The basic idea of this story was inspired by the film "Stage Beauty," about actors who specialized in female roles, and what happened to them when they could no longer perform such roles. However -- it really just changed into a road trip adventure through all of Middle-earth. The story is set well before the time when "The Fellowship of the Ring" opens, and I've compressed character ages quite a bit, making this closer in that sense to the movie-verse than book-verse.

Rated NC-17 for occasional slash sex and occasional violence, too. In other words, what seems to be progressing for long stretches as a G or PG story veers off into dark themes such as assault and non-con sex. Please don't proceed if any of that will disturb you. If you'd like to read everything but those sections, you can check out my live journal, where the sections are clearly marked for you to avoid.

 

The Baggins Revue
by Laura Mason

The Green Dragon was rocking with applause, but when Bilbo tried to take the cast out for another bow, Frodo was nowhere to be found. The clapping and cheers died down while Bilbo searched, but he smiled, knowing the audience would be talking about tonight's show for months.

He found Frodo in their dressing room, struggling to unlace the tight corset worn over his small clothes. His silver and blue "elf-gown" was in a heap around his ankles.

"Frodo, you must take more care with your costumes!" Bilbo scolded, gathering up the delicate fabric.

"Uncle, I can't breathe. Why must I wear this when it's not even seen?" The boy's dainty face was rather red, but the color looked good on his porcelain complexion. Though Bilbo thought they could possibly make face-paint to redden his lips and cheeks without such tight lacing. Sam would know what plants to use, even if he'd never heard of such a thing before.

"You're wearing it to make your figure look like that of a lass, Frodo. Here, let me untie that." Frodo had somehow knotted the lacings quite badly. He made a wonderful elf-woman on stage, ethereally beautiful in the gowns designed for him and the long wig of blonde curls. But off stage, Frodo was still all tweenaged boy, just as awkward as Sam Gamgee or any of his cousins, and more likely to trip over his own feet than not, since he was still growing. Bilbo smiled as he thought of the deep hems he'd made the seamstress leave in Frodo's costumes. They'd fit him for several years to come, since they could be let down to cover any change in his height. But Frodo really shouldn't gain an ounce of weight, for he'd look less graceful... well, he'd never been a heavy eater. And the boy was so mature, so concerned about their finances and the troupe's success that Bilbo knew all he had to do was tell Frodo was that they were short on money. That would keep him eating sparingly.

After all, it was almost true. The tavern owners would want half of the ticket price in exchange for the use of their room. And they needed money to feed the horses, keep the wagons in repair, as well as enough to keep them all fed and costumed, and occasionally a little more, so they could hire musicians to play with their fiddler at a show. Bilbo made himself forget the well-filled chest hidden under the wagon seat -- that was his nest egg. The troupe must earn enough to sustain itself.

Thank heavens Sam was obviously crazy for Frodo and ready to go with them on the road, so they wouldn't need to hire a driver or carpenter. Sam could do everything, and he'd never ask for more than his meals and a place to sleep. Bilbo knew quite well that Sam would settle for the bottom of the wagon as his bed, too.

Gaffer Gamgee had not looked pleased, watching tonight's performance. He was a shrewd old man, and the fund Bilbo had set up to pay him for keeping an eye on Bag End wouldn't make up for the loss of his fine, strong young son. But Bilbo didn't see how he was to blame for Sam's infatuation with Frodo.

He watched Frodo pull off the golden curls and carefully put them on the wig stand, no matter how much he hated wearing them. Frodo was a truly good person, as well as quite attractive. And totally oblivious to most of the longing looks cast his way. Bilbo sometimes wondered just how innocent Frodo could be; Brandy Hall was full of older cousins and rowdy tweens, after all. But Frodo had always been one to keep himself a little apart -- perhaps he'd been living in books too much. Well, taking part in the troupe's shows would certainly get him away from such solitary pursuits.

