My Aragon Stories
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On Merry Yule: 8. Affection
Evening, 28 Trewsday, Foreyule
Frodo put on his most genial expression. ‘Like this?’
‘Excellent! Supper awaits.’ Bilbo clapped him on the shoulder and they made their way to the dining hall. Frodo wished they could do what they had done for dinner, and simply have trays brought to Bilbo’s makeshift study and spend the evening continuing the translation of the healer’s scroll.
When he woke this morning, Bilbo was already up and dressed, as usual, and had laid out clothes for him. The swelling on his face was almost completely gone, but Frodo’s jaw ached and his neck was sore. They had retrieved breakfast from the kitchens. Maddie had fussed and clucked over him while they waited for one of the girls to put together a basket for them, until she took a close look at his lip and cheek. Then she had gone very quiet, just looking. When she was done, she gave Bilbo a hard, questioning glance. Frodo started to protest her assumption, but Bilbo put a hand on his shoulder to silence him.
‘Mistress Maddie,’ Bilbo said in a very soft voice, ‘I am afraid only Mistress Gilda may speak on this matter.’ Maddie had nodded, not at all placated. She had kissed Frodo’s other cheek, and told him to come see her if he wanted for anything. Frodo had held Bilbo’s hand on their walk back to the study. While they ate breakfast, Bilbo had explained what the scroll was about, and what he had done so far to translate it.
Bilbo showed Frodo some interesting passages that had been translated, pointed out how the illustrations all corresponded to particular parts of the text, and marked off what their work for today would be. The old Hobbit was obviously happy to be doing this work for Gammer. All for Gammer. You really are in love with her. It had seemed ridiculous when the idea had first occurred to him, the day he and Bilbo had left Brandy Hall last fall, that anyone would be in love with his old, ill Gammer except her husband, especially an eccentric uncle who was not supposed to like women at all, but the longer Frodo was with Bilbo, the less strange it had seemed.
Both of them knew so much, and neither was afraid of things from outside the Shire. Neither had much patience with narrow-minded fools, though Gammer would usually just order such people off, while Bilbo would play sly tricks on them. When a letter arrived from Gammer, Bilbo would do nothing until he had sat and read it several times through. There was never anything particularly special in the letters (Bilbo always read them aloud to him), just news of Buckland, of his cousins, and best wishes for their health, but Bilbo treasured them as though they were love letters. Each one would get put into a small wooden chest that sat near his uncle’s desk after Bilbo was done reading it. Frodo had been more attentive the last few days, paying attention to how the two were when together, and he was amazed at how much Bilbo would touch her or kiss her, wait on her, tend to her. Uncle Rory seemed to tolerate it all with fond amusement, not the slightest bit jealous. It made no sense to Frodo what was going on, even if it was no longer so outlandish to think of Bilbo being in love.
In mid-morning, six ox-carts had drawn up in the yard before the Hall. It was time to collect the Sun-return logs. Great tree trunks had been hauled from the Woody End across the Marish to Rushey sometime in the previous month and been allowed to dry, waiting to be taken to Buckland. Larger trees might have been found closer to the Hall in the Old Forest, but no one would risk going in there to cut them down. Ponies were not strong enough to haul the huge logs back from Rushey, but the oxen were so slow that it would take three days. Sara, Mac, Dilly, Berry, and a few other people had arrived with the ox-carts. Dilly and Berry would remain until Afteryule now. After about an hour, the men and Dalin came back out and began to drive the oxen down to the Ferry. Dalin dominated the group with his scarlet cloak, great breadth, and huge gleaming axe. Frodo watched him stride beside Mac on their way to the Ferry, and saw him turn and wave at the Hall. Frodo waved back, even though he knew Dalin could not see him.
He and Bilbo had worked without interruption for the rest of the day. Since his hand was more legible, Frodo wrote down Bilbo’s dictation, while Bilbo pored over the scroll, dug into the Elvish book from Uncle Rory’s library, and repeated Elvish words and phrases from memory – sometimes entire verses of poems – to puzzle the meanings out of the scroll’s lines. Frodo felt flattered when Bilbo asked for his opinion of what something might mean, and he enjoyed himself more than he had for the last four days. The only thing Bilbo loves as much as Gammer is Elvish, Frodo thought with amusement as Bilbo was reciting a snippet of poetry that had nothing to do with a phrase they were trying to figure out, but was simply so beautiful Bilbo wanted Frodo to hear it.
In no time at all, the day was done, and it was time to deal with family. So it was that they were walking to the main dining hall. Frodo felt the good humor of the day slip away with each step they took towards that room. He was very glad that Sara would not be present for the next few days.
When they entered the Hall, it was bustling and cheerful. A quick glance showed Gammer and Rory at the head of the table, while Esmie and Dilly sat at the foot with the three children. Cousin Wilibard and his wife, Cissy Burrows, Dilly’s sister, sat to one side of the women while his brother Wilifred sat with Helga Bracegirdle, his wife, to the other side. Cousin Seredic, with his wife Hilda, Helga’s sister, was also sitting near by. Seredic and Hilda were expecting their first child in late Afteryule. Bilbo waved and smiled a pleasant hello to them, and Frodo followed suit.
