Part 1: Of Holes and Laws
"Frodo," Sam complained, looking rather uncomfortable, "could you please stop fussing over me?"
Frodo smoothed down the collar of Sam's fresh-pressed shirt and smiled. "I do like fussing over you, Sam dear," he said lightly, though Sam could see the look of worry scurry through Frodo's eyes.
"Oh, is that so?" Sam returned the same warm smile, attempting to ease Frodo's mood.
Frodo laughed and gathered Sam in his arms. "Indeed I do!" he proclaimed. Frodo caught Sam's mouth in a silky, tea-tasting kiss. "If you should ever forget," came the hot-breathed reply on Sam's mouth, "think of that."
"And not what we did last night?" Sam's eyes twinkled.
Frodo affected a look of nonchalance, though his mouth remained smug as he gathered up a stack of parchments and slid them into his pack. Outside in the garden the morning steamed hot, hazy air, and the summer blossoms bloomed brightly in the sun. It was a particularly sultry Forelithe day; Frodo had awoken to find himself soaked in sweat (though, he thought as he untangled his limbs from Sam's, it could have been a remnant of the night before) and having little appetite. Sam had managed to fill Frodo's mouth with cooled tea and a generous slice of blueberry cobbler, Frodo's favourite dessert.
"You're worried." Sam's voice simply stated this; there was no need to question.
"Of course I'm worried." Frodo grabbed a comb and drew it through his sweat-damp curls. He gave Sam an appraising glance. "Your collar is crooked again."
Sam hastily fixed it up. "Who do you think will be there?"
"Oh, everybody, Sam! Bolgers, Tooks, Bagginses, Burrowses, Bracegirdles, Proudfeet…" Frodo's nose wrinkled. "The S-B's." He bent down to search for something in a drawer. "Really, that Lobelia! If it wasn't enough to steal from Bilbo, now she has to do this." Having secured the item he was looking for (a quill), Frodo shouldered his pack. "Shall we go, Sam?"
Butterflies all of a sudden began to flutter in Sam's tummy. "It's not fair, Frodo. Daisy and Ned never had to answer to this, and she got…"
"Hush Sam." Frodo's mouth was light against Sam's brow. "It will be all right."
Sam fetched a pony (named Sassafras) chomping the grass in the party field. She had been tied there the night before especially for their journey. It was many miles to Michel Delving, and neither Sam nor Frodo fancied walking in the summer heat. Sam met Frodo at Bag End's gate. Frodo jumped behind Sam, hands wrapped around Sam's waist, and they clip-clopped on down the road.
People stopped talking to their neighbours, or ploughing their fields, or drinking a cool morning beer to peer at the two hobbits riding by. Sunlight shimmered off the trees' leaves, and watery patches of haze glimmered on the road ahead. They rode on down the Hill, and cut across fields dappled with flowers and ripe berries, to meet the East Road, where they proceeded to turn right and follow the well-used road to the capital of the Shire (or, at least, the Westfarthing). The sun rose high and hot. Sam mopped his brow with his sleeve but said nothing. It was thirsty work, navigating the dusty road and ignoring people's curious stares. Just as Sam was about to suggest they stop at an inn -- the Keg and Kettle, about two miles from Michel Delving -- Frodo stirred and put a water bottle to Sam's lips. Sam drank the sweet liquid in relief.
Michel Delving was much larger than Hobbiton, though in all other respects not particularly different. There were the usual shops and marketplaces that could be found in any respectable hobbit-town. Sam could see a brewery, a tailor's house, a florist shop (festooned with roses and daisies and other pretty flowers) and a bookshop, not to mention the stalls of milk and chickens and eggs and delicious snacks like clotted cream dashed over strawberries and fried sausages sprinkled with herbs.
Behind him, Sam felt Frodo stiffen as the Delving hobbits whispered behind their hands to each other.
"I should like to think people would have better things to do than gossip about us," Frodo murmured.
Sam bit his lip and shook his head. He directed the pony through a left turn and stared straight ahead. "It's a right bit of scandal," he said. "Even if it was ordinary hobbits, not the Master of the Hill."
