21. Boundaries

POV - Frodo

In which Frodo learns some limits, exceeds others, and understands that there are some he never wishes to approach.


Morning, Brandy Hall, 4 Afteryule, 1390

The last place Frodo wanted to be was the same table as Hargo Bracegirdle. Brazen it out, Rat. If he wishes to make an ass of himself in front of Uncle Rory and Bilbo, let him. Not that Bilbo was paying any attention to Hargo. Bilbo and Gammer had been having a silent fight since they arrived back at the Hall the previous afternoon. Bilbo had gone to their study and had very deliberately packed up the scroll and all of the translation work before supper, even though there was a day left in which to work on it. At supper, Bilbo had let Dalin do all of the speaking to Gammer, paying attention to (and flirting outrageously with) Aunt Prisca. Frodo himself had sat with Uncle Rory and Uncle Wili, discussing stock pens near the ferry.

The previous afternoon with Uncle Rory had been pleasant, much to Frodo’s surprise. On the way to meet Mister Sandheaver, they had talked about a market inside the Gate, and tried to figure out what could be sold there – cloth and leather, obviously, but also some livestock, cured meats, dried fish from the River, honey, roots and hard fruits, and other things sent up from Southfarthing if a ferry could be built over the Shirebourn. A number of Buckland folk were talented wood carvers, so perhaps small finished items could also be sold. They agreed that Uncle Wili should make a few visits up to his brother, Gun, in Whitfurrows on market days to see what folks were buying. Uncle Rory was also curious as to how Gun made any money himself from the market.

The meeting with Mister Sandheaver went well, though Uncle Rory grumbled about it on the way back. The Bucklebury headman had not been terribly keen on expanding the stock pens.

‘But, begging your pardon, Master Brandybuck, why should we be building out the pens? Now, patching them up, that I see all right, and though they’re more than solid enough to hold a few sows that are crossing over before the rest of their master’s goods, I’ll not be arguing with ye there,’ the headman had argued. Uncle Rory had motioned for Frodo to answer.

‘Well, Mister Sandheaver, people may have to bring more than a few sows across the River, and a place will be needed to hold the livestock to make sure they do not wander about.’

‘If a body’s got more than a dozen pigs, they’ll just drive them up the River Road to Stock, or wherever north they need herding, Master Frodo. Ye know that, boy.’

‘That’s because they have never had any cause before now to bring them across the River.’ Frodo glanced at Uncle Rory for permission to speak about the market, and received a small smile and a nod. ‘There is going to be a new market built just inside the Gate near the Road, Mister Sandheaver. While it’s possible to drive pigs, or sheep, or other livestock, along the roads, that is a bit longer about to the new market than just cutting across the River. The road through Buckland is also safer. There’s been strange folk on the roads of late, and it would not do for some herdsman to be worrying over mischief on the way. Strange folk are not going to be allowed over the Ferry or through the Gate. And you should think of more than just some pens. You might consider a storehouse not too far from the crossing. If things go as planned, there should be a fair amount of goods moving up from the south, and Bucklebury is a good place to break a journey. In fact,’ Frodo added, trying to think as broadly as he could, ‘there will be need for more than storing pigs and turnips. There will be hobbits and dray horses to tend to, as well.’

‘Hmm,’ Mister Sandheaver replied, scratching his scraggly beard. He was an older hobbit, with an impressive belly and cheerful, round face. Frodo topped him by a hand. His dark, almost black, hair was heavily grizzled, and his eyes were sunk in the wrinkles around them. He was a good headman, fair and equitable in his decisions, but not very ambitious, and with a pronounced preference leaving things be. However, he was also the proprietor of The Tickled Trout, the only inn in all of Buckland, and was not averse to increasing the coin in his own pocket.

‘Hmm,’ the innkeeper said again. ‘That is certainly something to consider, Master Brandybuck, Master Frodo. You’re certain that this market will be built?’

‘Without a doubt,’ Uncle Rory assured him. ‘You have met Mister Steelhand, the dwarf who has been my guest over Yule? He has promised me some good stone masons to build up the market. Given that he has been treated well while staying here in Buckland, he is going to recommend bringing dwarf-trade to our new market. He is a kinsman of one of their kings, and will speak well of us. The dwarves have only known the hobbits along the Road until now, and did not realize that there was better to be had in Buckland.’

‘Hmm,’ was Mister Sandheaver’s reply to that bit of intelligence, but Frodo could see a thoughtful cast to his expression, and was reasonably certain the pig pens would get expanded as well as repaired. ‘We should go look at the pens on the other side of the River, too, Master Brandybuck. Someone herding more stock than will fit on a single ferry trip will need to split their animals.’

When they traveled over on the ferry, Frodo left the two older men speaking to the ferryman. He walked to the other side of the craft, and stared down into the opaque water. It foamed a little on the upriver side of the ferry, and gurgled on the other. Under his feet, he could feel the current grab at the bottom of the ferry, try to pull it away from the guy ropes and poles. Frodo reached into his pocket and pulled out the bracelet from Tom, the horsehair ring still strung on it. He gave it a sharp flick of his wrist, and threw it out over the River, where it sank and disappeared into the water, like other things that had betrayed him. The others paid no mind to a boy tossing rocks into the river.

Frodo had spent the rest of the afternoon with Uncle Rory and Dalin in Uncle Rory’s study, smoking his pipe, sipping a bit of brandy, and discussing the market, the Gate, and when dwarves would be able to come work on them. They also talked about Dalin visiting Smith Hammerfoot in Newbury on the morrow. Mac had intended to take Dalin, but that was not likely now. Rory penned a letter of introduction for Dalin to give to the smith in place of being accompanied by Mac.

Bilbo had returned with Gammer just before supper, in a foul mood. Frodo tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, but still got snapped at for having left their room a bit messy. It was not really the same as when Sara had yelled at him and broken his things for leaving his room a mess, for Bilbo had only chastised him, not grabbed him or shaken him. Even so, Frodo was frightened by the scolding. Bilbo might have claimed to be drunk when he battered the wardrobe, but Frodo knew he had merely been angry and tired. He had been around Sara enough to judge drunkenness to a fine degree. He did not think Bilbo ever would strike him. Then again, he had not believed Uncle Rory would have done so either, so it seemed wise to do exactly as he was told and not argue or protest. When he went to bed last night, Bilbo was sitting in front of the fire, smoking. The old hobbit was still there when Frodo awoke this morning, looking no less angry, but much more tired. Frodo did not want to be around Bilbo today.