Bilbo was happy to adopt Frodo and give him Bag End and its lands. Someday. Just not right now. For Bilbo was too restless to stay home and educate Frodo on how to care for his holdings, as well as the farmers and tradesmen who relied on his bounty. But the boy was clever, and when it was time Bilbo knew he'd learn. After all, he'd learned how to read just by sitting in with his cousins and their tutors. Perhaps Bilbo could teach him elvish as they traveled. They couldn't bring many books, though. The set pieces and costume trunks were heavy enough for their ponies.

Of course, Frodo didn't know they'd be traveling, not yet. But he'd go along, no matter how much he disliked playing a woman, Bilbo knew that. It seemed Frodo was still starved for a place to belong. The news that Bilbo wanted him had made him glow with happiness, and he was eager to please. He'd thrown himself into acting and was always perfect with his lines after one or two readings.

Now Frodo looked like himself again, dressed in well-worn trousers and a linen shirt, his face returning to its normal pallor as he sat before the tiny mirror and wiped off the charcoal that had lined his eyes. He smiled up at Bilbo and asked, "Were you pleased with the performance?"

"Yes, yes, my lad. You did very well, and you sang Moonlight Madness beautifully. Indeed, not a dry eye in the house." Bilbo fussed a moment more with the corset and costume. "Did you enjoy it?"

"Well, I'm not happy about kissing Marroc, or about Beri kissing me. Why can't we find a nice lass to play Marigold? I could portray Lord Elros, and carry a sword and fight." He tried to look fierce as he pretended to thrust and parry, but Frodo wasn't convincing as a fighter.

Bilbo hid his smile and solemnly replied, "That's just not done, Frodo my lad. Imagine us asking a respectable hobbit to let his daughter do such things, kissing and swooning into someone's arms."

"But it's only pretend!"

"That's not what those in our audience believe, Frodo. They'd label the poor girl a trollop. Besides," Bilbo stopped, but then decided to continue. "I want to travel with the show, go to other parts of the Shire, so everyone can see the play. We certainly can't take a lass on the road with us, sharing quarters."

"Truly?" Frodo looked more excited than Bilbo had thought he might. "Oh, Uncle Bilbo, you're so good to let me be part of this!" He stood and threw himself into Bilbo's arms, giving him an affectionate hug that warmed Bilbo's heart. As Frodo released him and his hands brushed Bilbo's sides, Bilbo's own hand moved to his waistcoat pocket, covering it.

Well, well. The promise of travel would keep Frodo content? Bilbo smiled as he walked to their wagon to hang the elf-gown in the wardrobe trunk. He didn't know why Marroc and Berliac had joined the acting troupe, or what they wished to do in the future. But it certainly made his plans simpler when he and Frodo wanted the exact same thing -- to get away from settled, boring life in Hobbiton.

***

Bree was so exciting, Frodo thought as he carefully applied his makeup. This would be the first time they'd performed for any of the Big People, and he was as nervous as he'd been that first night in Hobbiton, three years ago now.

His glossy golden wig looked perfect, and with his lips reddened and his eyes darkened, Frodo thought he looked -- dramatic. Certainly not as pretty as a real lass would be in such clothes. But, as always, he would have to do. Bilbo had been quite right about it so long ago; no respectable hobbit lass would perform on the stage with them. Even the hobbits in Bree-land looked down on them, refusing to speak to them at the Inn or in the marketplace.

But they were in the audience tonight, oh yes, with their faces alight with excitement. Bree hadn't seen a stage show in many years, and just the sound of the musicians tuning their instruments had caused a stir.

It was time, and Frodo smoothed his gown carefully before moving onto the stage area. It was only a space cleared out of the common room of the Prancing Pony, but they'd arranged for a curtain thanks to Sam's quick-thinking, making it much better for the performance. Frodo loved when they had a screen or curtain and he could get into position and settle himself before the audience saw him.

He smiled at Bilbo and settled on the floor by his feet, his head resting on Bilbo's knee. The room was arranged to look like a parlour in a modest house, with Sam's painted panels showing odd, squared-off windows covered by calico curtains, and painted tables holding painted tea pots. Frodo wondered yet again, as the curtain was drawn, when Bilbo had seen Elf-homes. Oh, he'd heard the tale of Bilbo's adventure, and knew he'd been in the Wood elves' prison -- but that was underground, wasn't it, in some kind of cave? Was there some place where elves built villages like Bree and Hobbiton, and had houses so similar to hobbit holes?

