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On Merry Yule: 16. Sun-return
Early Morning, Yule Day, Afteryule
The night sky was slowly fading into grey. Dawn was still some time away, but the first hints of the Sun’s return could be read. Bilbo stood near the much-reduced fire tower and watched Frodo. The boy looked exhausted and was holding himself like he hurt. Bilbo had almost turned back to apologize for having snapped at Frodo over his questions, but had thought better of it. Wilwarin’s anger was like his own – very hot, very sharp, not long lasting. Give the lad some time to finish his ale and think things over, Baggins. He’ll take an apology better if he’s not riled up like a stone-smacked hornet. Even so, the longer Frodo stood without moving, the more worried Bilbo became.
‘Uncle Bilbo!’ Mac called out as he approached from the meadow. Mac will know what fights have happened, Bilbo thought. Perhaps I can find something out from him. Bilbo smiled and gestured for his young cousin to join him.
‘I hope you have not been too busy this Wintermark, Mac,’ Bilbo said cheerfully. The other laughed.
‘No, it has been quiet. A few fellows were tossing fists down near the wagons. Seems the one was kissing the other’s girl, who used to be his girl until she took a fancy to the other, and they decided to fight for her to settle it once and for all. Except, while they were bloodying each other’s nose, the lass was sneaking off with some other fellow.’ Mac laughed and stretched until his back popped. ‘So now the two are best friends again and are hunting the third. Who had the sense to go back to his own girl, but now he’s catching what for from her. I think he’d be better off letting the other two beat him up, and then they can go off together and get drunk and talk about fickle women.’ They both laughed.
‘And that’s been it?’
‘That’s the most serious, Uncle, for which I’m glad. There’s been a few punches and slaps, but mostly the fellows have kept to shoving and snarling. And getting slapped and scratched a bit from their girls when they let their hands stray. A good Wintermark!’ Mac grinned and surveyed the crowd around the central bonfire. A few couples sat on the ground around it and cuddled while others stood and kissed or chattered or sang. Exhaustion was setting in, and the entire gathering was much quieter. Bilbo saw Mac grimace, and looked to see where Mac was looking. Frodo had left the ale table and walked towards the bonfire, stopping to chat every few yards.
‘Uncle, I don’t much like tattlers and I’d not be carrying tales, but Frodo got himself in a bit of trouble I think you need to know about.’ Bilbo nearly sighed in relief. At least he would find out what had happened. He raised an eyebrow and motioned for Mac to continue.
‘Earlier this evening, Frodo came running by me and Sara and Seredic, and asked for a bit of protection. He had said something rude to his cousin Bargo, and the other was looking to give him a thrashing for it, but he wouldn’t ‘fess up to what he had said. About an hour ago, Tunnelly’s boy ran up to me, all scared, and said he saw Bargo and his friends tracking Frodo off into the woods. Sure enough, I got there and they were pounding on him.’
‘What? How badly was he hurt?’
Mac actually chuckled a bit. ‘Hardly hurt at all! My little cousin had Bargo pinned and it looked like the other two had tripped over them. If I hadn’t shown up, they would have pounded him pretty bad, but he bounced right up soon as I pulled the other two off. He’s got a bruise or two on his ribs at worst.’
Bilbo glanced over at Frodo. The lad was not holding himself as though he only had a few bruises. He’s probably hung-over, Baggins, with a sour stomach and head to match.
‘If I had known what he’d said to his cousin, though, I might have let Bargo pound him a bit,’ Mac grumbled. ‘Frodo’s got a smart mouth and needs a good smack to figure out when to keep it buttoned.’ Mac looked over at Bilbo and shifted his weight uncomfortably. ‘He said…’ Mac stared at the ground and chewed his lip a bit, then said in a rush, ‘Frodo told me that he’d said to Bargo that Bargo’s sister tasted better than he did.’
Bilbo just stared, not believing that Frodo would have dared to taunt Bargo to his face with such a thing. Mac misunderstood Bilbo’s shock and dropped his eyes, face turning red. ‘I know, I couldn’t believe my ears either,’ Mac muttered, ‘Such an evil thing to say!’
The old Hobbit turned quickly so his back was to Mac and tried to keep from laughing. Oh, Wilwarin, you have such a wicked tongue! Bilbo thought he was going to burst. And you don’t lack for nerve. He began to understand how the boy had held his own amongst such bullies and tormentors.
‘Please, Uncle, don’t be upset!’ Mac begged. ‘I would have given him a hiding for it and not hurt your ears with such a tale, but Da said I was not to touch him again. It was for you to give out what punishment he deserved. I told Frodo I was going to tell you.’
