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On Merry Yule: 18. Shed
Morning, 1 Sunday, Afteryule
Frodo sat with Bilbo at the main table in the great dining hall for breakfast. It was fairly early, and there were not many Hobbits up and about. The ache of his ribs had woken him this morning, and he had accidentally woken Bilbo by shifting about to relieve the pain. And to move away from Bilbo. Frodo hoped Bilbo had not noticed that he had been sleeping up against him, with an arm over Bilbo’s chest and his face nestled against his shoulder. Bilbo’s savage words from the morning before still made Frodo cringe. I wasn’t.
He munched on some toast and blackberry jam and studied the old Hobbit from the corner of his eye. Bilbo was chatting quietly with Aunt Amaranth and cousin Prisca about thread, spinning, and the possible wool mill on the Water. They were very impressed at the possibility of getting thread and yarn spun quickly, though, like Gammer, both were doubtful about the quality of the thread spun that way.
Bilbo had insisted that they go soak first thing, before the bathing room got busy. The tub had been very hot and Frodo’s back felt much better. He could turn without any sharp pain now, and it was easier to breathe. He picked at the eggs and potatoes on his plate, wishing they could go back to Hobbiton today instead of Mersday.
‘Ada!’ Aunt Amaranth called out to a woman just entering the Hall. Missus Tunnelly waved a hello and strolled over, Tom and his little sister Daisy trailing in her wake. Tom’s face lit up when he saw Frodo. Frodo put on a polite smile. At the feast last night, Tom had sat with his family instead of at the tween table, so there had been no need to deal with him.
‘Good morning, Frodo!’
‘Good morning, Tom. Good morning, Missus Tunnelly, Daisy,’ Frodo replied in a polite but not overly friendly tone. Tom’s brow wrinkled for a moment, but then he smiled again.
‘I’ll be right back!’ Tom and Daisy went to the sideboard where food had been laid out and prepared breakfast for themselves and their mother. Missus Tunnelly was already in conversation with Bilbo and the other women about a possible spinning mill. Daisy scooted in under her mother’s arm and set to her breakfast. Tom took the seat to the far side of Frodo.
‘How are you?’
‘I am well, Tom.’ Frodo was not going to encourage conversation. Tom looked at him curiously, then gave his attention to his plate. The tweens finished their meals, and there was nothing for Frodo to do except talk. He did not want to leave – Tom would be sure to follow.
‘I’m just tired, I guess.’
Tom smiled slyly. ‘Well, you were doing a lot of things night before last.’
Stop it, Tom. I don’t like you anymore. ‘I guess I was.’
‘Are you angry with me?’ Tom said in a low voice, hazel eyes searching Frodo’s face.
Yes, you sneak! Rat, are you going to believe Sara? Frodo found himself puzzled. Until this moment, he had not thought to question Sara’s account. It made sense, and accounted for a number of Sara’s ‘discoveries’, but… ‘No, Tom. Of course not. I’m just tired.’
‘Too tired to do anything today?’ Tom asked, barely loud enough to hear. Frodo knew better than to look to see if Bilbo was watching. That was a sure way to get the old Hobbit’s attention. Instead, he listened for Bilbo’s voice. When he heard his uncle giving Aunt Amaranth an answer, he spoke.
‘Pretty tired, but not all worn out. Maybe…’
‘Mmm.’ Bilbo had stopped talking, so Frodo just caught Tom’s eye and nodded very slightly. Tom nodded back. The two sat quietly afterwards, then said cheerful farewells when the adults parted. Frodo trailed Bilbo back to the makeshift study and watched Bilbo set things out, preparing for the next round of translation.
‘Do you mind terribly if I take a walk this morning, instead of helping with the translation?’
Bilbo gave him a measuring look, then smiled and shook his head. ‘No, I don’t mind, lad. Walking about will make your back feel better than sitting hunched over in a chair all day.’
‘I’ll only be gone this morning. I do wish to help.’
‘Where are going, or do you know?’
‘Probably to the old shed.’
Bilbo nodded and smiled. ‘Then have a good walk.’
Frodo gave Bilbo a kiss on the cheek and turned to go. He had his hand on the door knob when Bilbo added, ‘And you will be sure to give my regards to young Tom, won’t you?’ Frodo froze for a moment, then faced Bilbo. The old Hobbit was watching him with the same measuring look as earlier.
‘You may be sure of it, Bilbo,’ Frodo answered. Bilbo looked at him a little longer, then smiled faintly, and waved him out. It only took a few minutes for him to retrieve his cloak and slip out the north door. He knows, Rat. He was listening the whole time. Frodo felt a knot in his stomach and wished he had not eaten so much for breakfast. Or any breakfast at all. His ribs hurt from the speed of his walk, but he paid it no mind. You shouldn’t be doing this, Rat. You know what Bilbo wants. Frodo told his conscience to shut up.
He arrived at the old shed first, and he had to wait for almost an hour for Tom to show up. While he waited, he took out the pocket knife Bilbo had given him and carved a few things into the walls of the shed. There were the initials of generations of boys marking the shed walls. Now that he knew, he looked around until he found “BB”. Near it was “DB”. He quickly added “FB” about halfway between them.
Frodo also did some thinking. It was easier when Tom was not there. Walking through the woods, he had looked at the place where he thought Sara had beaten him up. He went back to the edge of the woods and counted to himself as he walked to the laurels. It was too short of a count. Doubts crept back as he cut lines and letters into the wood.
The broken door of the shed creaked on its one remaining hinge as Tom wiggled through the opening. He was red-cheeked and a little out of breath, with a happy grin on his face.
