This is part of the Searchers universe, and probably won't make much sense unless you've read that story. G to NC-17 rated slash throughout. Deep apologies to Daphne Dumaurier -- but Frodo claims he wrote it first.

Corsair Cove
by Laura Mason Frodo Baggins

Fosco thought the rattling of the carriage would never stop, each bump tossing him from side to side since he couldn't brace his wounded leg well enough to keep still. It was incredibly uncomfortable, but finally, two hours after the river crossing and long after sundown, the horses slowed, then stopped.

"Sir?" the driver called down to him. "We're at the Steward's Lodge, but it seems very dark. Are you certain they were expecting you tonight?"

Fosco sat forward, then opened the door and stood on the step. The moon had not yet risen, and it was so dark that he couldn't see any outline of the house. His morbid imagination, fueled by his long illness, immediately told him he was lost, perched on the very edge of the Andrast peninsula where the mountains to the east would block any sunrise, and the Sea to the west waited to swallow him in the darkness.

Then a massive wooden door cracked open, lantern-light spilling out, and the sprawling house could be seen -- all on one level, as he'd been promised -- waiting to receive him. Fosco shook himself, forcing a smile on his face despite his weariness.

"Here you are at last, Master Teabrand," came a cheerful voice, and a tow-haired man in simple servant's clothing approached the carriage. "Welcome to the End of the World, as we like to say in these parts. You, there -- bring in the Master's bags, and then come to the kitchen for some food before you leave. Master, let me show you to the study. It adjoins your room, the finest in the house, all prepared for you. We've had a fire going all day today."

Shortly Fosco found himself comfortably seated in a large chair, a soft hassock pushed close to support his sore leg, beside a merrily burning fire. There was ale, wine, cold meat, cheese, and fresh, crusty bread -- enough for a hungry hobbit, though Fosco knew no one on this coast had ever seen a hobbit before. The Steward's instructions had evidently been quite thorough.

The servant was hovering, having settled the driver and unpacked Fosco's smallest bag. "Is everything to your pleasure, sir?"

"Very much so. May I ask your name?"

"Hobbs, sir. I've been with the house for ... oh, five years now." He poured more ale into Fosco's mug as he spoke.

"I'm very pleased to meet you, Hobbs. Please give my compliments to the staff as well."

"Oh, there ain't no proper staff, sir. Just me and the cook, though we had a couple of girls from the village come out to help clean and dust when we got the Steward's letter." Hobbs stirred up the fire and added a log.

"You keep this entire house by yourself?" Fosco set down his plate in surprise.

"Well, there ain't much to do when the house is empty, sir. A few repairs now and then, and bringing in firewood or airing out the rooms, depending on the season." He'd moved to the door and was obviously waiting to be dismissed for the evening.

"Well, I won't keep you any longer, Hobbs. I'm perfectly comfortable. Thank you."

"I'll say good night, then. What time would you like breakfast, master?"

"No breakfast, Hobbs. I'll find my own way to the kitchen when I'm ready for some tea and toast. Good night."

"As you wish." With a final bow, the servant left the room, closing the door behind him.

Fosco looked around the cozy study, enjoying the way the firelight warmed the pale walls and cast long shadows from the dark wooden ceiling beams. Tall bookshelves lined two walls, and a third was all windows with heavy draperies. The furniture was all overstuffed, a bit too large for his comfort, though Fosco was used to living among men. The adjoining bedroom was the same, but someone -- Hobbs of course -- had thoughtfully provided a stepstool for him to climb into the man-sized bed, and his washbasin and towels were set out on low benches for his ease.

"Hobbs is a treasure, I think," he mused aloud. "And it's a shame for such a lovely place to be all but abandoned more years than not."

When he finished his meal, Fosco washed up and changed, then climbed into the bed. It was quite grand, yet tired as he was, he couldn't sleep. He wasn't sure if it was the unfamiliar room, the way his leg still ached, or the roar of the waters outside.

Finally he sat up, then climbed down and wrapped one of the spare blankets from the foot of the bed around him. He went to the long window and moved aside one heavy curtain to stare out toward the blackness where the Sea murmured and sang. He wished he'd been able to arrive early enough to see the water -- like most hobbits, he'd never seen the Sea, though it really wasn't far from the Shire. Certainly not as far as he'd gone in his travels since becoming a marshal.

His leg throbbed and he moved back to the bed. Perhaps if he could read for a while...

The fire, though low, still burned. He fumbled on the bedside table until he found a taper, then lit it. He spent a long time reading titles on the lower shelves, and finally chose a history of the House of Stewards, reasoning that it would be dry enough to lull him to sleep.

Before he climbed into the bed again, he arranged his candle on the table. While he was standing there, he thought he smelled something familiar... but not something he expected to find here in the far southwest.

Pipeweed?

Fosco began rummaging through the bedside table's cupboard, and there it was -- a jar full of pipeweed, incorrectly stoppered. Yet the weed still smelled sweet, and felt fresh when he crumbled a bit in his fingers.

But they'd told Fosco that the Steward's family hadn't visited this house in seven years or more...

It was a mystery, but not a very serious one. Fosco closed up the jar tightly and put it away. Perhaps Hobbs slept in here. That was probably a shocking idea to a Gondorian, but it only made good hobbit-sense to Fosco. Why waste the nicest room in the house year after year?

He settled himself in bed with his book, resolved that he shouldn't mention his discovery to Hobbs. He would only be here for a few months; there was no reason to disturb the servant's routine or make him uncomfortable.

At long last, with the rumble of the waves in his ears, Fosco slept.