The reminder of how Frodo’s misdeeds had been handled in the past had a sobering effect. Bilbo mastered his mirth and turned to Mac, his face as forbidding as he could make it. ‘No, I have made it clear to Rory that I will not tolerate any one laying a harsh hand on the boy. Frodo has had just a few too many people in Buckland make free with their hands on him, and I will not allow it.’ He bristled his eyebrows at Mac, who paled a little and held up a placating hand.
‘And I didn’t! I gave his ear a twist, and gave him a cuff upside the head, but I didn’t hurt him any.’ Your definition of not hurting someone is rather interesting, Mac. Bilbo studied Mac. The fellow was much distressed by Frodo’s words. You are your father’s son to the core, Mac. You like problems you can solve with a strong back and a firm hand. Bilbo smiled a little and patted Mac on the shoulder.
‘Thank you, Mac, for telling me what mischief the lad has been into. You did well with this. And thank you for saving him from a pummeling, no matter if he deserved it. I will take this up with him after I have had some rest, and I let him know what I think of such behavior.’ And we will have a very good laugh. It was even more amusing since it sounded as if Frodo had held his own in the fight.
Mac smiled in relief. ‘Well, and now you know, so you can see to giving him what’s coming to him for being so smart.’
‘Absolutely.’ A brandy and a few stories of some of his Uncle Rory’s escapades should do the job quite handily. Someone called Mac’s name, and the Hobbit bid Bilbo good-bye, trotting off in the direction of the call. Bilbo broke into a wide grin and chuckled as soon as Mac was out of earshot. When he looked to find Frodo again, he saw that Ula had joined the boy near the bonfire, and they were talking merrily about something. The blood of the Mark clung to most of Frodo’s face in a thin film, with a darker streak in his eyebrows and along the bridge of his nose. Ah, well, perhaps I should forgive you your sulkiness earlier, Wilwarin.
Bilbo frowned a bit. It was odd, Frodo being upset over Gilda knowing given what he himself had said to Rory. But it was your promise, not the tale, that angered him, Baggins. And unless she tells him, he’ll probably not believe that you did not do this. Bilbo laughed humorlessly. Both of them will hold you at fault for something you did not do. He looked towards the thrones, and saw that Gilda was sitting alone. Ah, Mistress, your attendants have all abandoned you. Well, your beggar will come begging once more, and I think you shall be glad for my company. Who else will sit next to dying old woman when there is fun to be had? Who else will be so true to you?
He did not say anything when he arrived. He simply took his seat on the stool next to her, and leaned his elbow on the arm of her chair, chin propped on his hand. He and Gilda stared at each other for a few moments, then a smile crept into the corner of her mouth.
‘Why do you always come back?’
‘Because you will never come visit.’ He took her cold fingers in his hand.
‘You’ve suffered under my tongue longer than Rory has, love.’
Bilbo grinned mischievously. ‘Oh, I wasn’t always suffering under that tongue.’ A small blush came to her cheeks, and they both laughed. He pulled out a handkerchief and scrubbed away a small trace of blood someone had left on her chin, then gathered her fingers between his palms to warm them. They sat for a bit, watching others mill about, exchanging a few pleasantries as Hobbits stopped to say hello as they passed before the thrones.
‘Where is Rory?’
‘I’m not sure, beggar. He wandered off with Wili and Big Sara some time ago and I have not seen any of them since. Drinking the dregs of the barrels, no doubt.’
‘It will be dawn soon. Shall I find him to sober him up? Goodness knows Wili and Saradas will be of no help on that count.’
‘That would be a good idea, beggar.’ Bilbo chafed her hands again. They refused to warm. ‘You broke my heart, love.’
Bilbo wondered how she meant that, then decided it did not matter. ‘I am sorry, Gilda.’
‘I know you are, love. You didn’t mean to. Still, you dealt my pride a terrible blow. It has been a long and bitter lesson, beggar. You are the most faithful man I have ever known. I should have believed you.’
Bilbo kissed the tip of each of her fingers. ‘I would put your heart back together, my girl, if I could.’
‘I am the healer here, beggar,’ she solemnly teased him, ‘and I will take care of whatever mending needs to be done.’ She pulled a hand free of his clasp and stroked his head. After a minute, he tucked her frail hand back between his palms. They sat together silently while the stars began to fade. The crowd near the bonfire shifted, and he could see Frodo and Ula again, chatting with some of the older tweens (though, thankfully, none of the bullies were in sight), looking tired and content. A strange thought struck him.
‘Well, my girl, it would appear that Baggins men have a soft spot in their hearts for healers,’ he softly said to Gilda, tipping his head towards the pair. She gazed at the tweens for a moment, then laughed, short and harsh.
‘And it would appear that healers know how to make use of those soft, foolish hearts.’