‘I will see you after supper,’ Bilbo said quietly and walked towards the head of the main table. Frodo walked over to the tween table. Bargo was sitting for the Master already, with Bluebell on one side and Ula on the other. Frodo suppressed a grimace. Now I’m going to have to fight him out of it. He walked up to the table, hoping he looked more assured than he felt. The Brandybuck twins, Marmalas and Gormac, were trying to hold an arm-wrestling match while Tanna hit them and told them to mind their manners. Tom was sitting next to Hamson and Harriet Bracegirdle, while Odogrim sat at the foot of the table. Bluebell smiled and waved when she saw him approach, which made Ula turn to look. Ula jumped up and gave him a welcoming kiss on the cheek.
‘There you are! Mistress Gilda said you were working on something for her and might not make it to supper. I’m glad you decided to show up,’ she warmly said.
‘Oh, I needed to get out of that study and stretch my legs,’ he replied, grateful for Ula’s kind welcome. Ever since Ula had arrived at Brandy Hall just over two years ago, she had appointed herself his honorary big sister, reserving to herself the sisterly tasks of slapping him, scolding him, rolling her eyes at him, ruffling his hair, and being his dogged defender when the tweens were gathered.
‘We’re all glad you’re here, Frodo,’ Bluebell said from across the table, bestowing a sweet smile on him. She flashed a less sweet expression at Ula, who pretended not to notice. Frodo was rather confused about Bluebell’s attentions to him. Before he left, she had treated him with approximately the same level of contempt as her brother, but now she was as flirtatious as could be. I guess I do look different. Most of the faces around the table were at least friendly, and many appeared actually pleased to see him. Bargo was the chief exception. Frodo stood next to Bargo and smiled down at the older boy.
‘Bargo, how nice of you to keep the ladies here company until I arrived. You may go to your own seat now.’
Bargo glared up through a break in his forelock. Marmalas and Gormac’s contest was forgotten. All the tweens were watching.
‘This isn’t your seat, Baggins. This is my spot, and you know it. Go sit somewhere else.’
Frodo narrowed his eyes, but smiled more pleasantly. ‘But, Bargo, this is where I have been sitting while I’m visiting, and I very much like it. I can see all my friends when I sit here.’ I have to look at your miserable face too, but nothing is perfect. Frodo leaned a bit over the other boy, and stared him in the eye. After a few moments, Bargo swallowed, and looked away, but did not relinquish the bench.
‘Move, Burrows,’ Frodo said very quietly, continuing to eye the bully, ‘or shall I call Uncle Rory over and have him decide?’ He hoped Bargo would not call his bluff. The older Hobbit glared back at him, then shoved back the bench and moved. Bargo kicked Odogrim out of his place at the foot of the table, and Odogrim quickly made Tom give up his seat. Frodo caught Tom’s eye and motioned to the place on the other side of Ula. Finally, Frodo took his own place. He could see a few smirks and stealthy glances at Bargo going around the table. Ula was openly grinning.
Nothing more was said for a while as platters of food were delivered to the table, and the tweens had more important things to attend to. Given the appetites of the tweens, individual plates were difficult to keep full on their table, so the kitchen girls simply replenished the platters. Frodo first served Ula, who was sitting Mistress at his right hand, then Bluebell, both to be polite and to annoy her brother, then himself. They all dug in and ate heartily. Even Bargo was too busy with his supper to do more than throw the occasional glare up the table. It did not take too long before the edge of appetite was satisfied, and the table become more convivial.
‘Frodo,’ Bluebell asked, ‘where were you yesterday? We missed you at table, dinner and supper.’ She smiled winningly at him. Ula made a small choking sound, just loud enough for Frodo to hear, and he kicked her under the table.
‘I had dinner with Uncle Rory,’ would that I had come here instead, ‘and then I was involved in a bit of translation work and was not really able to break when supper came about, so Uncle Bilbo brought me a tray later.’ He smiled charmingly at Bluebell, who giggled a bit. ‘Though I must say it would have been much more entertaining to have joined you here than it was to look up odd words in old books.’ This time Ula kicked him quite firmly in the shin.
‘Well, it’s nice you’re here today, though; when you missed dinner again, I was beginning to get worried,’ Bluebell simpered. Who could be attracted to this? The openly bawdy kitchen maids from The Fat Badger were much preferable to this coyness. Frodo tried taking refuge in his plate. Bluebell was not to be dissuaded.
‘Do say you’re going to be staying a long while, cousin?’ she asked. ‘We’ve missed you so while you’ve been gone. It was so sudden! One day you were here, the next day, vanished! I could hardly believe my ears when I heard you had moved away. Do say that’s not going to be permanent!’
As permanent as I can make it. ‘Actually, Bluebell, it was not all that sudden. It has always been the case that I would move to Hobbiton at some point, and the time was finally right.’
