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On Merry Yule: 15. Deceit
Past Midnight, Yule Day, Afteryule
Bilbo wished he had thought to come to stand with the goats earlier. The butchers were done with their work, the roasting fires made things very warm, and no one came by unless they were collecting a cut of meat to take to the food tables. The torches on this side had been allowed to go out so no one could really see him. It was almost as effective as wearing his ring.
He watched Wilwarin dance and flirt, saw the fire tower burning down, looked up at the stars and found the familiar constellations. Watching Gilda and Rory hold court, Rory playing drunken jester to his noble queen, Bilbo pondered her words some more. Aye, Mistress, there is taint. You and Dalin and Rory have convinced me of this. If it crept into me because of my perverse heart, then what shall be said of you, or of your son? “Wrong seeks wrong.” Is there any heart that cannot be touched?
He saw Sara and Esmie emerge from the trees, Sara pulling her close. The sot looked very satisfied, though there was no trace of the Mark upon Esmie. Sara smiled down at her and fondled one of her breasts. She clung closely to him and was the picture of an adoring wife. But we know better, don’t we, Attercop?
Bilbo rolled his ring between his fingers, taking pleasure in its heft and simple perfection. The ring felt a little larger in his hand, a little warmer, than even a few minutes before. Bilbo was certain the ring did change in size. It was magical, after all, and if it could make him invisible, why should it not grow and shrink? He thought it grew and warmed in response to being touched. Rather like a few other “magical” toys, eh, Baggins? He chuckled to himself over the comparison.
Bilbo’s eyes lingered on Sara’s face. An oaf, without a doubt. A monster? Perhaps. But, undeniably, a very handsome Hobbit. Sara lacked Wilwarin’s perfect beauty, but Bilbo would not have turned such a one away in earlier years. Anger crept up on his heart. It would not be difficult, given the dark and the drunkenness, to draw Sara aside. I could be avenged on you, you snake. Bilbo indulged himself for a few moments with the idea of grasping Sara, of landing blows in various tender spots, of slamming him against tree several times to see what would break. He remembered Sara’s hand reaching across the back of Frodo’s head in the corridor. And what would you do, Sara, if someone presented such a choice to you? Would you choose the thrashing? Perhaps I should give you such a choice. Perhaps it is a boy I want tonight. He thought of what he might demand of Sara.
Sara disappeared behind some others, and Bilbo’s trance was broken. The first thing he noticed was the pain in his right hand from clutching his ring so tightly. There would be a mark across his palm from it. He let it go. The next was that he was much swollen from his thoughts of how he would like to use Sara. Even as he recognized what had happened, it began to subside.
Bilbo refused to be upset by this reaction. Wrong draws wrong. He looked the dancers over and did not see Frodo among them. Bilbo looked at the food tables, then over to where the ale was set out, and then among the men to see where the lad had gotten himself to. Bilbo had to rub his eyes and look again. Yes, that was definitely Frodo, and he was definitely kissing Ula. Bilbo grinned and laughed to himself. Well, I did say he should cultivate a taste for girls, after all. And he found a rather impressive girl, at that. His grin faded a bit when Frodo and Ula walked off into the trees. What’s the matter, Baggins? Isn’t this what you wanted him to do? Flirt, yes, but… But? He’s too young. He’s no innocent, Baggins. He’s been visiting the woods for some time now. Be glad it is Ula, not Tom, or Sara, who accompanies him. Bilbo tried to content himself with that thought.
It was nothing to be concerned over, he scolded himself. Was this not what Wintermark was for? He had lost his own virginity at Wintermark, the year before Prim was born. Come now, Baggins. They are probably just fooling a bit. He waited impatiently for Frodo and Ula to come back.
The skin prickled on his neck, and Bilbo knew he was watched. He looked to his right, and saw Esmie slowly walking up. She held a platter and had probably come over to get a chunk of goat for the food tables.
‘Good evening, Bilbo.’
‘Good evening, Esmeralda.’
‘My, but aren’t we formal,’ she softly mocked.
‘Don’t let me keep you from your tasks, Esmie.’ She set the platter down and stood next to him. Ah, so you wish to spar, do you? As you wish, Attercop.
‘And how goes your Wintermark, Mister Baggins?’
‘Quite well, Queen of Calamities. You’re not marked, Esmie. Have you priced yourself out of reach?’
‘I do not care to painted with the leavings of a goat.’
‘Really? I thought it was because your husband preferred to use his cock on little boys.’
‘You’re the one who is sharing the boy’s bed.’
