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On Merry Yule: 17. On Merry Yule
Mid-afternoon, Yule Day, Afteryule
Bilbo was awakened by the sound of a light tapping on the door. Frodo was curled up against his back, as usual, with an arm tucked around him. Bilbo carefully slid out from under the boy’s arm so as not to wake him, and padded his way through the dark to the door. Dahlia stood outside the door with a small cart loaded with lanterns, trays and ewers of hot water.
‘Yule blessings on thee and thine, Mister Baggins,’ she greeted him with a warm smile.
‘And blessings upon thee and thine in return, Mistress Dahlia,’ he smiled back. He exchanged the burned-out lantern near the door for a fresh one, traded a cold ewer for a hot one (plus a few clean towels), and finally collected the tray with their meal. He could hear the squeak and clank of other carts and carriers in the corridors, providing food and wash-water to the Wintermark revelers as they woke.
‘The feast is in two hours, Mister Baggins,’ she informed him softly.
‘Dahlia, please be sure that someone informs Mister Dalin,’ she looked at him quizzically, ‘I mean, Mister Steelhand,’ she smiled and nodded, ‘when the feast will be so he has time to prepare.’
‘I’ll see to it myself, Mister Baggins,’ she assured him with a wink and a grin. Dalin, you have cast a spell as powerful as Smaug’s upon the ladies of the Hall, Bilbo chuckled to himself.
Frodo had rolled onto Bilbo’s side of the bed and was sleeping peacefully. Where his nightshirt had been dampened by sweat, it stuck to him, and Bilbo could see the shadows of the bruises through the light fabric. He cleared off the small table and set out the light meal. The pot of tea was warm, but the rest was a simple tray of sweet and plain breads, some mild cheese, butter, preserves, and some fresh herbs to soothe sour stomachs and pounding heads. The feast in a few hours would be lavish.
After he lit some candles, Bilbo surveyed the damage to the wardrobe. The left hand door no longer closed. Cracks ran the length, top to bottom. His fist had gone through the panel about two-thirds of the way up. Part of the top wooden hinge had cracked away. The frame at the top gaped away from the boards. Bilbo rubbed his hand and looked at the cuts and scratches on it. Damn lucky you didn’t break any bones, Baggins. Broken or not, it ached. So would Frodo’s back and sides. He decided he needed to examine the injuries. He hoped he would not have to call for Gilda.
Bilbo gathered up the hot water and the fresh towels and took them to the bed side. The boy still slept but was breathing differently, on the edge of wakefulness. He sat next to his lad and gently stroked Frodo’s hair. The tween did not quite wake, but his head moved towards the tender touch.
‘Wilwarin. Wilwarin, lad, it is time to wake up,’ Bilbo said, brushing his hand over Frodo’s forehead. Soon, eyes fluttered open, and Bilbo earned a sleepy smile. Frodo tried to stretch and hissed in pain.
‘Sore. Stiff.’ Frodo tried to sit up, and grimaced at the effort.
‘Well, I wish there were time for you to go and soak in the baths again. That would be the best for loosening up the muscles,’ Bilbo said with a frown. ‘I know, I can put a hot compress on your back. Not the best, but better than nothing.’
‘If it will help, I’ll try it.’
‘Take off your night shirt and lie on your stomach,’ Bilbo directed, then retrieved the washing basin. Soon, he had one of the towels thoroughly damp with hot water. Before he placed it on Frodo’s back, he took a good look.
Frodo’s right side was more heavily bruised than the left. There were very dark marks along his ribs, where Sara had probably kicked him. Bruises clustered over his right shoulder blade, and another mass of them showed up on his lower left back, as though Frodo had rolled away at one point. Individual bruises were scattered over the rest of his back and shoulders. Bilbo picked up the hot towel.
‘This will probably be uncomfortable at first, Wilwarin.’ Frodo hissed again and squirmed as the hot cloth touched his skin. Bilbo drew the sheet up over the boy’s back to keep the warmth in, and sat on the edge of the bed. Time to get the entire story, Baggins.
‘I am sorry, child, for having frightened you earlier. You know how angry it makes me to think you have been harmed. I was very tired and more than a little drunk. I did not quite know what I was doing.’
Frodo nodded against the pillow, then asked, ‘Does it look that bad?’
‘It looks like a wagon ran over you, Frodo. It must hurt terribly.’
‘It does. But the towel feels good.’
‘I do not wish to call anyone else in, Wilwarin, but I am very concerned. Did you get hit in the belly, or low on your back, over your kidneys?’
‘No. I stayed rolled up so Sara couldn’t hit me in the gut or the face. I tried to keep rolling away so he would only hit my shoulders.’
Bilbo sighed and fought down his anger. If there was only the bruising, then there was no cure for it except soaking and rest. He reached out and began stroking Frodo’s hair again. The boy tensed for a moment, then closed his eyes and relaxed. When the towel cooled, Bilbo wrung out the tepid water, doused it with more hot water, and replaced it.
‘You said he tried to make you service him again.’ Frodo tensed back up, nodded. Bilbo stroked his hair until he relaxed a little. ‘And you refused him.’ Another nod. ‘I’m glad you did. I’m very proud of you for that, Wilwarin. That took courage.’ The lad smiled a little. ‘When he tried to force you, what did he do?’ Frodo shook his head and buried his face in the pillow. ‘Please tell me.’
‘I don’t want you angry again,’ was Frodo’s muffled reply.
‘I told you, Frodo, that I was exhausted and not myself earlier. I am angry now. But I am not going to storm about or break anything or shout. I promise. I need to know what Sara has done.’
Frodo kept his face buried in the pillow for a while longer, then turned his head towards Bilbo. ‘He said I owed him for having shamed him in front of Gammer and Esmie.’ He shamed himself, child. ‘He said I needed to make it up to him. I said I wouldn’t. He had me shoved up against a tree, and then he grabbed me between the legs and he tried to push his tongue in my mouth and I started fighting him and then he beat me.’