‘But you never said nothing about moving,’ piped up Tom. ‘You said nary a word and then you were gone.’
‘Just because you didn’t hear anything didn’t mean it wasn’t planned,’ broke in Tanna. ‘Our Uncle Rory is supposed to clear things with you, Master Tunnelly?’ Tom turned red as the table had a laugh at his expense. Frodo glared at her a moment. The other tweens tended to pick on Tom since, after Frodo, he was the youngest tween at the table, and unlike Frodo, he was neither a kinsman or a gentlehobbit. His mother was a very talented weaver, and was the Loom Mistress for the Hall. His father was Uncle Rory’s right hand in the stables, maintaining the stud as well as overseeing harness and equipment for the Hall. Uncle Rory had taken a liking to the boy, who was quite clever if a bit shy, had allowed Tom to remain at his schooling beyond the point where most of tradesfolk’s children left, and had permitted him to associate with the Brandybuck nieces, nephews, and cousins.
‘Well, there was no word, so it was quite surprising,’ Frodo said in Tom’s defense. The other boy smiled gratefully in his direction. ‘It hadn’t occurred to me to say anything, as I myself was not certain when Uncle Bilbo would be ready to have me move.’
‘So, you won’t be coming back?’ Odogrim actually sounded disappointed. What is it that you miss, Odo? Me or my mouth? Frodo took a sip of wine and smiled politely.
‘I fear not, except for visits,’ and probably no more of them after this Yule.
‘Oh, that’s wretched news!’ Bluebell pouted. Perhaps I should have left Bargo sitting here. Frodo raised an enquiring eyebrow, doing his best to imitate Bilbo’s manner when dealing with tedious relatives. Ula kicked him again, and he kicked her back. ‘You moved away just when you were beginning to nice to be around, Frodo,’ Bluebell smiled, and then she reached out and tugged a lock of hair on the nape of his neck. ‘And then you come back looking so fine and you’re just teasing us with a visit.’ Ula could not stifle her snicker at this clumsy flirtation. It sounded like a few of the other girls were also amused at the display. He kicked Ula again, who responded by sliding her foot up his shin, so he stepped on her foot to keep it pinned to the floor. Bluebell looked daggers at Ula, who was suddenly very interested in buttering her bread.
‘He’s not looking fine for you,’ Bargo snapped at his sister. He directed a knowing leer at Frodo.
‘Bargo, really, being jealous of your sister is rather beneath you, don’t you think?’ Frodo smoothly replied. Ula let out a whoop of laughter, joined by Tanna, Harriet, and the twins. Others smirked and snickered. Bargo glared in fury, but dropped his eyes when Frodo stared back. I’m not the only one with a reputation, Bargo. Ula wiggled her foot out from underneath his, and gave him a gentle tap to get his attention.
‘So, cousin, what have you been locked up doing?’ Ula asked. ‘Mistress Gilda said you and Uncle Bilbo have been translating something for her. What is it?’
Frodo beamed gratefully at Ula for changing the topic. ‘Something very special! Bilbo sent a request to Rivendell, an Elven center of wisdom and learning, and received a scroll of healing information. It is all in Elvish, so we have to translate it into the common tongue for the Mistress.’
‘Is there any way I can see it?’ Ula asked, eyes aglow.
‘Certainly. The old family dining room near the Lane Door was made into a study for Uncle Bilbo. That’s where we are working. You are more than welcome to come by and take a look at the scroll.’
‘Oh, may I come by to read the scroll, too?’ Bluebell asked. Ula looked at her with no small amount of scorn.
‘Unless you are as smart as cousin Frodo and can read Elvish, I do not think you’ll be able make head or tail of it, Bluebell. Given that it is a healing scroll, I doubt you would understand the translation!’ A ripple of snickers went around the table. Even Tom was laughing.
‘Well, it can’t be that important! It’s about Elf things, not Hobbit healing. What good is some other medicine that isn’t even intended for Hobbits?’ Bluebell snapped back.
‘Well, it can’t all be used, you goose,’ Ula retorted, ‘but Mistress Gilda has a number of these Elven scrolls from Uncle Bilbo. She is the most knowledgeable healer in all the Shire, and she thinks Elven medicine is just fine.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t use it,’ Bluebell sniffed. “It’s not right to use things meant for others. It’s not natural!’
Ula had a very wicked smile on her face, and Frodo felt a momentary stab of sympathy for Bluebell. ‘Oh, really? Well, in that case, next time you’re having those moon-blood cramps, don’t come to me for the pain tea. That’s an Elvish herb mix.’
All the boys at the table let out a groan and hid their faces at the mention of the unmentionable, and the girls all laughed, even Bluebell.
‘What’s the matter, cousin?’ Ula asked with mock sympathy, patting Frodo on the arm. ‘Did I say something wrong?’
Frodo peeked out from behind his hand. ‘No, cousin, of course not. You have just embarrassed us all until next Highday. Nothing more.’
