My Aragon Stories
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On Merry Yule: 11. Preparations
Noontime, Yule Day, Foreyule
‘This is wonderful, beggar.’
Gilda motioned for Ula to continue. Her prentice set the top sheet to one side, showing the next. In all there were six pages in Frodo’s neat hand. The lad had skipped first and second breakfasts that morning (though Maddie had sent a tray to the makeshift study) to complete the copying before Wintermark. Gilda made a sound of satisfaction.
‘Most excellent, Bilbo. Better than most of the past translations since I am actually able to read it.’ She cast him an amused glance and he laughed in return.
‘Yes, Mistress, I have found a better copyist for this one. Our rascal worked very hard to make this come out right.’
‘I will read it over with Ula after Yule, and she will make notes.’ Ula smiled and nodded, then turned another page for Gilda. ‘With her help we should be able to get through the revisions more quickly than usual, Bilbo.’
Bilbo gave Ula a warm smile. ‘Excellent! And since I now have a good copyist at my command, I think we shall be able to make a second copy, just for Miss Proudfoot’s own library. She will need her own scrolls in the time to come.’ Bilbo grinned at Ula’s delighted expression.
‘Oh, I would not wish to put you and Frodo to such work, Uncle Bilbo,’ the girl protested, but he could see how much she liked the idea of having such treasures for her own.
‘Nonsense, girl,’ Gilda laughed. ‘Those two have little enough to do to keep them out of mischief. Copying scrolls is as good a way as any.’ Gilda turned to Bilbo. ‘Will you have any more for us before you leave? And when are you leaving?’
‘I thought we would probably set out on the morning of the fifth next week,’ Bilbo replied as he scanned the new page. Not a blot or an error. Well done, Wilwarin! ‘And I hope we might get another four or five pages translated before then. I will need all of my Elvish library to complete the work, I am afraid, so we will have to go home.’
Gilda patted the top of his head gently as he knelt next to her feet. ‘My rascals, going so soon. You’ve but just arrived!’
Bilbo caught her hand and kissed it gently, then rose. ‘Speaking of going soon, I promised Wili and Rory that I would meet them shortly out by the wood and help them get preparations underway.’ He gave Gilda a kiss on the cheek, bade the women good bye, and wandered towards the north kitchen.
Wili was waiting for him there, along with Farmer Haysend. Prisca was there, too, a large kerchief wrapped around her head to keep her hair out of her eyes. Her curls were still thick, even though they were mostly grey. Greetings were exchanged all around, and Bilbo soon found his hands full with a meal. He wolfed down the fresh bread and cold roast. Prisca went back to chatting with Haysend, pausing occasionally to pop a morsel of apple tart in Bilbo’s mouth in between bites of bread and sips of tea.
‘Please tell your missus that the Loom Mistress, Missus Tunnelly, is amazed at the linen she and your girls wove.’
Haysend smiled broadly. ‘The missus will be most pleased to hear that.’
‘Will you be able to spare her and one or two of your girls for a few days in Afteryule, or perhaps Solmath, to come to the Hall and help get one of the great looms set up to weave it?’ Prisca asked.
‘Probably, but I’ll need to ask the missus. Can’t see as how she’d say no. But don’t the Loom Mistress have plenty of girls to help her set up the big looms?’
‘Oh, yes, there are a number of weavers here. Missus Tunnelly would prefer not to guess on how to set up the warp and work the weft to reproduce the cloth your missus sent over. Also she has some stores of yarns and threads she would like to send back with your women to see what might be done with them. They are too delicate for the great looms, but might do well on what your girls are using. In fact, I shall go now and see if I can get some of them for you to take back right away. Are you leaving soon or staying for Wintermark?’
Haysend turned a little red and dropped his eyes. ‘Meaning no disrespect, Missus, but we in The Yale don’t hold with Wintermark.’