Bilbo had to concentrate on keeping his anger under control. He wanted to go destroy the remainder of the wardrobe door. Perhaps Dalin can take me out to chop a few things up. In his imagination, the Goblin army turned into an army of Saras, and grim Dwarf axe-men hewed them down in rows. He forbade himself to think of chopping up Sara. He made his hands unclench, resumed his slow strokes of the boy’s hair. Slowly, they both relaxed again.
When the towel cooled, Bilbo took it away and told Frodo to put his nightshirt back on. He crossed his arms and fixed Frodo with a stern eye. The boy crossed his own arms and stared back.
‘There does remain the matter of fighting with your cousin Bargo,’ Bilbo said. Frodo turned a little red but did not look away. ‘Mac said you had said something rude to your cousin, and he felt that you rather deserved a pounding.’
‘That’s what Ula said, too,’ Frodo innocently replied, obviously seeing something sympathetic in Bilbo’s face.
‘Please repeat what it was you said to your cousin, Frodo.’
‘I told him that I hated to tell him, but that I liked his sister better than I liked him because she tasted better than he did,’ Frodo said in a tone anyone but Bilbo might have taken for earnest.
Bilbo tried very hard to keep a straight face, but it was a futile effort. It felt so good to laugh. Frodo was smirking.
‘And then I said,’ Frodo continued in the same mock innocence, ‘that Bluebell agreed I tasted better than him, too.’
Bilbo laughed until tears came from his eyes. ‘Wilwarin! You brat! You said this to his face?’ Frodo grinned and nodded. Bilbo shook a finger at the boy as he got his mirth under control. ‘Well, Ula and Mac are right – you did deserve to have Bargo give you a good thrashing! That was a very wicked thing to say.’
‘Then why are you laughing?’
‘Because it was also a very funny thing. Do not let me catch you saying such a thing again,’ Bilbo said in a sharp voice, then he grinned. ‘And you had best be very sure Bargo does not catch you after saying such a thing!’ The two giggled, and Bilbo said it was time to get ready for the evening.
The boy moved more easily now. Bilbo made him get out of bed and stretch, then eat some of the food Dahlia had brought. Frodo inhaled most of it, even though Bilbo teased him about ruining his appetite for the feast. Frodo grinned and shrugged, munching down a slice of sweet bread and butter.
The feast was probably an hour away, and it was time to get ready. Frodo stared at the broken door on the wardrobe before he opened the right-hand side and began pulling out clothes, laying them on the bed. The water was no longer hot, but it was warm enough to be comfortable for washing hands and face. While Frodo was slipping on his pants and pulling on his best shirt, Bilbo began to rummage in his own travel trunk.
‘Yes, Uncle Bilbo?’
Bilbo paused, wondering if this was such a good idea. ‘Lad, I have your Yule gift here, and I would like to give it to you now, if you do not mind.’
Frodo gave him a bemused smile. ‘If you insist, of course, you may give it me. You may give it whenever you wish.’
‘Close you eyes!’ Frodo shook his head and chuckled, but did as he was told. Bilbo took the gift, wrapped in its tissue paper, and laid it on the bed, pulling the paper aside. ‘All right, you may open your eyes!’
It took Frodo a moment to see the new object on the bed. He leaned over it, touched it gingerly, then looked at Bilbo. ‘It’s a waistcoat.’ Bilbo nodded. Frodo examined it some more. ‘It isn’t new made, so it belonged to someone else?’
‘Yes, it did. My mother made it as a Yule gift.’ Frodo grinned at him.
‘Is it yours?’
‘No. Mother made it for your father, for Drogo, for his twenty-first Yule. I found it about a month ago when I was cleaning out an old wardrobe, and thought you might want it.’
‘Yes, of course I want it!’ Frodo’s smile was gone and his eyes searched the waistcoat intently, hungrily, searching it for some sign. After a minute, Frodo pointed to the lining at the neck. ‘That’s your mother’s sewing mark, isn’t it, Uncle Bilbo?’
Bilbo approached, looked and smiled. ‘Yes, you’re right. Can you puzzle it out?’
‘This is simple. It’s a dragonfly. The leading edge of the wings and the body make a “T” for Took, then there are two sets of wings to make “Bs” for Belladonna and Baggins.’ Frodo looked up with a smile. ‘Right?’
‘Precisely!’ Bilbo hesitated a bit. ‘I figured that you would want to have it, but you need not wear it if you do not think that it is very nice, or if it is too worn, or…’
‘Of course I’m wearing it!’ Frodo said, indignantly, and began putting it on. Bilbo helped him and fussed.
‘Oh, I hope it fits! Yes, there, just right. You know, your father wore this into his thirties. He never was very filled out as a tween,’ Bilbo nattered away, ‘and he only wore it at celebrations and at Yule. Every Yule here in Brandy Hall, he would wear his green waistcoat and Rory would wear his yellow one – for Mother made one for Rory too – and you could always pick them out!’ Made it very easy to see where those two were when they got into trouble. Bilbo smiled at one small ink stain on the shoulder, remembering a certain surreptitious trip into Uncle Gorbadoc’s study.
‘Why were you celebrating Yule in Brandy Hall?’
The question brought Bilbo up short. ‘Well, this is where we were.’
‘But you’re Bagginses. Why weren’t you at Bag End? Sometimes it sounds as if you grew up here.’
‘In a way, I guess I did. Your father even more so. He was only five when we came here, and he lived here until he was twenty or so. I was already twenty-two when I arrived and spent my tweens here.’ Frodo looked even more confused.
‘This has never made any sense to me, Uncle Bilbo. I understand why I would be here. My mother is a Brandybuck. Shouldn’t you and my father have grown up in Hobbiton?’
