In which rites are performed, lessons are learned, and Bilbo sees Frodo in a new light.
Morning, Buckland, 16 Halimath, 1389
‘Up you go!’
Merry let out a squeal of delight as Bilbo handed him up to Frodo in the back of the wagon. Berry was next, and then the other Hall children. By the sixth child, Bilbo wished that they did not feel the need to let loose a piercing shriek of delight right in his ear as he swung them up. I may not grow old, but I shall certainly grow deaf. Merle and Dilly stood politely to one side, guarding food baskets. The baskets would go in another wagon.
When the last of the youngest ones had been loaded in the bed of the wagon, Merle bounded up to be lifted. Bilbo gave her a kiss just before he handed her up to Frodo. She wrapped her arms around Frodo’s neck and refused to be put down, so Frodo simply sat in the wagon, looking carefully before he did to make sure he did not sit on top of the rambunctious mob. As soon as he was settled, the swarm of children settled around him like bees on a honeycomb. And Merle’s the queen bee, Bilbo idly thought, then roughly shoved that idea from him. He did not wish to look at the child through the prism of her mother.
He and Dilly raised and secured the gate across the back of the wagon. They went to the front, and Bilbo steadied Dilly as she clambered up onto the wood bench next to Mac. Bilbo agilely pulled himself up next to her.
‘Now, wife, scoot your big beam over here and give Uncle Bilbo room to sit,’ rumbled Mac in a happy tone, grinning good-naturedly at his wife’s glare and not bothering to defend himself from the rather sharp slap she bestowed on his shoulder. She did as he asked, however, and he wrapped his arm around her, reaching down to place a quick, loving squeeze on her rump before settling his hand at her waist. She slipped one arm around his back and laid the other across his round belly, her head on his shoulder.
‘Gee up,’ Mac called to the draft ponies, and they leaned into their collars. He held the reins loosely in his hand. Mac was like Rory with animals. Bilbo had never seen him give one a sharp correction, and they all seemed eager to please him. Mac never carried a whip or a crop. At the gate, Mac moved his hand and allowed the reins to brush the ponies’ necks. They obediently turned east on the road. These were Shire-bred draft ponies, short and stout. Their bellies were the widest part of them, though their broad, round rumps were not far behind. Rory took pride in having matched pairs for his wagons. These two Rushey Punches were a bright, burnished copper, almost orange, and they had flaxen manes and tails. Their faces bore wide, white blazes and their thick hooves and lower legs were covered in long hair, like big boots. They snorted and stepped out briskly.
They were off to the Old Orchard for Harvest rites. Bilbo remembered when he was Merle’s age, being loaded up into the back of a wagon by his Uncle Gorbadoc with his mother and Aunt Mira and all the children of Brandy Hall, then going to the Old Orchard to collect the apples for pressing. His father and his uncle sat where he and Mac now sat, telling silly stories and singing boisterous songs to make the journey seem shorter. That is what happened mid-Halimath in Buckland, and had happened for as long as anyone could remember.
There was a wagon up ahead, driven by Sara, filled with empty bushels and the baskets of food. A few cousins and farmers sat with him or on the back of the wagon, legs trailing off the end. A few had already begun to sing something lively. Creaking sounds behind him let Bilbo know that the water wagon, also carrying a good amount of food, was on the lane. Most of the women and older girls would follow along in lighter traps and other wagons shortly, for they needed to finish setting the Hall to rights and get the evening meal cooking in the coals for those who would not be at the orchard.
‘What about a song, Uncle Bilbo,’ Mac asked, ‘to brighten the morning and shorten the journey?’ The children shouted an enthusiastic approval of this idea.
Bilbo had no heart for singing, but knew it was better than sitting in brooding silence, or allowing the children to get bored and fractious. ‘Very well, what shall we sing?’ The children quickly called out a series of songs, more than enough to last the entire way, especially when sung five or six times over as the children liked to do. To Bilbo’s gratitude, Frodo took up the task of getting the little ones started on their songs. His boy had a clear and pleasant voice that carried in the damp morning air. Pretty soon, the water wagon fellows were singing the same tune. Mac and Dilly had perfected the spousal art of singing along while holding their own conversation. They would exchange snatches of verse while the other talked, and could often turn a phrase of song into a reply to a spoken question.
