The Heir of the Hill

by Lothithil


Chapter 7: The Free Fair at White Downs

Parts 2  3  4  5  6  7 

1392 S.R.

I.

The Free Fair is held every year on White Downs, near the chalky hills of Michael Delving. Hobbits from all over the Shire gather there to trade and sell, barter and bargain, and of course to gossip with friends and relatives that they might not see until the next year. Like a great family reunion it was, for most hobbits, and it lasted a whole week from the start with the Mayor’s Welcoming Banquet, and finishing with the Mayor’s Farewell Banquet. But this year, as falls on every seventh year, the new Mayor of the Shire would be announced just before the Farewell Banquet. And word was out that Old Walt Whitfoot had some competition this year. There were TWO ballot boxes set by the entrance to the Fair Grounds, both freshly painted and labeled clearly with the names of the candidates. Walt Whitfoot and… Bilbo Baggins!

“Confusticate and bebother it!” exclaimed Bilbo. He asked Frodo to pause the pony-trap again so he could leap from the board and tear down yet another poster bearing a rendering of his face, smiling falsely and asking for a nod. “I don’t have time to be a mayor! I don’t want it and I won’t!” He tore the poster into pieces and tossed them in the backboard, where a sizable pile of paper scraps was growing.

“Don’t tear up the next one, Uncle,” said Frodo, not even trying to conceal his grin. “It is rather a fair likeness. I want to save one!”

Bilbo exclaimed coursely. “You have the real Bilbo; though a poster might be more attractive than the factual Bilbo, I am afraid that you will have to be satisfied with me! I will tear up every picture I find between Hobbiton and White Downs and when we get there, I will burn the scraps!”

Frodo laughed and clucked at the pony, continuing their journey. They had started early, before even the sun had lightened the sky, so that they would arrive at a fine hour for the festivities of First Day. After a while he said, “Posco will be expecting us to stay with him, you know.”

Bilbo sighed as if weary of a long day’s work. “I know, Frodo. And we will, but we won’t like it! That hole of his is full up with his young ones and their spouses and their young ones, plus all the relatives that could beg board from him. We should be happier camping along the roadside than in that noisy place!”

“Perhaps! Happier until it began to rain, I imagine,” returned Frodo merrily. His uncle’s mood could not dampen his excitement. He had been looking forward to the Free Fair all year. Merry would be there, and also Folco and Fredegar. He rather liked Posco’s children Porto and Peony, and Milo Burrows who had married her, even if their older brother was rather overly polite to the point of rudeness. If he had a daughter like Angelica, Frodo imagined that he would be as irritable as Ponto, too.

Also, Paladin Took and his wife were coming this year, and Frodo would get to meet his youngest cousin Peregrin at last. Merry had met him already, and had told Frodo that young ‘Pippin’ would grow up to be “a handful of caution and no mistake!” Frodo hoped that the weather held sweet throughout the week. The young Took was a delicate child, and one dark cloud would scare his mother into a deep hole.

And the Fair was always fun for Frodo; races and games, singing and feasting, there were. And most of all, Frodo looked forward to visiting the Lore Gardens.

The first time Bilbo had brought Frodo to the White Downs Fair, he had taken the youth to the house where folk from all over the Shire brought their books. For trading or to have re-bound, and also to allow others to read them before they were returned to the dusty libraries in some lost dark hole away beyond forgotten. Frodo had loved the smell of the old books, the texture of the bindings and the covers, and the crisp pages turning, revealing family histories, sketches and maps, and some outrageous stories that couldn’t be heard around any fireside. It was an attraction that had left the lad wanting more, and every year he came to the Fair, he always sought the Lore Garden first, and visited it every day to see the new arrivals and talk with the owners of the books. He hoped to be allowed to borrow some, to re-copy before their yellowing pages were illegible.

Frodo felt so happy and light-hearted that he began to hum a song, and Bilbo was affected by his younger cousin’s mood, so that he joined him singing a song.

“To the Fair! To the Fair!
The Sun is shining on the hair
Of lovely lasses dresses their best
And lads who wait to take their tests
And join the feasting that will be
The fairest part of the frivolity!
To the Fair! To the Fair!”


Bilbo did not even notice the next three posters bearing his face as they rode past in the growing light of morning, and Frodo decided not to disturb him by mentioning it.

II

1392 S.R.

Posco’s hole was in the hills behind the village of White Downs. So close to Michael Delving it was that often the inhabitants themselves were confused about which town they lived in, or so it was joked about the Shire. Posco Baggins was a wealthy hobbit, as most Baggins were, and his pride was to host more family members than any other Baggins in the area. Generally, he succeeded.

Frodo and Bilbo arrived in time for nuncheon, and were welcomed loudly and with genuine enthusiasm from Posco and Porto and Peony, with more reserve by Ponto, and open hostility from Lotho and Lobelia, who were also enjoying their cousin’s hospitality. Almost Frodo’s good mood failed him when he say their sour faces but his younger cousins swept him away from the older hobbits, and they brought him to the garden where lunch had been set for the little ones. Frodo was much older than they were, but they loved him greatly for he had a youthful heart and was quick and eager to laugh, and he would listen to their tales and share his own. All the young hobbits adored Frodo. Angelica even forgot to preen her hair and sat listening raptly as Frodo regaled them with a story of hunting mushrooms and being chased by mad dogs. Fredegar was there with his younger sister Estella, who smiled shyly at Frodo but spoke not a word. They were Bolgers, but their parents were friendly with Posco and and his wife Gilly. The young ones had a merry lunch, and begged their older cousin to stay and play with them.

"Not now, my dear little adventurers!" proclaimed Frodo affectionately, "I have some things to do now. But run along and enjoy the day! I will be here for a week and we will surely have time to play." He watched them run off, laughing as Estella walked with her head turned to watch him and stumbled over Angelica who had paused to straighten her hair bow. He turned then and hurried toward the fields beyond the last houses in town, hoping to get the the Lore Garden early to enjoy a few hours of uninterrupted reading.

His plans were not meant to be realized so easily, however. At the bottom of the hill he ran smack-dab into Sandyman the miller and his son, towing an overburdened cart toward the fairgrounds. They had a single pony pulling the waggon, and Ted was ruthlessly whipping its flanks as it struggled up the steep rise. Frodo paused in his run, wishing to express his anger at the ill-treatment of the animal as they rode past, but he was so furious that he could not find any words. As the cart trundled away, he sighed and unclenched his fists, turning on his way again.

He heard a shout behind him, and suddenly the cart was roaring toward him, rolling down the hill and scattering lumber and goods as it wove out of control. Frodo leaped to the side of the ditch just as the contraption whooshed past him, coming a scarce hand’s breadth from crushing him against the steep bank carved through the hill. Ted and his father were running after it, cursing and trying to catch up to the runaway waggon. Broken leather harnesses dragged the ground, their brass buckles ringing on the stones like bells.

Frodo places a hand over his heart and exhaled sharply. That was close! He climbed the hill and found the pony where it had been left when the harnesses had broken. It was trembling and sweated, and looked as if it had not been properly fed for a season. Frodo patted its head soothingly and gave it the apple he had in his pocket. He found a floppy hat that had been trampled into the dust, and he used it to fetch water from a nearby well, and let the pony drink. He splashed its flanks with water and rubbed him with handful grass until it stopped trembling. The pony nuzzled him gratefully and sought in his pocket for more treats.

