Rating: PG for mild implied violence in some chapters.
Disclaimer: Characters belong to the Tolkien estate; I am making no money from this fic.
The Terror of Buckland
"I recollect the time when young Frodo Baggins was one of the worst young rascals of Buckland."
- Farmer Maggot
Part One: The Black Bull of Bamfurlong
It looked almost peaceful at first, the great beast standing there as still as if carved in stone, save for the tail switching incessantly at the flies. The pastoral setting only deepened the illusion: the quiet meadow still lush and verdant on this fine September afternoon, its solitary occupant dappled by the shade of an ancient apple tree, a gentle breeze stirring the long grass and the branches laden with fruit.
The calm was shattered in an instant as the beast suddenly stirred, snorted, and swung its head around to ram the tree with a great crash. Quivering from root to crown, the tree sent a shower of apples down on its attacker, which at another time would have greedily devoured them. But not now. Now lust and rage consumed the beast, coursed through it and filled its brain like a red flood, leaving no room for any other desires or appetites. It was rutting season, and 1,500 pounds of muscle and sinew, hide and horn were focused only on the drive to mate and, barring that, to fight, maim, and kill. However, satisfaction had heretofore been denied and the beast bellowed in frustrated fury.
"Hold up, Frodo!"
Three young hobbits were running through a cornfield, each clutching a bulging burlap sack. One, tall for his age, lithe and long-limbed as a young deer, was well ahead of his companions. But on hearing his name, he slowed and turned back.
"Come on," he called, his voice sharp with impatience. "Maggot will have our hides if he catches us!" The other two came puffing up, wiping grubby hands across their sweat-streaked foreheads. "Hurry now, down this row, out of the field and then a straight shot to the ferry," urged Frodo, clearly the guide and leader of the little raiding party. But before they could start off again there came suddenly the sound of baying in the alarmingly near distance.
"Farmer Maggot's dogs!" yelped one of the boys.
"Crikey! We're done for now!" moaned the smallest of the three. And so it would seem, for while they could hope to outrun the stout farmer, they knew their legs were no match for swift canine paws.
Frodo did not speak but only looked this way and that, casting about for a new escape route. He pointed to a high stone wall where the cornfield ended a few yards away. "There's our path—none of his dogs can clear that, not even Goblin! Cutting through that pasture should bring us out even closer to the river."
The others just stared at him in horror, even as Frodo moved toward the wall. "Isn't—isn't that the bull pasture?" gulped the small one.
Frodo just shrugged and kept going. "What if it is?"
"Frodo, are you daft? That's Bandobras in there!" shouted the older lad. All the hobbit children in the area knew about Farmer Maggot's stud bull, the apple of his eye and the pride of Bamfurlong Farm. While it had taken many prizes and sired half the calves in the Eastfarthing, it had an evil reputation, having once gored and tossed a dog foolish enough to bait it. Except for breeding and occasional trips to the fair, it was generally left to brood in solitary malice.
Frodo's sack was now atop the wall and with an easy grace he swung himself up beside it. He sat for a moment with his legs dangling as he surveyed the pasture. Then he looked back at his companions and grinned. "I'll reach the other side before that great lumbering brute even knows I'm here," he declared confidently. "But if you'd rather wait for the dogs, suit yourself!" Pushing off, he dropped from view. The others stood momentarily frozen in place, but a renewed chorus of barking suddenly cured their indecision and they dashed for the wall.
By the time they had scrambled up and peered over the top, Frodo was well on his way across the field. He sauntered at a deliberate pace, neither hurrying nor lingering, seeming to ignore the bull completely though in fact his eyes never left it. At one point he stopped, picked up an apple, and casually took a bite before continuing. Bandobras stood motionless and erect under the tree, watching intently as Frodo reached the far wall, scaled it, then turned and made a sweeping bow to the bemused animal. He danced along the wall to hold its attention, calling, "You'll not get a better chance than this, lads!"
Taking his point, the older boy jumped down and raced across while the bull was still focused on Frodo's antics. Bandobras became aware of the second intruder only after he too had reached the safety of the wall and clambered up beside the first. "Well done, Fenton!" exclaimed Frodo, clapping him on the shoulder, and now they both looked over at their small comrade who still perched forlorn and fearful where they had left him.
"Come on, Gilly! You can do it!" called Fenton.