Bilbo turned around on the bench so he could keep an eye on the children. Merle refused to relinquish her prize seat in Frodo’s lap, though Merry and Tilly Bolger, Bard and Cissy Bolger’s girl, were doing their best to dislodge her. The children were already rather untidy; shirts and skirts rumpled, sleeves used as handkerchiefs, hats exchanged, abandoned and trampled on the floor of the wagon. Bilbo watched the morning sun glint off the children’s hair, and tried not to think. Most had the dark, rich brown of the Stoors, like freshly tilled bottom-land. Some were paler brown with honeyed touches from a summer spent in the sun. Merry and Merle had the lightest brown hair, and had coppery glints instead of golden ones. Frodo had Baggins hair, a deep brown like an old leather couch, showing no hint of gold or red. It was no use. Every time he saw Frodo, he could not help but think.
I can’t just take him and leave. Last night, after the elvish lesson, after Frodo had gone, Bilbo had built up the fire and settled in to try to make sense of what had transpired at tea. How to cut through the web Esmie had woven was his only consideration, and the prospects were not looking so good. Bilbo’s first impulse was to simply pack his knapsack, put one together for Frodo, and leave the Shire with his boy that very night. Take the Ferry, go north to the Road, then head east, as he had gone before. They would have been out of the Shire by daybreak, and at Bree by nightfall of the next day. Frodo is tall for his age, but he’s still a child. He’s not ready for the demands of such a march. It would be dangerous to try.
Moreover Bilbo doubted whether Frodo, when faced with the choice, would willingly go marching off away from hearth and kin into the wild at the side of a crazy uncle with an unsavory reputation. It was one thing to talk about a distant, imaginary adventure, and quite another to step out on one. Remember what you told him, Baggins, that one shouldn’t run away from what one fears. But it was fear for another that drove him. He did not want Frodo to stay another moment in the web Esmie had woven. Bilbo feared for his boy. Between Sara and Pal’s fists and Esmie’s embrace, there was little Frodo could do to defend himself against what threatened.
Mostly, Bilbo was terribly angry at how neatly he himself had been pinned in a corner without really noticing it had been done. He was trapped by his own heart, his love twisted into bonds that kept him from fighting for his boy. Spiders and dragons and avaricious elf-kings seemed rather simple to deal with when compared to doing battle with a conniving Took. The revelation about Rory had been the only unexpected turn, once he had seen through to Esmie’s plans. He remembered the gloating on her face as she said the fateful words: "There’s nothing you can do to hurt me. Anything you try will simply come back to hurt the lad." That was what bound him.
As they passed farmsteads along the way, there would often be a goodwife standing out on the lane, a child or two in hand. These new ones would quickly join the others in the back of the wagon. Regularly, another wagon would join the procession towards the Hedge, laden with bushel baskets, water butts, food for the pickers, and cheerful hobbits of all ages. Bilbo knew even Gilda would eventually be brought to the Old Orchard. The Mistress had to pick the first apples of Harvest that went into the pressing or the cider would all go sour.
The Old Orchard was near the Gate in the High Hay, and close to the Old Forest. The story was that the Old Orchard had once been a part of the Old Forest proper, and that the Hedge had been built in part to keep the apple trees from walking back into the forest. After a few attempts to tear their way back through the hawthorn and rejoin the wild trees, the apples had seemed to settle down, rather liking being tended and visited. The one thing that was never done in the Old Orchard, however, was pruning. Bringing an axe or a saw into the grove was a sure way to end up with whip marks from the branches, or to suffer some worse injury. It also was not wise to hunt in the orchard. The snares set by hunters were usually sprung and often torn apart. Hobbit parents always taught their youngsters to thank the Lady Orchard if they plucked an apple.
