12. The Blooding

POV - Bilbo/Frodo

In which someone gets Rory's goat, Bilbo recites a poem about flower and fruit, wolves are noticed in Northfarthing, and a rat, a snake and a badger have a little chat.


Sunset, Yule Day, Foreyule

It had taken every ounce of will not to slip on his ring and follow the boys. Bilbo stole a look out of the corner of his eye at Frodo as they waited for the wagon carrying Gilda to pull up. The lad was eagerly watching the approach. You made the right choice, Baggins. There was no need to spy. His fingers had itched to snag the chain, pull out the ring and put it on. This was different. Frodo was in no danger from the other lad. He had not stopped watching the woods until the boys came out. They had argued about something. All boys squabble. Trust him, Baggins. Let him make his mistakes. Neither boy was rumpled or flushed, though they had stared daggers at each other for few minutes. The pocketknife had been his way to make amends for thinking foolish things, for not trusting his lad.

But there was more at stake than trusting Frodo, or wanting to keep him safe. There was his reputation to look after as well. He was not a young boy anymore and to be seen in a lustful moment with another lad at a gathering of this size could prove disastrous. Even the appearance of having done so would be troublesome. Particularly with as unprepossessing a specimen as Master Tunnelly. Bilbo had been watching Frodo with the other tweens as much as he could since they arrived in Buckland, and it was reasonably obvious to him that the boys had a bit of a crush on each other. He was mystified as to what Frodo would find attractive in this rabbity, washed out, nervous fellow. Time and distance will take care of this infatuation, Baggins. Even so, Frodo’s behavior at such gatherings must be impeccable, especially as the lad already had to avoid being affected by Bilbo’s own tainted reputation. Bilbo turned his attention back to the wagon, which had come to a stop.

Sara handed his mother down into Rory and Mac’s arms, then helped Esmie out. After a brief word with Gilda, Esmie walked over to the cooking tables. Sara turned the team around so the back of the wagon was to the gathering. It was full of pots, kettles, platters, and dishes, and all of them were full of food. He braked the wagon, and hurried back to the others. Mister Tunnelly began tending the team.

The boys made a chair of their arms and picked Gilda up. Following their father, they made their way across the gathering and stopped in front of the thrones. Bilbo quickly took Gilda’s crown off the cushion so she could sit. The holly leaves pricked his fingers as he held it. The last rays of the sun were just peeking over the horizon, and Rory addressed the sunset.

‘Mistress Sun, where are you going? Say that you will not leave us in darkness and cold, prey to evil things! We are well worth your affections. Do not abandon your daughters!  Go no further from us, but return to us and protect us from darkness. The sons of your brother Moon will sport and make merry this night for your pleasure. Mistress Sun, let us entice you back to warm our days and make things fruitful. Through this dark night, we shall hold your daughters safe from harm. We will feed them and keep them well and plump. We will woo them and court them, and they shall choose, and we shall give them children. We will tend your fire through the night and give them your warmth for their hearths on the morrow. Let the Winter’s Mark be placed upon our brows and let our labors this night remove it.’

As he spoke the final words, the last rays of the sun disappeared in the west. Torches sprang to life around the central circle. Bilbo felt Gilda bat at his arm, and he reached down and took her hand. Her fingers were very cold. He knelt beside her chair and took both of her hands between his own, warming her fingers in his palms.

Several of the butchers led the billy goat through the revelers and towards Rory. It walked along quite calmly. When they reached Rory, he scratched the goat on its poll, and rubbed the bridge of its nose. Soon it dropped to its front knees and bowed its head. Rory straddled it, took hold of a horn and its chin. There was a pause, and all held their breath. Rory’s hands moved suddenly, powerfully, and the goat dropped with a broken neck. One of the butchers was quickly at the goat’s side, putting a sharp, slender blade through its ear and into its brain to make sure it was dead. They dragged the carcass over to the butchering area, and drained its blood into a large bowl.

Sara collected the bowl and brought it to Rory. The blood steamed in the cold air. They first stopped at the large log in the center of the clearing.  Rory dipped his hand into the goat’s blood and dripped it along the length of the log. They next went to the tower of wood, and Rory dripped and spattered blood across the logs. His own shirt became spattered, and his right hand was red. Mac came forward with a torch, and handed it to his father, who set the pile of logs alight. The oiled straw caught quickly and blazed up inside the logs. He lit the straw that had been laid around the central log, and that, too, was soon afire.