"Don't worry, we'll keep Bandobras amused!" Frodo promised.
They jumped and capered, waving their arms and hurling taunts at the bull, which still only snorted and stared, biding its time. Gilly carefully lowered himself from the wall and scurried through the tall grass like a field mouse. Just as it seemed that he too would cross without incident he suddenly stumbled forward with a cry, his foot caught by a hidden tree root. His sack hit the ground and burst open, scattering mushrooms everywhere. Slowly, Bandobras turned to face this newest assault on its domain. Its forefoot raked the ground.
Gilly was on his hands and knees frantically trying to collect the mushrooms, and so did not perceive his peril until the combined shouts of Frodo and Fenton finally made him look up. But too late—without further warning the bull lowered its head and charged. Terror seized the boy and held him fast so that he could neither cry out nor move, though in fact flight would not have availed him against the deadly speed of the enraged beast.
Bandobras was now no more than 100 feet away; Gilly's fate appeared grimly certain. Thus it was hard to say who seemed more surprised—the child or the bull—when a well-aimed apple core struck Bandobras squarely between the eyes with a loud thunk. The beast broke stride and shook its head, slightly dazed. It was no more than a momentary setback, but that was all Frodo needed to leap down from the wall and move swiftly in front of Gilly. "Get out of here," he muttered, and the boy needed no second urging. In a flash he was on his feet and running to safety.
Frodo now stood alone before the bull. It seemed to him that all else faded as they faced each other, very still and solemn, like partners in an ancient rite. He regarded the beast: black as the Pits of Morgoth, a fell light in its eye. "Is it you?" he whispered. Almost imperceptibly, he nodded a salute.
Then the moment passed and the bull was charging again, rushing toward Frodo and not to be stopped now by apples or anything else. Save for drawing into a slight crouch, Frodo did not move. On came Bandobras, closing the distance between them like an ardent lover. A roaring filled Frodo's ears—was it the bull?
Verily I come...
Now it was upon him and without knowing quite what he did Frodo sprang forward, seized the great curving horns that swept down toward him, and with a wild whoop vaulted over the head of the bull. For a moment it stood there in stunned confusion, giving Frodo a chance to scramble around so that he faced forward on the beast's back. He flung his arms about its neck just before it exploded in a frenzy of bucking and plunging. Patches of sky and ground flashed past Frodo's eyes in a sickening rhythm. He felt as if his bones were being pounded into jelly. It was agonizing, unbearable...and utterly glorious. He laughed in sheer exhilaration.
Bandobras was not so pleased...in fact, it was desperate to rid itself of the Thing on its back. It thundered around the pasture, then veering suddenly made a mad dash for the wall. As the grey stones rushed toward them, Frodo closed his eyes and waited for the impact. But at the last instant the bull came to an abrupt halt. Frodo, however, did not. He soared in a sweeping arc high over the wall, landing on his back in a patch of thistles. He groaned, opened his eyes, and looked up—into the astonished face of Farmer Maggot.
The scene unfolding in the Brandy Hall kitchen was one that had played out many times before. As Farmer Maggot paced the hearth and ranted, old Rorimac Brandybuck glowered at Frodo while his son Saradoc stood off to the side, looking disappointed but not surprised. Rory's wife Menegilda sat knitting by the fire, shaking her head and clucking her tongue at the most shocking parts of the farmer's account. Opposite her sat Esmeralda, Saradoc's wife, who was only half listening to the tirade as she rocked her baby. Little Meriadoc was watching the farmer with great interest, squealing with excitement whenever he grew especially loud.
He was growing loud now: "—and what with poor Bandobras so distressed and all, 'twill be a wonder if I can calm him enough to bring him to the fair tomorrow, never mind that he was favored to take a top ribbon, I've lost any hope of that, but right now he won't let anyone so much as get near him let alone lead him into the barn for the night—"
A sudden piercing shriek cut him off: whether the baby had intended it as an expression of admiration or rivalry was not entirely clear, but he did look very pleased with himself.
"Hush, Merry," murmured his mother, and she commenced humming softly to quiet him. Holding him close in her arms Esmeralda looked the very picture of maternal serenity, and indeed so long as all was well with Merry, other problems didn't trouble her nearly so much as they once had. Yet still she could not help but feel a twinge of the old pity and concern for Frodo that had visited her so often in the past three years.