***

Frodo looked over at Eomer, sitting at the far end of their sofa, his face half in shadow as he stared into the fire. "Enough?" he asked with a bright smile.

"For tonight, yes." When Frodo set down his manuscript, Eomer scooted over and pulled him closer, wrapping his long arms around Frodo's body and dropping a kiss on the top of his head. "You were quite right -- reading does pass the time nicely on these long winter evenings. So how was Fosco injured, and what service did he render to Gondor that he's lodging in the Steward's house?"

"Oh, that's a tale for another book. This story ... well, it's a romance, I think, not truly an adventure like my other tales."

"A romance? That would be very different from your last book."

"Yes, it is. I just had an idea... I'm not certain I can do it justice, really."

"Oh, I believe you will." Eomer's hands were roaming a bit now, pulling at the buttons of Frodo's waistcoat until it fell open, then fondling his chest through the heavy cotton of his shirt between loosening buttons. Frodo shivered as a rough fingertip grazed sensitive flesh, his head falling back onto Eomer's arm. "Are you warm enough, love?"

"Yes," he replied, turning his head as Eomer's mouth lowered to meet his own. It wasn't long before they were both naked on the thick furs before the fire, ignoring the snow fiercely blowing outside as their bodies met in familiar bliss.

Much later, as Frodo snuggled into the warm body beside him, on the very edge of sleep, he heard Eomer's drowsy voice.

"A romance. Where ever do you get such ideas, holbytla?"

***

He hadn't planned to receive visits. Fosco had no horse or carriage, and there were no houses this side of the river. Even the village was a half-day's walk.

But Hobbs had known, evidently, for Cook was ready with pots of tea and odd sandwiches, thin-sliced bread with sweet butter and paper-thin slices of a green vegetable. Fosco knew as host he shouldn't eat so many -- these were intended for the guests. But they were surprisingly good, and the appetite that had been missing since his wounding had evidently been roused by the bracing salt air.

Fosco had spent all of the day before and most of this morning outside, bundled in a heavy cloak, watching the water. Its color changed with the growing light of day, and the water sometimes seemed to caress the rocky shore, and other times seemed to batter it. The Sea was beautiful and deadly, and its voice called to him. The healers of Gondor had told him he should walk to strengthen his leg, and in this place, such exercise seemed possible. Fosco wandered the shore, staying away from the slick wet rocks, and breathed deeply of solitude and peace.

Then he returned for luncheon only to face this parade of curious, wealthy people anxious to show their respect to the Steward's guest. Fosco watched their eyes leave his face and wander to his feet or his ears, which grew red with frustrated embarrassment. Society in the Shire had been bad enough, but the rudeness of these people made him wish for his gun and a pony, and the open road.

"Well, Teabrand, it's a good thing you're a marshal and a crack shot, from what I've heard." The others all joined in Lord Eletin's hearty laugh, but Fosco didn't understand and his confusion must have shown on his face. "None of us would dare live out here, so far from anyone else."

"The End of the World," Fosco murmured, and Lord Eletin nodded.

"Exactly. A little too far from neighbors, what with pirate scum robbing every big house along our coast."

"Pirate? I'm afraid I'm not familiar with the term," Fosco began.

"Thieves, I call them. Low-life corsairs from who knows where," Lady Putan added. "They have no morals, no scruples -- they rob our houses and each other's ships alike, and serve no country."

"Really?"

"You've lived inland all your life, so you've never face such things. But we're exposed here, far from the lawmen who protect Minas Tirith or the forts where Gondor's soldiers keep guard. Our land has no real navy, though I've heard a rumor that the Steward's eldest son will be coming south to recruit more sailors."

"We've heard that rumor for years," one of the men scoffed. "Face it, Gondor is too concerned with the Black Land to care what happens here. Or anywhere else -- if not for the marshals, no place would be safe." He nodded to Fosco, who smiled in acknowledgment though he was still confused.

Another hour passed in conversation that flitted from one topic to another, so he heard emphatic opinions about crops, flocks, herds, and pirates. Fosco was quite confuddled by the time it ended, and it didn't end until every bite of the sandwiches and cakes, and every drop of the tea and brandy were gone. Then, one by one, his very distant neighbors climbed back into their fine rigs and departed.

He'd just heaved a relieved sigh when Hobbs said, "Glad to see the back of them, aren't you?"

Fosco turned with a grin. "I am indeed. Thank you, Hobbs, for being so prepared with the hospitality of the house."

"Well, we figured they'd all want a look at you. But I don't think you'll be bothered very often, Master. Too far to come, and you won't be returning their calls."

"No indeed!" he declared. "I'd rather spend the day with the pirates."

"Would you indeed?" Hobbs chuckled as he gathered plates, cups, and soiled napkins onto a large tray. "Well, I don't suppose the pirates will be calling today."

"I believe we're quite safe, Hobbs. I'm a penniless hobbit, and even such bold corsairs would not dare to steal from the Steward."

"As you say, sir."

But long after Hobbs left the room, Fosco stared out at the water, imagining tall masts on great ships sailed by fierce, bold men.

***

"Corsairs? Wherever did you hear about such people?" Eomer was carving tonight as Frodo read, a toy horse, it appeared, though it was still very rough.

"I spent an hour or so with Lieutenant Damrod at the wedding, remember? He grew up along the coast, and told me stories about their exploits. They do terrorize some of the wealthy folk, but many of the villagers love them, for they come ashore and are free with their gold. Damrod said many of them are loyal to Gondor, though they haven't been asked to come to its defense for many years now."

"It's amazing to me how you hear these things -- and I know you can't remember them like a Bard would do -- but you take details and transform them. It's quite remarkable."