Rory dipped his fingers into the bowl, and placed a smear of the blood on his own forehead, between and just above his eyes. He next marked Sara, then Mac. Silently, the men lined up approximately according to age. Gis was the oldest present and was the first to approach Rory. Reluctantly, Bilbo released Gilda’s hands and stood behind Gis. The blood was still warm when Rory marked his forehead, and the smell of it made Bilbo ill for a moment. He returned to kneel next to Gilda. Frodo was the very last in the line of about two hundred. Before the line was through, the first goat had been dressed and spitted, and the butchers were at work preparing more carcasses for the roasting spits.

When Frodo was marked, Rory rinsed off his hand in a bowl of water Esmie brought over. Sara poured the rest of the blood out onto the great fire. Rory came back to the thrones and looked at the crowns. He sent Bilbo a humorous glare.

‘I should have known your boy would do something like this,’ Rory chuckled. He picked up the horned crown, holly berries tipping the green spikes and set it on his own head. At that, the crowd let out a roar.

Wintermark had officially begun.

Still laughing, Rory picked up Gilda’s crown and placed it carefully on her head. She had pulled a few strands of her hair back from her face and clipped them, but her silver-white curls fell in a tangle on her shoulders. The curls seemed to know they had been honored, and they clung to the laurel and holly tendrils. Rory stood before the other throne and gestured for silence.

‘Welcome to the Wintermark of Buckland, friends, neighbors, and kin,’ he called out. The crowd roared its approval. ‘It is time to lay the Goodwives’ table now. Gentlemen, if you will do your duty – again!’ Rory sat and a raucous cheer went up as some men came out of the crowd and began to draw near the wagon. Mac led the way and earned many hoots and cheerfully rude insults from the crowd. He grinned and waved at them to be quiet. He picked up a large pie from the back of the wagon and laid it on the large table that stood alone. The other men followed suit. Bilbo felt a gentle tug on his sleeve, and saw Frodo watching in confused fascination.

‘What is happening?’ the lad whispered in his ear. Rory had given the lad a generous smear of blood, and a bit had dripped into his eyebrows while a trickle had gone down his nose. It was disconcerting to see blood on Frodo’s face, and Bilbo found himself wishing he could wipe it off.

‘That’s the Goodwives’ table, for the women who conceived this year,’ Bilbo whispered back. ‘Each of those women cooks something for the table, and their husbands lay the table. It is good luck for those who wish a child to eat something from the dishes laid there. You can see that Dilly made a very large apple pie.’ Frodo grinned and hooted along with the rest when Mac and the other men took an embarrassed bow. My turn.

Rory stood up again. ‘Friends, before we turn to our general festivities, there is one more treat to be had.’ Rory gestured over to Bilbo. ‘Most of you know my illustrious cousin, Mister Bilbo Baggins.’ A cheer went up from the crowd, thought there were a few darker murmurs as well. ‘My dear cousin has traveled far and wide, and has seen Yule in places other than the Shire. I have asked him to recite for us a short poem, by the elves, on the first rising of the Sun.’ Bilbo walked out into the center of the circle, near the single burning log and surveyed the audience.

‘This is a but a fragment of a much longer poem, the Narsilion, the Song of the Sun and the Moon, set down by the High elves in ages past. I have translated it into the Common tongue. I assure you, it is much grander in elvish.’

Bilbo dropped his head to gather his thoughts, then looked up and declaimed,

The great Enemy slew the trees of light,
Plunging all into darkness, blinding sight.
The Delver's voice rang through the Shadow,
She prayed for their light upon the meadow,

And long she sang to reclaim their life,
To undo murder, to turn aside knife.
Her pleas they heard and drew last breath.
The trees to the Delver from the depths

Of their wounded limbs gave one fair fruit
Of glorious gold; from darkening shoot
A flower of silver gleaméd forth
As clear as the turn-star of the north.

Then did both trees succumb to night,
But blessed the Earth with deathless light.
The Delver's mate wrought great and soon 
Arose the ships of Sun and Moon.

All was alight for the waking of Men.
The Sun holds them dear, as she is to them, H
er brother Moon, while She is sleeping,
Holds dreams of elf-folk in his keeping.

