This AU was originall posted on Live Journal as a birthday story for the wonderful author Shirebound. You can find her tales at fanfiction.net or Tales of Arda.

Coming of Age
by Laura Mason

"There! The rascal has been subdued at last. Now bow to the Riders of the Mark, knave!"

Frodo heard the young voice and was unprepared for the size of the person crashing through the brush. It was a boy-child, one of the big people. He was already taller than Frodo, who remained hidden from him, carefully frozen in place.

"Now re-pledge your allegiance to the Mark!" the boy demanded, brandishing the long stick he carried as his sword. Frodo smiled, remembering how many afternoons he'd fought imaginary foes with his imaginary Sting. It seemed lads played the same whether hobbits or men.

But where had he come from? Certainly not Bree-land -- those men never wandered this far west.

"Eomer!"

 The child turned with a happy smile as an enormous man loudly strode up behind him. Frodo watched the boy throw himself into the long arms. "I'm playing Barahir and the Riders!" he declared.

"Don't you mean 'Barahir and the Rangers?'" the man said, and though his voice was deeper, Frodo knew he wasn't truly an adult, either. On the cusp, with skin that remained free of stubble despite the late hour and kind, unlined eyes. Maybe in his early twenties? No, that would be a hobbit tween. Men were different, and Frodo couldn't remember exactly how they aged.

"Oh, I know that's how you told it, but I'm a Rider of the Mark, not a Ranger of Ithilien, and I've caught him! But he'll make his obeisance to you now, you can pretend to be the Steward--"

"Eomer, we weren't sent north to play. You're supposed to be hunting and learning to track. Boromir will be very angry if you cannot find his trail."

"All right," the boy sighed, dropping the stick. "The boot prints go this way. But isn't this more interesting? What creature do you suppose made these tracks?"

Frodo stopped breathing for a moment. The boy, Eomer, was looking at the path where he'd walked between the trees. As the other man moved to join the boy, Frodo cautiously began creeping away, moving as silently as possible.

He wasn't certain which was stronger -- his fear of discovery or his anger at being out in the woods alone. It was all Bilbo's doing. Certainly they needed food for the Midsummer's feast, but honestly -- what use was some silly ritual when you were the one being tracked like an animal?

Frodo could still hear the boys chattering as he crept along the edge of a clearing where very large old oaks grew, not far from the creek. Once he got across that, he should be able to run, he thought, and put some distance between himself and these visitors to the Shire. It might be better if he could somehow lure them along, away from the settlements of the Southfarthing -- but they didn't seem dangerous. Just two boys who'd wandered too far, and no doubt would head for their home before it got much later in the day.

The noise of a bird flying up out of the brush to his right startled Frodo and put his mind back on the ritual. Bilbo was quite wrong about Frodo's reasons for avoiding it for so long; he certainly wasn't trying to keep Bilbo with him. Frodo had suspected for years, even before Bilbo confided in him, that his cousin would journey to see the dwarves and elves once more before he died.

True, Bilbo couldn't leave until Frodo came of age to inherit Bag End. But Frodo wasn't the one who'd told all the neighbors that he still hadn't performed his coming-of-age. Bilbo did that, rather than simply pretending that Frodo had done it years before. Why, Frodo didn't know. Who cared? But no, his unconventional guardian suddenly became the model of propriety when it came to this antiquated ritual.

"You're fine being alone in the woods of the Shire, even overnight. You've snuck out with Samwise often enough. Bring me a coney or a squirrel, Frodo, that's good enough, but don't you dare come back here without meat for the feast. You're going to become a mature hobbit if I have to lock you out for the next month!"

"Hello!" came a bright young voice, and Frodo nearly fell over in surprise. He'd been so occupied with trying to move stealthily and his memories of Bilbo, he'd completely missed the youngster circling around him, now blocking his way to the creek. "What kind of creature are you? Do you know magic? Do you live here?"

"Shhh, for heaven's sake," Frodo begged in a whisper, putting his finger over the boy's lips. "You'll have the other one here in no time."

"Faramir? But he's my friend--"

"But not mine, lad. Eomer -- that's your name, isn't it? You mustn't tell anyone you saw me. I'm leaving now."

"But..." The boy looked very distressed, but didn't try to stop him. "Tell me your name, at least," he pleaded.

"Frodo!" he hissed, vanishing into the brush again, moving as quickly as possible. But he could hear the noise of men all around him. Behind him was the boy, but there was someone to the right, and another straight ahead. The boy had more than one companion!