Ula’s wicked grin widened considerably. ‘But why are you so embarrassed, fellows? It is just the Delver’s way. You’ll all become quite familiar with it once you’ve taken a wife. An unavoidable part of married life, you know.’ Her grin became even wider.
‘Well, some of us will,’ Bargo said with a sly look at Frodo, ‘while others just will never know such troubles.’
‘Now, now, Burrows,’ Ula said is a overly-sweet, soothing voice, ‘I’m sure you will find some blind and deaf woman someday, and you will finally get someone to agree to marry you. Though all of her relatives had better be dead, or they will object.’
Frodo did not much feel like joining in the general laughter, even at Bargo’s expense. He was wrestling with feeling disgusted by Bargo’s words and what they implied about himself and Bilbo, and feeling disgusted with knowing what Sara had begun doing in the last year to deal with his wife’s moon-blood. His eyes found Esmie at the end of the main table, happily chatting with Dilly and others. It was good to see her so happy, and to not see Sara groping and fondling her in front of everyone. I don’t care. I’d fight him to make him thrash me if I deserved to be punished, but I would not fight him over that. Not if it kept him from hurting you. He does not deserve you. Sara had come to his room one evening last Solmath, and they had struck a bargain for Esmie’s comfort. After that, Sara would just show up a few nights in a row every so often, and the business was quickly over. It was good to know each month that Sara had not gotten another child on her. This was one thing he knew he was never telling Bilbo.
A sharp kick from Ula brought him back to the conversation at hand. The girls were all still snickering, and the boys were all still hiding behind their hands and hoping the topic would die. Frodo shook a finger at his unrepentant cousin, then winked and turned to Bluebell with his most innocent expression on his face.
‘So, you see, Bluebell, I think it is clear that Elvish medicine does have its uses, as you can attest.’ Bluebell turned red and would not answer. Well, perhaps I have found a way to shut you up. Frodo did not need to look to know that Bargo was glaring. He expected a kick from Ula, and was surprised to feel her seductively slide her foot up his leg. He looked at her and she made a face at him, then kicked him. He smirked at her.
‘What I want to know,’ said Odogrim with a good-natured leer, ‘is who here will be attending Wintermark?’ The boys exchanged some rather smug looks, and it was the girls’ turn to look uncomfortable.
‘You’re not,’ Hamson said to Harriet. She stuck her tongue out at her brother, but did not argue.
Bluebell turned a bit redder and shook her head. ‘That’s right, you’re not!’ Bargo growled from his end of the table. Most of the girls were shaking their heads, and a few of the boys, including Tom.
‘I will,’ Frodo said. ‘That’s why I made the trip.’ It would be his first Wintermark. The previous years he had stayed in the Hall and helped to mind the children, but Bilbo had said he could attend this time.
‘Why would you bother?’ Bargo sneered, and then shut up when Frodo stared at him.
‘So the girls have someone to pick beside you, Burrows?’ Ula quipped. ‘I will be there, too.’ That got quite a few stares, and more than a few leers.
‘My dear Miss Proudfoot, what wonderful news,’ Bargo smiled. It was no great secret that Bargo was quite sweet on Ula. And no greater a secret that she detested him. Frodo often wondered why the fellow did not understand that she would rather be courted by a diseased goat than Bargo.
‘Burrows, do not get your hopes, or anything else, up on my account,’ Ula dryly replied. ‘I am going to be attending the Mistress, since the Master will not be able to see to her during the festival. Though,’ she said thoughtfully, ‘I suppose I’ll be able to steal a few minutes to enjoy the celebration for myself. If the right fellow comes along.’ She grinned again, and stood up. ‘But for now I bid you all good evening.’ Other took the cue and began to gather themselves to leave.
‘Wait, Ula, I’ll come with you,’ Frodo hastily said, and scrambled away from Bluebell to join his cousin. Bargo quickly claimed his sister’s arm and strode past. Frodo offered Ula his arm.
‘Sometimes, I wonder about those two,’ Ula mused, then smiled evilly at Frodo.
‘Ula!’ he protested, amused and appalled at the same time. She giggled and they slowly walked towards the end of the dining hall. ‘Are you really attending Aunt Gilda at Wintermark?’
‘Oh, yes. She asked me to.’ Ula glanced over at him. In the last two months, he had grown taller than her, and was rather proud that he was now taller than any of the tween girls. ‘And she is perfectly happy to let me find a fellow if I so please. She was quite clear about that.’
Frodo made a bit of a face. ‘Ula,’ he began to protest. Wintermark might be a respected celebration in Buckland near the Hall, but it was seen as quite scandalous elsewhere, and she was his kinswoman.
‘Frodo,’ she replied in the same exasperated tone. She patted his arm reassuringly. ‘I am quite capable of taking care of myself, especially with Mistress Gilda watching over me like a dragon. Anyway,’ she said in a soft voice, ‘you said you would be there, didn’t you?’ She looked him in the eye and delicately ran a finger over the inside of his wrist.