So Frodo sat quietly at the dining table, doing his best to ignore both the acid looks Gammer and Bilbo were throwing at each other and the contemptuous sneer Hargo was sending his way. Esmie, Sara and the children were not at breakfast, which was one small reprieve. Aunt Prisca had made him sit next to her and he let her fuss over him without complaint. He paid close attention to his plate and planned to excuse himself as soon as he was full.

‘Mister Baggins,’ Dalin began, ‘I will be walking over to Newbury today to speak with the smith. Would you care to accompany me?’

Bilbo considered for a minute, then shook his head. ‘I am sorry, Dalin. I must attend to a few things here, and rest my old bones for the long tramp tomorrow.’

‘Perhaps Frodo would like to accompany you, Mister Steelhand,’ Rory interjected. ‘You’ll be stopping at the farm on your way, and I suspect Miss Proudfoot would not mind a little visit.’ Uncle Rory gave him an amused glance and a wink, making Frodo blush and stare down in his plate. Aunt Prisca laughed a little and nudged him with her elbow.

‘If the Mistress has messages or things to send to Ula, you may go, Frodo, and then return promptly,’ Bilbo said sternly. ‘You need to rest for the walk tomorrow, as well.’

‘I do have a message and an herb mix to send,’ Gammer crisply added. ‘Frodo, when you are ready to go, stop by my parlor and pick them up. Don’t dawdle!’ Gammer looked in no better a mood than Bilbo. Frodo nodded and mumbled something suitable obedient. It was not long before he and Dalin were through with the meal, and standing before Gilda’s parlor. Frodo tapped lightly on the door, entering at her command.

‘Ah, rascal, there you are.’ Gammer was standing at her work bench, carefully putting a coarse mix of herbs into a small muslin bag. He gave her a kiss on the cheek and waited for instructions. Unlike Bilbo, her mood had improved since breakfast. ‘The note is on the table over there, and I will have the herbs ready in a moment.’ He collected the sealed note, placing it in a pocket. Gammer held out the herb pouch in a shaky hand. She gave him a hug and light kiss as he took the bag.

‘Frodo, don’t you pay any mind to your Uncle Bilbo,’ she said in a conspiratorial tone. ‘He is just ill-tempered because I proved him wrong about something yesterday. You go spend all the time you like visiting Ula, if she’s in a mind for visiting. If she’s not, then why don’t you accompany Mister Dalin to Newbury? It is not that far a walk, and your uncle is being a fool. That was not like you, rascal, sitting there quiet as a shadow.’

‘I should listen to Uncle Bilbo.’

‘You should leave a grumpy old hobbit to his own devices! Mister Dalin, unless the young lady cares to visit with the lad, you shall take him with you to Newbury. It is not fit that you should go unaccompanied, and you will see Frodo stays out of mischief.’

Dalin bowed, but looked troubled. ‘As you command, Mistress Gilda.’

They made their way through the kitchens with only a few halts as the kitchen ladies hailed Dalin and insisted he sample this or that dish before leaving. By the time they got to the far door, Dahlia was waiting for them with two bundles of food and a kiss for each of them, though Dalin had to lean very far down to receive his kiss.

The walk to the farm was uneventful – the air much colder than during Wintermark, the sky perfectly clear, a hint of a breeze, the road dry. Fellow travelers and farmers beside the road calling out cheerful greetings. Dalin and his scarlet cloak had become quite well known around Brandy Hall.

Frodo was not happy to see Sara loitering at the farmhouse gate. He thought Sara was back at Brandy Hall with Esmie. Dalin waved and greeted his miserable cousin with a hearty “Hallo!”

Sara responded in kind. ‘What brings you up to the farm this morning, Mister Dalin?’

‘Two things, Master Sara. Master Frodo here was sent by the Mistress with messages and herbs for Miss Proudfoot, and I am on my way to Newbury to pay my respects to Mister Hammerfoot ere I resume my journey west tomorrow morning. I had come to enquire whether Master Mac would come with me, though perhaps I can entice you to give this undeserving dwarf a bit more of your company?’ Dalin smiled broadly

‘I would be honored to accompany you, Mister Dalin!’ Sara smiled back. Frodo tried not to make a face. He had been looking forward to the walk to Newbury with Dalin, but he was not going if it meant a day with Sara. ‘As a matter of fact, I think it would do Mac a world of good to take a good walk and see to some Hall business. Let’s go ask him.’ Sara finally looked at Frodo. ‘Rat, Ula’s out by the paddocks.’ Sara leered at him.

‘Thank you, Sara.’ Frodo refused to rise to the bait, and walked off. Ula was standing near the paddock that held the yearling half-Bree filly. The pony was eating bits of carrot while Ula talked to her. Ula had not noticed him yet and Frodo took the opportunity to really look at her. Her light brown hair was held in a thick, loose braid, curly tendrils escaping all around. She lived up to the family name with her strong, broad feet, dusted with darker curls than on her head. Her ankles were not too long, and her calves were like her feet, powerful and sturdy. Frodo wondered if the pale hair on her legs was as silky to the touch as it looked. He knew how soft her rump and thighs were, how nice they were to knead. Ula still had some of the lankiness of a young girl, but she was filling out delightfully. Her sleeves were rolled up, showing off solid forearms and long-fingered hands. He could not see her bosom from this angle, but he did not need to.

The filly saw him and whickered. Ula turned around. She was not beautiful the way Esmie was, or even striking, like Gammer with her fierce eyes and silver crown of curls. He supposed Bluebell would be considered prettier by many with her delicate, heart-shaped face. Ula’s chin was too strong, and her nose too large, and her eyes too deeply set, for beauty. But she had a way of looking at you that made you look back, and her smile was one of the nicest to be found.

Not that she was smiling now. She looked rather annoyed. Is everyone in Buckland in a bad mood today? Frodo sighed to himself. He smiled at her and approached. Cautiously.