‘Only to make sure neither of you is in it.’
‘You really don’t care what people say, do you? Having him in your bed is causing a bit of a scandal in the back corridors, you know. Both your reputations are suffering.’
‘Helped along a great deal by your own wicked words, I have no doubt, Attercop. Are you really so bitter over me spoiling your plans?’
‘How did you convince Rory? It was all set for him to go to Pal, and then you two were off.’
‘I told Rory it was time for me to take what was mine.’ Esmie finally turned to face him. The light was so faint her hair looked black, and her features were indistinct.
‘You claimed him?’
‘But he isn’t yours. You said so.’
‘You’re not the only liar in the family, Esmie. You’re not even the best one.’ Her eyes caught what little light there was, and gleamed in the shadow cast by her hair.
‘And if Rory finds out you lied?’
‘What alternative is there for him? That his sister whored about? No, Rory will stay convinced, and he will stay silent. All he cares about is preserving Prim’s reputation.’ Bilbo saw Frodo and Ula emerge from the trees. The girl was well marked. ‘And I think Frodo can take care of his own reputation quite well.’
Esmie watched with him as the tweens kissed and while Ula walked over to the thrones. She snorted.
‘They fooled a bit, but he didn’t mount her.’
‘Why are you so sure? There’s more sign on her than there is on you.’ Bilbo rather hoped she was right. It would be for the best if the youngsters had simply fooled.
‘She would be walking differently. That’s not the gait of a woman that’s just been bred. And he’d hold on to her more.’
‘Pawing her like a common drab, the way Sara does you?’
‘Thanks to you and your little bastard, we have no choice.’ Bilbo was surprised at the venom in her voice. She had her arms crossed and was staring hatefully at the thrones. ‘The Master told us this morning that we shall produce another child this year.’
So that’s what this morning’s fight was about. I wonder if the Master has told the Mistress? This might change Gilda’s plans for Esmie. Bilbo thought to have a bit of fun at the Spider’s expense. ‘But I thought you were perfectly happy at the idea of having another child? You were eager enough to have Frodo sire one on you.’
‘It is not such a small thing to bear a child, Baggins. I do not particularly care to risk myself for the sake of Sara’s reputation.’
‘Your own reputation as well, Esmie. I do not think you care to be known as the wife of a husband who finds more satisfaction in a boy’s mouth than between your legs.’ Bilbo reached out and placed a hand on the small of her back.
‘What am I doing?’ Bilbo asked with mock innocence.
‘You are touching me, Baggins, and I do not like it.’
‘You are threatening me and saying foul things of myself and my heir, and I do not like that, Esmeralda. I am not grasping you. You may leave at any time. I would prefer that you do. I do not know how much longer I can restrain myself around your ravishing beauty.’ Bilbo slipped his hand under the edge of her coat, and began working out the layers of cloth tucked into the waist of her skirt.
‘What do you think you are doing?’ She did not move away from his hand. His fingers found the skin of her back and began to trace slow circles.
‘I have told you before, Esmie, my tastes are more varied than you think. Even though I find you reprehensible, you are quite beautiful. I like beautiful things, even if they are dangerous. I rather think you like the idea of cuckolding your husband, especially since he has been entertaining himself with the little boy you wanted for yourself. But, think, my dear girl. Do you really wish to waste your time on a silly, inexperienced boy?’
Esmie did not answer, but she also did not leave. ‘What do you say, Queen of Calamities? Would you not prefer a more experienced and discreet stud? I have reasons of my own for wanting some vengeance on your wretched husband, and I am afraid the Mistress has forbidden me to geld him. If I cannot take his balls, why don’t I replace them?’
She did not turn, but she did answer.
‘You can’t leave a Mark.’
Bilbo smiled and stepped directly in front of her. He slipped a hand into her coat and gently brushed the backs of his fingers against a breast, warm through the cloth of her blouse.
‘I am an old man, Esmeralda, and I like my comforts. I have no intention of pushing you up against a tree and having at you in the dark and the cold. That is not how I like to do things. I will be leaving the morning of the fifth. Come see me before then.’ He rolled the nipple between his fingers until it stiffened and she made a small sound. He pulled his hand a fraction away, and she leaned forward to press against it. He slowly pulled his hand out of her coat. ‘Just tell me what your fee is so I will have it ready.’
Bilbo knew he was going to be wearing that handprint on his cheek for a day or two, but thought it a small price to pay. He roared with laughter as she stormed off, and set out to get himself something to drink. He turned around from the ale table and nearly dropped his mug. There stood Odogar Bolger.