"Eomer," Frodo protested modestly, but moved to give him a thank-you kiss, delighted when the carving was quickly set aside for more sweet, honey-slow kisses.

When they stopped for breath, Eomer said, "I'm picturing Hobbs something like Butterbur."

Frodo laughed merrily at that. "Oh, no. Though I don't doubt he was so polite to you and your men, since you had gold to spend. I never saw him as friendly or deferential, though."

Eomer squeezed his hobbit tightly, wishing he could change the past. It ought to be enough, to know Frodo was now happy. But sometimes a casual comment made Eomer ache for what the hobbit had endured in Bree.

"I based him on Bilbo's gardener, actually. Hamfast Gamgee. Well, that's not quite true. For years now Bilbo has been teaching Ham's youngest son, Samwise, how to read. The lad listens to Bilbo's poetry, too. Hobbs is sort of what I imagine Sam might grow up to be, a servant who's very bright. Truly clever enough to be master himself. Right now Sam is only in his tweens, but someday he'll take over his father's job and be the one who runs Bag End."

"When that day comes, Samwise might be working for you," Eomer said.

"Well, he won't be working for the Sackville-Bagginses, that's certain," Frodo laughed. "But tonight, I don't want to think about ever leaving this place for so long. I love our ranch, Eomer."

"As do I, dearest. But I know you. You've already hinted that you'd like to travel south to see Fort Ithilien. And now you're writing about the Sea -- how long will it be before you want to travel there, to see how that wonder compares to your imagination of it?"

"You know me too well."

"I love you too well not to know that much about you," Eomer declared. Then he put his mouth to a different use, mapping out Frodo's body, proving that he knew and loved each part of his hobbit, too.

***

In the two weeks he'd been at Andrast Fosco had explored freely, never wandering toward the populated section of the coast which lay far to the east of the Lodge. Instead he climbed the rocks to the north and west, scrambling along until his leg demanded a rest period. He loved being so close to the water, and never felt too lonely while listening to its relentless song.

But today Fosco hardly heard the wind and surf around him, and indeed paid no mind to where his feet led him. He brain was occupied, examining everything that had occurred in his weeks at the Lodge.

Last night, for the first time since he'd become so active, Fosco's sleep had been uneasy. In fact, he awoke in the dead of the night, somehow certain that someone was in the room with him. But no one had been there, and the darkness remained undisturbed. Still, the feeling had been strong enough to send him out of his bed to the window.

His senses were tingling with danger, though he could see nothing different. The moon illuminated the water and made the rocks shine. He stared for a long time before he could relax enough to return to his pillow. Even then, sleep was elusive.

But in the morning his fears had seemed foolish, and Fosco was ready to set aside what his instincts told him. Or he was ready, until he noticed that Hobbs seemed uneasy, too.

Fosco had gone to the kitchen when he rose, as he'd done every day for the past two weeks, carrying a book. Cook was nowhere to be seen, and he assumed it was her market day, so Fosco filled the kettle himself and replaced it on the fire, then searched for the long fork used for toasting bread. He was just reaching to retrieve it when Hobbs bustled in and exclaimed so loudly Fosco knocked down a whole shelf of spoons and other utensils.

"Sorry, Master Teabrand. I didn't mean to startle you." Hobbs was saying the right words, but he sounded less deferential than usual. Almost -- rushed. "Let me fix your tea and toast, and I'll bring it to you in the study."

"It's no problem, Hobbs, and there's no need to fuss. I can eat right here at the table."

"Not while I'm cleaning this up, making such a racket and disturbing your reading. Go ahead, then." Fosco felt positively bullied toward the door, Hobbs still chattering as he chivvied him along. "Shall I make up a lunch for you, too? New bread, and cheese, and maybe some of those grapes that are left? Good, good. I'll be right with you, sir."

He was in the hallway, minus his book, minus his tea or toast, feeling very out-of-sorts. But as he walked back to his rooms, he began to wonder if Hobbs' strange behavior was also from a restless night. Perhaps he, too, had sensed whatever woke Fosco?

Or perhaps it was Hobbs who caused whatever woke him. Fosco might have heard movement in another part of the house, even sensed voices while he was sleeping -- though by the time he fully roused, there was no longer anything to hear.

He settled in his usual chair and pretended to be reading when Hobbs rushed into the study with a tray, observing the man out of the corner of his eye. Just the fact that Hobbs didn't produce Fosco's abandoned book showed how distracted the servant was, and Hobbs continued to seem rushed and impatient as he laid out the tea. Fosco thanked him and watched him leave, then sat for a long time, deep in thought, before heading out for his walk.

He wondered if Hobbs was in trouble. Few young men in the Shire ever got into serious mischief, but Fosco had been a marshal long enough to know of the temptations in other parts of Middle Earth. There might be gambling among the servants from the big houses, and Hobbs could be in debt. Or, living such a lonely life out here, the man might have sought companionship unwisely.

Fosco actually felt a bit guilty about suspecting Hobbs of any wrong-doing, for he was a clever and often thoughtful servant -- yet his instincts were telling him that Hobbs knew about the trouble, whether he'd caused it or not. Of course, Fosco's conviction would remain private -- there was no point in writing to the far-off Steward about such matters. No, all Fosco could do was remain on his guard, and try to be available if Hobbs decided to speak of whatever was causing his unusual behavior.

Once he decided all this to his satisfaction, Fosco slowly became aware of his surroundings. He'd wandered into a small, thick wood without even noticing the change in light. He proceeded, drawn by the sound of running water ahead, evidently a creek leading to the Sea. There might be a good place to stop for some rest and a drink.

