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On Merry Yule: 13. Playing With Fire
Mid-evening, Yule Day, Foreyule
Bilbo pulled Prisca to him tightly and spun her around. She laughed and never missed a step. She had always been the best dancer of them all, even better than Gilda, and she was still marvelous at eighty-two. They finished the fast-paced romp, then came to a panting stop when the music ended. Bilbo could feel the Winter’s Mark dripping a little with the sweat on his forehead. They applauded the musicians, and headed for the side where Wili was talking to Saradas and Rufus.
The cousins had been trading Prisca off as a dance partner all evening, and she was happy to be the center of their attention. She flipped back her grey curls and winked at Bilbo. Bilbo patted her bottom and laughed.
‘Your wife is still the best dancer and the biggest flirt in all of Buckland, Wili!’ Bilbo called out.
‘And don’t I know it,’ was the jovial reply. Saradas raised a mug in salute to Prisca while Rufus whistled at her. She slapped them both lightly, let Wili pull her into a lascivious kiss, then stole her husband’s ale mug and drained the last of it. Some of the blood from Wili’s forehead was left behind on her hair and side of her face. The two wandered off to get more ale, groping and kissing like a pair of tweens.
The music started up again, and Bilbo felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned and saw a youngish, somewhat familiar Hobbit lass.
‘A dance, Mister Baggins?’ she asked with a twinkle. Bilbo smiled, gave her a bow, and off they went. He never did figure out which cousin she was, though she smiled very sweetly and did not mind at all being held close. And so it went for the next hour or so. Women whom he knew, and more than a few whom he did not, danced and flirted with him. Bilbo hardly had need to do anything besides smile, as they did the asking and the talking. He knew that the blood of the Mark was running a little down his nose and under his eyes.
Bilbo wondered, as he stood making appreciative noises at the appropriate moments to some nonsense a very handsome goodwife was chattering at him, whether the ladies paid him court because they desired him or because they did not. Am I just a doddering old fool who would not bother himself with a girl and is safe to flirt with, or are you really thinking of visiting the woods with me later? It was an interesting question, and probably not easily answered. It was not terribly unusual to see an older man quietly slip away with one of the younger women, especially one of the goodwives. Their characters were better known than the younger fellows, and the women could count on their discretion afterwards.
Bilbo smiled genially as his current conversational partner stepped in a little closer than was strictly proper, and carefully edged back. Most men did not pay it much mind when their wives flirted with him. They’re like Esmie. They do not believe I know how to get the job done. Some of the women from his younger days knew better, but most saw him either as no threat to their virtue, or else as a challenge to their wiles. In small doses, it was amusing, but Bilbo was beginning to tire of it this evening. He politely excused himself from the overly-friendly goodwife, and made his way to the food.
Some stew was now ready, along with the first slices of the younger goats. Carefully, he put together a trencher of the heartier food, and tucked in some delicacies around the edges. He stopped at the ale table and exchanged his empty mug for two full ones, and set out through the edge of the crowd towards the woods. As he passed the unattached ladies, he was greeted pleasantly, and received some rather interesting pats as he teased and joked his way through them.
When he reached the woods, the men standing along the trees called out Yule greetings and blessings to him, which Bilbo happily returned. A few of the men gave him rather intent stares. Mostly the stares were a little wary, even a touch hostile, fascinated and a bit fearful over what the degenerate Mad Baggins might do. As if you would be to my taste were I interested in such foolery nowadays, Bilbo thought to himself with snort, when a particularly lumpish fellow looked him over. But a few of the looks were curious and rather inviting. He knew those looks. He had been getting them since he was a tween at The Golden Perch, just as Rory had reminded him. Bilbo had always prided himself on having rather discriminating taste when it came to men. He would flirt with anyone, but preferred partners who were taller and dark-haired and not too young. Warm hands were deeply appreciated. Wintermark had always been a good occasion on which to find such fellows.
Bilbo passed the last of them, and walked over to Gilda and Ula.
‘Good evening, ladies!’ he called. ‘I have brought food and drink for your pleasure!’
‘Well, I am glad someone is looking after us,’ Gilda tartly replied. ‘My no-good husband and even less-good sons have disappeared.’
‘Then I shall dance attendance upon you, my dear girl, and fie upon them,’ Bilbo proclaimed. He carefully put the bread trencher in Gilda’s hands, and set one of the mugs of ale down on the seat of Rory’s throne where she could reach it easily. He offered the second mug to Ula, who gratefully accepted it. Gilda looked at the girl for a minute.
