14. Push

POV - Frodo

In which Frodo decides he is no longer willing to be pushed around.


28 Forelithe, 1390

Dearest Little Cousin,

I don’t know where you will be when you finally get this letter. I suspect the Fair will be over and you are finally back home. Did you get your dance with Bluebell? Did Bargo beat you up for it? I dread seeing them again. Those awful Bracegirdles are coming back to the Hall, too. Mama says that you are at all the Highday dances in Bywater and Hobbiton. Have you found a girl you like? Even if you have, you need to give me a dance at harvest.

Mistress Gilda got a letter from the Master yesterday which she read to me. She was so happy to get it! He described Bag End to her and then she told me even more about it. She said she was often a guest when she was Uncle Bilbo’s mother’s healing prentice. The Master also said that you and Uncle Bilbo look completely well and no one here should worry over either of you. I think that news made her the most happy, though she grumbled that she was the healer, not him, and she’d make up her own mind.

I know the news you want to hear, but keep it secret! The Mistress continues to do well and can walk without her cane inside the Hall. Her hands hardly tremble anymore. I think she is planning a surprise for Master Rory when he gets back, so not a word of this, not even to Uncle Bilbo!

She is also well enough to rein in that nasty Took daughter-in-law of hers. The Mistress got her hands on a letter Esmie had sent to someone, I’m not sure who. She called Cousin Esmie into her parlor and they had a little talk behind closed doors. Esmie looked like she’d eaten a green quince when she left, but she hasn’t said a word of slander since then. I still look forward to Dilly and Prisca returning to keep her in line.

Merry may get his pony very soon, if only to make him stop chattering about it.

My love to you and Uncle Bilbo,

Cousin Ula


28 Forelithe, 1390

My dearest rascal,

We all miss you so much. Merry talks about nothing but how he is going to ride his pony to come see you, and Merle says she will come too so she can keep an eye on Merry and bake a cake for you both. I envy them that trip when they make it.

The Master says that you and the Beggar are back to your usual troublesome selves. I was worried when Prisca said you were both so worn after your long walk in the north, but I think she was exaggerating. I hope that is the only adventure you two will go on for a good long time. Is your uncle truly doing well? I worry about him. Rory said that you look after Bilbo very well.

Ula has read me some of the letters her mother, my cousin Sage, has sent. Sage thinks well of you, rascal, and that is high praise indeed. I am glad that you are in Hobbiton now, though it makes me sad that I don’t have you here. Even if there had not been such trouble here, you would be better off there. I also hear that you are the most popular boy at Highday dances. You be sure to mind your manners! And to dance with Ula when she visits over harvest.

I am eager to see my final scroll translation. Rory said it is magnificent. Thank you, dearest, for this. It doesn’t just make me happy. It has made me better.



1 Lithe, 1390

Dearest Frodo,

I saw you at the horse show sitting with those two little girls. I wanted to come over and say hello, but Mama wouldn’t let me. I want another dance with you. Papa says I may, but only if he is there to watch. I don’t think he wants you to kiss me again. Please say you’ll be there tonight! I hate Bargo and I’m not talking to him anymore.



1 Lithe, 1390

Dearest Frodo,

I am ashamed to have to be writing this letter.

I am so very sorry for how we met yesterday. I know that I was harsh to Bilbo and I hurt him. I judged him with an unkind heart and I greatly rue my acts. I have apologized to him. It will not happen again.

It grieves me that I have offended you just as we finally meet. I ask for permission to make amends. No matter your regard of me, I stand by my promise to do for you anything in my power to do. But ask, and it will be done.



Fairgrounds, Michel Delving, Evening, 1 Lithe, 1390

Frodo stalked off, irritated with Bilbo but also knowing he really did not have any grounds for being irritated, which simply irritated him more. You shouldn’t have asked him right away, Baggins. He doesn’t like being pushed any more than you do. Frodo sighed, wondering how long he would have to be patient before Bilbo would finally tell him everything that had been happening. You know what has been happening. You know about the farthing and the parting. And Bilbo told you the most important thing; he’s not going to do their work for them. That put Frodo in a better mood. Just a few more days and then they would go back to Bag End and ignore the stupidity. It would be time to do the ledgers when they returned, and there would be more cooking lessons, and the garden would be full with flowers in bloom and vegetables growing. These thoughts made Frodo happier.

He looked about for Uncle Wili and Aunt Prisca. Bilbo was right, both that Wili looked tired and that Prisca would want to dance. He felt a bit embarrassed that he had not noticed how worn out his uncle was becoming. Doing a good job with the ponies would please both uncles, and probably Uncle Rory as well. Frodo smiled to himself at Ula’s news about Aunt Gilda. He was not going to let that secret slip. Ahead, he glimpsed Odo and Sage standing with Wili and Prisca and hurried over.

‘Uncle Bilbo’s going to be held up for a few minutes,’ he said with a grin, ‘so that means I get to dance with you first, Aunt Prisca!’

‘And Bilbo calls me a flirt!’ she laughed, holding out her hand. ‘I swear, he’s teaching you all his bad habits.’ Frodo shrugged with a smirk and they were soon whirling among the dancers. ‘You are just like him, Frodo,’ Prisca said. ‘I’m so glad you’re with him now.’

‘I am, too.’

‘I haven’t seen Bilbo so happy in a very long time and you’re the reason for it.’

Frodo made a bit of a face. ‘Maybe. Sometimes I think I just make him cross.’

‘Oh, never mind him being a grumbly old man!’ Prisca assured him. ‘There’s nothing he wants more than to have you with him.’

Except having Rum with him. Frodo knew better than to say that, so he just smiled. He had watched Bilbo watch Rum during the horse show and was no longer so sure what Bilbo felt about the Thain.

When they ended the dance, Frodo asked Aunt Sage if she would be his next partner, which she gladly accepted. Prisca was already off with Wili. When they finished, other of their kin had found them and Frodo decided he was going to dance with all his aunts until Bilbo got back from his meeting with Otho. If Lobelia shows up, I’ll even dance with her! The ladies protested that he needed to go find himself some young lasses to enjoy his charms, but he just laughed and said he could think of no finer company. Aunt Tulip, it turned out, was a talented dancer, very light on her feet, and even taught him a few new steps. Uncle Dudo applauded them as they passed by, smiling broadly. Yes, make this uncle happy. Bilbo would approve. Aunt Nora was shy and had to be coaxed out, Uncle Falco teasing and scolding her to make her go. She was not nearly as good a dancer as the other aunts, but she was so pleasant Frodo did not mind. He had to wait his turn to dance with Dilly. She had claimed Uncle Rory at once, had worked her way through the uncles and now had Dudo engaged. After she caught her breath, she gladly accepted Frodo’s hand. It was a little difficult because she was so small, but he figured out how to shorten his steps so she could keep up. When they came back to the group, Bilbo was still nowhere to be seen, but Mac and Rum had joined them. Rum bade Frodo good evening, but did not otherwise try to speak to him.

Frodo took time to watch the Thain with his other kin. Whatever antagonism had been present between Rum and Rory the night before was gone, the two chatting amiably about Rum's Shirebourns. Uncle Dudo obviously did not care for the Thain, staying to the far side of the others and looking at Rum sourly. None of the others appeared to have any qualms about interacting with their notorious kinsman. Rum's own demeanor was pleasant and not as forward as he had been last night, though he clearly was happy to be the center of attention. Was that all for Bilbo? It was odd watching Rum because his manners were so similar to the old hobbit's when in a crowd. With only a little cajoling, Rum was soon dancing with Prisca, so Frodo asked Tulip if she would like another dance, which she did. A pretty young lass was standing nearby when he and Tulip returned, and gave him a sweet smile, so he asked her and they were soon out in the whirl. She did not say anything and only giggled when he tried to get a name. Some man, whether kinsman or sweetheart Frodo did not know, was waiting when the dance ended and quickly escorted the girl away, glaring at Frodo. He found another girl in a minute. She did not bother giving him a name, either.

