Dappled Shadows and Flagstone Floors - Pt. I - The First of the BFS Series (Bilbo, Frodo and Sam - pre and post-Quest)

It was the year 1386 in Shire-reckoning, in the early fall when apples were ripe for the picking and the late summer rains had produced vast crops of hay and barley.

The teenager sat under a lone tree near a golden hay-field, his nose buried in the sack of mushrooms he'd pilfered from Farmer Maggot's crop. It was only a quarter-peck--nothing the old gaffer would miss out of his abundance. Maggot's fields were well-known in the area, and Frodo Baggins was not the only hobbit who filched vegetables on occasion. He sat back, savoring the aroma, his mind set on washing the harvest in a little stream on the way home. He would eat them all, of course, before getting home, otherwise he'd have to share them with a score of other young and always hungry hobbits. The slight pang of guilt he'd felt when he picked them nagged at him a bit, but not enough to persuade him to take them back.

Of course he knew he shouldn't be taking Farmer Maggot's vegetables. His cousin Bilbo had cautioned Frodo many times about his light-fingered practices, notably a few days ago, on occasion of his last visit. "You're going to get caught one of these days, my lad," he had warned. "You mark my words! Maggot's a good soul, but he won't abide this constant snatching, from you or anyone else. Don't think old Rory doesn't have his suspicions, either, and he won't stand for it one bit if he finds out you've been stealing!"

Frodo flinched at Bilbo's severe tone and widened his blue eyes innocently. "But Bilbo, it's not stealing, really! Farmer Maggot expects a certain amount of--erm--borrowing during the growing season. Besides, he's always going about giving food away to folks," he added.

If he had hoped to soften Bilbo's mood by this reasoning, however, Frodo was in for disappointment. Bilbo was on to the lad, and grew more alarmed each time he visited Buckland. The boy wanted discipline, nor did he show any indication of just good plain hobbit-raising, for that matter. The lad was running wild, eating the wrong things, staying out all hours of the night, and earning quite a reputation for a child of only 18 years.

To look at the younger Baggins, at least at first glance, one would say Frodo appeared much like any other hobbit his age. He was of average height, possessing sound teeth and a vast quantity of hair which badly needed cutting. He was no less portly than most hobbit-children his age, but his small frame didn't carry the weight as well as someone with a build like Bilbo's, for instance. Upon closer inspection, however, one could not help but notice a redness around the lad's eyes, and not enough rose in the boy's cheeks. Frodo sauntered when he walked, too, unlike the general bounce of healthy youngsters. Some folk took his gait for laziness and disinterest, but Bilbo knew better than that. The boy had a brain; it just needed exercising.

Not for the first time did Bilbo entertain the thought of taking Frodo into his own home. Not for the first time, either, did he chastise himself for being a daft fool who had no business meddling in the affairs of child-rearing, old crusty bachelor such as he was. Bilbo had gone home after his visit, leaving warnings and advice that he feared went in one of Frodo's rather dirty ears and out the other.

Frodo was thinking of Bilbo now, smiling at some of the tales the elder Baggins spun, stories that sparked his imagination and painted living pictures on the night's velvet canvas. He thought, too, of Bilbo's generosity, how he gave gifts freely even when it wasn't his birthday and was easy with his money, reputedly brought back from Smaug's lair many years before Frodo was born. Good ol' Bilbo! he thought, fondly. How he missed him!

Glancing at the fragrant bag in his hands, Frodo decided he might just share his booty with the other hobbit children after all. He was pushing himself to stand when a blow to the side of his head sent him sprawling. The bag of mushrooms flew out of his hand and landed a few feet away, spilling its contents on the ground.

"Caught ya, you little rogue! I've seen some nerve in my lifetime, and that's a fact, but you, laddy, top the hill!"

Frodo felt a large, strong hand grab him by the shirt collar, jerking him to his feet and ripping his shirt in the process. Two hands grabbed him by the shoulders and whirled him around. He looked up into the brown, angry eyes of Farmer Maggot, and smiled weakly.

"Afternoon, Sir. How is Mrs. Maggot, Sir?" he wheedled, smiling sweetly, a trick that often worked back in the busy warren where he lived. The smile slid off his face quickly enough when he saw Maggot's unchanging glare.

"I'll afternoon you, you little thief. Thought you were putting it over on me, weren't you? Sneaking in at different times of the day, going to sundry fields and orchards!"

"But Mr. Maggot, I..."

"Don't you talk back to me, you scoundrel! I know how you get away with things there in Buckland, folks feeling sorry for you and all, `cause your parents are dead! But you won't..."

"Leave my parents out of this," Frodo said quietly, his hands curling into fists.

"Well and good I will. They'd turn over in their graves if they saw what you've become--what you're fast becoming! Why, you'll wind up in Bree or worse places if you don't..."

"I said LEAVE MY PARENTS OUT OF THIS!" Frodo shouted, bringing his fists up. The gesture may have been disputed as either brave or foolish, but brave or no, it precipitated a reaction in the good-hearted farmer that he would rue afterwards for many a year.

"Oh, you make to threaten me now, do you? Well, I'll show you just how much of a threat you really are, Master Baggins!" And without another word spoken between them, Frodo found himself on the ground and Maggot's leather belt whistling across his back and legs. Instinctively he knew that if he tried to run it would only make matters worse, so he curled up as small as he could and endured the beating without making a sound.

Maggot had gotten in several good blows before realizing the boy wasn't responding. When he whipped his own boys, they screamed and yelled and squirmed every which way. Two or three good whacks usually sufficed as punishment and before the sun went down all was right again with the world. But this boy never moved, never made so much as a squeak. Rebellious prat! he thought, and leveled several more heavy blows before his cooling temper told him he'd best stop. He put his belt back on, all the while watching Frodo, who never moved.

"Get on your feet..." Maggot grumbled, grabbing the boy by the shoulder.