‘Good morning, Ula,’ he said as nicely as he could. ‘Gammer sent me up here with a note for you and a pouch of herbs she mixed this morning.’ Ula’s expression became more welcoming.

‘Thank you for bringing them, Frodo,’ she replied and smiled in return. He gave her Gammer’s note first, then the herb pouch. She tucked that into a small bag hanging from her belt, and opened the note. Her face became red and her mouth tightened into a narrow line. Ula crumpled the note into a little ball and jammed it into the bag as well. The look she turned on him bordered on hateful. He wondered what Gammer had put into her note, and made a guess that his name came into it at some point.

‘Go away, Baggins!’ she snapped, and turned back to the pony.

‘Ula, what’s wrong?’

‘Nothing, if you would only go away!’

Frodo leaned his arms on the top rail of the paddock and sighed. ‘All right. Tell me what I did wrong this time, and then hit me. I’d rather you just give me a good smack than walk around mad at me.’ She was quiet, then let out a great sigh herself and rested her arms on the fence.

‘You didn’t do anything, cousin. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be angry with you. It’s my own foolishness I should be angry with.’

He rested his head on his arms, looking up at her. ‘Well, if I did do anything, I am sorry. I think everyone in Brandy Hall is angry with me today for some reason.’ She grinned.

‘And you probably deserve more than half of it, rascal!’ She reached out and tweaked his nose, then gave him a bump with her hip. He grinned back and sidled closer.

‘May I stay for a while and visit with you? I’m leaving tomorrow.’ Her smile disappeared and she shook her head.

‘No, Frodo. I don’t have time for that. I need to tend Dilly. When will you be next visiting?’

‘I won’t.’ She looked at him quizzically. ‘Bilbo and I will not be coming back to Buckland for some time. Perhaps never.’

Ula eyed him closely, then gazed out into the distance, thinking. ‘Frodo,’ she said slowly, ‘I heard that you got thrashed pretty bad at Wintermark. Is that why you won’t be coming back anytime soon?’

He nodded, ‘Yes. It is part of why.’

‘Are you all right?’

That question again. How do you mean that? Am I healing, or am I safe? ‘I’m healing up well. Just a little sore in the morning.’

‘Who beat you up?’

‘Who do you think?’

‘The Mistress won’t say. I have heard a few names mentioned in the back halls that don’t please me.’ From around the barn, they could hear a burst of laughter, Dalin’s deep rumble mixing with Mac and Sara’s clear bells. Ula looked in the direction of the sound, then shook her head. ‘I say that someone who is very jealous of the attentions you have been receiving from a girl thought to teach you a lesson.’ She looked back at him. ‘And I don’t mean Bargo.’

‘I think you might be right. But what of the other names?’ He stared into her eyes, and her brows knit together in some thought. She shook her head again.

‘I don’t want to believe it, but the Mistress is so close mouthed, and then you saying you will not be back, well,’ she paused, ‘there’s some thought that things happened which upset the Master and the Mistress a great deal. Things that might result in certain people not being very welcome in the Hall.’ Ula shrugged. ‘Then there’s a broken wardrobe to be accounted for.’ Her eyes did not leave his.

Frodo so wanted to tell her the whole truth, but he could not, not with Sara so close. However, he could correct certain misconceptions. ‘You should not believe it, for it most certainly is not so. What I want to know is who is spreading these rumors?’

Ula harrumphed. ‘There are many mutterings in the back halls. Rascal that you may be, there are any number of ladies who feel quite motherly to you and they were not happy when you left. They are disinclined to give a generous thought to someone who is not from Buckland. Above all, there is a certain venom-tongued cousin of mine who delights in making unpleasant rumors even more wicked.’ Ula finally dropped her eyes, and said quickly, ‘She is saying that you were beaten because someone was very jealous you fooled with me at Wintermark.’ She paused a long moment, then almost whispered, ‘And he told me to have no more to do with you when he was here yesterday.’

Frodo did not bother to think. He turned, pulled Ula into his arms and kissed her. After a moment’s surprise, she kissed back. He did not know who he was more angry with, Esmie for her lies or Bilbo for his meddling, but both problems could be answered with the same kiss. With great thoroughness, he moved his lips against Ula’s, giving his full attention to the brush and press of soft skin, to the point of the curve on a lip where dry became moist, to how wonderful her lower lip felt between his own. Frodo did not press against her. He simply slid his hands up her neck, letting his fingers work their way into her hair, while his thumbs stroked her jaw. Ula leaned into his kiss and teased at his lips with her tongue. Frodo lightly caught her lower lip with his teeth. She responded with a very rewarding growl. For several minutes, there was nothing but the blissful feel of lips, tongue and teeth, and a few soft sounds of satisfaction. Frodo reluctantly pulled away before he was too roused.

When his breathing had slowed, he said, ‘I was beaten at Wintermark, not at the Hall, by someone jealous of a girl, but not of you.’ Ula nodded understanding, eyes flicking towards the sound of conversation at the front of the barn. ‘And I will fool with whomever I please.’ She smiled wickedly at him.

‘And you are very pleasing, you little rascal!’ Ula stepped backwards, out of his grasp, and rapped him firmly on the nose. ‘You are spoiling all my best intentions, cousin. I said I was leaving you be.’

Frodo drew a finger under her jaw and down her throat, stopping just short of the neck of her blouse. ‘I don’t want you to leave me be. I want to please you. Whatever you wish, I’ll do, and gladly.’

Ula took another step back, out of reach. ‘I know you would, Frodo, and that is why I will not ask it of you. I do not care to turn into her.’ Ula stared at the ground shaking her head slightly, then made a small growl of annoyance and began to walk back to the farmhouse. She paused long enough to give him a kiss on the cheek as she brushed past him, but kept walking, calling back, ‘A safe journey to you, cousin. Mayhap I shall see you at harvest time. I will be in Bywater to help my family.’ She waved, then turned her back and strode briskly off.

Frodo watched until she disappeared through the door, then wandered to the front of the barn. Dalin and Sara were chatting. Mac had disappeared.

‘Master Frodo,’ Dalin said, ‘I will be setting out with the Masters here as soon as Master Mac collects a few things. Will you be staying, or returning to the Hall?’