Frodo was reasonably sure that his face had just turned the same color as Dalin’s cloak. ‘Uh, umm, yes, yes! I will. Be there.’
She laughed a little and winked. ‘Well, then, I’ll have you and Uncle Bilbo to watch out for me, too, and make sure all goes well, won’t I?’ Frodo grimaced, then laughed along with her, knowing she had been teasing him. Ula patted his arm again and added, ‘Bluebell is an idiot, but she is right about one thing. You are growing up and starting to look quite fine, little cousin. Well, younger cousin – you’re not so little any more.’
He smiled at her honestly meant compliments, though they made him feel a bit shy. Then it occurred to him he had the perfect person to ask about something that had been confusing him. ‘Ula, I’m feeling a little confused. Before I left, Bluebell would rather use me as a doormat than talk to me, and now she won’t leave me alone. I think I preferred being a door mat. What happened? And I’m not fishing for compliments, truly.’
Ula gave him a disbelieving stare. ‘You can’t figure it out?’
‘So it is something really obvious. Now I feel like a total fool. No, cousin, I cannot, and I would deeply appreciate being told so I can do something about it and be rid of the obnoxious Miss Burrows.’
His cousin looked at him, then shook her head. ‘Yes, I think you really do not understand. Frodo, before you left, you were an irresponsible, bratty, inconsequential nephew of the Master, a trouble-making, smart-mouthed, rumpled little boy who went around scaring girls with snakes.’ He smiled beatifically at her, and she gave him a playful slap on the cheek. ‘Now, you have come back here as the heir of the fantastically wealthy head of the Baggins clan, you are perfectly dressed, with excellent manners, though you’ve still got a smart mouth, and you are now the biggest catch in all the Shire.’ Ula stopped and looked him over thoroughly. ‘And you are quite fine.’
‘I’ll never be rid of her,’ Frodo said mournfully, perturbed by Ula’s words. Except for the last ones, which made him quite happy.
Ula burst out laughing. ‘You’ll be rid of her when you’re dead, not before,’ she teased, then sobered up and dropped her voice. ‘Little cousin, be suspicious of any female interest in you, particularly from silly girls who gave you no mind before now. In fact, I advise you to be suspicious of any woman who shows too much interest in you right now. You are just big enough to get yourself into far too much trouble with an idiot like Bluebell, or someone who is very much not an idiot, but knows how to take advantage of your ignorance.’ Ula gave him a sisterly kiss on the cheek, and bade him good night.
‘Frodo!’ He saw Esmie and Dilly standing near the foot of the main table with the children, gesturing for him to come over. He did, and soon was getting kisses all around.
‘Do you need a hand with the little ones?’ Wilibard asked, as he and Cissy walked past on their way out.
‘Oh, no, thank you,’ Esmie answered, ‘Frodo is here and he’s all we need.’ She gave Frodo one of her beautiful smiles, and the children crowed a loud concurrence. He smiled back and took Merry’s hand. Esmie held out a hand for Merle to take, held a finger to her lips warning the two children to be quiet, then let her lips slip over the very tip of her finger. Her eyes met Frodo’s for just a moment, and he swallowed. He was very glad Sara was not around.
‘Ah, there you are, my boy!’ Bilbo’s jovial greeting made them jump. Now, Rat, if you could only figure out how to make Bilbo go away. Bilbo was smiling widely. ‘And what a wonderful set of companions you have found yourself! The two most beautiful women in the Hall, and three lovely little children.’ Bilbo twinkled at the children, who giggled and beamed back. Dilly was blushing, but Esmie did not look pleased.
‘Frodo, as usual, is being a dear and helping us with the children,’ Dilly told Bilbo, who gave Frodo a nod of approval.
‘That’s my good lad! Well, I shall help you, too, then. Come here, Berry,’ Bilbo quickly scooped Berry up onto one hip, and walked directly over to Esmie. Frodo saw Bilbo give Esmie an odd smile, and then offer her his arm. Her eyes narrowed briefly, followed by a delighted smile as she linked her arm in Bilbo’s.
Bilbo shot an annoyed look at Frodo. ‘Frodo, where are your manners? Give Dilly your arm!’ Frodo hastily complied, while the women chuckled. They walked out of the dining hall, Bilbo and Esmie in the lead. The first stop was at Dilly and Mac’s rooms. Bilbo set Berry down and gave Dilly a kiss on the cheek.
‘Remember, my dear, Frodo and I are at your beck and call while Mac is away. Do not hesitate to ask us for whatever help you may need,’ Bilbo told her with great earnestness.
‘I will remember, Bilbo, though Esmie is looking after me perfectly,’ Dilly replied. ‘Mac and Sara will be back soon.’ She said good night, and closed the door. Merle let go of Esmie’s hand and claimed Frodo’s free hand. Frodo followed Esmie and Bilbo to the door to Esmie and Sara’s rooms. Merry and Merle kissed Frodo and Bilbo good night, and Esmie shooed them in the door.