'Frodo!' Gin called, walking over. Without really saying anything, Frodo handed the girl off to his cousin and waved them away to go dance, which neither seemed to mind. Amy was standing next to Blossom, glaring at him. Pearl had found her grandfather and was holding his hand, chattering, while Addy talked to Wili and Rory. Mac and Dilly were both gone and were probably out among the dancers. Frodo went to Blossom and held out his hand.

'All the rest of my aunts have given me a dance. Will you?'

'How can I turn down such a handsome young fellow?' she answered with a laugh. 'Amy, watch your sisters.' Amy's scowl became deeper and Frodo wagered he would not get a dance from her for some time. Blossom was a dancer like her son, and Frodo hoped they would not crash into some other couple as they romped through a sprightly tune. They walked back to the others, a bit out of breath.

Bilbo was there at last, but so were all the Burrowses. Rufus was talking to Bilbo and Rory while Asphodel was looking right at him, radiating disapproval. Bluebell was watching him with a hopeful expression. Bargo has his back to the dancing and was talking to someone Frodo could not see. What made him most interested was that Rum was watching Asphodel. You know she's trouble. Frodo suddenly realized who Esmie had probably written to. He steered Blossom directly towards the new arrivals.

'Uncle Bilbo,' he cheerfully called out, get a smile in return. 'I've been doing as you told me.'

'I've told you quite a bit, lad. What are you doing?'

'Having a dance with each of my lovely aunts!' Frodo turned and gave Blossom an exaggerated bow, earning himself a similarly silly curtsey in return, making everyone laugh. 'And there's just one left.' With his most charming smile, he held his hand out to Asphodel. 'May I please have the honor of this dance, Aunt Asphodel?' Asphodel looked at his hand like it was a viper. Frodo kept smiling and did not look away.

'Take him up on it, Asphodel,' Tulip called out, 'Frodo's a marvelous dancer!'

'Go on,' Uncle Rufus said, giving Asphodel a pat on her rump and a little push. 'Save the next one for me!'

Frodo took Asphodel’s hand in a firm grip and just started walking off with her, trusting she would come along rather than make a scene in front of her husband. To his amusement, the next tune was exactly the one that had played when he and Bluebell had danced the night before. He kept his smile on while they were still close to the others, though her expression was of barely contained fury. As soon as he had put several dozen yards between them and the rest of the kin, he dropped his cheer.

‘You obnoxious little brat, I will…’

‘You will do nothing.’ Something in his expression dismayed her. In a soft, intense voice, Frodo said ‘You can stop with your slander about my father, my mother and me. You can also keep to yourself any wicked thing you think to say about Bilbo.’

‘I have no idea what…’

‘You know perfectly well. All the worst lies about me and my parents start with you, Asphodel.’

‘Hardly lies! I know what a perverted little creature you are.’

‘Not me. Your own brat is the one who can’t keep his hands to himself. He did things to me until I was big enough to fight back. I am not about to stop fighting back. If you care about Bargo’s reputation, you’ll stop pushing your slander.’

‘No one would believe you. They all say...’

‘Bilbo does. Your big brother does. As for who says what, Esmie just got put on a very short leash by the Mistress for her slander about me. I think you’ll be next. You two are the only ones who says such things.’ Asphodel started to look worried. ‘Go ahead. Ask Rory who he believes, me or Bargo. Ask Mac. They know all about Bargo’s tricks.’ Frodo went back to smiling sweetly at his shocked aunt. ‘I’m not that friendless little orphan anymore, Auntie. I am very tired of being treated badly by my mother’s kin. Bilbo’s tired of it, too. I suggest you stop.’

Frodo did not say anything else through the rest of their dance, but smiled as though he was having the best time. Asphodel said nothing, her face very pale aside from two bright red spots on her cheeks. He liked that he was very slightly taller than she was and that she had to look up at him. When the music stopped, Frodo briskly walked them back to the rest, beaming at everyone. Brazen it out Baggins, just like Bilbo taught you. He gave Asphodel the same grand bow as he had given to Blossom, getting another laugh. Asphodel managed a strained smile and nodded her head to him. Bilbo just looked thoughtful. You’ll have to be patient, Bilbo, if you want to know what I said.

Before he could speak or move, Amy pounced on him, seizing his hand. ‘I want a dance, now,’ she told him.

‘Of course,’ he said, amused and bit intimidated by her ferocity.

‘Me, too!’ said Pearl and she tugged on Rum’s hand. ‘I want a dance, Grandpa!’

‘Then you shall have one!’ he said grandly, giving her a very elegant version of Frodo’s silly bow before walking out among the other dancers. Frodo followed with Amy and saw Addy just behind them with Fire. After the dance was done, Rum and Addy traded the younger girls for the next tune. Amy kept firm hold of Frodo, and warned off a strange girl with a glare, not that he minded. He liked this cousin. She reminded him of Ula with her direct manner and sense of daring, and she was a better dancer than her mother. Her ire at him vanished as soon as they were moving, and he allowed himself to simply enjoy having fun with someone his own age. After the second dance, Fire asked to dance with Frodo, which Amy allowed with a grin. Pearl reclaimed Rum and Addy took Amy. They did a final switch and Frodo ended up with Pearl, who was good despite being so young. She was almost as tall as Amy and Frodo could tell she was going to be beautiful when she grew up.

Darron and Odogrim were there when they went back, as was Gin. The younger boys were looking longingly at Bluebell, but Odogrim never took his eyes off Bargo. The adults were chatting amongst themselves. Frodo gave Darron and Gin each a tap on the shoulder. ‘Come on, let’s find some girls.’ He was reasonably sure that Bilbo would not go anywhere else, not with both himself and Rum there, and he did not want to stay in Asphodel or Bargo’s immediate vicinity.

They had no problem locating flirtatious females, though it was getting increasingly difficult to dance due to the crush of hobbits on the dance floor. The three of them tried to stay close and not get swept apart by the crowd. A few times he glimpsed other of their kin dancing. Bilbo and Prisca, of course, were romping about, not that you could keep them apart, and Rufus did dance with Asphodel, though Frodo made sure to stay well away. His other aunts and uncles danced with each other, and he could usually spot one of the uncles dancing with the young girls. Every time he looked about, he could see Rum with someone, more beautiful than whomever he was dancing with. He was like Bilbo at Wintermark, never lacking for a partner, the women as eager to flirt with the Thain as they had been with the old hobbit. After about an hour, he and the other two boys were exhausted and found their way back to the others.

‘What are we doing tomorrow?’ asked Gin.

‘There’s the pull in the afternoon,’ said Darron. ‘It’s going to be a pretty good contest. Oh, and the wagons in the morning, but that’s kind of boring. You’re coming to the party tomorrow night, right?’


‘Papa’s throwing a Midyear’s party,’ Darron said to Gin, ‘and I know your family’s invited.’

‘Bilbo and I will be there,’ Frodo assured Darron, getting a big smile.

‘Good! I know I’ll have someone to talk to. If it gets too boring with the grown-ups talking, we can always slip out and come here for dancing,’ Darron said with a grin.

Gin poked Frodo. ‘You said you’d introduce us to your cousin, Bluebell.’