But when Fosco reached the edge of the trees, he heard voices. He'd never encountered anyone in his daily walks before and that, combined with the events of last night and this morning, made him freeze in his tracks, then proceed far more cautiously, with all the stealth of a hobbit and a marshal.

There was a group of men, perhaps twenty of them, loading boxes and bundles into long boats pulled ashore near the creek mouth. They were noisy and unconcerned with discovery, evidently knowing this coast well enough to be sure there were no houses in earshot. Fosco had met and worked with many big people during his years in Bree, but these men were a new breed to him. Sailors -- well, they were much like other men, only far more comfortable in and around the water.

It was almost disappointing that they seemed so much like any group of men. Some were dour, some jolly. The young men blushed and the older men cackled with laughter, telling bawdy jokes as they worked. All seemed strong, easily passing crates between them. And ... all of them were very well-armed, Fosco realized, with muskets tucked into their belts, swords hanging in scabbards, and daggers in plain view. That observation made Fosco's thoughts crystalize, and he gasped. These men were not just sailors, for why would honest men be re-supplying their ship out here, so far from any port? These were pirates!

He crouched lower in the brush and watched until one long boat was loaded and the men pushed it out, running into the surf and then climbing in over the sides effortlessly as their comrades began to row. The remaining group was busy repacking a box, and Fosco knew he should leave while they were so distracted. But he wanted to see where the boat was going, and so he crept through the woods, following the creek, until he was closer to the shore.

He peered out into the bright sunlight and saw it -- a tall ship, enormous yet graceful, anchored in the natural cove just beyond the creek. The ship was almost regal, and even with all its sails tied, it seemed powerful and proud. A carved figure stretched out -- that must be the front of the ship, Fosco thought, and as his eyes swept back he counted four canon on the side facing land. When he raised his glance, he saw more men aboard, working in the rigging and on the deck. The boat from shore was approaching now, and other men swarmed down the side of the ship to assist them with the supplies.

Fosco watched until the empty boat was being lifted from the water, his eyes dazzled by the light, and his imagination alight with the idea of traveling on the water, feeling the wind in his face and the salt of the sea in every breath. He'd traveled in tiny boats on rivers, but never imagined such a large ship -- it was like a city of men on the water, a floating land of its own. When his neighbors had described pirates, Fosco hadn't understood why anyone would chose such a life. But now it seemed more clear, for surely such a life offered freedom, separate from the customs and laws of the land-bound. There was glamor in such a life, afloat and akin to the ever-changing sea, which might be far more appealing than a life spent on land, bound by duties, watching the same people and the same crops year after endless year.

When he finally turned his attention back to the land, the second boat was still ashore, but the men were gone. All their supplies had been loaded -- ah, and one man stood watch from afar, his rifle in hand, hidden among the shadows of the trees.

Carefully, silently, Fosco skirted away from the guard. He did such a good job of it that he ran into another of the pirates before the man was aware of him, and quickly dodged back into the deep brush. This guard heard him, then, and looked about -- but he wasn't expecting a hobbit, so Fosco had an advantage as he crept away.

His excitement over seeing the pirates was rapidly changing to dismay. These men were so cautious and so plentiful that Fosco was amazed he'd made it to the creek without discovery. He was beginning to fear he'd never make his way safely back. Why had he thought he could walk this land with no gun or weapon of any sort? Even with the warning of his neighbors, Fosco had continued recklessly pretending he was back in the safety of the Shire. He was such a fool that today, with all his instincts warning of danger, he'd walked out carrying naught but a satchel of lunch.

With such thoughts ringing in his head, Fosco walked a good distance upstream before turning again to retrace his steps back to the safety of the Lodge. But when he still passed guards so far inland, Fosco understood that the Lodge was no longer safe. The pirates evidently had business there, which explained Hobbs' discomfort and his rush to make Fosco leave. But how was Hobbs in league with these men, and why?

He was getting a bit confused with all the turns and twists he'd taken to avoid the guards. He was a good distance from the water, the sound and light told him so. But was he any nearer to the house? Should he even be trying to head there? He was tired and his leg ached, and when he could glimpse the sky it seemed to be well past the noon hour. The concealment of the trees kept off the wind and felt warmer than his usual paths over high, open ground, so Fosco decided to wait out the pirates. They couldn't stay at the Lodge all day -- could they? He found an area with thick, high bushes and crawled beneath one to rest and wait, almost wishing for a book. Bored but too tense to sleep, he decided to open his lunch.

That was his undoing, for the scent of the food brought an intruder -- not the pirate men, but a huge bird, gaudily colored in orange, red, green and blue. The bird squawked loudly and circled over Fosco's hiding place, then landed and crawled to get beside him, still calling out until it reached forward and snatched a hunk of bread from Fosco's hand. The hobbit crawled out and rose, fleeing from the bird's impressive claws, only to face a tall man crashing through the brush who grabbed his arm.

"What have we here? Buldar, come see the creature Matey caught us!"

"Let go of me!" Fosco demanded, twisting fiercely and trying to kick at the man.

"Aw, don't be shy," the man taunted, then let out a cry of pain as Fosco's foot connected with his shin. "You little rat!" The man angrily struck Fosco across the face with an open hand, and when the hobbit continued to struggle, he made a fist and struck again, this time at Fosco's temple.

Fosco's ears rang and he saw flashing lights that made him fall limp in the man's grasp. He heard another big person come crashing toward them, but he was too confused to understand their talk, and too dizzy from the blows to concentrate. A large hand was still on his arm, digging in and holding tight. Then something dark was pulled over his head, and Fosco was lost to the pounding darkness.