‘Neither. I will be going with you, as Gammer said I should do.’ Dalin eyed him, then shrugged.

‘As you wish, Master Frodo.’

Mac came out the farmhouse door, small pack over his shoulder, and came over. ‘Frodo, are you coming with us?’ Mac asked, a touch of concern in his voice.

‘If you do not object, yes.’ No one objected, and the four set off. They followed the lane for about a mile, then climbed a stile over a stone fence and took the overland path to Newbury. Sara led the way, with Dalin behind him. Frodo was at the end.

Not long after they turned onto the path, Mac asked Dalin, ‘Mister Dalin, is Uncle Bilbo really a hero among you dwarves? That gold Crown is mighty impressive.’ Sara turned partly around and waited for the other to catch up. The path was crossing a level, open field, and they could walk together.

‘Yes, Master Mac, Mister Baggins is one of the greatest dwarf-friends who has ever lived,’ Dalin replied with great seriousness. ‘I have been raised on stories of his daring and cunning. He helped us to reclaim Erebor, one of our greatest kingdoms, and he was brave enough to spy upon a dragon. Without his keen eyes and sharp wits, none would have known of the weakness in Smaug’s armor, and the dragon would have destroyed all in his wrath.’ Dalin walked a few more paces, then added, ‘I owe him a great debt, for he saved the life of my sire, my uncle and my cousins several times over, freeing them from the spiders of Mirkwood, then from the murderous clutches of the Wood Elves, and defended them once more from the attack of Smaug.’

Frodo’s heart swelled up with pride hearing of Bilbo’s exploits. What had seemed unsettling, even dangerous, about Bilbo this morning became a sign of his bravery. He’s tougher and meaner than you, Snake, Frodo thought with satisfaction. He remembered Bilbo’s words the first night they had arrived – “So am I quite strong, Frodo. I have tangled with creatures far nastier than your cousin, so I would not be a terribly easy target. Sara might find himself in a great deal of trouble were he to face me.” It did not seem an idle threat, now. Bilbo might be old, but he was not afraid of anything, not even a dragon. Even the terrifying moment when Bilbo had shattered the door of the wardrobe, splintering wood while crying out in rage, became heroic in Frodo’s eyes. If he had seen Sara, that is what he would have done, Rat. For you, he would have.

‘There really was a dragon?’ Sara asked, half-awed, half-unbelieving.

‘I have seen the carcass of Smaug with my own eyes, Master Sara,’ Dalin assured him. ‘I traveled to the Long Lake, near the ruins of Old Esgaroth. Once there, I went out in a small boat upon the waters, and we paddled to the spot above where the dragon lies in his grave. The fish will not come near, for his is an evil influence, even in death. Every dwarf of Erebor makes this journey, to see our fallen foe and understand the peril of dragons. Though much has rotted away, you can see his bones. I saw his skull. It is as large as four wagons put together, and his fangs are as long as my arm!’

‘Uncle Bilbo says he wasn’t the one who killed this dragon,’ Mac earnestly asked, ‘Is he just being modest? Did he actually kill this thing? I mean, if he was brave enough to face giant spiders and evil Elves and all that, did he kill Smaug, too?’

‘Well, it was his spying that allowed King Bard to know where to launch his great arrow, so, in that, he did help to kill the dragon, but he did not strike a weapon into Smaug himself,’ Dalin replied, a little crestfallen, but then he cheered up. ‘Mister Baggins did something far braver than killing a dragon – he spoke to one! He stood almost nose to nose with one of the most evil all of living things, and he did not flinch. He tricked Smaug into leaving him be and not eating him, stole a golden cup from the treasure pile, and got the dragon to roll over on his back like a trained dog, showing his bare patch. Mister Baggins is wise and brave and clever beyond measure!’

Frodo was lost in thought. He had never considered how dangerous talking to a dragon was. There were a few elven legends of great warriors being ensorcelled by looking in a dragon’s eyes or listening to a dragon talk. Bilbo talked to Smaug and wasn’t ensnared in his lies. No wonder Bilbo did not bother with fools and troublemakers like Hargo Bracegirdle and Odogar Bolger. He knew what true danger was. If he could outthink a dragon, then outthinking a few idiot relatives took no effort at all.

‘There is nothing Mister Baggins could ask for that the Children of Durin would not do for him,’ Dalin said reverentially. ‘He is the greatest living dwarf-friend. For all of his labors and trials, he would accept just the smallest pittance. The treasure Smaug left behind was a mound of gold and gems many times the size of Buck Hill. Mister Baggins took only two small chests, so tiny a dwarf could have picked up both under one arm, and a few trinkets. But he carries with him the gratitude of all dwarves, which is a treasure beyond mere gold.’

‘Well, sir, it has brought us good will between dwarves and hobbits, which is a fine treasure, indeed,’ Mac replied diplomatically. Talk shifted to discussion of the market and the Gate, and was mostly between Mac and Dalin. Sara listened, while Frodo woolgathered, dreaming he was on an adventure with Bilbo.

It took almost two hours to walk the four miles from the farm to Newbury. People were curious about the dwarf, but not excessively so – news of Dalin had spread through all Buckland, and many had seen him walking about with Mac and Sara. The smithy was at the south end of the town. Willem “Ham” Hammerfoot was well-respected in Newbury. He had nine sons, seven of them old enough to work in the smithy beside their father, and the word was that number ten would be born come Astron.

Ham was waiting for them out in front of the smithy. His head was shaved bald to deal with the heat of the forge, and it looked like a great, round melon. He was not as tall as Mac or Sara, indeed, not as tall as Frodo, but his shoulders were huge and his arms thick with muscle. His seven sons were all copies of their sire, some larger, some smaller, but all bald and broad. Dalin came to a stop in front of the smith and bowed until his beard tickled his knees.

‘Dalin Steelhand, at your service, Smith Hammerfoot,’ Dalin boomed.

‘Willem Hammerfoot, at yours and your family’s,’ the smith replied in a voice scarcely less deep or loud. ‘How may be of assistance to you, Mister Steelhand?’

