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On Merry Yule: 14. Burning
Midnight, Yule Day, Afteryule
Bilbo downed two mugs of ale in quick succession. Everything was falling apart in front of him. You think you’re so clever, Baggins. He was shaking a little from Gilda’s dismissal. She does think you have tainted Frodo. What have you done to him, Baggins? No, he would not let himself think that way. There was nothing wrong with Frodo. The boy had fallen in with bad company, and all would be well once he was safely back in Hobbiton. There was taint in Buckland, all right, but it was not Wilwarin.
Stranger yet was Gilda’s jealousy. He was still trying to piece that out. Ever since she had chosen Rory, Gilda had always scolded him to leave her be and find another woman to make his wife. He knew a part of her was pleased that he never had, remaining faithful to her even as she suggested other women for him. It was one of their favorite games, where she would propose ever more outrageous pairings, and he would swear his devotion to her. They would even do this in front of Rory, who would laugh at their foolishness and give them both a kiss.
Now he did not know what to think. Have you been jealous of Prim this whole time, my girl? He had wondered why Gilda had not asked Prim about Frodo, learned from the younger woman just how and when she had conceived, but he began to understand. Gilda had not wanted to know, to have it confirmed that he had broken his rule for someone else. You could have had me a hundred times over, Gilda, but you swore you didn’t want me. Do you think I was in love with Prim? When had her aborted trip to Hobbiton happened? He shook his head. Why she was telling him this, after so long, he could not figure out.
Bilbo was going to get a third mug when the horn for the fire jump sounded. Drinking like Sara will not help, Baggins. Go watch some fools for a while and calm down. He pushed his way through the crowd towards the center log. Years ago, he, Rory, and Drogo would do the jump. He still had the scar from a burn on his right foot to attest to their efforts, but they had won one year. Bilbo saw the horns on Rory’s crown poking up over the top of everyone’s heads and moved in that direction.
It was only when he reached Rory’s side that Bilbo realized who was jumping. Frodo stood between Mac and Sara, blood Mark standing out sharply against his lad’s pale forehead. Frodo’s short hair made it even more obvious. The cousins stood together joking and laughing, waiting for the contest to begin. Frodo was fully as tall as Sara and Mac now, though barely more than half their bulk. The shifting light of moon, stars, and fires softened the lines of their faces, leaving only the shape and set of their features clear. Bilbo had never seen them look more alike; Mac and Sara star-lit twins, and Frodo a darker moon-shadow of them.
The horn sounded again, and they joined the other men around the fire. Bilbo held his breath each time it was their turn to jump, willing them to clear the flames and coals. Each round he found it harder to watch. The three were intent, determined, with Mac shouting out commands and all three putting all their strength and agility into the leaps. Their Marks smeared down their faces, as though their sweat had turned to blood, and their shirts clung to them. On their last leap, Bilbo was certain they would land in the coals. He let out a great whoop at their victory.
Something kept Bilbo rooted where he was when Rory ran out to embrace the three. Frodo looked so happy arm in arm with his cousins, confident and grown-up. Once again Bilbo glimpsed the man emerging from the child, fire and blood and exultation giving Wilwarin a ferocious mask. There was beauty there as well, as there had been in the sunset and in the candle-lit room of Harvest, but there was nothing seductive or soft about it. It was fierce and proud, like the child himself, and Bilbo nearly forgot to breathe. Had he seen such a boy in his own youth, he would have fallen in love on the spot.
The cousins turned away from him and the spell was broken. Couples were forming around him to recommence the dance. A girl asked him if he wanted to dance. He stared at her a moment, then stammered some apology and went towards the fire tower. From there he could watch the boys sitting at Gilda’s feet. His face itched from the dried Mark, and he scratched a little of it away. Bilbo wondered why Frodo had relaxed into Sara’s arms, what they had said to each other, the meaning of the kiss Sara had put on the lad’s temple. He pondered the forgiveness of a heart that allowed Frodo to sit within the embrace of one who had tormented him so.
‘Bilbo! There you are!’ Bilbo turned and saw Gis walking up. His cousin moved a little stiffly, but otherwise looked well.
‘Gis!’ Bilbo embraced the other, and they stood each with an arm around the other's shoulders.
‘Flame sends his regards, as does Rum,’ Gis offered, then grinned, ‘and I suppose about half of the rest of the tribe. All the rest wish you would drop dead.’