‘Cousin Odogar? What a surprise!’ Bilbo managed to stammer out. ‘When did you get here?’ Bilbo frantically searched his memory to see if someone dressed like this had been within earshot of any of his conversations that evening, particularly any involving said cousin.
‘Just after sundown, cousin Bilbo,’ Odogar replied genially. ‘I brought Fatty and Stella down so they could spend Yule with their parents and Sigismond and all their other little cousins. Scary isn’t so festive, I fear.’ Bilbo remembered that Lavender had died around Yule last year. No, Odogar would not want to spend Yule in Scary. ‘So, it took a while to get them settled and fed and tucked in for the night. Then I ran into that Dwarf friend of yours, Mister Steelhand, and I had to talk to him about coal mining for a while, and, well, it took me that long to get here! I walked up here about half an hour ago.’
‘Have you talked to Rory yet?’ Odogar pulled a face.
‘No, and with luck I won’t have to. I’m here as Wili’s guest, not Rory’s.’
This could be rather unpleasant. ‘Well, cousin, I am glad you made it!’ Bilbo threw an arm over his cousin’s shoulders and led him to the far side of gathering from Rory. There were very few dancers any more, and most people were milling about the fires, talking and laughing, kissing and groping. A few extra logs had been thrown on the fire leap coals so there was now a merry bonfire in the center. Bilbo and Odogar stationed themselves at the end of the south tables, where some food was still laid out.
‘So, Odogar, can you tell me what is going on between Eastfarthing and Buckland?’ Bilbo asked. ‘I’ve heard ten kinds of stories from six kinds of people and I need a Baggins cousin to tell me what the truth is.’
‘The problem is the damn Brandybucks!’ Odogar growled. ‘Quickly followed by the damn Tooks!’
‘Can you be a bit more specific?’
‘It is time to be rid of the arrogance and meddling of those two clans. Every time I try to get some business going, try to improve things for my farthing, I’ve got Rory or Rum sticking their noses into Eastfarthing business. Rum went and ruined a perfectly good trade I had going with Pal, and has upset all the quarry allocations. Rory’s not willing to work with me and Gun to improve the market in Whitfurrows. He thinks that Wili should be running it! All Wili knows is mud-farming down by the River – he has no sense of trade on the Road. They are trying to get the Bracegirdles to side with them, too, and cause more dissent up in the farthing. The only thing that is keeping the situation in hand is that you run the mid-Shire and keep the Chubbs from demanding a piece of things, too!’
‘So that’s what the matter is,’ Bilbo answered in a thoughtful tone.
‘Aye! They can’t see that there is business to be done and fortunes to be made along the Road. Pal’s the only one with a lick of sense in all the Great Smials, and Rum over-rules him. Damn degenerate is young enough he’ll be causing trouble a good long time.’
‘I had heard there was a bad harvest in the farthing,’ Bilbo said. ‘What’s the truth of that?’
Odogar shot him a wary looked and shrugged nonchalantly. ‘There were a few farmers with some spoiled taters around the Yale, nothing to be worried over.’ Liar. Bilbo began to get angry with his cousin, but kept his expression genial. Maud Grubb’s letter had confirmed that winter crops had widely failed. He would take her word any day over Odogar’s. ‘I sent Odovacar down to talk to Pal and make sure that any shortages could be handled with a little more trade of cured hides for Southfarthing roots. Next thing I know, Rum has destroyed the deal by sending carts of second-rate taters in and making it seem as though there was a wide-spread problem. Gun and I have been running around trying to calm people down.’ And keep people from talking about your own greed and idiocy. ‘Next thing I know, Rory has his nephew Seredic putting his wife up to writing letters to her Da saying he needs to send leather directly to Buckland instead of going through the Whitfurrows market and selling it to those who actually need it. He’ll just turn around and sell it for more himself when he’s got enough collected.’
Odogar was truly in the grip of dragon fever. The half-truths and greed shocked Bilbo. Time to make the dragon roll on his back and show me the chink in his armor.
‘Cousin, I am astounded!’ Bilbo said, dropping his voice and leaning close. ‘I knew Rory was prone to a bit of exaggeration at times, but this is beyond the usual. And actually getting his nephew to meddle in Girdley Island business?’