"I suppose I can't blame them." Frodo tried to bite away the bitterness of his words. "If it were somebody else, I would probably be gossiping about it as well."
"My Gaffer was telling me this ain't happened since he were a little lad," said Sam. The sharp scent of fresh-caught fish wafted into his nostrils as they passed a fish merchant. Sam wiped his nose with his hand and sniffed. "I wish it weren't so hard, is all."
"Oh, dear Sam!" Frodo's voice was soft and sad. "I wish so, too. In fact, I wish I could kiss you now, long and sweet, but I daresay it would be a greater harm in the long run."
Ahead of them, at the far end of the street, sprawled the Town Hole, magnificent with its white-polished brick walls and tall, oak doors. Contained within the building were the Mayor's chambers, rooms for his assistants and some other rooms of little value. But the most important room of the Hole was the courtroom. This was where the mayor and his assistants heard cases of grievance between hobbits -- usually land disputes or cases of petty theft, or, in a particularly scandalous case, who the father was of a particular babe, and whether he ought to marry the lass in question.
The talk died to muted whispers as Sam and Frodo rode up to the Hole. A crowd had gathered -- which included scruffy lads, old gammers, and even a crying babe in its mother's arms -- to witness the event. It was not due to start till eleven o'clock, in a few minutes' time, when the mayor would open the doors and proclaim that all who wished to enter should.
Sam tugged gently on Sassafras' reins, urging her to a halt. He held his head high, swung off the pony and helped Frodo down. All eyes were on them as Sam steadied Frodo with hands on his waist.
"I should take Sass to the stable." Sam hesitated. "Should you come with me?"
"I'll stay here." Frodo was determined. "I won't be scared away."
Frodo watched Sam lead the pony around the corner, to Old Morgo's stable, where Sassafras would be looked after with care: cool shade and even cooler water served by Morgo's stableboys every hour or so. Turning away from Sam's and Sassafras' disappearing bodies, Frodo surveyed the crowd. The conversations had resumed, somewhat more softly than before, and the glances that flicked Frodo's way were both curious and wary. He reached into his pack and pulled out a generous slice of honey cake, delicately spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon. Frodo unwrapped the package and proceeded to eat the cake in slow, deliberate bites, licking the crumbs caught at the corner of his mouth and between his fingers.
Presently Sam returned and began to eat his own slice of honey cake. He nudged Frodo softly with his elbow. "Look who's over there."
"Yes, she's been staring at me since we arrived. No doubt cooking up more plans in that detestable mind of hers." As if she could sense somebody was talking about her, Lobelia turned away from her conversation with her son, Lotho, (Otho, unfortunately, had died a few years ago) and locked eyes with Frodo. Frodo smiled sweetly and waved (spraying cake crumbs as he did so). Lobelia, in disgust and confusion, folded her arms beneath her ample breasts and looked away.
Sam put an arm to his mouth and chuckled. Even Frodo let out a grin. It was quickly smothered when Lotho gave him and Sam a rude gesture. This time Frodo turned away.
"This really is an awful business," said Sam, sticking the rest of his cake in his pack. His appetite had gone. "Couldn't you just pretend we weren't--?"
"No, Sam." Frodo didn't care who saw him as he placed hands on Sam's shoulders. "I will not lie about this. I will never deny this. Never."
Sam nodded. Frodo's hands slipped down his arms and squeezed his own brown hands for a moment. "I understand."
"Will your Gaffer and sisters be coming?" Frodo looked around the crowd.
"My Gaffer's gardening at Widow Rumble's this morning, and if May and Mari finish their duties quick, they might make it here around lunchtime."
"It would be nice to have family here." Frodo sounded wistful. "Merry and Pippin will be here tomorrow, if The Took spares them from berry harvesting. Other than that, it seems the rest of the family is against me." A dark look shot from Frodo's face in the direction of Lobelia.