Bilbo laughed ruefully. ‘Well, return my regards to all who sent them, and similar sentiments to all who did not.’
Rory came around the side of the dancers, weaving ever so slightly. Bilbo and Gis called him over. One of the horns on his crown had bent, making him a rather lop-sided goat now.
‘Rory, you old ass, that’s a fine set of boys you have,’ Gis declared, ‘but where did I lose count?’ Rory looked at him quizzically. ‘I thought you had two,’ Gis gestured over to the thrones where the cousins sat in a lump together, ‘but you have three. How did I miss the third?’
Rory chuckled. ‘You’re right, I only have two, the older two. The dark-haired rascal is Bilbo’s boy!’ Gis gave Bilbo a startled look and Bilbo resisted the temptation to throw his smirking Brandybuck cousin on the fire tower.
‘Yes, of course,’ he quickly said before Rory blurted anything stupid, ‘the middle one is Frodo. He’s my nephew. I adopted him last Halimath and made him my heir. He’s Drogo’s son.’ Bilbo glared at Rory, who was smirking back and swaying just a little bit.
‘But he looks a Brandybuck. Actually, no, come to think of it, he looks a Took. You could drop Pal right in there and have a full set.’ Rory frowned a bit at having his boys called Tooks.
‘Well, they are all Aunt Mira’s grandsons, Gis,’ Bilbo reminded him, tweaking Rory. ‘That’s why they look like Tooks.’
‘They do not look like Tooks,’ Rory proclaimed. The other two ignored him.
‘Wait a minute. Drogo and Primula, right? Those poor souls who drowned? He’s their boy?’ Bilbo and Rory both nodded. Gis shook his head. ‘That was such a terrible thing. So you’ve been bringing him up, have you Bilbo?’
‘No, I have!’ Rory said in a slightly belligerent tone. Bilbo sighed again and wondered how to get rid of Rory. Out among the dancers, he saw Ula, and motioned the girl over.
‘Rory and Gilda took care of Frodo while he was a lad and needed better tending than I could give,’ Bilbo said soothingly, patting Rory on the shoulder. Rory nodded, and Ula showed up. Bilbo mouthed, ‘Ask him to dance,’ to the girl. She gave him an odd look, but did not argue.
‘Master Rory? Would you think it too presumptuous of me if I asked for a dance from you?’ Ula brightly asked. ‘Every time I look for you, you’re nowhere to be found.’
Rory bowed graciously and more steadily than Bilbo would have imagined he could. ‘I would be honored, Miss Proudfoot. I can’t promise that I shall not step on your feet, but I do promise to apologize for doing so.’ Ula giggled, Rory offered his arm, and the two set off to dance.
‘So how is he with you?’
‘I needed an heir, Gis. I’m almost one hundred, and I think it is clear, even to me, that I’ll have no heir of my own body. I could not leave the family up to chance, so I adopted Frodo as my child and heir last Halimath.’
Gis pondered this news. ‘What of Otho? Isn’t he closer kin?’
Bilbo shrugged. ‘No greater degree than Falco Chubb-Baggins. I would rather like the name to remain unappended. And I am no more interested in leaving control of the family in the hands of the Bracegirdles than I am in leaving it in the hands of the Chubbs.’
‘Lobelia can’t be happy about this.’
‘She’s outraged. Nothing she can do about it, of course. It is all quite proper and formal.’
‘The Sackvilles aren’t bad sorts, but the Bracegirdles are ambitious folk, I hear,’ Gis replied. ‘Interested in changing things and putting their noses where they don’t belong.’
Ah, your son-in-law is not pleased with his rivals, and has been saying unkind things, eh? ‘They’re not so bad, Gis. They’re a hard-working family, and have a good eye for business. I know they’ve been butting heads with Odogar over a few different things, including a new tannery on the Water.’ Bilbo considered how to position the argument. ‘I have to say I don’t know what Odogar and Gun are thinking. The Water’s not a good location for a tannery. It isn’t fast-flowing enough to clean out all the scraps.’
‘Well, you know, when Odovacar was talking to me about the tannery, I had wondered a bit about that.’
‘Yes, well, so is Rory and so are all the Bolgers in Brandy Hall. In fact, it was Frodo who brought it to our attention that putting a large tannery on the Water was not a good idea. But I have an idea that might work. I’ve heard tell of some wool-spinning mills that sound interesting, and I’ve asked a Dwarf to take a look at the Water and see if it is strong enough to run one.’
Gis gave him a curious look. ‘That sounds a clever idea, Baggins. When will you know?’
‘Oh, a week or two, I dare say.’ Bilbo decided to improve Frodo’s case a bit more with the Tooks. ‘In any event, Frodo is my first cousin on the Took side. That makes him the same degree of relation to me as you, Rory, Rum, or Pal. So he’s a second cousin on the Baggins’ side of things, so what? Do you want the Baggins heir to be Sackville, or Chubb? I can pick whomever I want out of my Baggins cousins, and it makes sense to me to pick one with good connections to the Great Smials. And he’s a bright lad. You’ll like him.’
Gis sipped from his ale mug, watched the three cousins, and pondered family trees. After a time, he nodded. ‘Right as usual, Baggins. Things are changing too fast for my tastes, especially at either end of the Road. Baggins, Took, and Brandybuck have always overseen the Road, and it’s time to strengthen that. Can’t leave the Road to chance.’
‘That was my thinking, Gis. Otho’s a good enough fellow, but he hasn’t any sense for trade, and he doesn’t understand there’s a responsibility that goes beyond his own holdings if he’s going to head the family. Young as he is, Frodo already knows this.’
‘So, tell me, Baggins, what’s all this nonsense about the roots in Eastfarthing?’ Gis sent him a sharp look. Careful, Baggins. He has ties to Odogar. Bilbo knew better than to attack Odovacar or Odogar too directly. So how to do it? He decided a little cousinly rivalry was in order.
‘Well, it’s not nonsense, Gis. There really has been a poor harvest. Roots in particular, but also the winter squashes have been hurt. Odogar’s a cousin on the Baggins side of things, so you would think he would know to come to me to work out any difficulties with the Thain or the Master, but he sometimes forgets to think.’
Gis chuckled. ‘That’s because he doesn’t have any Took in him, Bilbo! That’s where all your cleverness comes from!’
‘Rory’s, too, don’t forget,’ Bilbo added, ‘and Frodo’s got it through his mother. There’s not much we can do about the current Bolgers, but at least they’ll finally get a little Took wits in there with your grandchildren.’
‘Why my daughter settled on such a fool, I’ll never know,’ Gis grumbled.
‘Now, now, Odovacar’s a good lad and Rosamunda will see the children are raised right,’ Bilbo soothed. Time to strike while he’s remembering how little he likes his son-in-law. ‘But the problem is Odogar. He didn’t know to come to me, or to go to Rum to get this settled. He seemed to think this just another business arrangement, like this new Dwarf trade on the Road. He forgot there’s more important things than gold, and he set out to do business with Pal, instead of requesting help from Rum and Rory.’
Bilbo could not have hoped for a better reaction. ‘Pal?’ Gis snorted in derision. ‘That humorless prig! He works hard, I’ll grant you that, but all he cares about is leaf and selling it. He’s got no respect for his elders. Pal’s got a Dwarven heart, you know? He put leaf in where corn usually goes because that can be sold out to the Dwarves and to Bree. I like my pipe as much as the next man, but I like fresh bread, too.’
‘Really? Now I hadn’t heard that! But, you know, I’m not surprised. Rory says that Pal’s sister Esmeralda, Sara’s wife, is the same way. Seems to run in that line.’ Gis shook his head in disgust, and Bilbo went in for the kill. ‘So, as soon as I heard that my fool Baggins cousin was trying to get around the Master and the Thain, I just let Rory and Rum know what the problem was, and they took care of it. No goodwife’s table is going bare because of a few Dwarven-hearted youngsters. The two of them even managed it without overly embarrassing Odogar. I suppose it’s too much to hope the fool will learn a lesson.’
‘As long as we’re making sure fools don’t neglect folks, we can suffer a few fools,’ Gis replied. ‘I haven’t seen you in almost forever, Bilbo. When are you going to bring your lad along and pay a visit to the Great Smials? Frodo knows his Brandybuck kin well enough. You need to bring him along so he can meet the Took side of the family. You two need to come for a good long visit! You can come stay with me. It will be as when you brought Aunt Bella home, where she belonged. The two of you stayed far too long in Buckland.’
‘Aunt Mira needed her here in Buckland, Gis, you know that.’
All along the tree line, Bilbo could see the outlines of couples disappearing into or emerging from the woods. When those returning came back to the firelight, he could see that the marks on the men were smeared, and that the women would have streaks of blood in their hair, on their faces and necks, on bosoms and blouses, sometimes on their skirts. Bilbo looked over at the boys again. Esmie had shown up, and was standing next to Sara, who was leering up at her, and running a hand up under her skirt. Mac and Frodo were obviously tossing in some ribald observations. As he watched, Esmie jumped back a step and gave her husband a slap, but they were sharing a grin. Gilda rapped Sara with a cane, and he stood and walked off towards the trees, one hand on the small of Esmie’s back. They were soon out of sight. Bilbo remembered another reason not to like Pal.
‘I would most certainly love to visit, Gis, but that decision is not up to me.’
‘What do you mean?’
Bilbo hesitated. Baggins, Gis knows about you. He’s never given a damn. ‘I’m afraid that I have been banned from the Great Smials. Cousin Paladin does not care for unnatural creatures like myself, and has forbidden me to visit.’ Bilbo held his cousin’s eyes.
Gis stared back in confusion, then comprehension dawned. He rolled his eyes and heaved an exasperated sigh. ‘What an idiot! You’re perfectly proper. Alder wouldn’t have stood for this! What cheek, that youngster…Fort wouldn’t have put up with it either!’
‘Well, Fort and Alder are dead, and Rum does not see fit to gainsay his heir’s decrees,’ Bilbo answered tartly.
Gis was quiet again for a few minutes, watching the dancing. ‘Does Rum know that Pal has said this?’
‘I have no idea. I have few enough occasions to communicate with the Thain, and it never seems quite appropriate to bring it up.’
‘You should tell him and be sure. I think he would put Pal in his place on this, if he knew about it.’
‘I do not care to bring this matter to the Thain’s attention, Gis. He will insist I pay him a visit.’
Gis gave him a long stare. ‘And this is unacceptable because…?’
‘I have a young man in my care, now.’
‘Ah.’ Gis turned back to the dancing.
Bilbo decided he needed another ale, after all. Excusing himself, he circled around the dancers and snagged a mug. Across the gathering, he saw Ula standing next to Gilda and Rory, who were on their thrones. Mac and Frodo were gone. The night was cold, but he did not want to go back to the fire tower. Bilbo made his way to the roasting spits and warmed himself there. He caught sight of Wilwarin dancing. Well, you may be miserable this Wintermark, Baggins, but your lad is having a fine time.
Frodo gave the girl a small bow and escorted her back to the women’s side of the gathering. As soon as he had relinquished her hand, another was smiling at him and asking for a dance. He was tiring, but accepted the invitation and was soon whirling this girl around. He did not bother to ask her name, and she did not offer one.
As soon as Sara and Esmie had left, Mac got up and said he needed to walk about as Warden and make sure things were calm. Gammer had rapped Frodo smartly on the shoulder with her cane, and had told him to go flirt with the girls, so he did. Since the fire jump, quite a number of ladies had walked by and smiled at the cousins, and if they had smiled more at Mac and Sara than at himself, Frodo did not take any offence. They were older and better looking, after all. Even so, he had never before had so much female attention at one time.
After the music stopped, Frodo took his partner back to the side but escaped as quickly as he could. If he had to dance once more, he was sure he would collapse. Where Bilbo got his energy for dance after dance, Frodo did not know. He saw Tom and trotted over.
‘Frodo! Bargo hasn’t found you yet, I see,’ Tom said with a grin. The boy had a mug sitting on the ground at his feet, and had both hands full of thick slices of meat stuck between a few slices of bread. Frodo’s stomach growled loudly. Tom made a shocked face, then broke his meal in two and gave half to Frodo. Goat was not Frodo’s favorite dish, but it would do for now. He stole Tom’s ale and drank half of it in a few gulps.
‘I hope you intend to refill that for me,’ Tom scolded. Frodo grinned.
‘You can go walk past the ladies and get more. If I get pulled out to dance again, I may just die of exhaustion.’
Tom pouted, watching the dancers. ‘It’s not fair. You’re the youngest one here. You should be getting ignored like the rest of us.’
‘I’m not ignoring you,’ Frodo said softly. Tom gave him a sideways glance.
‘You have been. You’ve been dancing for hours.’
‘No, I have not! No more than an hour, I’m certain. Anyway, the Mistress told me that I had to go dance, so I did and now I’m done.’ He took another bite of goat.
Tom smiled, then carefully looked around to see if they could be overheard. ‘Well, you know what I would wish, but I know you have to listen to old Baggins, so this is fine.’ Frodo smiled back. Just let me finish the goat and rest a bit, Tom. You promised, Rat. So did Bilbo, and he broke his. You should keep promises, Rat.
Suddenly, Tom’s head snapped around. After a second he hissed, ‘Bargo!’ and darted away, leaving Frodo with the ale mug and the last of the goat. For a moment, Frodo considered slipping away, too. No, I will not be bullied by him anymore. He picked up the mug and was casually sipping when his miserable cousin stomped up, Odogrim and Hamson in tow. Bargo came to a stop in front of Frodo and glared at him. Frodo smiled and ate the last bite of bread and meat.
‘You think you’re so smart, Baggins,’ Bargo growled, cheeks turning red. His Mark, and those of the other two, were a little distorted by sweat, but basically unchanged from when Uncle Rory had marked them.
‘To the contrary, Burrows. I do not think I am so smart. I know I am.’ The other two did not snicker. Bargo had restored order. Frodo smiled and sipped. If worst came to worst, he could probably whack Bargo on the head with the mug.
‘Don’t think you can get away with things like that just because you’re Uncle Rory’s favorite!’
If you only knew how far from favor I stand, Bargo, you would be pounding me into a pulp right now. Frodo let his smile fade and stared at the bigger boy. It was not long before Bargo dropped his eyes. The other two edged a bit away from their leader.
‘I hear you’re using Tom for your fun now.’ Frodo kept his voice low and cold. Bargo shrugged, but an ugly smile came over his face. ‘I don’t like hearing that.’
‘Don’t get jealous, bastard. We still prefer you. He’s not nearly as good.’ Now the other two did snicker. Frodo tightened his grip on the mug. It was going to be very satisfying to break Bargo’s nose with it in a minute.
‘Leave him be.’
‘You don’t belong here any more. We’ll do as we please. And you’ll do as Baggins pleases. Is he happy with you?’
‘Frodo? There you are! You promised me a dance half an hour ago, you rascal, and you never came to collect it.’ Ula sauntered up, shoving Hamson into Odogrim as she passed. Bargo was all smiles, peering out from under his mop of hair. Ula made a deliberate circle around him and came to Frodo’s side, slipping her arm into his.
Frodo knew he had made no such promise. ‘Shall we, then?’ Ula smiled brightly. Frodo handed Bargo the empty ale mug and walked off with Ula.
‘Thank you for the rescue, cousin. Must we dance?’
Ula raised an eyebrow. ‘Do you not wish to dance with me?’
‘Sadly, I have been dancing almost non-stop for the last hour, and I am about to drop. I will do my best, but you may have to drag me off of the dance floor halfway through.’
She laughed. ‘Well, in that case, I shall take pity on you and ask you only for the pleasure of your company.’
‘My thanks, cousin.’
‘Hasn’t any lady caught your eye yet?’
Frodo shrugged. ‘Quite a few, but I’ve not caught theirs. All are content to dance and no more.’
‘I think you caught quite a few eyes with the fire jumping.’
‘Yes, and they danced my feet off afterwards. That is why I’ll collapse if I am asked to do anything else. Where are the fellows who have caught your eye?’
Ula made a disgusted noise. ‘None here I much care for. I begin to think Bilbo’s the best catch in the lot. At least he knows how not to step on your feet, and you can count on him to be a gentlehobbit.’
‘But what of cousin Bargo?’ Frodo innocently asked. Ula gave him a dire look. ‘He would be ever so grateful were you to spit on him, or perhaps kick him a few times.’ The two dissolved into giggles.
‘He really should have brought Bluebell along,’ Ula said with a wicked smile. They giggled again.
‘You don’t mean that, do you?’ Frodo asked, ‘That Bargo and Bluebell…?’
Ula shook her head. ‘Bargo is a bully and an oaf, but he has some limits. Not only is Bluebell as stupid as a chicken, she’s as innocent as any maid in Brandy Hall. He’s just a protective big brother. Why?’
Frodo turned a bit red. ‘Well, I insulted him pretty badly earlier, with a few intimations about his sister, and I think he is planning to beat me into a pulp for it.’
‘Knowing your smart mouth, you’ll deserve every bit of it,’ Ula sighed. Then she looked at him with mischief. ‘So, what did you say?’
How much does she know already? Frodo knew the other tweens had a sense that something not quite respectable was happening in Bargo’s group, but he did not think that any details had circulated. Time to find out, Rat.
‘Do you know the real reason I left Buckland so suddenly?’
Ula turned and faced him, standing close, with her hands on his shoulders and gave him a bright smile. It seemed natural to let his hands drop to her waist, so he did. She looked around, then said in a low, serious voice at odds with her cheerful appearance, ‘What I heard was that those three had been making you do wicked things you did not wish to do.’ Her smile did not falter, but her eyes were worried.
Frodo smiled back at her, and said in the same low voice, ‘Yes, cousin, that is more or less what happened. I was more than a bit of a gullible fool.’
‘I don’t think you’re a fool at all. I think they are horrible!’
‘There is blame enough to go around, Ula.’ Frodo grinned. ‘So, do you want to know what I said?’
‘I told him that I liked his sister better than I liked him because she tasted better.’
Ula let out a small screech and buried her face in his shoulder, laughing madly. She looked up at him again. ‘You didn’t!’ He nodded. Her eyes narrowed. ‘What else did you say?’ Frodo turned very red. ‘Out with it, cousin,’ she warned.
‘Then I said that Bluebell agreed that I tasted better than him, too.’
Ula buried her face again and laughed. When she had her giggles under control, she turned her head and whispered, ‘Frodo Baggins, you are terrible! You do deserve to be beaten to a pulp!’ A moment later, he felt her lips touch the side of his neck and nuzzle him, then her tongue traced a little line. He shivered.
‘Ula! What are you doing?’ he hissed.
‘Seeing how good you taste,’ she murmured back, and went back to her ministrations on his neck. He pulled her closer against him and breathed in scent that rose from her. Soon, his lips were exploring her neck, and it did not take much time beyond that for their lips to meet. One of her hands left his shoulder and slid up the back of his neck into his hair.
Frodo jerked his head back, out of her reach. Ula looked at him with confusion and concern.
‘Frodo? What is it?’ He realized that they were standing among the men, though near the west end of them, and were becoming the center of some attention. Frodo raised an eyebrow and inclined his head towards the woods. Ula nodded a fraction. He tucked her arm under his and they walked quickly towards the trees.
As they moved into the woods, they had to go carefully. Here and there, a couple would be trysting. Frodo knew the woods quite well, and knew where he wished to go. It was further away than others would walk in the dark, beyond the reach of the firelight, near the laurels. The same break in the trees that allowed light to reach the laurel bushes let in moonlight and starlight. As he had hoped, it was just bright enough to see by.
Frodo knew he wanted to kiss. Ula pressed up against him as she had before and he delicately placed his lips against hers. It was a wonderful exploration, and he put his practiced mouth to excellent use. He even managed not to jerk away when she stroked the back of his head, though it made him shiver a bit. When they finally broke, both were panting and warm.
Ula backed away a few steps, and shook a warning finger. ‘You’re as fine a boy as is in the Hall, cousin, and I don’t mind some fooling, but if you think you’re getting under my skirt you can just take yourself back right now.’
‘I’ll be content with a kiss, cousin, if that’s all you wish to give me,’ Frodo answered. He so wanted to kiss her again. ‘I would never bring shame to you. Tell me what you wish, and I will please you.’ He knew how to do that.
Ula touched his face, kissed him lightly, then took his hands. He let her lead him over to one of the maples. She leaned her back against the tree and pulled him in close, but a little off to one side. Her hand ran over his shoulder, down his back, paused to knead his rump, then down the back of his thigh. She pulled his thigh firmly between her legs until his knee was against the tree trunk. Ula lifted her face up for another kiss, and he happily obliged. Her other hand found the small of his back and pulled him tightly against her. After a few minutes of slow, soft kisses, she pulled her head back.