The applause at the pleasant picture they made on stage died down, and it was time. Frodo nodded to Andy, the troupe's regular musician who led the hired players, and began to sing.

The song was about love of home, and it was quite touching. It was a sad beginning to a show, and that surprised the audiences. But Bilbo's poetry and the simple melody worked every time, pulling the viewer into the scene more than any amount of acting could have done alone. By the time Mar arrived in a long mustache to evict them, the crowd was firmly on Frodo and Bilbo's side, ready to boo the evil landlord.

Then Mar sent Bilbo from the room and made it clear to Frodo's character, Glimmer, that she alone could keep a roof over their heads, by giving herself to him. The audience gasped, booed, and cheered when Frodo sent him packing. But then he sank to the floor, sobbing, and the house became very quiet again. Bilbo came back and sang his hopeful song, a cheerful thing that made the audience clap, stamp, and join in the refrain. Frodo peeked between his false curls and saw that the Big Folk in the room were also singing along. He was so pleased he could hardly keep a straight face when it was time to look up adoringly at his dear, sweet, naive father, his face tragic for he knew Glimmer would have to sacrifice his.. er, her virtue to keep their home.

By the end of the evening Bilbo's character was dead, but Bilbo himself was glowing with triumph. Bree had enough people to insure at least a week of bookings here at the Pony, and they would pack the house each night. Frodo could see all those thoughts in Bilbo's eyes as he stood with Sam while Frodo and Beri embraced passionately and the crowd whooped and roared. Success, again. Yet Bilbo still had that far-off look in his eyes, and Frodo knew he was thinking about where they'd go next.

As they all took their bows, Frodo wondered what, exactly, Bilbo was seeking. It wasn't something that could be found in the Shire, Frodo knew that by now even if Bilbo didn't. And now Frodo knew it wasn't in Bree. either. He watched Bilbo's hand squeezing at something in his vest pocket, and wondered if they'd ever find it.

***

Frodo wandered through Bree's marketplace the next morning, while the others still slept. Some of the vendors were a bit unfriendly when the realized that he had no money -- Bilbo kept their wages for them, so they wouldn't be tempted to get in trouble, he always said. Still, there were plenty of people to watch, and craftsmen carving or sculpting who didn't mind if he watched them work for a while, as long as he didn't get in the way of the real customers.

Women filled their market baskets while their children clamoured for treats, no different from the Shire. But as he walked further Frodo saw something new -- brightly-painted women, and one hobbit-lass, hanging out the windows of a building with red shutters, calling to men who passed. They spoke to Frodo, too, though it took him a few minutes to realize they were giving him a price. Then, sickeningly, it made sense.

Mar was the one who'd warned Frodo about such things. Bilbo should know the most, really, since he'd traveled so much. But Frodo suspected Gandalf and the dwarves had sheltered Bilbo on his journey, for he didn't seem aware that such things existed outside of his books. That, or Bilbo still thought Frodo was too young to be told about fancy women.

But Frodo wasn't a child anymore, he was twenty-three now and he'd heard about the birds and the butterflies from his cousins even before Bilbo adopted him. He hadn't actually done anything with that knowledge, and when he turned to glance back at the house with all the painted ladies, he knew he still wasn't ready for such an encounter. They were frightening, not intriguing, though he supposed they could teach him how to kiss, at least. He couldn't very well ask Bilbo to do that along with his elvish lessons. Yet, with Beri and Mar being the only ones kissing him, and that only when Bilbo insisted on it for the story, it wasn't a very necessary kind of lesson.

Though sometimes... Frodo blushed and dragged his thoughts away from Sam. It was foolish to think such things, for Sam was still sweet on Rosie Cotton. But Frodo couldn't control his dreams, and some nights the thought of Sam's sturdy, warm body tormented him.