Odogar nodded and half-whispered, ‘I tell you, cousin, he is going to turn this end of the Shire into a little kingdom! Gun and I have been trying to work things to get the Marish and The Yale out from under the Hall’s control. But the Tooks and the Brandybucks, they’ve always divided up the south Shire between them, regardless of where the borders are. Times are changing! We have to have some new blood, some new ideas. People who can understand the Road and can talk trade.’
‘And don’t I know it!’ Bilbo said emphatically. ‘You know I have been trying to teach Rum and Rory these things. I’ve been out in the world, cousin, and you’re right. Things are changing.’ Armies are moving. Dark things crawl. Dwarves arm and Elves flee. And Hobbits become dragons instead of killing them.
‘Well, I think a very big change is due, cousin. I think it is time for influence to shift away from the south and the west, and move north and east. We need a new farthing.’
Bilbo just gaped. This was not at all what he expected to hear. ‘A new farthing? What do you mean?’
‘I mean we need a Road farthing. It needs to start in Waymoot, take up the whole eastern tip of Westfarthing above the Tooklands, so including Hobbiton and Bywater, the tip of Southfarthing above the Stock road, and then all of Eastfarthing below the Road, aside from Frogmorton and Whitfurrows proper. Centralfarthing we can call it.’
‘But, but why?’ Bilbo was truly confused.
‘So that the Tooks, Brandybucks and Chubbs are kept from running the affairs of the Road!’ Odogar replied, eyes bright. ‘And it will put the proper families in charge! The Bolgers run a smaller Eastfarthing, and the Bagginses hold Centralfarthing. With the Burrowses in Northfarthing, it’s a balance to the other three. Hargo is a smart fellow. He’ll not put more Bracegirdle support behind Rory if he knows his brother-in-law is going to run a farthing.’
Ah. You think Otho is going to inherit the family. Bilbo was actually rather surprised at how few people had received the news that he had adopted Frodo. Well, no sense informing Odogar of this fact now. Bilbo pulled a thoughtful face.
‘You know, Odogar, this makes a great deal of sense.’ I now know what kind of idiocy you are up to. ‘The Bagginses have always been a family that understood trade, as have the Bolgers, being so concerned with the Road and all.’ He scratched his chin, thinking quickly. ‘This is a bold move. You have to know it is going to be fought, don’t you?’
‘Aye, tooth and nail.’ Odogar’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. ‘But, cousin, it is time for the Bagginses to stop being ignored by the Tooks and the Brandybucks. If this is going to happen, it has to happen under your leadership. You have standing in the Shire. People will listen. The Bagginses and the Bolgers, we aren’t afraid of what the Road will bring. We need to run it.’
There you are wrong, cousin. I am very afraid of what the Road will bring. I just know we cannot prevent it from coming. ‘Well, for goodness’ sakes, be careful what you say here in the Hall! If a hint of this gets out, we will both be in trouble.’ Odogar nodded. And if I can prevent this from ever getting out, we may avoid this trouble entirely. ‘Now is not the right time of the year to push for this, and you could not pick a worse location. The place and time is the Free Fair. You know how much I walk about, talking to people, seeing what’s in the air. Give me time to make inquiries and plant some ideas. We’ll need the Burrowses support – that will be crucial. Luckily, they are pretty much married either into the Bagginses or the Bolgers. The trick will be keeping Asphodel from catching wind of it from Rufus. She’ll go running right to Rory.’
‘Too true,’ Odogar grumbled.
‘Leave Rufus and Milo to me. I know they want to be doing more trade out of Northfarthing along the Road, so I think we can count on them. I know they’ve got some bumper crops this year, particularly roots and squashes. Why don’t you be sure to talk to them about it? They’re here for Yule. Rufus was even saying he thought to pay you a visit on his trip back. Now’s the time for building bridges – but not a word of the larger plan! Not yet!’
Odogar chuckled. ‘I knew I could count on you, Bilbo. It will be your last great deed for the Shire!’
‘I cannot imagine a better one!’ Bilbo proudly said, though he was seething inside. You bastard. You think I will set this all up for you, and then politely die at an opportune moment so you can order Otho around! If it is the last thing I do for the Shire, I will make sure you fail. Bilbo held out his hand to his odious cousin. He had never felt more ashamed of his Baggins kin.
‘To the plan, Odogar!’
‘To the plan, Bilbo!’
As Frodo expected, Tom was at his side within a few minutes, several kinds of jealousy in his eyes. Frodo smirked. Tom sidled up to him until their arms touched.
‘You’ve been busy.’
‘I have not been ignoring you, though. You ran off when Bargo came up. I had to get myself out of that somehow.’ Tom started to snicker.