Frodo scrambled up the nearest tree, climbing higher than he had in many years, his breath short with fear.

"Eomer!" came a cry from below. "Are you here?"

"Yes, over here!" the child called, and Frodo watched the two large figures below converge on the boy. "I've found him, but he's gone again. It was a Frodo!"

"You were supposed to find Boromir," Faramir scolded gently, crouching beside him. "Now go fetch some water from the creek yonder, Eomer." He handed the boy a waterskin and patted his shoulder as he rose, and Eomer ran off.

"You're very patient with him." This big person was a man, Frodo decided, and a dangerous one. He carried a long sword and a bow, and his skill with such weapons was demonstrated by the handful of dead rabbits he carried.

"He's a good lad, truly. And I always wanted a younger brother or sister, you know. Someone I could take care of, who looks up to me and thinks I know everything."

The new man laughed and smacked the other's arm lightly.

"Eomer thinks I know everything, Faramir, just as you used to believe."

"And still do, brother. But Eomer and his sister are very sweet. It is a shame Theodred is too busy with his duties to spend time with the boy."

"I should be doing the same thing, attending my duties," Boromir said shortly, his smile gone. "Father could have sent you alone with him. You're old enough to child-sit."

"But he does not trust my judgement," Faramir admitted, and his voice seemed very sad. "Nor does he seem to realize I am a grown man now."

"I wish it could be different, brother, but it has ever been so." Boromir looked around them at the level, dry clearing. "This is as good a place as any to camp for tonight, isn't it? Gather some wood and kindling, Faramir, and I will start our meal."

Frodo fumed up in the tree, watching as they truly did set up their camp right below him. Eomer came back with water and Boromir, leaning against Frodo's tree, skinned the rabbits while his brother -- Faramir, wasn't it? -- worked on the fire. Soon the meat was roasting and the heavenly scent of it rose to Frodo in the branches, very hungry and terribly uncomfortable, and completely unable to move.

He wracked his brain, trying to think of a way to lure them away from the tree for a time. There was nothing he could do; he didn't even have pebbles in his pocket.

Once it was fully dark one of them left to fetch more water, but the others stayed right below him, the fire casting enough light for them to see a hobbit scrambling awkwardly down beside them. Their talk, which would have been interesting and amusing under other circumstances, seemed to go on forever. Young Eomer kept insisting he'd found the mysterious Frodo-beast that left such odd footprints. The men let him talk but quite obviously were indulging his fancifulness, and for that Frodo was grateful. It seemed dark enough now that they couldn't have confirmed his story, but Frodo thought these men, who came from a hunting culture and were teaching tracking to the young one, might be skillful enough to find him if they'd cared to try.

In fact, he felt very fortunate that they hadn't looked up while there was still daylight. The tree was in bud and Frodo knew his dark green cloak didn't exactly blend with the bright new leaves of springtime. Despite keeping as still as possible, he couldn't help shifting a bit now and then, making the branches creek and rustle. But in the dark, he felt more protected.

But why didn't they go to sleep? Men had to sleep sometime, didn't they?

Eomer finally slept, well-wrapped in a blanket. The other two spoke together quietly, their voices not carrying to Frodo on his high branch. But then the younger brother lay down beside Eomer, and Frodo smiled in relief. But as he tried to stand and cautiously stretch, Frodo realized the other hadn't joined them. Instead, he stirred the fire and sat staring into the darkness.

They were keeping watch here, in the Shire? They came from someplace much more dangerous, then, for no hobbit felt such a need for watchfulness. Most hobbits didn't even have locks on their doors, though Bag End's wine cellar locked with a shiny brass key which Bilbo kept on a hook right beside the door.

Now fear was adding to Frodo's discomfort. These men were alien to him, coming from a land where evil must be commonly done. No wonder the oldest carried so many weapons.

He had to get away from this place. He couldn't stay up this tree all night. What if he fell asleep and rolled right off the branch? He had to risk moving. Frodo carefully flexed his legs and arms, and it occurred to him that it might be best to wait for the younger brother, the kindly one, to take his turn at watch. But the cold air, Frodo's hunger, and the realization of how very stiff he'd become, huddled in the tree, all convinced Frodo to make the climb now.

He was being careful, but it was difficult to see in the darkness. Frodo was at the lowest branches when he heard the man call "Who's there?" just as his foot slipped. He stifled a cry as his grip slipped, but couldn't catch himself with only one hand. Frodo fell heavily into the brush, and before he could move the man was there, looming over him. A strong hand clamped on his shoulder, making Frodo struggle like a wild creature for a few moments, his cries rousing the others.

"What on earth?" the man exclaimed before a young voice cried,

"It's Frodo!"

"Eomer, don't go near it!" The younger man held back the boy, who was wide awake and struggling to reach Frodo.

"Release me at once!" Frodo cried, trying to kick at the man holding him down.

"I won't release you until you tell me what you are doing here, spying on our camp. Are you some new kind of orc from the Enemy?" the man demanded, shaking Frodo.

"You are the ones trespassing in my land, sir," he managed to gasp out, though it felt like his head would fly off. Then the man pulled him to his feet, and Frodo cried out in pain and fell back, his left foot throbbing with the memory of the much sharper pain when he'd put weight on it.

"He's injured, Boromir. He can't run."

"What is it?"

"I know!" the youngster cried. "It's one of the holbytlan." Frodo was still clutching his ankle, grateful that the man had loosened his grip.

"He didn't spring from the ground, Eomer, he fell from the skies," Boromir said.

"Were you hiding, Frodo?" the boy asked, coming closer. "I told you I'd found him, Faramir. He knew we'd never look for a holbytla up a tree!" The boy crouched beside Frodo, concern plain on his face. "And now how will he get home?"

"What are holbytlan, Eomer?" Faramir asked.

"They're little people who live in the north. They tunnel underground, kind of like dwarves, I suppose." Frodo snorted, as did Boromir.

"There's no such thing," the man declared, but his brother was nodding.

"Halflings," Faramir breathed. "Mithrandir told me such creatures truly exist, but I insisted that he was joking."

"This is the first I've heard of that wizard actually having useful information," the older brother grumbled. "How do we know that's what he is?"

"He's the size of a child, but obviously he's an adult. What else could he be?"

"Some kind of abomination, perhaps. Look at his feet. Whatever he is, what do we do with him?"

"Can't we keep him?" Eomer asked brightly.

"No!" came the immediate reply from three voices. Frodo coughed a little, then continued. "I apologize for startling you, gentlemen. I am far from my home on a hunting trip, and because of your young protege's skills I found I had became the prey myself. Eomer discovered me and, as he said, drove me up the tree to hide."

"Hunting? You have no weapons," Boromir said, still suspicious.

"Perhaps halflings don't use swords or bows, Boromir," his brother said. "Simpler cultures often hunt with snares."

"I am right here with you, Master Faramir," Frodo snorted. "I can set a snare, but a good-sized rock is enough of a weapon for the prey I seek, coneys like those you ate for dinner. Do men of your land need blades to subdue rodents?"

Faramir looked surprised, Boromir looked affronted, but Eomer laughed. Then he said, "Even if we can't take him with us, shouldn't we try to help Frodo, since he's injured himself?"

The boy's practicality soon had Faramir carefully lifting Frodo and carrying him to the fireside, where Eomer insisted on giving him the scraps of their dinner. Frodo gratefully accepted the food, and while Faramir tried to tend to his foot, Frodo talked almost non-stop, trying to put them at ease and convince them of his veracity.

"We do have fine archers among the my people, and indeed I own a bow, a gift, which is of elven-make. I believe it comes from Mirkwood, a forest east of the Misty Mountains."

"Your people trade with such far-off lands?" Faramir asked, wrapping Frodo's foot and ankle tightly with a strip of cloth off his cape. Boromir stood over them, still watching the woods around them for danger, but also not willing to leave his brother alone with a stranger.

"My guardian has friends among all the peoples of Middle-Earth, dwarves, elves and men. Sometimes parcels come to him from far-away lands like Dale. He's the one who gave me the bow." Even as he spoke, Frodo remembered Bilbo's disappointment when he wouldn't use the graceful bow with its beautifully-made, deadly arrows. Bilbo had set up a target in the party field, but Frodo couldn't bear shooting even at that, too well aware that this exquisite thing was a tool for killing. No matter how hearty his appetite, Frodo didn't like to kill animals. He'd learned to skin and dress meat; he knew how to cook. He knew how to kill, too, but it sickened him.

Why did he have to think so much about such things? Why couldn't he be like other hobbits?

The only answer was that he'd never had a normal hobbit childhood. Other hobbits had families and weren't passed around the Shire like an unwanted Yulecake. Sam, still in his twenties, had successfully done the coming-of-age ritual years before, while his mother was still alive, and never once run into trouble while hunting. Of course he hadn't, for Sam was a normal hobbit. He was the only one who'd ever used Frodo's elven bow, delighted with its balance and aim.