Prisca did not hesitate, ‘Then you’ll be leaving soon, so I’d best gather those yarns for you now. They will be in your wagon before you go.’ She smiled at Haysend.
‘Bilbo, are you done?’ Wili asked. Bilbo took a last bite of bread, washed it down with tea, and accepted the final piece of tart from Prisca. ‘Let’s go, then. Rory’s waiting for us.’ Wili bussed Prisca on the cheek and gave her a wink, then hustled the two other Hobbits out the door.
The winter air was crisp, but not biting, and the light pale. Everything had a sharpness and clarity that was refreshing after the dim interior of the Hall. The three set out at a brisk walk towards the woods just north of the Hall.
‘Bilbo, what have you heard from Oatbarton?’ Wili asked.
‘Oh, a great deal, and from Frogmorton, too!’ Bilbo replied. ‘I have been in touch with two different farmers who had late harvests up north, about two leagues west of Oatbarton, and they were afraid they would have to feed the lot of it to the livestock since it was late and no one wanted to buy what was left after they set aside what they themselves needed.’
Haysend and Wili both grinned. ‘Well, Mister Baggins, you’re as good as, nay, you’re better than your word!’ the farmer said, clapping Bilbo on the shoulder. ‘There’s some goodwives as should be sending you preserves and pies, along with their thanks, this Yule.’
‘Now, Farmer Haysend, I did no more than what was needed, telling a few friends that their own problem could turn into a windfall, and let the good hearts of others do their work. Tell the goodwives to send the preserves and pies to those closer and more in need than a fussy old bachelor like myself.’
‘You’re too modest by half, cousin,’ Wili scolded. ‘And what of Frogmorton? What news from your trader friend?’
‘That’s Widow Grubb. Maud was married to one of my cousins…’
‘You mean Tadman Grubb? The one who ran the brewery?’
‘Yes, Haysend, that Grubb. His boys took over the brewing, but Maud is still in charge of the goods coming in and going out, and she was happy to help make sure any special sendings from Northfarthing would get distributed fairly. She would not even take a fee for it, just said she take a hundred weight of the best potatoes, plus three-stone each of turnips and carrots and such for herself. She is an honest woman, and I suspect most of what she takes will end up going to the poor families.’
Haysend grunted in satisfaction. ‘Well, there’s good news and no doubt. I’ve heard good of the Widow Grubb before, and I don’t think anyone better could be found to care for the food.’
‘Things are going well below the Road, too, cousin,’ interjected Wili. ‘Bard rode about through the Woody End, up near Woodhall and all the places just west of the Marish. The word is out that the Bolgers in Brandy Hall are seeing to below the Road with the generous help of the Master and the Thain.’ The cousins chuckled a bit, and Wili went on, ‘And Fred and Helga sent word up to Hargo that Bridgefields and Girdley Island can count on the Master as well. Cousin Odogar can do naught but smile, and pretend it was all his idea.’ All three laughed hard at having outfoxed The Bolger.
‘Rufus and Milo are here, by the way, Wili,’ Bilbo said once he had caught his breath. ‘They are a decent pair, if none too sharp, and I will have a word with them on where to send any excess harvest found in Northfarthing. I figure they can send things in below Scary and above the Water.’
‘Winter squashes are all rotted out up there,’ added Haysend, helpfully, ‘so if there’s any to spare, it would be wanted. Below the Road can bring the squashes in from Waymoot easily enough, though they won’t be near so good as the north crop.’
Up ahead, near the edge of the trees, Rory hailed them. Dalin stood nearby, leather tunic dark against the grey tree trunks, sweat turning his green shirt nearly black. The ox carts had been creaking along the lane all morning, moving the prepared Sun-return logs close to the trees. The three ambled over to Rory’s side.
‘There you are, you lazy louts! Good day to you, Farmer Haysend,’ Rory cheerily greeted them.
Haysend nodded a bit stiffly. ‘Master Brandybuck, Yule blessings on you and yours.’