‘I was told by the Master of Buckland that I must pay my respects to the master smith of this land,’ Dalin replied courteously, ‘and I have come to do just that.’

‘Then please be welcome in my smial and share a meal with me and my family,’ Ham said with equal courtesy. Within minutes, they were all settled around a large table in a low-ceilinged smial delved out of the hill behind the smithy. Dalin could not stand up straight anywhere. He took it all in good cheer and sat on the lowest stool the smith’s sons could locate. Missus Hammerfoot was round in every direction, and ordered her kitchen girls about with great efficiency. She clucked disapprovingly at Frodo’s slight frame, and gave him an extra serving of roast and of potato mash with cream and butter. He eagerly tucked in and asked for more, endearing himself forever to the goodwife.

Ham and Dalin talked smithing, and Frodo was lost. It was obvious they understood each other quite well, and Ham’s sons threw in a constant stream of comments and questions. Soon, the meal was done and Ham was eager to show Dalin the smithy. Missus Hammerfoot held Frodo behind, making sure he took several small tarts and tucked other treats into his pockets. He happily munched on a blackberry tart as he trailed the others. This was much better than sitting about with his bad tempered uncle. Frodo was in such a good mood he even offered a sweet to Sara. His big cousin accepted the treat with a smile.

As the smith escorted his guests through the shop, the sons and the prentices set to work. The smithy was soon full of heat and noise, things whooshing, clanging, ringing, pinging, clanking, and hissing. Dalin grinned with satisfaction as Ham proudly showed off the forge. The dwarf shed his cloak and looked thoroughly at home in his leather jerkin and deep green shirt.

Every corner of the forge was examined, and Dalin pronounced it superb, though Frodo thought it was all hot, dirty and far too noisy. Anvils were evaluated, hammers were hefted, tongs tested, bars of metal tapped, sniffed, and even tasted. The sons and the prentices proudly showed off their current work – horseshoes, shovel heads, tools, gears, buckles, and axes. Dalin examined these last with a small frown. The last thing they did was poke at the fires themselves. They examined bellows, talked about different kinds of wood for burning, and argued over the best way raise or lower the temperature of a fire.

‘What about using coal?’ Dalin asked. Frodo perked up his ears and wiggled his way closer to the smith and the dwarf so he could hear above the clamor.

‘Well, for some things, aye, coal is good, but it is too dear here in Buckland for me to make regular use of it,’ Ham replied. ‘Coal must come all the way from the dwarf mountains in the west, and that is too far and too costly. I lay in a small supply, for when I am making some fine knives or need to do steel work, but otherwise not.’

‘But there is now coal in the Shire,’ Frodo said. Dalin gave him a wink. Ham raised a doubtful eyebrow at the young hobbit. ‘When I was traveling to Buckland with Mister Dalin and with my uncle, Bilbo Baggins, we spoke to Gundabard Bolger in Whitfurrows, the night we stayed at The Fat Badger. He said that coal had been found up near Dwaling. Mister Pitt, the smith, was there and said that all sizable smithies in the Shire would be interested in this supply. Uncle Bilbo was rather insistent that it should be used within the Shire first, before we think of selling it to Bree or south.’

‘Now this is news,’ the smith agreed. Mac and Sara crowded close, too, for they had not heard this before. ‘But what is this thought of selling it to Bree? There’s no call to send it outside the Shire.’

‘This is Mister Bolger’s thinking,’ Dalin broke in, ‘Mister Odogar Bolger. I had occasion to speak with him at Brandy Hall during Wintermark, and he was quite insistent that better coin could be found in Bree than in the Shire or Buckland for the coal. Dwarves have their own and in greater amounts, while the Sea Elves burn only driftwood, so there is no call to send it west.’

‘But Uncle Bilbo and Uncle Rory think that selling it away when it is needed here is foolishness,’ Frodo added. ‘My Bolger cousins appear to have caught Dragon Fever, unfortunately.’ Ham raised his eyebrows. ‘Uncle Wili – Wilibald Bolger – he says it is the desire to turn everything you can touch into gold, even if you need that thing itself. It was he who figured out why his kinsmen would sell away what is needed here. So Uncle Bilbo and Uncle Rory are trying to figure out how such things, like coal, should be sold within the Shire first, and only what we don’t need get sold away.’

The smith pondered this news, then nodded. ‘I think I need to send a letter to Smith Pitt up in Whitfurrows and see what he thinks on this. The Master has my support, of course,’ he assured Sara and Mac, ‘in this and in whatever else he sees fit to do for Buckland. There’s ne’er been a fatter time in these parts, and Goldfather has made coin near as common as corn in Newbury. I’ve not heard Eastfarthing is doing so well as all this. If I can get my hands on a regular supply of coal…’

The smith trailed off, lost in thought, then shook his head. ‘Aye, there’s a happy problem. I’ve more work than can be handled in the smithy, though I’m training the boys up as fast as I can. Good coal will raise demand for good work. Even our best can’t compare to the dwarven steel out of the west, or the far east, though.’

‘You know, Ham, last Harvest, I asked Uncle Bilbo if he knew of any dwarves who would want to do some smith-work here in Buckland,’ Mac tentatively began. Ham looked at Dalin sharply, who offered a friendly smile. ‘Mister Dalin here is bound to go on his way tomorrow, so perhaps he could find someone for you, who could help with steel work, or with training up the lads. He’s already said he’d find us a stone mason or two for the repairs to the Gate and for building the new market up near the gate.’ Ham continued to give a suspicious look to Dalin.

‘Smith Hammerfoot,’ Dalin said evenly, ‘most times dwarves simply work wherever there is coin to pay and care little for what other smiths may be there. Buckland is ordered by the kin of a great dwarf-friend, and we enter here only by the Master’s leave and shall bend our labors to the customs of this land. Dwarves worked here once before, and would fain renew their ancient traffic with Buckland.’

The smith stared, impassive. Dalin waited with the patience of the stone. Finally, the smith growled, ‘If it is the Master’s wish, then my smithy will take on a dwarf. But no prying into my secrets!’

Dalin’s eyes widened in surprise. ‘Of course not! And none of the great secrets of Durin shall be taught. You will receive a master journeyman who will teach and forge as told.’ Frodo imagined there would not be many secrets in Ham’s smithy that a dwarf would want to puzzle out, or would not already command. A thought occurred to him.