Frodo was up in a thrice, pulling away from the farmer and standing well out of reach. He was breathing hard and his eyes were glittering with unshed tears, but his mouth was a thin line, his jaw clenched.

"Now we're going back to talk to Rory," Maggot announced, grabbing the half-empty bag and whistling for his dogs, pushing Frodo ahead of him.

"Ro..." The boy swallowed in alarm. He'd never been punished by Rorimac Brandybuck, but he'd heard about other whippings, and the tales weren't pleasant. Maggot's dogs were following entirely too close on his heels, as well. "Why are we going to see him?"

"You'll be working for me for the next week, is why, lad. To pay off some of your debt for all the vegetables and fruits you've been stealing from me for the last few years! Now, young whelp, run for it!" And with that, Maggot set his dogs to chasing Frodo all the way back to Buckland, himself following at a more leisurely pace.

oe oe oe

Frodo hitched a shoulder as he waited in the hall, listening for the sound of Maggot's and Rorimac's voices, trying to make out what was being said. His back still pained him something fierce, and his legs, too, but it had lessened to a steady throb and he found he could bear it pretty well. His self-image, however, was still smarting from the thrashing. No one had ever laid a hand on him before, though they had threatened to, and he blushed with the shame of it. Still, he'd deserved it, and there was no permanent harm done. Rorimac would send him off tomorrow to work in Maggot's fields for a week--that wouldn't be so bad, really. Mrs. Maggot's table held a high reputation for both the quality and ampleness of fare, and he knew that the farm hands ate with the family. His face brightened at the prospect.

The door opened suddenly and Maggot came out, his frown barely hiding a lurking smile. "I'll see you, young hobbit, at 5:00 sharp tomorrow morning. Bring some gloves with you, and a hat. You'll be helping me cut hay."

"Yes, Sir," Frodo answered.

"Mind you don't be late, or you'll get no breakfast," Maggot added, pointing his finger for emphasis.

"I won't, Sir."

The farmer nodded curtly and left. Frodo sighed and started to go down the hall toward the kitchen when Rorimac's deep voice echoed off the wall. "Frodo."

"Yes, Sir?"

"Come here."

The boy turned and walked back to the open door, looking into his cousin's office, a room that smelled of pipe-weed and ale, the walls darkened from decades of wood smoke. The head of the Brandybuck clan motioned for him to come in.

"Shut the door." Frodo obeyed, his apprehension spiraling.

Rory moved to the fireplace and leaned against the mantle, staring thoughtfully into the flames. "I'm very disappointed in you, young Baggins. Very disappointed indeed."

Frodo didn't know what to make of the gentle-hobbit's words. He'd had very little interaction with Brandybuck after his parents had died and had no grasp of his personality or moods. He kept his mouth closed, looking at his feet, waiting to hear what else Rory might have to say.

"I should have taken care of things much earlier than now." Brandybuck seemed to be talking to himself rather than to the boy. "I've let things slip--Dro and Prim never deserved this."

Frodo's head came up at the mention of his parents. The firelight glinted in his eyes, darkened to grey in the half-light of the fire. Rory remained still, his thoughts obviously far away; after many long minutes, Frodo shifted his weight, and the motion brought the elder hobbit back to face the present problem.

"Frodo, now that Mr. Maggot has come to me, I have no recourse other than to apply the same discipline my father awarded me in my growing up years. These were few and far between, but severe enough so that I remembered the smart of them for many a day, and their message for a lifetime. I do not take pleasure in this, but it is my responsibility, both to you and your poor parents, to see that you do not soon forget this lesson."

Frodo's eyes widened in dismay as the elder hobbit picked up a long, slender cane. He looked at Frodo, his face solemn. "You must remain perfectly still, Frodo, so that I do not bring the tip of the cane across your back. As long as the middle of the cane strikes you, it will cause pain, but will not wound."

"What? But, S-Sir, I already..." Frodo stammered. Another beating?

"Frodo," Rory cut him off, raising a warning hand. Frodo's unformed protest died on his lips. "No objections. You earned this punishment. You will endure it, and hopefully, you will learn from it. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Sir," the boy whispered, his voice unsteady.

"Turn around and put your hands on the wall there. I'll tell you when I'm beginning so you may be ready."

Frodo couldn't believe how calm Brandybuck was, how quiet. Surely he wasn't really going to hit him with that thing! What was he to do?

Bear it, came a voice inside his head. You brought this on yourself, and now you're putting him through it, too. Can't you see he doesn't want to do this?

Frodo did indeed realize this business was distasteful to the other hobbit. But Rorimac considered it his duty. He would see it through...

As Frodo must see it through.

Turning to face the wall, his face hardened with the setting of his will and he braced himself.

"You will count to five, Frodo, one at a time." A long pause ensued where Frodo could hear his heart beating. "Begin."

"One," he said.

There was a brush of clothing in motion, followed by a swift whistle and smack.

His back exploded in pain.

oe oe oe

Brandybuck attempted to talk to Frodo after he finished with the punishment. Frodo listened respectfully, but had nothing to say for himself. Finally, realizing that putting a few days distance between them might help, Rory dismissed the boy. Frodo left the room, closing the door quietly behind him. He walked through several hallways until he found a side door and let himself out, exiting into a twilit world. He let his feet take him where they would, following well-known paths that led up and away from the great smial, into a grove of trees lit with the tiny, silver flames of glow-flies.