Not for Wintermark, are you? Bilbo studied the farmer. Haysend’s face was a slight bit stiff, as though fighting off a particular expression. His dark brown eyes slid over to the growing pile of logs and narrowed, then quickly flitted back to Rory. The old ways are being lost and called foreign. When did it stop being celebrated across the Shire? It was only left in Buckland, the Tooklands, and in Northfarthing with the Burrowses. Traditions have faded and the children of these rites are now Wintermark bastards, not Yule blessings. We do not even know what it truly is we are celebrating anymore. Bilbo tried not to remember Gilda’s words about Frodo.
If Rory was dismayed by Haysend’s disapproval, it did not show. ‘And blessings upon thee and thine, in return, Friend Haysend. I thank thee for thy blessing. How does the Yale?’
‘It does well, Master. The frosts have been light, as have the winds, so the cold is not so deep.’
‘May it remain a mild winter this year,’ Rory said and the others assented heartily, even Dalin. ‘And how are the cellars?’
‘Better than we thought they would be a week ago, Master!’ Haysend cheered up at the change in the conversation. ‘The Thain’s gifts were arriving in Frogmorton last evening, and should be in Whitfurrows by sundown today. That was the word this morning.’
‘Sara and Mac are down at the ferry even now sending out the Master’s gifts,’ Rory replied, ‘for it would not do for the Master to be outdone by the Thain! The carts will be on their way on the Stock Road tomorrow. Afteryule will be time enough to discuss regular trade.’
‘The Yale looks to Buckland, as always,’ said Haysend.
‘In some things, at least,’ was Rory’s mild reply, but Bilbo knew his cousin was not terribly pleased at Haysend’s rejection of Wintermark. Haysend colored a little, but did not look away. Rory nodded a polite dismissal. The farmer said farewell all about, and walked off towards the Hall.
‘Preparations are going very quickly, thanks to the labor of Mister Steelhand here!’ Rory clapped the Dwarf on his arm. Dalin grinned back. A small steam rose from his shoulders in the cold winter air, as though the Dwarf had become one of his own forges.
‘I’d best not stand about and gab, Master Brandybuck,’ Dalin chuckled, ‘if we are to continue my quick work. How many split logs to set aside, sir?’
‘Let’s take a look.’ The Hobbits and the Dwarf made their way over to the growing pile of logs. They were enormous. Each was as long as three Hobbits laid end to end, and even the split logs were as large around as Bilbo could reach. It took eight sturdy men to wrestle them into place. The logs were shoved off of the ox carts into a large messy stack. A set of eight had been laid over a shallow pit filled with oiled straw. More would be stacked crosswise on it in ascending layers. Rory did a quick count of the available logs.
‘Save out ten, please, Mister Steelhand; one stout one, and the rest can be narrower.’
‘As you command, sir,’ Dalin rumbled. The dwarf moved back to the log pile and called up two of the stockier young men. Bilbo recognized one of them as Odogrim Bolger. The fellow was puffing from the exertion of moving logs, but grinned cheerfully enough when Dalin explained what they were going to do. The other Hobbits stepped back and let those three look over the pile and shift a few logs about. At a command from Dalin, he heaved up one end of a huge log and the other two hoisted the other end. Grunting from the effort, the three moved the big log some distance away from where the tower would be built, and set it down in a spot not too far from the eaves of the wood.
The three repeated this with nine significantly smaller logs, but carrying them quite a ways away to the far western side of the meeting area. With a polite bow, Dalin went back to hoisting logs up onto the growing tower. The Dwarf was as a giant among the Hobbit men, but they worked together well enough. Bilbo saw Frodo and another boy walking up the lane and waved them over.
‘Frodo, Gilda sends her thanks for your copy work on the scroll translation,’ Bilbo said once the lad was close enough to hear. Frodo smiled briefly, then dropped his eyes and would not look at Rory. The other boy – Tomson, yes? Yes, the Horse Master’s boy – smiled and bobbed his head to the older Hobbits. He seemed a little nervous and perhaps a bit eager to please.