‘You, girl, go away,’ she crisply said. Ula looked over, surprised. ‘It’s two hours past sundown, and you have not had a single dance. I did not ask you here to keep you chained to my side.’
‘But, Mistress, I would not leave you alone,’ Ula protested.
‘The beggar is here, and nothing makes him happier than to wait on me hand and foot while I insult him. So, go on! Go wiggle that rump of yours at the young fellows and make them feel appreciated. I expect to see you out dancing for the next two hours, Miss Ula, and then I hope not to see you at all for a good while after that.’ Ula’s face turned a becoming shade of pink, but she smiled mischievously at Gilda.
‘As you wish, Mistress, though I shall come back from time to time to make sure Uncle Bilbo has not fallen asleep at his post.’ Ula gave Gilda a kiss on the cheek, handed Bilbo her ale, and started to walk off. Bilbo reached out and gave her a firm pinch on the bottom for her sauce, and she whipped around and gave him a sharp slap on the cheek, but both were grinning. ‘You are a rogue, Bilbo Baggins,’ Ula merrily scolded him, then sauntered off. The men along the woods called out and gestured their appreciation as she walked past. A few stepped forward, and soon Ula was dancing.
‘A very fine wiggle to that rump,’ Bilbo noted, and did not even try to avoid Gilda’s slap at his head.
‘You are a rogue!’ she teased. He laughed and moved the stool as close to her chair as he could get it. She began picking at the food.
‘You’ve been dancing all evening, beggar.’
‘It has been great fun, Gilda. Prisca is as much of a tease as she ever was, and I keep expecting Wili and Big Sara to start fighting over her again. I told Wili with the way they are carrying on, I expect to see a babe by Winterfilth. I only wish you were able to give me a dance, as well.’
‘I enjoy watching you, love. I like seeing you happy, you know.’
‘I know, my girl.’
‘You were a candle surrounded by moths out there. Do you have any idea how very handsome you are, beggar?’
Bilbo knew the steps to this dance. It was a familiar one between them. He chuckled, ‘I am afraid such considerations no longer interest me, Gilda. My heart is yours, and the rest does not much care for anyone else.’
‘Love is one thing, beggar, and enjoying yourself is another. You should go find yourself a girl tonight. I promise I will not be jealous.’
‘I care for no one else, my dear girl, and I am too old for such things.’
‘It is not right that you didn’t find someone else, Bilbo. You are a fool, you know. You do not need to love a wife, you need only treat her kindly and take care of her. You would not be so disinterested if you had kept things working.’
Bilbo laughed heartily. ‘Ah, you are such a fount of good advice, Gilda, and I am most certainly ten kinds of a fool for not following it, but the time is long past for me to take a wife. I assure you, however, that everything works quite well. I simply have no interest in making use of it.’ He took a swig of ale.
‘Not even with Prisca?’
Bilbo spat out his drink. ‘Gilda!’
She grinned wolfishly. ‘Prisca thinks you are quite fine, beggar, and always has. I never did figure out why you handed her off to Wili and didn’t keep her for yourself. She isn’t that close a cousin.’
‘She was just a bit young for me back then.’
‘She isn’t anymore.’ Gilda’s face crinkled up in mirth.
‘And she happens to be just a bit married for me right now!’
Gilda shook her head in mock dismay, and retrieved her ale mug. ‘Bilbo Baggins, how are you going to have any fun if you cut the herd down so much with that silly rule of yours?’
‘My silly rule, as you call it, has kept me out of a great deal of trouble. Anyway, you know there is only one married woman whose offer I would ever think of entertaining. No insult to cousin Prisca’s charms intended.’ He twinkled at her.
‘There was more than one.’ The steps of the dance changed, and Bilbo was not sure where to move.
‘There was never one.’
‘You needn’t love a wife to do right by one.’
‘And a loved wife does no wrong. She was loved.’
‘There was no wrong done. You did right.’
‘I did nothing.’
‘I was once very angry with my fool husband.’
‘Only once?’ Bilbo tried to joke.
‘I was half-way to Hobbiton.’
‘You should have come the rest of the way.’
‘Because I always wish to see you. Why didn’t you come visit?’
‘I did not want to know if you would break your silly rule. Or wouldn’t.’
‘You are why I have that silly rule, Gilda.’