Frodo's body shivered with shock, the fresh injuries sending spasms across the muscles of his back. He walked stiffly, head up and features set in stone, until he found a tree with a low-flung branch he knew very well. He stepped on a rock so as to hoist himself onto the bough, as he had many times before. The pain shooting through his back and limbs, however, stopped him cold. He tried again, and failed. Tears soon blurred his vision. Disgraced, full of pain and trying to manifest a stoicism greater than his years, Frodo groaned in frustration and unthinking, flung himself away from the branch and against the bole of the tree. Fresh agony flared in his back and he gasped, surprised at its intensity. He fell forward onto his knees, suffering yet another onslaught of hurt as his calves met with his bruised and aching thighs. Pain like this was past the young hobbit's experience, yet there was no escaping it, no putting it aside. The only way out would be to fall unconscious or die, and Frodo's body showed no signs of doing either. Instead it protested with smarts and twinges that plagued him from his shoulders to his knees; he felt sick, growing clammy by degrees, and his breath caught as he tried to slow his racing heart.

Finally, he gave up, and leaned over to retch on the leaf-covered ground. Little came up, as he'd had no supper that day...

Certainly no mushrooms.

Rorimac had wanted Frodo to remember this night, and to learn from it. There was no doubt the boy would remember, but as for learning, all Frodo knew for certain was that in the future he would try to avoid being whipped at all costs, and that he would not be convinced to go back inside Brandy Hall for any amount of mushrooms.

Frodo lay himself down on his side, moving carefully and awkwardly to avoid further misery. He shed a few tears and shivered for awhile, but the demands of his exhausted and bruised body soon held sway, and he fell asleep under the moon-shadow of the trees.

oe oe oe

The next morning began as painfully as the previous one had ended. Frodo woke with a jerk when the first raindrops fell on his face, and squinted through the pre-dawn gloom. It was early yet, probably around 4:30 or so. Only a few birds stirred, and the grove was still.

Frodo pushed himself to his feet, wincing. He straightened slowly and felt his shirt sticking to his back in places. Reaching up over his shoulder, he tugged carefully but quickly stopped, hissing in pain. Some of the stripes on his back must have oozed and dried during the night while he slept .

He walked back to the smial and let himself in quietly. Hurrying as fast as his aching legs would carry him, he grabbed a clean shirt from his room. He was soon out of the smial and making for Maggot's farm, stopping at a creek along the way just long enough to plunge in, wet his shirt to get it off easier, and scramble out again. When he approached the edge of Maggot's fields, he put on the clean shirt and headed toward the farmhouse, adjusting his braces on the way. A light rain began to fall as he neared the house.

oe oe oe

That morning Frodo sat at the table, feeling small and ostracized by the others. In truth, no-one there held any hard feelings for the lad, let alone Maggot himself, but there was a certain sense of `it's for his own good--he needs to know he's being punished' in the room. Mrs. Maggot, however, couldn't stop herself from laying a hand on Frodo's tousled head as she passed by.

The boy wants looking after, she thought. It would be easy to spoil this one; obviously that's just what had happened, or he wouldn't be sitting here now, not touching his food, waiting to work off his theft-debt.

Frodo couldn't bring himself to eat much. He yet bore a great deal of discomfort and his stomach was still a bit off. He managed to drink some tea--at least it warmed him after coming in from the chill of the now fast-falling rain, and should give him some temporary energy.

Finally, the table looking rather empty, everyone--Maggots and hands alike--pushed their chairs back and carried their dishes to the scullery. Mrs. Maggot shooed them all outside, admonishing them to wipe their feet should they come back in or she'd have to scrub half the fields from her floors.

Frodo followed Farmer Maggot to a low outbuilding not far from the hen-house, a building he knew all too well.

"We'll not be cutting hay in the rain today, Master Baggins," Maggot explained as he opened the door. "Inside's best on such as day as this."

Frodo followed the farmer into the dark building. Nary a thread of daylight came in; the vertical boards of the building had been battened by narrow strips to keep the light out. A strong, pungent, earthy smell drifted past Frodo's nostrils, and he couldn't help but smile at the irony of it.

They were in the mushroom barn.

oe oe oe

All morning they worked. Frodo had no idea just how much labor it took to raise mushrooms, especially of this caliber. Maggot had placed shallow crates on low tables throughout the long building, each holding a gross or more of mushrooms, all in different states of maturity. Maggot started him at the end, where newly-sprouted mushrooms were just peeking their heads above the dirt. It was hard to see by the candles suspended over the crates, but more light would have damaged the crop. Frodo's keen eyesight soon adjusted, however, and he found he could see rather well after awhile.

There was fertilizing to be done. Mushrooms without proper size or shape had to be weeded out. Moisture had to be checked and some crates had to be watered, using a wick system which threaded from the cistern-barrels mounted in the eaves of the building. Despite his weariness and discomfort, Frodo could not help but see the organization and plain hard industry it took to raise quality mushrooms. Maggot was easy and friendly with his instructions and, even though Frodo wasn't inclined to be amenable to a man who only yesterday had given him a thorough thrashing, he found himself warming to the round-faced farmer.

Late that morning, Maggot instructed Frodo to go up on the roof and check the gutters which fed rainfall into the barrels. They had used a good deal of water that morning and one of the barrels wasn't refilling as it should. Frodo went outside and mounted the ladder to the roof, not without some difficulty. He made short work of unstopping the errant gutter but was soaked to the skin when he returned to the building. The long, low room was fairly warm, but when they went outside again to get their mid-day meal, he was newly chilled.

Mrs. Maggot noticed his bedraggled state and sat him nearest the fireplace at the great table, heaping his plate high. The Maggots often skipped second breakfast and elevenses, grabbing a snack as needed to get them through the busy mornings. They made up for it at lunch-time, however, taking a full two hours and putting away a great deal of provender. Supper was served just before dark, bedtime following immediately after, thereby making the most of daylight. "A farmer's life is suspended between day-rise and sunset," Bilbo had said more than once. Frodo could see why. There was so much to do on a farm. The day was only half-over and he was exhausted. He felt hot and sticky, his clothes steaming in the firelight.