‘We came to help set up, Master Rory,’ Tom offered. Frodo was just as glad to let Tom do the talking. Aside from Sara, the last person he wished to speak with in the Hall was Uncle Rory. Bilbo said you had to let him make up, Rat. Doesn’t mean I have to make it easy for him! Aside from obeying his uncle’s command to fetch the pipe-weed jar from the study last night, Frodo had not exchanged a word with Uncle Rory since their fight five days before.
‘That’s my good lads,’ Uncle Rory heartily replied. Bilbo put a hand on his shoulder and gave a reassuring squeeze. Do as Bilbo says, Rat. Frodo made himself look up at Uncle Rory and smile a little. Rory smiled a little back, but quickly looked away, addressing Tom instead.
‘Why don’t you fellows set out the tables. Mister Steelhand has the logs under control. Wili, will you oversee the tables and the thrones? Come along, Bilbo, I want to talk to you about something.’ Bilbo gave him a swift kiss on the temple, and walked off with Uncle Rory. Uncle Wili led the way to where the wagon with all of the tables was sitting.
‘Set out a line of four this way, then bring two more around Hall-side to make a loop at the west end,’ Wili instructed. ‘There should be another set of three on the west side. And don’t forget – keep the biggest table out on the east side by itself. I’m going to talk to Mister Steelhand about wood for the cook fires.’ Wili ruffled their hair and left. Frodo jumped up into the wagon and began passing trestles and boards down to Tom.
‘We’ll have this done in no time, Frodo,’ Tom confidently said. The smaller Hobbit quickly organized the trestles and boards into piles.
‘Why did your folks change their minds? About Wintermark?’
‘Oh, Ma hasn’t changed her mind at all. She still thinks it’s wicked. She’s mad at Da, now. He said I should go, as I should be where the Master sees fit to be, too. But he said he’d give me a hiding if I did anything but stay right near the fire and mind my manners.’ Tom threw Frodo a mischievous look. ‘What did Mister Bilbo say for you to do?’
‘He said I could do as I pleased.’ That was not quite true, but Frodo knew it would impress Tom. When they were finishing up Gammer’s translation that morning, Bilbo had told him what he could do. “Wilwarin, I expect you will get yourself into some trouble. I rather doubt you can do otherwise. I do not much care what you do, or who you scrap with, and you may flirt and fool all you wish. The only rules I expect you to obey are to keep your pants up and to not bring shame on any girl.” Those seemed easy enough rules to follow since he had never known any girl to be particularly interested in such things from him. Except Esmie. No, that’s not so, Rat! She was just flirting with you. Sara would be present the entire evening, so there was no use whatsoever in thinking that direction.
Frodo handed down a few more boards and stole a look at Tom. No use thinking that either, Rat. Bilbo said he did not want you doing that. But he said I could do as I wish. With girls, Rat. Tom smiled up at him, and Frodo could not help but smile back.
‘You’re lucky. Mister Bilbo’s not so strict as Da. You’ll get to have fun.’
‘I shall count the evening a grand success if I get asked for one dance. Like as not I’ll just spend the whole time standing with you near the fire, Tom. I rather doubt I’d be picked for anything else.’ Tom smiled more brightly. Frodo handed down the last trestle, then hopped off the wagon bed to help set them up. It was fairly simple once the trestles were set firmly. All the boards were scored at either end on the underside to sit securely on the cross beam of the trestle. The only trick was getting the trestles set at the right distance from each other.
‘I think that would be grand, myself,’ Tom said softly, and looked Frodo in the eyes very intently. Frodo could feel a blush rising in his cheeks. There was the other reason he was sorry he had given his room away. Just as well, Rat. You never know when Bilbo would look in to see how you were doing. He did not want Bilbo to know about Tom. Bilbo would not understand that this was different from the other boys.
