POV - Frodo
In which Merry makes a mess, Esmie makes a move, Bargo makes a fuss, Rory makes a point, and Frodo makes a very big mistake.
Morning, 27 Foreyule, 1389
‘Merry, please, stop!’
Esmie was very much at her wit’s end with her son, and Frodo could not help but feel some sympathy even as he snickered at his young cousin’s antics. Merry had been on less than his best behavior since Frodo and Bilbo arrived. He and Merle were scrapping constantly, and the schoolmarm said he was not doing his lessons as he should. The only time the rapscallion would mind his manners was when Dalin was about. Then the boy would sit next to the dwarf and ask his new friend for stories. Dalin seemed to enjoy telling tales as much as Merry loved to hear them. When the dwarf was not about, however, the imp was back to making mischief.
Just this morning, Merry had tried to convince Frodo to slip out of the Hall before breakfast and go to the River so he could show off how he could climb the willow tree. It was tempting, but Frodo had enough sense to say no. Now he watched, half-amused, half-alarmed, as Merry stood up on the bench and grabbed a crock of jam from the center of the table. As he did so, Merry managed to drag his shirt through his own plate of breakfast, smearing egg yolks and sausage grease on his front. Frodo put a steadying hand on his cousin’s back, wondering if perhaps he should get himself out of harm’s way.
The boy resolutely ignored Esmie’s entreaties, snagged the crock, and tried to dig jam out of it with a too-large spoon. Frodo gave Merry a small tug on his belt to get him to sit down, which made his cousin shift his weight, which made the bench tilt, which set too many things in motion.
The crock went flying, shattering with an enormous Crack! Merry fell flat into his breakfast, then managed to knock most of it off the table and onto Frodo as he struggled to get to the bench. That did not work very well, either, and only a quick grab by Frodo kept the younger hobbit from a nasty fall between the bench and the table.
Esmie dropped her face into her hands with a groan. Merle, once it was clear that her brother was not hurt, only embarrassed and filthy, began scolding him.
‘Merry! What are you doing? You’re a pig!’
‘Am not! Frodo pushed me!’
‘Pushed you? I did not!’
‘Frodo caught you, he didn’t push you.’
‘Yes, he did!’
‘He did not! You were being bad.’
‘Enough!’ All three young cousins froze at Bilbo’s command. The old hobbit glared at the children before letting out a deep, growling sigh. ‘Not. Another. Word.’ Three heads nodded vigorously. Bilbo folded his napkin and rose from the table. ‘I will find someone to help clean up the mess. You,’ he pointed at Merry, ‘behave!’ Merry scooted as close to Frodo as he could get, too intimidated even to nod. After Bilbo walked out, Esmie came over and surveyed her disheveled son.
‘You were clean this morning, too,’ she lamented. Merry did his best to look contrite. She held out her hand. ‘Come along. Let’s see what we can scrape off you, Meriadoc. I don’t have time to bathe you again. You cannot go to school in this state.’ A hopeful expression came over Merry’s face. Frodo took pity on Esmie.
‘Esmie, leave him with me. I was planning on going to the baths sometime today, anyway, so I might as well go now and take him with me,’ Frodo volunteered.
‘Would you? Oh, Frodo, that would be so nice of you,’ she exclaimed. ‘But I don’t wish to put you out…’
‘It is no problem, Esmie,’ Frodo assured her. Bilbo came back in the room and gave Frodo an amused glance, but the old hobbit stayed a good arm's length away from the grubby pair as he retook his seat. ‘I was going to borrow Merry today in any event, so I might as well scrub him up.’ Frodo had planned on collecting Merry this afternoon, after he met with Uncle Rory, but there really was no reason not to take the boy now. And since we both look like we’re ready for the compost heap, we might as well get clean. Frodo stood, picked off the worst of the breakfast still clinging to him, and held out a hand to Merry.
Esmie gave Frodo one of her nicest smiles, the one that gave him a warm feeling in interesting places. ‘You are such a dear, Frodo. There’s clean clothes in his room for after the bath. What he is wearing now I think we may have to burn. When you’re done, take him to the schoolmarm. He has some lessons this morning.’ Frodo followed Esmie out of the dining room, trying not to notice the disapproving look Bilbo sent after him.
Esmie almost made up for Sara. Why she had ever agreed to marry his disgusting cousin, Frodo could never figure out, and why she actually appeared to love the sot was an even greater mystery. But she was perfectly nice to him and always seemed to understand when he needed a smile or, better yet, a hug. He followed her along the corridor, enjoying the view. It was unquestionable that Bilbo disliked her, though his uncle had never said anything directly against her. It was the absence of opinion, and a certain tightness to Bilbo’s face when her name came up or when she was in the room, that said she was not anyone Bilbo particularly approved of.
Frodo remembered his last full day here at Brandy Hall at Harvest, when he had been helping her with shelves in the cellars. Esmie had definitely been flirting with him. She had caught him peeking down her blouse and had grinned and pinched his nose. She had given him little kisses on his cheek all day and once had flicked at his earlobe with her tongue. Frodo suppressed a shiver at that memory. When they were finished and walking back, she had kept her hand on the small of his back, then let it drop to his rump and gave him a squeeze before turning away. The memories of that one day had fueled some rather interesting night-time and early morning fantasies over the last three months.