***

"You're going to stop there?"

Frodo only smiled in response. He'd been feeling smug since Eomer stopped polishing his boots and just sat, raptly listening.

"Frodo!" Eomer leaned over him, pulling at the papers. "Keep reading. What happens next?"

"That part of the story will have to wait for another evening," Frodo laughed.

"No, I don't think so," Eomer insisted, but his hands left the papers and instead settled around Frodo, holding him close. "Mmm, you're nice and warm."

"You should have come closer to the fire," Frodo scolded gently, then squeaked a bit as a chilly hand crept under his shirt. But that discomfort vanished when Eomer's other hand dragged Frodo's mouth up to meet his, which was more than warm, and opened to welcome and devour him.

Their kissing went on for a long time, moving from hot and demanding to sweet and sultry. Kissing was something neither of them ever tired of enjoying, their hands wandering freely, loosening buttons and caressing the sweet flesh hidden beneath too many winter clothes.

It didn't end in wild sex on the furs this night. No, tonight was a night for cuddling close, still holding each other, with every touch speaking so clearly of love and devotion that Frodo felt tears come into his eyes, and wished he could write so eloquently as Eomer's body spoke.

***

Fosco opened his eyes to daylight and groaned as he closed them again. He had a headache, and something was wrong with his stomach, too.

"Here, drink some of this." A large hand held out a cup as a strong arm lifted and supported him -- was he in the House of Healing? But that smelled of herbs and soap, while this place...

Fosco's eyes popped open and as he drank the cool water, he took in the dark wood overhead, the play of light on the walls, and the salt air. He was in Andrast, but not in his room. He twisted to see who was helping him, and found himself staring into dark eyes full of concern.

"You're finally recovering from Magru's harsh treatment." The man took away the cup but stayed beside Fosco, still supporting him. His skin was golden brown, his hair bleached from the sun, and he seemed quite gentle though his hands were calloused and his arms very muscular. "I do apologize. He didn't realize the tenant of the Lodge was a halfling. Indeed, to all of us your people are beings from storybooks."

"Yes, I know," Fosco said dryly, then clutched at his stomach and moaned.

"You're not accustomed to the motion of the ship," the man said. "Here, this may help." He held some kind of wafer to Fosco's lips, and though it seemed a very odd feeling for a hobbit, he couldn't bring himself to take a bite.

"No, I don't think..."

"Eat it," the man commanded, and Fosco did. The food seemed to dissolve in his mouth, but after a few mouthfuls he did feel slightly better. The man, who was watching him closely, nodded and smiled. "There. Now you may have more water."

Fosco drank gratefully, then asked "You said I'm on a ship?"

The man laughed softly, finally standing and moving away from the bed where Fosco sat. "Welcome to The Maiden of Morthil," he said.

"Morthil," Fosco repeated. "Isn't that another name for Andrast?"

"An ancient name for our homeland, beloved though we live on the sea and only visit its shores."

"This is the corsair ship I saw," Fosco said, then realized it probably wasn't polite -- or wise -- to insult his host by calling him such names. But the man was still smiling.

"Are all halflings so very direct, Master Teabrand, or is it just your training as a marshal that makes you so very blunt?"

"I'm sorry if I offended you, sir, and I thank you for your assistance. Though I would not have required such help had your men -- and their bird -- left me in peace." Fosco rose and swayed a bit before finding his legs.

"Speaking of marshal training, don't most lawmen carry guns? Or are halfling marshals so fierce they may go unarmed throughout Middle Earth?" Insufferable, the mocking tone of this man. Fosco scowled up at him, knowing that at this moment, he didn't look fierce at all. There was so much kindness in his eyes -- oh, laughter, too, but no contempt -- that Fosco's ill-temper evaporated.

So instead of a sharp retort, he politely said, "You seem to know my name, sir, though I don't know yours."

"Edgru, son of Balthir," he said very seriously, his hand on his chest as he bowed, but his eyes still sparkled. "I am the captain of these corsairs, as you seem to already know."

"You apologized for their behavior. It wasn't difficult to guess that you command them." Fosco finished straightening his clothing, still rather red in the face, but he refused to cower before this pirate. He found it rather difficult to keep in mind that such an interesting, sharp-witted man, skilled at healing despite the many weapons strewn about the room, was no more than a common thief. "May I leave now?" he asked in his most stately, formal manner.

"You may leave whenever you wish. My men will gladly row you to shore and see you back to the Lodge." Fosco thought there was a bit of regret in the dark eyes, though. That must have been what led him to reply as he did.

"Thank you. Well, I've had a taste of your hospitality here, Captain Edgru, so I hope you'll do me the honor of sharing my evening meal tomorrow, at the Lodge." The delighted smile that broke over the long features made Fosco smile, too. "I'll send away the cook, so don't expect anything fancier than cold meat and some of the Steward's good wine."

"It sounds delightful."

"I'll expect you after sundown, then," Fosco said.

Soon he was being rowed back to the shore by a very apologetic Mogru as the sun set behind them, Matey sitting on his knee chirping and gently taking scraps of biscuit from his fingers.

***

"Fosco seems a bit of a flirt, Frodo."

"No!" he replied, laughing at the very serious, grieved look Eomer was affecting. "Not stodgy old Marshal Teabrand!"

"Indeed he does," Eomer insisted, setting the sheaf of papers aside carefully before wrapping his arms around Frodo and pushing him back into the cushions of the large sofa. "Quite a hobbity tease. I fear for poor Captain Edgru's virtue."