‘Sorry it took me so long! Ma had me running some errands before she would let me out of her sight. We can’t stay long, either, because she needs me for cleaning the heavy loom today. There’s a new weaving to be set up on it tomorrow.’ Tom dug in his pockets and pulled out two slightly battered small tarts. ‘Here! I got these when I went through the kitchen. They’re still a little warm.’
Frodo took the proffered sweet and nibbled on it after picking off a bit of lint. Tom wolfed his down in a few bites, looking cheerful, and Frodo so wanted to forget what Sara had said, to ignore how close the laurels were to the tree line. You’re so easily bought, Rat. A few sweets is all it takes. Frodo handed the uneaten half of his tart back to Tom.
‘What’s wrong Frodo?’ Tom looked worried. Are you worried about me, or worried for yourself? ‘You feeling sick?’
Frodo shrugged. ‘I had a lot for breakfast and I’m just not hungry. Have the rest. It would be a shame to waste a warm tart.’ Tom wolfed it down in two bites.
‘I’m glad I finally get to see you, Frodo. I mean, without everyone else around.’ Tom tentatively touched Frodo’s shoulder and grimaced a bit. ‘You weren’t being honest the other night. I heard from Hamson that he and Odogrim hurt you pretty badly in that fight.’
I’m not the only one who wasn’t being honest. ‘Well, good thing you got Mac. Without him, we would both have been in trouble. How did you know to go get him?’
Tom’s brow wrinkled. ‘I told you, but maybe you don’t remember. I was coming back from getting us something to eat and I saw Bargo and Hamson and Odogrim following you, so I ran back to get Mac.’
Frodo wished he had not eaten any of the tart. ‘That’s a lie.’
The rest of Tom’s face flushed to match his cheeks. ‘I did too get Mac!’
‘Oh, yes, you got Mac. You got Mac after you told Bargo where I was.’ Tom’s face turned redder than Frodo would have thought possible. ‘If Bargo had seen me go into the woods, he would have followed, and he would have showed up much sooner. I was waiting a good while, so someone told him where to find me. And the only person who knew where I was is you. Just like the only person who could have let Mac know is you, which is why Bargo is going to pound you into a pulp. It’s just going to take him longer to figure it out than it took me. Unless someone tells him.’ Tom did not argue back, but glared. ‘Why? Why did you want Bargo to beat me up?’
‘Because you were showing off!’ Tom snapped. ‘Acting like you’re so big and important now, because you belong to Baggins. I’m glad Hamson hurt you. I hope you hurt a lot!’
Frodo pulled out his pocket knife again, and set to carving little lines in one of the shed boards. It was true and Tom admitted it. What Sara said was probably true, too. He wanted to start crying and kept his back to Tom. You are so stupid, Rat. ‘What do you mean? I was not showing off.’
‘You ignored me and acted like you’re not a tween or something. You kept saying that you wouldn’t do anything, and then you went off with Ula, and then you…you’re with everyone but me and I’m your oldest friend! I’m your only friend!’
‘You’re my friend? Oh, you’re such a great friend.’
‘I was your friend when nobody but the little babies wanted to have anything to do with you. And then you just left.’
‘The only reason you want me as a friend is so I’ll mouth you,’ Frodo said through clenched teeth, gouging bits of wood out of the wall.
‘So? You like it,’ Tom sneered, ‘I just let you do what you wanted to do. Everybody knows that’s what you’re like. Then you go showing off with Ula. Bargo’s right. You think you’re so big, now. I’m glad they thrashed you! You used to know your place, bastard. I’m ahead of you. You’re nothing!’
Frodo closed his knife and slipped it into his pocket. Brazen it out. That’s what Bilbo said I would have to do. He leaned a shoulder against the wall and gave Tom a scornful look. ‘I’m more than you, Tunnelly. The best you’ll ever be is somebody’s prentice.’
He was not prepared for the look of resentment and jealousy that twisted Tom’s face. ‘Better than being someone’s whore, like you! I wouldn’t want to be you. Baggins will get rid of you when he’s tired of you, bastard, and there won’t be anyone who wants to be your friend. What does he make you do?’
Rather than making him angry, Tom’s vicious words made Frodo want to laugh. If you only knew how far I am from that, Tunnelly. Not even if I did as you do. An odd thought struck him, remembering Ula’s warnings about attentions from girls. What do you want from me? What have you wanted from me? Something there needed thinking, but it was too confusing to work out right then. Frodo smiled nastily. ‘More interesting things than you ever asked for,’ he lied.
Tom’s eyes bulged a little, and he gaped. Frodo stretched sensuously, then he raised an eyebrow. The smaller boy turned a little aside and picked at soft spots in the shed wall, then pulled out a very small pocket knife. He began doing as Frodo had, cutting little lines and designs, digging out small holes. Tom was obviously thinking. Frodo let him think, watching the other boy’s hands picking at the wood.
He was not terribly surprised when he recognized the pocket-knife Tom wielded, but he was angry. That’s mine. Bilbo gave that to me. He wondered what news Tom had brought Sara to earn it. Frodo did not think Tom had it before Harvest, so what had he said? What story could he have brought? Frodo became more angry as he thought about the knife. He was tired of things being taken from him.
‘I know about you, Tom,’ Frodo said, hoping he sounded menacing. Tom shrugged. ‘I know what you’ve been doing, and I don’t just mean servicing Bargo.’ Tom finally turned to face him, wary. ‘Sara told me all about you. He told me how you were always tattling to him, telling on me. He told me about the presents he’s been giving you. Like that pocket knife.’ Tom’s face reddened again and he looked scared. ‘He told me all this when he knew I wasn’t coming back. He thought it was funny how I used to do what you wanted and then you would tell on me. So when he asked me what I wanted for Yule, I told him I wanted him to use you. He said he would. I think he would be very glad to protect you from Bargo – for something in return of course.’