Bilbo was confused. ‘Of course we are fools, Gilda. And our hearts are yours for you to use.’
‘You’ve been teaching him to love, beggar, and to trust. He would be better served to be shown how to be a selfish, spiteful little boy. Your hearts are too easily used.’
An unpleasant suspicion came over the old Hobbit. He remembered how Gilda had ordered Ula to interfere with Esmie’s flirting. ‘Gilda, what are you telling me?’
Gilda clenched her jaw and shook her head just a fraction. ‘I told you before, Baggins. I love my son. I do my duty to the Master and to the Hall.’
Bilbo stared up at her, understanding, and was sickened. ‘And is Ula also doing her “duty” to the Master and the Hall?’
Gilda would not look at him. ‘She is my prentice, and will do as I tell her.’
‘I suppose knowing how a bedding is done is something a midwife should know. Whom else have you sent her to?’
‘I would slap you, Baggins, save that it would hurt me far more than it would hurt you.’
‘Please, then, take a swing. I promise I will not move.’
‘It looks like someone has already beaten me to it.’ Bilbo remembered Esmie’s handprint on his cheek.
‘To kill any rumors before they happen. The boys have been seen together all evening with no bad blood between them. They each have their own woman. All the men are envious, all the women are interested. Rumors will be dismissed after this night.’
‘And all it took was whoring out one child to another.’
‘Hardly, Baggins. Ula has been eyeing him for the last week. But she is fond of the boy and I warned her to take no liberties. Their virtue is intact.’ Gilda gave him an imperious stare. ‘Is it such a terrible thing, beggar? I simply made sure that he enjoyed himself with a pretty girl. He has done worse, and has had worse done to him. She likes him and will be careful of him. Where is the harm? The good should be obvious even to you.’
‘Frodo is not an animal to be mated as you please, Mistress. What if he finds this out, that you and Ula made a spectacle of him so that Sara can pretend to have some virtue?’
‘This is for Frodo’s sake as much as for Sara’s, Baggins. I have held my rascal dear for longer than you have.’
‘You should have left me ignorant of this, Gilda.’
‘You should have made plans for this yourself.’
‘This is wrong, Mistress, for both of those children.’
‘This is Hall business, Baggins.’
‘And we cannot let any shame come upon the Hall. Have you any Hall business for me, Mistress?’
‘Find Rory and make sure he can stand up straight by sunrise.’ For the second time in one night, Bilbo bowed and set out to do the Mistress’ bidding. He knew the practical sense in her decision, but Bilbo was furious at how Gilda had manipulated Frodo’s affections and desires. I should have left the night I knew Rory had ordered you out, Wilwarin. I may have broken your heart, Gilda, but I did not plan it as you have planned this.
Bilbo searched the crowd, then the fires, then the tables for Rory. When he did not find his cousin, he set out towards the meadow. Rory would not be one to visit the woods, even if Gilda would permit it. He soon found Rory sitting on the back of a wagon, singing a bawdy song with Wili, Saradas, and Rufus. They were all very drunk and very happy.
‘Look, it’s big brother Bilbo come to scold us for drinking!’ Saradas chortled.
‘Gilda sent you, didn’t she?’ Rory asked.
‘Or did Prisca?’ Wili added, leaning against the wagon.
‘Now that I have finished making love to all your wives – and Prisca twice, Wili – I would appreciate you getting your worthless carcasses back to the celebration. I am quite exhausted with doing your duty for you all,’ Bilbo dead-panned. The others roared with laughter, and Rufus managed to fall down. ‘Gilda sent me to sober the lord and master up before sunrise.’ Bilbo pulled himself up onto the back of the wagon and took a seat next to Rory.
‘Does that mean we have to leave?’ Rufus whined, clambering back to his feet.
‘If you wish to be sobered up, you may stay. Otherwise, go clean up the rest of the ale before the children do.’ The other Hobbits laughed uproariously and staggered off, arms around each others’ necks. ‘Why don’t you go find a fire and try to jump it?’ Bilbo called after them.
‘Don’t encourage them, brother! They’ll do just that,’ Rory laughed. Bilbo surveyed the damage. The crown was askew, one of the horns had partly broken off and the other was bent beyond recognition. Rory’s hair poked out wildly, and his Mark was lopsidedly smeared across his forehead and over one side of his face. Bilbo sighed and set to work making his troublesome little cousin presentable.
‘Rory, I swear, you are as grubby as your grandson sometimes,’ Bilbo grumbled. The crown came off, and the horns were removed. Spit and his handkerchief removed the worst of the Mark, while more spit and a thumb smeared what was left in a less garish manner. Rory sat through it all unresisting. Bilbo began combing out Rory’s tousled hair with his fingers and Rory closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against Bilbo’s shoulder.