At the junction to the kitchens, Esmie turned and beamed at her grimy companions. ‘Merry, doll, Mama would give you a kiss but you’re a little pig!’ she teased, then kissed one of her own fingers and planted it on his forehead, which was relatively free of gunk. Merry managed to look a little ashamed of himself.
‘I’m sorry, Mama. I didn’t mean to make a mess.’
‘I know you didn’t, piglet, but you have to be more careful. Now, you be a good boy for your cousin Frodo, young man!’
‘Yes, Mama, I will. I promise!’ Merry earnestly said. ‘I’ll be good and I’ll be clean!’
Frodo had to laugh. ‘You’ll be clean for about ten minutes, cousin, and then you’ll look like you found something dead to roll in, like one of the stable dogs, if I know anything about you!’ he scolded. Merry grinned and nodded happily.
‘Thank you, Frodo,’ Esmie said in a slightly different voice. He looked up at her and she stared him in the eyes, an intriguing smile on her lips. She kissed her finger again and made as if to touch his forehead, as she had touched Merry’s, but then lowered her hand and touched his lips, never dropping his eyes. She pressed very gently on his lips, parting them, and he touched the tip of her finger with his tongue. Esmie smiled broadly and walked off. He watched her go until she turned a corner, waving as she disappeared. You do not belong with Sara. Someone as sweet as you should not be with a bastard like that. When Frodo felt he could walk comfortably again, he went with Merry back to Bilbo’s room and collected a robe to wear after the bath. He ran his tongue over his lower lip, and wished he had not given away his own room.
A winding tunnel went down a level and opened onto a corridor below the kitchens. There were two large rooms down here, one bathing area for men and the other for women. The heat from the kitchens above helped keep the low-ceilinged rooms warm. Unlike most of Brandy Hall, with its wood or packed earth floors, the baths were paved in stone. A large copper boiler stood to one side, and provided hot water for the baths and the kitchens. Every hour, someone from the kitchens would come downstairs and work the pump, keeping the boiler full.
Six large stone tubs were set into the floor, and had taps. Frodo never ceased to be amazed at them. Just turn the handle and hot or cold water would come out. Not even Bag End, which was the most luxurious smial he had ever seen, had running water for a bath. He hung his robe on a hook along the wall, and tossed his soiled clothes into the laundry basket near the door.
Frodo told Merry to get undressed, then walked over to start water running in a tub. A twist of a lever set the cork stopper down into the drain, then a quick turn of the handle for the water. He ran only cold water for now; he would add hot later to warm the bath. Given Merry's tender skin, it could not be as hot as Frodo preferred.
While the water ran, he guided Merry across the slippery stone to the foot wash. This was a little trickle of water in a small gutter next to a wooden bench. If you did not scrub the dirt off of your feet before you got into the bath, you might not like what ended up floating in the bath water. Frodo sat on the floor, since Merry’s feet would not reach from the bench, and wielded one of the many small scrub brushes sitting there with great efficiency.
When that was done, it was time to add hot water to the bath. Merry wanted to jump in right away, but changed his mind when Frodo helped him lower one foot into the still-cold tub. They sat on the edge until things were nicely warm, then Frodo turned off the water and they slipped in. The tubs were very cleverly built, with shelves set at different heights to accommodate hobbits of several different sizes. Merry had his bottom settled onto a high shelf while Frodo sat on a deeper one, closed his eyes, and thought about Esmie’s rear end.
Until Merry splashed him. This is not going to be a relaxing soak, Frodo grumpily realized. Then Merry splashed again, and his humor was so infectious Frodo could not stay annoyed. They horsed around a bit, Merry delightedly demanding to be dunked, until Frodo figured the worst of the grime had been loosened. Merry was not so happy about being attacked with a wash rag, but cheered up when he got to scrub Frodo’s shoulders and slap Frodo several times with the wet rag.
The water was starting to chill by this point and Frodo figured Merry was as clean as he could get. They were climbing out when the door to the bathing hall opened. Bargo and Tom came around the screen in front of the door, wearing robes. Frodo muttered a small curse. He would not mind seeing Tom and talking to him, but running into Bargo was only slightly less vile than running into Sara. Merry noticed the other two, and sidled behind his big cousin. Frodo wished he had thought to bring his own robe over the tub. The lack of clothes, or even a towel, was a definite disadvantage.
‘Well, if it isn’t Master Cock-a-Whoop,’ Bargo sneered. ‘I thought I smelled something bad around here.’ The older boy casually ran his eyes over Frodo.
‘Well, the sooner you wash up, the sooner the stink will go away,’ Frodo cheerfully replied. He could see Tom smirking behind Bargo. Bargo was not amused. Frodo led Merry towards the basket of towels, and hoped someone else would show up.
‘You think you’re so big now,’ the older boy snapped. ‘Who do you think you are, taking my place at table? You’re just a bastard!’ Tom put a hand on Bargo’s arm and tried to shush him, but Bargo was having none of it.