Ted Sandyman came striding up the hill, his face covered with dust and wearing a frown. When he saw Frodo tending his father’s pony, he came forward and grasped the beast’s headstall roughly. "What’s the idea, Baggins? That is my da’s hat!" He snatched it from Frodo’s hands.

Frodo regarded Ted coolly. "You should tend your beast more carefully, Ted. That harness has not been oiled since before the last Free Fair, and probably longer. It is not the pony’s fault when the harness breaks."

Ted Sandyman stood maybe a half-a-hand shorter than Frodo, but he was nearly twice his girth with labouring for his father. He was used to making hobbits back down from his even stare, as threatening as a punch, but Frodo was not intimidated by him. He had seen Ted running scared by no more than a tree and he knew that this bully was still scared, scared every day and every hour. He let his anger fall off of him. Ted was very likely no more to blame than the pony. The fault lay where neither of them could place it.

Just as Ted puffed out his chest and opened his mouth to argue with Frodo, a shout came from the bottom of the hill. "Oi! Ted, where are you with that ratty pony? Get a move on, ninnyhammer!" Frodo saw the fear flash in the younger hobbit’s face before he could master himself. Ted flushed with embarrassment and grabbing two fistfuls of Frodo’s tunic, he shoved him against the pony’s flank. "One word, Baggins! One word about this, and I will..."

Frodo stared into Ted face. He closed his hands over Ted’s and pulled them easily away. "You will… what, Ted? Get along now, or your father will come looking for you. Stop beating that pony and he might live to pull your cart home after the fair. He is nigh to death with neglect. If he does die, I imagine your dad will make you pull the cart all the way back to Hobbiton by yourself!"

Ted stepped back and gaped at him, then grabbed the pony’s lead, more gently this time and hurried away. Frodo cut across Yarrow Threadgirdle’s lawn to avoid further confrontation. It was a shortcut to the fair grounds, and he waved at the kindly widow as he passed her in the garden. She smiled at the young hobbit and returned to her roses, intent on winning the "Best Rose in Bloom" competition this year. Vitra Hornblower had taken that prize home often enough.

With no more unpleasant encounters Frodo finally arrived at the Lore Garden, and he knocked politely on the door of the house.

An old hobbit opened the door, squinting at him through filmy spectacles. "Drogo Baggins? What are you doing here?" he asked in a querulous voice.

"It is Frodo, Master Goodbody; Drogo’s son." Frodo raised his voice slightly, so that the hobbit would hear him. Each year the loremaster got a little blinder and a little deafer, but his skill in re-binding books was unsurpassed in the Shire. "You remember me, don’t you, sir? I came last year with the Bucklebury Hearthtome."

"Ah! Velvet binding with gold edged leaves!" Master Goodbody might forget your name, but never the books he handled. "A master work! Did you bring any more?"

"Yes, master, but I don’t have them with me now. Bilbo has them packed. We will bring them tomorrow when he comes to visit you." Frodo looked eagerly at the pile of books that were stacked neatly on the heavy oak table.

Master Goodbody watched Frodo over his bifocaled glasses. "Anxious to get started, eh young Baggins? Well, go ahead! I know you know how to respect a good book!" Freed in a treasure room beyond the allure of dragon’s gold, Frodo happily slid onto a stool and pulled the closest book toward him, opened it, and began to read.



He was squinting at the text as the daylight failed. Master Goodbody was snoring softly, asleep before the book he had finished binding, his spetales sliding down his long nose. Frodo closed his book quietly and stood, stretching with a soft pop in his back. He came round the table and removed the fragile glasses from the master’s face, placing them near his hand. He lit a lamp that shone thickly behind the cloudy glass flue, and let himself out of the house, careful not to let the door bang shut.

The night was still warm. Frodo did not rue his cloak, forgotten where he had left over the buckboard. The stars were gleaming brightly, and all across the fairgrounds were other lights, like brighter stars twinkling among the sea of tents and booths. The wind carried a smell of roasting meats and pies, pipeweed and ale to the hungry hobbit. He wound his way through the paths and found an open-air kitchen where he purchased a plate of supper with a tarnished copper coin. The maiden who tended the tables brought him a tall mug of beer and a wedge of fruit pie with cream when he hailed her with a smile. He heard music playing some distance away, tempting him to seek it out and sing his own song to the clever tunes.

With reluctance he left the blushing maiden and the music behind, returning to the smial where Bilbo was waiting, smoking his pipe on the from lea with Posco and Milo. He greeted them and accepted a tin of weed from Posco, sat down and loaded his pipe, listening to the tales of the day. Gilly appeared at the sound of his voice, insisting that he come and eat something, having missed both his suppers and what would the neighbours say if he wasted to death on her front doorstep?

He laughed and stood, bowing deeply and accepting her offer, leaving the older hobbits to chuckle as he went inside. In the kitchen he told her all he things he had done that day as she made him a meal from the bones of the suppers that she had prepared earlier. She was shocked and frightened by the run-away cart, appalled by Sandymans’ treatment of the poor pony, and soon laughing as he told her the funny stories he had read in the Chubb Family Treasury. When he refused a third helping of berry cobbler she decided he was well enough fed, and shooed him away when he offered to help clean up. He kissed her hand and went for a short stroll before turning in for a sleep. This had not entirely been a bad day, for first of the Fair.

III.

When Frodo woke the next morning, the sun was shining strongly through the laced curtains, and the smells of breakfast were coming to him, along with voices speaking softly. Several warm bodies lay nestled against him; his younger cousins had crept in during the night and settled in with him. He could not move so that they would not be disturbed. Radiant pink faces, cherubic in sleep, with unruly curls falling softly over closed eyes, traced with long silky lashes brushing their cheeks. Angelica had two fingers in her mouth. Frodo patted her straw-coloured hair, enjoying the peace and quiet before the storm, as it were.

Gilly appeared in the doorway, making pleading motions for him to remain still, and not wake the babies. She mimed bringing breakfast to them, if only he would keep the little ones asleep for a while longer. Frodo nodded. With the sun warm on his face he drifted into sleep again, dreaming that he was dancing with many children in a fair garden on the far side of the moon.

He woke when three young hobbits began jumping on the bed he was lying in, singing "Up! Up! Sleepy-head! Get out of bed! Get out of bed!" He grabbed each one and bundled them into the blanket, tickling anyone who tried to escape. Angelica stood beside the bed, dressed in an impeccable pinafore and she crossly harangued her peers for being so impolite.

Gilly appeared again, accompanied by Prisca, Posco’s sister. They were carrying trays laden with pastries and cream, and bacon and eggs and toast, and a carafe of coffee that made Frodo’s mouth water at the aroma. He told himself he must remember to take some beans back with him to Bag End this year. Coffee was hard to get in Hobbiton. Frodo cousin Ponto had a plantation on the hills beyond Michael Delving. He wondered, as he breakfasted with the giggling children, if he could persuade Ponto to part with a bag or two of beans when he and Bilbo left. He was already cross about Bilbo resenting his nominating him as Mayor Elect.

Frodo musing was interrupted as Angelica and Everaud began squabbling over the last cream tart. He broke the pastry in half and gave each a piece, licked his finger and shooed the children away to play outside. Peony fetched the empty dishes, giving Frodo a curtsy and a peck on the cheek.