Bilbo began to pick a bit at Frodo’s shirt, not quite sure what to say. ‘Well, yes, of course, that would make sense, but not much made sense back then. It was the Fell Winter, you see.’ Frodo wrinkled his brow and shook his head. Bilbo tried again. ‘So many things happened during and after the Winter, and things were never quite right.’ It was easier to fuss with Frodo’s shirt sleeves, getting them to drape just right, than to look at the lad.
‘It was the Winter, and things were bad. There were wolves, and it was very cold, and things ran short. People were sick. Uncle Fosco, your grandfather, he brought Aunt Ruby and your father and cousin Dora to be with us in Bag End, for we had room and Mother was a healer and midwife, and your grandmother was carrying your Uncle Dudo. Mother was going to have a child too, so it made sense for the women to be together.’ Bilbo paid very close attention to how the neck of the waistcoat sat against the collar of the shirt. Frodo stood completely still, not resisting the fussing.
‘So they were there, and then my sister, Berra, died…’
‘What? You had a sister?’ Frodo looked at him in astonishment. Bilbo swallowed and tried to smile.
‘Actually, I had two sisters, Berra and Danna, and they both died that winter.’ Frodo faced straight ahead again, and Bilbo went back to fussing. ‘And my brother, Bilbar, was stillborn. Mother almost died, too. Your grandmother did die, but your Uncle Dudo lived and Mother nursed him in place of Bilbar.’ It was so cold, Wilwarin, and the ground was so hard. We couldn’t bury them deep enough from the wolves, so they stayed in the cellars. ‘And when spring finally came, Uncle Fosco took Dudo and Dora back home with him, but Drogo stayed with us because three were too much for him to care for. Your father became my little brother.’ The waistcoat was perfect now, and fit Frodo reasonably well, if a bit loose. It had been loose on Drogo, too, and the lad would grow into it.
‘Mother was never happy in Bag End again, you see, so the next spring, when Aunt Mira, your other grandmother, Mother’s sister, was going to have a baby, she would not hear of anyone except herself delivering her sister’s baby, and she brought Drogo and myself along, as she always did when visiting Aunt Mira, and we, we stayed.’ Bilbo began looking through the wardrobe for Frodo’s fine coat. ‘And that is how we came to live at Brandy Hall. Mother stayed with her sister and did not wish to go back. Father could have ordered her to come back, I guess, but he knew it would break her heart to live where her children had died, so he visited and he told me to stay and to look after Mother.’ The coat was a touch loose as well, but the cut was good, and Frodo did not look like he was wearing someone else’s clothes. It was time to get dressed himself.
‘This room, this very room, this was our room, Drogo’s and mine. Rory and Wili, they were right next door. Sara, Big Sara, was still weak from the Winter, so he stayed with his parents. Father was acting Mayor, for the true Mayor was very ill, so he was hardly ever at Bag End anyway, and he walked all over the Shire and saw to things, and he would come visit.’ Bilbo slipped on his best trousers and looked for his finest shirt. It was new, but the pattern was from his mother. He had given Mother’s patterns to the tailor so she would always make his clothes just so. ‘I was the oldest, so I was the big brother and was supposed to look out for them all, but mostly I managed to get them into more trouble. I felt rather like some big old dog with a little line of puppies following me about.’ The shirt buttons slid into place.
‘When I turned thirty, about nine years later, I moved back to Bag End to take care of Father, who was not well. Mother moved back to the Great Smials at that time, and then I went to be with her after Father died. When your father turned twenty he moved to be with me and Mother. At that point we lived mostly in the Great Smials, and visited Buckland for long periods of time, and just kept Bag End habitable, until after Mother died. That’s when we really moved to Bag End permanently. And that is how I came to grow up in Buckland. Your father, too.’
Wilwarin’s arms encircled him from behind, and the lad hugged him tightly. Bilbo turned and hugged him back. ‘Has no one ever told you this story, Wilwarin?’
Frodo shook his head. ‘No. No one. But I never thought to ask. I assumed that Papa had come to live here when he and Mama were married. Then, the last few visits from you here, you spoke so much about doing things in Buckland, and all my uncles talked to you and about you as though you were here when they were young, it was confusing.’ Frodo hugged him again. ‘Thank you for the present. And thank you for telling me about Papa and yourself. I don’t have many stories about him.’
Bilbo took Frodo by the shoulders. ‘Then here is another present. I will try to tell you all the stories I can of Drogo, and of Primula, that I can remember. You should know about them.’ He let his eyes twinkle a bit. ‘And look at this!’ Bilbo dug in his trunk again and pulled out his own party waistcoat, beautiful embroidered silk, but it was different this time. All of the ivory buttons had been removed and in their place were half of the solid gold buttons set with diamonds that Dalin had delivered as a present from Balin. He had sat up the night before they left for Buckland sewing the new buttons on. The other half were on his best party coat. He quickly slipped the waistcoat on.
‘Now we both look quite fine,’ Bilbo pronounced, while Frodo admired his handiwork. Frodo helped him put on his coat, and they went to collect Dalin. The Dwarf was sitting before the fire in his room, contentedly puffing his pipe. He was wearing the same brightly embroidered tunic as he had worn his first day here, and Bilbo thought there were more beads in his braids than had been there before.
‘Is it time for the feast, Lord of Burglars?’ Bilbo glared at Frodo, who was giggling at the title.
‘Not quite yet, Dalin.’
‘Should we go to the family parlor beforehand, or is that not part of this day’s ceremonies?’ the Dwarf politely enquired. ‘I would not give offence to the Master or the Mistress.’
Actually, they probably were expected in the family parlor, but Bilbo was not going to tempt fate by being in that small a space with Sara, not yet. There was no way around it during the exchange of gifts, which would be trial enough. ‘Not tonight, Dalin. Anyway, I would like to make a grand entrance at the feast!’