Frodo sighed and kept walking. He had heard that insult so many times, it really did not sting any longer. It was more like a nagging ache that he could usually ignore. ‘I didn’t take your place, Bargo. I’m the same degree of relation from Uncle Rory as you are and in the same way. I may sit wherever I like.’
‘You’re the youngest, and should mind your place! You know that.’ Bargo followed after them, Tom trailing. Merry did not like his older cousin’s angry tone and clung to Frodo’s hand. ‘Even Tom here comes before you, Baggins. Assuming that’s what you are.’
They had reached the towel basket, and Frodo picked one out to dry off Merry, who was beginning to shiver slightly in the cool air. Don’t answer, Rat. There is nothing to say and he just wants a fight. Frodo smiled reassuringly at Merry, who was looking a bit scared. He wrapped the towel around his little cousin and gently blotted the bath water away.
Bargo had been the first of his cousins to call Frodo a bastard. He had started it about a year after Mama and Papa had died, and had never let up.
My ma knows! I heard her say so! She’d never talk about her own sister like that if it weren’t true, you little bastard, so it’s true. That Baggins couldn’t breed his wife, so she found herself another stud. Maybe more than one. That’s why he drowned her, you know.
When Gammer had patched him up afterwards, she scolded him gently about not getting into fights with his cousins and had asked what caused it, so he told her what Bargo had said. ‘It’s not true, is it, Gammer?’ he had asked, and her long hesitation before assuring him that it was in no way true, had broken his heart completely. He knew better than to ask again. Uncle Rory and Gammer Gilda loved him and no one could deny he was a Brandybuck, so Frodo made himself be content with that. Bilbo did not suffer from any hesitations or awkward pauses, and Frodo wondered if the old fellow had ever heard the rumors. He hoped not.
‘Well, Baggins? What do you have to say to that?’
Frodo briskly rubbed Merry’s thick brown mop of hair. It looked like Bargo wanted a reply. If he did not answer, the next thing would probably be a shove or a slap. ‘Bargo, if it really means that much to you to sit at the head of the table, you should go have a talk with Uncle Rory. Why don’t you tell him that his little upstart bastard nephew is keeping you from sitting in a particular chair at the tween table.’ Tom snickered and Frodo heard Bargo punch him in the arm. ‘I’m certain our Uncle Rory will be very happy to offer you a special seat of your own.’ Frodo picked out a dry towel and wrapped it firmly around Merry, then stood to face Bargo. ‘Of course, that seat will be out in the stables, since you will have demonstrated yourself to be an utter ass.’
Frodo met Bargo’s eyes (well, what could be seen of them under his hair) and gave the older hobbit the coldest, most threatening stare he could summon. Bargo actually backed a few steps off. ‘I shall sit where I please, Burrows, unless Uncle Rory directs me otherwise. If you want that seat so badly, you are going to have to fight for it. I am not letting you order me about any more.’ He turned to collect his robe.
‘Someone else’s special boy, are you now?’ Bargo’s ugly voice followed him. ‘Aren’t you so fine now, too fine for us. Mad Baggins’ special boy, that’s what you are. You must cost him a pretty penny. Learned any new tricks? Can you show me a few? Maybe something with a dwarf?’ Frodo kept his back turned while he pulled on his robe. He felt, rather than heard, Bargo coming closer.
‘Go away!’ Merry fiercely yelled. Frodo quickly fastened his robe and turned to take Merry’s hand. The little hobbit had planted himself, bristling, in between Bargo and Frodo. Frodo had to give Merry a small tug to make him move. Merry stuck out his tongue at Bargo, then obediently followed.
‘Good day, Burrows, Tom.’
‘Why does anyone let you near him? I wouldn’t leave you around any little boys.’
‘Bargo!’ Tom’s horrified voice was the last thing Frodo heard before he let the door bang shut behind him. He walked as quickly as he could through the corridors until he got back to Bilbo’s room. As he had hoped, Bilbo was nowhere to be seen. Ever since the afternoon two days ago when he had cleaned out a workspace in an old store room, Bilbo had been busy translating the beautiful elven scroll for Gammer. The old hobbit had missed lunch entirely yesterday, and only made it supper because Gammer had sent him to collect Bilbo and make his uncle come to table.
Frodo sat heavily on the ground with his back against the door, and scrubbed at his eyes with the sleeve of his robe. Bargo’s last words burned in his mind. That I would do to Merry what you and Sara do to me… He had almost gone back to hit Bargo.
‘Frodo?’ Merry’s eyes caught some of the light from the single, dim lantern that hung on a hook near the door. ‘What’s wrong? You’re crying!’
Frodo sniffed and smiled. ‘I’m not crying, Merry.’ His little cousin was not fooled and made a face. ‘No, Merry, really. I just got something in my eye and it’s watering.’ He smiled broadly, trying to convince Merry, who remained unconvinced. ‘Let me pull on some clothes – don’t move! – and we’ll get you ready for your lessons.’
‘If you’re not feeling good, I can stay with you,’ Merry replied almost without guile, ‘I don’t have to go to my lessons.’