"You are so good with children, cousin," she said. Frodo thought she had the sweetest face, framed with curls coppery-red and a mass of freckles on her pert nose. She had married young Milo and already had one child. She brushed a speck of imaginary dust from her apron and glanced at him from under her lashes, her freckles flashing as she blushed. "You will make some lucky maiden a fine husband someday."

Frodo knelt and covered his heart with his hand, "Only if you were to agree to run away with me, Peony. There are no other lasses in all the Shire when I am in the room with you! They are all as weeds in the garden of your beauty." She laughed at him and curtsied again. They always flirted so, when he came to visit. Frodo knew she loved Milo completely, and he had fun making her blush so that her freckles stood out and her eyes sparkled. He closed the door gently behind her and began to prepare for the day.

Frodo met Bilbo in the kitchen for second breakfast and his uncle greeted him warmly. Ponto was arguing with his father about the mayoral election and how it was "high time a Baggins held that office again".

When Bilbo heard this, his smile sagged into a scowl. "Which of you had the brilliant idea to nominate me as mayor? As if I did not have enough to do as Master of the Hill, now you want me to be mayor of the whole Shire? Well, I won’t do it!" he said petulantly, crossing his arms.

Posco chuckled and Milo smiled wryly. They knew well Bilbo’s dislike for politics and posturing (at least posturing that did no service). "You are a great contributor to the poor and less fortunate, Bilbo," said Ponto, quite oblivious to his brother-in-law’s grin. "You are well know… famous even! In spite of that, you would make a fine mayor."

"I’d rather tend bar at the Green Dragon! Wilcome Cotton is a popular and famous throughout the Shire... elect him mayor!" said Bilbo gruffly. Wil kept bar at the tavern in Bywater, and he would have laughed at Bilbo’s suggestion, just as Posco, Milo and Frodo did now. Ponto puffed his lips and drank his coffee, flummoxed at Bilbo’s renunciation.

"Well, the vote is set for Wednesday. On Thursday the ballots will be counted, and then there will be a new mayor of the Shire," Ponto said firmly.

Frodo refilled everyone’s cups. "We’ll have to move the Sheriff’s office to Hobbiton if you win, Bilbo, and the Messenger Service and Post Office, too. I don’t think that you will care to leave the comforts of Bag End to run things here." Bilbo began to expostulate and Ponto looked uncertain.

Ponto could not understand why Bilbo was not overwhelmed by this honour, nor had he anticipated the removal of the Offices. Those were local jobs and a source of pride for the towns. "Now, see here…" he began to say over Bilbo’s objections. Frodo laughed and placed a calming hand on his cousins’ shoulders. "I am only joking. It won’t happen. Ponto, Bilbo is famous and popular, but not among the older hobbits, and they are the ones who vote. Walt is good at his job, and everyone likes him. Why change things?"

Ponto grumbled and did not answer. Posco changed the subject quickly and they began to discuss the races scheduled for the day and whom they were wagering on, the new wines and pipeweed to be sampled and judged, and other activities that lay before their pleasure. Frodo listened to their talk, saying little and laughing a lot. He was still a young hobbit in the eyes of his elders, not of age and therefore still a child. Only Bilbo treated him like an equal, which make Ponto roll his eyes. Posco and Milo ignored him, and urged Frodo to enter the foot race that afternoon. Frodo agreed as if reluctant, but actually he had been looking forward to it.

As they rose to allow Gilly and Prisca to tidy their kitchen, Frodo grabbed his coat from the hall peg.

"Going off already, Frodo lad?" asked Bilbo. "I wonder if you would mind taking these down to Goodbody’s. Posco wants me to come down to the Town Hole and talk about politics. I am going to see if I can get myself out of this!" In a whispering voice, he added, "It is beginning to feel like a good time to disappear!" Louder, he said, "Don’t wear your eyes out, reading in that dim house all day. There are many folks who will be looking for you. Merry should be here today, and I have a wager on you for the race at three o’clock!"

"I will be there, Uncle! And I will win, like I did last year!" Frodo waved jauntily, hoisted the heavy bag of books high on his shoulder, and walked down the lane. Inwardly, he hoped that Bilbo would not have to "disappear". Something about that magic ring made him a trifle uneasy.

But he could not hold a mood of brooding for long. The air was crisp and the sun was warm. Frodo strolled purposefully, waving to folk and greeting maids, mothers and gammers with a bow. On the steps of the Lore Garden, Frodo found another friendly face. Samwise Gamgee, whittling a stick and grinning, rose to his feet as the older hobbit came near. Sam ducked his head in a bow, still grinning, brushing at the whittlings on his clothes.

"Sam! You made it!" Frodo was delighted to see his friend. "Where is the Gaffer?"

"Buffin’ his taters, no doubt," answered Samwise. "He’s entered the "Best Grown ‘Tater" competition, so he has, and gave me leave to do with the day as I wished, so long as I kept out from underfoot. I was hopin’ I’d find you here, sir. If you think Mr Goodbody wouldn’t mind…?"

"I am sure he won’t, but let’s not spend the whole morning at it, Sam. A free day must not be squandered! Let’s see if the Master is up yet, and get started, shall we?"

Master Goodbody would not allow so young a hobbit as Samwise to touch his precious books, but he did not mind if he sat near while Frodo read aloud. Samwise listened and watched, looking at the maps and pictures with interest. Frodo hoped that soon Bilbo would have more time to spend teaching Sam his letters.

Gluing a spine that had come apart, Goodbody glanced up to watch the two hobbits bent over the book on the table before them. Too few youngsters were interested in reading and books these days. It warmed his heart to see them here, in his dusty old study. Good lad that Drogo Baggins, he thought, then he squinted back down at his fingers that had become stuck together with paste. He sighed.


IV

Happy Hobbit times, 1392 S.R.

Frodo read a chapter of Bucklebury history to Sam, then called it quits for the day. The sunlight was shining enticingly down through the smeared windows of Goodbody’s house, and he heard laughter and smelled something that made his stomach rumble. He closed the book, hushing Sam’s protests and they left quietly as the master was nodding over his desk. Frodo paused briefly to seal the cap on the paste bottle before letting himself and Sam out.

Once outside, he said, "Come on, Sam! I can smell mushrooms. And it is high time for elevenses, by the fall of the sun."

"Aye, sir, that it is; and by the echoing in my belly!" Together they ran to the stalls that littered the green fields of Michael Delving. Frodo bought them each a great funnel of glazed mushrooms, and they walked about the busy booths and munched on them, licking their sticky fingers. "Hard to believe that all this land is riddled with tunnels," commented Sam as they strolled along. Every while and again they would pass a chimneystack, or a vent, letting air into and out of the great maze of tunnels that had been dug into the chalky soil. "Nice lawns."

"I can’t imagine living in a house, myself," said Frodo. "I think it might be rather cold in the winter time, with the wind blowing all around. I prefer a hole." They spoke of other small things and greeted the folk they knew. Sam fetched them mugs of creme ale to wash the mushrooms down, and after giving the Fair a turn round, they climbed a hill to overlook the tents and sit for a spell before lunch.