Frodo realized he was staring at a tall young man by the bread stand, who'd turned and was glaring back at him. He blushed and walked away as quickly as he could. But he did wonder if Bree had a place with men of easy virtue, like those women. Somehow, the idea of learning to kiss with one of the big, hairy men-folk was a bit more exciting to him. Certainly, that would be worth begging some coins from Bilbo.

He'd wandered away from the market proper, and down a side street where the less prosperous bought and sold their wares. There was a tobacconist, claiming to have Shire-weed. But it wasn't, Frodo could see and smell the difference. He didn't interfere, though, just watched as a few uninformed men filled their pouches and handed over coppers. The price for Longbottom Leaf was higher, even inside the Shire, so he doubted the customers truly believed they were getting that quality of leaf.

Frodo turned away with a smile and smacked into a man who'd been standing behind and to his left, hitting so hard that Frodo fell back and landed on his bottom. And looked up, and up, to find a grim-faced man scrutinizing him unapologetically.

"I... I'm sorry, I didn't see you there," Frodo said, pushing himself up. The man didn't even offer him a hand, and Frodo wondered if everyone in Bree was so impolite. The customers at the Pony had been very complimentary, last night, but today everyone was crabby. "Sticklebats," he swore, using Bilbo's favorite expression when he saw he'd muddied both knees, as well as his backside. Perhaps it would brush off once it dried, but in the meantime he looked filthy and unrespectable.

The man who still hadn't spoken was also splattered with mud, Frodo saw, crusting a good three inches on his cloak, and up the high boots he wore. The man wore a sword at his side, and it looked very comfortable on him -- unlike the wooden stage swords Beri and Mar wore.

"Are you one of the actors in town?" the man finally said, and though Frodo still thought him insufferably rude, he nodded and smiled.

"Yes, I'm part of the Baggins Revue. We'll be at the Pony for the next three nights at least, if you'd like to see our show."

"I've no time for frivolities," the man growled. "Can you be trusted with a message for Master Baggins?"

"Bilbo Baggins?"

"Yes, of course. Is there some other?"

"Umm," Frodo paused, somehow not wanting to give his name to this stranger. But he couldn't see what harm there might be in it. "My name is Frodo Baggins, at your service, sir." He bowed as he'd been taught to do when meeting a dwarf. This man's manners weren't any better than what he'd heard of theirs.

"The only service I require is for you to carry a message for me. Come along, Frodo, and have a warm drink while I write a note for Bilbo." The man sounded slightly less grumpy, which was the only reason Frodo followed him. It certainly wasn't that he could be bribed with food, after smelling the marketplace...

Soon they had paper and ink, and were seated in a tiny room where a smiling old woman brought Frodo a glass of hot apple cider and set a plate of enormous sugar cookies down with a wink. Frodo looked at the man, but he was intent on his paper and ignoring him. Still, it wouldn't do to eat a cookie and then be expected to pay for it himself. So he blew on the cider, enjoying the spicy scent, and warmed his hands on the mug until it was cool enough to sip.

"You're very quiet for a hobbit, Frodo Baggins," the man said suddenly, making him jump a little in his chair. He'd been staring at the man, and he supposed it was rude of him. But what else was there to do, really?

"Just thinking... I don't know your name, sir."

"In Bree I'm called Strider," he said, flashing a glance at Frodo.

"That's not what I asked," Frodo sputtered, and Strider looked at him again, holding his gaze longer this time. Though his expression didn't change, it seemed Frodo could see approval in his eyes. Approval of his rudeness? Not likely.

"But it's my answer," Strider said quietly. "Go ahead, have a cookie. I know hobbits your age are always hungry." Then he smiled at Frodo before turning back to his paper, and Frodo sank back in the too-big chair feeling as breathless as if he'd fallen out of the hayloft again. The smile, though it seemed somehow sad, had transformed Strider's face.

Frodo grabbed the mug of cider and took a deep swallow, then set it in front of his face so he could think without being observed. His thoughts were so chaotic he was only certain of one thing: tonight's dreams wouldn't be about Sam Gamgee.