The wagons rattled up the last slope and arrived at the Old Orchard. It never seemed to change. The orchard itself was only the apple trees. Over the years, small sheds had been built a short ways from it to the south and west, and some tame woods had grown up a hundred yards or so to the north. There were a few, rarely-used sheds up against those trees. The wagons stopped first near the southern sheds and unloaded food and water, then headed off into the orchard to set the bushels down every few yards. Mac had to go from team to team among the wagons and calm the ponies. The animals did not like to go under the branches, but after some soothing words and pats from him, they would bow their heads and move into the dappled shadows. His own team calmly stood where he had left them, switching away flies with their tails.
Dilly and Bilbo lifted down the children as Frodo kept the bolder ones from simply launching themselves off the back of the wagon. After they got the wagon emptied, Frodo lightly jumped down and helped the other two keep track of the little ones while the children ran in circles and screeched and shouted. The men were setting tables up to the south. The few women who had arrived brought other children over and kept watch as the excess energy was spent. Soon, the bushel wagons reappeared from under the trees, and Bilbo could faintly hear the sounds of other wagons approaching from the west. The work moved to the western sheds. The sides of large bins were pulled out of storage and put back together with great wooden pegs. Doors on one shed were folded back to reveal the cider presses.
The later wagons were starting to arrive, and there were more women in them. Tents sprang up along the west, and various cooking and cutting and work areas were spread out below them. Cooking fires were laid a distance down the slope, away from the Old Orchard. The children wandered about, getting under foot, begging for treats, chasing each other and generally enjoying themselves. As the ponies were no longer needed, Mac oversaw getting them unharnessed and put out to graze north of the orchard. When Mac told them to stay about, they did. His own team he left harnessed, but he brushed them down and sang them a song about a good carthorse. They flicked their ears and snorted at the appropriate places.
They had been there about an hour when a gaily-decorated pony trap pulled up. People stopped what they were doing and moved over to the trees, following the cart. Rory drove it, and Gilda sat at his side. Esmie sat to her other side, making sure she did not get jostled or tipped over. Bilbo called for Merle and Merry to come along, and Dilly took Berry’s hand. It was time for Harvest rites.
Mac and Sara were waiting at the orchard. Mac held the pony’s head while Sara helped Esmie out of the cart, then reached in and lifted his mother out. Rory hopped down and spoke to Mac briefly. The pony was handed off to a stable lad, and taken to be unharnessed. Dilly and Bilbo walked the small children up to the group, followed by Frodo. People were silent as Rory and Sara supported Gilda and helped her walk to the edge of the apple trees. She pulled herself up straight, her hair silver-bright in the autumn sun.
‘It is Halimath, Lady Orchard,’ she addressed the trees, ‘and it is time for us to gather what will keep us through the winter.’ Though no wind could be felt, the branches of the nearest trees swayed just the tiniest bit. ‘We bear no axe or edge. We ask to gather from you what you no longer need.’ A soft sound of branches moving echoed through the orchard. Esmie picked up a bushel basket and moved to stand under a branch bearing apples. Sara and Mac boosted Gilda up onto Rory’s shoulder and he put an arm up to steady her.
‘Bilbo,’ Rory called, ‘come help.’ Bilbo hastened to their side and placed firm hands on Gilda’s waist and thigh to keep her balanced on Rory’s shoulder. Rory stepped forward until Gilda was under the branch. Sara hoisted Merle up on his shoulders, while Mac and Frodo did the same with Berry and Merry, and the three moved to be near the Master and the Mistress. Gilda reached up with shaking hands and grasped an apple between them. With a jerk, she picked it from its stem and dropped it into the bushel held by Esmie. She reached up again, and picked, and dropped, picked and dropped, picked and dropped. Soon, there were a dozen apples in the basket. Sara came close and Merle reached up and started picking apples, sometimes by herself, sometimes helping Gilda pull a recalcitrant apple loose. Mac and Frodo brought the boys forward, and the two lads began to help fill the bushel.