‘You had it before you met me.’
‘But I had no reason to think such things until I met you.’
‘You broke it, once. You were willing. But not for me.’
Bilbo had no answer.
‘You really should breed Prisca. It would make her quite happy.’ And they were back to the dance.
‘Alas, I must leave that duty to Wili.’
‘Wili wouldn’t care. He would not believe it had happened.’
‘Such confidence in my virility.’
‘Well, if you make no demonstration, how is anyone to know?’
‘I offered to make a demonstration of it to Esmie, once. She was quite willing to take my word for it.’ He gave Gilda a sly glance. She watched him for a second, then looked out across the dancers as though trying to see her daughter-in-law at the food tables.
‘I thought you didn’t lie with whores, either.’
‘She appeared to need convincing on a certain point. She was a bit unclear on the distinction between “will not” and “cannot”.’
‘I see.’ Gilda was quiet for a while. Bilbo watched Ula dancing with another young fellow. Gilda noticed. ‘Ula’s a bit young for you, beggar.’
‘They are all a bit young for me at this point.’
‘So you are determined not to bed a girl tonight?’
‘Not even you.’
‘What about a boy?’ The dance came to a stop.
‘That is not amusing, Mistress.’ Bilbo turned and gave her a glare.
‘You used to find it quite amusing, Bilbo. And, for those fellows so inclined, you are as handsome to them as you are to the ladies.’ Gilda did not flinch under his glare.
‘I do not wish for any of them.’
‘So, whom do you wish for? Have you left your heart in the Great Smials again?’
He softly replied, ‘I have no carnal desire for anyone, Gilda. Man or maid. It has left me.’
‘That’s not right, either, beggar. You say all is in order.’
‘Yes, Mistress. I could do so, but I will it not. As I told Esmie.’ She did not answer, but began eating the now-cool stew.
Bilbo studied the crowd, looking for his lad. To one side of the dancers, near the fire tower, he saw Frodo talking to Mac, Sara, and Seredic. He watched carefully, searching for any hint of threat or fear.
‘If you are worried about propriety, you should not watch him so much.’
‘I have been overly concerned with propriety, Gilda. It is why such harm has come to him.’
‘He would not have suffered such harm had you done your duty to begin with, Baggins. And you would have spared others harm as well!’ The harshness of her voice startled him and he looked at her. Gilda was staring at him with a fair amount of anger.
‘What do you mean, Mistress?’
‘I love my son, too, Baggins.’
Bilbo did not think it politic to remind her that Frodo was not his son. ‘I do not doubt that, Mistress.’
‘Had you done your duty, Baggins, your son would not have been here, and Sara would not have fallen into such wickedness.’
Bilbo fought down a surge of anger. When he had mastered himself, he replied, ‘Mistress, I was under the impression that you did not believe Frodo had corrupted or seduced Sara. Have I misunderstood you?’
Gilda’s fierceness receded, but she remained angry. ‘No, Baggins, you did not misunderstand me. I hold the child blameless. He intended none of this. But it is the case that he was a temptation to Sara, and he should not have been here at all. I do agree with the Master that some taint clings to the child because of you. A bastard is a wrong thing, no matter how it is figured. He need not be yours for this to be so. Wrong seeks wrong.’
‘And the wrong was Sara’s to choose or not, Mistress.’
‘My son is not a monster, Baggins.’
‘Nor am I. Nor is Frodo.’
‘You could have warned me, Bilbo, what I would find when I went searching.’
Bilbo had to look down at that. “And what do you think of your child doing such wicked things?” Frodo’s words echoed. Gilda had been so calm the last few days, he had not really considered what a blow this had to have been to her. You should have told her right out, Baggins. It shook him badly that Gilda thought Frodo tainted in some way. But he could not help being curious.
‘How did you get the story from Sara?’
‘By a guess and a threat. I thought that he was beating the rascal up some, jealous of Esmie’s attentions to the boy. I had an idea of what Frodo was up to with the other boys, and expected that Sara was threatening to tell on him, tormenting the child that way. I anticipated that Sara would confess to being cruel, but would try to excuse himself by presenting the rascal’s misdeeds. I said that you and Frodo had met with me and had told me everything he had done, and I was giving him one chance to tell me the truth before I called in his father, his wife, and you, and had you repeat the tale before them.’
‘I am sorry, Gilda.’