‘Oh, yes you do, Master Meriadoc!’ Frodo dressed, rewrapped Merry in the towel, and marched his cousin to his own rooms to find a change of clothes. Merry wanted to wear some things that were less than completely clean, but otherwise behaved himself and was delivered to the schoolmarm in short order. She did not ask for an explanation of why Merry was late to class.
As he walked back, Frodo considered going to see Bilbo. And what would you say, Rat? That you don’t like being called names? That Bargo says he’s bedding you? That you don’t like being accused of doing to Merry what you’ve done to others? And, by the way, you’re not really his Baggins cousin? No, this was nothing that he could discuss with Bilbo. Frodo went back to their room, and sat leaning against the door again.
There was no point in crying about this. If he was going to come home to Brandy Hall, he would just have to accept that Bargo and Sara were going to be awful to him. There was no way he was going to stay with Bilbo. Bilbo wanted to go on adventures – that was quite plain to see – and he wanted to come back home. Frodo was simply making sure each got what he wanted. Didn’t Bilbo say he didn’t want me to come to Bag End unless I wanted to? Well, I don’t want to. You can’t, Rat, if this is what people are going to say and think. Bilbo would not want people thinking these things. I wonder if anyone has said to Bilbo about me what Bargo said to me about Merry? His uncle was not what Bargo had said this morning, what Sara had said more times than he cared to think. “No. I will not. Even if you were to ask me to do so.” And Bilbo never did, never would. Bilbo did not deserve to have such things said of him.
Frodo got up from the floor and lay down on their bed. He curled up on his side and looked at the impression Bilbo left in the straw tick. What were you scared of, Rat? Bilbo had simply lain down and gone to sleep. Three nights in a row. Not even a hug or kiss good night once they were lying down. Bilbo never would, Rat. He is fussy and annoying and proper and he never would. Frodo rolled over onto his stomach, buried his face in his pillow, and tried to conjure up a picture of Esmie. Neither mind nor body would particularly cooperate. He kept trying to concentrate on her finger on his lips this morning, but his rebellious mind kept abandoning the picture and wondering what she would think of him being anywhere near Merry if she knew. She would not smile so nicely if she knew where those lips have been, Rat.
He flopped over onto his back and glared up at the ceiling. He did not think Sara would ever tell Esmie what they had done, but there was no saying what Bargo or the other boys might let slip. Or what someone else might tell on him. Bilbo knows, and he doesn’t care. Frodo turned over again and looked at Bilbo’s spot, reaching to touch the depression, as though some warmth from the night might be clinging to it. He knows exactly how bad you can be, Rat, and he doesn’t care. He might if he knew everything. Frodo closed his eyes and inhaled his uncle’s smell – pipe-weed, ink, a certain musky odor that was wonderfully Bilbo’s and felt like a reassuring hug. Too bad he won’t, he’d be so nice to you…
Frodo was out of the bed and over to the wardrobe in the blink of an eye. That was the kind of thing he had been trying very much not to think. Things he had been trying not to think for some time. Things he had been curious about since Sara had first spoken derisively of Bilbo, some time before Frodo had understood what his cousin meant. And more recent things, such as was he frightened or pleased when Bilbo had caressed his cheek, was he relieved or disappointed when Bilbo had turned him down? His body was mocking him, warming and swelling just a little at this stupid, disgusting thought, even though it had refused to respond to his thoughts of Esmie. That was another reason to come home.
I have to get ready to see Uncle Rory. Frodo ruthlessly shoved away the tangle of worries and thoughts, and focused on getting dressed for lunch with his real uncle. This was going to be an important meal. Just the two of them in Uncle Rory’s study and Frodo was going to do some of what Bilbo had suggested, and tell Uncle Rory some of the truth. Enough to reassure Uncle Rory that everything would be fine, and there was no reason for him to be sent away any more.
He tried to think about his clothes the way Bilbo had told him to. One of the new shirts from Hobbiton, but plainest one. That would look grown-up and serious. The soft-yellow waistcoat with the bone buttons would be nice, but not too fancy. Uncle Rory disliked frivolous clothes, even on women. The trousers he had worn for the walk to Buckland were washed and clean, and would look like he was ready to lend a hand in some tough work. He would look like a sober young gentlehobbit, ready to be a help to the Master in running Buckland, not some silly, thoughtless little boy.
Forcing Bargo out of the Master’s seat at the tween table had been one move. He had done this three nights in a row now, and intended to keep on doing so. That would show Uncle Rory that he was not going to be pushed around by a bully. Bargo would probably try to pound him at some point, but Frodo knew a fist-fight would go over well with his uncle. It would show he was not afraid of getting hurt in order to protect his position and his honor.
He carefully changed his clothes, trying to remember just how Bilbo got dressed in the morning. Bilbo’s clothes never hung oddly or got all wrinkled just from being pulled on. If Bilbo looked rumpled, it was because he allowed himself to appear that way, never by accident. The last few days had shown Frodo how Bilbo achieved that success, and he tried very hard to follow the example.
He would take his beatings from Sara, and that would be the end of that problem. There was no need to upset anyone, as he would not allow Sara to use him again. Sara might not like losing his favorite form of torment, but if Frodo simply refused to open his mouth, eventually Sara would give up and hit him. As for the rest… What I need to do, I’ll do.