‘You really want to meet her?’ The other two nodded. Frodo glanced over towards Bluebell, who was watching him, looking forlorn. Uncle Rufus was standing behind her, caught his eye, and motioned him to come over. Asphodel was nowhere in sight, nor was Bilbo. No avoiding it, Baggins. ‘Let’s go.’ Bluebell’s face lit up when she saw him coming over. ‘Uncle Rufus, Bluebell, I’d like to introduce some of my cousins on the Took side.’

‘I’m always pleased to meet friends of yours, Frodo,’ Rufus politely replied with a smile.

‘This is Gin Took, who is Uncle Addy’s son, and this is Uncle Wilcar’s son, Darron Chubb. Gin, Darron, this is my uncle, Rufus Burrows and his youngest daughter, my cousin Bluebell.’ A few pleasantries were exchanged. Time to be a gentlehobbit. ‘Bluebell?’ She gave him a happy look. ‘May I ask you for a dance?’

She started to answer, then looked back at her father, who was giving them both a stern glance. ‘Papa?’

‘You may have a dance, but you will stay where I can see you.’ Rufus’s tone brooked no disagreement.

‘Yes, sir,’ Frodo and Bluebell meekly replied. Frodo offered his arm and led her out. Just beyond Uncle Falco, Odogrim was standing with Bargo. Odogrim said something to Bargo which made the other scowl but also hunch his shoulders. When the next tune started, Frodo was glad that it was a reasonably sedate one.

‘Thank you, Frodo.’ Bluebell’s voice was barely above a whisper.

‘You’re welcome, Bluebell.’

‘I’m sorry about Bargo.’

Frodo found himself feeling some pity for Bluebell. ‘I know you are. I’m sorry we got in a fight.’ He smiled at her, getting a smile in return. ‘But we have to be on our best manners. Uncle Bilbo was very mad at me that I was scrapping with a cousin and,’ Frodo had to collect himself so he wouldn’t laugh, ‘kissing girls in public. He said it was bad manners and I think he had a talk with your father.’

‘I think so, too,’ Bluebell said nervously, looking in her father’s direction.

‘You’re going back to Buckland after the Fair, yes?’

‘Uh-huh, with Uncle Rory and Mac and Dilly.’

‘I heard a rumor.’ She looked at him. Frodo shrugged and pretended to be annoyed. ‘I heard that Hamson Bracegirdle is sweet on you.’ She looked at him, astonished. That was very underhanded, Rat. They deserve each other, Baggins. ‘I know I heard Hamson say once that you were the prettiest girl at Brandy Hall. Bargo punched him for it.’

‘I wish he would stop that!’

‘Well, the rest of us boys would like him to stop it, too. I didn’t know if you knew about that.’ She shook her head. ‘I mean, I know you know about Marmalas and Gormac.’

‘What about them?’

‘Well, that they like you, but are too shy to say anything. It’s pretty obvious by how they act.’

‘But I like you.’

Frodo looked away for a moment. ‘And I’m flattered, but…’

‘But what?’

‘Well, we’re a little close of cousins, you know.’

‘Oh.’ Bluebell looked crestfallen.

‘And your mother is so… opposed.’ Frodo sighed, then smiled. ‘Anyway, I’m glad we got to dance without Bargo barging in. Gin and Darron would love to have a dance from you, too, if you would? I’ve heard nothing from them since they saw you yesterday except would I introduce them to you. If your father will allow it, you can dance some more and I can watch.’ Frodo gave her a wink. You are a total rat for that.

The tune ended and he walked her back to Rufus. Gin and Darron still stood there, staring at her. ‘Papa, may I have a dance with Darron?’ Bluebell asked. Darron shot a startled look at Frodo, then smiled broadly at Bluebell.

‘Yes, and one with Master Gin, but that will be all for the evening. Stay where I can see you.’ Darron lost no time escorting Bluebell out. Frodo glanced at Rufus who looked at him sternly for a few heartbeats, then gave him a smile and a wink. Not quite sure what to make of that, Frodo edged away. As he had promised, he watched the other two dance. Suddenly, a mug of beer appeared before him.

‘That’s thirsty work you’ve been doing this evening.’ Rum gave him a genial smile and took a sip from his own mug.

‘Thank you.’ Frodo accepted the mug and took a gulp. He was thirsty. ‘Where’s Bilbo?’

‘I believe he is dancing with Sage. He should return soon.’ Rum nodded politely and turned his attention to the dancing.

Frodo watched Rum from the corner of his eye. Bilbo has forgiven him, just like you forgave Odogrim. You should, too. He knew Bilbo wanted him to. But Odogrim never hurt you. Sara did, and Bilbo will never forgive that. There was the nasty bruise. The shaking. The touches. If he said no, then Rum would never be allowed near Bag End. I won’t let him hurt you. You’ll hurt him if you keep Rum away. Frodo sipped the beer, torn between making Bilbo happy and making Bilbo his alone. He said he is sorry. Bluebell finished the dance with Darron and came back to the side, Gin eagerly waiting his turn. Bilbo needs him, too.

‘You have my permission.’ Frodo looked at Rum. The Thain gave him a long look and then a slight smile.

‘I will give you no reason to regret it, Frodo. Thank you.’ With a nod, Rum walked away. Frodo drank his beer and watched a delighted Gin try not to step on Bluebell’s toes. When they were done, they walked back to Rufus and the two boys talked and flirted with Bluebell, who seemed to have forgotten Frodo was standing there.

‘Wilwarin.’ Bilbo walked over, a beer in each hand. He looked at the beer Frodo was already holding. ‘I’m sorry, lad. I should have brought you something sooner so you didn’t need to get it yourself.’

Frodo tossed back the last in his mug and set it on the ground. Bilbo gave him another. ‘I didn’t. That was from Rum.’ Bilbo waited. ‘I gave him permission.’ Bilbo nodded. ‘He’s not forgiven.’

‘Good. Don’t be too quick to forgive him. Make him earn it.’ With a smile, Bilbo sipped his own beer. They stood, silent, drinking. When they finished, Frodo picked up the empty mug at his feet.

‘I’m tired. I think I’d like to go back to the inn.’

‘That sounds an excellent idea, lad. Let’s go.’ They deposited the mugs on a table and slowly walked back. When they were past the fairgrounds, Frodo took Bilbo’s hand.

‘I’d ask you a question, but then I would probably have to answer one myself,’ the old hobbit said.

‘You probably would.’

Bilbo chuckled. ‘Very well, Wilwarin, ask your question first.’

‘What is the most important thing you learned today?’

‘Hmm, that is a difficult question to answer, Frodo. Let me think.’ They walked a dozen yards before Bilbo spoke. ‘That our best cousins are far better people than our worst cousins are bad sorts.’

‘And what’s your question?’

‘What did you say to Asphodel?’

‘That she is to stop her slander because I will not put up with it anymore.’



‘Because that’s what I told Otho.’

‘I thought you said that Otho and Lobelia would not be a problem, not for that, anyway.’

‘They don’t dare speak to others, but Otho has twice said to me that he believes his slander and he acts offensively towards you. He spoke foully a third time tonight. He will not dare that again.’

Michel Delving, Morning, Midyear's Day, 1390

Frodo suppressed a yawn. Bilbo had pushed him out of bed at an early hour this morning, reminding him he needed to go take care of Uncle Wili's ponies. It had not helped that Bilbo himself had turned over and gone back to sleep. Breakfast in the common room was plentiful and it felt oddly good not to be eating a meal with the rest of the family but by himself, like someone who had his own affairs to attend to. It also let him flirt with the serving girl without getting teased by his elders. He was careful to mind his manners so Mister Cotsman would not have anything to complain to Bilbo about.