‘You should have brought the boy to me that morning and told me the tale. I would have seen amends made, and Rory need never have known. Even after I got the confession out of Sara, I never intended that Rory should know. Frodo should not have been allowed to speak to him.’
‘I fear I disagree, Mistress. I think it right that the Master know what depravities his heir has committed, though it tear out his heart to hear them. Someone besides my child should know such pain. Someone’s heart besides mine should be in tatters on the floor.’
‘The Mistress has judged and has handed out punishment, be assured of that, Baggins. And also be assured that I am in pain and my heart is in tatters. Had you intended to punish me for having chosen other than you, you could not have done a more cruel thing to me.’
‘It was never my intention, Gilda…’
‘Go away, Baggins,’ she spat at him, ‘go away and stay away! Find Ula and send her back. I find your company distasteful.’
Bilbo rose, gave the Mistress a small bow, and went to do her bidding.
Frodo saw Bilbo was still dancing, though not with Aunt Prisca any more. He would have to have some words with his meddlesome old cousin at some point, but not while he was still so angry. Promises, Bilbo? And how should I keep mine if you break yours? He watched Mac stalk off towards the lower meadow.
Frodo wandered over to the food and helped himself, snagging a mug of ale on the way back. He slowly walked back towards the wood, sipping and watching Bilbo enjoy himself. It was amazing to watch the women, young and old, flirt with the old Hobbit. Not that he looked terribly old. Angry as he was with Bilbo, Frodo had to admit that his cousin was one of the most handsome and appealing men present. He sighed and turned his back on the dancing.
A little ways back from the front row of men watching and joining the dancing, there were clusters of men chatting and joking. Near one group, he saw Tom and the other boys. Frodo walked over, and bumped Tom with his elbow. When Bargo glared in his direction, he sent his surly cousin a bright smile. Hamson and Odogrim grinned at him and waved a hello. Tom smiled shyly and shifted his weight so his shoulder touched Frodo.
Farmer Maggot and two other older fellows from the Marish were holding court with a group of younger men, mostly unmarried fellows in their late tweens and early thirties. Frodo moved a little so Maggot would not see him; he had not forgotten the thrashing the old farmer had given him, and presumed Maggot had not forgotten, either. Tom stayed near him.
‘… bunch of fools!’ Maggot laughed, looking around at the younger men. The older men were chuckling right along. From the red faces and embarrassed glances among the younger men, they had to be talking about women. Frodo was all ears.
‘You aren’t doing the picking, boys, and you never will,’ Maggot said, shaking his head in amusement. ‘Count your blessings that you don’t have to!’
‘I don’t want some ugly girl!’ a fellow complained. One of the older men cuffed him fairly hard, but with humor.
‘When you’re in want of a girl, Bob, there’s no such thing as an ugly one,’ the older man teased the younger. The others jeered Bob a bit, and he blushed and grinned.
‘Their mamas figure it all out,’ the man next to Maggot assured the young men, ‘and the best you get is a pick among the girls whose mamas are still fighting. And it’s a good thing! A man’s a bad judge of a wife. He’s always thinking of the wedding night and not the canning next season.’
‘Right you are, Papa Willow,’ agreed Maggot. ‘Smartest thing I ever did was let the missus pick me. Didn’t lose more than a few weeks of courting, and now I’ve got a farm house full of good children and better food.’ There was general laughter and ribald congratulations to Maggot for that.
‘Always remember – a fat wife and a full barn never did a Hobbit harm,’ counseled Papa Willow. ‘Keep you wife well-fed and well-bred, and you’ll never have cause for complaint.’
‘Unless she burns the dinner too often!’ added the older man who had cuffed Bob. There was more raucous laughter.
‘Well-bred shouldn’t be too much of a problem,’ said the young man to the other side of Bob. The younger men laughed, but the older men exchanged knowing looks.
‘They are in for quite a surprise,’ the one who cuffed Bob said to the other older men.
‘Every young man is, Slough,’ said Papa Willow with a solemn shake of his head, but his eyes were full of amusement. ‘I had quite a shock myself.’
‘You are all hot-headed fools,’ Maggot kindly informed the younger fellows, ‘but you’ll learn the Delver’s ways can’t be thwarted. Oh, you’ll try, but women are like the fields. Things happen in their own proper time, and not elsewise.’
‘Well, Da has always said you can’t force a wife. You can sweet-talk her, but she’ll say when the time is,’ a short, stout man on the far side of the group added.