After he dressed, he turned up the lamp and fished his book of elven poetry out of his trunk, reading this until shortly before it was time to meet Uncle Rory. Before he went to Rory’s study, he stopped by the room where Bilbo was translating. As Frodo expected, Bilbo was completely lost in the work.
‘Oh, hullo lad!’ Bilbo said, scratching his cheek and leaving a small ink blot behind.
‘Hullo yourself,’ Frodo chuckled, surveying the grand mess that Bilbo had made of the table. The original scroll was in perfect shape, carefully laid out and held in place with cloth-wrapped stones. The rest was typical Bilbo carnage: half written on sheets of paper everywhere, three bottles of ink (two uncapped), quills in varying states of ruin, a penknife, a plate of pickles, some very cold tea, and one pristine page of translation. Bilbo was enjoying himself a great deal.
‘I’m off to have lunch with Uncle Rory. Do I look all right?’ Bilbo scrutinized his nephew carefully, having Frodo turn around slowly, and giving a few suggestions for neatening things up.
‘I shall see you later, then. Be sure you get some lunch for yourself!’ Frodo scolded as he went out the door.
‘Maddie’s sending a girl by with a tray,’ Bilbo called after him, ‘and I shall see you at supper!’
‘I will be by to collect you!’ Frodo promised as he shut the door.
Frodo knocked lightly on his uncle’s study door, then let himself in. Uncle Rory looked up from his big wooden desk with a smile and rose to greet him. Lunch had already been laid on the low table before the fire. In a few minutes, Frodo sat, a plate of food on his lap and a glass with a few sips of brandy in it on the table next to him, his uncle sitting across from him. They applied themselves to the food and made short work of it.
When they were done, Uncle Rory sat back in his chair and said, ‘So, lad, are you well?’
‘Yes, I am quite well, thank you.’
‘You look worn.’
‘That’s just because of the walk, Uncle. I’m still a little tired from it.’
Rory nodded, and looked at him intently. ‘Are you happy, living in Hobbiton?’
Time to begin. Frodo shrugged a little and tried to look wistful. ‘It’s… all right, I suppose. There’s not very much to do, except walk around with Uncle Bilbo. Or read.’ Uncle Rory did not have much use for idleness.
‘Well, he’s supposed to be keeping you out of trouble.’ That was a bit too close to sensitive matters. Frodo did not want to get into that discussion quite yet. That had to be part of the agreement for returning to Buckland at all. First he had to make clear that he did not wish to remain in Hobbiton.
‘Well, there is no trouble to get into in Hobbiton,’ Frodo sighed. ‘There aren’t any hobbits my age to speak of, and there aren’t that many relatives to visit. In truth, I feel rather useless. I would like to be doing some real work, but there isn’t anything for me to do.’
‘Well, there’s nothing wrong with your thinking,’ Rory noted. ‘You were right on about the tannery yesterday, and you understand the problem with the roots well enough.’
‘Yes, I do!’ Frodo replied. Here’s something I can do, right away, to show Uncle Rory I’m not useless. ‘I thought I should talk with Uncle Wili and see if I can help him in some way. Perhaps I can write letters for him to send, or go with Fred or Bard when they ride about. I don’t think a market can be built in time for this year's harvest problems, but building one up on the Road would give the Eastfarthing folk a place to go besides Whitfurrows for trading and such.’
Rory looked at him with a small smile and some craftiness in his eyes. ‘But that’s outside the Shire proper. I think folk might not want to go there. What about putting it between the River Road junction with the East Road and the Bridge?’
Frodo knew that look. Uncle Rory had just set up a problem to see if he was paying attention. So, Rat, what’s wrong with that idea? Frodo thought, then shook his head. ‘We can’t put our market on Eastfarthing land, even if the Marish does pay heed to the Master. A market on their ground would be too large of a challenge to the Bolgers, and they’d claim authority over it, even if it is in the Marish. Though if Uncle Wili were in charge of it, then at least there would be a nominal Bolger.’
‘And the problem with Wili is…?’ Rory was sitting forward in his chair and grinning.
‘He’s old. So who would run it after him? It would have to be another Bolger, and Odogar would demand to make that choice. Even if Bard or Fred were chosen, instead of Car or Bertie, neither of them has a head for business. So, the market needs to be built near the Gate, and then made enticing. The Breelanders would prefer it, since it would make almost a half-day travel less for anyone walking or using an ox-cart.’
Rory sat back and beamed at Frodo. ‘You’ve got a sharp mind, my lad. You think further than next week. When you’re bothering to think, that is.’ Rory sipped his brandy and nodded thoughtfully. ‘Baggins was right. You’ve got the right temperament and the right wit to be trained to important things.’
Frodo smiled and blushed a little, not quite sure what to do with this news. Bilbo doesn’t think I’m stupid! He sipped a tiny bit of his brandy, wanting to make it last. It was not the best tasting drink he had ever had, but it was better than coffee.
Uncle Rory shook his head ruefully. ‘I wish I could get Sara or Mac to do a little thinking like this. Though they’re getting along with that dwarf well enough! He’s a solid fellow. I’m beginning to see why Baggins likes them so much. They’ll be going with a few big wagons down to Rushey tomorrow to chop Sun-return logs for Wintermark. Mister Steelhand said he needed to do some work with an axe, so he’ll be going with them. They should be back by dusk on Saturday. Would you like to go?’