"What's the matter, Frodo?" jested one of the older Maggot boys. "You were keen enough on our mushrooms yesterday!" His siblings laughed with him at the light-hearted joke, but Frodo blushed to his ear-tips. He found he didn't have much appetite, especially for mushrooms. He wondered if, after yesterday and today, he'd ever be able to even look at another mushroom, let alone eat one.

"That's enough, now," Maggot admonished his brood when it appeared more jesting would follow. "You'd best eat, though, Frodo. There won't be anything else for quite awhile."

Frodo knew the elder hobbit was right; nightfall didn't come until 8:30 or later this time of year. He picked up his fork and speared a mushroom, trying to think of other things as he began to eat. He finished one plate, then obediently started on a second, full of bacon and other vegetables this time, which Mrs. Maggot had generously supplied him. There was no more jesting, as Maggot had insisted, but Frodo could feel the others' eyes upon him as he ate. One farmhand, in particular, stared at him mercilessly until he received an elbow in the ribs from Mrs. Maggot. Frodo shoved the food down, eating as much or more than he usually ate at mealtime, a substantial amount. Didn't he have to cut a vee in his drawers waistband just last month to make room for his expanding waistline? The meal didn't satisfy him today, though. He felt as if he were a pig trough, filling up with the detritus of leftovers. It was an uncomfortable feeling, and didn't do much in the way of helping his queasiness.

Meal over, everyone lounged about, nibbling on bits and pieces, dozing in the firelight. Frodo nodded off as well, too warm next the fire but too tired and sore to move, until he felt someone lean against his arm. He opened his eyes and found himself almost nose-to-nose with the farmhand who had stared at him at the table. "Not gettin' mollycoddled today, are ye, Baggins?"

"Get off," Frodo said quietly, and edged away from the pock-marked hobbit.

"Knew ye'd take it that way," sneered the burly worker. "Think ye're too good for farm fare."

"I don't!" Frodo answered, his voice raised.

"Hah!" barked smirk-face. "Think ye're somethin' special, you and yer..."

"That's enough out of you, Delb," Maggot's curt command cut through the warm room like ice. "Leave the lad alone, now. He's of naught concern to you."

Delbo looked around at the rest of the household, who lent him no support, and left the house, throwing an ugly parting glance at Frodo before he shut the door, and none too softly.

"He's trouble, that one," muttered Mrs. Maggot, settling into her arm chair with a lap full of mending. "I told you to let him go last week, when you found him loungin' while he should have been milkin'."

"I'm short-handed, Mother," Maggot replied. "Delbo does a fair day's work if you keep a close eye on him." Maggot looked at Frodo and nodded toward the door. "You best go on out, lad. Find Erroc and ask him to put you to some task. We're finished with the mushrooms for today."

"Yes, Sir," Frodo replied. "Thanks for the dinner, Mistress Maggot," he added, remembering his manners.

"Oh, it's no bother, lad. Off with you, now," she replied, smiling. She stared at the closed door for a moment and said, "Husband, that boy's all wrong, or I'm no judge."

"He's fine," Maggot replied. "He's not used to hard work, is all. Give him a few days after he's built some muscle and eaten decent food--he'll come around."

Mrs. Maggot shook her head doubtfully, but didn't reply. Her husband knew his business, and she hers. She'd keep an eye on the boy, make sure he ate properly. Wouldn't do to send him back to Buckland less than hale and hearty. She lowered her head to her task, and was soon lost in her mending.

oe oe oe

Frodo spent the rest of the day following Erroc, Maggot's foreman, and helping with various chores. The list seemed endless: sharpening tools; looking for roof leaks in the many outbuildings and putting on temporary patches until thatch could be replaced; threshing wheat, bringing in the cows. The younger hobbit was in and out of doors all afternoon, never really drying out, growing warm with his labors, and chilled again in the rain. He liked Erroc's company, though, entertained by his tall stories and mild boasting, and the afternoon went by quickly. At the end of the day Frodo helped with the milking. He couldn't get the hang of expressing milk properly, so the milkers set him to leading the cows into the stalls, exchanging full pails for empty, and putting fresh hay in the mangers for the cows to munch on. With such a large herd, he was kept hopping.

Frodo was surprised to hear the supper bell clanging and glanced out the open barn door to see that the sun was low on the horizon. The last cow was milked and last pail emptied, and the hobbits crowded to the house to wash.

Mrs. Maggot settled Frodo between her and Mr. Maggot for this meal, clearly discouraging any smart remarks from her family--or field hands. Frodo pointedly avoided eye contact with Delbo and tried to eat a little. But fatigue won out over any appetite he may have worked up, and he was getting colder by degrees as he sat there. The rain hadn't let up at all and he wanted to get home as soon as he could and into some dry clothes. He stood up quickly, drawing startled looks from the rest of the company.

"I--uh--I thank you for your hospitality, Mistress Maggot," he said, resorting to formality to hide his embarrassment in having to speak before so many people. "But I want to be home before it gets totally dark."

"Me and the mistress thought you might like to just spend the night here, young Baggins," said Maggot, hospitably. "What's one more, eh?" he asked, winking at Mrs. Maggot.

"Oh--it's all right, really, Sir. I, um--have things to do at home. Back at 5:00 tomorrow, then?" Frodo hurried, sliding his chair under the table and walking to the door.

"Have it your way, lad. Yes, same time tomorrow. Frodo..."

"Yes, Sir," Frodo replied, standing with the door ajar.

"You put in a good day's work. You're doin' fine, and I'll be sure to tell Rory."

The boy broke into a grin and suddenly lost his voice. "Thanks," he replied in a near-whisper.

Then he was gone.