***

Their fourth performance in Bree was over, and Bilbo seemed cheerful as he changed out of his costume beside Frodo. Sam was in the corner, cleaning their lanterns, and Frodo knew he was listening, too, to Bilbo's chatter.

"So, Master Barliman says to me, Bilbo, he says, your troupe would be welcome twice a year if you can bring in a different show each time. Can you imagine it? Can't be done, of course, but I told him we'd be good for every winter, if he'll guarantee five performance nights."

"That's wonderful, Bilbo," Frodo said. "So we're heading back to the Shire in two days?"

"Yes, to the Southfarthing after Brandy Hall, and then back to Hobbiton for a week of rest."

"Really?" Frodo felt just as excited as Sam looked at that news. "It will be so good to see Bag End again, Bilbo."

"And your Brandybuck cousins, I expect."

"Of course!" Frodo said. "They'll be very happy to see you, too."

There was a commotion at the door to their dressing area, and Beri yelped as he was pushed aside by a tall man wearing a familiar, travel-stained cloak.

"Strider," Frodo whispered, feeling his heart speed as the man prowled toward them, looming threateningly.

"Did Frodo fail to deliver my message, Bilbo Baggins?" he asked in a harsh voice, and Frodo's eyes widened.

"No, Strider, I read your opinion and gave it all the consideration it deserves," Bilbo answered crossly, evidently not at all afraid of him. It almost made Frodo smile, to think that this was the Bilbo who'd faced a dragon -- and now Mar and Beri, who'd always scoffed, would have to believe the story.

"Yet despite my warning, you are still here with your troupe of hobbits, and they are still wandering the streets just like Frodo was that first day, unwary and unprotected."

"Despite your opinion, Strider, hobbits are not children to be coddled. All of us can take care of ourselves." The two of them stared at each other in silence for a long, uncomfortable moment.

Then Strider turned and swept out of the room, calling back over his shoulder, "Your performance tomorrow has been cancelled, Bilbo, for the rangers can no longer spare the time to be shadowing your people, ensuring their safety."

"What!?" Bilbo jumped up and ran out after the man, and soon shouting voices, including the innkeeper's, could be heard in the next room. Frodo wondered if Bree was really as dangerous as Strider seemed to think. Then he wondered if Strider had even noticed he was in the room, and felt a bit disgruntled. He didn't expect the man to be thinking of him -- at least, not as often as Frodo remembered and repeated every word of their brief time together.

Sam and the others came over to sit with Frodo, all of them a little uneasy and seeming to find Frodo's distraction reassuring. Andy gripped his fiddle so tightly as to take it out of tune, and Sam played with his cleaning rag until it was in shreds in his lap.

When Bilbo finally came back he was red-faced with anger, but he only said, "Pack your bags, lads. We're off to the Shire in the morning."

It wasn't until they were on the road in their wagon the next day that Frodo found the courage to ask if they would be back in Bree the next year.

"No, my lad. It seems the innkeeper fears the Rangers more than he wants a week of full houses." Bilbo shook his head, then said, "Take the reins a moment, Frodo. I want to light my pipe." After a few miles had passed and he was puffing away, Bilbo said, "We'll go back in a few years. That man isn't keeping me from such good audiences, no matter what ruffians live in Bree-land."

***

Frodo sat beside Sam in the properties wagon, sharing the tarp that protected their wardrobe box from the constant drizzle. It was the damp season, and in the northfarthing it was just cold enough to be miserable for hours. Last night no fire had burned hot enough to warm Sam all the way through.

Of course, Frodo next to him made his face warm with blushes, if nothing else. Frodo was so beautiful, even with his curls hanging damply in his eyes and two bulky blankets covering him. Sam wouldn't ever be able to tell him so, though he'd once thought he might, back when they first took to the road with their show. Five years had gone by, and he'd watched Frodo in five roles since then, growing only more beautiful and accomplished with each. Bilbo's play-scripts were a wonderful mix of the elvish tales he knew and Shire-lore from all the farthings, and his songs were being sung even after they moved on.