The walk in Michel Delving out to the farm was refreshing, the air still cool from night, long shadows cast by the eastern hills reaching out to the green plain to the west. The crowds of last night were gone, no doubt sleeping in after the late night of merriment, and only a few hobbits were on the road, each nodding a respectful greeting as they passed each other on their morning's business. The town smelled different than Hobbiton, a bit smoky, a bit dusty, and with an undercurrent of something musty that was probably the chalk.

With his sleepiness receding, Frodo was glad for the solitude of the walk so that he could think. Something had happened between Bilbo and Otho last night, more than just an exchange of words. When Bilbo had said that Otho would not dare to slander Frodo again, it had taken all of Frodo's will not to shudder and pull his hand away. Bilbo's voice had been soft, cold, pleased at having frightened, or harmed, Otho. It was the dark anger, the kind that went with the Parting, and had no place in a hobbit's heart. The sense of danger had subsided after a few minutes, but never quite left until Bilbo finally let go his hand. For the first time in the trip, he wished that he was not sharing Bilbo’s bed, worried that the sense of dread would return if they touched, but Bilbo had been his usual self by the time they retired and Frodo had gratefully cuddled up against Bilbo’s back, enjoying breathing in his uncle’s familiar, reassuring scent.

When Frodo got to Rum’s farm and walked back to the barn, he found Mac hitching the Rushies to his wagon. ‘Hullo, Frodo!’ his big cousin greeted him. ‘I’m taking the lads here to go graze. A fellow at the fair told me of a common field out a ways, so I figured I’d go there while it’s early, then head to the fairgrounds.’

‘Where is the field? Maybe I should bring Turnip and Biscuit.’

Mac chuckled. ‘I think those two would rather eat Rum’s oats and sleep.’ Wili’s ponies did look rather somnolent.

‘Well, tell me where it is and if they wake up, I’ll take them out there.’ Mac described the way, finished hitching the team and was on his way. Frodo went to work cleaning out the stalls, starting with the Rushies’ empty ones and then moving to Wili’s ponies. It felt good to do something simple and physical with no need to talk. He had enjoyed helping Mac take care of the ponies back in Hobbiton, just as he liked going to Odo’s farm and helping with things. It was a change from being with Bilbo and his uncle’s constant, inquisitive attention. It was not that he did not want to be with Bilbo, but even a small respite from his company made the old hobbit more pleasant to be with. The walks he took around Hobbiton were all right, but there was not much to do during them except think. When he had something occupying his hands, needing to be done just so, that let him escape from his own thoughts as well. He suspected cooking would be like this if Bilbo was not always about. Maybe I should ask for a pony, if only to have something to keep me busy. After the stalls were mucked and the wheelbarrow emptied, Frodo fetched some hay and grain from the feed room opposite the tack area, filling the ponies’ manger and putting just a few handfuls of oats into their feed buckets. That got Turnip and Biscuit to open their eyes. The other ponies in the stable nickered at the prospect of food. Frodo laughed and told them not to be so greedy.

He went back to the tack area to find brushes so he could curry the ponies. The small area was perfectly arranged, without a single harness or bridle out of place, nothing loose on the floor, a saddle set neatly on a stand and a cupboard with brushes and combs, all in perfect condition. He could tell from the smell of the leather that it was kept clean and well oiled. There was not a whip or crop anywhere to be seen.

When he was selecting a brush, Frodo heard voices at the barn door. ‘Yes, Pal.’ Rum sounded bored. The voice replying was not distinct enough for Frodo to make out words. ‘I’m sure I have no idea.’ Rum’s voice was coming closer and the Shirebourns were nickering a greeting, which their master returned in kind.

‘Please, don’t worry yourself on my account, Pal,’ spoke a voice Frodo did not recognize, but which was familiar. ‘You go on. I’ve already spoken to Father this morning. He’s still at the inn and I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you for breakfast.’

‘If you’re sure, Car.’ That voice must be Pal's. Frodo stayed still in a shadow at the back of the tack area, not wanting to be noticed.

‘Yes, I’m sure. I just need to look at…’

‘Thomas.’ Rum said.

‘...right, at Thomas, and then I’m going off to the Fair. I need to look at some dwarf work before the crowd gets too thick and my sister has a quilt she’s showing, and I need to be there for that. If you would tell Father I’ll see him at the Fair?’

‘Of course.’

There was a long moment, then Frodo heard a stall door open and Thomas’ hooves clopping on the center aisle. ‘He’s magnificent!’

‘I know.’ There was no hiding the pride in Rum’s voice. ‘Come this way.’ A few seconds later, he could see Rum and Odovacar standing at the end of the aisle just short of the tack area. Rum was once again dressed in rather tattered clothing, set for dirty work in the barn, while Car was neatly dressed, ready for the Fair. Rum was easily a hand taller than the other and his long hair was caught in a ponytail near his shoulders. Rum whistled and Frodo heard Thomas walk towards them and come to a stop just out of sight. A hand motion and another whistle sent the pony trotting away. Rum clapped his hands, and the sound of the hooves stopped, turned, another whistle, and the pony trotted back, Car leaning down to better view the horse’s gait. Rum openly ogled the other’s rump before holding up a hand to make the pony stop.

‘What do you think?’

‘What’s your stud fee?’ Car asked.

‘For Thomas? A copper crown.’ Frodo could only see Rum’s back, but could imagine the expression on the man’s face, given the red that came to Car’s cheeks.

‘That’s a steep price.’ Car ran his eyes down Rum and back up. ‘Can it be… negotiated?’

‘I’m not inclined to sell my lad short.’ Rum looked towards the pony and nickered. Frodo heard the pony walk away and then did not hear hooves and knew Thomas must have returned to his stall. ‘It takes something of very fine quality to be worth trading for him or Dickon. A good stud is hard to find.’

‘How do you judge quality?’

Rum reached out and gave Car a gentle push on his shoulder making the man back up. ‘I usually get a sample of whatever is offered and see if it’s worth going… further.’ Car did not look away from Rum’s gaze and let himself be walked backwards against the wall of the feed room. ‘Are you… offering… a sample?’

‘I think it’s a bit more than just a sample.’ Frodo kept as still as he could and tried not to breathe. If either looked into the tack room shadow, they would see him.

Rum crossed his arms and cocked his head. ‘May I see what’s on offer?’ Car unbuckled his belt, unbuttoned his trousers and exposed himself, shirttails obscuring much of his crotch. Rum glanced down and then back at Car’s face. ‘It’s a little difficult to judge with all that in the way.’ Car unbuttoned his shirt, his eyes now on Rum’s crotch, and pulled the cloth aside. He was clearly quite aroused. Rum did not move. ‘Still a bit hard to see.’ Car pulled his braces off his shoulders and allowed his trousers to drop completely. ‘I’ve seen better. No deal.’ Rum started to turn away.

‘What more do you want?’

Rum chuckled. ‘Tell me, Car, is this really about Thomas, or am I what you want? I’m not seeing anything worth my boy’s balls, but I might be interested in some fun for myself.’

Car’s face was flushed and he was looking at Rum hungrily. ‘Can’t it be both?’

‘I’m sorry, no. Thomas is a copper crown.’

‘And you?’

‘Say what you want, Car.’

‘You. I want you.’ He started fondling himself.

‘But I’m not sure I want you,’ Rum said. ‘May I have a sample first?’