‘Let’s start with this end,’ he answered, turning away and picking up a trestle. Tom did not reply, but followed, dragging a trestle and a board. Frodo set his trestle up and soon they had the spacing right. They went back to collect more boards.
‘Why are you avoiding me?’ Frodo looked at Tom. The smaller boy was carefully setting his board in place next to the first one.
‘I’m not avoiding you, Tom. I, I simply have been very busy since I arrived. With the translation I am helping Bilbo on. For my Aunt. You heard me talk about it. It’s important!’ Frodo knew he was babbling a bit.
Tom looked at him again, a little hurt. ‘But I only ever see you at table, when everyone else is around. And you’re staying with your uncle, so I can’t come see you. I’ve missed you.’
‘I’ve missed you, too.’ Frodo quickly looked around to see if anyone was near, or was watching. Uncle Wili was near someone who looked like he was chopping up some short logs for the cook fires. Uncle Rory and Bilbo were standing some ways off, near the trees, talking about something serious. Frodo hoped it was not himself they were discussing. No one else was close. ‘You know you can always come by where I am doing the translations. Bilbo does not mind if people come by to watch. Though you may have to listen to Elvish poetry,’ Frodo joked a little. They began to set up the next table.
‘That’s not how I want to see you.’ Tom reached out very quickly as they knelt, gathering trestles and a few boards, and touched Frodo lightly just behind the ear. Frodo could not help inhaling sharply or shivering a bit.
‘Don’t do that! Not here!’ he hissed. Tom smirked.
‘I can’t help it. You look so nice with your hair cut short like that.’ Frodo blushed even more. This was not what he needed to be hearing, not from Tom. ‘I wish you had been able to keep your room, and not give it to that Dwarf person.’
‘His name is Dalin, and he is a guest. He needed a place to stay.’ Frodo retorted. Tom shrugged and walked to where the new table stood. Frodo followed with a few more boards. They finished that table and the next in silence.
‘We’ll be done with these pretty quick,’ Tom observed. Frodo would not answer. Rat, you have to avoid Tom. Why, what’s the harm? We’re not doing anything. Because Bilbo asked, Rat. Well, don’t tell him. Clunk, another board was set into place. ‘We could go somewhere when we’re done.’ Don’t answer, Rat. Of course not! Bilbo would notice this now. Later. Tom brushed the back of his hand against Frodo’s leg. ‘We could go to the old shed.’
‘No.’ They kept working.
‘I can’t do that. Not any more.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I can’t… fool with you any more. I promised Bilbo I wouldn’t.’
‘You told him about us?’ Tom hissed.
‘No! No, not about us. He found out about Bargo. He saw something at Harvest, but you weren’t there, so he didn’t see you, and I’ve never said anything about you.’ Tom heaved a great sigh of relief.
‘Good. And don’t you ever!’
‘I won’t, I promise! But Bilbo made me promise I wouldn’t do such things anymore. That I’d leave the other boys alone.’
Tom was quiet for a bit, then he nudged Frodo and winked. ‘Well, leave Bargo alone. It’ll break his heart, of course. Just be careful, and see me.’
Bilbo didn’t really make me promise. He only said he hoped I wouldn’t. But that’s what he meant, Rat. He does not want you fooling with boys. Frodo ignored Tom and his conscience equally, and concentrated on getting the tables set up. It went swiftly. Soon, all ten tables were standing where Uncle Wili had indicated. Wili had one of the wood choppers dropping off small stacks of firewood at intervals along the tables, where the cooking tripods would be set up. The sun was definitely westering, and a few wagons were rumbling down the lane loaded with various things for Wintermark. The log tower was finished, and men were stuffing oiled straw into the middle of it. One fellow had climbed up on top and was pouring thin lines of oil carefully along the logs themselves, so they would light.