‘Were you really just patrolling the halls last night and standing outside the door, Dalin?’ Frodo asked. The Dwarf shook his head.
‘Not the entire night, Master Baggins. The ladies of the Hall would not give me such peace.’ The Dwarf's laugh was like the peal of a deep bell. ‘Mistress Maddie had me carrying things for the kitchens all afternoon, and I was required to taste everything that was being cooked. Mistress Dahlia had me moving tables all over the Great Hall. Then it was supper time for the little ones, who were all very unruly without their parents to watch them, so I sat with them and told them stories about Erebor. In return, they taught me quite a number of songs that most likely I shall never be able to drive out of my head. I had some company with me as I checked all of the halls and doors once the young ones were put to bed and the ladies began to retire. Mistress Dahlia knows every entrance to the Hall, and there are many! It was full night before I could take up my axe at the main door. A Mister Bolger, the one who was the subject of so much discussion at The Fat Badger, I believe, spoke with me as I stood, and we discussed coal. He is very foolish about such things, but he was polite enough. After he left, I saw naught but bats and owls until dawn. The fires near the woods were very bright.’
‘You look none too worse for wear, Dalin. And you have charmed all the ladies, it would appear!’
‘I am a clever Dwarf in some ways, Mister Baggins. I soon discerned that the fastest way to Hobbit goodwife’s fond regard is through a sincere appreciation of her table,’ Dalin sagely noted. ‘I am counting on the long walk to Belegost to reduce my girth sufficiently to fit into the tunnels.’
‘What of after Yule?’ Frodo asked. ‘What will you be doing?’
‘I would like to go to Newbury, and meet with Smith Hammerfoot. I am told he has the largest forge in Buckland, and I am always honored to meet a fellow smith.’
Bilbo nodded, ‘Yes, he would be good to speak to. He can hardly keep up with the work that needs doing on this side of the River, and he would make the difference between kind welcome and cold dismissal for any Dwarven forge work.’
‘That was Master Mac’s opinion as well, Mister Baggins.’
A soft tap at the door caught their attention, and Frodo answered it. After a brief exchange, the lad said, ‘The Master and Mistress are on their way to the feast.’
‘Then we should go,’ Bilbo replied and they left. Bilbo was sure to walk slowly and by a slightly different route than the family would take. Dalin cocked an eyebrow at the path, but did not ask questions. Frodo kept his arm linked through Bilbo’s as they walked. At the archway to the dining hall, Bilbo gave the lad a final inspection. The three walked in.
A shriek of delight went up from the children’s table, and Dalin was mobbed. The huge Dwarf carefully knelt, allowing the tiny Hobbit children to swarm over him. His beautiful tunic was soon rather mussed, one plait of his hair was partially undone, and the Dwarf looked blissfully happy. Bilbo and Frodo shooed children away, and had to enlist Merle and Tilly’s help to free Dalin from the other children’s clutches. The little girls slapped, shoved and bullied their fellows with gusto. Frodo bade them farewell and made his way to the tween table. The Master’s seat stood empty for him. Ula jumped up from her seat and greeted Frodo with a kiss on the cheek, then walked with him back to the table. Bilbo decided he needed a glass of wine sooner rather than later.
The Spider and the Snake held court at the foot of the great table, Sara deeply in his cups. Esmie looked up as Bilbo and Dalin walked by, and Bilbo blew her a kiss. She colored and looked away. He and the mussed Dwarf cheerfully made their way up the main table, returning greetings and blessings. Calls also came from the side table where the serving folk sat. On Yule day, they did not wait table after the first serving had been set. The great hall was festooned with swags of evergreen and holly tied with lengths of colorful ribbon. There were many candles and lanterns burning, and the room was boisterous. Everyone was in their finery, and many had holly pinned to their coats or twined in their hair.
At the head of the table, Rory and Gilda were wearing the crowns they had worn at Wintermark. Rory was in his usual deep green Yule coat and waistcoat with the silver buttons, while Gilda was dressed in scarlet, her silver hair down on her shoulders like a maid’s. Bilbo thought he had never seen her look so beautiful, and was almost ready to forgive her again. Dalin doubled over in a bow to them, and they bowed back, bidding him to sit. To Bilbo’s surprise, Rory waved him over to the seat at Rory’s left. Usually Saradas or Wili sat there.
‘To what do I owe the honor, brother,’ Bilbo joked.
‘So you do not have to peer around a walking mountain to see Gilda,’ Rory cheerfully replied, ‘and so I have someone halfway sober to talk to!’
‘But what about me?’ Bilbo teased back. ‘Now I have to put up with a drunken oaf!’ Before he sat, Bilbo leaned over and had a quiet conversation with Gilda, who looked surprised at first, then nodded and said she would see to it. She motioned to a plain, pleasant woman at the side table. The two women conferred for a moment, then the plain woman gave him a smile and a nod. Duty discharged, Bilbo settled in to enjoy the feast.
He did not feel terribly hungry, but he did savor every bite from his plate. There was lamb and young calf, quail and goose. Several root mashes were available, each mixed well with butter and cream, some with cheese swirled in. Potatoes were baked in cream and herbs and a splash of wine. There were several savory bread puddings, and sausages of all types. A cellar’s worth of pickles were in bowls scattered about the table – spicy, sweet, crunchy, meltingly tender, whatever one might want. Every possible winter vegetable was also there, baked, boiled, or fried, and adorned with herbs, cheeses, bacon, cream, or butter as the dish demanded. Platters and bowls of mushrooms, prepared in any number of delightful ways, were quickly emptied and just as quickly refilled. Baskets of breads and rolls were in constant motion around the table – Bilbo particularly liked the dark brown rolls, dense and slightly sweet and perfect for mopping up gravy. The sweets were beyond compare. Rare spices showed up in them, and many were made with sugar instead of honey.