Frodo always played the heroine, of course, and she was always an elf-maid with long golden tresses. Bilbo played multiple roles, Frodo's father or uncle, the servant, the doctor, or the jailor. Frodo's heroine usually wound up in jail, unjustly persecuted of course. And Beri or Mar would rescue him, depending on who was the hero in that story. They took turns, for sometimes the villain was a better role. In the last year Sam had even been enlisted to join in on stage, though he'd never thought he could do that. He usually didn't have many lines to speak, but he was part of sword fights that the crowds cheered, that fit in between his work at moving the set-pieces, transforming the room from a palace to a wood, or from the local jail into a beautiful ballroom.

But it was all coming to an end now, and despite it being entirely his own decision, Sam was a bit sad as they headed south toward Hobbiton again.

He just couldn't leave the Shire, as Mr. Bilbo was planning to do. Even Mr. Frodo looked a bit tired of wandering, truth be told, but he'd lit up at the idea of going past Bree at last and seeing more of Middle-earth. But Beri, Mar and Sam were done with wandering and play-acting.

Mr. Bilbo looked thoughtful when they told him they were quitting, but he'd finally nodded and smiled, and patted their arms, promising a bonus when they reached Bag End. Since this bonus would be the only pay Sam had received all these years, he was looking forward to it.

He turned to Frodo once again, who was so quiet beside him, and wished it could have been different. He imagined gardening at Bag End, with Frodo living there, his master and friend. Perhaps, if that had been their fate, they might have had a tweener romance that would already be fading into a pleasant memory as they both thought ahead to the time when they'd come of age and marry.

Sam loved Frodo, and always would. But a romance with him had not been possible, not here on the road, where there was never any privacy or time. Frodo was always busy learning lines, rehearsing, or sewing on the costumes, repairing the wear and tear from their performances. Bilbo even made him do lessons, math and reading and elvish, saying he'd need such skills someday when he took over as master of Bag End. Privately, Sam thought that "someday" weren't never going to come.

The Baggins Revue was a success, too much of a success for Frodo to remain quietly at home. Oh, he liked to take a rest in the coldest winter weather. But Frodo had the Baggins wanderlust, and he truly loved acting in the plays.

Well, Sam loved the excitement, too, but it was the kind of thing that you always needed more of. And getting "more" demanded everything from a hobbit. Samwise Gamgee had plans for his life beyond an endless round of play-acting. His dad was getting old, for one thing, and needed a strong pair of hands around the smial. Sam was going to get things in order at home, then find Rosie Cotton, plant a kiss on her lips and ask her to marry him. After so many adventures he'd be glad to settle down apprenticing with his dad again, like a decent hobbit. He'd have a real home and a family, not a trunk full of tattered costumes and a handful of glitter to show for all his days.

And if that meant leaving beautiful Frodo with his kindly ways and breathtaking smiles... well, that was what grown hobbits did.

Sam put an arm around Frodo and smiled when he nestled closer and said, "Thank you, Sam. I'm chilled to the bone."

"I can feel the truth of that!" Sam didn't regret for one minute the time he'd spent on the road with the Bagginses, and moments like this reminded him of all the good things that had come from his travel. Hadn't he seen elves, real wood elves passing through the Shire on their way to the sea? That was only last week, that magical night alone in the woods with Frodo, when Sam was just about to try for a kiss when Frodo jumped and turned, a smile blossoming as he heard the music of the elves. They'd gone scampering toward the noise, slowing as they neared and moving as quietly as possible. When Sam listened to their beautiful song and saw the way they lit the darkness between the trees, it almost made up for the lost kiss. Almost.

The elves floated past, all of them effortlessly graceful in a way that Frodo tried to mimic when he was on stage in his costume-gowns, pretending to be a lass. Sam had torn his eyes from them to watch Frodo staring, his mouth twisted with the same sadness that reddened his eyes. He'd whispered, "They are leaving Middle-earth," and Sam had nodded, not exactly sure why Frodo thought that was a bad thing. They'd stayed there for at least an hour, watching the fair company pass, shoulder to shoulder in the bushes. And some time during that hour, Sam realized that was as close as he would ever get to Frodo.