Slough nodded his head. ‘Your Da’s a wise man, Dab, but there’s more than that. You don’t never turn a wife down, neither.’ Some of the fellows grinned and elbowed each other, and Slough threw them a sharp glance. ‘You think it’s such an easy thing, keeping a woman pleased? You be married a while and you’ll see different.’ He grinned at the disbelieving stares and shaking heads. ‘You just think of these pretty girls. They’ll wear you out tonight and find another in less than a minute. It’s nothing to her to find a new stud.’
‘Why else are the husbands hanging on to their wives so tight?’ added Maggot. ‘They aren’t sure they please and are afraid another will do better. Men who do right by their wife and know they’re pleasing them, they don’t keep hold. You watch the Master and his sons. They pay court to their ladies, but they don’t hang on them. A woman does as she wants.’
Perhaps Sara should keep hold of Esmie, then, Frodo thought wryly, remembering her flirtations. It rather pleased him to think that Sara did not please his wife.
‘She should obey her husband,’ Bargo snapped. Papa Willow eyed the sullen tween up and down for a minute, then snorted.
‘Obey her husband? Aye, in matters of ordering the house and laying the table. And she’s got no call to be talking back in front of others. But if we’re talking breeding, it’s the husband as needs to obey. That’s women’s business.’
‘He’s giving her children. She should do as he wishes,’ Bargo stubbornly insisted. The older men laughed as if this was the funniest thing in the world.
‘Lad,’ Maggot chortled, wiping a tear from his eye, ‘oh, but you’re a stupid one. You are nothing to a woman when she wants a child. You don’t give them to her – she lets you claim them. The best you can hope is that you get to sire them, too.’ Frodo drew back a little bit, not sure he really wanted to hear anymore. Tom caught his arm, and motioned for him to stay.
‘Think a bit,’ urged Papa Willow. ‘A mare, a bitch, a ewe, she may accept a stud, but she doesn’t much care which one. All she wants is her babies. A woman’s no different. Keep her safe and care for her babes well, and she’ll pick you first. When she wants some fun, well, give it to her. But you watch her close. There’s fun and then there’s breeding, and she’ll not be denied the latter.’
‘Well, how’s to know the difference?’ Dap asked. The older men looked at each other and smiled a bit.
‘You tend her right, and you’ll know,’ Maggot assured him. ‘She’ll smell different, she’ll walk a bit different. When she gives you a certain look, you do your duty. I don’t care if you’re bone tired, you do what she asks, or she’ll find someone who will.’ The other older men nodded agreement.
‘I’d hope a wife would be more faithful than that,’ the man next to Dap drawled. Slough shrugged.
‘Most are patient with the fools they marry, mostly because they know better probably isn’t to be found.’ Everyone had a laugh at that. ‘A goodwife will forgive quite a bit if her man’s good to her and is trying his best, but she wants her children. Try to keep her from having them, or fail to give her any, and she’ll see to matters her own way.’
Frodo felt a little sick to his stomach and handed the rest of his ale to Tom, who gladly took it. He refused to look over at Bargo. The last thing he wanted to see was his cousin’s sneer. There was a certain sense to Slough’s words. Mama saw to matters her own way. If Sara’s claims were right, she did so at Wintermark.
‘Then a husband should see to matters his way,’ interjected Bargo. Slough sized up the boy.
‘Then I’d best not see you anywhere near one of my daughters,’ the farmer said softly. ‘A woman has brothers and kin who don’t give a damn about what fool she’s married to. Her children are kin no matter the stud. You be rough on your wife and you’ll be sleeping by yourself because she’ll always be visiting Mama. Or because her brothers have turned you out and found her a better man.’
Frodo had heard all he cared to hear. He backed away, then slowly walked along the woods, heading east. Tom tagged along. To his surprise, Bargo, Odogrim, and Hamson also left the older men. Frodo had thought briefly of slipping away with Tom, but knew they would not be able to be rid of the other three. He was not particularly interested in having to service all four boys. Once they had passed behind the thrones, he veered away from the woods and closer to the fire tower. They followed.
He stood, watching the fire, letting the bright light blind him to other things. Tom stood closer to Hamson than to himself now. Bargo broke the silence.
‘Well, guess that clears things up, doesn’t it, Baggins?’
Frodo looked towards the sound of the voice. The fire still dazzled his eyes and he could not see clearly. ‘What is cleared up, Bargo?’ He made his voice quite mild.