"Eomer," Frodo began, but his question was forgotten when warm lips closed over the tip of his ear and a wet tongue began exploring. Before long Frodo was stripped and all his attention was on the golden body of his lover above him, and the big, warm hand holding him down as long, calloused fingers pushed their way inside him, preparing him to be taken.

He loved when Eomer was like this, turned into a beast more magnificent than any of their stallions. His dark eyes flashed with passion and lust; Eomer's sun-kissed hair framed his face in a tangle of waves like a mane that Frodo's hands could grasp to pull those snarling lips closer to his.

"Kiss me," Frodo hissed, but Eomer bit at his neck instead and laughed when he moaned and bucked.

"Open for me, holbytla," he commanded, and Frodo did, his whole body relaxing so Eomer's cock and mouth and bruising arms could mold him, shape him for pleasure, and possess him.

They found a rhythm, demanding and fast, and kept at it until Frodo's breath was short and his heart pounded in time with Eomer's wild thrusts. Winter winds still howled outside, but not as loudly as their cries and grunts. In their room all was flame and heat, sweaty bodies meeting fiercely until they both were howling and pushing to feel still more, again, harder.

The long, cold night was swallowed in their quest for blinding, searing completion.

***

"Hobbs, would you like to take the evening off?" Fosco asked as the man served him tea and toast in his bed the next morning. At least Hobbs wasn't fussing as much as he had last night when he first saw the bruises on Fosco's face and arm, which the hobbit had hastily lied about, blaming them on a fall onto some rocks..

"Sir?"

"I'm giving Cook the evening off, and if you'd like to go the village for the night, I won't be needing you until noon tomorrow."

Hobbs stood looking at him -- no, actually examining him -- for a moment. Then he smiled. "You've met the Captain," he said. "And you've invited him here tonight."

Fosco sighed. Well, his suspicions of Hobbs' involvement with the pirates were all confirmed -- now what was his duty? He supposed he should tell the Steward what his servant was up to. But then again, he wasn't planning to tell the Steward about his dinner with the pirate captain. He was just as guilty as Hobbs. He sighed again. "Yes, Captain Edgru is coming for a late dinner. Though I'm beginning to believe he's experienced the Steward's hospitality many times before."

Hobbs laughed at that, shaking out a napkin which he tucked into Fosco's nightshirt. "Indeed he has, sir. Now eat your breakfast. You still look done in." Fosco felt about 20 again, and wondered how a man in such a far-off land could sound exactly like his Aunt Myrtle back in Hobbiton.

"I'll eat, but you must tell me how you came under the sway of the corsairs."

"Well, sir, that's not how it happened. It's more that the house came under our sway. See, nigh on five years ago we were ashore and heard the old housekeeper had passed on the night before. That was too good an opportunity for the Captain to pass up. I'd been wounded pretty bad, and wasn't much use on the ship. But I did fine as servant to a house with no people in it."

"No one ever questioned you?"

"I don't think the Steward ever got the letter sent to tell him old Parta had died."

"Shocking how unreliable the Gondor mail can be," Fosco wryly said, watching Hobbs' unashamed grin.

"And not many folk in these parts want to work in such a lonely place. The job doesn't pay well enough for there to be any jealousy." Hobbs turned from the bed. "I'll get back to the kitchen, then, and make sure we've some of the Captain's favorite foods for tonight."

"Thank you, Hobbs. I'm certain anything you can do will be much nicer than what I could have pulled together on my own. I know our guest will appreciate it."

"Oh, the Captain isn't fussy, sir." Hobbs paused by the door. "He's not so different from you, if you don't mind me saying so. I saw that the night you arrived here."

Fosco had no idea how to respond to that, but Hobbs didn't wait for him to speak, just bobbed his head and left, softly closing the door behind him. Should he be upset that Hobbs compared him to a pirate-thief?

Somehow he wasn't offended at all. Edgru seemed like an exceptional person, a leader of men and, though he'd chosen a pirate's life, an honorable man. Intelligent, too, if the books lining the wall of his cabin were any indication.

Fosco woke later in the afternoon, still feeling sore but much better. He hadn't intended to sleep at all, but it seemed his body knew what he needed. Exercise for his leg was all well and good, but he'd overreached yesterday and needed the extra rest today.

As he finally washed and dressed, he looked around his borrowed room again, trying to see it from Edgru's point of view. Certainly the room had many comforts that could not be found on a ship, even one so fine as the Maiden. Fosco could almost imagine how it had gone, the two of them exploring this house and plotting to use it, Edgru first admiring the silver and the fine wine cellar, then seeing this room with the many bookcases and knowing where he would sleep when they came ashore.

The thought made Fosco smile. He'd known he was sleeping in the Steward's bed, but it seemed he was actually sharing quarters with a pirate. "So that's your pipeweed in my nightstand," he said softly.

"My nightstand, for I'll wager I've slept in that bed far more often than you -- or the Steward himself." Fosco whirled, startled yet happy to hear that cultured voice again. The amusement was still in the man's eyes, but there was a question in them, too.

"We're both enjoying another's bounty, I'd say," Fosco said with a welcoming smile that seemed to set Edgru at ease. The man smiled back as Fosco continued, "So I won't argue with you. But I didn't know men of the south smoked pipeweed. Have you traveled north, near my homeland?"

"Yes, many years ago. I've had a fondness for a good pipe ever since, though it isn't often that I have a fresh supply of weed. One of my newest men comes from Tharbad and was ... kind enough to share with me."

"Ah, it's good to be the captain," Fosco laughed. "Kind! Indeed."