Aware of the attention being given to them, Sam moved as close to Frodo as he could without heated whispers springing up around them. Desperately he wanted to hug Frodo, but that would be right silly. "You miss Mr. Bilbo, don't you?"
"Oh, yes." Frodo drew lazy circles onto the road with his big toe. "He would have sorted this mess out in a few hours. But he is gone, and I am the Master. I need to sort out my own problems now."
"And a right sticky one now!" muttered Sam. He took out his water bottle and shared some with Frodo. As he was stashing the bottle away, the great oaken doors crashed open and the mayor came tumbling out. (Not quite literally, but Mayor Whitfoot did resemble Frodo's Aunt Poppy's dumplings, though, of course, without the thick gravy sauce and delicious carrots.)
Will Whitfoot stood on the top step and wiped his face with a bright orange handkerchief. He puffed his cheeks and surveyed the crowd. "Ladies and gentlehobbits," he rumbled in rich, fruity tones. "It is my humble pleasure to announce that the courtroom is now open. I'm sure you are aware of the case we shall soon be hearing. It's all I've been hearing from my wife during the past week," he added, louder than he ought to have (Will's wife was a rather overwhelming lass, in both stature and mind). "Could those involved please step forward?"
Sharing a glance, Sam and Frodo wended through the crowded hobbits to the steps. Several feet to their right stood Lobelia and Lotho, with their lawyer, Messr Largo Grubb, smirking and appraising Sam and Frodo as if they were horse dung.
The mayor cleared his throat. "All right, then. The rest of you, please take the seats at the back of the court. I hope there will be no disorder if there happen to be not enough seats for everybody." Whitfoot's eyes glanced off Sam and Frodo, and Lobelia and Lotho. "Please follow me." Louder, he said that again.
There was a tremendous uproar of approval. A baby began to cry. Hobbits began to push and shove their way into the Hole. Frodo and Sam, followed closely by Lobelia and Lotho, accompanied the mayor past the doors and inside. A high roof arched over them, dotted with glass windows, and branched with wooden beams. It was very pretty, allowing sunlight to pattern the tiled floor, though some muttered that the structure was rather precariously built. This was the antechamber, for hobbits waiting to see the mayor, or waiting for the court to open after a break, or for some other important business. Large, luxurious and many-pillowed couches lined the antechamber's walls. Previous mayors had learnt that patience is not something hobbits excel at, and had decided to make the wait as comfortable as possible. This, of course, also included tables with trays of apple tarts, egg and ham sandwiches and chocolate-drizzled biscuits, and other delicious items, to keep the hobbits content.
Frodo followed the mayor past the two swinging doors and into the courtroom; behind them people jostled and shouted, and both Frodo and Sam (and Lobelia and Lotho, Frodo was pleased to note) received a few bumps and knocks. Five seats were reposed at the front of the room: one seat was raised on a dais for the mayor, and two on each side for his most senior assistants. The four assistants were already in their chairs, papers and quills and ink bottles covering their desks. They tried to look serious and important as the crowd entered. A bench on the right sat the plaintiff, while the bench on the left seated the defendants. Behind the benches were ten rows of the same hard seats, for the public. They seated about one hundred hobbits, though today it would probably seat more at a tight squeeze.
The mayor strode forward and took his seat (breathing heavily and mopping his face), and Sam and Frodo turned to their left and rested their bottoms on the hard, wooden bench.
"My backside is going to become very sore if we must sit here for days!" whispered Frodo to Sam, as he began taking out his papers.
Eyes dancing with mischief, Sam hissed back (very softly), "Ought I massage it tonight, then?"
Frodo swallowed what was apparently a hiccough. "We shall see."
Sam smiled and wriggled on the uncomfortable seat. It was good to see Frodo in fine humour and spirits -- despite what was about to happen. The past week, since Frodo had found the summons in his letterbox, had been quite trying for both of them. Frodo's mood swung from quiet to snappish at the click of fingers during the first few days. Sam was, quite frankly, terrified of the whole thing. They hadn't made love for two nights till Sam had finally talked it over with Frodo, proper-like. Each had thought the other would leave him, which was obviously a very big mistake, as the words and activities that followed this discourse had shown. And they had made love every night (sometimes twice, occasionally thrice) since.