The meal went on, comfortable but brief, as it was time for bed soon after. Everyone went to their proper resting places and prepared for sleep. Everyone, that is, but one, who was not sleepy because he'd sneaked a nap that afternoon, and who wanted a little fun before he turned in. No one saw the shadowy figure that soon followed the fast-darkening path Frodo had pursued only a few minutes before.

oe oe oe

Frodo slogged on as quickly as his aching limbs would carry him. He was half dead on his feet and was almost glad he was shivering with cold--it helped keep him awake. It wouldn't do to step off the path now it was getting so dark, and with the rain there was no moon or starlight to help guide him along the way. He was finding it progressively harder to see the trail and was soon stumbling over roots and stones which lay in his path. At this rate, it'll be ten o'clock before I get home, he drearily realized. That was the way of it; nothing to do but cross his arms for warmth and make his way home as quickly as could be managed.

Frodo was walking slowly, head down to better see the path, when he heard a hateful laugh just behind him. Turning quickly, he saw a figure standing in the lane, but couldn't make out the person's features. Still, he guessed who it was.

"Delb?" he queried.

"Del-bo to you," was the surly reply.

"Are you going to Buckland?" asked young Baggins, at a loss.

"Nah. Just wanted to finish what we started earlier."

Frodo bristled. He was tired, he was sore, and he was in no mood to listen to Delbo's prattle. He just wanted to go home, to go to bed...

"It wasn't anything, Delbo. Let's just leave it, shall we?" he offered, and turned to continue down the path.

"Wasn't anything?" said the husky hobbit, his tone changing from churlish play to anger. "It's because of you Maggot called me down today. I don't take kindly to that."

"Is it an apology you want?" Frodo asked, turning again to face Delbo. "Very well. I'M SORRY," he offered, emphasizing each syllable. "There now, can't we just forget..."

"I don't forget, Baggins!" yelled Delbo, and gave the smaller hobbit a tremendous shove. Taken off-guard, Frodo tripped over his own feet and landed hard on his back, striking his head a glancing blow off a rock. He was knocked silly for a minute or two, which probably saved him from further abuse at the hands of the farm-hand. Delbo bent over, making sure Frodo wasn't pretending, and nudged the boy in the side with his foot. When Frodo didn't move, the bully's cowardly nature presented itself and he ran back to Maggot's farm as fast as his legs could take him, leaving Frodo lying in the muddy path alone.

oe oe oe

Frodo woke coughing, spitting out water and shaking violently. He didn't know how long he'd been knocked out, ached too much to care. I've got to get home! He stood up, swaying, and put a hand to the back of his head, finding a great knot at the base of his skull. Getting his bearings, he set off again on the trail, new freshets of pain pouring across his back like the rain pelting his shrinking flesh. As he walked, the boy clenched his teeth against the cold and tried to put everything out of his mind except reaching home. Home, where there was a bed, a fire, and safety.

An hour later a bedraggled hobbit entered a side door at Buckland and staggered to his room, clutching the wall for support. Too exhausted except to pull off his soggy clothes, letting them lay where they fell, Frodo crawled into the soft bed and pulled the covers up over his head. The bed shook with his shivering for a little while, then he slept like a dead thing.

oe oe oe

"Where is that boy?" Maggot asked for the third time, wiping his mouth on a napkin and pushing his plate away. "Here I was bragging on him yesterday and he's not shown up yet," the stocky farmer grumbled. At the end of the table, Delbo shot him a surreptitious glance, then quickly looked down at his plate again.

"He'll be here, Maggot," said his wife, passing a bowl of scrambled eggs to one of her sons. "I have faith in the boy, and you should, too."

No sooner had the words left her mouth than the door opened and Frodo stood there, wiping his feet. He sported a hat and jacket today, and a pair of gloves stuck half out of a breeches pocket. "Good morning, Mr. Maggot, Mistress Maggot," he greeted them. "Good morning," he added, smiling at the seated group.

This morning there was no standoffishness. All but one of the party greeted Frodo cheerfully, and Mrs. Maggot rose from her seat. "Sit here, Frodo," she offered. "There's enough left to keep body and soul on speakin' terms."

Frodo held up a hand and stepped back. "No, thank you, Mistress. I'm late as it is. I think I'll just check those mushrooms we talked about yesterday, Sir," he said, turning from the farm wife to the farmer. "They might be ready for harvest today," he finished.

Maggot grinned despite himself. The boy learns quickly,he thought. "You do that. I'll be along in a minute."

Frodo nodded and was gone.

"You watch after him today, Maggot," she admonished her husband. "He still looks peaked to me."

"You worry too much, Mother," Maggot cajoled, tweaking her ear. See you at nuncheon."

"Aye, that you will," she answered pertly, and turned to her work.

oe oe oe

The fog disbursed quickly and the sun shone brightly on Maggot's fields. "Hay's too wet to cut yet, young Baggins," Maggot explained as they exited the mushroom barn later that morning. "It must be cut in the morning so's to dry properly before raking. If it's damp at all, it'll mold--useless for anything if that happens."

Frodo nodded silently, intent on avoiding mud puddles as best he could. He found he was too stiff and sore to jump over them, and was soon muddied up to his knees. His jacket was stifling, but he feared to take it off, having found bloodstains on his sheets this morning when he woke. Maggot hadn't caused his wounds, and Frodo didn't want to risk the farmer seeing anything through his shirt.

Maggot soon set him a task of repairing hen boxes, leaving him with a good supply of lumber, nails, and a hammer. Frodo went at the work with a will, but his shoulders and back protested at the exertion. He was soon wet with sweat under his jacket, but at least he was in the shade of the poultry house and not out in the now sweltering sun. Though it was late September, summers held on here in the Shire, sometimes well into October. He wiped his face with a sleeve and worked on, intent on his task.

He jumped, startled, when some time later Erroc rapped on the door jamb. "Oi! You hungry or not? Haven't you heard the dinner bell, then?"

"No, I haven't," Frodo replied, pushing himself upright. His back blazed as if it had been branded and the room rocked for a moment. He put out a hand to steady himself.