‘Rory, you are getting the Mark all over my coat and my shirt, you idiot,’ Bilbo grumbled good-naturedly. Rory just laughed into his shoulder and snuggled up closer. ‘I should make you trot around the wagons, you know.’
‘You’re mean, brother,’ Rory mumbled into Bilbo’s shoulder. ‘Why aren’t you drunk?’
‘Because someone had to take care of Gilda and keep an eye on things, my dear.’
‘You are such a good big brother, Bilbo,’ Rory replied and gave Bilbo a hug, then sat up and stared owlishly at his own fingers, ticking things off. ‘You taught me my letters. You taught me my figures. You tried to teach me Elf talk, but that was stupid. You taught me how to ride a horse, and how to think…’
‘Failed effort, that one.’
‘…and how to think, and how to steal apples, and how to kiss, and how to fu…’
‘Yes, yes, all of that,’ Bilbo put a hand over Rory’s mouth, laughing. ‘Too bad I never could teach you how to keep your mouth shut!’
Rory shook Bilbo’s hand off. ‘I’ve been a bad brother to you, Bilbo.’
Bilbo hoped Rory was not going to become melancholy. ‘No, Rory, you’re a good brother.’
‘No, I’m a bad brother. I haven’t taken care of your son properly. I should have sent him to you sooner. And I took your girl.’
‘Rory, what are you babbling about now? You’re drunk. Come on, we should walk.’ Bilbo tried to get Rory to move, but the other mulishly shook his head and refused to budge.
‘I took Gilda away from you.’
‘No, you did not. Gilda never was mine. She has always belonged to herself.’
‘But she loved you! Still does,’ Rory said conspiratorially. Bilbo sighed.
‘Shut up, Rory. You’re drunk.’
‘But I’m right! She loves you. More than she loves me.’
‘But she married you, Rory, not me. Now shut up.’
‘Why didn’t she marry you? She should have married you. She loves you!’
‘She loves you too, you fool! I am a perverse and corrupted creature, Rory. That’s why she didn’t marry me. You know that! Be quiet!’
‘Why did you have to be like that?’ Rory demanded. ‘You could have married Gilda.’
‘You could have married her, and then no adventures, and no dragons or Elves, no changes…’
‘Button your lip, Brandybuck!’
‘…there wouldn’t have been any troubles to come back with you. And you would have married Gilda! And…’
Bilbo leaned over and kissed Rory to make him be quiet. He was not much surprised when Rory kissed him back. It was a long and tender kiss, with no desire in it, only love. Bilbo pulled his dear cousin closer and held him safe. He understood, somehow, all of the confessions and apologies that kiss contained, and he accepted them all, along with the kiss. When Rory had finished, they stayed in their embrace, foreheads touching, taking comfort from the feel of cheek and breath, from each other’s familiar scent.
When they finally pulled apart, Rory laughed. His Mark, damp from where Bilbo had scrubbed at it, had smeared Bilbo’s forehead.
‘Oh, cousin,’ Rory said in mock horror, ‘what will people think? We have Marked each other all up!’
Bilbo snorted. ‘They all know that I am perverse and that you are an idiot, so no one will as much as raise an eyebrow!’ Rory laughed, then took Bilbo’s face in his hands.
‘But I have not been a good brother to you these last few days, Bilbo.’
‘Perhaps, Rory, but the times have been trying. And you have always been a very trying little brother!’ Bilbo gave Rory another light kiss. ‘Now, would you like hear what the rest of our cousins have been up to? I have been having many interesting conversations all evening. Did you know cousin Odogar is here?’
‘Really? I just thought I was so drunk I was seeing things!’ They both laughed.
‘Come on, let’s walk. It’s too cold to stay still. I’ll tell you all that the Burrowses, the Bolgers, and the Tooks are meddling in.’ Bilbo looped the crown over his wrist, and the two set off on a slow circuit of the meadow. The light was the grey of early dawn, and Bilbo could make out more than the bright light of the fires. Some Hobbits were near the fire tower with rakes, pulling it down and spreading it out to cool.
‘Rufus did not have much to say. I told him of the root harvest problem in Eastfarthing, and of the shenanigans that Pal and Odogar had been getting up to. He was not very surprised by Odogar, and rather pleased at the idea of being able to sell off Northfarthing’s excess at Odogar’s expense. He is happy enough to support you in keeping strong relations below the Road.’
‘Well, he had better, seeing as how he’s married to my sister!’ Rory grumbled.
‘Don’t get too carried away by that argument, Rory. That’s what Gis was saying about why you need to support Rum, since you’re half Took.’ Rory made a rude noise to that suggestion.
‘What Rufus had to say that made me curious was his sense of something not quite right in the water. I told him to talk to you about it.’