‘Are you sure we cannot help you with them any more tonight?’ Bilbo politely inquired. ‘You must have so much to do to prepare for Wintermark and the Yule feast.’
Esmie smiled sweetly at both of them. ‘Then you two are at my beck and call?’ she teased.
‘Until your husband returns, yes,’ Bilbo replied quite genially. ‘Good night.’ Bilbo stepped forward as though to kiss her cheek, but murmured something low in her ear, and then did something Frodo could not see because his uncle’s head was blocking the view, but Esmie flinched back from him and yanked her arm away.
‘Stay away from me, Baggins,’ Esmie hissed.
‘Gladly, Attercop,’ Bilbo replied, with a very nasty smile. She whirled and stormed into her rooms, slamming the door behind her. Bilbo chuckled to himself and set off down the tunnel. Frodo ran after him and grabbed his arm.
‘What was that?’ he demanded.
‘If you do not want something to be general knowledge in the Hall,’ Bilbo calmly replied, not stopping, ‘then you should not discuss it in the corridors.’
When they got back to their room, Frodo again demanded, ‘What did you do to Esmie? You made her jump.’
Bilbo just chuckled and hung up his coat. ‘Oh, nothing, just reminding her of something.’
‘Nothing that concerns you, Wilwarin,’ was the smooth reply. Frodo crossed his arms and looked at his uncle askance. Bilbo simply chuckled some more and shook his head. ‘Not every fight I have with my relatives, not even the ones here, has to do with you, Frodo. Esmie and I have a little disagreement on a certain matter that has to do with Took business. Now, why don’t we have a pipe, and then bed?’
Bilbo would not say any more on the matter, so they sat in silence smoking their pipes. He was reasonably certain Bilbo was lying, but could not figure out in what way, on what matter, or for what reason. Looking for a less mysterious topic, Frodo mulled over Ula’s words. He had never really thought about what it meant to be Bilbo’s heir. I am to Bilbo as Sara is to Uncle Rory. Bilbo liked fine things, and Bag End was a beautiful smial, but it was odd to think of his uncle as having great wealth. He was the same as any gentlehobbit, and much less ostentatious than many. Bilbo was never without a few coins in his pocket, but there were no great riches in Bag End that Frodo knew of, not the way Uncle Rory had a locked, metal-banded chest with much coin and some precious metals and gems in it, the treasure of Buckland. Nor were there any great land-holdings in the Baggins family. Ula’s wrong. Bilbo’s well off, but there is no great treasure about. It’s all rumor, like the other rumors about him. Frodo found the idea that the rumor of Bilbo’s wealth made him the biggest catch in the Shire rather disconcerting.
And not even true, Rat. You’re not even a Baggins. He’s convinced I am a Baggins. That is all that matters. But he lives in Hobbiton. He just hasn’t heard the rumors, Rat. No, he’s certain, he must know something… Frodo sneaked a look from the corner of his eye at Bilbo. The old Hobbit had a drowsy, pleased expression on his face, and his fingers moved on the arm of the chair. Frodo knew Bilbo was thinking about poetry, reciting it to himself, fingers tapping the meter. No, I cannot ask. I have nowhere else, and it would be disloyal. He could not risk losing his place with Bilbo, not now. If Uncle Rory could cast him aside, where there was no question but that Frodo was his sister’s son, what might Bilbo do if he realized Frodo was not a Baggins? The rumors would remain in Buckland, and he would be a perfect nephew, and that was all there was to that.
Not long after, they finished their pipes and bade each other good night. Frodo slept soundly, and woke to the sound of Bilbo moving about the room.
‘Ah, my boy, you’re awake!’ Bilbo greeted him. Frodo rubbed some sleep from his eyes, then noticed that Bilbo was dressed for going outside. Bilbo continued to gather a few items – a scarf, some gloves – as Frodo watched. ‘I’m glad you’re up,’ Bilbo continued, ‘for I would have hated having to wake you. I will be gone probably most of the day today.’
‘Why? Where are you going?’ Frodo stifled a yawn. ‘I thought we were translating.’
‘No, not today. I have to go with Rory and Wili to talk to your Uncle Saradas concerning a hedge,’ Bilbo said rather grumpily. ‘For some reason they seem to think that I know or care about hedgerows and the pasturing of sheep.’ Frodo could not suppress a small grin. ‘I did my best to convince them that I would be of no use to the discussion, but they all insisted that I attend, and so I must go.’ Bilbo stepped over to the bed and gave Frodo a kiss on the forehead, then ran a finger along his bruised cheek. ‘And I think the Master and I need to have a little talk on other matters.’ Bilbo’s expression had gone from grumpy to grim. The old Hobbit kissed him again and turned to leave. ‘Be good, or at least don’t get caught, while I’m gone.’ With a mischievous grin and a wink, Bilbo slipped out the door.