Three days with Sara sounded like a recipe for disaster. You’ll have to deal with him at some point, Rat. But not yet, not like this. ‘It sounds grand, Uncle Rory! Mister Dalin is very nice and I have not helped to collect the Sun-return logs before. I had best ask Uncle Bilbo for permission, though. I think he wishes for me to spend time with Gammer, not go haring about.’
Uncle Rory nodded approvingly at this. ‘Yes, yes, of course. Gilda would not want you to miss your fun on her account, though. They’ll leave after second breakfast tomorrow morning, so have a talk with Bilbo and figure out what you’re going to do.’
‘I miss you and Gammer so much,’ Frodo said in a soft voice. He sneaked a look to gauge the effect. Uncle Rory was smiling and looking a little sad himself. ‘I mean, I love Uncle Bilbo, and he is very kind and has been doing his best, but…’ Frodo dropped his eyes and stared at his hands, waiting.
‘But…? What is it lad?’ There was a note of concern in Rory’s voice.
Frodo bit his lower lip and did not have to put much effort into the quaver in his voice. ‘It’s not home. I don’t have any friends there, and I miss you all so much, and I’m… sorry.’ He let his voice drop to a near whisper.
‘Frodo, lad, what’s wrong?’ His uncle stood up and put a hand on his shoulder. ‘What is this all about?’
Now for the hard part. Frodo sat up straight and cleared his throat. Uncle Rory liked it when people were very sincere and collected, especially if they were confessing something. Tears did not work on this uncle. ‘I’m sorry for having been… bad. Uncle Bilbo said you had to send me away because of what I was doing that was wrong. So, I’m sorry, and I miss you all so much.’ He allowed a little catch in his throat on the last word. After a few seconds of silence, he put his most repentant expression in place and looked up at Uncle Rory.
It appeared to be working. Uncle Rory was looking down at him with a stern face, but sad and a bit worried. ‘Well, lad, it is a shame, especially as you’re obviously turning into a fine gentlehobbit. Baggins said you’d figured out right from wrong now.’ Frodo nodded emphatically. Rory tousled his hair, and smiled. ‘And, well, we miss you too. Something fierce. Your cousins cried for days after you went.’ Frodo figured he meant Merry and Merle, not Sara. ‘It made your Gammer mighty sad, too.’
Frodo locked eyes with Rory. ‘Uncle Rory, I would like to come home. Please.’
Rory’s expression became a bit more stern, as Frodo had expected. ‘Don’t you want to be with your Uncle Bilbo? He said you did.’
‘He said you wouldn’t permit me to stay, that it was your decision, Uncle Rory. If I can’t come home, then I will stay with Uncle Bilbo and I will make the best of it. But I want to be here with you and Gammer, where my friends are, and where I don’t feel so useless.’
Rory slowly walked away, thinking. Frodo stood. ‘I don’t know, lad. You know I’d take you back in second, except you went for some very good reasons.’ Rory went around his desk and sat. Frodo walked to stand in front of it. ‘Your, your “friends” are a bit of a problem, Frodo.’ His uncle gave him a stern glance.
‘I know. I know that I didn’t do proper things. I let a few of the boys bully me and do bad things, and I won’t go around them anymore. Those boys aren’t my friends.’
Uncle Rory leaned forward with his elbows on his desk, hands steepled, and fixed a sharp look on his nephew. Frodo made himself meet that gaze and wait for Rory’s judgment. After a minute, his uncle shook his head. ‘That’s not good enough, Frodo. You’re going to have to say what it was you were doing, and give me reasonable assurances that it won’t happen again. Baggins scolded me once, and quite rightly, for not knowing what was happening with you. I’ll have the truth, and all of it, out of you. But, Frodo, I’m not the one to make this decision any more. Your Uncle Bilbo adopted you. He’s your guardian now. Even if I say yes, he’s well within his right to say no. You don’t belong to me anymore.’
‘I know that, Uncle Rory,’ Frodo replied, ‘and the reason I am asking you is because I need to know if you will permit it before I talk to Bilbo. He has been so terribly kind the last few months, I do not wish to risk upsetting him if you aren’t already in agreement. I know he wants to go on another adventure,’ Uncle Rory looked alarmed at this prospect and Frodo tried to figure out how to use it, ‘and I know he probably wouldn’t want to take me because I’m not old enough and it might be dangerous,’ Uncle Rory looked even more alarmed, and was nodding his head, ‘but if there is nowhere to leave me, then I would probably have to go.’
Uncle Rory emphatically shook his head. ‘No, the fool has no business traipsing off into the wild with a child in tow.’ Bilbo’s not a fool, Frodo thought, and I’m not a child. ‘That is not acceptable. I thought he’d have more sense, not less, where you were concerned! He can stay put!’
‘Well, I don’t want to keep him from doing important things, and I don’t want him thinking I’m just a burden or a millstone around his neck,’ Frodo interjected, ‘and when we were walking with Mister Dalin, it became pretty clear to me that he wanted to go somewhere. Maybe not something enormous and dangerous, like fight a dragon, but certainly he wants to go to Rivendell where the elves are.’ So do I, but not yet.