‘By walking off with Ula.’ Frodo shrugged and grinned. Tom casually brushed the back of Frodo’s hand with his own. ‘So, what did you do after you walked off.’
‘Now, that would be terribly impolite for me to go into, wouldn’t it? It is not proper to talk about a lady after you’ve been – doing things – with her.’
‘Not a hint as to what doing you did?’
‘Not a hint.’
‘You just kissed. That’s all.’
‘Well, we did kiss.’
‘Not telling!’ Frodo grinned, and added, ‘but it was more than kissing.’ He was not prepared for the hurt look on Tom’s face.
‘It’s not fair. You and she can go off and do whatever you like and I can’t even hold your hand.’ Tom bit his lower lip, and would not look at Frodo.
‘I can’t hold your hand, either, Tom,’ Frodo murmured.
‘Did you hear me cheering for you when you were jumping?’
‘I’m afraid I was not listening to anyone except Mac. I had to pay attention if we wanted to stay out of the fire!’ Tom smiled up at him.
‘Well, I was cheering really loud! I was scared for you on that last round. You looked so tired.’ Tom kept looking at him, and Frodo knew his face was turning red. He hoped the smeared Mark would hide it. ‘And when you were done, I just liked looking at you. I thought you were going to come stand with me for a while, but then all the girls were asking for dances…’ Tom shrugged. ‘So I had to hide from Bargo by myself.’
‘I’m sorry! I didn’t know you were in trouble with Bargo. I would have come to help. I didn’t think he would pick on you because of what I said.’
Tom shot him a resentful look. ‘That’s not why I had to hide from him. Once we couldn’t find you down in the lower meadow, well, Bargo decided I would do just fine. If the horn hadn’t sounded for the fire jump, I would have been spewing the rest of the night.’
‘When he came up, just before Ula rescued me, I told him he had better leave you alone.’
‘You what?’ Tom hissed, furious. ‘Oh, that was perfect, Baggins. You idiot! Now he’ll be sure to pick on me!’ The smaller boy turned and stomped off towards the trees. Frodo hurried after.
‘Tom, Tom, please, don’t be angry. I’m sorry. That, that was stupid of me,’ Frodo said, trying to placate the other. Finally Tom came to a stop part way between the trees and the thinning line of men. As the dancing had stopped, the men and women had started to mingle near the central bonfire.
‘What do you care? You hardly look at me, you go off dancing and showing off, and then you’re fooling with some girl half the night. And you’ll go back to Hobbiton with Old Baggins and you’ll do – whatever it is you do with him, and I’m left here with Bargo.’
Rat, you are a true ass. Your only friend here and you make it worse for him. The elation he had been feeling over Ula faded. ‘Please, Tom, don’t be angry. I’m sorry.’
Tom wrapped his arms around himself and stared at the ground. Frodo stood next to him, miserable. Tom muttered something very low that Frodo could not hear.
‘What was that?’
‘If I let you kiss me, would you? Like you did with Ula?’ Tom would not look up.
‘Yes.’ Tom looked up, doubt in his big hazel eyes. ‘Yes. Right now.’ Rat! You promised. I fooled with a girl, like Bilbo wanted. I get to do what I want now. He would kiss Tom like he kissed Ula, and Tom would like it. Frodo was certain. ‘I’ll do it, and it will be even better than Ula.’ Tom smiled widely. ‘Let’s go.’
‘Not together,’ Tom said quickly. ‘We can’t go together or come back together. We’ve been standing too long together here as it is.’ Tom thought quickly. ‘Go to the laurels. Don’t hurry and don’t attract attention. I’ll go get something for us to eat – you’re going to be hungry,’ Tom gave him a lascivious grin, ‘and then I’ll join you.’
‘I’ll be there,’ Frodo promised. After a quick look around, Tom walked off, brushing a light hand over Frodo’s groin as he passed. Frodo watched him head out to the food, then began his third trip to the laurels that day. He sat on a log to wait, and tried to not listen to his conscience. He wished Tom would hurry up because it was cold to sit still. Some time afterwards, he heard someone coming through the trees from the south. To his dismay, it was Bargo, Odogrim and Hamson. They were grinning evilly.
‘Cousin!’ Bargo said jovially, ‘we saw you heading out into the woods all by yourself, and thought you needed some company. I believe we have some unfinished business.’
Frodo sighed. He was going to be thrashed. He did not even have a mug with him.
‘You’ve said some rather unfriendly things to cousin Bargo,’ Odogrim added helpfully.
‘And you’ve been rather forward with our cousin’s girl,’ Hamson concluded.
‘Actually, I was lying about having been with Bluebell,’ Frodo drawled. ‘Oh, I’m sorry, you meant Ula. She’s not Bargo’s girl. She’s mine.’
‘You’re Mad Baggins’ girl, bastard!’ snapped Bargo. ‘And after we’re done beating you up, you’re going to get to show us all the new tricks you’ve learned. And if you do a good job, we might not beat you up again.’
This is going to hurt, Rat. Frodo knew better than to try calling for help. They were too deep in the woods for anyone to hear. That is why he had brought Ula here, after all. He decided he would do his best to hurt Bargo as much as he could before they beat him up too badly. He waited while they circled him and drew closer, then lunged at Bargo and elbowed his cousin in the gut as hard as he could. Frodo had enough time to stomp on Bargo’s foot and hit him on the side of the head before the other two tackled them both. Bargo ended up on the bottom, cushioning the fall, and then Odogrim and Hamson started pummeling Frodo on the back. They were all in a heap on the ground, so the two older boys could not get much of a swing in, and his coat softened the force of the blows. Frodo concentrated on biting Bargo’s arm and jabbing his fingers into the other’s ribs. They would figure it out eventually, and pull him up to pound on him, but he was not going to let the opportunity go by.
Frodo heard some shouting, then the other two were off of him and he felt himself being yanked up off the ground. To his surprise and delight, Mac was there. His big cousin had a firm grip on Odogrim’s ear and quickly let Frodo go. Mac shoved Odogrim and Hamson to stand next to Bargo, who was painfully pulling himself up off the ground.
‘So, what have we here? Three bullies beating up on someone smaller than any one of them, hey?’
‘He was fighting good,’ began Hamson, then subsided under Mac’s glare.
‘Of course he fights good. He’s a Brandybuck,’ Mac snapped.
He glared at the three boys. ‘Whose idea was this?’ Hamson and Odogrim both pointed at Bargo. Mac reached out and slapped both of them hard enough to send them reeling. ‘That’s for tattling.’ Then he slapped them again. ‘That’s for being bullies.’ Finally, he twisted their ears. ‘And that’s for being stupid!’ The two were whimpering by the time Mac was done. ‘Now, get your misbegotten hides out of here! Go find your Da and stay there. If I see either of you somewhere besides next to your Da the rest of this night, I’ll give you a hiding so bad you won’t sit till next Highday! Get!’ They bolted.
Mac turned and faced Bargo, who was standing a little hunched over. Mac just stared at him for a while, until Bargo was very pale and shaking a little. Frodo bit his lip to keep from grinning. Don’t get smart, Rat. Mac’s just as likely to thrash you for fighting, too. That thought sobered him up.
‘I’ve been hearing things, Bargo,’ Mac said quietly. ‘I’ve heard you’ve been doing some unnatural things to my cousin here. Those aren’t things I like to hear.’
‘He started…’ Mac slapped him before Bargo could finish the sentence.
‘I heard that you were making a sixteen-year-old do some things. A little kid like that can’t start anything. And from what I just saw, I think it would be a little hard for one little kid to fight off three big ones. You shouldn’t have done that to my cousin, Burrows.’
‘I’m your cousin, too!’
‘Not when you do that, you aren’t.’
‘You’re going to defend him? That bastard? He’s just a pervert, like Mad…’ This time Bargo ended up on the ground.
‘You’re the stupidest of the bunch, Bargo. Maybe I should go tell your Ma and Da just how stupid you are? How you’re fooling with another boy? Maybe I should go tell Dilly and Cissy, too?’
Even in the dim light, Frodo could see Bargo go very pale. The older boy shook his head violently. Mac nodded his head.
‘That’s right, you don’t want them to know. Well, Burrows, I know and the Master knows. You step wrong again, and they’ll know, too. Now you go find your Da and you stay there. If I see you wandering around, I’ll give you a hiding, and then I’ll have a chat with your Da.’ Bargo scrambled to his feet and fled. After Bargo had disappeared, Tom peeked out from behind a tree. He came into the clearing, clutching their napkin-wrapped food to his chest, and looked rather scared.
‘Frodo? Are you all right?’ he asked. ‘I’m sorry! Don’t be mad at me, please!’
‘Tom, it’s all right! I was punched a few times, but I’m not hurt. Why would I be mad at you? You weren’t hitting me,’ Frodo tried to soothe the other boy.