She regarded him now as he stood before Rory staring at the floor, chagrined but defiant. Frodo had inherited little of the physical traits of the Baggins' Harfoot lineage, but favored rather his mother. Primula had been a beauty in which the Fallohide strain ran true, and to look at Frodo with his fair skin and refined features was to see Prim again. Esmeralda guessed that to be the reason Rory seemed not to welcome Frodo's presence at times, evoking as it did painful memories of his sister.
Even after three years, Rory still found it difficult to put the tragedy behind him. Frodo, it seemed, found it impossible. To see him now one would scarce believe that when his parents were alive there wasn't a brighter, happier lad than Frodo Baggins: full of life and chatter, so open and affectionate with everyone.
We've all failed him, Esmeralda thought sadly. But really, what could anyone have done? How could she explain to him why his parents were gone when she didn't understand herself? How Primula, as strong a swimmer as any, could be found floating face down in the river alongside Drogo and a capsized boat? How to comfort a child who has just discovered that life is not, after all, kindly and fair? It was a lesson everyone has to learn sooner or later, she knew, but Frodo had been dealt a harder lesson at a younger age than most.
Her attention snapped back to the present as she realized Rory was now speaking.
"Well Frodo! What have you to say to Farmer Maggot?"
Frodo lifted his head and steadily met the farmer's eyes. "I'm very sorry, sir, for the distress I've caused to you...and to Bandobras," he said.
If Maggot looked rather skeptical, no one present could blame him. "Hmmm...sorry is as sorry does, they say," he replied. "Stay away from my fields, Master Baggins, then I'll know how sorry you be!" With that he stomped out of the room, and a minute later they heard a front door slam.
Rory sighed heavily. "Now then Frodo, what else have you to say?"
Frodo's gaze was riveted once again on the floor. "I think Farmer Maggot said it all quite well," he replied softly.
Rory's face turned a deep shade of red. "Don't give me none o' your sass, boy! You know what I mean! I don't reckon you're quite through with your 'sorries' just yet, are you?"
Frodo frowned slightly, as if pondering Rory's words. Esmeralda cringed at what she feared was coming next, as Frodo was always honest to a fault. "Well," he said slowly, "I'm sorry if I've embarrassed you and the family."
Rory, looking somewhat appeased, began, "Now that's—"
But Frodo wasn't finished. "And I'm sorry I got caught." Rory's eyes narrowed dangerously. Frodo was now looking straight at him, chin jutting forward and eyes blazing. "But I'm not sorry I did it and you can't make me say I am! It was splendid I tell you, and I'd do it again if I got half a chance!"
Rory's face was now completely purple and he lunged forward with a roar. Saradoc sprang between them just in time. "Frodo, go to your room immediately!" he shouted. Frodo, eyes still locked with his uncle's, seemed not to hear him.
"Frodo, please!" begged Esmeralda.
He hesitated a moment longer, then abruptly turned and fled.
Still fuming, Rory shook off his son's hand and strode to the hearth, where he seized a poker and began jabbing the logs savagely. "Well, Sara, you've been mighty quiet all this time!" he growled, rounding on him suddenly. "What have you to say?" When Saradoc did not answer he continued, "As you well know, I've let Frodo stay on with the understanding that you keep him in line." Since the accident Saradoc had assumed the role of Frodo's guardian, Rory having neither the patience nor inclination. "Give him time, you're always saying. But it's been three years, Sara! How much more time does he need? If you're not up to the job I may have to make other arrangements."
Sara shifted uncomfortably. "I'll talk to him in the morning," he said at last.
"Talk! It's not talk that young varmint needs, it's a cane to his backside!"
"If he's my responsibility, then let me deal with him as I think best!"
They were interrupted by a quavering, reedy voice. "There's one thing I haven't heard said in all this fuss." Everyone turned toward Menegilda, who had been sitting in a silence broken only by the rapid clicking of her knitting needles. Now she looked pointedly at her husband and continued, "Little Gilly Banks would be dead right now if not for Frodo."
"Confound it, woman! Gilly never would ha' been in a fix at all if not for Frodo."
Undaunted, Gilda continued knitting. "He's a brave lad nonetheless," she said calmly.
"What you call bravery is just another word for foolhardiness," retorted Rory. "'Twill be a wonder if the boy survives to his 16th summer if he don't change his ways."