"You all right?" asked Erroc, concern written on his face.

"I'm--I'm fine. Really," Frodo reassured him. The dizziness had passed, though his back still burned. If only he could take off this infernal jacket! His stomach grumbled in hunger, though, and since he hadn't eaten anything since dinner yesterday, he was looking forward to Mrs. Maggot's victuals. "Let's go, I'm starving," he said heartily.

Erroc's face cleared and the two hobbits went to get something to eat.

oe oe oe

Though the food was plentiful and fresh, Frodo hardly tasted what he shoveled in. He wasn't used to skipping a meal--any meal, and often indulged in snacking with some of the younger hobbits, snitching cookies and cakes from cooling shelves whenever they wanted. This was the first time in all his life he'd ever gone a full day without eating, and all morning his stomach had ached and grumbled. The grumbling had stopped, but now there was a dead weight in his middle that increased with every swallow. He was halfway through the first serving when the weight turned to lead. He lay down his fork and took a deep breath.

"That's not all you'll be eating, Frodo!" remarked Mrs. Maggot, tsk-ing in disapproval. "Isn't it all right, then?"

"Oh no, it's fine!" he replied, not wanting to hurt her feelings. There was certainly nothing wrong with the food... "Just not very hungry."

Several eyebrows shot up at this last remark and Mrs. Maggot frowned. "Not natural, you a growing lad yet."

"Now, Mother, let the boy be! I reckon he'll eat when he's hungry," interposed Maggot. He shot a glance at Frodo. "I expect you'll make up for it tonight, won't you?"

"Oh, yes indeed!" Frodo answered, glad for the reprieve. He wanted nothing more than to get up and walk around a bit. "I'll just wait outside til it's time to go back to work."

"Stay in the shade, young Baggins. You'll be doing roof-work this afternoon," Maggot called after him. Frodo promised, and went outside.

Walking around helped; his stomach soon settled to a faint ache, and Frodo found some of the shade Maggot had recommended, and lay down to rest. There was a slight breeze; he opened his jacket and pillowed his head on a grassy tussock, enjoying the cooling effect of the wind. He was soon asleep.

oe oe oe

"Ho! Get up, lazy-bones! You're wanted!"

It was a rude awakening, having a dirty great toe digging in your ribs and a pimply face uncomfortably close to your own. Delbo was enjoying himself, that was certain.

"They've been looking for you the last half hour, Baggins! And Maggot's none too happy!"

In truth, it had only been a minute or two since the farm laborers had come outside. Maggot had seen Frodo immediately, asleep in the verge, and had sent Delbo to wake him. Frodo had no way of knowing this, however, and scurried back to the hen house to finish the last of the repairs, the pimply hobbit staring after him until Erroc called him back to task.

Frodo went to work again, but was hindered by the heat and a lingering weariness. He decided to risk removing his jacket, turning himself so that if anyone came in the building, he would be facing his visitor. It grew darker in the small shed; Frodo thought a storm might be coming, but when he glanced outside, he saw only blue sky and high puffy clouds. Yet as he worked, his vision dimmed off and on. He rubbed his eyes and blinked hard, but the trouble persisted throughout the afternoon. He was glad Maggot had decided to let him continue to work on the little building's many repairs instead of putting him up on a hot roof--Frodo was sure if he had to climb up there today, he'd promptly fall off.

He finished the work in time to help with the milking again, though he strained to keep up. He was hot and cold by turns but dared not take off his jacket; his shirt was sticking to him in places and he knew this would show. Best to hold out a bit longer--he'd make excuses to leave before supper and take a dip in the stream on his way home.

Finally all chores were done and the workers headed for their late day meal, all but Frodo. He'd made a hasty excuse to Erroc, asking him to make his apologies to Mrs. Maggot and promising to be back all the earlier the next morning, as they would be cutting hay.

Frodo made it home without incident--Delbo otherwise engaged with his fork and knife--but decided not to go into the stream after all, as he was already cold. When he was safely in his room, he dampened his shirt as best he could with some water from the washstand and gingerly peeled it off. For the first time, he looked at his back in the mirror and gasped in dismay. There were bruises from Maggot's beating, but atop them were the marks of Brandybuck's thrashing, three of which were open and swollen an angry red. Frodo wet a cloth and applied compresses to his aching back as best he could until he grew too sleepy to continue. Now feeling hot, he lay face down on the coverlet and fell into a troubled and dream-filled sleep.

oe oe oe

The next morning was a haze of misery for the young hobbit. He woke late and only made it to Maggot's farm in time to meet them in the haying field. The lad's hearty greeting and quick attention to work allayed any questions the farmer may have had, however, and he soon moved off with his own work in mind. Nonetheless, Frodo was far from hearty. His shoulders protested as he swung the long-handled sickle, the continuous motion opening afresh the stripes across his lower back; Frodo was wet with sweat under his jacket and shirt and was bleeding again, judging by the stinging of his skin. He pulled his hat down over his eyes, pressed his lips together, and labored on.

oe oe oe

It was a beautiful thing to see, with the workers working in staggered rows in the fields, cutting the green-golden hay with long, smooth strokes, almost like a dance. Mistress Maggot took a moment to watch from the small hill next the house after she hung up the last of her laundry. The hayfield was blowing in the wind, the smell of the cut hay was heavy in the hot, late-morning sun, and the workers moved up their assigned rows like dancers in a ballet.