‘I didn’t come help you! I’m sorry. I was coming back from getting something to eat, and I saw you go into the woods, and then I saw Bargo and the other two following you. I’m no match for them! So I went and got Mac. But they still beat you up.’ Tom seemed quite distressed.
‘Well, I’m not mad and I owe you a big thanks. The two of us couldn’t have fought those three, so it is a good thing you found Mac. And, truly, I wasn’t hurt very much. Just a few punches.’
Mac reached out and grabbed Frodo by the ear. Frodo gritted his teeth and took it. ‘Was this about the fight earlier?’
‘Yes, Mac,’ Frodo said through his teeth.
‘What did you say about his sister?’
‘That she tasted better than he did.’ The cuff Mac gave him sent Frodo sprawling. Frodo had enough sense to stay on the ground. Mac glowered down at him.
‘I should have let him pound you. Rat, that is disgusting! I’d give you a thrashing if I could. I am going to tell Uncle Bilbo about this, so he can give you one himself.’ Mac growled and started to walk off. ‘Come on.’
Frodo scrambled up to his feet with a grin at Tom. This had ended up being much less painful than he had expected it to be.
‘Badger? Where’d you go?’ Sara’s voice came out of the woods. He entered the clearing. ‘Is everything fine? What happened?’
‘It’s fine. Bargo and his friends were going to pound Rat for having smarted off to them earlier, but Tom saw them and told me.’ Sara eyed the young boy coolly. ‘So, I chased them back with a few slaps, and gave Rat a slap for being stupid enough to smart off,’ Mac cheerfully concluded.
Sara walked over and gave Frodo a light cuff on the head, too, then ruffled his hair. ‘Rat, sometime you are going to talk back to something bigger and meaner than Bargo, and you are going to be in a lot of trouble.’ Frodo gave him a sullen glare. I already have.
The four started back. Frodo was thinking. Mac knew that Bargo was picking on him, probably did not know Bargo was picking on Tom. Bargo was not that stupid. He would figure out that someone had told Mac, and the list of people who would have known to tell Mac was pretty short. You can’t protect him, Rat, but Mac can. Frodo came to a stop.
How to explain this without letting Mac know about Tom? Start with the obvious, and let Mac draw his own conclusions. ‘Bargo’s going to figure out who told on him.’
Frodo could not really make out faces in the dark under the trees. Mac stood there a while, then exhaled. ‘Probably, Rat.’
‘He’s going to pound me!’ squeaked Tom.
‘Not if we’re looking out for you,’ Sara said. ‘Bargo just needs to know he had better mind his manners in general, not just where Rat’s concerned.’
‘No.’ Mac’s voice was sharp. ‘We can’t be watching out. We have our own work to do.’ There was another long silence, then Mac asked, ‘Tom, you’re schooled, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, Master Mac.’
‘You know figures?’
‘Yes, sir. I can even do them in my head. I don’t read so well.’
‘Who are you prenticed to?’
‘No one, sir. I work with my Da in the stables, or help Ma with setting up looms.’
‘Well, I know a fellow up in Whitfurrows who runs a lumber yard. He needs a prentice who can do figures and knows how to speak proper. You’ll do some yard work, too, but mostly he will need you to keep accounts. You’re going there after Yule. Come with me. We’re going to talk to your Da right now.’ Mac turned and set out swiftly, Tom trotting along behind him, trying to keep up the taller Hobbit’s purposeful strides.
Frodo stood there, mouth open. Mac had settled it so quickly. Tom was out of Bargo’s reach permanently. Frodo started to smile. Sara’s laugh behind him made Frodo jump.
‘Rat, you need to learn to stick with your own kin, you know that?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’ve seen you with the Tunnelly boy. You like him. You’ve fooled with him. You need to stick with kin.’
‘You need to know who to trust.’
‘Well, that takes you off the list.’
Sara laughed again, very amused, and stepped closer. He took gentle hold of Frodo’s shoulders and gave him a small shake. ‘Rat, listen carefully. You were stupid and perverse, and your cousins made use of you because you were foolish enough to let them. But they never told on you. You need to be more careful who you’re dropping your pants for. I don’t think Uncle Bilbo would appreciate you going about with someone else after he’s paid so much for you. Especially not some little no-account brat like Tunnelly.’
‘You are disgusting and I am leaving,’ Frodo spat at Sara and tried to pull away. Sara grabbed him more firmly, and Frodo knew he had made a very bad mistake letting Sara get a hold of him. He held still, waiting for Sara to loosen his grip.