The crowd piled in. There was quite a bit of pushing and shoving as hobbits tried to gain the front row of seats. Miss Gilly Hayward had her bonnet crushed by a lad's heavy foot, and Master Will Cartwright was bruised in the belly by a sharp jab from an umbrella belonging to an old gammar. The noise rose as more hobbits entered, reaching a peak when a prim official closed the doors, shouting that no more hobbits could fit in. A disgruntled hobbit threw his cap at the shut doors and called out that if Mrs. Veronica Chubb were thrown out, there would be ample room for three hobbits to replace her. Veronica heard this, Frodo saw, because she huffed loudly and took a three-layered slice of chocolate cake (with jam and cream and berries between slices) from her bag and bit an enormous hole in said cake. Harsh, but fair, Frodo thought. In her younger days, Veronica had been awarded fairest lass in the Westfarthing at the Overlithe fair, though her fondness for sweets after she had wed had seen her be awarded the plumpest lass in the Westfarthing by a secret ballot conducted at The Green Dragon one drunken summer's night.
At last all were seated, many grumbling that they would need a long soak in a hot bath that night because of the scrapes, bruises and cuts received in the rush to gain a good view. Sam twisted his head to look at the crowd. A sea of bright yellows, reds, greens and blues, and babbling, bobbing heads baffled his eyes. The noise the gathered hobbits made sounded like a thousand bees dying some horrible death that bees very much dislike. He glanced to his right, where Lobelia sat with Lotho and her lawyer. Lobelia's pale lips pressed tightly together as she caught Sam's gaze. Sam dropped his eyes hastily. A hand squeezed his own; Sam looked at Frodo gratefully.
The talk died at once as the mayor smacked his hammer hard on the desk. Frodo jumped in his seat. The mayor's assistants shuffled papers and once again tried to look important. Whitfoot coughed once, gathered up a piece of paper in front of him and began to read. "Today, on the 14th of Forelithe, in the year 1416, we are gathered at the Town Hole, Michel Delving, to hear the case of Frodo Baggins, Esquire, of Bag End, Hobbiton versus Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, of Hobbiton Lane, Hobbiton. The charges Mrs. Sackville-Baggins has called forth against Mr. Baggins are--" The mayor paused dramatically. The crowd hushed. Hot air swirled in through the windows and made the hobbits sweat (and the hobbit-lasses glow.)
"Get on with ye!" called out a wrinkled gaffer.
Will glared at the gathering. He stumbled on. "We are here today because Mrs. Sackville-Baggins has made it known to the council that there have been disreputable activities occurring at Mr. Baggins' smial. According to Westfarthing law--" He picked another paper daintily off the desk in front of him. "No hobbit shall lie with a member of the same sex, nor shall any hobbit live with another hobbit and engage in these activities. If one is found guilty of these crimes--" Again the mayor paused for dramatic effect. "--They will be thrown out of the Westfarthing and must seek a new home somewhere else in the Shire."
The crowd murmured. The most-heard comment was that Frodo and Sam would go to the Eastfarthing, where the hobbits were queer and no doubt would condone these shady activities. Women dabbed their eyes with their pretty pink handkerchiefs as they had the horrible thought that their lad or lass would do such a disrespectable thing. Men muttered and tried to look horrified for their wives, as if they had thought this a heinous crime, despite having a few tumblings with their friends as hobbit-lads. Really, to tumble a lad! In his own smial! And inviting said lad to live with him! As mad as his uncle! Those crazy Bagginses!
"Quiet!" The mayor tried to gain control. The sound level dropped slightly. "Frodo Baggins, what do you plead in answer of these charges?"
Frodo shuffled his papers. He met Sam's gaze. Sam's eyes were soft and worried. Frodo squeezed Sam's thigh, giving him a shaky smile. A pin was heard dropping somewhere among the crowd. Standing up, Frodo looked Whitfoot in the eye, and said high and proud, "Guilty."