‘He said no word to me.’
‘Probably too many people about. Corner him before he goes. There’s some things afoot up in Northfarthing that you should know of. Nothing definite, but enough small things that Rufus is a bit spooked. The Grey Riders may even have been seen up there.’ Bilbo let Rory chew on that information for a time.
‘Gis is not happy with things changing.’
‘Can’t say as I blame him.’
‘He thinks the Tooks, Brandybucks, and Bagginses need to keep a good eye on the Road.’
‘Can’t say as I disagree with him.’
‘He thinks Pal is a disaster and we need to put more support behind Rum.’
Rory did not answer. Bilbo let it be.
‘Odogar is going to be a problem.’ Rory made a questioning noise. ‘He is all for changing everything into gold.’
‘What does he want to do?’
‘He wants to carve another Farthing out of the heart of the Shire and have me run it.’
‘What!?’ Rory jerked up short and stared, incredulous, at Bilbo, who smiled grimly.
‘He is rather jealous of Tooks and Brandybucks. Chubbs, too, as far as I can tell. He wishes to control all trade in the Shire. He thinks I will help him set up a new farthing, then oblige him by dying so he can use cousin Otho to run it.’ Rory stood there, gaping. Bilbo chuckled and got them walking again. ‘I told him we should attempt this plan at the Free Fair.’
‘You are going to help him?’
‘Of course not! I will spend the time in between now and then ensuring that it will never happen. We shall outfox him as neatly on this as we did on the root crop.’ Rory made a thoughtful sound. They walked on in silence for a time.
‘Odogar may be a greedy fool, but that does not necessarily mean he is wrong.’
‘What do you mean, Rory?’
‘If you can’t be Mayor, maybe you should head a Farthing.’
‘You’re still drunk, Rory.’
‘No, I’m sober now. Perhaps we should…’
‘No. There are some things that should not be done, Rory. Cutting up the Shire is one of them. It will pit Hobbits against each other at the worst possible time.’
‘But it would put the best possible Hobbit in charge.’
‘I take care of the Shire in my own way, Rory. I do not need to be a headman or a Master, or even a Mayor, to do what needs be done. Besides, the purpose of carving up the Shire is to weaken the southern families. If Dalin is right, the last thing we should be doing right now is disrupting things to the south.’
‘Perhaps you could take over the Eastfarthing, then.’
‘I will continue to do as I have always done, brother, and you should make sure that Odovacar and Rosamunda are frequent guests at the Hall. You should see that their children spend a good amount of time here, too.’
‘Hmm.’ They were making their third circuit of the meadow now, and it was clearly dawn. Bilbo figured sunrise would be within the next hour. He stopped Rory and made one last attempt at neatening the Master up for the close of Wintermark. He finally gave up and set the crown back on Rory’s head.
‘By the way, brother, whose hand are you wearing?’
Bilbo smirked. ‘Esmie’s.’
‘Because you propositioned her or because you didn’t?’
‘Because I offered to pay her handsomely.’ They both laughed, then Bilbo asked, ‘Did you really tell her and Sara to produce another child this year?’
Rory scowled, ‘Yes! They can busy themselves with that. Another grandchild would make Gilda happy, and then Mac and Dilly’s baby will have a cousin nearly the same age. With luck, they’ll get one immediately.’
Bilbo considered telling Rory of Gilda’s plans. Baggins, that is Hall business, and for the Mistress to say or not. He rather doubted Esmie would conceive soon in any event. ‘Rory, you should talk to Gilda and both of you keep an eye on that Took daughter-in-law of yours. She is more than a little angry with her husband. An angry wife can get some odd ideas of how to punish a husband.’ Rory nodded understanding.
‘Dawn’s close, Baggins. We should go.’ The two made their way back towards the central gathering.
The light was strong now, and the eastern sky full of color. The Old Forest was a heavy dark line. Wili and Saradas waved a reasonably steady hello from near the bonfire. Ula was back at her post near Gilda, and Sara, Mac, and Esmie were also standing near the Mistress. Women were gathering up small pots, crocks, and kettles from various places, and the men stood in scattered groups, talking. Some had almost undisturbed Marks on their foreheads. Most had some dried drip lines under their eyes and along their noses, trailing down to the corners of their mouths. A few were like Frodo, their entire faces streaked and filmed with dried blood. His lad stood with Gorbulas’s twins near the remains of the bonfire. Bilbo bade Rory good-bye and went to join Frodo.
‘Merry Yule, my lads!’
‘Merry Yule, Uncle Bilbo,’ the three chorused back. If Frodo was not exactly happy to see him, at least his eyes were open and he was not scowling. Bilbo took this as a good sign, and did not press the lad for more.