At the top of the hill, they found a strange sight. The miller and his son were there, right on the hill above the Town Hole. They were unloading their great burden of lumber there, or rather Ted was unloading it. Mr Sandyman was walking away down the hill to speak to some people he knew. "Get that wood down from the cart, Ted, and then come and have yer lunch!"

Sam was frowning when Frodo turned to look at him. "What’s wrong, Sam?"

Sam glanced down at his toes, "I don’t care much for the Miller or his son, Mr Frodo, but it is kinda hot on this hill in the sun, and Ted might get his job done quicker with more hands."

"Let’s give him some, then. I was just thinking the same thing myself." They walked up to the cart. "Good morning, Ted! Can we lend you a hand?" Frodo called out with a friendly air. He was eager to bury the animosity that had grown between him and Sandyman. There was no good to come from holding a grudge.

"Be off, Baggins!" answered Ted roughly, grunting as he tried to lift a beam of wood nearly as thick around as his leg. "There are no books around here! How’d figure you’d help me?"

"Like this," answered Sam, as he and Frodo each took an end of the beam Ted was pulling at. They lifted it between them and set it down next to the others. Ted glanced nervously over his shoulder toward his father. He was standing in the shade, talking to Old Noaks and Daddy Twofoot. "Quicker to unload, with three, don’t you think?" Ted allowed a smile to break on his face, and he ducked his head in gratitude.

In a thrice, they were finished, but hot and hungry. Frodo bought them all a round of ale at the kitchens. Ted looked as though he thought that the beer might bite his nose if he drank it. "Come on, Ted!" exclaimed Frodo. "Let’s pretend that we don’t dislike each other, just for one day! It’s the Fair!"

Ted grinned a little, and he reached for the mug. Just then, it was sent flying out of his hand. Sandyman stood glowering at his son, and he raked Frodo and Samwise with the same glare.

"What are you doin’, lolly-a-gagging around here with the gentry and the service? There is work to be done, boy! I told ye to unload that lumber!" He seized Ted by the ear and hauled him away before he could utter a protest or explanation. Frodo watched them go sadly.

"Well, it was worth the effort, lad," said Bilbo. He had come up behind the young hobbits and witnessed the tableau. "I am proud of you, Frodo." He patted the young hobbit on the shoulder. "How about a pint of that ale for an old hobbit, Samwise? Ponto had talked me dry, and he still isn’t convinced. And now Walt is worried that he’ll lose his job, and I don’t want it." Bilbo sighed, accepting the mug of ale that Sam brought him, "Thank you, Samwise! You saved my life!" He drank deeply, and sighed again. "Where is that father of yours? Vegetable judging? Well, I have to see this gi-enourmous ‘tater he has grown! The talk is all over the Fair. See you lads later!" and with that, he rose and walked away.

They finished their ale and set out again. Neither felt very hungry anymore, so they walked around looking at all the hobbits milling about; ladyhobbits dressed in fine array, and gentlehobbits in coats and vests, poking among the wares displayed under canopies of white and blue and yellow. They saw a group of Dwarves assembling a forge near the craft tent and hurried over to watch them work. Frodo had met a few dwarves, as Bilbo had many friends in the Blue Mountains and Erebor, where Lonely Mountain rose in the mists. Seeing them put Frodo in a mind to tell tales, and he hauled Sam away to the open-air pub, where a tale-telling contest was underway.

Isingrim Took was telling a tale when they arrived, and frowned when his audience began to chatter as Frodo joined the circle, sitting on the grass with Sam just behind him. They settled down and listened as the speaker continued, telling a story about his great- great- grandfather Isingrim Took the second (or third, the story kept changing). When he finished the tale, everyone applauded politely.

"Good tale, ’Grim," said Frodo, nudging Samwise slightly with his elbow. "I was rather hoping to hear a faerie story."

"Hurumph!" grunted Isingrim, as he glared at Frodo and the chuckling Sam. "Faerie tales are for children, to keep them in bed at night and out of trouble! We spin tales for older ears here, Baggins!"

"Then you probably don’t want to hear about Fafred Proudfoot and the Faerie Tiger," said Frodo with a feigned sigh, making as if to rise and leave. The other hobbits in the circle began to stamp their feet, chanting. "Bag-gins! Bag-gins! Bag-gins!"

"Well... if you insist, " said Frodo. Tossing Sam his coat, he spun into a tale. His audience listened raptly; even Isingrim was hanging on his words. Sam had stuffed a corner of his tunic in his mouth. They watched as Frodo enacted the parts of the tale, changing his voice for each character. He mimed the meeting with the Faerie Tiger in the woods, and how Fafred Proudfoot climbed the tree to escape being eaten. Laughter sprinkled the ring of listeners, and others paused and gathered round, attracted by the merriment.

Just as Fafred had tricked the Faerie Tiger into chasing its tail around the tree, three bells sounded out on the fields, signaling the beginning of the races. It was almost 3 o’clock! Frodo was late for his footrace!

"I’ll finish the story later," he said, and to the exasperation of his audience, Frodo took off at a run. Sam scurried behind him as fast as he could, carrying the forgotten jacket.

Frodo arrived at the leveled field just as the other runners were assembling. He stripped off his vest, tunic and shirt, as the competitors ran naked to the waist. He hurried to a place along the starting line. Sam came behind slower, gathering his discarded clothing.

Merry Brandybuck was there, the youngest runner competing that day. He gave Frodo a grin and a nod. There were a couple of Tooks, and a lanky Burrows Frodo remembered from last year. Ted Sandyman stood there also, wearing a light sleeveless shirt. He was stretching his arms and avoiding Frodo’s eye.

"Do me proud, Frodo lad!" Bilbo called from behind the young hobbit. Frodo grinned and waved, not looking because Claude Downs had lifted his bell and was bringing the small hammer down to start the race. Just before it struck, Frodo heard Bilbo say, "I say, Mr Maggot! I did not know you were coming to the Fair this year. Is that a new dog?"

Adrenaline that Frodo could not control surged through him, and he took off running as the bell pealed the start. He left the other runners in his dust and reached the finish line with more energy to go on, but he stopped, laughing breathlessly at his clever Uncle’s trick.

"You really wanted to win that wager, didn’t you?" Frodo accused him. Bilbo laughed and handed Frodo a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his face.

"I just wanted to see the look on the Thain’s face when he lost his wager with me. Get cleaned up and dressed, Frodo, and meet us at the pub. Paladin’s brought his son, and you should have a greeting for his wife, too."

"Yes, sir," Frodo said agreeably. As he bathed his face with the waterbarrel, he noticed the hill above the Town Hole where a skeletal structure of wood was being assembled. Frodo wondered what it was all about.

"Good run!" Frodo felt Merry pound his back playfully. He wrestled with the young Brandybuck, dunking his head in the trough of water. "Leave off, Baggins!" cried Merry, "I won five copper pennies with that run!"

"You bet against yourself?" Frodo was appalled.

"No, Folco Boffin bet against me, the rogue, but he felt so bad about it he split his winning with me! I would have got naught if I won!"

"Just a pat and a mug of beer... which sounds good right now! Come on, I am going to meet Peregrin now." Frodo slipped on his shirt, then Sam held his vest for him to thread his arms into.

"Oh, that lad," Merry said, pulling his shirt over his damp hair, "He is going to be a wild Took when he grow up, if Paladin doesn’t lock him in a wardrobe for the rest of his days!" Merry regaled Frodo with stories of the child’s exploits to date, as they walked to the pub.

Frodo shook his head in wonder. "He is only two years old, Merry!"

"Two and a half, and he can tell you the days and hours, too. He’ll make a great Thain someday; that’s what Saradoc says."

Frodo pulled on his jacket and smoothed his wild curls as they walked. The race had awakened his hunger and he hoped that he could find an odd thing to eat once they reached the pub. Merry walked along side him, chattering unceasingly about the things that had happened since last Frodo had visited Bucklebury. Sam plodded along behind, wanting nothing more than to spend the day with Frodo, besides a spot of late lunch or early tea.

At the pub, Frodo bowed low to his cousins Paladin and Eglantine Took. Aunt‘ine, as Frodo had always called her, placed a round squirming hobbitlad in Frodo’s arms. Peregrin stopped wriggling and stared up at his cousin with huge green eyes, as if he were the strangest thing he had ever seen in his young life.

"Quite a handful, Aunt’ine," Frodo said, then he looked down into Peregin’s face. Gently he said to him, "So you are Pippin, are you? You weigh as much as a bushel of apples, you do!

Pippin watched him, smiled when Frodo spoke to him. He wriggled out of Frodo’s hold and walked steadily to his mother, wrapping himself in her velvet skirts, but for his head and his eyes that never left Frodo’s face. Merry clucked his tongue. "That is the first time I have ever seen him become shy!"

"And most likely the last!" everyone laughed as Pippin began to wander around his mother, never letting go of her skirt. He twisted it tight around her legs walking one way, then unwound it and wrapped around the other way. Eglantine just stood still and smiled down at her son.

They found seats and began to chat, and to Frodo’s relief they received an early tea, with cakes and wonderful cream and herb-dipped vegetables, very tasty with tea on a late afternoon. Frodo ate his fill and began to feel drowsy, but he was having so much fun he did not want to break up the party. He closed his eyes for just a second, it seemed, when Bilbo touched his elbow gently.

"Lad, why don’t you take your drowsy friends up the hill and catch a nap under the trees? Tonight is Bonfire Night, and I imagine you will all be up until the crows cry at dawn, so best to catch a wink or two. Run off now, lads!"

V.

Midsummer's Night


Bonfire Night! Bonfire Night!
Smell of grass and fuel wood burning
Dancing 'neath the stars so bright
Above our heads now turning

Bonfire Night! Bonfire Night!
All the elders are asleep
Their weary heads on pillows alight
Beneath the blankets heap'd

This is the hour, this is the time
All the children running wild
We tend the fires, we sing the rhyme
On this night of Summer mild

The hills were ablaze as if each housed a dragon. Sam was watching with round eyes. This was his first midsummer at the Free Fair and he had ever seen such a sight before.

In Hobbiton, Midsummer bonfire was a single heaped stack of waste wood and branches in the Bywater square, and most of the adults stayed up at the Dragon while the younger hobbits tended the fire, watching to make sure that no cinders or strong winds spread the flames to the houses or fields nearby. Usually the fire burned low quickly and was no more than a bed of embers the next morning. All the young hobbits would be sleeping on the grass behind the inn.

Here there were ten, maybe twenty fires each as large as the one in Bywater, and they climbed into the sky. By each fire an adult hobbit stood, silent and alert, with a pail of sand and a pail of water and a shovel, with a horn strung round his neck. They watched as the young hobbits kept the fires burning with a supply of wood, each eager to wait out the night and see the sun rise. It was custom, if the fires burned all the night through till dawn, good luck and a fine harvest would come to their town that year.

There were plenty of hobbits tending the fires, and more running from one to the next playing games with their friends or singing, toasting snacks over coals and generally running amok through the night. Every young hobbit had been drilled in responsible behaviour by their parents before they were allowed to stay up all night. And here and there, in the darkness could be seen a taller figure, walking or standing, making sure that no harm came to the innocent merrymakers. If one watched carefully, the hedgerows would light up with the glow of a drawn pipe, and sweet smoke drifted across the gleam of the Lithe pyres.

Frodo loved this holiday. He had to constantly remind himself to walk slowly so that Sam could keep up. Merry was trotting beside them, running backwards and all but dancing in his excitement. Of course, Bonfire Night in Bucklebury was much better than anywhere in the Shire, according to the proud young hobbit. Frodo did not recall any special occurrences during his childhood in Buckland, but he did not say as much. He enjoyed the bottomless enthusiasm that his cousin was capable of generating, so he overlooked Merry's tendancy to boast.

Frodo had a habit on Bonfire Night. He liked to visit each fire, adding something to the flames. It was sort of a ritual he had made for himself; each year that he did this his luck seemed to improve. Not that he had many things he needed to wish for, being well taken-care of by his uncle. He wished mostly for good things for his friends, fortune for the poor hobbits, good weather for the farmers, rain for the flowers, clear skies for viewing the stars. He wrote his wishes down on little scraps of parchment throughout the year, twisting them into tiny rolls and keeping them in a small box. Then on this night he filled his pockets with old wishes and began his rounds. This summer he wondered, as he groped in his pocket, if he had enough wishes for all the fires he saw. It seemed the whole horizon was alive with orange and red flames.

At their third stop, Frodo encountered the group who had been listening to his tale earlier that day. They insisted that he finish the tale, as they were all eager to hear the ending. Actually, they required that he begin again and tell it properly through the finish. He obliged them, enjoying the way the firelight played on the faces of his audience. When he told of the Faerie Tiger running and running, trying to catch his tail around the tree, until he ran himself into a puddle of butter, and Fafred Proudfoot slid down the tree trunk in triumph, scooping up a pail of sweet tiger-butter for his poor starving family; Frodo's listeners roared with approval and applauded, then they scattered in all directions as the midnight bell tolled in the White Downs dell.

Frodo grabbed Sam and they ran with Merry into the darkness. Bad luck it was, to be caught in the firelight when the twelfth bell struck!

More fires and more wishes burned. Sam was walking slower and Merry was falling into longer and longer lapses of silence, his face thoughtful. As Frodo went forward to kindle yet another twist of paper, Merry leaned over and spoke softly to Sam beyond the edge of the light. He whispered excitedly and Sam listened, chewing his lip. He shook his head as Merry asked him something, then laughed aloud. When Frodo turned, they broke apart. Frodo wiped the smoke from his eyes. He dug in his pocket and found only one wish left, twisted into a knot.

Frodo remembered this wish. He had tied it differently than the others because he devoutly wanted this wish to come about. He grew a touch melancholy as he remembered the day he had written it down...

Bilbo had slept late that morning. He had been up in the wee hours of the night, writing in his study in the big red-bound book. Frodo had woken and crept to his door to peek in on him. Bent over the ledger, his hair grey but not as grey as it should have been for a hobbit of his years; Bilbo's face was full of a memory.

Frodo imagined that he knew which memory it was. Alone in that dark tunnel, free air on one end and a dragon on the other, Bilbo had went ahead toward the dragon, taking those brave steps to prove to himself his own worth. That moment had left a mark on the hobbit, one deeper than the burn of dragon's breath or scars from a fall or a swordstroke.

Frodo had wished, as he watched his uncle sitting with ink drying on his quill, reliving that moment with fire in his eyes; he had wished that his uncle would never, never leave him. Frodo knew it was a selfish wish, and that it could never come true, but he could not throw the paper away. It seemed to have no cost, just to hope beyond wisdom. He kept it in his pocket always, and now he strode toward the last bonfire rubbing the soft parchment between his fingers.

Dawn was not far away. Sam was sleepy and Merry distracted. The fires were burning low, some mere coals with a blue dancing of flames waving like pendants in the grey air.

As Frodo stepped forward, he saw someone standing next to the fire that seemed familiar to him. He walked round and was surprised to find Bilbo on the other side of the smoke, feeding posters with his face painted on them to the flames.

Frodo laughed. "Find them all, did you?" he asked.

Bilbo chuckled. "Yes, and the pile of them that Ponto has been tacking up to replace the ones I took down! That is the last of them." He flung the stack into the fire, then dusted his palms. He fished in his pocket and pulled out his pipe.

"You would make a great mayor, uncle," said Frodo, "but I prefer to keep you to myself, to be honest." Frodo drew out the twist of paper, looked at it with a smile, and tossed it into the fire on top of Bilbo's burning likenesses.

"Me, too!" agreed Bilbo. "And tomorrow I shall take steps to insure that I shall not be elected mayor. But you needn't worry about it at all, my lad. Did you make all the fires tonight?"

"Yes, Bilbo. I am finished."

"Let's go back to the smial, then. Gilly will have a breakfast for us and your friends, you can all sleep-in while we grown-ups jaw and dicker about the Fair. I will see you in the Lore Garden in the afternoon. I must speak to Goodbody about rebinding the Great Tookish Tales. By then, everything should be ready for Thursday."

"What will happen, uncle?" asked Frodo with a yawn. He wished he could be more alert, but the growing sunlight seemed to be weighing down his eyelids. He wondered if he could stay awake long enough to eat breakfast.

"Nothing you need worry about, dear boy! Untold is unheard, and unlooked-for is unseen!" and Bilbo winked at Frodo and laid an arm across his shoulders as they walked toward White Downs.

Trailing behind them came Merry and Sam, alert and listening carefully.

VI

Happy hobbit days, indeed, but something his happening at the Fair beneath the cultivated lawns and forced merriment. Who will become mayor of the Shire? Will Bilbo Baggins take the honour, or will Will Whitfoot keep his title and job? And what mischief is brewing above Town Hole? Lazy days of summer may dampen the minds of the most curious hobbit, but it cannot keep a Baggins from scratching his head.


The next morning was as blissful as one Frodo could remember. He slept late and ate well, courtesy of Gilly and Posca, who lingered around the house keeping children near the smial while the elders ran the Fair. Frodo was curious about what they did all morning, so that they wanted all young hobbits out from underfoot. But he would not find out, not this year. He relaxed in the parlour with Merry and Sam, and all the young cousins, still too tired from their nocturnal activities to be very rambunctious or mischievous.

After noon, he went to the Lore Garden, parting with Sam at the porch. His gaffer needed him in the Vegetable patch, where the competitions for "Best Grown" vegetables, fruits, and flowers were preparing to begin. Merry tagged along with Frodo, not as curious about the books as eager to learn what Bilbo was up to, though of course he did not say as much aloud. He picked up a book when they walked into Goodbody's house, feigning interest. The master promptly snatched it out of his hands, bonking him lightly on his hard little head with it; a reminder not to touch without asking. Merry grinned and rubbed his head, apologizing with a bow.

Mollified, the master turned back to Bilbo and Paladin, both sitting at his desk where they had been having a discussion. Frodo listened for a while, then taking up a small volume he led Merry outside to the porch, where the young hobbits sat while Frodo had Merry read to him.

Merry was well lettered for a hobbit his age. After adopting Frodo, Bilbo had pressured Saradoc to arrange formal lessons for teaching the young hobbits to read in Bucklebury. Not all families were keen to allow their children to participate in this instruction, preferring to give their own children such learning, when and if they found the necessity or the time. But some few, Merry included, showed much enthusiasm to learn, as least in the winter-time when there was nothing more interesting to do outside.

Merry read slowly but clearly and Frodo was pleased with his improvement. He felt that the joy of reading should be everyone's pleasure, not just the upper-class hobbits. He was hoping to get Samwise and some of the other young hobbits from poorer families to receive more learning, too. He had discussed it with Bilbo before, but here were some things about hobbit customs that he did not yet understand. Why was it such a bad thing, to teach someone to read?

Merry had stopped reading when he realized that Frodo was not listening anymore. His cousin's eyes were fixed on the distance, gazing across the fields where a faint breeze was rippling the tents and barely lifting the pendants. On a hill nearby, noisy hammering and the shriek of saws biting wood sounded. Merry nudged Frodo from his daydreaming and pointed, "What on earth are they building above Town Hole, cousin?"

Frodo turned and focused his wayward attention on the activity. Yesterday it had been but a scare-crow structure of beams, but the work had been underway busily today and it was taking shape quickly. "It looks like a tall, narrow house! Who would want to live in such a strange structure?"

"It is a bell-tower, ninnyhammers," came a voice behind them. Ted Sandyman was standing there, a bucket of nails in his meaty hand. "Mayor Whitfoot ordered it built. Wants it finished before Wednesday, he does." He set down the heavy pail of nails, wiped his right hand on his shirt and held it out to Frodo. Frodo took his hand gladly, but winced as the strong young hobbit squeezed so hard as to nearly crush his fingers. "I appreciate what you did for me yesterday, Baggins," whispered Ted tightly, "but it is no favour to me to be a friend of yours. We don't belong to the same class, and never will. Keep your distance, rich boy, and I'll keep mine."

Merry began to protest, and Ted pushed him so that he fell back into the dust. Frodo's face grew dark and he returned Ted's grip until the younger hobbit yelped and jerked his hand away.

"If you do not care to be civil and friendly, that is your choice, Sandyman," said Frodo coldly, "I will not beg for friendship, but do not think that I will stand idly by while you torment those weaker than yourself." Frodo gave Merry a hand up, turned his back on Ted and walked away. Ted watched them go, rubbing his hand and frowning.

"Wow, Frodo," chattered Merry, slapping the dirt from his trousers as they walked. They were heading toward the corner of a nearby garden, well away from the Fair and out of sight of the houses. Frodo did not speak, but walked into the trees to a shady spot and sat down. His face was still flushed and his fists were clenched so that his knuckles were white. "What's wrong, Frodo?" asked Merry. He had never seen his cousin like this. "Did Ted hurt your hand?"

"No, Merry. I am just very angry and I need a moment to calm down. Let's just sit here for a while, and then we'll go and find us some honeycakes or something."

"Okay, Frodo," said Merry uncertainly. He knew somehow that Frodo would prefer to be alone for a little while. "Let me take the book back to Master Goodbody. I'll tell Bilbo..."

"Nothing. You will say nothing of this to Bilbo or anyone, Meriadoc Brandybuck, if you have any respect for me at all. This is a private matter. Please," Frodo added, his blue eyes serious and piercing. Merry thought he looked saddened.

"Yes, of course Frodo. However you want. I will be right back." The young hobbit fled to the house, slipped in and placed the book on the shelf where Frodo had taken it and left again, without the three adults noticing him at all. They were deeply engrossed in their talk. He walked slowly back toward the garden, giving Frodo the quiet moments he needed.

Frodo thrust the incident behind him and collected Merry, and took him around the Fair doing all the things Merry enjoyed, so that the young hobbit seemed to completely forget about the altercation. Frodo kept them away from Town Hole, going to the Gardening Tent to see how the awards had been distributed. Widow Threadgirdle had indeed come away with the ribbon for "Best Rose In Bloom", dethroning Vitra Hornblower. Anise Brockhouse had produced the "Best Gourd", a pumpkin so large that it barely fit in the back of the waggon and needed four strong hobbits to lift it.

Sam greeted them with a beaming smile of pride; his gaffer had taken the award for the "Best Grown Tater" and he happily showed off the massive thing. Merry wondered aloud how many chips it would produce, if they were to slice it up. Sam hushed him with a barely suppressed giggle.

"Now, don't be a-sayin' that where he can hear you, Mr Merry. I heard him talkin' to the thing this morning. I think he named it 'Burt'."

The young hobbits roared with laughter, earning them a coarse invitation to "get out of 'ere if yer not bein' useful" from the Gaffer, who was smiling as he said this. He touched his forelock to Frodo and Merry with respect and ruffled his son's hair affectionately. He gave Sam a copper penny and pushed him out of the tent. "And stay away from Town Hole, lads," he called to them as they ran off. "Nothing up there for young hobbits to get into. Mind yourself, Gamgee!"

"Yes, sir!" answered Sam.

They fell out of their run to a slow walk, for the crowds in the Fair grounds had grown as thick as the air in the spending afternoon. Every hobbit was busy getting somewhere, and in the press of folk, Frodo began to feel rather stifled. "Let's get up where there is some air," he said, "until the crowds stop milling about. There are folks walking on my feet more than I am!"

They retreated to a low hill that afforded a fine view of the tents and lifted them above the noise, swept with clean air from the Downs. They lay on the grass and spoke of the things they had overheard that day.

"Tomorrow is Wednesday," said Merry, "the last day of the voting. Maybe that is what the gammers and gaffers are all excited about. Saradoc says that Will Whitfoot may have to step down for your uncle, Frodo."

'I hope not', thought Frodo, but aloud he said, "I don't think we need worry about that, Merry. Bilbo doesn't care for the honour and he is confident that Will shall be mayor after the ballots are counted Thursday."

"I would vote from Mr Bilbo, sir, if I were old enough," said Sam boldly. He was laying on his back on the grass behind the bench where Frodo and Merry were sitting, his hands behind his head, staring at the sky. "Looks a bit like rain, Mr Frodo. You want me to run to Mr Posco's home and bring your cloak?"

"No, thank you, Sam," said Frodo. "I think we'll head back to the Lore Garden and do some reading while the daylight holds. Maybe Bilbo has finished his discussion with Master Goodbody."

"You two go on," said Merry, standing and stretching. "I have no head for books today. I am going round the Fair again, and try to find some fun." He wandered off with a jaunty wave.

"That sounds like trouble," whispered Frodo to Sam with a smile. They jogged back to the Lore Garden. The sky seemed to be taking Sam's suggestion, and was growing dark and a cool wind was picking up the pendants and stirring the flaps of the tents with a fickle breeze. Their path took them past Town Hole, and they slowed to gaze up at the tall tower being built there. Sam's brow was puckered, but he made no comment. Frodo shielded his eyes and saw Sandyman and his son, and several other hobbits, labouring hard to finish the building. It stood above all the other hills like a finger or a limbless, dead tree, breaking the rolling landscape with its sharp angles. It would be striking, certainly, thought Frodo, smiling at the pun. A striking bell-tower. He must remember to tell Bilbo that one.

They were just turning away when they heard the strangest sound ever to touch their ears. A groan, like a giant in pain, or the very earth itself in the throes of an illness, seemed to be coming from the ground beneath their feet. Frodo gasped as the bell-tower above them began to shudder. Small figures could be seen running away from the building, crying out in alarm. The mouth of Town Hole was right in front of Frodo and Sam. A great cloud of air, thick with white chalk and dust, belched out of the opening, blowing the two young hobbits off of their feet with its force, and flattening several tents that were also in line with the door.

Frodo found himself flat on his back, and saw the tower collapse like a child's game of twigs, and the once tall hill of Town Hole sank in upon itself. The air filled with billows of white smoke. Frodo coughed. It was difficult to breath. His vision began to swim.

His next moment of awareness was of being slapped sharply across the face. For an instant, he thought that Ted had come and was threatening Merry again, and he woke up with a fist raised to return the enmity, but he saw his uncle, not Ted, and he relaxed and was immediately seized with coughing. Bilbo wore a worried expression, and fanned Frodo with his hand to give him more air. "Frodo? Can you hear me, lad?"

Frodo tried to say yes, but his throat was choked with dust. He managed only to nod his head. Bilbo shouted to someone to bring some water to him, and Frodo saw next to him Sam laying in Paladin's arms. The Thain was gently wiping his friend's face with a cloth. Sam seemed scared but unhurt.

Someone handed Bilbo a wineskin, and he held it to Frodo's lips. Dry and bitter, it was, but cool and cleansing; Frodo drank to rinse the chalk from his mouth. He spat the first mouthful out, as Bilbo advised him, then drank again. Bilbo handed the wineskin to Paladin, for Sam to drink. "Not as good as water, but it will do," joked Bilbo, though his face was serious and pinched. He touched Frodo's arms and legs, asking if he had pain anywhere. Frodo shook his head; he was not hurt.

The sky began to weep, and the dust started to clear from the air. Frodo began to breathe easier, though now he was chilled as his clothes became soaked. Bilbo slipped an arm under him and helped him walk toward a tent that had not been collapsed, where he could sit out the rain. Frodo sank down gratefully, He felt as though something heavy was sitting on his chest. Paladin carried Samwise and set him next to Frodo. The younger hobbit seemed okay, but still stunned. Apparently Frodo had inadvertently shielded him from the full force of the shock, knocking him down as he himself was flung to the ground. Sam reached for Frodo's hand, and they sat together beneath the tarpaulin, shivering and staring at the ruin of the Town Hole.

"That tower was too heavy!" they heard someone exclaim. "The whole Hole has collapsed. Will was in there, and how many others... who knows! How terrible!"

Frodo overheard this and he thought that he should feel bad, but he was having trouble understanding what had happened. It still seemed like a dream. Then someone shouted again, and a cry of wonder went up; a lone figure, very much the fattest hobbit Frodo had ever seen, came wandering out of the ruin of the Town Hole.

He was covered entirely with white chalk, so that he appeared to be a flour dumpling with legs and arms, staggering around when he should be lying in a stew. Frodo could not stifle the giggle that bubbled from his lips. It made him cough again, but he could not stop. It was positively the funniest thing he had ever seen.

Sam began to chuckle, too, relieved that Frodo was okay and at seeing Mayor Whitfoot looking like a plump ghost waddling out of the ruins of his chalky tomb. He covered his mouth and snickered, though Frodo was making more than enough noise to cover the sound of his mirth.

Bilbo hastened forward to take Will's arm, and led him to the tent out of the rain. The moisture had turned the chalk into a pasty clay that clung to the Mayor's face and clothes. As he came nearer, Frodo struggled to regain control of himself. He breathed deeply and drank some more from the wineskin that Paladin held for him.