Her eye fell on Frodo, who stood out plainly in his brown jacket. All the other hobbits wore shirts with rolled-up sleeves or no shirts at all, but Frodo labored in the sweltering heat in a dark broadcloth. The good mistress frowned, sensing once more that all was not right with the boy. But he was working ably, and kept up with the rest of the workers. Still, she would take a good hard look at him at the mid-day meal, she promised herself as she went back in to check on her roast and vegetables.

oe oe oe

Though Frodo was unaware that he was being watched by the good farmer's wife, he was all too conscious of Delbo's smirks and under-the-breath comments--all derogatory, he was sure. They had been set to work side-by-side and Delbo seemed to think it his duty to be one-up on everything Frodo did that morning. This constant chiding was wearing Frodo's patience thin; he wasn't physically able to get ahead of the larger and stronger hobbit, and his pride forbade him from falling behind. He was here to do a decent day's work for Maggot and that was what he intended to do. Still, he wished for nothing more than to be somewhere else--anywhere else--than where he was at that very moment.

Just when he thought he wouldn't be able to swing the sickle one more time, the farm bell rang out loud and clear. Reprieved, Frodo hung back a little to get some distance between him and Delbo. He leaned on the handle of his scythe, breathing rather heavily, too tired to wipe the moisture from his face. He lurched suddenly, as if the scythe had been jerked out from under him, and his muscles in his chest knotted. He managed to keep from falling, but just barely, and his vision grew dark again. Frodo lowered himself carefully to the ground and tried to get his breathing under control. But the smell of the cut grass was overpowering as he sat there, his stomach lurching uncomfortably. Slowly, he stood again. He found he was unable to swing the scythe over his shoulder, so he carried it back to the yard cradled in his arms. He cleaned the tool of grass, carefully drying it as Maggot had shown him, then looked over to the house, its front door open to receive the breeze.

If he didn't go in, someone would come looking for him, surely. The Maggots were good folk, no doubting it, and Mrs. Maggot had already been fretting over him. It would be cooler in the shaded house if he could manage a seat away from the fire, and he had a powerful thirst. This drew him to the homely kitchen more than anything, and he was soon seated among a boisterous, but friendly crowd. To his dismay, however, he had to sit in the only empty chair...

Next to Delbo.

"Where've ye been, Baggins?" exclaimed Delbo in false gaiety, and slapped Frodo on the back. It wasn't a particularly hard blow, but Frodo's world erupted into flame. He hunched over the table and gasped in pain before he could stop himself.

"Here, what's this?" asked Erroc.

Frodo glanced nervously around the table, feeling all eyes on him. "N-nothing," he managed, trying to get a grip on himself. "Sore muscles--took me by surprise, that's all." He smiled tremulously, blinking tears from his eyes and sitting up. "You don't know your own strength, Delb," he commented ironically, turning to look the pock-marked hobbit full in the face.

The stares rounded on Delbo then, and he blushed furiously. Maggot cleared his throat suggestively, and Delbo ducked his head, muttering something that sounded like "sorry" under his breath and commenced eating, keeping his eyes on his plate.

By this time Frodo had recovered sufficiently enough to begin eating, but the pain throbbing where Delbo had slapped him had taken away what little appetite he had. He gulped a full half-tankard of ale down like it was water, then tried once more to eat, as Mrs. Maggot was looking at him again. Conversation soon sprouted up around the table and Frodo was able to push his food around a bit; he hoped he had eaten enough to satisfy the housewife.

All too soon, the nuncheon was over and it was time to go back to the fields. Frodo's hopes that he would be given a spot away from Delbo were soon dashed, however, as everyone moved back to the places they had left before eating. Delbo said nothing, however, and went to his work without so much as a sideways glance. Surprised but pleased, Frodo prepared to go to work. But when he swung the scythe for the first time he felt as if he had been caned all over again, and had to bite his lip to stifle a cry. It was almost too much for the young hobbit to carry on with his work, but somehow he did--through the four hours of cutting hay, then the last hours of the day with cleaning up, chores, and milking again. When the sun was once again low in the sky, Frodo was stumbling with weariness and felt like his arms would fall off.

He knew he couldn't find a good reason to leave before supper this time, so he made a pretence of eating, slipping food to the dog under the table whenever he could, and managed to clear his plate. When Maggot urged him to load it up again, Frodo asked for water instead, swallowing it down so fast he spilled some of it on the front of his shirt, and soon bid them all good night. Farmer Maggot got up and watched from the doorway as Frodo wended his way toward home. His wife joined him and together they watched the lad until he disappeared over a hill. The goodwife didn't say anything, but she didn't have to. She could see in her husband's eyes that he, too, was having second thoughts about the Baggins boy, and that he would be keeping a closer eye on him tomorrow.

oe oe oe

Next morning Frodo arrived at the Maggot home promptly at 5:00 am, looking as if he had slept in his clothes. He spoke pleasantly to the group gathered at the table, but his usual cheerfulness was absent and he stared at his plate during the meal, hardly touching his food. The farmer glanced at his wife, who gestured for him to say something.

"Are you fit for work this morning, lad? You look a bit, erm..." He stopped when Frodo met his gaze, his blue eyes glittering in the lamplight.

"I'm all right, Sir. Didn't get much sleep, " the younger hobbit mumbled. "This coffee will wake me up," he added, his mouth pulling into a lackluster smile. Frodo made an attempt to eat some more, but soon gave up, once again resorting to feeding the more than willing dog under the board. Maggot saw this but said nothing until they rose from the table. He held Frodo back while the others exited.

"Son, I know you're not feeling well. Got too much sun yesterday, I'll warrant."

Frodo nodded, a grey haze settling over him. Maggot's voice sounded thin and far away; he had to strive to pay attention.

"I want you to work in the mushroom barn this morning, lad. It's been a couple of days and the crop wants looking after. You know what to do?"

"Aye," Frodo answered, slipping into the vernacular. The thought of the cooler atmosphere in the barn, away from the heat, was appealing. He would even be able to take off his jacket while he was there; the thought made tears spring to his eyes. "I'll be as fast as I can, Sir," he added, feeling he was getting special privileges and not pulling his weight as he ought.