That knowledge made his decision for him, and he'd spoken to Bilbo the very next morning.

But he dragged his mind back to the present, rubbing Frodo's chilled arm. "You need to eat more, Mr. Frodo, and put some flesh on your bones. That will help keep you warmer."

"Ah, well, I can't really do that, Sam. My costumes won't fit me," Frodo said, but he looked away as he spoke, and Sam wondered what he was hiding. Though he was convincing on stage, in real life Frodo was a poor actor. "Anyway, Bilbo assures me we're heading south , where it will only be warmer. Think of it, Sam. I may see lands no hobbit has seen before, where the trees and plants are different and the stars don't even look the same."

"Well, I don't see much use in things being different, when what we've got here is just fine," Sam replied, but he relented when he saw Frodo's face alter, a tinge of sadness shading his eyes. "Aye, but I'm sure you'll see wondrous sights, Frodo. Between your acting and Mr. Bilbo's writing, there's no limit to where you'll go."

But there were limits on how long one could follow someone, wishing for more than the sweet friendship he so generously gave. Sam had lived as long as he could in a dream-world. Now it was time to settle down to practical, everyday life.

He'd reached his limit, but it still hurt just a little. Growing pains, he reckoned, and tipped his head to rest on Frodo's soft curls for just a moment.

***

Bilbo kept calling it their "triumphal" return to Bree, but to Frodo it seemed sad, because Bree felt like a completely different village than the one in his memories. The inn wasn't as welcoming, though Mr. Butterbur assured them he still had rooms for hobbits. But there were no hobbits in the common room, and the men there were dirty and loud, their language sprinkled with curses even though there were ladies present -- painted ladies, but still!

Even Bilbo looked a little wary as he told Butterbur they'd take supper in their rooms. Andy and Frodo were sharing a bed in the same room with Bilbo this night, for they certainly couldn't afford two rooms... and they couldn't have any performances until they hired and trained some new actors.

They unpacked and soon a tray of ale and stew was brought to the room. Butterbur stayed to visit with them as they ate, and that was the biggest shock of all, for Frodo learned that Bilbo wasn't seeking his actors among the hobbits of Bree-land, but among the Big People. Andy, too, looked surprised and dismayed by this, though he stayed as silent as Frodo while Bilbo spoke with the innkeeper.

"Bill Ferny is always looking for each money, and I'll wager one of his friends will join up, too. But if you're planning to perform here, Mr. Baggins, you're sadly mistaken. Bree ain't like it was, and I can't close down my common room for even one night."

"But..." Bilbo quickly recovered from his own dismay. "You should remember, we filled your common room with happy customers."

"Those days were different. No matter what you thought of that Ranger, Strider, he was right about ruffians and thieves coming to Bree. Good folk stay home nights now, and I don't think the kind of men who come here to drink will be contented watching a hobbit prance around in dresses, no matter how fair he is." He nodded to Frodo at that, and Frodo knew his mouth flapped like a fish's but he couldn't think of one thing to say.

"Well, we'll take our business elsewhere, then," Bilbo stated confidently. "Someone will want the crowds we can attract."

But Bilbo was wrong, as they discovered over the next few days. No one welcomed them. Bree folk were even more suspicious of strangers now than hobbits in the Shire were. Frodo and Andy never let Bilbo walk through town alone, though they never discussed it. And unless they were following him, they both stayed inside the room even though they were bored. Sometimes, as he stared out the window, Frodo caught a glimpse of a dark green cloak and thought of Strider. But the only men they saw were Butterbur, his assistants, and their new actors.

The big people Bilbo had found to join them were most worrisome to Frodo. He didn't understand how he was going to act with them -- who would believe he was an elf-maid when he was only half the size of the man rescuing him? But even more than that, these men intimidated him. That might be very effective in a scene where he was supposed to be afraid -- for instance, in The Miller's Daughter, when the evil banker shakes Doorlea, and tries to kiss her. If Bill Ferny so much as put his hands on Frodo, he knew he would truly look afraid -- for he would be, just a little. But even worse, what if Bilbo asked Ferny to play the hero, and rescue Frodo? Then he'd have to endure being held and kissed by the man -- and not look terrified about it. Frodo knew he wasn't that good an actor.