Bilbo looked around the table and tried to see where the various scoundrels were sitting. Saradas and his wife Amalda were right next to him. She was a quiet, patient woman, an excellent foil to her rather pig-headed husband. She was from the Goldworthy family, and Bilbo had always liked her. Most of the young men of the time would not pay her court because of the deep purple blotch that covered almost half her face, but Saradas had seen with truer eyes, and was a happy, content husband. She oversaw lace-making done in the Hall.
Wili and Prisca had all of the adult Bolgers near them half way down the table on the other side. Odovacar and Rosamunda sat at one end, with Gis next to her, while Bard and Fred marked the other end. To Bilbo’s annoyance, Gun had arrived, and was in close conversation with Odogar. The two saw him watching them. He nodded a genial hello, then tapped his lips with a finger tip, warning them to mind their tongues. Odogar nodded slightly. Tilda was in deep conversation with Prisca, while Wili tried to talk to Odogar around them. Helga and Cissy were having an animated conversation across the table with Hilda and Dilly.
Asphodel and Rufus sat to the other side of Saradas and Amalda, though Bilbo wished Asphodel were further away. Luckily, Amaranth had made a rare appearance from the spinning hall and was keeping her younger sister entertained with the latest Hall gossip. Milo and Peony were beyond those two, chatting with more distant kin. The rest of the table was filled out by several dozen other more or less distant kinfolk.
To Bilbo’s amusement, Merry had made his stealthy way up the table and was now firmly ensconced in Dalin’s lap. The Dwarf hardly appeared to notice the interloper, but Bilbo could see how carefully the huge Dwarf held the boy, making sure he did not fall or slip, ensuring that tasty morsels, cut into Hobbit-child sized bites, were at the edge of his plate, giving Merry a spoon so the imp could help himself to what he wanted. Gilda beamed at them both.
‘Has Odogar come by to pay his respects?’ Bilbo quietly asked Rory.
‘No, he has not,’ Rory replied with a grin. ‘And if I am very lucky, he won’t ever.’
Bilbo smiled and sipped his wine. After all of the politics conducted last night, he did not think he could handle much more tonight. He, too, hoped Odogar would stay away. He could hear laughter rising from the tween table behind him, and could pick out Frodo’s voice, though not his words. It lifted his spirits to hear his lad’s laughter after such a wrenching morning. His words sounded cheerful, even happy. An idea came to Bilbo, and he thought it a good one.
‘May I ask you a question about your Bree mares?’ Rory looked a little surprised, but nodded. ‘Do they belong to you, or to the boys?’
‘I gave their care and use to the boys, but I get every other live foal out of them. Dove belongs to Mac, and Biddy is Sara’s. The fillies from last year are mine, though I may swap Biddy’s girl if Dove produces a stud colt this year.’
‘May I buy one of the fillies from you?’ Rory’s eyebrows went skyward, then he laughed a bit.
‘You needn’t buy anything from me, Bilbo. I’ll give you whichever one you want. Just give me the foals back.’ Bilbo shook his head.
‘I’m not keeping her for myself, Rory, so I cannot promise the foals back to you. That is why I want to buy the filly, so you won’t lose anything.’
Rory was getting very curious. ‘So what are you going to do? Who are you planning on selling her to?’
‘You’ll see,’ Bilbo mischievously replied. ‘So, will you sell?’
‘If you wish, yes.’
‘Don’t insult me, Baggins! We’re talking a good brood mare,’ Rory grinned. ‘A copper crown.’
‘We’re talking an untried, untrained filly, Brandybuck,’ Bilbo grinned back. ‘Twenty-two pennies.’
‘Twenty-eight, and only because you are a kinsman!’
‘Twenty-three, and this is robbery, kinsman!’
‘Twenty-six, and I’ll have those coins weighed, thank you!’
‘Done!’ The cousins shook on it, then toasted each other. Bilbo knew the price was steep, but fair.
A loud noise at the main entrance to the dining hall made every one jump. A half-dozen revelers burst into the room, shouting for wassail. Their faces were painted with soot and woad, and all wore comic crowns of ivy and holly. Long strands of ivy were pinned to their cloaks, and holly and laurel were tied to their arms and legs. They ran about the hall, shouting and jesting, while people cheered them. One held a good-sized wooden bowl.
‘Wassail! Wassail!’ the cry went up. The band gathered a few yards away from Gilda and Rory. Rory grinned and stood.
‘If you want wassail, my good lads, you shall have to sing for it!’ he cried. The band bowed as one and broke into song:
A wassail, a wassail throughout all this town!
Our cup it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our wassail is made of good ale and true,
Some nutmeg and ginger, the best we could brew.
Our wassail is made of an elderberry bough,
And so, my good neighbor, we’ll drink unto thou.
Besides all on earth, you’ll have apples in store;
Pray let us come in, for it’s cold by the door.
We hope your apple trees prosper and bear,
So we may have cider when we call next year;
And where you’ve one barrel I hope you’ll have ten,
So we can have cider when we call again.
There’s Master and Mistress sit down by the fire,
While we poor wassailers do wait in the mire;
So you, pretty maid, with your silver-headed pin,
Please open the door and let us come in.
We know by the moon that we are not too soon;
We know by the sky that we are not too high;
We know by the stars that we are not too far;
And we know by the ground that we are within sound.
Here’s we jolly wassail boys growing weary and cold:
Drop a bit of silver into our old bowl,
And if we’re alive for another new year,
Perhaps we may call and see who do live here.
Rory dug into a pocket and pulled out a handful of coins. He tossed them, one at a time, in the wassailers’ direction, one coin for each singer. The Hobbit bearing the bowl deftly caught the coins, and they clinked against the coins already in the bowl. One of the kitchen girls walked up with a pitcher and poured hard cider and ale into the bowl, to the cheers of the guests. The revelers raised the bowl in salute to the Master and Mistress, then drank from it in succession. When it was empty, they whooped and shouted, ran around the main table, and disappeared out the door, off to serenade other smials and houses this Yule night.