All this time, the Bucklanders stood silent, even the children, watching the Mistress and her children collect the first fruits of Harvest from Lady Orchard. After a while, Gilda quietly told Rory that she could not raise her arms any more. Rory stood still and Bilbo braced her as they watched the children finish filling the basket. When they were done, Gilda addressed the trees once more.
‘Bless us and keep us, Lady Orchard. Peace be upon you and bounty be your gift to us this day.’ The rustling of branches faded away.
Bilbo helped Gilda down from Rory’s shoulder, and held her until Mac and Sara had set down the children. They made a chair of their arms and picked their mother up between them. Esmie presented the bushel of apples to Rory. He led them over to the small cider press. All watched in silence as he worked the press himself, dumping in the apples, turning the crank, squeezing the juice out of the fruit. He dipped a mug of the cider out of the catch basin, and carried it to Gilda. She wrapped shaking hands around it, lifted it up, and drank deeply. Some of the golden juice dripped from the corners of her mouth because her hands could not hold the mug steady, but she drained it in a single draught.
She raised the mug and called out, ‘The cider is sweet! Lady Orchard has given us her blessing. Let Harvest begin!’ A great roar rose from the assembled hobbits.
Frodo and Dilly carried a chair from a wagon to a tent in front of the trees, and Gilda was set in it. Rory was filling and refilling the mug from the basin and letting little children, the maidens and the goodwives take sips until the first pressing was gone. When he finished, Bilbo and Frodo helped him clean the apple pulp out of the press and the bin. Sara and Mac were bellowing good-naturedly, getting Harvest underway. At a word from Rory, Frodo grinned and darted away to the orchard. Rory and Bilbo came back to Gilda and sat at her feet, one to either side, like great dogs. And so they spent the day watching Harvest take place.
The girls and the younger wives climbed up into the apple trees and dropped the fruit into sheets held out by the older women. Many of the maids were wearing their brothers’ trousers that day, while others had split skirts, though more than few simply climbed the trees in their short kitchen skirts. The men took the filled sheets and dumped the apples into waiting bushel baskets, helped the girls and women in and out of the trees, and had children sitting on their shoulders while they held baskets in their hands. The children picked the apples, dropping them down to land in the baskets. Younger men stacked the filled baskets next to the main paths, and stood ready to move them onto the wagon. Mac took his team of golden ponies under the branches because they would follow him and would never shy from a shadow. Full baskets were loaded onto the wagon and empty ones put in their place. At a command from Mac, the team dug in their hooves and pulled the laden wagon out into the sun and over to the pressing shed.
There, Sara took command. Yelling cheerful insults and loud encouragements, he directed dumping apples into the big bins, moving them along to presses, getting the fruit squeezed and emptied into stone vats set into the earth. Supposedly the dwarves had carved these, too, and Bilbo tended to believe it. They never smelled spoiled or sour, they always worked. Later, after the juice had settled a few days, it would be pumped out of the vats and set into barrels - some for sweet cider, some for hard, some for vinegar. The press-men were a loud, rowdy troop, and the last of the hard cider from the previous Harvest flowed freely, though all were extremely careful not to get it near the new pressings. It would not do to spoil the Lady’s gift.
Bilbo, Rory and Gilda watched the proceedings and reminisced. I guess we really are old, Bilbo reflected, when we tell stories of what we’ve done rather than go make stories with our deeds. They laughed at the older tweens, for the boys would hoist their girls on their shoulders and play games, teasing and taunting and flirting for all they were worth. The older goodwives and husbands kept an eye on the tweens and let them flirt, but did not allow them to leave the orchard.
Bilbo finally got a chance to watch Frodo with the other children his age. He seemed merry enough, laughing and wrestling, being as boisterous as any of them. Bilbo watched very carefully for any difference in his actions towards the boys and the girls and saw none of note. He was cheerful and friendly to all, though tormenting the girls a bit much, as young tween boys were wont to do. He got cuffed for dropping a grass snake in some lass’s lap, received a sharp slap on his rump for trying to spit apple seeds up at a pair of sisters who were dropping twigs on him, and got his ear twisted by Mac when he knocked over a stack of full bushels while trying to escape from doing something with a few other boys that left a pack of girls screeching at them. Mac also made him pick up all the apples he spilled. Bilbo was glad it was Mac, not Sara who was overseeing the orchard.