‘Mister Hammerfoot, your smithy is the closest to the Gate, is it not?’

‘Aye, aside from a few small forges for horseshoes and mending pots, this is the closest. The only other one of size is in Rushey, then Pitt’s forge over in Whitfurrows.’

‘Uncle Rory is trying to think of things that could be sold in the market besides cloth, leather and cured meat. What about things from your forge?’

‘We can hardly keep up with the work we already have, Master Frodo. There’s naught to send to Whitfurrows even now,’ the smith slowly replied.

‘This is as fine a forge as can be found outside a dwarf home,’ Dalin said thoughtfully, looking about. ‘If the Master would buy iron and copper from Belegost with the cloth and leather and meats from Buckland, well, a good journeyman could turn out many needful things with dwarven metals and a hobbit smithy. To work our best steel would take the permission of King Dáin, of course, but it could be done here.’

Frodo watched the smith consider the possibility of having a dwarven steel master working in his forge. Ham seemed to find the thought pleasing. ‘Well, now, Master Steelhand, as long as we’re all firm on what’s secret and what’s not, and as long as the Master approves of this being arranged, I think a kindly dwarf like to your own courteous self would be most welcome here in Newbury.’ The smith clapped Dalin hard on the shoulder and grinned, one front tooth missing. Dalin returned the gesture. Ham did not budge under the force of the dwarf’s hand. Dalin grinned very broadly.

The heat and noise was finally too much for Frodo, so he excused himself to step out and get a breath of fresh air. He wandered into the well-stocked woodlot around the side of the smithy, admiring the neat stacks of wood arranged by type, age and thickness. A tingle along the nape of his neck warned Frodo of eyes upon him. He was not surprised to see Sara at the entrance to the woodlot. Sara leaned against the gate post, blocking the way out.

‘You got me in trouble again, Rat.’

Frodo smiled. ‘You hardly need my help, Snake. You got yourself in trouble. You should have known beating me up like that would attract attention. A lot of people saw the bruises.’

Sara’s eyes narrowed. ‘I heard about your marks. I gave you a few of them, so you’d have something to think about, but that wasn’t all from me.’

‘Snake, you thrashed me! Of course it was you.’ Frodo was amazed at Sara’s denial.

‘I heard you got your beating from Bilbo.’

‘You’re making that up. No one is saying any such thing.’ Who’s talking to you?

‘Badger says so. He saw you in the baths. He came to me and Esmie right afterwards, upset. Seems he talked to Uncle Bilbo at Wintermark about your shenanigans, and Bilbo said you were going to get a thrashing. A kitchen girl heard something being busted up in your room and Bilbo yelling at you. Badger took Da to see what a mess your room was. Bilbo wouldn’t let them get me to hear me out.’

Badger thinks Bilbo did this to me. Frodo felt sick at first, then felt it turn to anger. You said you know your brother, Badger. Then you should know he’s a liar. ‘You give “brazen” an entirely new meaning, Snake. You know how badly you beat me. Almost as badly as Badger beat you, I daresay. Bilbo would never do such a thing.’

‘Wouldn’t he?’

‘He isn’t you! He wouldn’t do any such thing, not to his heir.’

‘His heir? You’re his whore. He knows you’re just another Wintermark bastard, and a sneaky little whore, at that. How could he not?’

How could he not? But why would he make me his heir, then? He knows, Rat. He can outsmart a dragon. Of course he knows you’re no Baggins. You don’t belong to anyone, so he took you. Gammer probably asked him to, and he can’t tell her no. But he’s not like you, Sara. Frodo glared at Sara’s sneering face.

‘That pretty dwarf crown, that was your price, wasn’t it?’ Sara taunted, ‘Da would turn a blind eye to your beating for that.’

‘You are disgusting to say such a thing either of Bilbo or of your own father!’

‘And here you are,’ Sara mocked, ‘walking around the Hall like you are so important, always dressed in such fine things, always looking nice for him and waiting on him. And him flaunting having you in his bed!’

‘Snake, really, jealousy does not become you, though it is touching to know how much you miss me,’ Frodo smoothly replied, ‘but you’re just going to have to face the fact that you aren’t the one in my bed anymore.’ Sara’s face flushed.

‘So you admit you’re his whore!’

‘I say no such thing!’ Frodo snapped. ‘I am saying you are the one who has treated me like that, not Bilbo!’ His voice dropped to a hiss. ‘Do you know why I hate you so much, Snake?’

Sara smirked. ‘I can think of a few reasons.’

‘No, you don’t know. I hate that you say evil, wicked things of Bilbo, who is nothing like what you say. Call me whatever you please, I don’t care. If I’m a bastard, that’s my mother’s fault. If I’ve been on my knees, well, you wanted it, too. But Bilbo is the finest gentlehobbit in the Shire, and would never make use of a little boy the way you have. I hate you because you made me afraid of him, of what he would do! It was all lies! Just like the lie you tell now that he hit me and you didn’t. He. Never. Would.’

‘What else could he want you for? You’re not good for anything else.’

‘Well, what could Uncle Rory want with you, especially now? There has to be an heir.’

Sara laughed unpleasantly. ‘And he couldn’t get one of his own, so he picked up some stray cast-off from a good family. I heard he wasn’t happy to see you fooling with Ula. That’s what you got that thrashing for.’

Frodo found himself tiring of Sara’s stupidity and wickedness, and decided a real fight was in order. ‘To the contrary, Snake, Bilbo encourages me to be popular with the ladies.’ Frodo gave Sara his most cheerful smile. ‘And it appears to be working very well! Ula is more than happy to let me do as I please, and I have received attention from others besides her. You really should pay more attention to the ladies yourself, and not be following little boys around in the woods.’

‘What do you mean?’

Frodo sang:

Oh mistress fair with the fiery hair,
Won’t you come lie with me?
I’ll give you a romp beyond compare
And I’ll get a child on thee.

Sara’s face hardened, and he pulled himself out of his slouch. ‘You’d best watch your threats, Rat.’