‘Why your mother whored around. Her husband couldn’t breed her, and she took things into her own hands.’
Frodo shrugged. His vision was coming back. ‘At least my mother had reasonably good results, unlike yours. Aunt Asphodel got you. Isn’t she here tonight? Maybe she’ll have better luck this time around.’ The other boys snickered, and Bargo drew back a fist.
‘Don’t you talk about my mother like that!’
Frodo skewered Bargo with the same stare he had used on Mac earlier. ‘Then I will thank you to keep your filthy words about mine to yourself!’ Bargo stepped back and dropped his fist. ‘I am what I am. You should not speak so of your own aunt, not before others and not in public.’
Odogrim gave Bargo a sharp jab in the arm. ‘Frodo’s right. Shut your mouth, Bargo. Uncle Rory would thrash you good if he heard you talk like this.’ Odogrim gave Frodo a sheepish shrug. ‘Ignore him, cousin. He’s being a stupid ass, as usual.’
‘He’s just sore that no one’s going to give him a chance to sire anything for a good long time,’ Hamson joked, also giving Bargo a jab.
Frodo looked at the older boys curiously. This was new. Odogrim and Hamson did not often come to his defense, especially not on this point. If Bargo got too rough with him, they would sometimes muscle Bargo away, mostly to make sure they got what they wanted, Frodo was reasonably certain, but they rarely backed him up when he was being smart-mouthed. He had half-expected to get punched. Frodo decided to see how far he could push his luck.
‘Oh, poor Bargo,’ he said in mock sympathy, ‘Bluebell’s not here and none of the other girls will look at you.’ Tom stared at him in astonishment, but the other two snickered again. Bargo looked ready to explode. Frodo smiled more sweetly and stepped right next to his glowering cousin.
‘Well, that’s the ladies’ loss,’ Frodo seriously informed the other boys. ‘If they can’t see that our dear cousin is worth their best attentions, there’s no hope for them.’ Frodo smiled winningly at Bargo, and slipped an arm over the other’s shoulders. Bargo tensed up and tried to pull away. How interesting, Rat. The bully can be bullied. ‘All the better for us, though. We have him all to ourselves.’ Frodo took a firm hold of the other boy’s shoulder, then leaned in and flicked Bargo right behind the ear with the tip of his tongue. Bargo tried to jerk away but could not break Frodo’s grip around his shoulders. The others all laughed, and Hamson shoved Bargo back towards Frodo.
‘Get your hands off me,’ Bargo snarled. ‘Keep your filthy mouth to yourself!’
Frodo gazed at his cousin in dismay. ‘That’s not what you usually say, Bargo. I thought you liked me.’ He let go the other’s shoulders and pouted, walking a few steps away. Time this right, Rat, or you are going to be in significant pain. Frodo turned a little ways around. To his delight, he saw Odogrim had a hold of Bargo’s arm. ‘Well, I hate to break the news to you this way Bargo, but I’m afraid I like Bluebell a great deal more than I like you. She tastes much nicer than you do.’ Bargo lunged, but Odogrim held on. ‘And she says I taste much nicer than you, too.’ Frodo bolted.
There was a moment of stunned silence behind him, then a bellow of outrage and three peals of laughter. Frodo did not look back, but dodged between a few groups of people, skirted the fire tower, and was making a dash for the meadow where he figured he could hide out among the wagons when a hand grabbed his arm. He was hauled up short by Mac. Sara and Seredic were also standing there. Seredic was wearing one of the Warden’s ribbons. Mac raised an eyebrow.
‘Help?’ Frodo asked.
Mac rolled his eyes and shoved Frodo behind them. The other two closed up to screen their little cousin. A few moments later, Bargo came storming by, trailed by the other three who were giggling among themselves. They disappeared down into the meadow. Frodo had no time to gloat over his escape as Mac gave his ear a twist.
‘What did you do to Bargo?’
‘I didn’t do anyth…’
‘What did you say to Bargo?’
‘Something about his sister, owww! Mac!’
‘What about his sister?’ Frodo shook his head and Mac twisted his ear more. Frodo gritted his teeth. Mac finally let go, and whacked him on the top of his head. Seredic and Sara followed suit.
‘Don’t go talking wicked things of another boy’s sister!’ Mac sternly informed him. Frodo nodded, unrepentant. Seredic laughed and ruffled his hair.