Down in the meadow, he could see Tunnelly and his son moving among the teams, getting them ready to haul wagons home. Women began gathering in a line near the spread out coals of the fire tower. Soon Rory strode up. Sara and Mac followed with Gilda in their arms, and Esmie close behind, carrying two small kettles. Saradas was already there, a rake and a sturdy trowel in hand. All gathered near the remains of the fire and fell silent, facing east. The boys let Gilda down out of their arms and helped her stand. The sky grew brighter, then Rory spoke.
‘Mistress Sun, are you returning? We have held vigil through the dark and the cold. See how we have labored through the night to remove the Winter’s Mark! We have tended your daughters through this long night. They have eaten the meat we roasted over the night fires. We have courted them and bred them, placing the Delver’s fire of life within them. Gaze upon us once more as we give them your fire for their hearths. Keep your promise to us, and shine upon us, Mistress Sun. Say you have returned!’
A few slow minutes passed, and then the rays of the rising sun danced above the Old Forest. All of the Hobbits cheered the sun’s return, and the gathering became festive once more. Rory took the trowel from Saradas and began to dig in the coals. Mac helped his mother forward, supporting her arm holding one of Esmie’s kettles. Rory scooped some coals into the kettle. Before Mac helped his mother away, Rory kissed Gilda to the general cheers of the crowd. She said something to him that made them both laugh, and he twined a lock of her silver hair around in his fingers, then kissed her again. As Mac helped her to one side, Sara and Esmie approached. Rory placed coals in her kettle, and kissed her cheek.
For the next hour, women brought containers to Rory, their men at their side and sometimes with sons trailing. A younger woman might have a sweetheart with her or, like Ula, walk up by herself. Rory would give each woman coals from the Sun-return logs and bestowed a Yule kiss on her cheek. Saradas raked new coals closer as needed. After the Wintermark celebrants had gone, Bilbo knew that people from around Buckland would arrive to gather a small pot of Sun-return coals. There were still great chunks of the huge logs, and coals would be collected for the next few days.
Soon, all had collected coals. Wagons pulled out of the meadow and onto the lane, Hobbits calling out Yule greetings as they headed north and south. Last to leave were the Hall folk, led by the Rushey Punches pulling the Master’s wagon. Rory drove them back, Gilda beside him. Bilbo and Frodo clambered onto the back of Saradas’s wagon along with Rufus, Wili and Prisca. Seredic sat next to his father. Bargo, Milo, and Peony were also there, Bargo steadfastly ignoring Frodo, while Milo and Peony cuddled and kissed. Prisca finally smacked them both and told them to mind their manners, so Wili and Bilbo insisted on giving Prisca alternating kisses on the cheek until she smacked them, too.
As the wagons drew close to the Hall, Bilbo could make out a bright scarlet patch near the main Hall door. It soon resolved itself into Dalin, hands resting on the haft of his great axe. This elicited some excited whispering among the Hobbits. Bilbo and Frodo grinned at each other and jumped out of the wagon to go see the Dwarf. They arrived just as Rory and Gilda did.
‘Master Steelhand, I have returned. Have you guarded my smial and kept my kinfolk safe?’
‘Aye, Master of Buckland. I strode the halls of your caverns during the day and evening, securing all ways. I have stood sentinel at this door through the night to ward off all evils.’
‘The blessings of Yule upon thee and thine for thy gracious service to my kind and kin. I release you from this service and bid you be guest again in my smial.’
Dalin raised his axe in both hands and touched his forehead to the haft, set his axe on his shoulder, stepped to the side, and opened the large main door. ‘Welcome home, Master and Mistress!’ The Dwarf bowed so deeply that his beard brushed his knees and the head of his axe came close to Rory’s face. Rory did not flinch, but inclined his head and walked in.
Bilbo sauntered up and stopped next to Dalin, who had straightened from his bow.
‘Mister Baggins! How are you this fine winter morning?’
‘Quite well, Dalin! Did you truly stand guard outside this door all night?’ Hobbits were filing past them into the Hall, throwing nervous looks at the axe over Dalin’s shoulder. Bilbo was willing to wager that Dalin knew exactly how fearsome he appeared.
‘That I did, Mister Baggins.’
‘You must be exhausted!’
‘ ‘Tis nothing,’ the Dwarf assured him. ‘I am used to such sentry duties outside King Dáin’s council doors. Tell me, Mister Baggins, are there to be any more celebrations?’
‘Oh yes!’ interjected Frodo. Bilbo let the boy speak. ‘Most will sleep this morning and early afternoon. In the early evening, there is a Yule feast in the Great Hall, with much singing and fun. Then we exchange gifts afterwards.’ Frodo’s face fell a little as the lad realized that Dalin probably had no gifts to give, nor would there be any for him to receive. The Dwarf did not appear perturbed by the prospect.