‘Baggins and his wretched elves!’ barked Rory. He thought for a bit, then nodded. ‘Very well, I need to know about these friends of yours. Who are they?’
‘Hamson Bracegirdle, Odogrim Bolger, and Bargo Burrows are the three who picked on me.’ Frodo did not think he needed to mention Tom.
‘Are they even tweens?’
‘Hamson is. He’s twenty-eight. Odogrim is thirty-three – he came of age early in the year. Bargo turned thirty-two in Thrimidge.’
Rory looked very concerned. ‘These weren’t just some boys your own age.’
‘You were bullied into this?’
Frodo did a bit of calculation, and figured a partial truth would work better. ‘Um, when…’ he stared at his feet for effect, ‘when it began, um, well…’ He straightened up and met his uncle’s eyes directly. ‘Not at the very start, sir. Then, I was just curious and I did what they asked.’
‘When did this start?’
‘Just after I turned sixteen.’ He watched Rory do the math on their relative ages, and saw a look of anger briefly cross his uncle’s face. This might be easier than you thought, Rat.
‘What did you do?’ Then again, this might be very difficult. ‘No more rumors, lad. I want to know exactly what kind of wickedness you were up to.’ Frodo stared down at the desk top and could not make the words come out. He had thought he would be able to, after speaking to Bilbo, but his throat closed up and nothing came out.
‘Did you let them use you?’ Rory waited, and Frodo nodded. ‘Were you kissing them?’ Frodo shook his head. ‘Did you put your hand on their member and rub them?’ Frodo nodded. ‘And they did this to you in return?’
‘On my knees, my mouth on their member, and I think you can figure out the rest.’
‘No need to get smart with me, lad. I’m only asking for the truth. What else?’
‘Nothing. That was pretty much all they were doing to me by the end. Sometimes they’d want me to handle them, but usually they wanted me to mouth them.’
‘Did they touch you with their mouths?’
‘Never.’ Frodo finally dared to look up. His uncle’s face was pained, but also filled with disgust. He hoped it was not for him.
‘You know what you did was very wicked.’ Frodo nodded. ‘Even a little boy should know it. And you aren’t so little anymore.’ Frodo clasped his hands behind his back and waited for the lecture to be over. ‘Everyone is curious, when they start changing, about the things their body is doing now. But there’s a difference between being curious and doing wrong things. You were doing wrong things, Frodo. You were old enough to know better by these last couple years, but you did it anyway.’
Frodo dropped his eyes and nodded. This was definitely not like talking to Bilbo.
‘This has gone on a long time, Frodo. I’m worried you have a liking for it.’ Frodo shook his head a little bit. ‘Baggins says you’ve no liking, that it was just bullying and curiosity. I want to hear it from you.’
Frodo looked up and lied. ‘Uncle Bilbo’s right. I have no liking. I just didn’t want to get thrashed or hurt. There wasn’t much to be curious about by the end. Now, I just want them to stay away and leave me alone.’
Rory nodded. ‘That’s a good boy. No more of this. I don’t want to see you bringing shame to yourself or your family.’ Frodo could see that his uncle was still looking at him with a certain amount of disgust. It is for you, Rat. He’s disgusted, and Esmie would be, too. They wouldn’t let you near Merry if they knew just how good you are at your games.
Rory leaned back in his chair and shook a finger at him. ‘Let this be a lesson to you, Frodo. You’ve done a wicked thing, and you were a coward not to admit it and take your lumps. I expect better from a boy I’ve raised. I’ve brought you up as though you were a Master’s Heir, with the same standards, the same expectations, the same teaching for right and wrong. I hope you are good and ashamed of yourself.’
‘I am, sir.’ Inside, Frodo was seething. As good as a Master’s Heir! I know better than Sara, that’s for sure! Well, Rat, it’s not right and wrong. It’s who’s on their feet and who’s on their knees. He could feel his hands start to tremble from the anger inside. If he deserved this lecture, then Sara deserved it a hundred times more.
Frodo stared down at the carpet. It had a flowered design in it, much faded and scuffed over the years. On that flower he had set one knee. On this one, a few inches over, he had set the other. Frodo’s eyes traveled up the front of the desk, to the edge right in front of him. That is where Sara had sat, facing him. Sara did not usually sit; he preferred to stand and lean a bit forward, one hand braced on a wall or a tree, the other clasping the back of Frodo’s head, fingers laced into his hair. But that day, he had decided to sit, a hand caressing the side of his face. Frodo had used a sip of Uncle Rory’s brandy afterwards to take away the taste.
‘From now on, I expect you to take your punishment rather than whore yourself out. I’m not entirely convinced you don’t have at least a little liking. But it’s not too late to set you right. And I expect total honesty from you, Frodo. I want to know if this happens again. I want to know who’s been approaching you and who you’ve been servicing. I want you to live up to how you’ve been raised.’
Frodo looked Rory in the eye. As you wish. ‘Sara has been doing this to me, too.’ It was out before he could really think what he had just done.