‘Come on, cousin,’ Sara addressed Seredic, ‘we need a third for the fire jump. We almost won last year!’
‘And I still have singed spots on my feet to show why we lost,’ Seredic retorted. ‘Hilda will have my hide if I’m hobbling around just when the baby’s due.’
‘Stop whimpering! It wasn’t that bad,’ Mac teased.
Seredic pointed to a bare patch on his right foot. ‘See that? That’s from last year. You two are trouble! You’d be just as happy to drop me in as to win.’ He crossed his arms and grinned at the brothers. ‘No, cousins. I intend to walk home from Wintermark on my own feet this year! Why don’t you go get Bargo if you want someone to drop?’
‘He’s a clumsy oaf and he’s a Burrows to boot!’ Sara groused.
‘Who better to burn up, then?’ Seredic argued reasonably. The idea of dropping Bargo onto a fire sounded quite reasonable to Frodo, so he nodded. Sara looked at him, and grinned.
‘No, we’ll use Rat, here!’ This did not sound quite so reasonable to Frodo, and he began to edge away for another escape. Seredic grabbed one arm and Mac grabbed the other.
‘We just saved your hide from Bargo,’ Mac said, ‘so I think you need to do us a good turn. Don’t you agree, Rat?’
‘Do I have a choice?’
Frodo sighed and looked around. He saw Bilbo giving Gammer a small bow and walking off, though his uncle did not look terribly happy. The old Hobbit was soon lost in the crowd. A few men were pulling apart the large center log with rakes, breaking the wood down into a strip of coals and ash about two feet across.
He went with his cousins a short distance beyond the fire tower, and they explained to him what he had to do. The fire jump was about what it sounded like – the three of them would jump over the raked center log. The difficulty came in the fact that they had to do it together, arms on each others’ shoulders, and that they had to do it three times in a row, forward, then back, then forward again. The last group of three who did not step, or fall, into the coals won the contest.
Sara and Mac put him in the center since he was light and they could help lift him. There was also a small dance that went with the fire jump, and they quickly taught him that. His cousins seemed rather pleased.
‘We haven’t won this since Papa jumped with us,’ Mac said excitedly.
‘We will this year,’ Sara reassured them. ‘Rat’s so small, it will be easy. We would have won last year if Seredic hadn’t tired out at the end.’
Someone was blowing a horn to call the men to the jump. Frodo was surprised at how many teams there were: there were eleven others besides them. He waved at Bard and Fred, who stood with Odovacar. The brothers waved back. Marmalas and Gormac stood with their elder brother Marmadas, and three of Farmer Maggot’s sturdy sons were on the other side of the fire. The participants were shedding coats and waistcoats, getting down to shirtsleeves so they would have more freedom when they jumped. Frodo shivered a bit in the cold air. The horn blew again and the jump was under way.
The musicians struck up a lively tune, and all the teams linked arms and danced a full circle around the center log, then broke into their groups of three. Last year’s winners, the Maggot brothers, went first. They got through with no mishap. The next group went, some brothers from Bucklebury, and they also completed their jumps, but barely. Frodo tugged his cousins’ sleeves and whispered to them about the way the Maggots had held each others’ shoulders, which improved their jumping. The three quickly tried the grip out. It would work well. The Bolgers finished up their leap without mishap, but the next group’s middle fellow put a foot wrong on the backwards leap, and they tumbled over, luckily away from the fire. The other Brandybucks acquitted themselves well, then two more teams, then it was their turn.
Mac counted the steps in, then barked, ‘Jump!’ They sprang off on their right feet, landed on the left, planted the right, sprang back, landed left and sprang right again. The heat over the log was searing. They landed solidly on the far side and bowed. Frodo thought his backside was going to burn off from the heat of the coals. He felt blood from the Mark trickling on his face and it itched. Sara and Mac’s Marks were dripping, too.
The next two teams tripped, and one man burned his knee and his hand. The final two made it over. The leapers danced around the fire again, thought there were no longer enough men left to link arms. The Maggots had no difficulty on the next round, but the Bucklebury brothers stumbled on the backwards leap and only fast grabs from bystanders kept them from some serious burns . Even so, one lost most of the hair on one foot. The Bolgers got through, though Odovacar was clearly unnerved by the fall just before them. Gorbulas’ sons got through, but the next two teams failed on their first leap, landing in the edge of the coals. A few yelps and oaths resulted, but no one was much hurt.