The kitchen tents worked all day and there were no proper meals but no one seemed to mind. Whenever folk were hungry, they just went by and found something they liked, and then went back to their work. By late afternoon, however, the picking was pretty much completed and most of the work centered on the presses. Little children, thoroughly worn out, could be found sleeping in small piles like puppies, an older tween or an adult sitting near each in case one of them woke and wanted something.
Frodo had come to find Bilbo, and had told him and Rory and Gilda all about his less mischievous adventures in the orchard. After the stories were done, Bilbo said it was time for his elvish lesson, while there was still light and before supper was served. They went and sat up against the side of one of the sheds and Bilbo produced their pipes. It was not safe to smoke under Lady Orchard’s boughs.
Today their lesson was on the names of plants, especially trees, since there were so many about. Bilbo talked a bit about the types of plants, and then he said the names of all the plants he could see, in Quenya as well as Sindarin if he knew the words. Frodo repeated, and repeated, and repeated, until Bilbo was satisfied with his pronunciation. Then they played a game where Bilbo would point at a plant, and Frodo would have to name it.
‘Ereg… salch… lass… hwand… doron… tathar.’
‘Very good! Not a mistake on the last bunch!’ Bilbo said happily, while Frodo grinned in satisfaction. ‘Tomorrow we should walk along the river and look for smaller plants.’
Bilbo smiled at the lad’s delighted agreement, though every second spent sitting next to Frodo, knowing what he knew would soon happen, left him feeling guilty. I should tell him, warn him. He did not speak his mind, however, and let the boy enjoy his happiness.
Bilbo saw Frodo’s face close up, become wary, and Bilbo heard the soft pad of feet behind him. Without turning Bilbo said, ‘Hello, Sara.’ Frodo said nothing.
‘Good afternoon, Uncle, Frodo,’ Sara replied coming to stand in front of them, ‘Blessings of Harvest upon you.’ He was obviously just a bit intoxicated from the hard cider at the pressing shed, but was not actually drunk. Bilbo was not sure he did not prefer the fellow completely drunk.
‘Yes, Sara, this has been a fine Harvest,’ Bilbo politely replied. Frodo had dropped his eyes to the ground and kept them there.
‘Aye, that it has,’ Sara absently responded, looking down at Frodo.
‘Don’t let us keep you,’ Bilbo said in a pleasant but pointed way, and put his pipe back in his mouth, nodding his regards to the heir of the Master. Sara did not pay him any attention. He was now looking down at Frodo intently. He made a swift move, grabbing at Frodo’s pipe. Frodo was on his feet in a flash, pipe behind him. Bilbo was standing next to him only a moment later.
‘What’s that, rat? Where’d you get that?’ Sara snapped, seizing Frodo’s arm and trying to pull it out from behind him.
‘None of your business,’ Frodo retorted, trying to twist away.
‘Take your hand off the lad, now,’ Bilbo said, pushing his own shoulder between the cousins. Sara stepped back, glaring at them both.
‘Who’d you steal that from?’ Sara hissed at Frodo.
‘You don’t have such a thing, rat, quit lying.’
‘It’s Uncle Bilbo’s birthday present to me, and it’s mine. I’m not lying!’
‘Does Da know you have this? You’re not supposed to have things like this.’
‘It is his. I gave it to him, I want him to have it, and I will obtain Rory’s permission,’ Bilbo broke in. ‘Frodo can have whatever I choose to give him.’ As he more than half expected, Sara’s face took on the sly, leering expression he had quite come to loathe.
‘Well, I guess we’ll just have to allow it, then,’ Sara drawled, ‘I suppose you’ll want to give him all sorts of things. And I’m sure he’ll want it.’
Bilbo saw that Frodo caught the double meaning of Sara’s words and had doubled his fists. The old hobbit moved so that he was in between the cousins and smiled politely at Sara. ‘Sara, Rory is the only one who decides what gifts Frodo may accept. If you object to something, then you should discuss it with the Master, not the lad. As I said before, don’t let us keep you.’