Uncle Rory’s face did not change. He rose from his chair and came around the table, never looking away from Frodo. He stopped in front of Frodo and studied his face for a long moment.
‘Repeat what you just said.’
‘I said that your son, Sara, the Master’s Heir, has been making me service…’
Uncle Rory had never struck him before, not like this. A few spankings when he was little, the occasional swat or smack or flicking his ear. This blow snapped his head around and made him take a step back. He could taste a little blood in his mouth where his lip had been driven against his teeth. Frodo ran his tongue along the cut, letting the sting from the touch of tongue to wound ground him. When he looked up into his uncle’s face, Frodo was a little surprised to see that Rory did not appear to be angry. Then he saw that the anger was deep and cold, and he became afraid.
‘That was for lying.’
‘I’m not lying.’
‘Yes, you are. Sara would never do such a thing.’
I told you, Bilbo. I told you he wouldn’t believe me. ‘He would, and he did.’ His uncle’s expression did not change. Frodo turned and began walking to the door.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’
Frodo turned and shrugged. ‘Well, there doesn’t appear to be much more to say.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I told you about Sara, you say it’s a lie. What else is there? I’m leaving.’
‘I’m not through.’
‘Well, I am. I am through. I am through with others’ hands on me when I have done them no wrong!’ Frodo snapped.
‘You have wronged me. You have spoken evilly of my heir. When you say wicked things of my kin to me, child, I will correct you as I see fit!’
‘No, you will not! You have no right, not anymore! Only Uncle Bilbo has the right punish me with his hand. I am not staying so you may strike me for telling you truths you do not wish to hear.’ Frodo glared at his uncle, then turned and began to walk towards the door again.
‘We are not done, Master Baggins.’
Frodo looked back over his shoulder. Rory’s face was getting red.
‘You are right. Only Bilbo may correct you with force. But you have said a foul thing of my heir and you will answer me until I am satisfied.’ Rory went back to his seat behind the desk. ‘Get over here.’
Frodo came back and stood, arms crossed, across the desk from Rory. ‘Give me a reason to believe. How did it start?’ Frodo just stared at him. ‘If you can’t explain it, tell me when or where or how it happened, why should I believe it?’
‘Sara caught me out with the other boys. He saw me servicing them.’
‘Sara would have given you a thrashing, just as I would have, had he seen that.’
‘Well, he didn’t. I guess he liked what he saw and decided he wanted some as well. He sent the other boys off after cuffing them a few times. He said I could service him if I did not want him to tell you, so I did.’
Rory’s eyes narrowed. ‘My son would not do that.’
‘No, Mac wouldn’t,’ Frodo snapped, ‘but Sara would.’
‘You made this up, you and Baggins. You hate Sara for having been harsh to you, for giving you thrashings, and are trying to get back at him.’
Frodo stared at Rory with incredulity. ‘Trying to get back at Sara? No! If I wanted to get back at him, it would not be this way. I could put together a much better lie than this, if that’s what I wished to do.’
‘When did this happen?’
‘The first time, a little over two years ago. Any number of times since then, whenever he wished to punish me. This is what he did instead of thrashing me.’
‘It could not have been happening like that, not so often. I would have noticed.’
‘It all began when Gammer got so sick, and the tremors became worse,’ Frodo quietly replied. ‘You were concerned with her, and this wasn’t important. Not compared to her. It couldn’t be.’
His uncle finally looked away. Rory stared at the window for a long time, sometimes nodding, sometimes shaking his head, as though arguing with himself. He began talking without looking around.
‘I can’t believe you. Sara simply would not do something like this. He’s grown beyond such foolishness and messing with other boys. He has a beautiful wife who loves him and never turns him from their bed. He has children. He loves them.’
‘But he did.’
‘But he did.’ So you do believe me. Frodo watched Rory clench and unclench his jaw. ‘That means something changed him, made him do this. He knows better. You did this, Baggins. You tempted him, and you corrupted him.’
Frodo was aghast. ‘I did no such thing!’ Rory turned to face him, contempt contorting his features.
‘No such thing? You admit to servicing other boys for years. You said he did give the others a good cuff to let them know they were wrong. But you tempted him. Tell me you did not offer to pleasure him in exchange for silence.’ Rory waited for an answer, then laughed bitterly. ‘As I thought.’
For a moment, Frodo thought he was going to be sick. He had to struggle to keep his lunch down. It wasn’t, it didn’t… It wasn’t like that, Rat? You didn’t do that, Rat? Yes you did. You may not have said it, but you did it. He shook his head a little and slowly backed away from Rory’s desk.
‘You are his, blood and bone.’ Rory rocked back in his chair, lip curled. ‘You are a Baggins to the core. You can just go back to Hobbiton, or go off on whatever damn adventure you want. You’re no part a Brandybuck. There’s nothing of your mother in you. We got you out of here just in time. I wish Baggins had claimed you earlier, before you went after Sara.’ Rory casually ran his eyes over Frodo. ‘I begin to understand Pal. You can go now, Baggins.’
A sixteen year old hobbit would be the equivalent of a twelve year old human. The actual ages and equivalent ages of the hobbits who were using Frodo are: