15. Pull

POV - Bilbo

In which Bilbo is pulled in many directions, exerts his pull over others, pulls out a long needed confession, and wishes for victory to be pulled from the jaws of defeat.


Michel Delving, Morning, Midyear's Day, 1390

Bilbo made himself walk at a calm, reasonable pace. Why weren’t you thinking, Baggins? His impulsive order to Frodo to take care of Wili’s ponies yesterday was tormenting him now. He had thought it would be good for the lad to have some responsibilities, Wili truly was worn out, and Mac would be there caring for his own ponies at the same time. He was not at all worried what Rum would do, not when Rum knew that Frodo’s good regard was the only thing that would allow him to see them after the Fair concluded. It was what others would think or do if they knew Frodo was unattended in Rum’s company. Especially Pal. At breakfast, Rory had told him that Mac had left earlier than usual to take the Rushies off to graze, which let Bilbo know that Frodo might not have someone with him. Bilbo had made himself sit through the entire meal, chatting amiably with his kin, and not to rush off to the farm as he wished.

Just as he got to the farm, he looked around for watchers before pulling out his ring and slipping it on. There was probably nothing to worry about and it would embarrass, even anger Frodo if Bilbo wandered in as though he did not trust the boy to do some simple tasks. The familiar dim veil obscured his vision, though smells and sounds became sharper and more distinct. Bilbo was careful to walk on hard earth so he would not leave footprints. At the door of the barn he paused and listened. He could not hear any hobbit in the building, only the ponies and the cats. As he walked down the aisle, the small ponies dozed in their stalls, oblivious to their surroundings, but the Shirebourns snorted and stamped, ears swiveling and nostrils flaring, knowing that something was there. They can smell you, maybe hear you. He knew that he had best not stay long around them so they did not become too spooked or otherwise give him away. The Rushies were gone, in evidence of what Rory had mentioned, and Wili’s ponies had been tended. Bilbo walked to the end of the aisle, looking and listening for anything out of place, poking his head out the back door on the chance that Frodo might still be about. He was walking past the feed room when he caught a faint, familiar scent. Seed.

Bilbo closed his eyes and let his keener nose lead him to the spot where something had happened and recently. He knelt, sniffing, his face close to the floor. There. Opening his eyes, he saw a new stain on the aisle floor, now dry, but something that had to have occurred within the last two hours for the smell to be this strong. He wouldn’t. Would he? Bilbo stood and looked about, wishing he dared to remove the ring so that he could look for signs of what had happened that would result in a man spilling on the floor of the barn this morning. Probably after Frodo left. He fervently hoped it was afterwards. Bilbo left the barn, the Shirebourns pacing nervously and nickering to each other as he passed.

He paused near the back door of the farmhouse, listening for sounds of someone inside. Two. Things were happening in two different rooms. He could smell breakfast, heard someone splashing water from an ewer into a basin, heard a door close and the whisper of footsteps coming closer. A dish was set down on a counter. A spoon scraped a pan. A chair was pulled out from a table and soon there was the sound of someone eating. Bilbo forbade himself from peering in the window. He heard a door open and close, then another, then nothing for a minute.

‘That’s my breakfast you’re eating, you bastard.’ Rum did not sound pleased.

‘Then don’t leave it lying about. Anyway, you usually don’t care when someone helps themselves to your stuff. Or you.’ Bilbo was reasonably sure it was Pal, though he did not know him well enough to recognize him just by his voice.

Rum laughed. ‘Didn’t you already eat with Odogar this morning?’ There was the sound of things being done in the kitchen.

‘Food’s not that good over there.’

‘Too bad.’ These words were said around a mouthful of something.

‘So, is he going to do it?’

‘Oh, yes. He wants to fuck this evening.’

Pal made a sound of disgust. ‘I didn’t need to know that! I don’t care what you do with Baggins…’

‘I wasn’t talking about Bilbo. I was talking about the boy I met at the dance last night. What he can do with his mouth…’

‘Shut up!’ Pal roared, while Bilbo choked back a laugh. ‘Keep your perversion to yourself. Have you convinced Baggins to stay out of the farthing business?’

‘I’m still not sure why you don’t want him in it. Let him get it. Wilcar and Rufus are for it, aren’t they? Rory will back whomever pays him most. Right now, that’s Bilbo.’

‘That Brandybuck will sell anything. Or anyone.’ So, you believe the dwarf story, too, do you, Pal? He had no doubt that Esmie’s letters on the matter were quite convincing.

‘Mmm.’ It sounded like Rum had just taken a bite of breakfast. ‘Anyway,’ spoken around a mouthful, followed by a slurp of something liquid, ‘Bilbo would probably fuck me if I support him, so I think I will.’

‘If you don’t shut up …’

‘What?’ Rum’s voice was cold, harsh. ‘You want the Tooklands? That only happens if Hobbiton goes to Eastfarthing, and that only happens if it goes to Bilbo. You get what you want, I get what I want.’

‘I don’t get what I want until you die.’

‘So you’d best be patient. I intend to live as long as Gerontius.’

‘Get him to throw his support behind Otho.’

‘Nah gunna happ’n.’ The words came out around another mouthful, and then there was the sound of a dish clattering in the sink. ‘Bilbo won’t let Otho take charge. Ever.’

‘Does he really think his whore can hold on after he dies?’

‘He’s quite besotted. That’s why I’m having no luck.’ Rum’s voice was brisk. ‘This is all to keep it away from Otho as long as he can. You’d best plan for that.’

‘Odogar won’t hear of it.’

‘Then I guess it won’t happen.’ A few moments later, the back door opened and Rum came out, looking perfect. He walked past Bilbo and to the stables, calling out to the ponies. Pal followed. Where Rum walked with a light step and no wasted motion, Pal slumped along as though lifting his feet from the ground was a chore, head down, and a permanent scowl on his otherwise handsome face. It was as though he was trying to be ugly in his appearance, since none of his sisters were similarly afflicted.

After other two went into the barn, Bilbo walked a good quarter mile away before stepping among some trees and removing his ring. That was an interesting conversation. It sounded as though Odogar would only countenance Otho taking over the farthing, and might spoil the deal if Bilbo stepped up. It might be too late for him to object. Otho would do whatever Bilbo told him to, of that Bilbo was reasonably certain. I could claim it if I wanted it. It was one thing to claim a treasure; it was another to hold it. “Does he really think his whore can hold on after he dies?” Bilbo fought back the anger he felt at the insult to Frodo. I have all the treasure I need, and I will not risk my lad.

Which brought him back to why he had walked up to the farm in the first place. Frodo had obviously completed his chores at the barn and was now somewhere at the Fair. Bilbo had not said the lad could go directly to the Fair from the farm, but he had not forbidden it, either. You should have come back to the inn, Wilwarin. With a sigh, Bilbo returned to the inn, collected a few things, checked to ensure that Frodo had not come back by another route, and went to the Fair himself.

The morning was part way done and the grounds were getting crowded. Bilbo strolled in the places where he had seen Frodo and the other children the day before, or that Frodo had described to him as a place of interest. No matter where he went, he did not see a glimpse of them. He went to the dwarf tent and spoke to Bóin, hoping that the youngsters had been there earlier, but the dwarf shook his head and said they had not seen them so far that day. The mechanics barn was full of noisy distractions, but no Frodo. There were plenty of tweens at the food stalls, but not the ones he wished to see. Are they at the Fair? Perhaps Frodo went to the North Inn to see Gin and the rest after he was at the farm, and he simply hadn’t arrived yet. He knows to send a note if he did. He should have known to come back to his own inn, Baggins. Bilbo was becoming increasingly worried.

He went to the stables behind the horse arena and spied Mac preparing the Rushies for the morning contest. After they had exchanged greetings, Bilbo asked, ‘Have you seen Frodo this morning?’

‘Aye, Uncle Bilbo. I saw him just as I was leaving the barn. He was there to care for the Uncle Wili’s beasts. That was good of him to do.’

‘Did he say where he was going afterwards?’

‘No, but I assume he’d head back to the inn to meet you and come here. You haven’t seen him?’

‘Not since he left. I’m sure he’s just wandering about with Gin and Darron. Amy, too, most likely.’

Mac chuckled. ‘The lass has gone a bit sweet on the rascal.’

Bilbo smiled. ‘A bit. If you see Frodo or any of the youngsters he’s been with the last few days, tell that rascal his old uncle’s looking for him.’

Bilbo began to leave the stables, unsure where else to look, when he saw Odogrim. The young man waved and came over. When Bilbo told him that he was not able to find Frodo or the rest of the children, Odogrim frowned. ‘I saw Darron at table this morning. I went with Falco, Nora and Baldo to have breakfast with Wilcar. That was less than an hour ago. I’ve not been here long. Darron didn’t say he had a place to meet Gin and Frodo, but was going to the dwarves.’

‘That’s where I started, too. I’ve gone everywhere I know to look for them,’ Bilbo said. ‘I’m not sure where they may have got to, and I’m now thinking that I’m simply missing them by walking about so much.’

‘They’ll come to the show, if only to see Mac’s team. You stay here and I’ll trot about see if I can scare them up.’ Odogrim gave him a nod and headed off to the south. Bilbo sighed, wanting to walk about and look, but knowing Odogrim was right that he needed to stay in one place so that they could find him. Bilbo went back to Mac, schooling himself to patience.

About a half hour later, he was rewarded with the sight of Frodo coming around the end of the stable. He waved and walked over, his concern rising as he grew close and could see that Frodo had been in a fight. The lad looked grim. ‘Frodo, what’s happened?’

‘I got in a fight with Bargo.’

‘Are you hurt?’

The lad shook his head and drew him off to the side. ‘Bruised. It’s going to hurt, but I’m all right.’ Frodo looked around and dropped his voice low. ‘They went after Gin, bad.’


‘Bargo, Hamson and Lotho. They lured him out over there,’ Frodo gestured in the direction Odogrim had gone, ‘and then they roughed him up and forced him. They threatened that if he didn’t do as they said and service them, they’d leave him tied up out there and go after Amy.’

Bilbo was aghast. ‘How did you find them?’

‘Tom had seen Gin going that direction earlier and he told me. I got a bad feeling and we went after him. I caught them forcing him, and tackled Bargo. Tom jumped Lotho and Gin took Hamson down. We were barely holding our own when Odogrim showed up.’

‘Where’s Gin?’

‘This way.’ Frodo led him the far side of the stables. The lad was sitting on a bucket, hugging himself, with Tom and Odogrim nearby. Bilbo knelt in front of his nephew and smiled.

‘I hear you had to give your cousin a thrashing this morning.’ Gin nodded. Bilbo took a quick inventory of the boy’s injuries. ‘Anything really painful, either very sharp or growing in intensity?’

‘No, Uncle.’

‘Will one of you find some water?’ Bilbo said over his shoulder. ‘You all need to clean up.’ Shortly, Odogrim placed a small bucket next to Bilbo. He dipped his handkerchief in it and began cleaning away the dirt, blood and seed from the boy’s face. He saw Frodo helping Tom get cleaned up. Looking back at Gin, he said, ‘How were you hurt?’

‘Got slapped and shoved a bunch. Punched in my nose early. Got punched again when we were fist fighting. Bargo kicked me …’


‘My side. Hair yanked.’ Gin looked away and swallowed, trembling a bit. ‘Made me… suck them.’

‘Did all of them threaten you with attacking Amy, or just Bargo?’

‘He said it, they agreed they would.’ Gin expression turned from frightened to furious. ‘They better not try!’

‘Where is your sister?’

‘At the inn, with Mama and Papa. They were waiting for Uncle Rum and his wagon, but I went on ahead.’

Bilbo breathed a small sigh of relief. That accounted for all the children. ‘Don’t worry about the bullies. They have just picked their last fight. We need to get you back to your parents.’

‘Don’t tell them.’

‘They’ll know with a look that you’ve been fighting.’

‘Don’t tell them why.’

‘That’s the first thing they’ll ask.’ Bilbo gave him a measuring look. ‘What will you tell them?’

‘That they tricked me into meeting with them.’


‘Sent me a note that was supposed to be from Bluebell.’ Bilbo sighed and shook his head at Gin’s foolishness. ‘So, Bargo was going to beat me up for flirting with his sister, and they were roughing me up, and Frodo and Tom found us, and we fought ‘em, and then Odogrim finished them off.’

‘You can tell them that. Don’t be surprised if your father keeps pushing for answers. He needs to know they threatened all of you children.’ Bilbo gave him a pat on the knee. ‘And I’m very glad that you took them right on and fought back as soon as you got the chance. They know now you’re no one they should mess with.’ That got a smile and a bit of pride in the boy’s face.

Bilbo stood and walked over to the Tunnelly boy. He looked like he had a few bruises, but nothing serious. ‘Tom, I hear you taught Lotho a lesson.’

‘I tried, sir.’

‘Good lad.’ That got a smile from Tom. Not so long ago, you were one of the ones forcing Frodo, and betraying him to Sara. Something of that thought must have shown in Bilbo’s face because Tom’s smile wavered and began to look scared. ‘Where is Mister Greenbough? You will need to stay close to him through the day. I don’t want one of those three trying some revenge on you.’ That made Tom look very scared and he clutched Frodo’s hand.

Bilbo went to Odogrim and they walked off a few paces. ‘What happened?’

‘I went out to the edge, where bad stuff would happen. I heard a fight going on and figured it was this bunch. The kids were getting the worst of it by the time I got there, but they were all fighting back pretty fierce. Bargo had Frodo down, so I pulled him off and beat him ‘til he couldn’t stand. When I looked up, the boys had taken care of the other two.’ Bilbo glanced at Odogrim’s hands and saw his knuckles were scraped and bloody.

‘We need to get Gin to his parents and Tom back to Greenbough. The Thain is bringing the family in. They’re probably around here by now.’ It only took a little urging to get Gin and Tom walking around to where Mac was. Rum also was there with his team and did a double-take when he saw the battered boys. Odogrim was sent to fetch Addy from the stands.

‘I trust the others look worse?’ Rum said, looking critically at Gin, Frodo and Tom.

‘Much worse,’ Frodo assured him. ‘We trounced them.’ This got smirks from the other two.

‘Good way to start the morning,’ Rum said cheerfully, but Bilbo could tell from his eyes that he was not pleased by their condition. It was only a few minutes before Addy showed up and demanded to know what happened. Bilbo let the boys do the talking.

‘Bargo, Frodo’s mean cousin, he’s all mad because I flirted with his stupid sister last night,’ Gin said hotly. ‘Him and Hamson were together and that potato cousin, too, and they saw me and I hadn’t met up with Frodo and Darron yet, so they were trying to rough me up and then Frodo and Tom came and we had a fist fight!’

Addy sighed. ‘Do we need to go to the healers’ tent?’

‘I’d recommend it,’ Bilbo said. ‘I checked the boys over. Nothing broken, nothing looks too bad, but they’re bruised and could probably stand some pain tea.’ He hesitated a moment. No, they threatened all the children. ‘I’m a little concerned that these bullies threatened harm to Darron because he also flirted with Bluebell, and even threatened Amy.’

‘If they try to lay a hand on another child,’ Rum said coldly, ‘I will see that they wish they had never been born. Where are they, by the way?’

‘Trying to stand up, probably,’ Odogrim answered. ‘They’ll be lucky if they can hobble by the end of the day.’ He gave the younger boys a grin. ‘I helped clean up at the end, but these three had ‘em pretty much beat.’ That made Gin and Tom grin in return, but Frodo remained serious.

‘Frodo, I’d like you to stay with your cousins and help keep them out of trouble for the rest of the day,’ Bilbo said. The lad nodded without argument. You were going to anyway, weren’t you? ‘Odogrim, if you would also help?’ Odogrim said he would. Addy began leading the boys away from the stables, Gin and Tom each holding one of Frodo’s hands, Gin chattering away at Frodo. Odogrim followed. Rum stood next to Bilbo watching them walk away, frowning. When they were out of sight, Rum gave Bilbo a nudge and motioned for them to go over to his team where he pretended to be checking their harness.

‘What’s the real story? And who is the potato cousin?’ Rum said quietly.

‘I don’t have the full details. Bargo knows better than to try to take on Frodo, so he sent a note to Gin pretending to be his sister asking the boy to meet at the far end of the fairgrounds. Gin didn’t suspect anything, so he went. Bargo and Hamson were two of the three who had gone after Frodo in Buckland, and “potato” is what the children call Otho’s son, Lotho. They cornered Gin and demanded that he service them or else they’d leave him tied up out there and attack Amy. Frodo knew something was wrong and went looking for him. I sent Odogrim to search as well when I got here and couldn’t find Frodo.’

‘When did Frodo get there?’

‘In the middle of them forcing Gin.’

‘So there’s no doubt what they were doing?’

‘I wiped their seed off the lad’s face myself.’

‘Hmm.’ Rum was silent for long minute. ‘I’m going to withdraw the team from the pull and take the children out to the Drop. Stay here with my boys.’ Rum nickered something to his ponies and walked off.

Mac came around from the far side of his team. ‘So, Cousin Bargo’s being a bully again?’

‘Sadly, yes. Seems he can’t be broken of the habit.’

Mac thought for a minute. ‘Was he still doing another bad habit?’ Bilbo sighed and nodded. ‘I told him at Wintermark if I ever found out he’d been doing that again, I’d tell his Da. And he ain’t coming back to Buckland.’

‘I think Rory and I need to have a talk with Rufus. Hold your tongue for now.’

Rum returned a few minutes later. ‘My entry’s pulled,’ he said. ‘Bilbo, can you go tell Blossom and Addy? I’ll have the wagon over by the trees where we met yesterday. They can bring the youngsters, we’ll go back to the house and pack a picnic, and then go to the Drop for the day. I’ll see you at Wilcar’s party.’

With a hug, Bilbo set out. He figured he would find Addy first, then come back to the arena and tell Blossom. The healers’ tent was right near the post office at the center of the grounds. The boys were being looked over by a pair of healers who were gently scolding them for being so foolish as to get in a fight while they carefully felt for injury, washed away dirt and blood, and applied some paste to cuts and scrapes. Frodo’s back was a patchwork of purpling bruises, though not as bad as what Sara had done to him. Tom’s bruises were like Frodo’s, but fewer and smaller. Gin’s injuries were clustered on his shoulders and chest, though he had a large, nasty mark along his right ribs, probably from Bargo’s kick. The lad appeared to have recovered his usual cheer. Bilbo gave them all a big smile before leading Addy aside.

‘Addy, Rum has pulled his entry from the horse show and wants to take you all to see the Drop and have a picnic. I think it a good thing to get the youngsters out of here for the day.’

Addy gave him a long look. ‘Something else is going on here, isn’t it, Bilbo?’

‘Yes. Bargo’s gone too far and Hamson is well on his way to being the same. Want to give me a hint on why there’s such bad blood between Gin and Hamson?’

With a snort, Addy said, ‘I don’t understand it. Blossom has hated Hargo for more than forty years, and she and Violet don’t talk anymore. The children pick it up.’

Bilbo wagered it had something to do with disguising Lobelia’s pregnancy. ‘Ah, well, not worth worrying about. Rum’s waiting for you by the trees where we met yesterday.’

‘He shouldn’t have done that, dropping the contest. He was sure to win!’

‘He loves the children more than any ribbon. Besides, he was mad at me for making him go to that meeting instead of taking Pearl to the Drop yesterday, so I think that’s what he’d rather do.’ They told the boys what was planned, which pleased them, and Bilbo assured Tom that he would get Wilber Greenbough’s permission for Tom to go with them. He wrote a note to Greenbough at the post office next door and another to Clyde Cotsman to put together a picnic for a large group and have it delivered to the Thain’s house as quickly as possible before walking with Odogrim back to the arena. The wagon competition was well underway. Blossom was sitting with all the girls and a number of their kin, including Wilcar and Darron. He waved and went up to their seats.

‘Don’t tell me,’ Blossom said with a grimace. ‘The boys have gotten into a scuffle this morning, yes?’ Wilcar and Darron listened in.

‘A bit more than a scuffle, I’m afraid,’ Bilbo admitted. ‘Gin, Frodo and Tom got into a serious fist fight with their cousins. Addy has them over at the healers’ tent now.’ He held up a hand at Blossom’s alarmed expression. ‘Nothing too bad. A lot of bruises and some bloody noses. Rum wants to take the children out to the Drop to distract them and remove any temptation to start something else. Addy and I think it’s a good idea, and Rum’s waiting for you and the girls. Darron, too, if he would like to go.’ Darron nodded vigorously and Wilcar smiled and nodded once.

‘It was that Burrows boy, yes?’

‘Yes. I’ll be having a chat with Rufus shortly. Odogrim will help you with the girls. A picnic basket is being prepared and will be waiting for you at Rum’s house.’ They were soon on their way to the stand of trees beyond the stables. Bilbo returned to the arena and scanned the crowd, quickly spotting Rory and Rufus sitting together as they had the day before. None of the other Burrowses were present. He made his way over to them.

‘Good morning, Bilbo,’ Rory said. ‘Are you going to sit with us?’

‘I’m afraid not. I need to speak to both of you, now, on something serious. Not here.’

‘But Mac’s going to be up soon,’ Rory protested.

Rufus studied Bilbo’s face and stood. ‘Let’s go.’ They walked away. Rory caught up with them near the exit. When they cleared the immediate crowd, Rufus said, ‘It’s about the boys, isn’t it?’

‘Yes.’ Bilbo led them around the back of the stable where he had first seen Gin that morning.

‘How bad was the fight?’ Rufus said immediately.

‘Bad. Nothing broken, at least on our three. I’m not sure what has happened with the others. Bloody noses, scrapes, a few cuts, lots of bruises.’

‘Sounds like an ordinary fist fight, Bilbo,’ Rory said. ‘What’s so bad?’

‘Everything that happened before the fight.’ Bilbo sighed. ‘I’m sorry to be saying this to you, Rufus, but Bargo has gone well beyond some ordinary bullying. He needs to be reined in, and hard.’ Bilbo looked at Rory. ‘He’s doing it again, and Hamson’s more than happy to help. This time they had Lotho, Otho’s son, with them.’

‘May I know what my son’s been doing?’ Rufus quietly said.

‘Forcing himself on younger boys.’ Rufus did not look away, just raised his eyebrows. ‘He’s done this to Frodo and to Tom Tunnelly that I know of. This morning, he went after Gin Took. It’s not just him. Like I said, Hamson is part of this, too, but Bargo’s the ringleader.’

Rufus nodded and looked at his brother-in-law. ‘Rory, is this the real reason you sent him home after Yule?’

‘Part. I didn’t know about Tom until now. I thought it was just bad blood between him and Frodo, and being too much in lead of a big pack. I thought to break that up a bit.’

Still protecting Sara. Bilbo nodded. ‘Frodo told me about Tom as part of telling me about Bargo. Bargo and Hamson had been using Tom for a while before going after Frodo. He said that Bargo had tried to force himself on him when we visited in Astron, but that he’d made his cousin back down.’

Rufus’ expression had not changed. ‘I know they threw some punches. And this morning?’

‘Gin got a note that he thought was from Bluebell, asking him to meet her in a secluded spot on the fairgrounds. Bargo, Hamson and Lotho were waiting for him. They roughed him up and demanded that he suck their cocks. When he refused, they said they’d tie him up, leave him there, and go find his sister, Amy, and do the same to her. He believed the threat and did as they demanded.’

Rufus was silent a long while. ‘I have to ask. What proof do you have that this was more than just a fist fight?’

‘Fair enough. Frodo and Tom saw them while they were forcing Gin. When I spoke to Gin, he was frightened and humiliated and begged me not to tell his parents. He was afraid for his sister. I cleaned Gin up and he had seed on his face and on his shirt. He smelled of it strongly.’

‘Is Odogrim part of this?’

You are observant. ‘He was, in Buckland, but since then he confessed, apologized and asked forgiveness, which Frodo gave. Odogar threw him out and disowned him for it. For apologizing, that is. Falco has taken him in at my direction. I’ve told him I will geld him myself if he ever lays hand on a child again.’

The three hobbits stood silently while Rufus thought on what had been said. Finally, he sighed. ‘I’m not sure shame is a strong enough word for what I’m feeling right now. I don’t doubt what you’ve told me, Bilbo, though I don’t want to believe this of Bargo. Where is he?’

‘I’m not sure. They got thrashed badly, that much I know from Odogrim. He came in late and tipped the balance. Out in a pen that direction.’ Bilbo pointed south and west.

‘I’d best go find them.’

‘I’ll go with you,’ Rory offered.

‘Yes. We need to talk. Bargo’s not the only one in the family doing unacceptable things.’ With a nod to Bilbo, Rufus turned and walked in the direction Bilbo had pointed. Rory fell into place beside him. Bilbo watched until they turned a corner before wandering back to the center of the Fair. He considered going back to the inn and renting a pony so he could join the others at their picnic. No, give the boys some time to themselves, Baggins. He supposed he should go back to the horse show and watch Mac, but he could not sit still. Too many unsettling things had happened today and he needed to walk off his worries and avoid his thoughts. He strolled about the Fair, taking in the sights. None of it delighted him as it had done yesterday.

‘Uncle Bilbo?’ He looked to the left, then down and saw Dilly smiling up at him. He gave her a hug and kiss.

‘Good morning, Dilly! How are you? I missed you at breakfast.’

‘I’m well, uncle. I was meeting Ada Chubb and Agnes Gravelly here for breakfast.’

‘Agnes Gravelly?’

‘She was the judge of the sewing contest yesterday. With the white hair.’

‘Ah. And what did you meet about?’

Dilly’s eyes twinkled. ‘You’ll have to come see!’ With a grin, she took Bilbo’s hand and led him to the sewing building. The textile show that Dudo and Tulip had talked about at dinner last night was going on, but Bilbo only had a second to admire the beautiful displays of cloth because Dilly led him briskly to the center of the show. There, her shirt was on display with a large green “Award of Merit” ribbon on it. Bilbo laughed and clapped his hands at the ingenuity of the women. Dilly tugged on his sleeve and they walked to the other end of the show where her blouse was also prominently on display, sporting its own green award ribbon. This one had a card calling out the bobbin lace Amalda had done. Finally, Dilly led him over to a dark corner where the previous day’s show winners were displayed. Patsy Pigweed’s shirt that had gone second to Dilly’s was awkwardly pinned high on the wall, and looked like it had been dropped in some dust before being tacked up there. Dilly’s expression was one of complete satisfaction.

‘There wasn’t really a place for the embroidery, but that is fine,’ she said, walking back to the shirt in the center of the textile show. ‘My shirts will be on display here all day. I’ve already had two letters left for me at the post office about them.’

‘I am delighted to see you getting the recognition for your work that it deserves, Serindë.’ Bilbo remembered their last conversation in the sewing building. I think it time to figure out who knew how badly used my lad was in the Hall. ‘I am feeling hungry. Would you care to have a bite with me and keep me company while I eat?’ She happily agreed. They were soon sitting at a table under a tree near the main square, a bit away from the others. It was not an ideal spot in which to discuss such things, but most going by were too wrapped up in their own business to pay much attention. ‘Dilly, you said yesterday that you knew things weren’t right with Frodo before I came to get him. Can you tell me more of this?’ He took a nibble of the slice of pie before him.

Dilly scooted very close. ‘I wish I had written to you, uncle! I am so ashamed now that I didn’t. I was just being pulled in two different directions.’ Bilbo made a sympathetic sound and sipped his cup of tea. ‘Mac… he told me… of Sara.’ Her cheeks were very red. ‘When Mac came back from Newbury, after Mister Steelhand had beaten Sara, he told me what his brother had done and not to believe any other tale. And there were certainly some!’ Dilly became indignant. ‘That wicked Took started spreading lies the day you and Frodo left!’

‘I think I’ve heard some of them,’ Bilbo said, not wanting to waste time discussing what he knew. ‘But what did you know or suspect before Mac told you?’

‘I knew Frodo was getting picked on by the older boys. That went on quite a while. Mac said that Frodo had to learn to stand up for himself and that he was holding his own. When we’d go to the Hall, I’d talk to Prisca, and she said much the same, he’d just get picked on worse if adults interfered, and that she was keeping an eye on him.’

Bilbo sighed and nodded. ‘That’s probably right, but someone should have told me as well.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Dilly whispered, looking like she was going to cry. Bilbo took her hand.

‘The person who should have written me was Gilda, or perhaps Prisca, given that she was closest Baggins kin in the Hall. And you were trying to keep an eye out for the lad.’

She nodded her head. ‘Yes! I noticed that, when he was about eighteen, both Sara and Esmie started to pay more attention to him, all of it bad. Esmie was flirting with him and Sara was being mean, slapping and shoving him, yelling at him. Sara said to us that he thought Frodo was getting too big for his britches and needed to be kept in line. He said he was careful not to do it where Papa Rory or Mama Gilda could see because they were too soft on the lad and spoiled him. I told Mac I thought he was being much too harsh to Frodo and that we should tell Rory and Gilda. He said it was Hall business and not to get my nose in it.’

Bilbo did some calculations in his head. Esmie’s flirting started when Gilda was getting worse, so probably when Rory had let slip the news of Frodo’s inheritance. Sara getting mean in response to Esmie’s affections made sense.

‘Prisca and I were both disgusted by Esmie and her attentions to Frodo, but no one else seemed to think it wrong. Sara just got meaner and I saw him strike Frodo hard enough to leave a bruise. Then, there were the rumors…’ Dilly looked at him with trepidation.

‘That he was doing some unnatural things with other boys, yes?’ She nodded. ‘Do you know who was spreading them?’

‘It was just… around. Once, when I scolded Esmie about flirting with him, she said it was better than what else he was doing. But, mostly I was worried because of Sara. I mean, boys do… things… with each other and then they grow out of it.’

‘Yes. They usually do.’

‘Winter before last, I was at the Hall to do something and I heard Sara raging at Frodo over something silly and he wouldn’t let Frodo apologize. He marched him into Rory’s study. I… well, I was afraid for the lad, so I listened at the door.’ She was quiet for a long minute. ‘I know the sounds a man makes when he is being pleasured. It was too wicked a thing to think. I told Gilda that she should write you and tell you to come get Frodo because Sara was too harsh and Esmie too forward, and Gilda told me to mind my own business, that Frodo belonged to us, not you.’

So, you didn’t want me to come get the lad before. You wanted to keep him for yourself. Finally come to claim my son! You never mentioned that I should, crone. Bilbo wondered again just how much Gilda and Rory suspected of Sara’s acts towards Frodo.

‘I went to Mac and said I wanted him to ask Papa Rory to let Frodo come live with us because… well, I said because of Sara being a stupid, mean drunk. He told me again not to interfere in Hall business, and I said that I was going to write to you and tell you that the boy was being badly treated, and leave it for you to interfere in Hall business.’ Dilly stopped and looked about to see if any were listening. ‘Mac said not to bother you because… you weren’t Frodo’s kin. That no one knew who his father was and that’s why you’d never claimed him.’

No. I left him in Buckland so he could be with his little cousins after his parents died and because Gilda and Rory did not want to let him go.’

‘Anyone looking at the two of you together can see that you’re…’ Dilly stopped abruptly.

Bilbo smiled and took her hand. ‘Can see that we are of close kin? Yes, it is obvious, isn't it? He is a Baggins and should, of course, be with his father’s kin.’

She looked around again. ‘Prisca always hints that it is very right and proper that you should take Frodo. That wicked Took says… things too evil to even think on!’ She sipped her own tea and avoided his eyes. ‘I should have written you, uncle. I’m sorry. I’m a woman grown and should know to do what is right.’ She looked at him. ‘I didn’t know Uncle Drogo for very long, only five years.’ It was strange to hear someone calling Drogo “uncle”. ‘He was a kind and caring man, and he was always a gentlehobbit to me. I know Esmie tried to flirt with him and he would have none of it and she said cruel things of him behind his back because of it. He loved his wife. He made sure she had a baby.’ Dilly drained her tea. ‘And I must somehow convince my stubborn husband to do the same for me.’

‘I can only say to be kind and caring and patient with your foolish man. Consider that his own heart has been sorely tried these last few months and that he may yet be too sorrowed to take joy in a new life. Besides,’ Bilbo gave her a knowing smile, ‘the sweeter you are, the less sour he’ll be, and he may just forget that he wants to wait.’

Her cheeks were pink and she ducked her head. ‘That’s what Prisca says.’

‘And look how she has Wili and every other man standing about wrapped around her little finger, including me!’ Bilbo chuckled. ‘And speaking of your foolish fellow, he’s in the middle of a competition I think he’s going to win, and I think he’d be very pleased to know his beloved wife is watching. He might even feel like a bit of showing off, afterwards.’ Bilbo gave her a wink, which made her giggle and blush more. He finished the pie in a few big bites, not that he was terribly hungry, and drained his tea. He gave her his arm as they walked to the horse arena. ‘Yesterday, you said that you wished Ula as your midwife. You think she’s that good?’

‘Oh, yes, and not just because I’m mad at Mama Gilda, though I am! Ula is delivering most of the babies now and she’s got a good touch. She’s very smart. She was the one who cured the fever rash, in truth, not the Mistress.’ Dilly thought. ‘Gilda is not very strong anymore, and I think she hurts more than she lets us know. It makes her forget things and can’t do all that she should as a healer.’ Bilbo made a thoughtful sound, not wanting to talk about Gilda being weak. ‘And Ula is so nice!’ Dilly went on in a happier tone. ‘She’s one with me and Prisca to keep Miss Trouble minding her manners. She’s sweet on Frodo, too!’

‘I think she is a bit old for him,’ Bilbo gently admonished. He wavered on how he felt about Ula’s attentions to Frodo. Their affection was genuine, but it still bothered him how Gilda had put the two together at Wintermark. Dilly merely shrugged at his words.

When they got to the arena, they found seats with Falco and Fargo near where they had sat the previous day. Bilbo looked over the crowd, but did not see Rory or Rufus anywhere. He spotted Pal, Odogar, Car and Pasco Goodbody. Otho and the Bracegirdles were notably absent.

In the ring, a team was part way through their performance with a wagon. They were backing the wagon through an arch of wood that represented a narrow barn door, and were judged on how straight they could keep the wagon moving and whether it was in the center of the arch or to one side. They would already have shown off their handling at a walk and a trot, turning corners, and other maneuvers a good team should be able to make. The team finished reasonably well, though the side of the wagon had brushed one of the uprights of the arch. After a few minutes, the competing teams came in and waited for the scores to be tallied and the awards handed out. There was not enough room in the arena for all the wagons, so the unhitched teams were walked in. Dilly and Bilbo waved at Mac with his ponies, and he waved back.

Fourth place went to a pair of bays who had done very well the day before, but had not placed. Third went to the flashy chestnut pair who had won third the day before, and the red ribbon was given to the pretty little greys, matching the ribbons in their braids. A great cheer went up when the judge walked over to Mac and the Rushies with the blue ribbons, one for each pony’s headstall. The blue was a perfect contrast to their copper coats and they trotted out of the ring next to Mac, heads high and tails swishing as though they knew how beautiful they looked. Once the arena was empty, Dilly hopped up and hurried down the stands and back towards the stables, Bilbo following. He slowed and took his time when he saw Mac scoop Dilly up in a bear hug and kiss her. About when they stopped cuddling he walked up.

‘Well done, Mac! And well done, gentlemen,’ he added to the ponies, who snorted their thanks in return.

‘I’m right proud of it, Uncle Bilbo,’ Mac said with a grin, ‘though I’d be prouder if I’d managed this with Rum’s pair competing.’

‘I suspect he’d have had his work cut out for him. I know how well Stone and Oak work with a wagon.’

‘Husband,’ Dilly said with a smile, ‘you’re not the only Brandybuck winning today!’

‘What’s that, wife?’ he replied, looking a bit confused.

‘My shirts won awards today. Uncle Bilbo scolded me until I agreed to enter two shirts in the Fair. I didn’t say nothing because, well,’ she shrugged, ‘there was no knowin’ what fashions they have out here. But they won!’

Mac laughed and kissed her again. ‘After the pull, we’ll go see ‘em.’

‘They’re green ribbons, not blue,’ Dilly confessed, touching one of the streamers on the Stone’s bridle.

‘Dilly, you are far too modest,’ Bilbo said. ‘Mac, Dilly had her shirts and her embroidery in the fair and they all won blues, and the lace blouse won Best in Show, but some dwarven-hearted woman demanded the ribbons be taken away because Dilly is from Buckland, not the Shire proper.’ Mac looked incensed at this snub and hugged Dilly closer to him.

‘People out here got no manners, Uncle, no insult to you intended, but that’s the truth,’ Mac said, Dilly nodding agreement. They talked a bit more, then Dilly went off to get them some lunch as it would be a while before the pull started. When she was gone, Mac asked Bilbo, ‘Where’s Da? And what’s happened with Bargo?’

‘I don’t have any answers for you, Mac. Rory and I spoke to Rufus when the wagon competition started. We laid out for him all the trouble with Bargo right up to today. Rufus accepted our word. He and Rory went off to find Bargo and the other bullies. Hargo and Otho aren’t in the stands and I guess that they are dealing with their sons. At least I hope they are.’

‘If they can still sit down, they’d better be getting a hiding so they can’t,’ was Mac’s dark reply. Dilly soon returned with food, and Bilbo encouraged Mac to eat most of it. A horn blew and the final team competition was set to start.

There were only ten teams entered, though a number of hobbits grumbled that they would have entered had they known Rum’s team would be pulled. Everyone was eyeing the huge, unruly pair from Bree. They had wide blazes and heavily feathered legs, and looked mean enough to take on orcs. There was more grumbling that it was unfair for the normal sized Shire ponies to have to compete against these brutes. Mac just smiled and rubbed his lads’ foreheads, singing them a little nonsense song about stubborn ponies. They rubbed their heads against his knuckles, keeping time to the tune. With a last kiss and a squeeze of her rump, Mac told Dilly to find a seat. ‘Get close, wife, so we boys can hear you cheer,’ he shyly told her.

Bilbo managed to get them seats in the front row near the end of the arena, glaring at some nose-picking lout until he stood and gave his seat to Dilly. Out in the center of the arena, there was a heavy wooden sledge about a third of the way along the ring, its front even with a thick white line of poured chalk. The ring had been raked smooth, and a third of the way further along, another line marked the pull line. A team had to pull the sledge from the first line all the way past the second line to make it to the next round. They had only one minute in which to pull. A pile of millstones stood nearby, ready to be loaded on to the sledge, each about a hundred and fifty pounds, while the sledge itself was another hundred. Some half wheels were also there. The sledge was loaded with a single stone.

Since Mac’s team had won the wagon contest, they were the last ponies to pull the sledge. After each pull, the sledge was dragged back into place by a lumbering team of oxen, and the ground was raked smooth so that no team was pulling over rough ground. In the first round, all ten of the teams pulled the sledge from the start to the finish. A second stone was added for a weight of four hundred pounds, as much as most of the ponies weighed, and two teams were eliminated. Stone and Oak seemed barely to notice the added burden. A third stone brought the weight up to five hundred and fifty pounds and three more teams dropped out. Of the remaining five, only the large Breeland ponies and the Rushies showed no sign of trouble handling the weight. A short break was called to allow the animals to rest and for the judges to check them over for signs of injury.

The next stone added was a half wheel, to bring weight up to six hundred, and two more teams were eliminated, leaving just the chestnut team that had been third in the other competitions, the Bree beasts and the Rushies. The half wheel was removed and a full wheel added so that the weight would be evenly balanced. At seven hundred pounds, this was nearly as much as the smaller ponies weighed together. Another break was called to let the finalists rest. While they waited, the fourth-place award was given to the bays who had gone fourth with the wagon. Though they could not complete the pull, they had dragged the weight further than the other team.

It was time for what was expected to be the final round. The chestnuts went first. At a call from their master, they lunged into their collars and tried to move the sledge. They kept lunging at different times and could make the sledge jerk forward a bit, but unevenly. They were dripping sweat and snorting for breath, their handler urging them on with slaps of the reins. When the minute bell was struck, they had only covered half the distance.

The Bree ponies were fractious and twice bolted forward before they could be hitched to the sledge. When they did get hitched, they lunged forward unevenly, much as the chestnuts had done, but they were a third again as big and managed to get momentum going, ending up crossing the far line so quickly they pulled the sledge several yards beyond it before they could be brought to a stop. They were sweating and snapping at each other and nearly bit their handler when he grabbed their bridles.

Mac stood quietly with the Rushies, waiting for the oxen to do their work. He held their heads and talked to them, and whatever he said to them, they bobbed their heads in agreement. When they went before the sledge, he held a finger up to remind them to wait. For a long second, they stood, and then Mac called out “Hup!” and they lunged forward as a pair. The sledge steadily moved and they kept leaning forward, flanks turning from copper to rust as sweat darkened them, their broad haunches bulging as their hind legs pushed, their forelegs digging into the ground ahead of them and pulling step by step forward. Their momentum built and they crossed the finish line in good time. Mac held their reins steady through it all, calling encouragement. Stone and Oak heard Dilly’s voice in the stands when Mac turned them to walk back to the start, and they whinnied at her.

The crowd murmured when another millstone was set atop the four. The pull was now at eight hundred and fifty pounds, as much as anyone could remember it being before. After a quarter hour, the Bree horses were brought up. The temper had not improved any, nor had their teamwork. They lunged and strained against their collars, the handler slapping them hard with the reins and jerking one pony to the side because he kept lunging into the other one. The sledge jerked forward bit by bit and started sliding just before they got to the far chalk line.

The Rushies once again acquitted themselves well, though the strain was showing on them, and they managed to get the sledge moving forward evenly though not quickly. A huge cheer went up when they crossed the line and Bilbo assumed that they had won, given how well they pulled.  After Mac brought them back to the start, there was a meeting with the judges, Mac, and Billy Greybark, the other hobbit waving and angry.

‘What’s going on, Bilbo?’ Dilly asked.

‘I think there will be another round since both crossed the line.’

‘That’s not teamwork!’ a man sitting next to them objected. ‘That’s just a bigger pair staggering to the end. Might as well set the smaller lads against oxen!’

The teams were taken to some shade and another rest called. A half wheel was loaded on to the sledge, eliciting some whistles of disapproval from the audience. Evidently more than a few watching shared the opinion of the fellow next to Bilbo. One of the judges waved them down.

‘The rules are the rules!’ he called out. ‘We pull until there’s one team that goes longer than the other!’

This time, the brutes could not hold out. Their unruly behavior ended up sending them off the path by several yards and though the horses themselves got to the line, the sledge could not cross it in time.

Mac looked at the hugely loaded sledge for a long minute before walking towards it, his team obediently following behind. Bilbo knew horses could be lamed or badly injured trying to pull too much. Nine hundred pounds was nearly half again what the team weighed. It was weight comparable to a sun-return log, and you would only use an ox to pull something that heavy. Mac would not allow anyone else to hitch the Rushies to the sledge, ensuring the harness straps were straight and properly adjusted. He took up the reins and put a little tension in them.


Stone and Oak lunged forward as one, throwing themselves into their collars, their necks arching as they strained to make the load move. Their forelegs swept out and down, digging deeply into the dirt, and Bilbo was reminded of Beorn on the battlefield before the gate of Erebor, his huge forelimbs sweeping away the orcs before him, crushing them beneath him. The sledge refused to move. At a call from Mac, they leaned back, and lunged again, teeth bared, muscles bulging, trying to do what their master asked of them. The sledge started to inch forward, and Mac called again, urging them on. As one, their hind legs moved forward a step and they leveraged themselves forward until their legs stretched behind them, forelegs reaching, reaching for more earth.

The sledge jolted forward, releasing the restraint of their harness pulling them backwards, and they staggered, Stone falling to his knees. There was a gasp as the brave little pony was dragged forward by Oak, who barely kept to his own feet.

‘Come on, lads,’ Mac cried out, ‘Hup! Hup!’

Stone whinnied and got a foreleg under himself, then the other, and lunged forward again to match Oak. Step by stubborn step, they dragged the sledge toward the finish, each step coming a bit faster as the timer sand ran down. The crowd was on its feet, shouting and stamping, urging the Rushies on. Their coats looked like dried blood, so heavy was their sweat, and their white feet were brown from the dirt of the arena. Foot by foot, they moved the sledge, until they pulled it over the line with barely a second to spare.

The poor creatures were utterly spent, standing with their legs splayed and their heads hanging. Mac dropped to his knees before them and cradled their heads against his chest, weeping and saying things to them. Stone raised his head and nuzzled Mac, reassuring his master. Some hobbits came up and unhitched the team. It was a few minutes before the ponies could walk and Bilbo saw from their weary steps how much it had taken out of them. Mac did not even stop for the ribbons. All his attention was on his team and he led them out of the arena. Bilbo saw that Rory was waiting just outside the gate, and walked to the other side of the ponies, a hand on the nearest fellow’s neck.

Bilbo helped Dilly through the crowd and out to Mac. He and Rory were stripping the harnesses off the ponies and checking them for any injuries. Without being asked, Bilbo fetched water in a bucket and held it for Stone and Oak to drink. Other hobbits stood about, respectfully watching the team being tended.

‘Can’t pull the wagon back,’ Mac said.

‘Leave it here,’ Rory answered, carrying pieces of the harness and placing it in the wagon bed.

‘Where you be?’ a hobbit asked. Bilbo recognized him as the driver of the grey ponies.

‘Got ‘em stabled at the Thain’s barn.’

The man nodded and called over his shoulder, ‘Donnie! Donnie, c’mere!’ Another hobbit ambled up. ‘You’re up by the Thain’s farm, yes?


‘The fellows here are too tuckered to haul their wagon back to that barn where it’s kept. Can you get it back there for ‘em?’

Donnie looked fondly at the Rushies and gave Oak a gentle pat on the shoulder. ‘Of course I can.’ He held out his hand to Mac. ‘I’m Donnie Sheerbank, sir. I’ve ne’er seen a gamer team. I’d be honored to lend you a hand and a harness.’

Mac shook his hand in return. ‘Mac Brandybuck, and you’re a good fellow. If my lads weren’t so wore out, they’d shake your hand, too.’ After the Rushies rested for a while, Mac and Dilly led them off for a slow walk back to the barn, holding each other’s hand as they walked between the ponies.  It was not long before Donnie brought up a pair of nondescript ponies, hitched them to Mac’s wagon and headed out.

Rory sighed and looked at Bilbo. ‘Where are you off to now, cousin?’

‘Back to the inn, I think.’

‘I’ll go with you.’ They walked through the Fair to the east gate and back towards town. The afternoon was hot, the crowds stirring up a lot of dust, and Bilbo was glad to reach the relative cool of The Sheepfold. After collecting their letters at the front, they went to Bilbo’s room and sat next to each other on the floor, backs against the bed.

‘What did you and Rufus find?’

‘Three very beaten fools. They were where the lads left them.’  

‘Did they have anything to say for themselves?’

‘Didn’t ask. We got them on their feet and walked out the south gate and took them back to their inn. They’re all at the White Chalk. I got a healer called to take a look at the younger pair. Just banged up. They’ll hurt bad for a few days. I told them to stay in their rooms until their parents came back. I sent notes to Hargo and Otho. Rufus asked me to wait. He had a long talk with Bargo. After that, he told me that Bargo would not be coming back to Buckland, not that there was any question of it.’ Rory looked older and more tired than Bilbo had ever seen him. ‘What about Tom?’

‘Master Tunnelly is a liar and a sneak with a mean streak in him almost the size of Bargo’s.’ Rory’s eyebrows went up. ‘Don’t encourage him to stay about the Hall.’ Bilbo thought a minute. ‘According to Frodo, Tom was being used by the other three before they went after him. No idea when it started. When Frodo was sixteen, Tom started asking him to do things to him. Tom soon brought him around the older boys, and they stopped using Tom and started using Frodo. Bargo immediately turned his worst attentions on Frodo. Tom spied on Frodo for Sara and reported back any misdeeds, which Sara used as an excuse to punish him. But Tom was being used by the older boys, and they evidently turned on him again when I took Frodo away in Halimath.’

‘Hmm.’ Rory stared at the floor. ‘I deserve a thrashing, just like they got.’

‘Why do you need a thrashing, Rory?’

‘For not seeing what was right in front of my own eyes. For not keeping my stupid mouth shut.’ Rory reached over and took Bilbo’s hand. ‘For not trusting you to care for your own son. As if you haven’t been taking care of all of us all along.’ Bilbo tugged on Rory’s hand and pulled his cousin into his arms. ‘I’m sorry, Bilbo.’

‘Yes, little brother, you are a sorry wretch. I’d give you a thrashing – and you certainly deserve one – but I’m too tired. Maybe tomorrow.’

‘That should do.’ They sat for a bit before Rory gave Bilbo a kiss and wearily stood and left. Bilbo sorted the letters into stacks for himself and Frodo. Thinking for a second, he got his traveling desk and wrote a few notes simply directing Frodo to return to their inn when he got back. He sent one each to Rum’s house, the North Inn, Wilcar’s smial and the Fair post office. Bilbo then settled in to read letters and pen replies.

The afternoon was nearing its end when there was a light tap on the door and Frodo let himself in. What Bilbo most wanted was to jump up and hug his child, but he made himself be calm and just smile. Let him come to you, Baggins. ‘Hullo, lad! Did you have a good picnic?’ There was something slightly off about Frodo’s appearance that he could not quite place.

‘Yes, I did.’ Frodo’s demeanor was subdued. He came over to the bed and leaned down to give Bilbo a hug which Bilbo returned, his face against Frodo’s chest. And then started back a bit, staring at the lad’s shirt. Rum’s shirt. That is what was wrong. Frodo was wearing Rum’s shirt. It smelled like Rum and it did not quite fit correctly, being a bit big and long for him. ‘Bilbo?’

‘That’s not your shirt.’

Frodo looked down at his front, plucking at the linen. ‘No. Rum loaned it to me. Gave one to Gin, too. Our shirts were so dirty and torn, he gave us clean ones of his own for the picnic.’ Frodo snickered. ‘Tom got one of Pal’s. It’s much too big for him.’

‘Rum gave away one of Pal’s shirts?’ Frodo nodded with a grin. Well, Pal did take Rum's breakfast… His attention returned to the shirt Frodo was wearing. It irritated him. It felt like a claim on his lad, Rum putting his mark on Frodo when he had no right to do it. He wanted to reach out and pull the shirt off Frodo and toss it in the corner. He is mine, not yours. Your lad’s not the only jealous one, Baggins. ‘I fear I care as little for Rum’s smell on you as you do for it on me. Please change your shirt.’ A pleased look came over Frodo’s face before he nodded and turned to change. ‘How are you feeling?’

‘Sore.’ The sight of Frodo’s battered back, purple and yellow from the fight, angered Bilbo and he had to remind himself to remain calm and mild.

‘Do you want a hot compress?’

‘Not yet. Before I sleep, I think.’ Bilbo felt himself relax a little after Frodo pulled on one of his own shirts, removing the various marks from sight. He came back to the bed and Bilbo handed him the stack of letters.

‘Here are your letters. I shan’t press you talk.’ Frodo nodded and climbed onto the bed, leaning against the back wall, and looked through the stack. He opened one, read it, smiled and refolded it. The rest he set aside.

‘We took Uncle Wili’s ponies, too, because there was too much and too many for one wagon.’ Frodo did not look at him as he spoke, but stared off at nothing. ‘The picnic basket was waiting for us – I know you had it sent – but we packed more, anyway.’

‘Always wise when there are that many children about.’

‘We went to the same hill where you and I went when we got here. Darron knows a lot about the Drop and told us all. He’s very smart.’ Bilbo made the right sounds at the right points, and pretended to be writing his letter, waiting for Frodo to say what was really on his mind. ‘We played tag, even Addy and Blossom did with us. When it was most hot, we napped in the shade. Pearl told Rum I needed a pony. I think one might just arrive.’

And it had better not arrive with you, Rum, unless you’ve been given permission. ‘And why does Pearl think you need a pony?’

‘Because she thinks everyone needs a pony.’ Frodo chuckled. ‘I told her she needs to write to Merle and Merry and they can talk about ponies.’ Bilbo almost spoke about Mac’s victory with the Rushies. No, let him talk. Good news can wait. ‘We came back when it was cooler and wouldn’t be too much for the horses pulling the wagons up the Drop. We boys walked up the Drop to lighten the load. Amy insisted on walking with us.’

‘You must be famished after that long walk.’

‘Not really. There was a lot for lunch and what little was left over we ate between the Drop and the house. I got your note as soon as we were back. Addy said he’d take care of Uncle Wili’s ponies and sent me on my way.’ Frodo paused a while. ‘Tom walked back with me, but I didn’t let him come in. He got cross and told me I was mean.’ Another pause. ‘I don’t know what to do about Tom.’

‘Why must you do anything about Tom?’

‘Because… I don’t know, really. Sometimes, he’s all right, and other times, he’s…’ Frodo shrugged. ‘I think he could be good if he had better friends. Any friends. Maybe he doesn’t deserve friends. This morning, he told me he’d seen Gin, but walked us in the opposite direction and said it was the way Gin had gone. We went down an alley to look and he… tried to fool with me. When I told him no, he got mad, upset, said he’d do whatever I wanted. I told him he needed to go kiss a girl and we needed to find Gin. That’s when he said Gin went the other way.’

‘Was he helping the others, purposefully leading you away?’

‘I don’t think so. He tried to stop me from helping Gin when we got there, but I think he was just scared. He did jump Lotho when I went after Bargo, and he wouldn’t have done that if he was part of the plan. I think he had an idea what was going on and he never warned Gin when they talked. He was jealous that I wanted to be with Gin, not him, but I don’t think he was working with them.’

‘So, what does this tell you about Tom?’

‘I can’t trust him, but I can use him.’

‘I doubt there’s any true friendship to be had with Tom, lad. You’ll always have to watch him. Don’t be unkind, but don’t feel you have any obligations to him.’

‘Mmm.’ Frodo sorted through his letters again, opened another, and read it. This one made him scowl, not smile. Bilbo waited, humming to himself as he wrote a few words on a letter that would never be sent. ‘I should have kept a better eye on Gin, warned him more strongly about Bargo and Bluebell.’

‘You are not responsible for Bargo’s cruelty.’

‘We sat, at the Drop, me and Gin, and talked a bit. He’s a little scared of what those three might try next.’

‘Perhaps I can give you some reassurance. There will be no more from Bargo.’ Frodo finally looked at him. ‘Rory and I talked to Rufus after you headed out.’

‘You told Uncle Rufus what Bargo did?’

‘Of the many things Bargo has done. Rufus accepted my word. You and Odogrim beat all three of the young men enough that they will probably not be able to walk around for a day or two, which should allow us to enjoy the rest of the Fair in peace.’ Bilbo held Frodo’s eyes. ‘And Rory said to me right here in this room that he was completely, utterly wrong in every foul thing he has ever thought of you.’ That might not be exactly what Rory said, but it was part of what he apologized for.

Frodo’s expression was pained, and he drew up his legs and rested his arms and forehead on his knees. ‘Gin, he was so scared.’ Abruptly, Frodo unfolded, leaned over to Bilbo, took the traveling desk and everything with it, set it on the floor, and crawled into Bilbo’s lap, shaking. Bilbo hugged his lad to him, rocking just a little and humming. After a few minutes, the worst of Frodo’s tremors went away.

‘I’ve never seen it. Until today.’

‘Never seen what, Wilwarin?’

‘Being forced. I never saw, I only did it.’ He shuddered once and hugged Bilbo tighter. ‘All I could think, all day, was… that. Them, over me, grabbing me, pulling on me…’ Frodo made a sound that was part disgust, part anguish, wrenching Bilbo’s heart. He wanted to seek out every hobbit responsible for his lad’s cry and do things to them until they made a worse sound, but that was not what Frodo needed from him. Bilbo began his rocking and humming again and did not cease until he felt Frodo’s grip on him relax. They sat like that for some time. Bilbo was prepared to simply sit there, cradling Frodo, until they both fell asleep, but eventually Frodo stirred.

‘We should get ready for Wilcar’s party.’ Frodo said this so matter-of-factly that Bilbo was speechless for a moment.

‘Party? No, I don’t think we need to go to…’

‘Yes, we do. I told Gin and Darron I would be there.’ Frodo was wearing his Old Took expression.

‘Given all that has happened, and especially given who is going to be at that party, I don’t think it wise to attend.’

‘We didn’t do anything wrong. Other people did. They should be ashamed. And I want to see my friends. Gin needs to see that everything will be fine.’

For almost a minute, they glared at each other. Trust your lad, Baggins. Bilbo sighed. ‘Very well, we will go, but I do not intend to stay long. There will be too many people there whose company I do not care for. Frodo, listen to me.’ The lad gave him a fierce look. ‘What I would like for you to do is stay in the company of your friends and out from under the noses of the adults. The Chubb smial is like Fair Delving, very large. You boys need to raid the kitchen and disappear, but not too far. When I say it is time to go, we will need to leave at once.’


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