‘Trust to blood, not to your little friend.’
‘I don’t understand.’ Don’t argue, Rat. Agree, agree and run when he lets go.
Sara was not letting go. ‘Think, Rat. How did I always know when you were up to something?’
Frodo began to feel a very tight knot form in his stomach. ‘From Bargo. He was always with you and Mac. You were always talking. Him and the other two.’
‘He never said anything to me, Rat. Aside from agreeing that you are an obnoxious little bastard, with a smart mouth and too good an opinion of himself. Even so, you’re kin and blood. He never told on you. But Tom did.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘He was always letting me know when you were doing things you shouldn’t have, Rat. He tattled, and I made sure he always got something for it, some nice things, so he would be sure to stay a sweet little friend of yours. He never held his tongue, no matter how much he liked yours.’
‘What else is he doing for you, Snake? Is he who you have sucking you now?’ Frodo fervently hoped it was so. ‘Is he your special boy?’
Sara took one hand off of Frodo’s shoulders long enough to slap him. ‘Oh no, Rat. I don’t like boys – I just hate you, and you love it so much. Give you any kind of excuse and you’ll go right to it. You’ve ruined me for anyone else, you know. You’re even better than Esmie.’
Sara shoved him backwards, pinning Frodo against a tree. ‘So, Rat, one last time? You owe me. Then Bilbo can have you all to himself and good riddance.’
Frodo tried to wriggle away, but Sara shoved a forearm against the base of his throat and grabbed him, painfully, between the legs with his other hand. Frodo froze.
‘I thought you said you were sorry, Snake.’
‘Oh, I am. I’m sorry. I should have left you be. But you told on me, Rat, and that I’m not forgiving so easily. You shamed me in front of Mama and in front of my wife, and you need to pay for that.’ Frodo bit his lip but could not keep a cry from coming out when Sara squeezed him. ‘Make it up to me, Rat. It settles all scores. Think of it as a little Yule gift.’
Sara tried to force his tongue between Frodo’s lips, who wrenched his head away. Sara shoved his forearm harder against Frodo’s neck and twisted his other hand. Frodo started clawing, kicking, and flailing at Sara, desperate to break free. Sara stepped back, trying to keep the younger Hobbit from scratching his face, then let go and punched Frodo. He had probably been aiming for Frodo’s stomach, but the boy had started to fall and the blow landed on his ribs. Frodo yelped and lunged sideways, scrambling away. Sara followed, pounding on Frodo’s back and head with his fists and kicking him hard in the ribs. Frodo curled into as small a ball as he could, covering his belly and face.
After a minute or two, Sara stopped. ‘That settles it, Rat. We’re even.’ Frodo did not dare move for several minutes after Sara walked away. Even then, he moved only so that he could throw up. It took some time before he was able to stand up. It hurt, but he did not think anything was broken. He took his time walking out of the trees, making sure that his clothes were neatened, and the leaf litter brushed from his hair. There were a few couples to dodge, but they were noisy enough he could skirt them easily.
He walked over to get something to drink. You and your smart mouth, Rat. Why did you have to talk back to Sara? When he was holding on to you, no less? Frodo found an empty spot on one of the west tables and leaned against it. He closed his eyes and sipped the ale, concentrating on breathing shallowly so his ribs would not hurt so much.
Sara was his least favorite person in the world. Tom was second. Bilbo was probably third. Considering how intensely he disliked the first two, number three could be a substantial dislike. And he was standing right there. Frodo opened his eyes and gave Bilbo a malevolent stare. Bilbo’s smile faded. The old Hobbit crossed his arms, and cocked his head.
‘Are you hung over or angry?’
‘How angry with me are you?’
‘Why did you tell Gammer?’
‘What did I tell her?’
‘Someone did. I didn’t. Uncle Rory didn’t know at the time she talked to Sara. That leaves you. You broke your promise.’ Frodo closed his eyes again and sipped. Or tried to sip. Bilbo had taken his mug away. It would hurt too much to try to retrieve it, so Frodo waited.
‘Are you going to listen to me?’
‘Open your eyes.’ Frodo did so. Bilbo looked grim. ‘I did not tell Gilda. She figured it out for herself.’
‘What did you say?’
‘She asked what the trouble between you and Sara was. I said she would have to ask Sara. So she did. And she knew what questions to ask to get a confession from Sara.’
‘May I have my ale, please?’ Bilbo shoved it back in his hands and stalked off. Frodo closed his eyes and sipped, concentrating on breathing.
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