Frodo was all innocence. ‘Oh, no, Snake, no threat. I’m just saying that’s what you should try singing, instead of watching me. It appears that a certain lady of your acquaintance wants to know what all the fuss is you’re making over me. If you like me so much, maybe she should sample what is there?’ Sara began walking slowly towards him, fury on his face. Frodo did not try to get away. ‘In fact, it has gone a bit past maybe, you should know. You were gone for so long on Monday, and a certain lady was rather lonely and wondered if I knew how to use things besides my mouth.’

Sara lunged and grabbed Frodo’s shoulders, yanking him up close. Frodo pulled his arms up in front of himself so his hands were on Sara’s chest, but did not struggle. Make it count, Rat. You’ll only have one chance.

‘What did you do?’ Sara snarled, face close.

Frodo slid one hand very fast up Sara’s neck and dug his fingers into the hair on the back of his cousin’s head. His other hand slipped down and around Sara’s waist, fingers digging into the small of Sara’s back. Pulling the other to him, Frodo kissed Sara just as Sara had done to him at Wintermark. Sara struggled against him, but Frodo clutched the older hobbit and would not let go, giving Sara’s hair a sharp twist and yank for good measure.

Finally Sara shoved him away and staggered back, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. One of Frodo’s teeth had hit Sara’s lower lip during the struggle and had left it cut and swollen. Frodo grinned at the stunned expression on Sara’s face.

‘And that was just the start, Snake,’ he taunted. ‘You were gone so long, there was plenty of time for quite a bit more.’ Sara charged him and Frodo threw himself into the fight. He knew he was going to be beaten worse than before, but at least he would deserve it. Sara was going to hurt, too, this time.

The fight was going well, he had landed two good punches on Sara, receiving only one in return, when they were stopped. Frodo was rather disappointed when he felt a huge hand pulling him away from his cousin. It could only be Dalin. The dwarf had them both by the collars, and easily held them at arm’s length. He gave Frodo a shove, sending the boy sprawling. Dalin turned his attention to Sara.

Dalin picked Sara up by shoulder and throat and slammed him against the pile of wood. Sara let out a strangled cry, choked by the grip the dwarf had of his neck. Frodo scrambled to his feet and ran over, grabbing Dalin’s arm and trying to make him let go of Sara. The dwarf ignored him.

‘I heard that entire exchange, Master Sara,’ Dalin said in a conversational tone. Sara struggled, futilely clawing at Dalin’s fingers around his neck. ‘You are very lucky you are not a dwarf,’ Dalin went on calmly, as if he were not strangling the hobbit, ‘for dwarves do not take kindly to those who harm children. Our children are very dear to us. If I have understood correctly, you are the one who beat Master Frodo so badly at Wintermark, and it sounds as if you have made free with him in a most obscene manner. Is this so Master Frodo?’ Dalin asked Frodo. Sara’s face was turning purple and his breath was weak gasps.

‘Let him go!’ Frodo cried, trying to pull Dalin’s hand off of Sara’s throat.

‘But is it so?’ Dalin asked again as though asking about the weather.

‘Yes, yes, it’s so! Please let him go, Dalin!’ Frodo begged. Dalin shrugged and dropped Sara on the ground. Once the hobbit had begun to regain his breath and push himself up, Dalin dropped to one knee and seized Sara by the hair, forcing the hobbit to look up at him. Sara was clearly terrified.

‘Do you know what dwarves do to men who attack children?’ Dalin asked as though speaking to a slightly stupid child. Sara did not respond.

Frodo pulled on Dalin’s arm. ‘Please, Dalin, let him go.’ Frodo might as well have been a fly for all the attention Dalin paid him. The dwarf reached out suddenly and grabbed Sara by the crotch. Sara gasped and froze.

‘First, we geld him. Then we brand his face so all will know what he has done. Then we turn him out to die where the carrion crows can have him.’ Dalin’s face was stony, his voice harsh. Sara had gone from purple to white. ‘Well, Master Baggins? Shall I? I have all I need here at the smithy to geld and brand him. I suppose only the Master can turn him out.’

‘No! No, Dalin, please, leave him be,’ Frodo pleaded, ‘Don’t hurt him!’ He tried to get in between Dalin and Sara, but did not touch the dwarf’s arms for fear of causing more harm to his cousin. ‘Please! No, don’t do this!’ Dalin glared at Sara a moment longer, then let go. Sara sank back to the ground, shaking.

‘You have done harm to the kin of a dwarf-friend, you wretch,’ Dalin growled. ‘I would gladly rip you to pieces with my bare hands for the affront! Know that no word would save your hide, save that of Mister Baggins or of Master Frodo. The ones you wronged are the only ones who could turn my wrath aside. Be very glad you are not a dwarf, for then nothing would save you!’

‘What is going on?’ Mac demanded from the woodlot gate. He hurried over to Sara’s side. Frodo could see a dark bruise forming on Sara’s neck where Dalin had gripped his throat. ‘What is the meaning of this, Dalin, Rat?’ said Mac.

‘Master Sara attacked Master Frodo,’ Dalin replied imperturbably, ‘and I stopped him.’ Dalin rose and dusted off his knees. ‘You may ask him for the details when he catches his breath. He had best tell the truth.’ Dalin turned and walked out of the wood yard. ‘Come along, Master Baggins. I have finished my business with Smith Hammerfoot, and I think it time for us to go back to the Hall. Your uncle will be waiting.’ The dwarf disappeared around the corner of the smithy.

Frodo backed away from a horrified Mac, then turned and fled, following Dalin. The dwarf snagged his cloak from a peg near the door, made his farewells to the smith, and walked briskly away. Frodo had to trot to keep up with him. Dalin asked if there was a more direct path back to the Hall than the route they trod that morning. Frodo silently led them along the south path out of Newbury. They walked quickly and silently through the heart of Buckland, their shadows long in the pale winter afternoon light. The smell of wood smoke was in the air, and every so often they could hear voices call out from farmstead, field or barn.

He would have killed Snake. Frodo’s thoughts from earlier in the day on what Bilbo would have done for him returned, dark and frightening. Would Bilbo have said to leave Sara be? He thought of Bilbo’s fist hitting and hitting the wardrobe door, breaking it, breaking his own skin, bleeding on the wood, not caring about his own pain, just wanting to… kill. Like he had killed spiders and goblins. We were just having a fist fight, and Dalin said he would kill Snake.