‘You know, he got in trouble for stealing a pipe not so long ago,’ Sara replied. ‘He’s more than a bit of a sneak.’
‘He didn’t steal it, he borrowed it, and some other boy stole it from him,’ Bilbo corrected sternly, ‘and had you been caring for him properly, he would have had a clay pipe of his own to do with as he pleased, and your second-best, unused pipe would still be taking up space in the pipe rack.’
‘Why am I not surprised that you’re encouraging him in sneaky, secret things,’ Sara sneered.
‘Sara, you really should not be allowed out in public without a leash and a keeper,’ Bilbo said, getting bored with the crude insults. At least Esmie shows some subtlety and imagination when she’s skewering me. He heard Frodo snicker beside him. Sara took a threatening step forward.
‘Button your lip, rat.’
‘Take your own advice, lyg.’
‘But you button them so well,’ Sara taunted, ‘you’re quite talented with them. Wrapping them around strange… words. I can see why Bilbo finds you such a perfect companion.’
Frodo took a step forward, and Bilbo hoped he was not going to have to try to break up a fistfight between the two of them. Then he looked at Frodo and stared. He had expected the boy to be livid or embarrassed by Sara’s insult. Instead, Frodo had drawn himself up to his full height, had raised his chin and was giving Sara a fierce look. His face showed his utter disgust with his cousin. Sara appeared to shrink in comparison the younger hobbit, becoming uncertain under that excoriating glare.
‘That is quite enough from you, Sara. You may go. Now!’ Frodo ordered the older hobbit.
Sara reacted as if he had been hit a blow instead of given a command. He took a quick stumbling step backwards, then continued to back up a few paces. He shook his hand at Frodo, ‘Don’t you get all high and mighty with me, rat. You’ll be sorry for this!’
Frodo started taking slow menacing steps towards Sara, who kept backing up. ‘I. Said. Go.’ the boy replied in a low, venomous voice. Sara turned quickly and went back the way he came.
Frodo watched him leave. Bilbo kept watching Frodo, thoroughly amazed. It was the Old Took, come back to life. Gerontius had not been the eldest son of Fortinbras, but he had been the most commanding. When their father died, Gerontius had simply taken the Thainship as his own, and his two older brothers had not dared to contest him. Bilbo thought he could see now how that had happened. Then the lad slumped and the Old Took was gone. His boy was back, hurt and angry.
‘Frodo, are you all...’ Bilbo had reached out and touched the boy’s shoulder, only to have the child flinch violently away from him. Frodo gave him a long, unreadable stare, then turned on his heel and went the opposite way from Sara. Bilbo did not try to follow, and watched him disappear around the corner.
The next hour went by in a bit of a blur for Bilbo. He walked about the Old Orchard and the tents, peered carefully into the sheds, trying to catch a glimpse of Frodo. Sara’s taunts had gone too far, but he did not see how they could have been prevented. Bilbo sensed he had missed a great deal in the exchange, and wished he had been able to miss things that had been quite clear.
Bilbo was at the northwest edge of the sheds, near to the north woods, staring out towards the horses when he saw some tweens walking towards the sheds along the wood. Frodo was one of them. He sauntered along with the others, an odd attitude in his motions. Bilbo recognized the faces, but did not know the names of the others. One had been working the press with Sara all day, while the other two had helped putting apples bushels on the wagon and other lifting tasks. All were certainly late tweens, not any taller than Frodo, but more filled out and clearly much older than the boy. The four disappeared around one the north sheds. Bilbo remembered Sara’s threat, and was afraid the boys had been sent to give Frodo a thrashing.
Bilbo casually looked about to see if anyone was watching him. Stepping back into the shadow of the last shed, Bilbo freed his ring from its golden chain, and slipped it on. The world grew a little dim and indistinct, as though a mist had dropped over the orchard. The limbs of the apple trees moved and tapped, and he thought he could hear a warning voice in the whisper of the branches. He quickly crossed the open ground and entered the edge of the woods. He had to move slowly so as not to make any noise that would give him away. It took several minutes to work his way to where two of the tweens (the mist kept him from seeing clearly which ones) were lounging against the side of the empty building, casually watching the merriment over near the western sheds. There was no sound of a scuffle or fight.
The old hobbit stopped at the edge of the trees and observed the younger ones. He heard some soft, familiar sounds coming from behind the building. I don’t want to see this. I don’t want to know. If I do, it won’t be Sara’s lies anymore. Bilbo had all too good an idea of what he would see. But if they’re hurting him, forcing him… Bilbo went into the trees, skirting the shed. He worked his way through the undergrowth, keeping his dimmed sight on the plants, refusing to look towards the sounds he heard until he had reached a certain place. Even then he would not, could not look up. He heard a groan, the sound of cloth being moved. When he could make himself raise his eyes, Bilbo saw the back of the unknown tween. That boy was looking down, fastening his pants.
Frodo, standing, was leaning back against the shed, looking at the other boy with a knowing half-smile. The light filtering through the trees as the sun set was deep gold, with a bit of orange and red in it. It struck his boy’s face, and made it glow in Bilbo’s misty vision. There was little to be seen in that face of the child who had been teasing girls in the Old Orchard earlier in the day. The sunset had thrown a mask of light and shadow upon Frodo’s features, showing Bilbo for a moment how he would look a dozen years hence. Frodo was beautiful.
The other boy passed in front of Frodo, breaking Bilbo’s concentration. Frodo turned a little to watch the other leave. His face fell into the shadow of a tree and the mask disappeared. A moment later, another (the third, Bilbo figured) came around the corner. He said something low to Frodo, who simply raised an eyebrow, then stretched provocatively. The other boy stood very close in front of Frodo, hands braced against the wall to either side of the younger boy. The smile had faded from Frodo’s face, and he began to look away as the other boy talked. Bilbo wished he could hear, but did not want to risk moving closer.
Frodo gave the other a scathing look and turned as if to go. The second boy quickly put his hand into Frodo’s hair, making the younger boy face him. Frodo glared for a second, then smiled, and gracefully dropped to his knees, the other’s hand still firmly gripping his hair. Bilbo watched Frodo undo the boy’s pants, then he couldn’t see Frodo’s face anymore. The other boy’s hips began to thrust, and Bilbo looked away. As he had before, he just stared at the ground, refusing to look, wishing he could not hear, but afraid to leave until the others finished and he knew Frodo would not be beaten or injured. It was not too long of a wait.
The other boy closed his trousers and promptly walked away. Bilbo heard him call a greeting to the two waiting out front, followed by the sounds of them departing, laughing and joking as they went. Frodo was still on his knees next to the shed, facing Bilbo, looking off into nothing. Bilbo saw him run the tip of his tongue along his lower lip, a pensive expression on his face. There was something sticking to his chin, near the corner of his mouth. The lad dug into a pocket and pulled out a small apple. He bit into it, chewed vigorously, then spat the chewed-up pulp out on the ground. He took another bite and did the same thing, some of the juice from the apple joining the other matter in the line down his chin. A third bite followed the first two, and Frodo tossed the apple core to the side. He scrubbed at his chin with his sleeve, then felt for anything left with fingers. Satisfied, he swiftly walked off.
Bilbo sat down on the ground with a thump, and pulled off the ring. He wanted to see clearly. Whenever he wore it, he always had a sense of being watched. He ascribed it to his own guilty conscience for spying on others, though in truth the only deliberate spying he had done was to rescue Thorin and the others from the elf-king’s halls, and to spy out Smaug. Until now. I wonder what that Gollum creature saw when he wore the ring? Did he watch and stalk the Orcs he hunted, or did he simply grab them quickly? Did he sit in the shadows and watch things like this? What did I just see?