An entire day to himself was not what Frodo really wanted, so he sighed and went back to sleep for several hours. When he woke up the second time, he decided today was a good day to be inconspicuous. He would not have minded going to help Esmie and Maddie with the Yule preparations, but Frodo also suspected this was the only day he would have free of Bilbo’s curiosity and there were a few things that required attention. Given Bilbo’s comment about talking to Uncle Rory, he had best be certain he was ready to leave as soon as Bilbo returned.
Frodo put on some older, worn clothes and went to the kitchens to collect second breakfast. He could not have hidden from Maddie's sharp eyes had he wanted to, and she sat him at a table in the corner so she was certain he ate. Frodo made sure to take some food with him since he did not intend to be in the Hall at dinnertime.
After he dropped off the food in his room, Frodo took the wash basket and went to his old room. Everything was neat and precise. Dalin left nothing lying about. Frodo looked at the wardrobe with his old clothes in it. There were a half-dozen shirts, a few pairs of trousers, and some odd handkerchiefs and linens. He ran a hand over the shirts. A few were hand-me-downs, a few had been made new for him. They were all the kind of shirt a little boy would wear, a bigger version of Merry’s clothes. They were not like Sara and Rory’s work shirts, made of thick blue or green cloth and always smelling of sweat, no matter how many times they were washed. They were nothing like what Bilbo had given him, the beautifully stitched linen shirts, or the comfortable, if a bit scratchy, wool ones they would wear when hiking about or giving Mister Gamgee a hand in the garden. Frodo looked at the slightly frayed cuff of the shirt he had on. It was one of those Bilbo had insisted on taking three months ago.
He went out, returned the wash basket to their room, and changed into one of the wool shirts. Frodo dumped the last few items out of his pack, put his food into it, pulled on his cloak, slung the pack over his shoulder, and took the shirt he had been wearing back to his old room. He folded it neatly, put it on a shelf in the wardrobe, and left. I will take nothing of yours, Uncle Rory. Frodo swiftly made his way through the Hall, staying to the unlit side-tunnels where he could, and slipped out a north door without being seen. In a few minutes, he was in the woods just off the lane, making his way to the old shed where his own treasures were hidden away.
He had been sixteen or seventeen when Sara had started to get mean. It had been confusing to Frodo when his big, funny cousin, who had always given him piggy-back rides and tickled him and told him stories and cuddled him, started smacking and shoving him. The scariest was when he had just turned eighteen, and Sara had come into his room and yelled at him for leaving it a mess. Sara had thrown everything on the floor, broken what he could and had shaken him, telling him to have it all cleaned and tidy in an hour. The room was spotless when Sara returned, the bed made, the clothes neatly folded, his small treasures and gifts carefully lined up on his desk. His cousin has swept all the objects into the wash basket and had walked off with them.
You don’t need anything but what Da gives you, Rat. Don’t be grabbing for what’s not yours. You should be grateful Da lets you stay, you little rat. You have no claim, and you’d better be grateful for what the Master gives you. I wouldn’t give a bastard like you anything.
Not that anyone ever gave him much, but that was as it should be. Children were not terribly careful with things, Gammer had once explained, and were given only what could be expected to be ruined. She had said it with a laugh, and it was true that she and Uncle Rory gave no better things to his little cousins than they gave to him. Sweets and clothes and a few wooden toys that they all shared were the usual gifts.
Bilbo always gave him nice stationery which Gammer kept for him, making sure he wrote his uncle a note every week, so that was safe from Sara, but almost all of Bilbo’s other small gifts had been seized at some point. Frodo had learned to hide anything he wished to keep, out in this old shed. Sometimes he would forget and leave things where Sara could see them, and they would always be taken. The only thing Sara had failed to steal after he saw it was the raven pipe, and that was only because Bilbo had been there.
He wiggled through the broken door and stepped carefully across the earth floor. The roof leaked in places, and the floor was often muddy, but today it was dry. The heavy stick was still upright in the corner. It was a twisted tree branch with a big knobby end, and Frodo had sanded it until it was smooth. He liked to think it was a wizard’s staff and would sometimes pretend to be a wizard with it, imagining creating big bursts of light and doing other magic tricks. It would make a good walking stick. Behind it, sitting on a rock to keep it above the dirt, was a bit of oiled cloth; the rest of his treasures were bundled inside that. Frodo sat on the floor and unwrapped them.
They did not look very impressive, he had to admit. In a leather pouch, there were a handful of rocks he had thought interesting. One had a small seashell embedded in it. Bilbo had found it on one of his walks and thought Frodo would like it. It was the only present from Bilbo he had been able to hide from Sara. He sorted through the other rocks, and decided to keep only the one from Bilbo. There was a tiny bird’s nest made of moss and sheep’s wool, and inside it was a perfect, empty, blue robin’s egg. He had not found them together, but liked the way the egg fit exactly into the nest. Once he had had a squirrel’s skull, but Sara had smashed that. Frodo put the nest into the pouch with the rock and slipped that into his pack. While he was there, he pulled out some bread and a hunk of cheese and nibbled on them while he poked through the other items.