Car reached out with his free hand and took Rum by the waist, pulling him nearer, and started undoing Rum’s trousers. Rum leaned forward, bracing his hands to either side of Car’s head and nuzzled the other’s neck, getting a moan out of Car. Car’s hands went to Rum’s crotch, Rum shoved his hips forward against Car and began thrusting. He dropped a hand to the back of Car’s head and turned the other’s face up to be kissed. Frodo felt his own face and throat flush and his cock get heavy at the sight of Rum’s mouth on Car’s. Car was moaning more loudly and shoving his hips against Rum’s. Rum was beautiful, even now, his hair all tangled down his back and his calves flexing as he pushed forward, every motion powerful and purposeful. A few more thrusts and Rum groaned and pumped rapidly against the other, spilling, then stepped back, leaving Car pushing his hips against the air.

‘That was… all right,’ Rum said in a steadier voice than Frodo could have managed.

‘But… I’m not… done,’ Car panted.

‘Not my problem. I’m the one sampling here.’ Rum gestured at his own crotch. ‘You can finish yourself while you clean up, if you like. I’ll allow it.’

Car dropped heavily to his knees and leaned forward, his face hidden in Rum’s crotch. The way they were positioned, Frodo could only see Car from his chest down, framed by Rum’s legs, one hand stroking himself quickly, the other fondling his balls. After a minute or so, he still had not spilled and Rum stepped to the side, fastening his trousers. Car let out a sound that was half moan, half whine and spilled onto the floor. He dropped to his hands, trousers down around his ankles, and panted. The sight of this left Frodo embarrassed on the man’s behalf. Rum obviously did not care for the other. There was no sign of want or attraction, not like his touches for Bilbo, where he had wanted to please and be pleased. Once Car stopped panting so heavily, Rum did offer a hand to help the man stand, and put another on Car’s waist to keep him from being tripped by his own clothes.

‘I’m sorry, Car,’ Rum said in a slightly disappointed tone. ‘You’re not standing out. I can get cock any time, and yours is decent, but not exceptional. I mean, compare it to what you just saw.’ Car gave him a resentful look, but nodded. Rum ran a hand over Car’s bare rump. ‘But some other parts of you might do quite well. I won’t know until I try. I like my team, but I also enjoy… riding.’ Rum smiled down at Car until the other nodded again.

Rum stepped back and watched while Car pulled his clothes back into place and even helped straighten the man’s braces. ‘So, I can expect you later? You need to get to the Fair now.’

‘Yes, later.’

Rum leaned down and gave Car a long, deep kiss. ‘We’ll talk more at the Fair.’ He took Car’s shoulder and gave him a little push towards the door. ‘Do be sure to give my best to your father.’ The other walked off. Rum watched him go and gave a little wave, then said over his shoulder, ‘You can come out now, Frodo.’ With that, Rum walked out of sight.

Frodo wished to melt into the floor. You aren’t nearly as good as spying on lustful boys as Bilbo. When he was certain that his own crotch was more or less behaving itself, he walked to the stable aisle. Rum was leaning against Thomas’s stall door, smirking. ‘You saw me.’

‘No, I didn’t see you. Thomas told me you were there.’ The pony nickered as though agreeing.

‘Thomas told you? He said it was me?’

Rum chuckled. ‘Not directly, but he kept looking at the tack room in a way that let me know someone was there. Pal had already left, so there were only four people who would likely be at the barn at this hour – Pearl, Mac, Bilbo and you. Pearl would have come out once Pal left. The Rushies are gone, so Mac’s with them. That leaves you and Bilbo. Someone’s been cleaning up, and Bilbo would never muck a stall.’ Rum smile brightly. ‘Did you like the show?’

‘From where I was standing, nothing very impressive to see.’

That made Rum laugh. ‘No, not much there.’ His look sharpened. ‘Did you like any of what you saw?’

He’s testing you Baggins. ‘Parts of it.’

‘What parts?’

‘I think I’ll keep that to myself for now.’

‘Wise, and not just because it’s me. I will figure it out.’

Frodo smiled. ‘You really can’t figure out what I most… desire… from you?’

Rum’s smile vanished and he studied Frodo closely, then nodded. ‘There’s only one thing you desire from me, and you want it very badly. You want to know about your parents.’

And that kiss. And to stay away from Bilbo. Rum could figure those out for himself. ‘Yes, that.’

‘Why do you want to hear this from me?’

‘Because no one besides Bilbo seems to remember them. Others just say my parents were nice people and that they’d be proud of me.’

‘They were and they would be. Let me think.’ Rum looked away, gaze inward. Frodo went back to the tack room and retrieved a brush and a comb and went to curry Turnip. After a few minutes, Rum joined him with another bush and stood on the other side of Turnip. ‘I think I know a story you will want to hear and only I can tell. It’s mostly about your mother.’

‘I hear least about her, which is strange given that I’ve lived most of my life in Brandy Hall.’

‘Then you need this story,’ Rum said firmly. ‘You mother was supposed to have married me.’

What?’ Turnip jumped at Frodo’s outburst. Rum grinned.

‘Yes! The Master’s daughter was supposed to marry the Thain’s heir. Everyone thought this was a perfect match, even my mother, who didn’t like any of the girls around me. The only people who knew it was nonsense were me and Prim, and we thought it a great joke.’

‘You need to explain this.’ Frodo was befuddled by this claim.

‘I met Prim when we all went to Buckland for Rory and Gilda’s wedding. I was a little older than you, about twenty-three, and Prim was just nineteen. Rory is my father’s cousin and Gilda’s my mother’s cousin, so there was no way to avoid attending. Besides, Bilbo and Drogo were going, so I thought I’d have someone to visit with, and I did while we went there, because they traveled with us. They didn’t stay long. Drogo had his hands full trying to make Bilbo behave himself, so he had no time for me at all. Bilbo was being a total ass. He made Gilda cry at her own wedding! I mean, it’s not like she hadn’t made him cry often enough, but that was a beastly thing to do.’

Frodo just stared. Bilbo made Gammer cry? She made him cry?

‘So, we’re there,’ Rum continued, ‘and I have no one to talk to, but Prim and Ta became best friends the minute they met, just like me and Drogo.’

‘Ta? Who’s Ta?’

Rum stopped and gave him an odd look. ‘Ah, yes, Ta. My sister, Fortalda. We’re twins.’

‘I don’t think I’ve ever heard of your sister.’

‘I’m not surprised. She died over thirty years ago.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Yes. It was sad.’ Rum shrugged and looked at his own hands brushing the pony. ‘I wasn’t so wicked before she died.’ This he said in a very quiet voice. ‘But she was alive then,’ he went on in a more normal tone, ‘and begged Aunt Mira to let Prim come back to the Great Smials with us. Mira wasn’t sure that such a young girl should be allowed to go off to a warren like the Smials, so I pretended to be rather smitten with her, at least until we were home.’ He scowled and gave Frodo a stern look. ‘It has always offended me that they would use Prim, or any girl, like that, just packing her off to be pawed over by the resident pervert in hope he’d figure out what girls are for.’

‘That’s what they thought?’

‘Yes. They could not have cared less what I did as long as it was with a girl.’ Rum shook his head. ‘Prim and I were always honest with each other that we felt no affection save that of a brother and sister. She and Ta ran about and I was their dutiful companion. That’s how your mother and I got to be such good friends! No boy dared importune her because it was understood that she was to wed the Thain’s heir when the time came. I’d show up at every dance with the two most beautiful girls in the Shire, one on each arm, and was the envy of all the lads.’ Rum gave him a mischievous look. ‘And some of those lads were interested in me, not them.’