The rest of the feast passed uneventfully. People ate too much, drank too much and chattered non-stop. Every so often, someone would start up a song, and many would join in, though most kept chatting. Bilbo said little and did not listen much, content to let the hubbub of the feast wrap around him. He had not felt so tired in a long time. As the feast came to an end, the children left their table and sought out their parents’ laps. Families gathered, preparing to leave for their own quarters and more private visiting and exchange of gifts. Each would come past the head of the table to bid good evening and Merry Yule to the Master and Mistress.
Bilbo nibbled at the last delicacies on his plate and wondered what Odogar would do when the Bolger clan had to offer their greetings. He had not long to wait. Wili and Prisca led the gaggle of Bolgers towards Rory and Gilda. Odogar and Gun hung towards the back. Gis had somehow been folded into the mix, much to Bilbo’s amusement. Well, there shan’t be much important discussion while a Took is present. That should keep their mischief to a minimum. He did pity Gis having to put up with Odogar, and motioned his cousin over.
‘Gis, will you be here tomorrow?’
‘Yes, Bilbo. We leave for Scary morning of the second. I think Rufus and his lot will be traveling with us as well.’
‘That will make for a merry trip!’ Gis snorted his disagreement with Bilbo’s opinion. ‘If you get tired of the clan, come to see me tomorrow. I’m doing some work for Gilda, translating some healer writings, and it’s nice and quiet in my little hidey-hole. Just ask one of the kitchen lads to show you where it is.’ Gis said he would, and gave Bilbo a hug good-bye. The collection of Bolgers wandered off, Odogar somehow managing not to pay his regards. Bilbo shook his head in disgust.
The dining hall was almost empty by this time. Rory’s siblings were all presenting their greetings. Sara and Mac approached with wives and children in tow, while Frodo walked Ula over from the tween table. Dalin stood up, holding Merry.
‘That’s where he got off to,’ Sara laughed, holding his arms out to collect the boy. He set Merry on his shoulders, much to the child’s delight. Esmie held Merle’s hand and beamed up at her husband and son. Bilbo felt very sorry for the children.
As Bilbo stood, he felt Rory’s hand on his arm. He looked up at his cousin, who briefly inclined his head, indicating Bilbo should stay next to him.
‘Wife,’ Mac cheerily said to Dilly, ‘you go ahead with Esmie and Sara and get the children settled. I’ll go collect all the presents and bring them to the parlor.’ At the mention of presents, all three children shouted and squealed.
‘And I’ll go collect ours, Gilda,’ Rory said to Gilda with a smile, leaning over to help her to her feet. ‘You two,’ he addressed Ula and Frodo, ‘help the Mistress to the parlor.’ Frodo and Ula quickly were to either side of Gilda, holding their arms out for her to take. Bilbo felt Rory give him a nudge with his elbow.
‘I’ll get ours, Frodo,’ Bilbo hastily added, ‘you stay with your Gammer and see to anything she needs.’ Frodo sent him a questioning look, then nodded. Dalin signaled he would stay and help with children and the Mistress. Bilbo smiled and set off, Rory and Mac to either side. They quickly made their way through the corridors and went to Bilbo’s room.
Bilbo shut the door behind them, and leaned against it. Only the lantern by the door was burning, and shadows were deep. Mac looked about uneasily, not meeting Bilbo’s eyes. Rory walked over to the damaged wardrobe and looked it over carefully, scratching his chin.
‘Well?’ Bilbo asked.
Rory did not turn away from the wardrobe. ‘What happened to Frodo?’ Bilbo did not answer.
‘Uncle,’ Mac haltingly said, ‘I know…I said the boy needed…a good hiding for being smart and getting in trouble, but…’ Bilbo stared at him until Mac stopped and swallowed.
‘But I should not have thrashed him so soundly?’ Bilbo said in a silky, dangerous voice. Mac stared at the ground.
‘Well, you gave the wardrobe a good thrashing, Bilbo,’ Rory said in a conversational tone, ‘that’s plain to see. In eighty years, I have never seen you raise your fist save in self-defense, brother. What did this old wardrobe ever do to you?’ Rory reached out and tried to open the left hand door. The top hinge broke off completely, and the door sagged drunkenly on the remaining hinge. Rory took the pin out of the bottom hinge, and set the door on the ground. He leaned against the remaining door, toying with the pin.
‘With my own wife, Bilbo.’ Rory met his eyes, worried but not accusing. ‘What happened to the boy?’
Bilbo had not realized he was holding his breath until Rory spoke. You know I didn’t, wouldn’t ever, do that. ‘Mac, tell me. After you broke up the fight between Frodo, Bargo and the others, who did you leave behind with Frodo?’
Mac looked at him curiously, then his face went white, and he started shaking his head. ‘No. No, he’s not that much a fool. He apologized! He and Rat made up, right there in front of Mama. I heard them!’
‘And then he cornered Frodo alone, and tried to force himself on the boy. When he failed in that, he beat Frodo,’ Bilbo spat.
‘That’s what Frodo has to say. What does Sara say?’ Mac demanded.
‘I have no wish to hear what Sara has to say,’ Rory said softly, watching Bilbo. ‘Baggins, the Master has failed you again. What do you wish as amends?’
‘Nothing. There is nothing any more that will make amends. Know this – if Sara ever again lays hand on Frodo, I will kill him. This is neither threat nor boast, Master, but is to let you know what will happen if your heir does harm to mine.’
Rory glanced briefly at Mac, then nodded. ‘I’ll not stand in your way, Baggins. I have others. You do not.’ He nudged the broken wardrobe door with his foot. ‘Thank you for using the wardrobe this time. The Mistress prefers Yule with the whole family present.’ Rory walked over to the door, and halted, putting a hand on Bilbo’s shoulder. Now, with the lantern full on his face, Bilbo could see Rory’s grief, written in the small lines near his eyes, in the tightness of his lips. He laid a hand over Rory’s.