Tom was looking very pale and rather sick to his stomach, then his eyes hardened and made he a face. ‘Won’t happen, bastard. I go to Whitfurrows within the week, to be a prentice. Not a whore.’
‘You are nobody,’ Frodo said softly. ‘I could have just left you for Bargo and Sara, but I didn’t. I still could. I could tell Uncle Bilbo what you’ve done to me. He gets jealous, you know. He would make sure you didn’t get to go. Or I could tell Mac. He wouldn’t want to help you if he knew what you’d been doing to me. Remember what he said to Bargo. I know you were hiding and listening. He’d be just as happy to leave you for Bargo.’
‘You wouldn’t do that, would you?’ Tom whispered.
‘I got beaten up pretty badly,’ Frodo replied conversationally. He let Tom chew on that for a minute. ‘You owe me, Tunnelly. I think you need to do me a good turn. Do a good enough job and I won’t tell on you.’
The two boys stared at each other for a time, then Tom walked over to Frodo and knelt. He began to reach for the buttons on Frodo’s pants, and Frodo remembered where he heard his own last words before.
Guess you are a Brandybuck after all, Rat.
Frodo grabbed Tom’s wrist before the other had unfastened the first button. I am not Sara. Tom froze, watching him. Frodo cast about, knowing he could not back down from his threat now. Tom had to be taught a lesson. Frodo smiled and shook his head.
‘Tempting, but that’s not what you owe me.’ Tom looked at him askance, confused. ‘You said at Wintermark you were going to let me kiss you, and you haven’t made good your promise.’
Tom made a face. ‘You want to kiss?’ he asked, incredulous. He scrambled to his feet, obviously relieved. In a swift move, Tom leaned forward, planted a firm kiss on Frodo’s mouth, then stepped back with a smile. ‘There. You have your kiss.’
‘Like I kissed Ula.’ Tom’s smile faded a bit. ‘You kissed me. That wasn’t what you promised. Now I get to kiss you.’ The way I have always wanted to kiss you. Frodo took Tom by the shoulders and maneuvered him up against the shed wall. In a second he had himself pressed against Tom pretty much the way he had been against Ula.
He started as Ula had with him, nuzzling Tom’s neck and using just the tip of his tongue, flicking it lightly on the other boy’s neck. He kept his thigh firmly pressed against Tom’s groin, and smiled a bit as he felt the other begin to press back. Frodo took his time nuzzling and kissing Tom’s throat and along his jaw. Whenever Tom tried to raise his hands and touch Frodo, Frodo would push his hands away. Soon, the other boy stopped and kept his arms at his sides, but pressed his groin more firmly against Frodo.
Frodo only had to touch Tom’s lips lightly with his tongue for the other to willingly open his mouth. Tom was not nearly as talented at this as Ula. He also did not make the kinds of sounds that Ula did, though Frodo could feel the him getting very swollen against his thigh. Frodo took his time tonguing Tom deeply, letting his fingers explore Tom’s hair, the back of his neck, the skin along his collarbone. Tom tried to thrust his hips, but Frodo put his hands on Tom’s hipbones and shoved him back against the wall until the other knew to be still.
When he broke the kiss, Tom was panting heavily, neck and face mottled red. Frodo trailed little whispery kisses all over the other’s face, ears and throat. Tom moaned as Ula had done and twisted his head towards Frodo’s face, trying to claim another kiss. He let his lips travel down Tom’s neck until he came to a soft place below his jaw and suckled on that spot, leaving behind a dark purple mark. Tom growled a bit. Frodo pulled his face back and smiled at Tom.
‘So, you like that?’ Frodo asked. Tom gulped some air and nodded. ‘A lot?’ Tom nodded again, starting to smile. Frodo leaned in and flicked Tom’s ear with his tongue until he received another moan. ‘Do you want more?’ Frodo whispered in Tom’s ear.
‘Yes!’ Tom panted back. Frodo stepped away from him so quickly the other staggered forward and nearly fell.
‘Well, I don’t. You’re not nearly as much fun to kiss as Ula,’ Frodo replied. He neatened his clothes and began to walk away.
‘Where are you going?’ Tom demanded.
Frodo looked at him in mock surprise. ‘Back to the Hall.’
‘But what about…’ Tom gestured to his own crotch. Frodo laughed.
‘I told you, Tunnelly. I don’t fool with boys any more. Unlike you.’ He grinned at Tom’s furious expression. ‘Have a good time explaining to the table where that mark on your neck came from. And don’t think of trying to get back at me. I can make sure your lips don’t touch anything but Bargo for a good long time.’
Frodo quickly slipped out the broken door and set off swiftly through the woods. He figured that, as roused as he was, Tom would need to relieve himself before he could begin to walk back. He felt a heaviness in his own privates, but no great reaction. Except in his stomach, which was roiling. It was not at all like kissing Ula. The more he kissed Tom, the more difficult it had been. He kept feeling Sara’s hands on him, Sara’s tongue against his own lips. He wished Tom had not been so eager, had tried to fight or had cried, or at least had been quiet. His stomach rebelled, and Frodo had to stop and spew.
When he got back to the Hall, Frodo rinsed his mouth out with a few dippers of water from the water barrel that stood outside the main kitchen door. Somehow he eluded Maddie’s attempts to make him sit and eat another breakfast, though he promised to come back and collect the tray for his and Bilbo’s dinner. After dropping his cloak in their room, he went to the study to see Bilbo.
The old Hobbit was reading a particular passage of the scroll with great concentration, equally oblivious to Frodo’s entrance and the half-tipped ink pot that was seeping onto his shirt sleeve. Frodo righted the ink, while Bilbo sheepishly rolled up the sleeve of the ruined shirt.