"I know you will," Maggot encouraged him, and the two hobbits went to their respective work.

oe oe oe

Frodo concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other as he approached the mushroom barn. He felt so strange! He was lightheaded; his body trembled with cold, though the day was warm and muggy. The heavy feeling was back in his chest, too, as if someone had tied a tight band around him. It would probably rain this afternoon; Maggot and his helpers would be rushing to get the hay into shocks, but first the cut grass must be raked into windrows. It was a full day's work and now they were short a person because of Frodo's weakness. He would hurry as much as he could.

All the days of the week were blending in the young hobbit's thoughts--he was having difficulty discerning what work had been accomplished on what day, what nights he had stayed for supper and what nights he had gone home. Just last evening--he couldn't remember if he had even made it home--he had vague visions of sitting under a tree on the way, thinking to just rest for a minute, but that was all. And his earliest memory of this day was walking on the path approaching Farmer Maggot's fields, listening to the waking birds in the bushes and trees, and realizing he was wearing a dirty shirt.

Memories or not, there was work to be done. He picked up his pace and was soon laboring in the gloom of the candle-lit building, but it took him all morning to finish the work. Four crates of mushrooms were ready for harvest; he must gently uproot them, first washing them of dirt and then carefully drying each one to prevent spotting. They had to be placed in special boxes containing removable shelves and lined with clean cloths to protect them during shipment. He worked steadily, though the aroma from the mushrooms, usually so tantalizing, made him nauseous. Frodo finally finished the work just before noon, and was purging malformed mushrooms from another crate when the door opened wide. The brightness of the day blinded Frodo for a moment, but the voice that boomed across the room identified the speaker soon enough.

"Oi! Frodo! Where be you?"

"I'm right here. Please shut the door before you damage the mushrooms!" Frodo said irritably. Just the sound of Delbo's voice was enough to make one testy.

"Bossy, ain't we?" Delbo answered, shutting the door behind him. He meandered through the rows of crates, sniffing the delectable mushrooms. Pausing by a crate of nearly ripe ones, he reached out a dirty finger.

"Don't touch them!" Frodo warned. "They bruise with handling," he added, putting down his trowel.

"I reckon Maggot won't miss one," Delbo replied, and plucked a mushroom, wiped it on his shirt, and popped it into his mouth. Frodo moved to place himself between the mushrooms and the older hobbit, staring up at him stubbornly. Delbo's face darkened. "I reckon you've had your share when he wasn't lookin' either," he spat. "Not eatin' at regular meals like the rest of us. I expect you've been helpin' yourself plenty, even after you were caught, you ruddy thief!"

Frodo's already flushed face bloomed a deeper red. Delbo had him as far as the thievery was concerned. He had acknowledged that fact days ago, no excuses. But he wasn't about to take any accusations that he was continuing to steal from the farmer. "You're wrong!" he exclaimed, pointing a shaking finger at Delbo. "I never touched a single one!"

"Oh yeah? Well I say you have, Baggins! I see that pile over there--planning on smuggling it home, skipping supper again? Hey?" Delbo punched his own finger into Frodo's chest for emphasis.

Young Baggins staggered back a step, rubbing his sternum. "You're daft, Delbo," he countered. "Those have been culled--they're to be given to the pigs."

"I'll give `em to the pigs," muttered Delbo, his grin hateful. He grabbed Frodo by the front of his shirt and forced him backwards to the table with the culled mushrooms. Frodo struggled against his hold, but was too weak to make any headway. Delbo's grip switched to Frodo's curls and the teenager found his head forced back, his neck nearly breaking. Delbo made short work of shoving a large handful of dirty mushrooms into Frodo's mouth, covering it and his nose with a large, calloused hand. Deprived of air, Frodo had no choice but to swallow the grimy mass. When Delbo finally let him go, he fell to his knees, gasping and coughing.

The pimply hobbit laughed harshly and walked to the door. "I'd wash my face if I was you, Baggins," he called. "You look like the dwarf that swallowed the gold!"

Frodo was left in the darkness when the door closed. He used one of the stacked cloths to wipe his face and spat out what dirt he could, feeling more ill by the minute. Painfully he pulled on his jacket, wishing for nothing more than the chance to lay down in the shade somewhere. But it was nuncheon; he had to go to the day-meal. Slowly he left the barn, and made his way to the house. Just one more day, he reckoned. If I can just get through one more day...

oe oe oe

The mistress of the house watched for Frodo through the open door. Delbo had been some minutes returned after being sent to fetch the youngster, and still Frodo had not come. She was about to say something to her husband when she saw the barn door open and young Baggins emerge. He saw her and smiled, walking quicker.

"I'm sorry I'm late, Mistress Maggot. I wanted to finish up so I could go out into the fields after the noon-meal with the others."

There was an ill-concealed snort from Delbo, stifled by a sharp warning and a slap to the back of the head by Erroc. Mrs. Maggot shot Pimple-face a dirty look, then reached to put her palm to boy's flushed face. Frodo pulled back, however, a strange look in his eyes. "I'm dirty, ma'am," he mumbled.

She smiled back at him tentatively, every maternal instinct she possessed screaming that something was very, very wrong. The lad was going on as if nothing were the matter; she must respect that, as he wasn't her own flesh and blood. But truth be known, her mother's impulse was to put him to bed and hush him to sleep. Instead, she patted his arm and went to fetch some food for him.

Frodo sat through the meal, unaware of the conversation around him, smiling when others smiled, looking interested when the rest talked, and avoiding Delbo altogether. The dog's belly was full when the meal was over--Frodo's stomach was twisting in his middle, the spoiled and dirt-laden mushrooms not sitting well. And when the farmer's wife set a large plate of bacon and mushrooms in front of him, he thought for a horrible moment that he might be sick onto his plate. He took his piece of pie outside with him on pretense of eating it under a shade tree, and lay down near the house, his pie untouched beside him. Immediately he fell asleep.

End of Pt. 1

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