‘Mac,’ Rory said over his shoulder, ‘Feather is Bilbo’s now. Do as he says with her.’ Rory squeezed his shoulder. ‘You will accept her as partial amends.’
‘As you wish, brother.’ The other two Hobbits left. Bilbo crossed to the wardrobe and squatted down near the broken door. He ran a finger over the damage, being careful of splinters. Gilda would have been quite put out with you, Baggins. He thought about the looks he had received in the baths. Rory believes you, but Mac doesn’t want to, and none else will. They think you laid hands on the boy. He remembered Frodo’s words, “But if you make a fuss, then other people are going to wonder why you’re so upset. They’ll think…wicked things.” Indeed, Wilwarin, they will think most wicked things. They will think I am fighting over you, and I am. But not as they imagine. It was getting late. Bilbo retrieved a sack from his trunk, and headed for the parlor.
Rory was already there, rough-housing with a wildly giggling Berry. Yes, brother, you have others. To Bilbo’s surprise, Dalin and Dilly were chatting quite amiably. He did not think the shy woman would ever have summoned the nerve to talk to the Dwarf, not without Mac to cling to. Frodo was standing near the couch where Gilda sat with Ula, but came over immediately when Bilbo walked in. Bilbo gave him the sack so the lad could lay the presents on the low table. A beautiful lace drape covered the table, and a small stack of presents were already on it. As soon as Frodo finished setting out the gifts, he pulled a chair up for Bilbo and got a glass of brandy for him. Mac followed within a few minutes, a sack in one hand and arms full. Berry left off tickling his gaffer and gleefully helped Mac set everything on the table. Frodo settled at Bilbo’s feet, leaning against his leg.
Sara held Merle in his lap, Esmie in her usual perch on the arm of the chair. Mac gave his brother one long stare before finding his place next to Dilly. Sara did not notice the look, lost as he was in cheerful inebriation, but Esmie did. She watched Mac curiously, then looked at the carpet, brow knit in thought. She met Bilbo’s eyes, questioning, and Bilbo smiled enigmatically, then ran a finger over the fading mark where she had slapped him, as though scratching his cheek. She turned her attention to Merle, neatening the girl’s hair and teasing her.
‘Who shall pass out the presents this year?’ Gilda asked, ‘Merle? Will you do this?’ Merle bounded forward, eager to pass them out so they could be opened up. Very quickly, every one, even Dalin, had a small stack of wrapped presents before them. Bilbo got to unwrap his first, as he was the eldest. Merry had given him a picture of himself surrounded by all of Farmer Bellows’ beasts, leading them in song. Bilbo was only certain which one was himself because of the waistcoat, and thought it simply wonderful. Berry had made him a hedgehog out of a pine cone, and Merle had knitted him a very fine woolen scarf. From Dilly, he received a beautiful linen shirt. She was a master broideress, and he was amazed at the beauty of the work.
‘My thanks, Serindë,’ he said sincerely. Mac had carved a clever little stand for his pipe that was small enough to slip in a pocket and which he could carry about. No more spilled ashes, he happily thought. Sara had carved an intricate maple frame which perfectly fit the picture Merry had drawn. Esmie gave him delicate, but very warm, knit gloves to match the scarf Merle had made, and he had to model them together before the room was satisfied. Gilda gave him what she always gave him – a stack of the finest stationery and several rolls of parchment. The paper was of varying types, so he always had exactly the right piece to suit his mood and his words. He only used it for letters to her and for poetry. The parchment he used for making copies of the Elvish scrolls he received from Rivendell.
Rory gave Bilbo the Wintermark crown as a joke, and set it rakishly on his head. His true gift from Rory was an old book with a tooled leather cover Rory had purchased from a Big Person peddler at the Whitfurrows market. The writing in it was like Elvish, but not quite, and Bilbo was reasonably certain it was Mannish work. It was not poetry, and Bilbo hoped it perhaps might have some history in it. Once the scroll was done for Gilda, he knew how he would be spending the cold, damp winter months.
Before they went any further, all the children were allowed to unwrap the bundles of sweets Bilbo and Frodo had brought them from Bywater. There were maple sugar lumps, sticky confections of honey and finely chopped nuts, and candied fruit. Maddie came in with a tray of cider and tea, which Ula and Frodo distributed, and then returned with another tray of cheese, fruit, toasted bread, and small sweet cakes.
Rory and Gilda were both the next eldest and the same age, so they alternated opening their gifts. Merry had made pictures of them, too, and Bilbo pretty much figured out what everyone could expect from his nephew. Berry had made small chairs with figures of his gaffer and gammer sitting in them, a tuft of white wool on either head. Merle gave them small muslin pouches with pipes embroidered on the sides to hold their pipe weed, and the pouches were filled. Nothing would do but that Gilda and Rory had to light up their pipes, filled from the pouches.
Frodo gave Gilda a clasp for her hair that he had made himself, strung with glass and silver beads that had come from Erebor. Bilbo had brought a small pouch of many different beads – metal, glass, ceramic – back from his adventure, tossed them in a chest of drawers and had forgotten about them. Frodo had found them in the drawers at Bag End when he was putting clothes away and Bilbo had said he could have them. He had not known until now what Wilwarin had done with them. Gilda pulled off her crown and insisted it be given to Dalin, where it perched precariously upon the bemused Dwarf’s head, and let Ula pin her hair with the clasp. The deep blue beads glowed like sapphires in her silver hair.
To Rory, Frodo gave a curved circle of glass the boy had set into a wooden frame, with small handles to either side. It made things that sat under it larger. Rory tested it on a page of Bilbo’s book.