The Moon rose first and softly lit
The ravaged lands where Shadow sits.
Long they labored upon the Sun
A Spirit of Fire guides this one,

A banner of flame in the heavens
To illume the plans of Shadow craven
She sprang in the West to herald the might
That gathered, a promise against the night,

And in her bright light the Shadow retreats A
nd in her passage, the promise keeps
That Darkness shall not be allowed
To walk unhindered, cruel and proud,

To assail the Children of the earth
And rob them of life, of hope, of mirth.

Silence greeted the end of the poem. Bilbo looked around the circle, and saw mostly confusion. Ah, well, Baggins, you tried. He looked back at the thrones. Gilda gave him a smile, and Frodo was grinning. At least they appreciate the poem. None else have the wit, I dare say. Bilbo smiled and addressed the crowd.

‘Thus it is that the Sun sprang up out of a time of darkness. She hangs in the sky to defend us from cold and dread, from the attacks of dark-hearted things, and from the evil that lives in the depths of the world. But the Sun wanders from us at times, for there are dangers also to the South and She seeks them out, forgetting that we need Her warmth to thrive. So we entreat Her, at Her southernmost reach, to return to us, warm our fields and our hearts, let us grow our crops, conduct our business and live in comfort. Let her know that we need Her, that we cherish Her, and we ask for Her blessing of fire. To Mistress Sun and Her return!’

That was greeted with a rousing cheer, and the musicians struck up a merry tune. Bilbo strolled back to the thrones and shrugged.

‘There you are, Rory. I gave the poem, and no one understood the first thing I was talking about.’

‘It was worth a try, Bilbo. And it was worth seeing the looks on people’s faces as they tried to figure out what nonsense my mad cousin was spouting this time.’ Rory grinned with no small mischief.

‘I thought it was grand,’ proclaimed Gilda, ‘and the proper poem for the evening. Is there more to it, beggar?’

‘Verses upon verses more, dear girl, though I have managed to translate only a few hundred lines,’ Bilbo chuckled. Hobbits were beginning to crowd close, wishing to give and receive a Yule blessing from the Master and the Mistress. Bilbo leaned down and kissed first Gilda, then Rory upon the cheek.

‘Yule blessings upon thee and thine, beloved friends,’ he said, holding their hands. They leaned up at the same moment and kissed Bilbo upon either cheek.

‘We thank thee for thy blessing, dear brother,’ Rory replied. Bilbo slipped to the side to let others come close for the blessing. It only took a moment to locate his lad. Bilbo threw an arm over Frodo’s shoulder and they strolled off.

‘So, Wilwarin, what did you think of my poem?’

‘I thought it was wonderful, Uncle Bilbo! I wish you had said it last night at table.’ Bilbo steered them towards the ale table. ‘I wish Dalin could have heard it. Even if it is elvish, I think he would like it. You should tell it to him later.’

‘Perhaps I will.’

They pushed through the crowd, claiming mugs of ale, and wandered towards the food. It was full dark now, but the tower of fire lit the gathering, the meadow, and the first few yards of the woods. Bread, cheese, butter, honey, and small sweets were laid out along the tables. Bilbo grinned at how greedily Frodo wolfed down a good amount of all. He took only a few sweets for himself.

‘Bilbo! Bilbo Baggins, you old dog, it’s good to see you!’ Bilbo turned at the hail and grinned when he saw Rufus Burrows walking over with his sons Milo and Bargo in tow. Milo, one arm wrapped firmly around his wife Peony’s waist, waved an affable hello, while Bargo dropped back and glared at Frodo. Bilbo glanced at Frodo and saw a pleasant greeting-wretched-relatives smile fixed to the boy’s face. Bilbo had always liked Rufus and his sister Reed, who had been Cousin Dora’s delightful companion for almost twenty years. Peony was Prisca’s niece and a bit silly, but she was very sweet. She and Milo had married in something of a rush, and Peony barely thirty years old, after Wintermark three years ago, leading to a bit of clucking by the usual old hens, but their baby boy had not arrived for a good ten months after that. Bilbo suspected it was more to give Peony an excuse to leave her family as an attempt to cover up any festival indiscretion. Much to Bilbo’s relief, Asphodel was nowhere in sight. He had never much cared for Rory’s acid-tongued middle sister.

‘Rufus, how marvelous to see you! Yule blessings on you and yours, dear fellow!’

‘And in return, Baggins!’ Rufus had a huge, infectious smile and Bilbo had never seen him in less than good cheer.

‘How was the trip to Buckland?’