"Do you really live underground?" Eomer asked, his eyes wide as he watched Frodo eat.

"My home, Bag End, is underground, Eomer. But don't imagine a hobbit smial to be like a hole you dig in the earth. Bag End has fine wooden walls with many windows, smooth floors and warm fireplaces. I don't know if it's much like dwarf-halls, which are carved from living stone. We build with wood and rock, in the hillsides."

"Hobbits? Is that what you call yourselves?" Faramir asked, and Frodo nodded.

Eomer chimed in, "But why do you have to come so far away to hunt, Frodo? Don't you have rabbits around Bag End?"

"Yes, but I'm ..." Frodo stopped and blushed, embarrassed. "Hobbits have a coming-of-age ritual. We must provide food for our families for one of the year's feasts, and we must leave familiar territory to hunt for the food. Because I've always done a lot of hiking and wandering, I had to come far south to find a new area for my hunt."

"A coming-of-age," Boromir said, a hint of laughter in his voice. "You seem older than I am, halfling."

"Yes, that's quite likely true. Hobbits aren't considered adults until they reach age 33, which I won't be until this coming September."

All three of them seemed surprised by this, but then Eomer began laughing.

"What is so funny?" Boromir asked, a smile on his stern face.

"Frodo and I are here for the same thing," Eomer gasped. "But to him, you're both still children, too. Just like me!" Frodo smiled and the others joined in the laughter for a moment.

Then Boromir sobered. "Eomer, it's time for you to go back to sleep."

"Awww," the boy moaned in half-hearted protest before obeying. Frodo kept silent for a long while, until he was certain the boy slept.

"You don't really need to keep a watch here in the Shire. You're probably the most dangerous things in this land." He looked at his foot. "I'm not going anywhere," he added, letting his misery plainly show.

"I think your foot is merely strained by the fall, Frodo," Faramir said. "If you'd broken a bone, you would have far more pain."

"But I can't walk, even to track rabbits. I'll be out here weeks before I can even get home."

"Perhaps we can help with that," Boromir said, and when Frodo looked at him he saw kindness deep in those eyes, too. These brothers were noble men, he realized, and despite the dangers of their homeland, they were kindly now that they knew Frodo was no threat to them. "Us lads should stick together, I think."

"Thank you," Frodo said with a genuine smile that was reflected back at him.

"We should all get some sleep," Boromir said, and they gave Frodo a blanket to wrap around himself, and left him the best place beside the fire, too.

Frodo fell asleep while he was deciding what he wanted to learn about them the next morning.

***

"I don't know how you managed to get back here, but thank heavens you're all right," Bilbo fussed, putting another cushion under Frodo's swollen ankle. Doc Smallburrow had confirmed that it was merely a bad sprain, though Frodo seemed to be paying more attention to the old hobbit's surprised expression when he saw the dead boar with the wooden spear still between its eyes beside the kitchen door. Doc had recommended rest, and Bilbo was going to make sure that Frodo got plenty of that now. If Frodo had been seriously hurt on this foolish ritual hunt, Bilbo would never have forgiven himself.

"The carcass is down by the smoke house, Mister Bilbo," Sam said from the doorway. "Ned offered to butcher it for a haunch once it's smoked. His family's celebrating Spring Ringle, too."

"Thank you, Sam. He may have a haunch, and your family may have the other. There's far too much for the two of us." Bilbo looked at his gardener's lad, who'd always held a bit of hero-worship for Frodo, and saw awe in his eyes. "I suppose the whole of Hobbiton is talking about Frodo's ritual by now?"

"'Fraid so, sir. The news was bound to get out, and once they heard Doc's report... Well, everyone knows Frodo is full ready to come of age now."

Bilbo looked at his cousin, who was blushing and kept his eyes down in a false demureness. There was more to this story, Bilbo knew that. How could Frodo have limped so far with that enormous creature? And he thought he'd heard voices outside while it was still dark.

"You may get back to your work, Sam. Thank you for your help." Sam nodded and ducked out, and Bilbo met Frodo's eyes again. "Would you like some tea?"

"Oh yes, please. I've missed that," Frodo added, his face turning even redder.

Bilbo wanted to press him, but he didn't. As he walked to the kitchen his hand wandered into his waistcoat pocket. He had his own secrets, didn't he? His long-ago heroism had been a combination of luck and trickery. And Frodo was his heir -- perhaps just a little too much like him.

He pulled down a tea cup with a smile, reassured that Bag End would have a true Baggins as its master long after him.

 

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