This was wrong. This was not how hobbits did things. Gammer’s words about wrong and bad and dark things chased around inside his head. Frodo wanted to leave Buckland at once, not even return to the Hall, get as far away from the anger and danger as he could get. If he thought he could have outrun or hidden from Dalin, he would have. He could not, so Frodo pulled his cloak more tightly around him and hurried.

They reached the Hall just before sunset. They avoided the kitchens, slipping in a little-used side door. Now that the Yule guests were all but gone, the minor passages in the smial were unlit. Dalin kept a hand on Frodo’s shoulder as they walked through the lightless passages, and the boy knew he would not be able to escape that grip. There was light up ahead as they neared the family living quarters. Frodo hastened towards the light, wanting to be rid of Dalin as soon as he could. He moved quickly around a corner, and ran into Bilbo.

‘Where have you been?’ Bilbo snarled, bristling. Frodo scrambled backwards and ran into Dalin. Bilbo had one hand in his pocket, playing with something, and the other on his hip. ‘I asked you a question, Frodo. I expect an answer,’ Bilbo said, voice dropping to a silky, threatening tone. It seemed to Frodo that his uncle grew in size until he could see nothing but Bilbo. The light from the lantern down the corridor went dim as though his uncle absorbed the light, and everything except Bilbo was under a shadow. His heart seized up with fear and Frodo wanted to run, save that his limbs were like ice, frozen into place. His kindly uncle had disappeared and in his stead was a ferocious, dreadful, dragon-mastering warrior, someone used to death and destruction. It was not a hobbit in the hallway. Frodo began to shake.

‘Wilwarin?’ Bilbo’s voice changed, became concerned, ‘What is wrong lad?’ Bilbo put his hands on Frodo’s shoulders, worry on his face, and his uncle returned. Frodo stepped into Bilbo’s arms and buried his face into his uncle’s chest. Bilbo hugged him firmly. ‘Dalin?’

The dwarf sighed. ‘It is my fault, Mister Baggins. I should have sent the lad back this morning.’

‘Let’s get out of the hallway.’ It was less than two minutes before they were back in their room. Bilbo got Frodo out of his cloak and coat and sat him before the hearth with a cup of tea. Frodo’s teeth were chattering and he realized he really was cold. Bilbo built up the fire. Frodo could see that most of their things were packed into the trunks, ready to be sent off tomorrow. Dalin leaned against the wall, near the fire.

‘As I said, Mister Baggins, I am to blame for tiring the young master out, and... for scaring him. When we met with the Mistress this morning, she said I was to take Master Frodo with me to Newbury, despite your directions. When we arrived at the farm, Master Sara was there. He and Master Mac came with us to Newbury. All was going civilly enough and we were almost done with our business. Master Frodo stepped out of the smithy. I saw Master Sara follow him. I followed after, and found them out in back. Master Sara was arguing with Master Frodo, but wasn’t offering any harm, so I listened. I heard enough to turn my stomach. He is a wicked beast. Then Master Frodo said a few unkind things about Master Sara’s wife, and they started scuffling. I let Master Sara get a punch or two in, as they were ugly words the young master said and the lady’s honor demanded it, then I broke them up. I gave Master Sara a good shake and told him I’d take him apart if he touched Frodo again. I think he was convinced. I brought the young master home afterwards.’ Dalin crossed his arms.

You didn’t shake him. You were going to kill him. Frodo sipped at his tea and tried to keep from trembling. He stared into the fire so he would not see the damaged wardrobe. Bilbo’s hands kneaded his shoulders and Frodo hunched them up against the touch. The hands went away. He heard Bilbo sigh.

‘I doubt that is all there is to tell, Dalin, but it is enough. Will Sara be complaining to Rory?’

‘Probably not, though Master Mac might. It depends on whether his brother tells the truth of the fight or continues to lie.’

‘Thank you, Dalin. I think we all need to rest. We set out tomorrow at full light.’ Dalin bowed shallowly and left. ‘I will be back in a minute, Wilwarin. I’m going to ask that our supper be brought here tonight.’ Frodo did not look up from the fire. Bilbo left and returned quickly. The tea cup was replenished, and Bilbo set to packing the rest of their things in the trunks. Bilbo laid out traveling clothes for them both for the next day. Frodo noticed his treasures and the Yule gifts were all gone from the table. Soon a knock at the door announced supper. Bilbo set it out on the table, then came over to Frodo’s chair, kneeling in front of it.

‘Wilwarin? What is it lad? You’re not hurt, are you?’ Bilbo’s voice was at its most soothing. Frodo let him take the tea cup and set it aside. His uncle’s warm hands wrapped around his own. ‘What has frightened you so?’

‘Dalin was going to kill Sara. He would have. Right there.’ Frodo searched Bilbo’s eyes, looking for any hint of shock or outrage. There was none. ‘He had me decide. He asked me to say whether he should geld Sara, and brand him, and…’ Frodo’s throat closed up, remembering the mark on Sara’s, how helpless he was to stop Dalin, how eager Dalin had been to mutilate his cousin. There was some concern on Bilbo’s face now, but Frodo knew it was not for Sara. You would have let him do it. ‘It was just a scuffle,’ Frodo pleaded, not quite sure what he was begging for or trying to convince Bilbo of, ‘just a fist fight. I started it! I said I’d gone to bed with Esmie. Sara should have taken a swing at me. Tell Dalin not to hurt Sara. Please, I don’t want that! Not because of me. He’ll listen to you.’

Bilbo squeezed his hands. ‘I do not think there will be another occasion, Wilwarin, but I will tell Dalin that I do not wish him to do harm to Sara.’ The old hobbit sighed and his face became a bit stern. ‘Frodo, there was a reason I did not wish you wandering about, why I told you to stay close to me or to Rory. Now you have found it. I did not want you off with Sara while the two of you were spoiling for a fight. I do not give you directions for foolish reasons. Next time, I expect to be obeyed.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Frodo whispered.

‘Eat some supper, then go to bed. We have a long walk tomorrow.’ Frodo obeyed.


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