‘Then I shall take my rest this morning as well, Master Baggins.’
After all the others had passed in, Bilbo, Frodo, and Dalin walked back to their own rooms. Bilbo was very grateful for the ewer of hot water that waited for them outside their door. His face was itching abominably from the goat blood, and his hands stank of old food and spilled ale. He and Frodo shed their coats and waistcoats, scrubbed their faces and hands, then picked up their robes and headed for the baths. They left the basin of bloody water in the passageway for the kitchen lads to collect.
They were late arrivals. The bathing room was full of boisterous Hobbits in various states of undress and washing up. A few huge wicker baskets had been set near the door to collect the dirty, stained clothes, and there were no more empty pegs for robes. Bilbo dropped his near the wall and Frodo followed suit. Though all had washed the worst of the blood off of their faces, it still clung to hair and skin in places, and was becoming damp in the hot, steam-filled room. The air smelled of blood, sweat, and seed.
‘Baggins!’ he heard Rory call out and he craned his neck to see his cousin. He waved when he caught sight. ‘Join us when you’ve washed your feet!’ Bilbo signaled he would. He quickly began shedding his grimy clothes. After he tossed them in the basket, Bilbo turned to find Frodo and froze. The lad had removed his own shirt and was stepping out of his pants. There were savage bruises across his back, and more along his ribs.
No wonder the child moves so stiffly. He looks like a horse trampled him! Mac said he hadn’t been badly hurt. Bilbo stared in consternation. Frodo looked up at the sound of his own name, and Odogrim and Hamson approached.
‘Frodo? Are you all right?’ Odogrim asked in a worried voice, looking his younger cousin over in dismay. Bilbo did not see any marks upon them. Frodo looked down his nose at them in disgust.
‘Obviously not. Proud of yourselves?’ the boy snapped. The other two looked ashamed and shook their heads.
‘I didn’t think we hit you that bad,’ Hamson mumbled, clearly trying not to be overheard.
‘No, Hamson,’ Frodo scornfully replied, ‘you do not think at all. That is your problem.’ The boy glared at the two until they made a hasty retreat. No, they did not think. But they also did not hit you, not this badly. Mac would not have made that large a mistake in reporting how the fight had gone. Bilbo started to draw conclusions he did not like. We will talk later, Wilwarin. He and Frodo scrubbed off their feet in the stone trough, then set out to find Rory.
Rory was sitting in a very hot tub of water with Saradas, Gorbulas, and Wili. There was just enough room for Bilbo and Frodo to slide in. The water was very hot and felt perfect to Bilbo’s weary limbs. He let out a great groan of satisfaction.
‘I think you’re supposed to have a lady nearby if you’re going to make sounds like that, Baggins,’ Saradas teased him. Bilbo grinned and made a rude gesture in his cousin’s direction.
‘Who pounded you so good, rascal?’ Gorbulas asked Frodo.
‘I got in a fight with Bargo and a few others,’ Frodo nonchalantly replied.
‘A few others? Looks like you had half of Wintermark jumping on you,’ Wili noted.
‘No, Uncle Wili, just two others,’ Frodo said, ‘but they were big.’
‘How did you manage to get your cousin mad enough at you to earn that?’ Rory inquired, looking both amused and annoyed.
‘Kissing a girl the other fellow fancied, right?’ Saradas grinned. Frodo smirked and shrugged.
Bilbo cleared his throat and fixed Frodo with a stern eye. ‘I had a little chat with Mac, young man, about this fight.’ Frodo’s face reddened. ‘We will talk about this later.’ Frodo nodded, then ducked under the water. ‘Kissed the girl and smarted-off at Bargo, too,’ Bilbo cheerfully informed the others while Frodo was submerged. The others all laughed. The lad was subdued after he surfaced, and remained that way through the rest of the soak.
Rory tossed Bilbo a wash cloth, and he set to work removing the last bits of blood from Frodo’s face and neck. Rory scooted close and Bilbo repeated the process, then Wili was leaning in and Bilbo slapped him with the cloth. ‘What, am I the nursemaid, here?’
‘You’re the oldest,’ Gorbulas said reasonably. Bilbo grumbled, but scrubbed them all. Rory cleaned him up. Afterwards, they sat and enjoyed the warmth of the water. By the time the water cooled, all were yawning. Bilbo looked around for Sara. Mac was in the opposite tub with Seredic, Bard, Fred, and Odovacar, but Sara was nowhere to be seen. They all clambered out of the cooling tub, heading for dry robes and soft beds. Bilbo walked behind Frodo as they went to retrieve their robes and took note of every mark on his boy’s back. There were more than a few stares at the bruises. And more than a few hard looks at Bilbo afterwards. He ignored them.