He was not sure what to make of it. Frodo had serviced the other three, that was the only thing that seemed clear. But why, for what reason, Bilbo could not know. Did he want to do this? Did they force him? Whose idea was it? There was not much doubt but that Frodo was practiced. He resisted the third boy. But only for a moment. He didn’t look frightened. Bilbo could not forget the brief moment where Frodo had been gilded by time itself, turned into something without age, only fierce, sensual beauty. How could anyone not want him, seeing him so? The others did not see it; they had merely spent themselves and walked away. Frodo had been like that again, the first few seconds when he knelt alone, tasting them on himself. He had an apple ready to take away the taste. Who taught him that trick? Bilbo’s heart ached and he felt like crying. It was not just Sara’s lies. He hated what he saw. Is this how you love, Frodo? Is this all? Bilbo knew that drive, the need to find release, and to pause for nothing else until through. But, after… They had not touched him, smiled at him, kissed him, stroked him. There was no delight in each other. Frodo had not even touched or pleased himself. It’s just some boys, doing what boys will do. Don’t make so much out of it. There’s time for love when he finds someone to love. He staggered to his feet, needing to get away.
Bilbo slipped the ring back on and made his way out to the middle of the Old Orchard. He knew that the trees somehow could see him, and did not approve, catching at him with trailing branches. Avoiding a few trysting couples, who were taking advantage of Lady Orchard’s blessing to get a child, Bilbo slipped off the ring and found his way back to the tent where Gilda was seated. The sun had set, and a bonfire was roaring. A few people had brought fiddle and flute. Some dancing was underway, while food was beginning to be served. He made his way to her chair and took up his spot at her feet. Food appeared almost by magic, but he had no stomach to eat. He set the plate down. Gilda absently stroked his hair. He caught her hand and held it for a time, needing to feel warm, familiar flesh.
Across the fire, he could see Sara and Mac holding court, Esmie and Dilly at their sides. It was cheerful, happy, nicely drunk and festive over there. As Bilbo examined the crowd, he saw the boys who had been with Frodo. They stood near the edges of the adults’ group, chatting and laughing with others, not at all looking like they had just used another to relieve themselves. It’s not fair. They should have great, red marks across their foreheads, their hearts, announcing what they’ve done so that all may see and be horrified, and that they might be ashamed. But no marks appeared, only some reddening cheeks from ale and laughter.
Finding Frodo was no great task. As Bilbo expected, his boy was sitting with the young children, Merry cradled asleep in his arms, taking care of them. He looked as innocent as the other little ones, nothing to show that he might know how to make another clutch at him and cry out. Frodo wiped a little drool off Merry’s chin, then turned to scold Tilly for pulling another’s hair, and finally sang a short song to entertain the children who refused to succumb to a long day and a full tummy and steadfastly remained awake. After the song was done, Frodo sat, rocking Merry. At some point he stopped, frowned a little, then looked directly over to Bilbo, magnet to true north. Frodo held his gaze unblinking for what seemed a long while, then deliberately turned away. Bilbo watched Frodo for the rest of the evening, trying to commit to memory this picture of his child. It was no use. Whenever Frodo would meet his eyes, all Bilbo could see was the golden, sunset mask.
After the moon came out, ponies were rounded up, wagons were hitched, and belongings and children were stowed. Bilbo helped load up Mac’s wagon with children bound for Brandy Hall. Frodo chatted to the children, but said not a word to Bilbo. Bilbo stood at the side of the wagon as Mac secured the tailgate. Frodo knelt close by in the wagon bed, children sleepily curling up against him.
A pause, eyes averted, then a smile. ‘Yes, Uncle Bilbo?’
‘We’ve already had our elven lesson for the day, but would you care to have an evening pipe after we get back, before we turn in?’
The smile faded, eyes wary, then face expressionless. ‘I’m sorry, Uncle Bilbo, I’m tired. I don’t think I could manage it.’
Bilbo smiled broadly. ‘That’s all right, my boy. Get your sleep. Tomorrow, then.’ Bilbo made it a statement, a command, not a question.
Frodo looked away. ‘If you wish, tomorrow, then.’
Bilbo waved farewell and traveled home with Rory and Gilda.