‘I’m glad you’re back, lad,’ Bilbo said, ‘and not only because you keep me from great foolishness. This passage is simply fascinating!’ Bilbo gestured at a paragraph and then pointed to a small illustration of a hand that had tiny black dots on it. ‘It seems that if you poke fine needles coated with particular herb washes into these points on the hand in particular combinations, you can control some kinds of pain and palsies.’ Bilbo beamed at the discovery. Frodo thought it sounded entirely too painful for words. He shook his head and poured Bilbo some fresh, if tepid, tea. Bilbo sipped and watched him over the rim of his mug. Frodo felt very shy.
‘You are back sooner than I thought you would be, Wilwarin.’
‘Most of the time I was waiting for Tom to show up.’
Bilbo swirled his tea. ‘You need not report what you’ve been doing, lad.’
‘You knew I was meeting Tom.’
‘I made a logical guess.’
Frodo turned away and leaned on the table, looking at the scroll. ‘I told Tom no more. That I wasn’t doing that with boys anymore.’ Well, I have told him that. I told him a few other things, too. Bilbo’s hand rested on his back.
‘He was special, this Tom, wasn’t he, Wilwarin?’ Frodo nodded, not trusting himself to say anything. ‘I’m sorry, lad.’ Bilbo’s hand tugged on him a bit, and Frodo allowed himself to be pulled into an embrace. He had wanted to hug Bilbo, but was not sure what kind of reaction he would get. If Bilbo hugged him, it was all right. He tucked his face into his uncle’s shoulder. Bilbo ran a soothing hand down his back.
‘You have done well in this. It will be best for both of you, lad, it truly will. But I am still sorry. It would have been better if you had simply grown apart.’
Frodo did not bother to answer. He stood unresisting in Bilbo’s embrace, enjoying a touch that demanded nothing of him. Bilbo and his shirt smelled of ink, but Frodo did not mind. Bilbo kissed him on the brow, and rested his head against Frodo’s. A knock at the door made them both jump, and Frodo hurried over to answer it.
The owner of the knock was a very, very old Hobbit who looked rather like Bilbo. Frodo remembered seeing him at Wintermark and later at the Yule feast, sitting with the Bolgers.
‘Gis, you dropped by!’ Bilbo exclaimed cheerfully. The old Hobbit smiled at Bilbo, then gave Frodo an intent look.
‘Frodo Baggins, correct?’ the old Hobbit demanded.
‘Yes, sir,’ Frodo responded. The other smiled and stuck out his hand.
‘I’m Sigismund Took, your double first cousin on your mother’s side. Call me Uncle Gis.’ Frodo grinned and took his hand.
‘Very pleased to meet you, Uncle Gis!’
‘Likewise, lad, likewise!
‘So, you’ve had your fill of Odogar, I take it?’ Bilbo only half-teased. Uncle Gis let out a growl of annoyance and flopped into a rickety chair.
‘Him and his miserable brood,’ Gis groused back. ‘I can hardly believe he’s your cousin, Bilbo!’
‘He’s your cousin, too, Gis! Second cousin, through Opal and Adamanta Chubb. And Frodo’s, too – first cousin, once removed, on the Bolger side, and second cousin, once removed, on the Baggins side. Which makes Frodo your second cousin, once removed, on that side of the family, if you recall, just like Odogar,’ Bilbo glibly rattled off. Gis rolled his eyes.
‘Well, all common sense has escaped that side of the family! To think I’ve allowed two of my offspring to marry into that bunch of addled-pated pickling barrels.’
‘So the wits of the children should be much better in the next generation, is this what you’re telling me?’ Bilbo teased. Frodo was trying to remember who all the different cousins were, and what their relationships were to him, and finally gave up. Unlike Bilbo, he needed a genealogical chart in front of him to understand the tortuous Baggins and Brandybuck family trees. He was not sure he understood the Tooks, even with a chart. The Bolgers he hardly knew at all.
‘Frodo, lad, would you be so kind as to collect a dinner tray for us from Mistress Maddie?’ Bilbo asked.
‘Of course, Uncle Bilbo. I’ll be back shortly,’ Frodo assured him, and set off for the kitchens. He walked slowly, not wanting to run into Tom by accident. The other boy would probably be back and down in the loom hall by now, but caution never hurt.
Maddie offered him some fresh baked tarts to nibble on while the girls put a dinner tray together, and was very worried when Frodo turned them down. He assured her it was simply that he did not want any sweets, which made her more worried. Grumbling about the peculiar eating habits of Hobbits in the Shire, with more than a few intimations that Bilbo was at fault for ruining Frodo’s appetite, Maddie cut a hunk of soft yellow cheese from a thin wheel and spread it on a fresh slab of bread. Frodo bolted it down and asked for another, greatly improving Maddie’s mood.
Unfortunately, there were two large trays to take back, and no one to help carry nor a cart to be found. Frodo sighed and resigned himself to two trips. Then he heard a very welcome sound.
‘Frodo? Are both of those yours?’ He turned with a smile, watching Esmie walking over, briskly drying her hands on her apron.
‘Yes, Esmie, they are. Uncle Gis has come by the study to visit with Uncle Bilbo and myself, and I volunteered to bring dinner back. The kitchen is too generous for its own good.’ She looked so pretty, even in her kitchen clothes, with her hair under a scarf and some work smudges here and there. Esmie came quite close and he could faintly smell her sweat, and could see her blouse and kerchief slightly dampened from her work. She gave him a warm smile and patted his back, which made him wince. Her smile faded for a second.
‘May I help you with the trays, Frodo?’ she asked.