‘Keep your hands outside of my skirt, and you may do as you wish with them,’ she told him with a low chuckle. His mouth caught hers in another kiss, and his hands began their own explorations. With her back against the tree, he could not put his arms around her, but that did not seem a great disadvantage. For a while, he did very little except kiss and stroke and be delighted at what he found.
Ula had other ideas. When he finally relinquished her mouth, she went back to work on his neck, nipping and licking. Her hands found their way inside his coat and under his shirt. She slid her hands over his rump and pulled his hips tightly against her, riding his thigh. He made sure he pushed back against her movements.
Frodo had been worried at first about hurting or bruising her, but became more aggressive to match Ula’s insistent touches. He moved his lips and hands over her face, through her hair, nipping at her ears, her neck, her throat. He was rewarded with low growls and other indescribable, wonderful sounds. Testing to see how much she had meant her words, Frodo unbuttoned her blouse. Ula did not object, and he soon discovered what his tongue could do with nipples.
‘And how do I taste, cousin?’ she whispered in his ear.
Frodo felt her hand wiggle down between them and grope around his crotch. She was not very talented in that regard. He took hold of her hand and showed her how to hold him. A few minutes later, he felt her finger undoing the buttons on his pants. He gasped when she touched him, and did not mind that her fingers were just a little chilled. He leaned back and guided her hand to the right position and then squeezed to show her how firmly to grip him.
‘Hold your hand still. Let me move,’ he told her. He pressed his thigh up between her legs as he pushed into her hand, and this seemed to please her a great deal. Too soon, he spilled onto her hand and her skirt, and sank against her, panting. She was still thrusting hard against his thigh and presently shuddered, letting out a deep, guttural cry. For a time they could do nothing but pant into each other’s necks. When his breath came back, Frodo brushed light kisses everywhere he could reach.
‘Are you pleased, cousin?’ he teased, ‘For, if you are not, tell me what more you would wish.’ Ula nipped his lower lip and laughed.
‘Oh, I’m pleased enough. More than that, and you would have to marry me first.’
‘Whenever you like,’ he only half-teased. Frodo found a handkerchief she could use to wipe off her hand and skirt, and turned away button himself back up. Well, my pants were not precisely down, he considered. He thought it would satisfy Bilbo’s rules. He helped Ula get her blouse rebuttoned, though he planted a few kisses before her bosom was warmly wrapped once more.
They kissed deeply again, then Ula pulled away and gave him a light slap on the cheek.
‘Don’t you go thinking this was any more than a bit of fooling, Frodo!’ she warned, ‘and don’t be thinking that you’ll be doing this again with me.’
‘You didn’t like that?’ he asked, rather confused. She grinned and rapped him on the nose.
‘Oh, you’re a fine one, little cousin, but I’ll not be taking advantage of you. I’m a mite ashamed of fooling with such a young fellow, Wintermark or not.’
‘I don’t mind.’
‘I know you don’t, Frodo, which is why I’ll not make free with thee again,’ Ula said quite seriously. ‘And mind you that others do not, either.’ She walked out from under the tree and into the moonlight, and he could see his Mark upon her.
‘So?’ he asked.
‘So?’ she replied, quizzically.
‘Do I taste better than Bargo?’ He ducked and laughed as she cuffed him soundly.
Frodo caught her hand and led her back out of the woods. His own release had been less than he had experienced before – Tom knew better how to stroke him – but Frodo was amazed at Ula. Everything about her was so different. At one point on the way back he had to stop and kiss her so he would have an excuse to trail his fingers along her neck and under her jaw, savoring not only the kiss but also the texture of her skin under his finger tips. Her scent was wonderful, better even than Bilbo’s, and the sounds she had made… Aside from a groan or cry when they spilled, the others did not do much besides pant when he serviced them. They would beg him to do things, or order him, but they had never told him of their pleasure this way.
When they finally came out of the woods, Frodo did not try to put an arm around her or take her arm. He remembered Farmer Maggot’s words - “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.” He rested a hand in the small of her back but did nothing to keep her from walking away from him if she chose. As they came into the firelight, he could see the traces of the Mark clearly in her hair, on her face, across her bosom. They walked to the front of the men.
‘I should go tend the Mistress,’ Ula said, smiling. She gave him a lingering kiss, then walked off, paying no attention to the other men trying to get her attention. He watched her walking all the way to Gammer, then he smiled to himself and waited for Tom to show up.
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