‘Is that where my parents met, then, at the Great Smials? You and Bilbo talked about how my father was always going there to visit with you.’

‘No, actually not. Prim lived with us for seven years, but Drogo never saw her there during that time. He visited a couple of times, but only to see me. Not long after Rory married Gilda, Bilbo went off on his adventures and didn’t take me, as he had promised he would.’ Rum rolled his eyes. ‘I told Drogo that he should come live with me at the Smials, but he said he had to tend his father and keep an eye on Bag End lest it get stripped bare by the Sackville-Bagginses. He moved back in with Bilbo once our big brother returned from slaying dragons, but nobody saw much of either of them after that since Bilbo was tramping all over and Drogo was staying on his heels making sure he didn’t go off on adventures again.’ Frodo compared this version of the story to what Bilbo had told him. He thought Rum’s perspective to be quite interesting.

‘Finally, Prim’s sister, that nasty witch you danced with last night, Asphodel, was to wed Rufus Burrows for reasons no one could understand because he was so nice and she was so awful, and we all went back to Buckland. I said Bilbo and Drogo had to keep company with me, Ta and Prim because everyone else was stupid, like the cows out there,’ this made Frodo snicker, ‘and Bilbo didn’t care much for weddings anyway, so he declared he was our chaperone. I think Aunt Mira hoped that Drogo would take a liking to Ta, since everyone was convinced that Prim and I were of course to be together. The day after we got there, we went on a picnic to avoid the hubbub in the Hall and by the time we walked back, it was clear that Drogo and Primula were in love.’ Rum gave Frodo a happy smile.

‘Just like that?’

‘Yes! It was delightful! I think Bilbo was actually the happiest. He went out with us wistful and downcast and came back happy as a lark. We all kept quiet about it because, well, Gorbadoc didn’t particularly like either Bilbo or Drogo at the time, and this would not have made him or Aunt Mira very happy, so we kept pretending that Prim and I liked each other so that she would be allowed to come back to the Great Smials.’ Rum chuckled. ‘And then, me and Ta made sure that Drogo and Bilbo had invitations to visit all the time, and most assumed that it was because Drogo was smitten with Ta, but they were exactly to each other as Prim was to me, with affection, but no love. The real story was that he was smitten with Prim, and she with him, and me with Bilbo. Not that he was smitten with me.’ Rum sighed in aggravation.

‘Sometimes, we would go to Hobbiton and visit them at Bag End. We often ended up visiting for a few weeks at a time. I’m not sure anyone else was in on the secret, though I suspect Bilbo said something to Gilda because she started writing more often to Prim and sometimes her letters angered Prim, though she would only share them with Ta.’

‘So, how long did this go on?’

‘Not quite two years.’ Rum scowled. ‘Some nasty old hen spoiled it. There were any number of rumors running about with us five always in each other’s company. You must never believe these rumors.’ Rum gave Frodo a stern look. ‘Your father was a very honorable hobbit, and did nothing that would ever bring shame to his beloved, be certain of that. This was who he wanted as his wife! Drogo was content for Prim to come of age, and they probably would have until someone started writing letters.’


‘I don’t know, but I have my suspicions. In any event, in 1348, we were visiting Bag End as usual, and Bilbo got a letter from Gorbadoc requiring him to bring Prim back to Brandy Hall immediately, and another letter from my father, demanding that Ta and I come back to the Smials. We all did as we were told. Within two weeks, Bilbo, Drogo and Prim were back at Bag End, and your parents were married. Bilbo then came to the Smials, met with Father, and left without a word to me or Ta. He was forbidden to come back and we were forbidden to visit him. We didn’t see each other again for two years.’

Rum gave Frodo a bright smile. ‘No one has ever told you that story, have they?’

‘No, not a bit of it.’ Frodo was shocked by it, but also amused. ‘So, how long did you pretend you were going to marry my mother?’

‘Almost ten years. And it wasn’t entirely pretense. I loved Primula a great deal, and she loved me back, and we looked out for each other, and Ta, too. Primula did not like any of the boys she met, especially those in Buckland that her father kept trying to pick out for her. We agreed that if she couldn’t find any man she liked, she could always marry me. I would have been a very good husband to her.’ Rum gave Turnip a pat and went to the stall door. ‘And I’m afraid that’s the only story I have time for this morning, cousin, though I have more for other days.’

‘Thank you, Rum. I do want to hear your other stories, though perhaps with a bit less… entertainment beforehand.’ Rum laughed heartily and left the stall. He set to taking care of his own ponies, humming to himself and talking to his animals, all the while ignoring Frodo. He soon had a barn cat perching on his shoulder while others followed him about, mewing and rubbing against the ponies’ legs. Frodo finished brushing Turnip and then went to the next stall and brushed Biscuit, studying the Thain as he did. He did not bother to hide his looks, figuring that Rum enjoyed being watched. It was almost impossible not to watch the man; it was simply pleasurable to see him move, turn, bend, smile. Frodo imagined that dancing with Rum would be a joy. He wondered if Bilbo had ever danced with Rum and suddenly found that he wanted to see that. That made him scowl and hurry to finish. I haven’t forgiven you. Not yet.

Frodo put things away and walked towards the barn door. ‘I’m going to the Fair now.’

Rum came out of the stall he was cleaning and gave Frodo a kiss on the cheek. ‘I’d give you a hug, but you'd smell awful afterwards and be a bit sticky,’ he said, grinning. ‘Bilbo would have my hide if I left you like that.’

Frodo snickered and gave Rum a kiss on the cheek in return. ‘I’ll see you at the show later.’

He walked down to the lane and towards the fairgrounds, unsure what to think about this odd encounter. He might not yet completely forgive Rum for what he had done to Bilbo, but he knew it would be soon. Bilbo said to make him earn it. A few more stories like that one would do it. The story was as relieving as it was startling. Suddenly, a number of the wicked rumors he had been hearing about Bilbo and his parents started to make sense. They fooled people, and that made others envious and spiteful. He wondered who had written the letters that tattled on them to Gorbadoc and Rum’s father. I could ask him who he suspects. Frodo very much liked that his parents had fallen in love in a single day. He did not want to write down anything now, but when he got back home, he was going to try to figure out the dates.

His thoughts went to the encounter between Rum and Car. That Car had used looking at Thomas as an excuse to be alone with Rum was obvious. Frodo now understood what Bilbo meant when the old hobbit said Rum had not been flirting with him the night they met. He had not been flirting this morning, either, but he had been seductive. Frodo compared what he had seen to his own acts towards the other boys and Sara, and knew how ridiculous his efforts had been. But they liked what I did. He tried to make his mind go back to Wintermark and his fooling with Ula, how they had kissed and stroked each other as they stood against the tree, but he could not keep Sara out. Was Rum doing to Car as Sara had done to him, or was it the other way around? Car had been the one begging, just like Sara. Rum may have responded, but he did not care. Telling me a story made him happier than humping Car. And Frodo wanted that kiss. No, the kisses Bilbo had given Rum. Just the thought made him feel warm again.

Stop it! You’re being a rat, thinking that. It’s just a kiss. Bilbo never would, you know that. He loves you most and he never would. He could stand that because it was proper and because he had promised Bilbo he never would, either. What hurt was Bilbo giving another what he could not have. Frodo growled at himself in aggravation. You have kisses. You kissed Ula. You can kiss her again at harvest. He was pretty sure she would let him, though she might smack him afterwards. That was a happier thought. Ula liked his kisses and she had kissed him several times even after she said she was not going to. You just like kissing, Baggins. This was true, even though he had not done much kissing. Just Ula. And Tom. Frodo swallowed. And Sara. He did not want to think about Sara. He had managed to not think about Sara for months. He always wanted your mouth on him. He shook his head a little, shuddering at the thought. Sara’s mouth on his own, it was not like Ula, or what he had seen Bilbo or Rum do, or even what he had managed with Tom. I didn’t want to kiss him back. Sara would get angry if Frodo failed to move his lips and tongue against his own when he lay on top of Frodo, though he would never try to kiss if they were standing. Frodo was always silent through it, though his cousin would moan, gasp and swear at him. Rum was silent with Car. He wondered if Rum had enjoyed the kiss with Car. With another growl, Frodo made himself walk more quickly and get to the Fair so he would have things to distract him from his disgusting thoughts.

The fairgrounds were busy, but not as chaotic as they had been yesterday morning. There would be two horse competitions today, plus other animal shows, all the food stalls he had yet to sample, and many exhibits and competitions of crafts and wares. And the Midyear’s party at Wilcar’s tonight. Frodo wondered where Darron, Gin and Amy were. It’s still early, Baggins. They won’t be here for a while. He remembered Uncle Dudo telling him about a textile exhibit in the sewing building and thought he would take a look at that while he waited for his friends to show up.

It was an impressive sight, with cloth from all over the Shire and beyond it hanging on stands or draped across tables. There were a few dress forms showing clothing made from some samples. Attendants politely warned people not to handle the fabric so as not to dirty and grime it. Small tags were pinned or placed on the different textiles, saying what they were, where they were from and who had brought them. Frodo stared in wonder at a length of silvery silk, woven by elves of Mithlond and brought to the Fair by the dwarves. He came up short and then grinned at the sight of the shirt Dilly had brought, neatly arranged on a form, the card pinned to the back saying it was fine linen from the Yale, crafted and brought by Daffodil Burrows Brandybuck of Buckland. There was a ribbon pinned to it saying “Award of Merit.”

He was getting hungry, so he went and bought himself a few pieces of fried dough drizzled with honey, and a cup of tea. The others would be arriving soon, so he wandered in the direction of the dwarf tent. Neither Darron nor Gin were there. Frodo next went to the mechanics barn, but still did not see anyone. Frodo began to walk a bit more swiftly, looking around, trying to find his friends or just some kin. There was no one he knew, which left him feeling increasingly unsettled. Finally, up ahead, he glimpsed Tom listening to a fiddler who stood at the corner of the cow barn. ‘Tom!’ he called. Tom turned at the sound of his name, saw Frodo and hurried over, smiling broadly.

‘Frodo! It’s so good to see you!’ There was really no gracious way to avoid the hug Tom gave him, though he did step back out of arm’s reach when the smaller boy would have kept an arm around him. This made Tom give Frodo an unhappy look, but he stayed where he was.

‘How is Mister Greenbough’s business going?’ Frodo asked. ‘Have you had a great deal to write down?’

This made Tom preen a bit. ‘Oh, yes! My master is doing many bargains, and I am quite busy.’ Frodo smiled encouragingly. Let him brag, Baggins. Better than him flirting. ‘I had over an hour of scribing to do after the horse show yesterday, and then it was several hours more of that and the accounts last night.’

‘You must be tired from all that work so late into the night.’

Tom shrugged. ‘I’m used to demanding work. A well-run business requires it.’

‘That what my uncles, Dudo and Falco, say. They run shops and they are always having to do deals and keep accounts.’

‘Mister Greenbough gives me the morning and the afternoon to myself.’ Tom’s look became inviting. ‘I’m glad I’m getting to talk with you without everyone else about.’

‘You haven’t seen any of my cousins then, have you?’

Tom’s expression was irritated. ‘Not all of them. Just the one from Waymeet.’

Gin. ‘Where was he?’

‘Over by the food, about a half hour ago. We said hello, but he said he had to go meet someone and didn’t have time to talk. He wasn’t meeting you?’

Frodo shook his head. ‘No. Probably some other cousin.’ Tom’s expression was back to friendly. You should go look for Gin. ‘We could walk around until we run into him. Or Darron. Darron knows the Fair better, so he’d be better to run into.’

‘Yes, let’s do that. He was going that way.’ Frodo walked in the direction Tom gestured. Tom fell into step next to Frodo, close enough that their arms brushed. He walked slowly, making Frodo slow down to keep pace. There was no sign of Gin. When Frodo ducked down an alley between two buildings, Tom dropped behind him. A few steps in, Frodo felt Tom’s hand on his rump. Frodo turned quickly and gave Tom a shove into the wall.

‘Cut it out!’

‘I can’t help it. I miss you and you’re so… nice.’ Tom did not drop Frodo’s eyes. ‘I just keep thinking…’


The smaller boy’s cheeks reddened. ‘About you… and… that kiss.’

Frodo looked around to see if anyone was near. ‘I told you. No more of that. I don’t fool with boys anymore.’

‘Just Baggins, now, right?’ There was no hiding Tom’s jealousy. Is this what I look like, sound like, to Bilbo about Rum? Do you… love me? Frodo wavered on his earlier resolve to punch Tom for flirting. He began to pity the boy again.

‘Tom, listen to me. Neither I nor my uncle are what you believe. Bilbo is a perfectly proper gentlehobbit. He doesn’t do any of the wicked things said of him in Brandy Hall. I don’t want any other boy. I never did.’

‘You wanted me. You said so!’

Frodo shook his head. ‘No. I was a stupid little kid who was treated badly by everyone, even you. You were just less mean than the rest. I’m amazed at what I put up with from all of you.’

‘You did too! You said you loved me.’

‘And you said you didn’t. I think you were telling the truth. You just liked what I did, not me.’

Tom’s lower lip trembled and his eyes were wet. He shook his head. ‘I do want you. I don’t have anyone. You’re nice. Handsome. I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll kiss you.’

Like you offered Bilbo. Whatever he wanted. Whatever he wants. Still. Frodo understood something of what drove Tom. He knew he could do to Tom what Rum had done to Car, and Tom would want every second of it. Do as Bilbo would do. But Bilbo kissed Rum.

‘You can be my friend, Tom. That is all.’

Tom pouted. ‘Not even one kiss?’

‘Certainly not here.’ The look on the other’s face was hopeful. ‘No. Not anymore. You should find yourself a girl and kiss her. Then you won’t want another boy, either.’ I don’t want a boy. I want a girl and I want one man.

‘Really?’ Tom looked doubtful.

‘Really. And we should try to find Gin.’

Tom looked away and did not say anything for almost a minute. ‘He went the other way.’

I should punch you. Frodo sighed. ‘Then he’s probably walking back towards us.’ He motioned for Tom to go first, knowing that he would take a swing if Tom touched him again. They walked south and a little west, out past the stables and towards the pig sties. Most people were going the other direction, towards the arena where the wagon competition was due to start soon. For a minute, Frodo was tempted to turn and go to the arena, too. Gin is probably headed there. But then they would have seen him coming back. He began to get worried.

They had almost run out of fairgrounds and people, and were near some outbuildings where things were stored between fairs. He was just about to turn around when he heard Bargo’s voice. It was too faint to make out words, but Frodo knew that tone and his heart started to pound. From the alarmed look on Tom’s face, he had heard it, too. Another voice jeered loudly. Frodo broke into a quick trot and hurried down the walk between two sheds. Through the slats of a fence, he saw into a pen at the back of one of the sheds. Bargo’s back was mostly to the walk, Hamson and Lotho were standing near, and Gin was on his knees between them, Hamson twisting one of his arms behind him. Bargo had him by the hair and there was blood on Gin’s face. Frodo started to lunge forward to the gate, but was yanked back by Tom.

‘There’s too many, we have to get help,’ Tom hissed.

‘There’s no time. Run if you want.’ Frodo broke away and bolted into the pen. As he had hoped, the bullies were too busy brutalizing Gin to notice they had company. Bargo’s trousers were dropped and he was thrusting into Gin’s mouth. Frodo slammed into Bargo, hoping Gin would not get knocked around too badly. Bargo hit the ground hard, Frodo on top of him.

The secret to fighting Bargo was knowing Bargo was afraid of getting hurt himself. If he was at a disadvantage, he would try to duck blows and wait for friends to pull the attacker off. That is how Frodo had gotten the best of their scuffles at Fair Delving. He was not afraid of being hit, not by anyone weaker than Mac or Sara. Frodo rained a quick succession of blows on Bargo’s face and gut, and the bully turned over onto his stomach to avoid them, as Frodo knew he would. Frodo yanked Bargo’s trousers down further, tangling his legs, and slapped him as hard as he could on his bare ass, then bashed him across the back of his head with a fist.

He whipped around just in time to see Gin trying to stagger to his feet while warding off Hamson, who had lost hold of his younger cousin’s arm. To Frodo’s surprise, he saw Tom had jumped on Lotho’s back and was trying to do something to Lotho’s face, but was not doing a very good job. Frodo figured Tom could stand to get pounded a bit for all his sneakiness, and went to Gin’s aid. A double handed crack upside the head sent Hamson reeling and gave Gin time to stand. With a shriek of rage, Gin flung himself at his cousin, flailing and kicking, blood from his nose getting all over Hamson’s shirt. Gin fought rather like he danced, all motion and little control. Frodo contented himself with pounding Hamson’s back and trying to kick his feet out from underneath him.

Something hit Frodo and he felt Bargo’s arms wrap around him and wrench him away from Hamson. A few feet away, he saw that Lotho had dumped Tom on the ground and was beating on him. No help there. Amy could beat up Lotho easier than you could. Still, Tom was serving a purpose if only to keep Lotho occupied while he and Gin took on the nastier pair. Frodo went limp in Bargo’s grip and slithered out, trying to nail him in the crotch with his elbow as he went by. It hit somewhere in Bargo’s groin and elicited a bellow of pain. On the ground, he slammed his head back into Bargo’s gut and grabbed his older cousin’s legs to tip him over. Bargo tried to grab his hair, but could not get a grip and Frodo turned his face up and bit Bargo’s hand. They both tumbled to the ground, unfortunately with Bargo on top. Tom was howling, while Gin and Hamson exchanged grunts as they hit each other. Bargo shoved Frodo’s face into the ground and began pounding a fist into Frodo’s ribs and shoulders.

Suddenly, Bargo let out a yelp. Something dragged the bully off Frodo’s back and he lost no time scrambling to his feet. To his delight, Frodo saw Odogrim savagely beating Bargo, face twisted into snarl. Gin looked like he was almost defeated, but Frodo figured he could hold out another minute while he went to Tom’s rescue. It did not take much to beat his stupid Baggins cousin into a heap, and Tom got in a few well-placed kicks. They both went to help Gin, who was getting the worst of the contest with Hamson. The Bracegirdle was soon rolling on the ground, trying to hide from their fists. Frodo looked over at Odogrim. He was standing over Bargo, blood on both hands. Bargo was not moving. Odogrim looked at Frodo and smiled.

‘Good morning, Frodo. Uncle Bilbo told me to look for you when he didn’t see you at the wagon show.’

‘Good morning. We should get back or Uncle Bilbo will worry.’ With a last kick at Lotho, Frodo put an arm around Gin and led the way out. They got a few dozen yards away from the shed before Gin started shaking so badly he could not walk, sitting heavily at the edge of the lane. Frodo knelt and looked at his younger cousin. Gin’s nose was bleeding and his lip was split. One eye was darkening and he had bruises along his jaw and on one cheek. Frodo could see the other boys’ seed sticking to his cousin’s face and chin, and smelled it on him. His clothes were filthy and ripped in a few places, though whether from the fight or from being mishandled before it, Frodo did not know. When Odogrim started to kneel next to him, Frodo said, ‘See to Tom. Lotho was hitting him pretty bad.’ Odogrim nodded and went to Tom, who hunched over and crying a few yards away.

‘Gin? Gin, it’s Frodo. Can you talk?’ The other nodded. ‘What happened?’

‘I got a note. From Bluebell. She said she wanted to see me. But it wasn’t her. It was them. They shoved me around, got me out here.’

Frodo tried to remember what Bilbo had said to him after the fight with Sara. ‘Do you think anything is broken?’ Gin shook his head. ‘Did you get hit hard, in the gut or your lower back?’

‘Don’t think so. It kind of all hurts.’

‘I bet it does.’ Frodo knew he was going to have some nasty bruises, too. They’ll wait, Baggins. ‘But you were giving Hamson what’s for. He’s going to hurt worse.’ Gin tried to smile at that, but grimaced. ‘Did they say why?’

‘Bargo said it was for being fresh with his sister last night.’

Frodo resisted telling Gin that he had warned him to stay away from Bluebell. ‘What did they do?’

‘They… they… made me… suck them.’ Gin started shaking again. ‘They said they’d beat me up bad if I didn’t. I fought ‘em, so I got punched. That’s my nose. Yanked my hair. Then, Bargo… he… said…’ Gin started to cry, gulping for air, ‘he said, if I didn’t…  they’d just tie me up… and leave me… and they’d, they’d… they’d go after Amy!’

Frodo cast a look in the direction of the shed and wondered if he and Odogrim should go back and beat them some more.

‘So I did. I did. All three. And then they roughed me up some more and hit me, and said they’d get Amy and Darron, too, anyway, and were doing it again and then you came.’ Gin looked at him and grinned through his tears. ‘You were all scary again!’

‘And you knew exactly what to do when the odds were better,’ Frodo praised him. He looked over at Odogrim and Tom. The small hobbit was not crying anymore, though he was leaning against Odogrim and shivering. ‘Tom? How are you?’

‘I told you we should’ve gone for help!’

‘Didn’t need to. Odogrim was already looking for us. How bad did Lotho hit you?’

‘It hurts.’

‘Nothing broken, Frodo,’ Odogrim assured him, ‘and not even a bloody nose, though he’s going to be sore tomorrow.’

‘I think you’re the only one who won’t be, Odogrim. We need to find Uncle Bilbo. And Addy and Blossom.’

‘No! No, not my folks!’ Gin pleaded. ‘Just help me get cleaned up.’

‘Gin, you need your parents. There’s no way they’re not going to know you got in a bad fight. And they need to know these bastards threatened Amy.’

‘But, not…’ Gin looked at him miserably.

‘That’s why we need to find Uncle Bilbo first,’ Frodo told him and stood, holding out his hands. It took a few tries before Gin could stand up. There was still no sign of motion back at the shed. Frodo waved Odogrim and Tom to walk ahead while Gin leaned on him. It was a slow walk. They passed a few people who gave them curious looks, but no one tried to stop them or talk to them.

The stables were not far ahead. When they got to the back of them, where things were not too busy, Frodo found a bucket for Gin to sit on. ‘Odogrim, can you guard them while I go find Bilbo? I’m too beat up to be much use if those other three show up.’

‘With my life.’ Odogrim was utterly sincere. ‘Bilbo’s going to be somewhere around the stables.’

Frodo gave Gin a kiss on the forehead and set out to find Bilbo.


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