There was a bunch of dried flowers that Merle had given him. Two rose buds, a now-brown fern leaf, and a spray of white flowers, all tied with a pretty ribbon. She had held this during the wedding of some relative, and had presented him with the dried bouquet a few weeks later. Merle had very earnestly told him that he needed to save it for when they got married. All the adults had laughed quite merrily at that, though Frodo promised that he would do as she told him. She was only seven when she had given him the flowers, and he rather doubted she even remembered it, but it was a sweet thing to do, and the flowers were pretty.
The rest was from Tom. Frodo touched the small red maple leaf he had pulled from Tom’s hair the day they had found this shed. That was also the first time he had produced seed when Tom stroked him. He had been jealous that the older boy had always been able to do this when Frodo held him or he stroked himself, and had been quite proud of his accomplishment. Tom had laughed at him a little, lying next to him under the turning maples, while Frodo caught his breath. When they walked along later, Frodo had snagged the leaf that had got caught in the other boy’s hair.
Tom was four years older, though they were learning the same level of things in the school lessons. Tom was smart, and had a head for numbers, but did not read very well. Frodo was glad to help him with his lessons when asked. They had been doing some schoolwork in Frodo’s room the first time Tom had asked Frodo to touch him, and had done so in return. The next few months had been rather fun with Tom. Sara had started getting mean, and Uncle Bilbo was not visiting much anymore. Esmie had baby Merry to take care of and did not have any time for Frodo. Tom always brought sweets his mother had made, and Frodo was flattered by the older boy’s attentions.
There was an intricately braided horsehair ring. Frodo tried it on. It still fit. Tom had made it for him as an apology for Bargo. Tom and Hamson were reasonably good friends, since Tom helped him out with his figures, and sometimes Hamson would let Tom walk about with himself, Bargo and Odogrim. One day, Tom had brought Frodo along. Bargo had wanted Tom to stroke him, but Tom had insisted that Frodo was much better at it. Frodo snorted at how gullible he had been that day. He had actually thought he was being praised. He had stroked all of them, and later Tom had touched him. After that, Frodo was welcome to join the older boys. Tom was the only one who had ever touched him in return, and sometimes he would do this for Frodo when the other boys were not around.
It was less than a year before he was mouthing them as well. Even Tom would not do that in return, nor would he kiss him when Frodo asked.
‘You don’t kiss other boys,’ was Tom’s disgusted reply to the request.
‘Why not?’ Frodo asked in confusion. ‘Kissing would be nice.’ He was stroking Tom, and had moved from nuzzling the other boy’s neck to lipping at his jaw and cheek. When he had touched Tom’s lips with his own, the other had shoved him away. Tom took Frodo’s hand and put it back in place, squeezing to make Frodo grip him again.
‘You only do that if you’re in love with someone,’ Tom growled. Frodo did not know how to reply to that and simply did as Tom wanted.
Afterwards, when Tom had caught his breath, Frodo said, ‘But I do love you.’ Tom gave him a sharp slap in the face and another shove.
‘Well, I don’t love you. You’re not supposed to love other boys, you pervert. And I don’t care if you do. Do think I’d kiss you after where you’ve had your mouth?’ Frodo had cried and refused to talk to Tom for several days. Tom made up with him by the end of the week, giving Frodo a leather bracelet with a ceramic bead strung on it. He had even allowed Frodo to place one quick, chaste kiss on his lips.
‘That’s only because you’re my friend,’ Tom had sternly informed Frodo. ‘Don’t ask for any more. Bargo’s saying you’re not just a bastard, you’re a pervert, too. If you start asking for kissing, he’s right.’
Frodo fingered the bracelet and the blue and green bead strung along it. He had never dared to wear it, any more than he dared to wear the horsehair ring. Bargo was right, Tom. He had never stopped wanting to kiss Tom, though he had never tried again. Frodo did not know if he loved the other boys, but he loved Tom, and he liked some parts of servicing the others.
He hated how Bargo and Sara were so rough, pulling his hair and trying to gag him. He hated how Bargo wanted the others to watch Frodo servicing him, and hated the ugly things Bargo and Sara would often say when he knelt. He also knew what to do with his tongue to render them relatively speechless. He liked doing new things to Tom when they came out to the shed, loved Tom’s smell, and the feel of the other between his hands, in his mouth, loved how he could make the other boy pant and gasp and beg. Frodo very much liked it when the others begged. He usually teased the others a bit, then made them spill themselves fairly quickly. With he was alone with Tom, Frodo would take his time, trying to show Tom how much he loved him. But he knew better than to say anything.
Frodo slipped off the ring and strung it with the bead on the leather thong, tying the ends off. He dropped it all into the pack, and took out an apple. He considered the maple leaf while he ate the apple, and decided to leave it behind. Bilbo does not want me doing this anymore, and I should do as he asks. Frodo was glad Tom had not been with the others at Harvest so that Bilbo would not know about him. He wondered if Bilbo had ever kissed the boy he had loved when he was so young. Frodo stayed sitting in the shed until it started to get dark outside, then gathered up his things and made his way back to the Hall for supper.
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