as was here in the Shire. But it would of been far, far worse had Frodo not taken that Ring back to Mordor so as it could go back into the Fire from which it came. We saw what it was like in Mordor, and how the orcs treated one another. To hear such talk here on this side of the Brandywine Bridge made us angry, angry enough for Merry and Pippin here to raise the Shire and throw the villains out! And it made Frodo angry enough to study as how Lotho had done it—how him had let the Big Men in, not realizin’ they was usin’ him more’n he was usin’ them, so’s it can’t be done again—not easily, at least.

“We have a wonderful land here, here in the Shire. But, like it or not, there’s them as would take it all away from us if’n they could, and make us Hobbits their slaves. We can’t let that happen again. So the King has announced that no Men can come into the Shire for a couple more years, and if’n we want, we can then tell him to keep it that way for as long as we want. Lord Strider is full willin’ to confirm it. That’s goin’ t’be up to us, though, what we tell him we want. So, think about it for the next Free Fair, where we’ll be votin’ on that question.”

Sam stretched. “Anyways, it’s the Birthday, the Birthday for the Ring-finder and the Ringbearer. So, if’n you all will refill your cups, we want to make a toast to the both of them.”

Someone had walked by and set a pitcher of light ale before them, and Zeno caught it up to fill the mugs for himself, his wife, and Brendi Brandybuck before passing the pitcher down to the Gaffer. All rose to their feet and raised their mugs.

“To old Mister Bilbo—may he be smilin’ this day!” Sam called.

“To Bilbo!” answered the crowd.

“And to Frodo, who was as a brother to every soul in the whole of the Shire!”

They answered, “To Frodo!”

And all drank.

An hour later, Zeno and Thistle were in the kitchen for Bag End, where Rosie was giving Thistle detailed directions on how to make buttered beets. “You can’t overcook them,” Rosie explained as she took the few beets that were left from the serving table and poured them into a red jar that she covered with a matching lid. “You only cook’em enough to make them just soft enough to chew—not withered to nothin’. Leaves them with much better flavor.”

A hand was gently set on Zeno’s shoulder. Sam Gamgee leaned forward to whisper in the Greensward’s ear, “We’d best get ourselves out of here if’n we don’t want to be set to washin’ the rest of the dishes. What do you say we go out with the rest of the menfolk?”

Zeno gave a subtle sideways nod and allowed the gardener to quietly escort him out the back door. Once they were safely out of the hearing of the Hobbitesses Zeno commented, “I’m surprised as your Rosie wasn’t pumping my Thistle on how she makes her taters and ham dish.”

Sam shrugged as he closed the door behind him. “I doubt as she needs to now. She had a chance t’check it out afore the pots were sent out here, and I suspect she has it pretty well figgered out. She’ll be tryin’ out her own ideas soon, and I suspect as she’ll be offerin’ it up to other folks within the next few months. Oh, don’t worry—she’ll be doin’ it her own way so as it don’t cause nobody to go off your Thistle’s dish. She don’t want to offend your wife in any way. But my Rosie’ll always want to make the best dishes. Why, she’s already learnin’ off me and the others some of them dishes as they have down in the King’s city at their feasts. Certainly while we was there Lord Strider had his new cooks learnin’ how to make food as we love here in the Shire. My Mister Frodo told me that our food’ll be more—cosmopolitan—that’s the word he used—now as we are among the King’s friends.”

He smiled as he led Zeno forward to where Merry Brandybuck and his cousin Brendi stood by the Master and the Thain and his heir as the group conversed with Mayor Will Whitfoot. Zeno felt a subtle shiver go through him, realizing he was seeing those in greatest positions of influence within the Shire both now and in the future, and that he was now welcome amongst them.

That night, once all others within Bag End had retreated to their beds, Sam found his wife standing in the doorway to the nursery, smiling in at the small bodies asleep in their beds. “It was a good day,” he commented.

“Oh, yes,” she agreed as he wrapped his arms about her and she leaned back into his embrace.

“I doubt as any stock went missin’ today,” he added teasingly.

She smiled up into his eyes. “Oh, no. And you know what? I think as we have some new friends!” So saying, she turned to kiss him warmly.


Buttered Beets
YIELD Serves 6
• 10 medium beets (about 2 inches in diameter), rinsed, tops trimmed
• 1 cup water
• 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
• 1 teaspoon minced garlic
• 1/4 cup chopped fresh chives or green onion tops
• 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
• 2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon
• 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Arrange beets in single layer in 13x9x2-inch baking dish; add 1 cup water. Cover and bake until beets are tender when pierced with knife, about 1 hour. Cool beets. Peel and cut into 1/2-inch wedges.
2. Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic; sauté 1 minute. Add beets; stir until heated through. Mix in chives, parsley and tarragon, then vinegar. Season with salt and pepper.
(from the Epicurious website)


Rosie’s Taters and Ham and Cheese

A medium sized potato for each expected person plus 1 for the pot
½ cup (or a single stick) of butter or margarine
Thin-sliced or grated cheddar cheese
Ham cut into slices and approx. ¾ inch squares
Broccoli crown

¼ cup tepid water
1-2 tbsp flour
1 tsp garlic salt
1-2 tbsp parsley flakes
Pepper to taste
½ cup milk or cream

Potatoes may be russet, gold, or white potatoes. If russet, you may wish to peel them ahead of time. Otherwise, clean them thoroughly before slicing.
Cut into thin slices, less than ¼ inch thick.

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Arrange potato slices in single layer in bottom of large casserole dish. Top with dollops of butter and thin layer of cheese.
Add another layer of potato slices. Lay on squares of ham, broccoli florets, and a thin layer of cheese.
Add another layer of potato slices, cheese and butter as before.
Alternate layers of ham and cheese with butter and cheese. Top layer should have butter, broccoli florets, and cheese.

Thoroughly whisk flour in water. Add parsley flakes, salt and pepper, and stir into milk.
Pour mixture evenly over casserole. Allow to seep down through the various layers.
Bake approximately 45 minutes, or until fork easily pierces potato slices.

(my basic recipe.)
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