They arrived back at their room, and Bilbo lit two candles to augment the lamp near the door. He walked to the wardrobe and pulled out Frodo’s nightshirt, holding his hand out for the boy’s robe. When Frodo handed it over, Bilbo crossed his arms and leaned against the wardrobe. Frodo held out his hand, then pulled his hand back when Bilbo did not hand over the garment. The boy crossed his arms over his chest and tried to look unconcerned.
‘I want the truth, Wilwarin.’ Frodo stared back. ‘Who beat you up? And do not say Bargo or those other two. I spoke with Mac, and he said they had not done you any damage.’
‘After the other fight.’ Bilbo waited for more information. None was forthcoming. Frodo held his hand out again and Bilbo tossed him the nightshirt. Frodo slipped it on.
‘Why did it happen?’
‘Because you told Gammer.’
‘And you told Rory. Sara would have been confronted by one or the other of them eventually. Do you really think Rory and Gilda do not speak together of Hall matters?’ Bilbo did not care to argue the point that he had not spoken to Gilda. That could wait for another time, when Gilda was present to confirm his account. ‘When after the other fight?’
‘Sara was there with Mac, and so was Tom Tunnelly. He was the one who saw Bargo following me and warned Mac. We were in the woods. Mac went off with Tom right away because he had to talk to Mister Tunnelly, which left me with Sara. Sara beat me up.’
Which explains why Mac did not know. Bilbo wished he had drawn Sara off during the night. You failed again, Baggins. You turned your back and he marked your child again. With hundreds of people around, he did this. ‘So he beat you up for telling on him.’
Frodo looked down at the floor, clenching and unclenching his jaw, then shook his head. ‘No. What he wanted me to do was service him for having told on him. I refused, so he tried to force me. When I fought back, he beat me.’ Frodo’s face twisted into a half-smile. ‘Do you see now why I chose to service him rather than be beaten?’
Fury built slowly, powerfully. Bilbo turned his back to Frodo and leaned his forehead against the wardrobe. His visions from earlier came back, of taking Sara in his hands and tearing flesh, breaking bone, kicking, gouging, pounding, thrusting into the other’s form and rending it.
‘Bilbo! Bilbo, stop it! Please, don’t do that, stop it!’ Wilwarin’s voice cut through his desire, and Bilbo felt the boy’s arms around him. His right hand was bleeding and the door to the wardrobe was fractured. Frodo had an arm across his chest and another around his back, pinning his left arm to his side. The lad looked terrified. ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. Please don’t. Don’t hit anything.’ Frodo stroked his chest, trying to appease him. ‘Please, Bilbo, don’t be angry. I didn’t mean to upset you,’ the boy spoke soothingly, pressing closer against him.
He did not think the child had any clear idea that he was being seductive, only that this was how you calmed an angry man. It was not deliberate, as it had been at Harvest, which made the effect greater for lacking calculation. Bilbo had always known that anger and desire were far too close for his own liking. There was that need in each, in heart and bone, to let passion spill over and spend itself, leaving quiet and calm behind. His own fury wanted release, and Bilbo knew with frightening certainty that Frodo willingly would do whatever he demanded in order to placate that fury. Better submission than another beating. He fixed his coldest, most intimidating stare on the lad until Frodo backed away. When the child was out of immediate danger, he could breathe again.
Bilbo wanted to soothe his boy in return, reassure him that he had not caused the anger, but he did not dare. Bilbo swallowed and turned to lean his back against the cracked wardrobe, examining the cuts on his hand. They were slight enough, though he would ache later. Time to teach a lesson. He looked at Wilwarin with a mocking gaze.
‘What do you think you are doing?’
‘Making you stop hitting the wardrobe. You hurt yourself!’
‘Batting your eyes at me and running your hands over me?’
Frodo looked at him in astonishment, then flushed as red as a beet. ‘I am not…’
‘Yes, you are. Did you think to trick me into breaking my word?’
‘I am not!’ Frodo yelled at him, shaking.
‘If you aren’t, I cannot tell the difference. What might work on Sara does not work on me. I do not care to be serviced by you. Ever.’
Frodo hugged his arms across his chest and backed further away. ‘I’m not.’
Bilbo looked at him a few moments longer, then snorted. ‘Very well, then. You’re not.’ The boy glared. ‘I believe you, that you intended no such thing. Others might not. They might accept the invitation.’ The rage was passing, and Bilbo allowed himself to slump a little, rubbing his face in his hands. ‘Go to bed, Wilwarin. Get some sleep. Both of us are too tired to think straight.’ He stayed where he was until Frodo got into bed. Bilbo changed into his own night shirt, snuffed the candles, and joined him.
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