Frodo and Tom walked back towards the others. Bilbo waved to call them over. Uncle Rory was speaking to Dalin who stood there with his axe over one shoulder. Tom eyed the weapon nervously and slipped around to Frodo’s other side.
‘Magnificent! The tower has never been this high before!’ Rory exclaimed. ‘My thanks to you and your strong limbs, Mister Steelhand.’
‘Consider it a small Yule gift to you in thanks for your hospitality and as earnest for continued good relations between our folk,’ Dalin grandly replied, bowing deeply. Rory looked a little uncomfortable.
‘Ah, yes, Mister Steelhand, about our hospitality.’ Dalin looked at Uncle Rory quizzically. ‘I fear I shall have to ask you not to attend this celebration.’ Uncle Rory looked very uncomfortable now. ‘It is not for lack of courtesy, dear sir, but because of tradition. It is not fit that someone who is not a Hobbit…’
‘Say no more, Master Brandybuck,’ the Dwarf reassured him. ‘There are Dwarven celebrations in Erebor that even other Dwarves may not attend. It would be churlish of me to take offense.’ Rory looked greatly relieved. ‘If I may ask one question, Master Brandybuck. Am I correct in thinking that most of the men folk of the Hall shall be here tonight, and that it is women and children who will remain in the caverns?’
‘That is correct, Mister Steelhand.’ All of the Hobbits jumped back a bit as Dalin pulled his axe off his shoulder and held it out to Uncle Rory, dropping to one knee.
‘Then I ask leave to stand as guard and defender of your caverns this night, Master Brandybuck. I will perish ere I allow danger to harm your kind and kin.’ Frodo searched the Dwarf’s face and did not see a single mark of humor or teasing. Dalin was completely sincere.
‘I do not think that any danger haunts Buckland, Mister Steelhand, but I accept your offer to guard my smial and keep my kinfolk safe,’ Rory replied with great gravity. Dalin touched his forehead to the handle of his axe, then bounded to his feet with a laugh.
‘Then I bid you good day and good year, Master! We shall speak again on the morrow!’ Dalin bowed grandly to all there, and set off down the lane to the Hall.
‘Frodo, just who I wanted to see.’ Frodo set his face in what he hoped was a blandly pleasant expression, and faced Uncle Rory. ‘I need you to make the crowns. You know how to weave crowns, do you not?’
‘Yes, Uncle Rory, of course I do. Esmie usually makes the crowns, though.’ Frodo was rather confused. Rory’s face showed a little annoyance. ‘But of course I’ll make them, if that is what you wish,’ Frodo hastily added. Rory nodded curtly and walked over to where some wooden-slat panels were being unloaded from the back of a wagon.
‘Pay him no mind, lad,’ Bilbo said softly. The old Hobbit smiled at the two boys. ‘I think your uncle is a bit put out with Mistress Esmeralda today, is all.’ Frodo very much wished to know what this fight was all about. If it removed him from his uncle’s notice, all the better. ‘There’s a wicker basket over there you can use for gathering the greens. Do you have a pocket knife for cutting them?’ Frodo shook his head, and Bilbo dug in a pocket until he found his own knife. It was beautiful and heavy, and Frodo was willing to wager that it was Dwarven work. ‘It won’t be light for much longer, so don’t dawdle.’ Bilbo gave Tom a careful look, then shooed them off.
Frodo set out into the trees where he knew some holly bushes grew. Tom tagged after him. The bushes were only a little ways in. He handed Tom the basket, opened Bilbo’s knife and began cutting some young branches. There were small stumps on the bushes, testimony to many years of Wintermark harvests.
‘Did you mean it when you said you weren’t coming back?’
‘Yes, Tom. I’m not coming back to stay. Just visits every now and then.’
‘I wish you were coming back.’ Tom held out the basket for Frodo to drop more holly branches into. Tom looked around, then touched Frodo’s hand shyly. ‘I miss you.’