This time, it was not so easy. Frodo felt the strain on his legs doing the backward jump, and the fire seemed both closer and hotter. They cleared the fire by a greater margin than the previous teams. The next team barely made it, and the last one failed, with all three getting scorched on their feet.
‘Third round is usually the last,’ Sara said in his ear as they danced around the fire one more time. Frodo hoped so. He thought he could do a third set, but not a fourth.
The Maggots cleared the fire, but stumbled heavily on their last landing. They managed to keep to their feet. Mac muttered a curse. Odovacar fell backwards on the landing for their first leap, and only Bard and Fred’s strong grip on him kept him from falling backwards into the fire. The three tumbled forward and were out. The other Brandybucks managed to clear the fire forward, but Gormac landed short on the backwards leap and burned a foot. His brothers helped him hobble off.
‘Our turn,’ grunted Mac, ‘Sara, keep Frodo up on the backwards jump. Rat, reach back as far as you can.’ Frodo only had time to nod and then Mac was counting their paces in and shouting ‘Jump!’ Their forward leap was the highest they had done yet, and they cleared the backwards leap without incident. Sara stumbled slightly going into the final forward leap but Frodo gave him a shove and Sara cleared the far coals. They landed awkwardly, but did not stumble. The last team cleared the fire on their first forward leap, but fell on their faces on the other side. Buckland and the Marish faced off for the crown.
All three of them were sweating when they danced a circle around the log. Blood streaked their cheeks. The Maggot brothers did not look in any better shape. The crowd was shouting encouragements. The Maggots took a fair running start, cleared the fire forward, barely made the backwards trip, and two of the brothers hit the edge of the coals on the final forward leap. They stumbled forward, but did not fall.
‘All right, brothers, time to defend the Hall,’ Mac growled. They paused for a second, then charged. Frodo thought the fire was reaching up to drag them in. They barely cleared the coals on the forward leap. ‘Up!’ yelled Mac on the backwards jump, and Frodo felt his cousins’ arms wrench him upwards as he kicked off. They barely landed outside the coals. The three pushed off again, and Frodo was sure they would land right in the middle of the flames. If it were not for Mac and Sara’s strength, they probably would have. They landed a mere foot’s breadth beyond the coals, but they landed solidly and did not stumble. The cousins grinned at each other, stepped forward from the fire, then made a sweeping bow to the crowd, which was cheering loudly. Even the Maggot brothers were applauding.
Rory was cheering loudest. ‘That’s my boys!’ he crowed, ‘For the Hall!’ He strode forward and tried to embrace all three at once. Failing that, he shooed them over to Gammer. ‘Go see your mother and let her tell you what a bunch of rascals you are!’
They scooped up their coats and dashed over, collapsing in a laughing, panting heap at Gammer’s feet.
‘Could you see, Mama?’ Sara asked, resting his head against her knee. ‘There were so many people in the way.’
‘Oh I saw, never you fear, child,’ Gammer laughed and leaned down to bestow a kiss on his forehead above the Mark. A smear of blood came off on her chin. Frodo and Mac crowded in to claim their kiss. Gammer patted them all and teased them. They settled in at her feet to rest. Mac was in front and Frodo sat behind him, resting his chin on Mac’s shoulder. Sara had his legs sprawled out to either side of them, and leaned back against Gammer’s knee. Eventually, he leaned forward a bit to hear Mac commenting on the various couples who were back to dancing now that the fire jump was through.
Frodo leaned against Mac’s back, tired and getting a little hungry again from the exertion. He tensed when he felt Sara slip an arm across his chest and pull back. He leaned away from Sara, and Sara’s arm relaxed, but stayed where it was. His cousin did not pull on him again, and Frodo became curious. Slowly, he leaned backwards until his back was against Sara’s chest. He could feel Sara very gingerly tighten his arm, hugging Frodo to him. Sara moved his head forward until his cheek rested near Frodo’s ear. Frodo remembered sitting like this before with Sara, before Sara got mean. But it was not quite right. Frodo reached over and pulled Sara’s other arm around him, so Sara had him in a full embrace. They sat like this for a time, watching two or three dances.
‘I’m sorry, Rat.’ Frodo knew this was all the apology he would ever get from Sara.
‘I’m sorry, too, Snake.’ Sara kissed him on the temple. Frodo was shivering a bit, mostly from the cold. Sara scooted them forward until Frodo was able to lean up against Mac’s back once more. His big cousins kept him warm.
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