‘Uneventful, I’m glad to say, Bilbo. The roads were firm and clear, the company pleasant, and the hospitality once here has been grand. Asphodel is back at the Hall with Amaranth and Amalda, but they’ll be along later.’ Rufus beamed at all of them.

‘Ah, do let me know when the ladies arrive, Rufus, so I may give them my regards,’ Bilbo smiled back, though he secretly hoped the women would decide they were having a better time back at the Hall. Bilbo turned to the more pressing topic at hand. ‘Tell me, Rufus, Milo, how has the harvest been across Northfarthing?’

‘It has been quite good, Uncle Bilbo,’ Milo responded, Peony nodding agreement. ‘Not the best harvest in the last ten, but quite respectable.’

‘I’ve heard some words from Cissy and Dilly this morning at first breakfast that harvest was not so good down in these parts,’ Rufus added. His smile did not dim at all, but his eyes were sharp. You may not be so clever, but you can see through a barn wall when need be. ‘What can you tell me about this, Baggins?’

Bilbo gave Frodo a little nudge to let the boy know he should answer the question. ‘Well, there has been a bit of a problem with the root harvest in the central and lower Eastfarthing, Uncle Rufus,’ Frodo said with great confidence. ‘It seems that some very wet weather combined with a sudden cold spell rotted out the potatoes in particular, but also parsnips, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, all of those. It is worst south of the Road. Uncle Bilbo has been working with Uncle Rory and Cousin Odogar, and the Thain to make sure the extra harvest from the other farthings and from Buckland gets into the Eastfarthing where it is needed.’

Rufus gave Frodo a curious look. ‘Which cousin are you? Take pity on an old man’s memory and remind me.’

‘I’m Frodo Baggins, your sister-in-law Primula’s son,’ Frodo replied evenly, though Bilbo saw a little redness in the boy’s cheeks. Bilbo wondered at what the boy did not say, and decided to make a point.

‘This is Drogo’s boy, Rufus! Don’t tell me your memory is that far gone!’

Rufus laughed and clapped Frodo on the shoulder. ‘Forgive me, nephew! The last time I saw you, you were just a little thing. Drogo and Prim’s baby, all grown up, well, bless me! You look like a fine young fellow, and a sharp one to boot. How old are you now, twenty-four, twenty-five?’

‘Actually, I was twenty-one in Halimath,’ Frodo replied, in better humor than before.

‘That’s when I adopted him, Rufus. That was our mutual birthday present – we were born on the same day, if you remember – I adopted Frodo and made him my heir.’ Bilbo was greatly gratified to see Rufus’s eyes go wide and smile slip a bit. ‘Surely you heard.’

‘No, Bilbo, actually I hadn’t,’ Rufus said slowly, then rounded on Bargo. ‘Why didn’t you say any of this? You must have known this happened, Bargo.’


Bargo gaped for a moment, then stammered out, ‘But, I, uh, I did! I, I told Mama in a letter. It was just gossip.’

‘When the Baggins head takes an heir, that is news, not gossip, boy, particularly when it’s your cousin,’ Uncle Rufus sternly said. Frodo suppressed a smirk at his bullying cousin’s discomfiture. He was surprised that Bilbo’s taking an heir would be considered news. Bilbo’s an important man, Rat. What he does is of concern to everyone. Milo and Peony were regarding him intently, and Frodo gave them what he hoped was a genial smile in return.

‘Oh, now, Rufus, it is not such a great deal,’ Bilbo cheerfully scolded. ‘More important is the Eastfarthing harvest that Frodo told you about.’

‘Too true, Baggins,’ Uncle Rufus agreed, then fixed his attention on Frodo. He had the same look as when Uncle Rory was going to test him on something. ‘Cissy said that Odogar was making a regular hash of things, not being helpful at all.’

Frodo did not know what to say. There were so many ways to attack this particular problem – and just that many ways to present it badly. He decided to be somewhat diplomatic. ‘It seems that Odogar has allowed a small argument he had with Uncle Rory to make him slight Buckland as a source for roots to help with the bad harvest. He was going to only bring things in from Southfarthing, which might not have been enough. Uncle Bilbo has been working to make sure that a personal disagreement does not limit the amount of roots that will be brought in.’

‘Why didn’t he come talk to me, then? Northfarthing is closer than the Tooklands, and we had an excellent harvest.’