‘And I miss you, but I don’t miss Bargo and I don’t miss the others, and I am very glad I’m not coming back,’ Frodo snapped. He wished Tom would stop. But he also wanted Tom to keep going. It was nice to be missed by someone in Brandy Hall.
He moved deeper into the trees towards the laurels. He would need their flexible limbs to make the crowns themselves, and their leaves to provide a base for the holly. Tom sighed and followed along. He knew what Tom wanted, and became annoyed.
‘Why are you even here, Tom?’ Frodo asked. ‘I thought you would be with Hamson and the others. They’re your friends, aren’t they?’ Go away, Tom. I want to keep my word to Bilbo.
‘You’re my friend, too. Better than any of them.’ Tom replied in a sulky voice. Frodo saw the laurels up ahead. ‘They’re no fun. They just pick on me since you left.’ He started picking out the branches to cut from the bushes.
‘Picking on you? You mean they have you on your knees for them, don’t you?’ Tom’s face became quite red and he glared. Frodo laughed derisively. ‘Oh, poor Tom. Now you have to do what I did. Get good at it. It makes it easier.’
‘You like it!’ Tom spat. ‘That’s why you’re so good at it.’ Frodo went back to cutting laurel. After a minute, Tom stroked his arm.
‘I’m sorry, Frodo, I didn’t mean to yell at you,’ Tom said apologetically. ‘They’re so mean about it, it makes me mad, and I don’t like it. And you do like it.’
‘Only with you.’ Frodo mentally cursed himself for letting that slip. But Tom smiled and stepped closer. He looked at Frodo with his big hazel eyes, and played a little with the short hair near Frodo’s ear.
‘So you never liked Bargo? I thought you did.’
‘Do I look that depraved?’ Frodo weakly joked. His resolve was fading with every stroke of Tom’s fingers.
‘Well, I didn’t know. You were always so nice to him, even when he was being awful. And the others, too.’ Step away, Rat. Bilbo would not approve. But he’s not here. You didn’t think anyone was there last time, either, Rat. Frodo swallowed and put some distance between himself and Tom.
‘What’s wrong?’ Tom asked.
‘It’s too light and there’s too many people all about.’ And you promised, Rat. Tom thought for a minute, then nodded agreement.
‘You’re right. Later then, when it gets dark. People won’t be paying any attention. We can just go.’ Tom smiled happily.
‘No. I told you, Tom. I promised. No more fooling. Bilbo does not want me with any of you, not just Bargo.’
‘Keeping you all for himself, is he?’ Tom’s voice was spiteful.
‘What are you talking about?’ Frodo demanded, knowing all too well.
‘You are Baggins’ special boy,’ the other sneered, ‘like Bargo said. He bought you and you just do he pleases.’ Tom backed a few steps away, disgust on his face.
‘Maybe you should consider that I am not anyone’s special boy,’ Frodo snarled back, ‘especially not yours!’ Tom made a rude gesture at him, threw the wicker basket down, and stomped off. Frodo put the greens back in the basket, cut a bit more laurel, and started back. As he expected, Tom was waiting for him just inside the tree line. They glared at each other, then walked out together.
Frodo looked around until he found Bilbo, waved to show he was back, then picked out a place where the sun was still strong and began to weave the crowns. Bilbo came over and Frodo made him sit on the ground so he could use Bilbo’s head to figure out the proper size for the crowns. Tom sat there, too, and laughed at Bilbo’s teasing and jokes. Frodo wished Tom would go away. It made him feel dirty to be there with Bilbo while Tom watched, after what the other boy had said. After a while Bilbo left to go speak with Rory again.
The butchers’ area had been set up to the west of the main gathering spot, and the goats were milling about in slat-panel pens. They stuck their heads through the slats and watched things happening. In one pen was a single goat with great horns and a long beard. Bilbo and Uncle Rory were standing next to the pen, talking and joking. Whatever fight they might have had day before yesterday, all seemed well between them now.