"So I've arrived early only to be mocked by my host?" Edgru pretended to pout, and Fosco continued laughing. "Hmm. I suppose asking you to behave like a host is foolish, since I've already claimed you're the one enjoying my hospitality here. Perhaps I should ring for some tea for us, and offer to play the piano for you or show you the grounds?"

"Oh, stop, please. My sides hurt," Fosco tittered. "I haven't laughed like that... well, it's been too long." He tried to shake off the dark memories of his trip south, but he saw Edgru react to the change in his face. But then the man kindly let it drop, as he knew Fosco wished, when the hobbit said, "Tell me about sailing, and the ports you visit, and I'll keep the tea and cakes flowing all afternoon."

They did spend all afternoon talking, moving from Fosco's study out onto the lawn to have a picnic tea high on the rocks, where they could watch the water. The ship was out of sight, but Edgru knew exactly where it was, and where all his men were stationed between the house and the boat that would carry him back on board.

"Some of the crew have leave, of course. They've gone inland to the village, or rowed north to the port towns for some entertainment."

"The supplies I saw them loading yesterday -- were they all things Hobbs gathered for you?"

"Yes, I leave him money and he buys things gradually, so no one notices that great quantities of dried pork or sailcloth have been called for. The land owners aren't stupid, you know."

"No, merely boring," Fosco muttered, and the pirate laughed aloud. "Well, they descended on me like locusts on an orchard one day, though they didn't care about anything I had to say."

"It must be lonely, being the only halfling in this part of the world."

"No more than being a wanted man, unable to stay in one place and make friends."

"Ah, but I have my shipmates."

"They may be friends to each other, but you command them. It isn't the same."

"No, not really. So it seems we are both lonely and isolated, Master Teabrand." The man stretched out flat on his back on the blanket and chucked. "No wonder we can talk to each other for hours."

"We can do that because you tell fascinating stories, Captain. Though I do wish you'd call me Fosco."

"Only if you'll call me Edgru. And come sailing with me."

"Sailing?"

"We're going to raid Port Iaur. A rival band of pirates is keeping back our share of a ship we helped them capture. They store their supplies at the inn."

"Could I really come with you? Be part of the raid?"

"I think you, Fosco, can do anything you set your mind to -- and I wonder if that's true of all hobbits, or if you're unique."

"Hardly," he laughed.

"You'll love it, you know -- the wind in your face, the excitement of the raid, and the challenge of planning it well..."

"Yes, I'd love to go with you."

***

"Is that all for tonight?" Eomer sounded truly disappointed, which delighted Frodo.

"I'm afraid so. I'm tired tonight."

"Are you?" Eomer sat up and looked at him critically. "I thought you were overdoing it today. We didn't need to finish our chores in the barn in one day."

"But I didn't want to wait for the weather to turn bad again. At least today there was sunshine, not rain or snow." Frodo leaned forward, kissed Eomer's nose, then sidestepped him and moved to his desk to put away the manuscript. "The horses were happy to see us, too."

"They're restless. Hopefully in a few weeks, we can give them more regular exercise."

"When the weather changes, they won't care about any exercise except breeding. I remember what it was like last spring, you know." Frodo knew he was blushing, but wasn't certain if it was over memories of the horses rutting and mating, or the love shining out of Eomer's eyes that warmed him.

"I think I just felt a spring breeze," Eomer said, a wicked smile on his face as he moved toward Frodo, who meant to laugh but instead moaned lustfully and opened his arms to his man.

***

It had gone almost perfectly, really. Until now, when he could hear shouting from the Inn. The pirates from Harbling's group would soon be alerted to their supplies being pillaged by Edgru's men. Most of the men were already safely underway, but what would keep the others from giving chase and overtaking them as they tried to load the stolen cargo onto the Maiden?

Nothing. There was no line of defense -- except Fosco, still hiding in the last boat, in the shadows of the dock. He was waiting for Mogru to return -- he'd been sent on a special trip to steal the rival ship's mascot.

Fosco was their last hope of avoiding a battle, but he wasn't about to shoot at anyone and possibly hurt an innocent. And a hobbit couldn't knock down a mob of tall men. Still, if he used his brain, surely he could do some damage. There had to be a way to slow the pursuit...

Fosco slipped over the edge of his boat and into the icy water, which came up to his neck. He pulled out his dagger and began cutting the lines that held other boats to this dock. He'd have to set them all adrift, for angry pirates would use any available boat. So he sawed through the thick ropes, then pushed at the heavy boats until they moved out where the tide could catch them. He heard the shouts grow closer, heard running feet pound on the sidewalk. But he didn't even look up, just kept sloshing through the sucking mud and deep water to the next boat.

"Hoy! Fosco!" Mogru, carrying a tiny creature that shrieked loudly. "C'mon."

"Right with you," he answered, cutting the last line and shoving hard. He splashed back to their the boat quickly as he could, chasing it as Mogru had already untied the line and was pushing away from the dock. For a sickening moment he lost the ground beneath his feet, but then his hand closed on the side of the boat. He relaxed briefly, then tried to pull himself up. But the water weighed down his clothing, and even when he kicked his legs it seemed impossible until Mogru's big hand closed on the back of his jacket and tugged him aboard.

"Thank you," he gasped gratefully as the man began frantically rowing and the animal, a small furry thing with a long tail that wrapped around Fosco's neck, latched on to him. At least it stopped shrieking, Fosco thought as he petted it gently with a shaking hand.

The angry men had reached the shore behind them and the sharp retort of a gun rang out.