‘I don’t mind making two trips, Esmie, it is no problem,’ Frodo assured her.
‘I insist,’ she crisply answered. Before he could protest, not that he wished to, she picked up the smaller tray holding tea and bread, plus plates and cutlery. He picked up the tray of food, and they left the kitchen.
‘I’ve hardly had a chance to talk to you, cousin, since you arrived,’ Esmie gently scolded. ‘You’ve been closeted with Bilbo working on something for Gilda, or off being a rascal with your friends since you got here.’
‘Mostly I have been helping Bilbo,’ Frodo quickly answered, ‘and getting Merry cleaned up.’ Esmie laughed and shook her head in dismay.
‘My own little rascal! Merry is always asking when you are coming back, you know. He misses you so, Frodo. We all do.’ Esmie’s voice dropped quite a bit.
Not all of you. Frodo remembered her finger on his lips just a scant week before. You miss me, though. In a matching low voice, he replied, ‘And I miss you.’
Esmie stopped in the dim corridor and searched his face. She turned and walked slowly until they came to a small room – an alcove, really – holding linens and cleaning supplies. It was just barely large enough for both of them to stand in. She braced her tray on her hip and peered at him closely again.
‘Frodo, my dear, I’m…I am so worried about you,’ Esmie began softly, haltingly. She stared at the floor, then nodded her head as though coming to a decision. ‘I heard something from your Uncle Rory,’ she said, quietly, but very firmly. ‘He said that you had admitted to more than just a bit of foolishness with some of the other boys in the Hall. Is that true?’
He wished the floor would open up and swallow him. After Gammer, this was the last person in the world whom he wished to ever know about such things. He wondered if she knew about Sara, too. Face flaming, he nodded. To his surprise, she cupped his cheek and looked sad, not angry or disgusted.
‘Oh my sweet boy, my dear, forgive me!’ she half-whispered, obviously distressed. ‘I should have sent you to Pal sooner, before things could get to this state. Forgive me, I couldn’t bear to send you away.’
‘Esmie, please, don’t be upset,’ Frodo replied, both distressed and pleased by her words. ‘I have gone, and it is over. Nothing like that will happen again.’
‘I did try,’ she went on, half to herself, not paying attention to Frodo. ‘Perhaps it was not proper, but I did try to get you to leave the boys be and pay more mind to the girls.’ She stopped and looked him in the eye. Her fingers moved gently, sensuously against his cheek, brushing his earlobe, then just under his jaw. ‘I did not want to see a fine, handsome young man ruined. Perhaps if I had…’ She did not continue, but she also did not look away. Frodo wondered what it was she might have done.
‘Esmie, I am fine. Certainly not ruined,’ he tried to joke. She slowly let her hand drop. ‘I am through with...foolishness…and I am of quite a mind to mind the girls. And they seem to pay some mind to me.’ He smiled and hoped she might touch his cheek again. Her face became a bit sharp and she cocked an eyebrow at him.
‘You mean your fooling with that Proudfoot girl at Wintermark? You certainly do need to be mindful about her.’
‘What do you mean?’
Esmie snorted and shook her head at him. ‘Think, cousin. Who is she prenticed to? The Mistress. I would think twice about any attention that girl paid to you.’
Frodo was confused. ‘I don’t understand, Esmie. What does being Gammer’s prentice have to do with anything?’
‘She is only doing as her Mistress bids her do. Gilda and Rory are quite concerned to be certain that your foolishness is behind you.’
Frodo just stared at Esmie, not daring to speak. But it was Ula who said for me to watch out for other girls. Maybe she just wanted you for herself, Rat. So? But Esmie says she doesn’t want me. She just did what Gammer said… He shut his eyes and gave his head a little shake, hoping the slightly dizzy feeling would go away.
‘No, that’s not so?’ Esmie asked, and laid a hand on his shoulder. ‘I thought she did not cozen up to you until after you spoke to your aunt and uncle. I did not see her paying any attention to you until Trewsday last.’ No, she didn’t, did she? Not until after I talked to Uncle Rory. ‘But, perhaps I am wrong. Tell me I am wrong. Have you been sweethearts for a while, and I simply did not see it?’ she asked in a gentle, caring voice, gently rubbing his shoulder.
It was difficult to answer at first because his mouth had gone dry. ‘No. No, Esmie, there was nothing special between us before Wintermark. We have always been good friends, though.’
Esmie thoughtfully bit her lower lip, fingers still kneading his shoulder. He found it rather difficult to look anywhere except where her teeth touched her lip. Then her fingers pressed a bruise and he grimaced.
‘Oh, Frodo, I’m sorry!’ she exclaimed, but she did not pull her hand away. She slid it closer to his neck and he leaned slightly into her touch. Esmie peeked out of the alcove into the hallway, then addressed Frodo in a very soft voice. He had to strain to hear her.
‘Mac said that you had been beaten up. Badly. And not by your little cousins! Before the Yule feast, he came to talk to Sara. I could not help but overhear. He said he had seen you in the baths and you were in poor shape, and I can see you are still in pain. I heard from Dahlia this morning…’ Esmie stopped, and seemed to be considering her words. ‘I was told that the wardrobe in your room was broken, as though something had been slammed against it.’ Her hand touched his cheek again and her eyes were worried, almost frightened. ‘Say, say you are not in harm’s way? I can get you to Pal, if you are.’
You think Bilbo did that. He never would. Frodo wanted to run through the corridors, shouting the truth. Sara did this! He is the one, not Bilbo. This was a thought beyond wickedness, that Bilbo would raise a hand to him this way. They’ll believe anything of you, Bilbo, no matter how wrong. He shook his head, and forbade himself to tell the full truth to Esmie. She would never believe it of Sara.