Frodo started with a base of slender laurel branches, then wove in the heavier limbs covered with leaves. He sent Tom to fetch twine from near the cooks’ spot, and used it to bind the heavy clusters of holly. He was careful to put laurel leaves under the holly so Gammer and Uncle Rory would not be scratched. As a bit of mischief, he made horns for Uncle Rory’s crown, but gave Gammer’s crown beautiful tendrils of laurel leaves and holly berries.
All around, in the dimming day, people were arriving. Tripods were set up, and great kettles hung on them. Spits were being set up over the logs that had been placed near the goat pens, and the logs themselves were kindled. The fires under the kettles were started up soon afterwards.
A large group of women made their way up the lane from the Hall, chattering and laughing as they followed a few slow wagons. After arriving, they scattered and tended to business all around the field. Things were pulled out of wagons and carried about. Cloths were laid on tables. The table sitting by itself was covered with a very beautiful green and gold cloth, with golden tassels all around the edge. Bushels of onions, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, and other good vegetables were hauled over to one bare table, and women started chopping them up. Soon things were cooking in the kettles and Frodo remembered he had hardly eaten all day.
Some of the women, with some help from the men, put up a canopy over two heavy chairs. The great drape of blue cloth was sewn with stars, the sun, and the moon, making a beautiful curtain. The chairs themselves were adorned with evergreen branches and holly. Heavy lantern stands were set near, and large, oil-filled pewter lanterns hung on them. Frodo took the finished crowns and set them on the cushions of the chairs.
There was some shouting and good-natured cursing as one of the empty wagons going back to the Hall encountered another laden with kegs of ale coming from the hall. The empty wagon had to back up until the laden one could turn aside into the meadow. Tom’s Da was driving the ale wagon and shouted for his son to come over and help.
‘I’ll talk to you later, Frodo!’ Tom said as he bounded off. What excuse will he come up with this time, Rat? He was just a little mad. It was nothing. Frodo wandered around, lending a hand here and there, looking for Bilbo. More people were arriving all the time, some on wagons that they left at the foot of the meadow, and many more on foot from Bucklebury and the surrounding farmsteads. There were no children, and there were a few more men than women. Down among the wagons, he saw Mister Tunnelly, Tom, and Mac talking to the farmers and drivers, ordering the wagons, blanketing the horses, buckling on feedbags.
Bilbo was by the thrones, studying the celestial drape behind the chairs.
‘There you are, my lad!’ Bilbo threw an arm over Frodo’s shoulders. ‘The crowns look quite impressive. I think Cousin Rory will make a splendid goat!’ They both laughed
‘You noticed that?’
‘Of course!’ Bilbo’s eyes twinkled with mischief. ‘All we now need is Dalin’s beard for him to try on. By the end of the evening, he’ll be sounding like a goat with no help from us!’ Bilbo mimicked a drunken Uncle Rory. The two dissolved into giggles.
‘Here is your pocket knife, Uncle Bilbo,’ Frodo offered, digging in his pocket. He pulled it out and looked at the dark wood handle. ‘Is it Dwarven?’
‘Yes, it is. If you want a good knife, get it from a Dwarf.’ Uncle Bilbo looked at the pocket knife in Frodo’s outstretched hand, then smiled and closed the boy’s fingers around it. ‘Keep it. You don’t have one, and I’ve several back home.’
Frodo could not believe his ears. ‘Keep this? But, it’s too fine for me! This must be the best of all your knives. I will just lose it or something.’
‘Well, see that you do not, for it is yours to lose, now!’ Bilbo scolded. Frodo grinned and stuffed the knife back in his pocket.
A cheer across the meadow alerted them. Up the lane, a small wagon approached, drawn by Uncle Rory’s copper-colored team of dray ponies. Sara was driving, and Gammer and Esmie sat beside him. Rory strode forward through the crowd, and Mac trotted up from the lower meadow.
Wintermark was about to begin.
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