Frodo closed the bedroom door and leaned against it, trying to still the trembling that shook his slight frame. The heart-pumping thrill of his encounter with Bandobras, which had sustained him in the kitchen, was now ebbing away, leaving nothing in its wake but a scratched, bruised and weary young hobbit.
He scanned the cluttered room, seeking comfort among the books stacked high on the dresser, the chair, and much of the floor. Finally choosing one from the nearest pile, he threw himself on the bed—and straightaway leapt up again in surprise. He'd landed on something hard, something he hadn't noticed in the fading light. But there it was: a flat, squarish parcel wrapped in brown paper and addressed to him in a familiar hand.
"Bilbo!" he cried, and eagerly tore off string and wrapping. Then he gasped. In his hands lay a large book, as handsome and richly bound as any in the Brandy Hall library. He opened it carefully and saw it was filled with fine gilt-edged pages—all of them blank. Tucked inside the first was a note:
My dear Frodo,
I hope this reaches you in time for your birthday or, I should say, our birthday. Many thanks for your gift to me, which arrived yesterday. I continue to be impressed with your drawing skill. The rendering of Bag End and its surrounding environs is quite remarkable, all the more so for being done from memory. I shall have to press you into service as an illustrator for my book!
I had intended to deliver this in person so that we could celebrate together, but fate intervened in the form of the Chubb-Bagginses, who decided this was the perfect week to pay me a "long-overdue" visit. They correctly surmised that I should be glad of company for my birthday, erring only in that it was yours I desired, not theirs!
I trust this little gift meets with your approval. Having often noted the interest you take in my journal and the adventures I am recording therein, I thought that as a lad of full 15 years you were quite old enough for a journal of your own. I can guess what you're thinking just now: that you've nothing to write about, having had no adventures of your own as yet. But there's more than one use for a journal, my lad, not least of which is serving as a trusted and discreet friend in which you can confide your deepest secrets and cherished dreams. It strikes me that you might find such a friend most welcome.
I hope that you and the Brandybuck clan are getting on well. Mind you keep on Rory's good side, and don't give Saradoc too much trouble. He's a good sort, is Sara...a trifle too earnest and responsible for my taste, but he'll make a fine Master of Buckland someday. I was very pleased to hear that Esmeralda has borne him a strong, healthy babe at last. After two stillbirths I feared this one would claim her life, and I daresay there will be no more faunts to follow...making this child and heir all the greater cause for celebration.
Give my love to all and say that I shall be along soon to see how you're faring and to meet this newest Brandybuck.
Your affectionate uncle,
Even after he had finished reading Frodo continued to stare down at the letter, his thoughts far away in Hobbiton. Dear Bilbo—how he missed him! He was filled with a sudden sharp longing to see the old hobbit, of all his relatives the only one whose face expressed neither worry, pity, concern, or disapproval when he looked at Frodo—just a simple pleasure in his company. He treasured his visits to Bag End, where there was no schedule to adhere to and he was free to keep the odd hours of his wealthy, eccentric cousin—beholden to nothing and no one.
And so they would sit by the fire far into the night as Bilbo with eager voice and shining eyes recounted tales of far-off lands and adventures, Frodo curled up at his feet listening in rapt wonder. They'd sleep in the next morning and after a large, late breakfast would go rambling through the countryside while Bilbo recited poetry—sometimes his own, sometimes Elvish verse. Back at the smial he would usually set Frodo to translating some passages from one of his books of Elvish lore—for, as he was wont to say, "Someday, my lad, you're going to meet the Elves. And when that happens I expect you to be a credit to the name of Baggins!"
Frodo sighed. A credit to the family name...just now that seemed about as likely an event as the return of the king. Putting aside the letter he turned back to the new book, running his hand over the smooth, cream-colored paper. A journal of his own! He felt a flutter of anticipation—as if the mere fact of possessing such a thing somehow ordained that he, too, would one day have adventures to write about.
On an impulse he reached down and from under the bed brought up a small wooden chest. Lifting the lid, he began rummaging through a jumble of drawing and writing materials. Among the sheets of parchment filled with Elvish characters, scraps of paper covered with sketches, sticks of charcoal, gum erasers, pots of ink, pen nibs and holders were two rolls of parchment tied up with ribbon. These he now carefully unrolled to reveal charcoal portraits of two hobbits: one male, one female.