"Stay down, Fosco," Mogru ordered. "They'd need the devil's own luck to hit us, but Cap will have my hide if they do." The men on shore now discovered that their own small boats were loose, and the cursing and shouting became louder, and a few more shots were wasted. But Mogru kept pulling, expert at rowing, and they slipped away to be hidden by the friendly darkness.

When they finally reached the ship Fosco was shivering with cold -- and perhaps with reaction to all the excitement. He was shaking so badly that he needed all the friendly hands that reached down to help him up the ropes and on board the ship, some reaching to take the animal from him.

"Don't frighten him!" he pleaded, and Edgru was there.

"Don't worry, Fosco. We'll take good care of him. He's used to being on a ship, you know, and living among corsairs." Fosco smiled at the Captain, grinned, really, and saw his glee returned. They both began laughing, and Edgru slapped Fosco on the back, which only made the mirth continue.

He hadn't felt so alive in a very long time, perhaps not since the days of his youth when he'd stolen apples from neighboring orchards. He was wet, he'd been shot at, and it had all been great fun -- both the planning and the doing. But as his laughter died and he smiled at Edgru, Fosco suddenly remembered he was breaking laws he'd sworn, as a marshal, to uphold. He shouldn't be doing this, certainly shouldn't love it so -- and it was wrong to admire this pirate, too.

Edgru's smile fell away as Fosco's confused feelings were revealed on the face turned toward him. The man's his lips compressed into a tight line and he turned away. "Come get warm in my cabin," he said almost harshly.

They walked off while Mogru was telling the others how the hobbit had cut all Harbling's boats adrift. "And you said it was bad luck to bring a halfling on board, Buldar! Shows what you know!"

Fosco waited until they were below deck to ask, "Did your men really object to having a hobbit on board? Or was it having a marshal here that bothered them?"

"Bit of both, I suppose. Sailors are superstitious, Fosco, and none of us have known halflings before. Even those who've traveled in the north have never been to your land." He led Fosco inside his cabin, where a fire was burning inside the tiny stove. "Good work, slowing them down. You're soaked. Take off your wet things and wrap up in this." He tossed Fosco a heavy dressing gown. "And stay here until I return, please. No more adventures for you tonight."

"We're already well away from the shore," Fosco observed, glancing out the small window.

"Yes, but I want to take a look through my spyglass, and see if there's any pursuit. Harbling won't be happy about this, particularly losing their mascot. As I said, sailors are superstitious folk. That monkey is their lucky charm."

Edgru left and Fosco obediently stripped off his sodden clothes. When he was wrapped in the over-large robe he stood beside the fire. Somehow the warmth of the flames didn't reach the chill in his heart as he examined his loyalties.

***

"Fosco is in love, and not merely with the freedom of a pirate's life."

"Oh I suppose he is," Frodo said slowly. "That wasn't my intention. When I told you it was a romance, I meant Fosco was going to fall in love with the sea." Frodo looked at the manuscript in his lap. "He just ran away with me. Characters can do that, I've found."

Eomer pulled Frodo into his arms. "You're in love with Edgru, too." There was a tightness in his voice, not the mock-hurt Frodo expected.

"I'm in love with you, silly -- don't you recognize a character based on all that's beautiful and good in you?"

"I'm not a bold pirate, Frodo. Merely a rancher with a few horses."

"A wild cowboy who lives a free life out in the open air, close to nature. A man who carried me off from the boredom and squalor of Bree life. Of course Edgru is you, Eomer. Who else could he be?"

The only response to that question was a series of kisses, exploring each other's mouths as gently as if it were the first time, again, and they'd never done more than let their lips and tongues meet and sweetly embrace.

When they finally parted, Eomer's eyes devoured the hobbit before he tucked Frodo close to him. "I notice that Fosco loves to read almost as much as a hobbit I know. And Edgru does, too."

"Oh, love." Frodo squirmed free and knelt up beside him, looking him straight in the eyes. "You're sharing this tale with me. And I'll be happy to share others as well, so many you'll probably beg me to stop and let you have a winter's evening in quiet peace." He kissed Eomer, and once again became lost in the taste and feel of his beautiful man. But he pulled away sooner than he wished to make one thing very clear. "You don't need to read for me to love you, dearest."

"If you see anything of me in Edgru, I'm flattered," Eomer said. "He's quite the dashing hero. How could Fosco -- or any hobbit -- resist him?"

"Oh, dear," Frodo said, sinking back and looking over at the manuscript. "I suppose I'd better start re-writing it all, then."

"No, my love. Since Fosco will give up adventures on the pirate's ship and return to his law-abiding, law-enforcing life, I don't think any hobbits back in the Shire will see what I've seen in your tale."

"You know -- how? Is it obvious already?"

"Only to me, I think. But of course he'll stay when they go. You wouldn't shock the Shire -- and lose your serial hero -- by having him sail off with Edgru and the Maiden." Eomer once again tugged Frodo close, then pulled him onto his lap and wound his arms around him. "Only someone who's met you and knows your loving heart could imagine a hobbit and a man loving each other forever, and working together in some remote corner of Middle Earth."

"Those who've met both of us, you mean, and realize how seductive a man of Rohan can be to a poor innocent hobbit," Frodo corrected, kissing the nearest bit of Eomer with a wet smack.

"Am I so seductive, then?" Eomer rose, lifting Frodo. "Come to my cabin, hobbit, and I'll do some pillaging and plundering." His mouth descended on the most ticklish part of Frodo's neck.

Of course, you couldn't pillage what had always been yours -- but as Eomer carried Frodo toward their bedroom, Frodo was laughing too hard to argue the point.

 

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