‘Do not think such things, Esmie!’ he entreated. ‘Bilbo did not do this! I am not in harm’s way, not from Bilbo.’
‘Then who did this?’ she demanded.
‘It doesn’t matter, and it is done,’ Frodo firmly said.
‘Then you are safe?’ He nodded. She let out a great sigh and leaned forward, just able to reach past the tray he held, to kiss his cheek. She whispered in his ear, ‘I couldn’t bear it if you were hurt, Frodo.’ He turned his head just a little, and she kissed him, her tongue flicking his lips, and he returned the kiss as best he could without dropping the tray or spilling anything. Esmie straightened up, and said, ‘You may always write or come to see me, Frodo, if you need… my help. I will do anything in my power for you.’ He nodded, getting his breathing under control. ‘We’d best get dinner to Uncle Gis and Uncle Bilbo. They’ll be wondering where you are.’
Esmie walked off at a brisk pace. Frodo followed, trying to make some sense of their exchange. He was not very successful at thinking of anything except the kiss. Too soon for his liking, they were at the study door. Esmie kicked the door lightly with her foot to get attention. Bilbo opened it a moment later. He looked at Esmie with a rather odd expression, then bowed her into the room. Frodo hoped his own face was bland.
She set down her tray and insisted on laying out dinner for the three of them. Quickly the table was cleared, mugs of tea poured, and plates set before the three men. Esmie laughed and flirted with Uncle Gis, then gave each a kiss on the cheek and left. Uncle Gis immediately set to his meal with relish, but Bilbo stared thoughtfully at the door for a while after Esmie left. Neither he nor Frodo ate very much, each lost in his own musings. When the meal was done, Frodo gathered and stacked the plates and set the trays in the Hall for one of the kitchen boys to collect. He wished he dared to take them back himself and see if he could find Esmie again, but he did not think Bilbo would let him go. He knew there was not much he could get past Bilbo’s inquisitive mind.
As he came back to the table where Bilbo was busily setting up the writing materials, Uncle Gis asked him, ‘Frodo, lad, how is your back? I heard from Wili that you got a good thrashing at Wintermark.’
Frodo could see Bilbo tense just a little, though he did not look up from his work. ‘I did get in a bit of a fight, Uncle Gis, but I’m all right. Just a little sore.’
Uncle Gis chuckled and shook a finger at Frodo. ‘That will teach you to go fooling with another boy’s girl! Wili told me what you were up to.’
Frodo shrugged and smirked back. ‘Well, she didn’t think she was his girl.’ Between the truth of what Sara had done, the lie that Bilbo had beaten him, or the assumption that Bargo and his nasties had thrashed him, the last seemed the most reasonable. Bilbo was steadfastly ignoring the conversation.
‘Well, doesn’t that sound just like you, Baggins!’ Uncle Gis laughed, clapping Bilbo on the shoulder. ‘Frodo, you should know that your uncle here is the worst flirt in the Shire.’ Bilbo was giving Gis his most amiable dealing-with-a-fool smile. ‘Everyone knew, when we were lads, if you turned your back for a minute, he’d take your girl!’
‘Well, Gis, if you are going to be such a fool as to turn your back on a beauty like Petunia, you deserve to lose her,’ Bilbo smoothly replied. Frodo could tell from the set of Bilbo’s shoulders that he was not pleased with the direction of the conversation. ‘Tell me, Gis,’ Bilbo casually asked as he picked out a few quills, ‘have there been any odd happenings down in Southfarthing that’s come to your ears?’
‘Such as?’ Uncle Gis asked in return, humor now replaced by a sharp look.
Bilbo shrugged. ‘Oh, nothing to really put a finger on. Strange folk, unusual things, just a sense of things being not quite right.’
‘Things are changing too much, which isn’t right, but I’ve told you that.’ Uncle Gis drew up a chair and propped his chin in his hand. ‘There have been a few more Big People in Southfarthing than I have been used to seeing, coming up from the South Road. Most are good enough, a tinker or two, or someone with some sacks of things to trade. There’s been a few squinty, ugly fellows from somewhere, but they don’t say exactly where. They’re interested in leaf, of course – most everybody who comes up the South Road wants leaf – and they talk about leather and bacon and flour, too. Starting to buy regular down near Longbottom, or so I’ve heard.’
‘Hmm,’ Bilbo murmured absently as he studied one of the illustrations on the scroll. ‘I heard from Farmer Maggot – a good man over in the Marish, Rory likes him quite a bit – that he has seen some horsemen all in grey riding south along the River Road, but he never saw them riding back. Big Folk, on big horses. Since they never came back, they must have gone south over the Shirebourn and the Thistle Brook. Any word of folk like that?’ Bilbo began to scratch a copy of the design onto the paper in front of him.
Uncle Gis shook his head. ‘No, not a bunch of horsemen. There was a fellow in grey come through Longbottom back in Halimath. Adelard saw him! He told me and Flame about him when he and Blossom brought the children up in Blotmath for Flame’s birthday. Big fellow on a big horse. Had a bow with him. Bought some leaf from Farmer Greenhand. Greenhand, he’ll sell to anyone who has the coin for it. Adelard said the grey man wasted no words, but was courteous enough, paid the price asked with only one haggle, and brought his own pouch.’
The grey riders we saw, Frodo thought, they each had a bow. He stole a look at Bilbo, who caught his glance and gave him a wink. I bet it was one of those riders! He drew up a chair opposite of Bilbo, and began to peruse the translations of the morning, preparing to recopy Bilbo’s scrawl into a legible page.
‘Well, who knows? Seems to me most Big People have dark cloaks,’ Bilbo casually replied. ‘Rory and Dalin, the Dwarf who is visiting, had a conversation about bridges, you know.’ Uncle Gis cocked his head. ‘Rory wanted to put one over the Shirebourn so things could be sent up from the south of the farthing more easily, like leaf and hides, corn, too, but Dalin advised against building any big bridges that lead south. Too many dangerous things that direction.’
‘This Dwarf is a sensible fellow,’ Uncle Gis remarked. He sat for a minute, thinking. ‘Though, perhaps a barge across the Shirebourn, like the Bucklebury Ferry, wouldn’t be a bad idea.’
‘If it moves leaf more easily north, I’ll wager Pal would want it,’ Bilbo remarked.
‘Pal? That idiot! He wouldn’t know a good idea if came up and served him second breakfast,’ Uncle Gis snorted back. Frodo did not look up from his copying, but listened carefully. He had never heard someone criticizing cousin Paladin so bluntly before. Bilbo would never really say why he did not like the Thain’s heir, but Frodo thought it had something to do with Esmie. ‘Oh, to be sure, if it sells leaf, he will want it. Best not put it in, then, Baggins. We’ll just lose another field of corn to leaf. The ugly southerners want both.’
‘Pal will just need to be convinced that he has enough leaf to sell north and south, and that he needs to leave the corn where it is,’ Bilbo said with a chuckle.
‘And who’s to do that? Rory’s too far away. Rum and Pal don’t talk except to insult each other. Pasco is too intimidated by me to offer me a suggestion. He would never try to talk Pal out of anything. Baggins, why aren’t you Mayor? He would listen to you! You, Rum, and Rory would take care of the changes quite well.’
Bilbo, the Mayor? Frodo looked curiously at the old Hobbit. Bilbo’s mouth was drawn in a hard line. Bilbo said his own father was acting Mayor after the Fell Winter. Frodo had seen Pasco Goodbody, the current Mayor, officiating at a wedding in Hobbiton in Winterfilth. He had not been impressed with cousin Pasco. The more he thought, the more odd it seemed. Why isn’t Bilbo Mayor?
‘Pal opposed it.’ The words were soft, yet clipped.
‘What? Pal? Why would he do that?’ Uncle Gis asked in astonishment. Bilbo sent him a very cold look.
‘I have told you his reasons.’ The two old Hobbits shared a look, then Uncle Gis shook his head.
‘Then he’s worse than a damn fool.’
Bilbo sighed, ‘No, Gis, he’s just an ordinary fool, and I am too old to worry overmuch about such fools.’
‘Rum would support you.’
‘I think not. In any event, Gis, things are unsettled enough I do not care to get into a public fight between the Thain and the Thain’s heir. The Shire does not need such contention. I do things my own way, and that will suffice. I am close enough to Rory that we can keep an eye on the Road between Hobbiton and the Bridge, and the Chubbs are pleasant enough to deal with on matters along the Road out to the Far Downs.’
Uncle Gis sighed and rubbed his eyes. ‘You’re right, Bilbo, as usual. Ah, we’re getting too old for this! Between Pal and my ever-so-wonderful brother in law – your wretched cousin! – I swear I am aging two years for every one, unlike you.’
Bilbo chuckled. ‘And you are not another of my wretched cousins? Odogar is no youngster himself, Gis. We’re all getting on. It is time for the younger fellows, like your Ferdinand, to be stepping forward. Especially if Pal is the fool you think he is.’
‘I make no claims for Ferdinand’s wits, either, cousin,’ Uncle Gis joked back, then gestured at Frodo, ‘What about this fine fellow? He’s bound for great things, no doubt.’ Uncle Gis winked at Frodo, who blushed a little. Bound for great things? Aside from a great amount of trouble, Frodo could not think of any great things he would be getting into.
‘Frodo,’ Bilbo said, digging in one of his pockets, ‘I have left my pipe-weed pouch back in our room…’
‘Here,’ offered Uncle Gis, ‘I’ve plenty.’
‘Oh, that is too kind of you, Gis!’ Bilbo happily accepted the offer from the other Hobbit. ‘But, Frodo, would you go get my pouch? I’d best tuck it into my pocket.’ He fixed a stern look on Frodo.
‘Of course, Uncle Bilbo.’ Frodo knew when he was being sent off while adults had a serious conversation. He had a feeling it would be about Pal and why Bilbo was not Mayor, and wished he could stay and find out more. He walked slowly down the tunnel and wondered if he dared to make a trip to the kitchens. The trays were already gone or he would have used them as an excuse. Best not. Bilbo would hear about it somehow. Frodo sighed and meandered his way to their room.
He turned the corner to the hallway where their room was located and saw Ula walking towards him. He remembered Esmie’s words and decided to get to the bottom of this mystery. Frodo hurried towards her, grabbed her arm, and marched her into his room. She was too astonished to put up a fight in the hallway, but quickly regained her composure. Ula stood with her back to the door, arms crossed, glaring at him. Frodo put a hand to either side of her head against the door and glared back.
‘Do you have a reason for handling me like this, or are you just being an obnoxious boy?’ Ula snapped.
‘I heard something today.’
‘I did not know you were deaf. Congratulations on regaining your hearing!’
‘I heard that what you did at Wintermark, my Aunt Gilda told you to do.’ Ula’s eyes narrowed.
‘I was there to attend her and to do as she wished, cousin. Of course I was doing as she asked. What do you mean?’
‘I heard that one of the things my aunt told you to do was to flirt and fool with me.’
Frodo had not realized that Ula was that fast, nor that she could hit that hard. Gammer’s probably going to take her cane to me next, he ruefully thought as he backed away from his enraged cousin. Ula had her hands on her hips and her face had gone scarlet. She was trembling with rage.