"Steady, lad. Just relax and keep breathing. You have had all the Fair today that you need."

Frodo nodded, and closed his eyes. The wine was making his head spin, and he was beginning to feel a little sick. As his consciousness lapsed, he heard Sam begging him to wake up, but he could not answer. He wondered what the bells would have sounded like, ringing in the tall tower above the Downs.

VII

With the collapse of the Town Hole, Michael Delving was in chaos. Will Whitfoot had been the only person in the smial when the weight of the new bell-tower had caused it to cave-in; all the folk had been out in the Fairgrounds, participating in Barter Day. With the children out of the way, the older hobbits would go about, haggling for items and trading them for others, hoping to end the day with some useful or valuable item. For this was the game that the adults played, the mystery that Frodo had a mind to discover but now, he would not know for another year at least.

Bilbo had bundled him up and taken him back to Posco's hole, forgetting entirely about the campaign and all his other business. The cave-in had caused all the yards of air inside to rush suddenly out, like a bagpipe squeezed, and all that air had blown out through the opening of the front door. It had lifted the young hobbits and tossed them like leaves. They were near buried in chalk and half suffocated, and lucky not to have been broken or blinded. Bilbo was not taking any chances with the lads. He brought a doctor to see the children and kept them in bed for several days. The Gaffer had been moved in to be nearby so he could watch over his son. Bilbo insisted that the two young ones remain together as they convalesced. Sam recovered more quickly and was up helping care for Frodo after a couple days, where Gilly and Posca would permit him.

Frodo was grateful to lie abed. The heaviness in his chest was oppressive, and he felt weak and lightheaded and his ears rang strangely. He slept and drank the tea the doctor gave him and Sam was always near, sleeping on a trundle bed that Bilbo had had brought into Frodo's room. After Frodo felt better, Merry and some of his other friends came in and told him what had occured during the last days of the Fair, and how it happened that Will Whitfoot, now affectionately known as Flour Dumpling, retained his title of Mayor of the Shire.

When the Town Hole had collapsed, Will had been inside working on his speech for the Mayoral Debate. He was scheduled to face Bilbo the following evening for a public discussion where the two candidates would talk of what plans they had for the Shire. The hobbits voting were invited to attend and listen, and thus base their selection on the hobbit they thought would bring about the best government for the next seven years.

Will had been worried; Bilbo was famous and rather popular, thought his views were somewhat extreme; many folks thought him most unsuitable for the office, with his adventurous tendancies and all. What no one knew was that the whole nomination of Bilbo was but an attempt by the Sackville-Bagginses to get Bilbo out of Hobbiton with his contentious young cousin that he called a nephew. Lotho wanted to be Master of the Hill and to live in Bag End very much. He perusaded Ponto to place the nomination, and had funded the campaign secretly to promote Bilbo Baggins as Mayor, even though Bilbo did not want the office.

After the incident, most folk felt rather sorry for poor Will, and they did not have the heart to vote him out of office. It was bad enough that his home in the Town Hole was in ruins, and would have to be dug out and relocated. The debate was cancelled and when the ballots were counted, it was nearly unanimous that Will should remain as Mayor. When the relieved hobbit hosted the Farewell Banquet, he toasted his opponent and asked that everyone attending extend their prayers for the full recovery of Bilbo's nephew and his little friend.

Bit by bit it came out to Frodo what had occured when the Town Hole collapsed. He remembered very little of it at all, but Merry and Sam with their clever ears had overheard much gossip, and had pieced together a tale for him. They spoke it to him as he lay propped up with pillows. He was still breathing with some difficulty and had a persistant cough that was keeping him in bed.

Bilbo had been planning with his friends the Thain and Opus Goodbody what he would discuss at the Debate the next day when the disaster struck. They had heard the noise, and the windows of the Lore Garden had been rattled so hard that many panes had cracked and fallen out. Bilbo saw the two young hobbits borne down by the concussion of the blast. He had run out to them before even the tower had fully collapsed, his heart clenched in fear that one of the small figures might have been Frodo.

Sure enough when he clawed through the pile of chalky dirt, he uncovered his nephew. Beneath him lay Samwise, stunned and shaken. Sam had a bump on his head from hitting the ground when Frodo had been thrown against him. Paladin reached them after Bilbo and took young Gamgee in his arms to see if he was injured. Bilbo turned Frodo over gently. Frodo's nose and ears were bleeding and he appeared not to be breathing.

For a fraction of a second, Bilbo was afraid that Frodo was dead, and almost his heart stopped within him. He touched the lad's throat with a trembling hand, feeling for the faint fluttering of a heartbeat. Bilbo shook him gently, then more firmly when the lad did not respond. Recalling suddenly what Balin had done when they had fished Bombur from the enchanted waters into which he had fallen in Mirkwood, when they had feared that the corpulent Dwarf had drowned. Bilbo dealt Frodo a blow across his pale face, as the Dwarf had done his companion. Frodo had gasped and his eyes had started open. He struggled in Bilbo's arms until he recognized his uncle, then he fell back and began to cough.


Frodo's friends paused in their tale as he began coughing again, but he waved away the concern on their faces. He covered his mouth and cleared his throat. So much dust had he inhaled, inadvertantly, that still his lungs were congested. Frodo wiped his eyes with a kerchief and nodded to Merry to continue the tale. Talking was a labour that the doctor had forbidden to the young hobbit for some days yet.

"Well," Merry said, winding up his tale, "They brought you here straight away, and here you are, living like a king while all the rest of us are working like beavers to clean up the Town Hole and the Fair Grounds. I do hope you are enjoying yourself, Frodo," Merry added with a smile, "you always seem to find a plausable excuse to get out of the real work!"

Frodo smiled and mouthed silently, "All part of my plan, Master Brandybuck."

The door opened then, and Bilbo stepped into the room. He smiled to see Frodo sitting up, and patted Merry on the head. "Hullo, lads! Meriadoc, why don't you take Samwise here to the kitchen and see if you two can talk Mrs Bolger out of some tea and cakes for us all?" He closed the door behind them, then sat down in the chair next to Frodo's bed. "Feeling better, lad?" he asked.

Frodo nodded, smiling at his uncle. "If you feel better yet tomorrow, we might go home. Doctor Tarsus had granted leave for me to move you, if you feel up to it. Would you like to go home?"

Frodo nodded and he caught Bilbo's arm, so that Bilbo leaned close enough to hear his soft whisper. "I am sorry to hear you did not get to be Mayor, uncle," he said, blue eyes twinkling with humour.

Bilbo laughed and mussed his hair gently. "I have job of work enough for me governing you, Frodo Baggins! Oh, and I nearly forgot to tell you... don't expect a visit from your Uncle Otho and Aunt Lobelia. I am afraid they left this morning, after hearing the doctor give his leave for you to go home. They seemed rather put off, I must say. And I gave your regards to Paladin and Elgantine when they went back to Tuckborough. They promised to bring little Peregrin to Hobbiton after you fully recover, so that you can get to know your cousin better."

Sam and Merry returned then, each bearing a tray and Gilly came with them. She poured Frodo a cup of tea from his "special pot" and stirred in a generous dollop of honey. They all sat down and kept Frodo company until his eyes grew heavy, then they crept out softly to let him sleep. There was a long ride to look to on the morrow.