The somewhat heavyset male appeared to be on the far side of middle age, his face creased and hair thinning, his eyes serious yet kind. The female hobbit had dark hair tied up with a ribbon, save for wisps that had escaped to curl around her face and nestle against the delicate curve of her neck. She, too, was no longer young but the beauty in her bright eyes and gentle smile made age of no consequence. Below the portraits were their names—Drogo Baggins and Primula Brandybuck Baggins—and the year, 1380. Frodo had sketched his parents' likenesses shortly after their deaths, driven by a fierce urgency.
He gazed at them now for long minutes, then reached out and—very softly and carefully, so as not to smudge the charcoal—touched his mother's cheek. Drawing a deep breath, he propped the sheets against his pillow, opened a bottle of ink, and set nib in holder. He opened the journal across his lap and stared at the first page, chewing thoughtfully on the end of his pen. Finally, he dipped it in the ink and began.22 Halimath, 1383
I write this sitting in my room in disgrace.
Went mushroom hunting again today. The hunt was a success but alas, so was the pursuit and we had to give them back.
Also rode a bull...to give old Bandobras his due, he can move much faster than I'd ever imagined. Never have I felt so alive as at the moment we stood facing one another, when it seemed I beheld my Death. But it was not to be, not this day. I often wonder what my Death will look like, and if I will know it when I meet it. Did my parents know their deaths, I wonder? What did they see—the river? The boat? Each other?
He put down his pen and stared out the window at the heedless, darkening sky. "And why did they leave me behind?" he whispered. After a moment he continued writing:
They all forgot my birthday, just as I knew they would. It's better that way, last year was unbearable when I had to pretend to enjoy my party and Uncle Rory made me pass out those dreadful mathoms to everyone. But it proves that none of them care about me, not really. Aunt Ezzie means well but when she tries to be nice it just makes me miss Mama all the more. Anyway, she's too busy with her baby now to bother about me.
He paused again and looked over at the portraits, now barely discernable in the rapidly failing light. Unless he found and lit a candle, he would soon be forced to quit. His normally graceful handwriting gave way to a final, hurried scrawl:
I fear that I am starting to forget my parents. Not their faces, I have my drawings for that. But the touch of her hand, the sound of his voice, the scent of her hair...all these begin to fade, and one day will be lost to me.
His pen faltered and dropped as a wave of grief and exhaustion swept over him. He closed his eyes and buried his face in his hands, but a gentle tap on the door brought him up with a start.
"It's Aunt Ezzie." Esmeralda was really Frodo's cousin, as was Saradoc, but because of the difference in their ages he had called them aunt and uncle since he was small.
Frodo hastily packed up his chest and shoved it back under the bed before calling, "Come in."
Esmeralda entered bearing a tray with some food and a pot of tea. "Goodness Frodo, why are you sitting in the dark?" She took the candle from her tray and set it on the dresser. "Here's a bit of supper, dear. I expect you're hungry enough by now to eat that bull!"
Frodo looked up and met her eyes briefly, startled that she was joking about his offense. He ventured a small smile. "Thank you, Aunt Ezzie." His stomach growled loudly just then, making them both laugh.
"I also came to bid you a happy birthday, lad."
Frodo stiffened, and a closed, guarded look came over his face. "Thank you," he said again, but now his voice was low and sullen. She remembered! He hadn't wanted her to, had wanted his resentment to remain pure and unchallenged.
Esmeralda, while noting his changed demeanor, plunged bravely ahead. "There was to be a party tonight, just a small one with the family, but Rory called it off after...what happened today. I've brought you a piece of the cake, though."
"It doesn't matter," said Frodo dully, and turned away.
Esmeralda hesitated for a moment, as if searching for the right words, then reached out and put a tentative hand on his shoulder. "I know I can't take the place of your mama, Frodo," she said gently, "but I'd like to be your friend."
Frodo neither answered nor turned around, but only shrugged his shoulder so that her hand slipped off. She stood there a moment longer, then turned and swiftly left the room. Not until her footsteps died away did the hot tears fall.
End Part One
Opening quote from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. But you knew that!
This is my first fanfiction (may Eru have mercy on it!); any feedback welcome and appreciated.
To Professor Tolkien, Mary Renault, and Dodie Smith: Thanks and sorry.