‘You wretched little brat! How dare you say such a thing?’ she snarled. ‘Who told you this!’
Frodo shook his head. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘It most certainly does! It matters very much to me and will probably matter even more to the Mistress! Do you honestly think that I would go and do… something like that because I was ordered to do so?’ Ula was practically spitting, she was so angry. Frodo tried to make himself small and shook his head. ‘And what are you saying of your aunt? That she would misuse a girl given to her care in such a way?’ Frodo shook his head more vigorously. ‘Who said this?’
‘I… overheard it, and I’m not saying!’ All he did not need to do was get Esmie in trouble for having been concerned about him. ‘I probably misunderstood what they were saying, anyway.’
Ula stared down her nose at him, then let out a sharp laugh. ‘Don’t speak, then. I think I can figure it out.’ She crossed her arms and glared at him again. ‘More the fool me. I should have known better than to flirt with a boy as young and stupid as you. You deserve Bluebell.’
Frodo winced and hung his head. ‘I’m sorry, Ula. I am stupid. It’s just…’ He bit his lip, not wanting to make her more angry and risk another slap. His ear was still ringing.
‘Just what?’ He shook his head. ‘Frodo, what is it? What do you want to know?’ Her voice was kinder and a bit curious.
He could not look up at her. ‘What I overheard, or thought I overheard, was that, well, you see, I had a talk with my Uncle Rory about… Bargo… and this person said that my aunt and uncle had wanted to be sure that… well… I’m not explaining this well!’ he concluded miserably. Frodo finally risked looking up at Ula, and was surprised to see that she did not seem so angry, though her face was still quite red. In fact, she looked rather sympathetic. ‘This person said that they, my aunt and uncle, wanted to be sure that all of that mess was behind me, and that’s…why…’ He thought he had best not press his luck by continuing.
Ula nodded thoughtfully. ‘And so this one presumed there was no other reason a girl would pay you any mind except that she was told to make a fuss over you, is that what she thought?’
‘Yes. Maybe. I’m not sure exactly what this person was thinking! Just that you had been told to…’ Frodo bit off his words as Ula started to glower.
‘Did she now? Well, my dear cousin Esmie had best watch that wicked tongue of hers, lest Gilda take it out!’
‘I didn’t say it was Esmie!’ Frodo exclaimed.
Ula rolled her eyes. ‘Who else would have known to say such a thing?’
‘Well, how did you know?’ he demanded.
‘I know because the Mistress took me into her confidence just after you left. When I came back from Bywater after helping my family with their harvest, I was surprised to see you gone. Mistress Gilda did not say much, only that you were being bullied terribly. There had always been whispers, so I pressed her on it. Finally, she said what she thought was happening. If I didn’t hate Bargo already, that decided it!’ she vehemently said.
Frodo decided to risk one more question, but prepared to duck if Ula took another swing at him. ‘Do you… like me?’ Ula smiled a little and raised an eyebrow. ‘I mean, you have always been my friend and looked out for me, but, you never… before the other night… um,’ Ula was grinning quite broadly at him by this point, and Frodo felt his face burning. ‘It was just so sudden. That’s why… why I thought…’ He stopped when she put her hands gently on his shoulders.
‘Ah, Frodo. I should have known better than to fool with you, little cousin. You are dear to me, don’t you ever doubt that. You looked so fine when I saw you again, all grown-up, I thought you wouldn’t mind a little flirting. It was just some fun. I’m sorry, I should have let you be.’ She looked at him with affection, and a bit of sadness.
‘Well, I’m glad you didn’t! I’m not sorry!’ he cheekily replied. She laughed and gave him a light swat on the cheek.
‘Of course not! You’re a boy!’
He smirked and ducked his head a little, then gave her his sweetest smile. ‘I am sorry, Ula, for having doubted you. Please say you’ll forgive me?’ She shook a warning finger at him.
‘You are not getting back in my good graces that easily, Baggins!’ Frodo smiled winningly and leaned his shoulder against the door. She let him take up her hand in one of his and caress her fingers, giving him a partly-annoyed, partly-amused look. ‘Am I to understand that I am not getting out of this room without giving you a kiss, cousin?’
Frodo nodded emphatically, then offered his cheek. Ula laughed merrily, and placed a sisterly buss right on the apple of it.
‘Now, go check and see if there is anyone in the hallway,’ she scolded, ‘I do not want to be seen coming out of your room!’ Frodo opened the door and peeked out – the hallway was empty. He opened the door and stepped aside to let Ula slip out. Just as she stepped forward, she turned and caught his mouth in a kiss. It was warm and sweet, and she did not break it in any hurry. When she stepped away, she caressed his cheek, then lightly rapped him on the nose.
‘No more, you rascal!’
Frodo watched her saunter down the corridor and turn the corner. When she was gone, he looked about for Bilbo’s pipe-weed pouch and returned to the study. Uncle Gis was no longer there. He settled in to copy for the rest of the day.
Characters introduced this chapter:
Amaranth - Amaranth Brandybuck, Rory's oldest sister. Oversees spinning in Brandy Hall cloth production.
Ada - Ada Tunnelly, Loom Mistress of Brandy Hall. Wife to Tomfast, mother of Tomson and Daisy.
Daisy – Daisy Tunnelly, OC. Sister to Tom.
Opal – Opal Chubb Bolger, OC. Frodo’s great-grandmother, Odogar Bolger’s grandmother.
Adamanta – Adamanta Chubb Took. Wife of the Old Took, grandmother or great-grandmother to many of the major characters.
Flame – Flambard Took. First cousin to Bilbo and Rory, first cousin once removed to Frodo.
Adelard – Adelard Took. Son of Flame.
Blossom – Blossom Grubb Took, OC. Wife of Adelard.
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