‘This is marvelous, Frodo!’ Rory said with a smile. ‘I’ll finally be able to read my ledgers again without holding them against my nose.’ Bilbo sent the boy to run quickly and collect their pipes and Dalin’s. Ula, their sons, and their daughters-in-law gave Rory and Gilda various bits of needlework and carved things. Most beautiful was a shawl for Gilda that Esmie had knitted.
Gilda’s eyes lit up with delight at the seed packets Bilbo gave her, each with a small note about the plants that would grow from them. She had an extensive healer’s herb garden and collected plants as avidly as she collected writings on healing. These had arrived in a Dwarvish pack, much as the scroll had done, a gift from Rivendell. Half he had kept for his own garden, pleasing Ham Gamgee with the challenge of making something new grow. Bilbo had taken careful notes of Ham’s comments so that Gilda would not have to experiment and waste seeds.
When Rory picked up the small velvet pouch holding Bilbo’s gift, he joked, ‘What have you given me, Baggins? A rock?’ Rory worked the lacings open then upended it into his hand. And gaped. He held his out to Gilda, showing her the golden Crown of Durin.
‘You said you had copper Crowns and a silver one, so I decided to complete your collection,’ Bilbo told him. Rory shook his head in amazement, then turned it over. A very odd look came over Rory’s face, and he ran his fingers over the back of the Crown, tracing something.
‘It’s all true,’ Rory said in a hushed voice, ‘all your stories. You really did talk to a dragon.’
‘I really did talk to a dragon, Rory. I ran into a large assortment of fearsome creatures and amazing people. But perhaps not quite all of the stories are true,’ Bilbo replied with a wink. Rory placed the coin on the velvet bag and set them on the table so all could see the Crown. The older Hobbits all stared at the image of himself and the dragon on the back of the coin, and looked at him with amazement. Frodo tipped his head back against Bilbo’s leg and grinned up at him.
Dalin was next in age, being seventy-five, and opened his presents. He had a holder for his pipe, a scarlet scarf to match his cloak, and a small maple wood comb for his beard. Rory presented him with a large leather pouch of Old Toby, and Gilda promised a wool shirt of the finest Buckland cloth by the time he left, ordering him to attend her the next day in the cloth storeroom to pick out the color. The children shared their sweets with him.
Esmie, Sara, Mac, and Dilly went in order. They exclaimed over Merry’s pictures, laughed and played with Berry’s toys, and admired the stitches and knitting Merle had performed. Frodo had made hair clasps for the women similar to the one he had made for Gilda, while Bilbo gave them lengths of lace. Bilbo and Frodo jointly gave the men shiny silver headstall ornaments from Erebor, engraved with their initials. Those had been a good choice, for their parents’ present to them were new bridles for Dove and Biddy. The women each received a full set of bed linens from the Master and the Mistress.
Ula was quite pleased with the small leather satchel Rory and Gilda gave her, with cunning compartments inside to securely hold potions, herb pouches, and healer’s tools. Mac and Dilly gave her hair combs, while Sara and Esmie gave her a dark green travel cloak. Bilbo reached into his pocket, and handed her a single thread.
The lass looked at the thread with great amusement. ‘And where, pray tell, Mister Baggins, is the button I need to sew on with this most marvelous bit of string?’
‘Probably with the length of linen that goes with that thread,’ he teased back. ‘When Dalin and Gilda go tomorrow to pick out the material for his shirt, you shall go with them and collect the linen I have had the Loom Mistress set aside for you. It is quite unusual, from what I hear, made by the Haysend girls in The Yale.’
‘Oh, Ula, I saw that yesterday,’ Dilly excitedly said. ‘It is wonderful fine cloth! I’ve not seen its like before. You’ll be able to make ever such beautiful things from it. It’s a proper wedding chest gift,’ Dilly added with a wink. Ula blushed, and thanked Bilbo again.
Frodo’s turn came and he was properly appreciative of his younger cousins’ offerings. Merry insisted that Frodo have a maple sugar lump, too. His older cousins gave him gifts that matched Bilbo’s. Gilda presented him with a stack of paper, as she gave to Bilbo, though she omitted the rolls of parchment. Rory gave him a small pouch of Old Toby and a small pewter flask of brandy. Ula gave him an admiring look. Frodo was very appreciative of it all.
The youngest Brandybucks were too excited and too eager for presents to wait their turns, so they tore into their gifts all together. Bilbo had given each one a silver Dwarf whistle, much to the annoyance of their parents. Frodo had made a wooden top for Merry, a wooden puzzle for Berry, and for Merle a copy of a few of the simpler Elven poems from the book Bilbo had given him, bound in a small pamphlet made of some of last Yule’s paper. The rest of the presents for the little children were similar – wooden toys and puzzles, a few dolls, and a sampler of needles, threads and yarns from Dilly to Merle. Bilbo hoped that bond would grow.
They sat for another hour, finishing the last of the food and admiring the beautiful gifts, especially the golden Crown. Mac in particular kept looking at it, a slightly worried expression on his face. Yes, Mac, I have faced dark creatures before. And they are dead. Weariness overtook them, and they parted, sleepy children resting against their parents’ shoulders. Ula gathered her gifts, kissed Gilda and Rory good night, and then kissed Bilbo. Frodo walked her to the door and into the hallway. Bilbo assumed the two exchanged a slightly more involved kiss. The boy came back with pleased smile on his face.
Rory and Bilbo took Gilda’s arms, while Dalin and Frodo carried gifts. Before they parted, Rory told Frodo that, after he and Bilbo were back at Bag End, his parents’ belongings would be sent to him. Frodo embraced them both and thanked them. Dalin bowed them good evening and thumped off, whistling a strange Dwarvish tune.
Bilbo carefully put an arm over Frodo’s shoulders, not wanting to bump the bruises. The lad slipped an arm around his waist, and they slowly made their way back to their room.
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