‘Because Odogar is a fool, Rufus, and we both know it,’ Bilbo broke in, much to Frodo’s relief. He did not think he could have handled this argument any further. It was one thing to discuss facts. It was entirely another to manipulate politics, particularly with people he did not know. Bilbo took a quick look around and stepped in closer, dropping his voice, ‘It appears my cousin Odogar has taken some rather fancy airs upon himself, and imagines that no one except the Thain is quite good enough to do any business with. And, in truth, he’s not dealing with the Thain at all; he’s gone to Pal. Rum didn’t know anything about it when I wrote him a note and asked what he was doing talking to Odogar. On top of it all, Odogar has been scrapping with Rory over who the Marish answers to, if you can imagine that.’

Uncle Rufus shook his head. ‘This is not good, Bilbo. If he’s doing as you say, then this is pride being placed over his folk’s need. What if there’s some real trouble?’

‘Exactly! The trouble is Pal is all too happy to play up to Odogar’s game because he wouldn’t mind weakening Buckland’s presence in the lower Eastfarthing, especially where it butts up against Southfarthing. So they were not talking to us. But don’t worry too much, Rufus. I have put a few things in motion.’ Bilbo smiled conspiratorially.

‘So, Baggins, what do you have up your sleeve?’ Uncle Rufus grinned back.

‘I have let a few farmers I’m in touch with know about a new market for their extra roots, and I have an excellent merchant in Frogmorton, Widow Grubb, who is seeing to fair distribution of things. Plus Rory and Rum now know what Pal and Odogar are up to, and they’ve spoiled the deals. I’ve heard that there is a large call for winter squashes in the center of Eastfarthing, and thought you might want to send any extra harvest that direction.’

Uncle Rufus laughed loudly and shook a finger at Bilbo. ‘I should have known you would figure this all out, Baggins. And the winner is the table in the farmhouse.’

‘Well, of course it is,’ Bilbo said in mock indignation, ‘but if it happens to benefit a few friends and kin, what’s the harm? Good is done all around.’ The group shared a hearty laugh.

‘Well, I think we’ll take a little trip through Eastfarthing on the way back,’ Uncle Rufus mused, ‘and see what interest we can drum up for good Northfarthing squashes and roots.’

‘And everyone will be happier for it, Burrows, I am certain,’ Bilbo concluded. Frodo watched him swirl the remains of his ale in his mug, then look up at Uncle Rufus with a keen glance. ‘Tell me, Rufus, have you heard news of strange things up in the north? Anything odd or out of the ordinary?’

Uncle Rufus scratched his chin and thought. ‘Well, nothing I can rightly put my finger on, Bilbo, but people on the moors say they’ve spotted more wolves than usual. No packs, though. A couple of the North-Tooks said they saw something large, like a Big Person, a few times in some of the woods between Northfarthing and Eastfarthing, but that’s not to wonder at. There’s always a Big Person traveling through somewhere. Another said he’d seen a ghost army, horsemen skeletons wrapped in grey, galloping through the fog, but I think that’s just too much ale and too many wild stories late at night. So, nothing seems wrong…’

‘But…’ Bilbo prompted.

Uncle Rufus shifted a bit uneasily. ‘But I don’t know, Baggins. There’s something in the air, or the water, that sometimes makes me look over my shoulder. There’s sheep that sicken for no reason up on the moors, and a few good orchards that are dying, but we can’t find any pest or rot in them. That’s what.’

Frodo exchanged a look with Bilbo. These are the sorts of things Dalin spoke of last night. I bet this is what Uncle Rory and Bilbo have been talking about so much ever since. It gave him a little shiver in his spine.

‘Let the greetings get done, Rufus,’ Bilbo advised, ‘then go and have a chat with Rory. There’s odd things about in the world, and I think it good to know what else has been seen or felt. I think most is simply ordinary problems, as you said – a wolf, a stranger, too much ale. But there may be a few things out of the ordinary that need to be understood.’

They made their good-byes to the Burrowses, and headed back to replenish their ale. Frodo thought about what he had just watched. Troubles. Bilbo knew more than he was saying, about these troubling things, just as he knew far more about the root harvest than he was telling Uncle Rufus.

‘Were those more Grey Riders, you think, Uncle Bilbo?’

Bilbo sipped his drink and stared absently at the fire tower. ‘Perhaps. I think I need to take a walk up to Northfarthing.’ Suddenly Bilbo fixed an annoyed eye on him. ‘What are you doing, concerning yourself with drear thoughts tonight? It’s Wintermark. Go! Go on and get yourself into some trouble. Go on!’

Frodo sighed, then grinned and set off for the fire. Bilbo’s mercurial moods were not to be argued with. And it is Wintermark! It is a time for fun, not for worries. But not too much fun, Rat. He wandered around the log tower, admiring it.

‘Frodo!’ Tom waved at him. With another sigh, Frodo walked over. Tom smiled, and held out a bread trencher filled with various sweet and savory things. ‘Here, have some! I don’t know about you, but I’m starving! Not sure I want goat for supper, and I know I don’t want anything off that old billy, but it will be a while before the stews are ready.’

Frodo gladly helped himself to the cheese. The two stood for a good long while, not saying anything, just observing the festivities. Many couples were dancing around the central burning log, and the musicians were playing well. Men walked about chatting with one another, but kept firm arms around their wives’ or sweethearts’ waists. The men without any partner, or whose wives were minding the food tables, tended to congregate along the wood, talking and joking and rough-housing with each other. The unattached women stayed together near the west tables, venturing out to dance, but retreating back to the company of the other women when they were done. The two groups eyed each other quite closely.

The Wardens walked about and kept an eye on things. They each had a bright yellow ribbon tied to their left arm so they would be known. Mac was the main Warden, and the others were all men whose wives were with child and were not attending. There were six of them. They made sure things stayed polite. Mostly they made sure that the young men did not get too forward with the women, and broke up any arguments between men when one flirted a bit too openly with someone else’s woman.

‘Have some more,’ Tom encouraged, moving a bit closer to Frodo than Frodo really wanted him to be.

‘Cut it out, Tom.’

‘Can’t I even say I’m sorry?’

‘Yes, of course, but do you need to be standing on me to do it?’

‘Would you prefer I shout?’ Tom sent him a resentful glare. Frodo sighed again.

‘No. Just don’t try anything. I don’t want to argue about that. The answer is “no.” ’

‘As you wish.’ Tom glared for a moment, then sighed himself, and stared dejectedly at nothing. Frodo watched Tom out of the corner of his eye. Bilbo would never know. He’d figure it out, Rat. He always does. This is different. It’s what he did. But he said it was wrong, even for himself. And he still did it. Frodo moved a little closer, just brushing Tom’s arm with his own. Tom did not turn, but he smiled.

‘I miss you, Tom, but I promised,’ Frodo said quietly.

Tom offered the trencher again. After Frodo had picked out some sweets, Tom spoke without really looking at him, ‘I understand. You have to do what the old fellow says, do what he wants.’ Tom picked out a morsel for himself and nibbled on it, then carefully licked his fingers clean, knowing Frodo was watching. ‘My father would say the same thing. It’s hard to listen when you’re around, is all. Especially with how you look now.’ Tom caught Frodo’s eyes and smiled, and Frodo felt himself blushing even as he knew it was simply flattery. ‘I should go see if Da needs help.’ Frodo watched Tom walk off down to the meadow.

Frodo exhaled in frustration and handed his mug to someone walking past with a tray for collecting the used mugs. This was just too confusing. Bilbo had not actually said he could not fool with another boy, but he had not precisely said he could, either. He rather doubted that Mister Tunnelly’s words would be the same as Bilbo’s. They would be much closer to Uncle Rory’s view of things. Bilbo said it was wrong, but not horribly wrong. He said he had a boy when he was my age. And he does not want you doing as he did, Rat.

He strolled back to the woods and walked along the eaves, listening in on conversations. No one was saying anything particularly interesting. So far, aside from the opening and Bilbo’s poem, Wintermark was no different than any other celebration. Just relatives and neighbors, in varying states of inebriation, eating and talking and flirting and dancing. To his surprise, he saw Bilbo out dancing with Aunt Prisca. Among the dancers, he could see the Winter’s Mark becoming wet with sweat and drip a little down the men’s faces. Uncle Rory was standing with a knot of men near where the goats were roasting, laughing uproariously. Gammer was chatting with several women, and Ula was sitting on a stool near her side.

‘Rat!’ The last voice in the world he wanted to hear hailed him. About twelve yards behind him, Sara and Mac were standing up against the trees. There was no way to pretend he had not heard himself being called, so he walked over. Sara was cheerfully drunk and Mac was utterly sober.

‘Yule blessings on thee, Rat!’ Sara merrily sang out and Frodo had to laugh. Mac gave Sara an affectionate clout on the head.

‘And on thee and thine, to both of you,’ Frodo replied.

‘Thankee, Rat,’ said Mac.

‘Have you had to break up any fights yet, Badger?’

‘Not so far, Rat, though not much is happening yet. It will get more interesting later on.’

Sara snickered a bit. ‘After everyone is well-fed, then everyone gets well-bred,’ he loftily pronounced. The brothers broke into laughter.

‘Aye, Snake, but we have a few hours to go yet. Not until the goat is all cooked,’ Mac reminded his big brother. ‘Rat, it’s your first Wintermark. What do you think so far?’

Frodo came closer, being sure to stay out of arm’s reach of Sara. Even drunk, Sara could move as fast as his nickname. ‘Well, killing the goat was rather dramatic, and I liked Uncle Bilbo’s poem, even of no one else did, but there really isn’t that much different happening. It is just another celebration.’ The brothers laughed again.

‘Wait until later, Rat,’ Sara advised, ‘and you will see how different it is.’

Mac nodded in agreement. ‘It will be wilder, later. It isn’t drunk enough yet, though Snake here is trying to get there quicker than the rest of us.’

‘Well, I shall have to be patient, then, Badger.’ Frodo stood close to Mac, and saw that Sara was not as intoxicated as he had seemed from a distance. His big cousin gave him a quick, unreadable look, then was all drunken cheer again.

‘Pick yourself a girl, soon, Rat, and start courting her,’ Sara said with a leer. ‘The best ones will be swarmed by the boys and you’ll need to catch her eye early.’

‘True enough, Snake,’ Mac added, ‘so you’d best get out there and dance, Rat. Pick a couple of girls, in case your first choice picks someone else. It makes them jealous, too.’

‘Or whomever you have your eye on,’ Sara innocently offered. Mac and Frodo both fixed very sharp stares on him, and he grinned wickedly back. ‘I mean, don’t just look at the girls. The older ladies can be quite accommodating, you know.’

‘You’d want me to be courting someone else’s wife?’ Frodo replied with equal innocence. Now it was Sara’s turn to throw a hard glance. Mac was snickering.

‘Well, Rat, if the lady picks you, it would be mighty rude to turn a fair lady down, now, wouldn’t it?’ Mac answered in the same innocent tone. Sara was getting a little red in the face. Frodo did not think it wise to push this line of argument.

‘I will go take a look and see if I can get any of the ladies, young or old, to dance, Badger, but I doubt any of them are going to be much interested in me. Not with you two around!’ Frodo teased. Sara grinned again.

‘We are a handsome pair, aren’t we, brother?’

‘We are a married pair, Snake,’ Mac cheerfully warned, ‘and our hands are full with the women we already have.’

‘Well I have Esmie watching over me like a hawk, but you have no worries. Just wait until late…’

‘I have a wife, whether she’s here or not, Sara,’ Mac snapped, ‘and I’ll not disgrace her or myself with panting after someone else. I’ll not break her heart with that sort of news.’

Sara appeared to be getting more sober by the minute. ‘And how would she know, Badger? What man or woman here would carry that tale?’ Mac whipped around, grabbing Sara by the front of his coat and gave his older brother a shake.

‘Mama, for one, you idiot! She sees everything that happens here. And Dilly would just know.’ Frodo shrank back towards the trees, not wanting to become a part of his cousins’ fight. ‘A wife always knows when you’ve had your cock where it doesn’t belong! You think you’re smart? You think she doesn’t know, hasn’t figured it out? You’re not just a drunkard, you’re a fool!’ Mac gave Sara a large shove, nearly sending the other over on his rear. ‘I don’t want to hear this from you again. Keep to your own woman and keep yourself out of trouble. If I find you straying tonight, Snake, you won’t stand up for a week.’ Sara and Mac glared at each other, then Sara turned on his heel and stalked off into the whirl of revelers.

Frodo was going to heave a sigh of relief when Mac turned around and looked at him. His big cousin strode quickly over to Frodo, grabbed a handful of his coat and marched him several dozen yards back into the woods. Mac jerked Frodo to a stop and threw him hard against a tree trunk.

‘Why did you do that, Rat?’

‘Can you give me a hint as to which “that” you are referring to, Badger?’ Frodo said, rubbing his sore shoulder. He was getting very tired of being shoved and hit.

‘Oh, I’ve got a list, I have, you can count on it! Why, Rat? Why didn’t you come to me if you had to tell someone? You should have come and talked to me, not Mama!’

Frodo tried to figure out what Mac was saying. All he was sure of was that it had to do with him and Sara. ‘Badger, I never said anything to Gammer!’

‘Quit lying!’

‘I am not lying!’ Frodo hissed. ‘I have not said anything about Sara to Gammer! Not one word.’

‘She knew everything, Rat! All of it. How did she know unless you told her?’

‘I did not speak to Gammer! I talked to Uncle Rory, and he must have told her.’

Mac leaned in close and set his hands on the tree trunk to either side of Frodo’s head. ‘When? When did you talk to Da?’

‘I had lunch with Uncle Rory on Wednesday, five days ago. That is when I told him. He must have told her after that.’

Mac gave him a quick, light slap on the cheek. ‘You shouldn’t have told him, either. You should have come to me!’

Frodo tried to shove Mac away. ‘And you would have believed me? You’re brothers! You would have just hit me, too, and ordered me off, just like your Da!’

‘Yes, Rat, we’re brothers, which means I know the trouble that ass can get himself into, even more than Da. I would have given you a hiding, and then given him one, and that would have been the end of it.’ Mac was quiet for a few seconds, then he shook his head. ‘No, Da didn't tell Mama. Sara said that Mama said Da didn’t know.’

‘But I only spoke to Uncle Rory, so she had to have heard from him.’

Mac shook his head again. ‘No, Rat. By the time you had lunch with Da, Sara was already up at my farm. He talked to Mama that morning. She called him in and he said she knew everything. She knew just which questions to ask, and he didn’t dare lie. She can tell a lie a furlong off.’

‘So why was he telling you?’

‘Mama sent him up to the farm to get him out of there when she told Da. That’s what Sara said. She sent him to me with a note that said I was to hear him out, then give him a good thrashing. So I did.’ Frodo suddenly realized that Sara had not been kicked by his pony. He gulped, hoping Mac was not intending to inflict a similar punishment on himself. Mac went on in a wondering tone, ‘So Da couldn’t have told her. But if you didn’t tell her, then…’  They looked at each other and said together,

‘Uncle Bilbo.’

Frodo was furious. ‘I told him not to say anything! He promised he would not say or do anything unless Sara did something.’

‘Well, what were you telling him for?’ Frodo just shook his head, not wanting even to try to explain that. Mac leaned in close again and grabbed Frodo by the jaw.

‘I should give you what I gave to Sara, but I can’t touch you now, Rat. Da told me that. What were you two doing? If someone had ever seen you or found out, you would have shamed the entire family. You want to go fool with your friends, well, who cares what some stupid little boys do? Some little nothing bastard? You want to go mess with some farmhand or some no-account like yourself, nobody would look twice. You want to be a whore? Be one. But that was Sara! That was the Master’s heir you were fooling with.’

‘And what was he doing, Badger? No one made him drop his pants.’

‘He said you offered, Rat. He said he never forced you, you were always willing.’ Mac looked at him with the same disgust Rory had in the study. ‘Just being a whore.’

Frodo went cold. “Tell me, Frodo, what about the other wicked little boy? What about the forty-six-year-old cousin, married, with children of his own? What did he do?” Bilbo understands where the fault lies. Why can’t you, Mac? He stopped trying to twist away from his cousin’s grip and simply stared at Mac with all the venom and disgust he could summon. After a moment, Mac let go his jaw and stepped back. Frodo very deliberately neatened his clothes and set himself to rights before meeting his cousin’s eyes again.

‘You say you know your brother, Mac. Then you know he is, at the least, exaggerating that he never forced me. He used me badly and he threatened me. As for my offers, answer me this: If a pretty little something offers herself to you tonight, what are you going to do? Are you going to be true to your wife? If I offered you, right now, Mac, what would you do?’

Mac dropped his eyes and did not reply for at least a minute. Then he sighed and ran his hands through his hair. ‘I don’t know, Rat. I don’t know what to think. I can’t believe he’d do such a thing.’

‘Well, I was sent off to live with Bilbo, so there will not be anything else. Unless Sara finds another boy.’ Frodo began to walk back towards the gathering. Mac soon followed. They parted without a word.