Ferny and his friend Mugwort were ... lower class. Frodo, having been poor most of his life, didn't think he was snobby like some of his Brandybuck relatives. But he could see that these men were simply not quality folk. They weren't short on money, not truly. There were much poorer folk in Bree-land who still lived respectably. But these men lived on credit and refused to pay their debts to honest shopkeepers and bartenders. They shared a run-down, ugly house near the east end of town, and it was filthy and unkempt, just like them. His Aunt Esme used to say that soap was cheap, and even the poorest person could keep some pride about their appearance. But Ferny and his friend had none. As far as Frodo could tell, they were only joining the Revue to escape their many creditors.

But Bilbo brushed aside Frodo's concerns, saying they needed them as actors. And it was true that the two of them could cover most of the roles in Bilbo's plays, if Frodo could figure out how to enlarge the costume pieces so they'd work on the men. He didn't think either of them would be a convincing hero, but they could play the beggar, the butcher, the landlord and the banker without any trouble.

Bilbo was no longer writing new songs or plays. He said they could repeat the older shows, since they were heading south where no one had seen them before. It was logical and perfectly true -- and it disappointed Frodo something fierce, for he had been hoping for new challenges in his career to match the adventures of the road. For that matter, he'd been hoping they'd continue east, toward the Last Homely House. He'd heard all Bilbo's stories about Lord Elrond... But Bilbo was determined they should go south instead. Perhaps that was wise; the elves might not be flattered by Frodo portraying one of their people.

Then Andy announced he was leaving the troupe, on the very day Bilbo had planned to take the road south. They were in Butterbur's barn, loading luggage into the wagons, when he spoke.

"I'm going back to the Shire. I didn't sign on to take me life in me hands, going off in the wilderness and like to get me throat slit!" So declaring, Andy stormed away with only his suitcase and fiddle in hand.

"Sticklebats!" Bilbo kicked the side of the wagon, and Frodo frowned but didn't speak. He knew Bilbo wouldn't lose his temper this way in front of anyone else. "We have to find a musician, that's all there is to it. Whatever did Andy mean, saying he was too afraid to continue with us? He's done this for five years now. What could be frightening about it?"

"I think he's afraid of the Big People, Bilbo."

"Nonsense. Just because we can't find an audience doesn't mean they dislike hobbits."

"Not the audiences," Frodo began, but he stopped himself. But Bilbo was looking at him, very cross, so he continued, "I think Andy's afraid of your actors."

"That's even more ridiculous. Nothing different about them, they're just happy to have the job like any intelligent hobbit would be." He hitched the first pony and grumbled, "Not that I've found an intelligent one." But then he looked up and quickly added, "Save you, my lad. You've got the Baggins brains and the Brandybuck charm, you do. And I don't doubt something Tookish in your blood makes you love to travel, too." Bilbo smiled and seemed like himself again, at last. Frodo smiled back, and petted Meadow's mane. He hoped the sturdy ponies Sam had named wouldn't be too burdened with the Big Folk and their luggage.

Bilbo was fussing with Misty's harness now, one-handed, and the other was tucked in his vest pocket, evidently in a fist.

"Did you hurt your hand, Bilbo," Frodo asked, but Bilbo jumped, gave him an odd look, then shook his head.

"I'm fine, Frodo. You wait here, and I'll send the others."

"But Mr. Butterbur wants his pay, and asked us to have the ponies gone by ... half an hour ago."

"Ignore him. Stay here to keep an eye on our belongings -- don't nap in the hay, mind! I'll be back as soon as I find someone to fiddle, or even play guitar. We're not heading south with no musician."

Frodo knew enough about the new actors not to relax, much less sleep. Ferny and Mugwort proved him right when they arrived. Both men had been drinking already, though it was not yet noon. They had large, heavy bags which they threw in the corner of the stable, and were being followed by another man who'd tagged along though he had no business with the Revue.

"Now we can settle down and shoot dice. Come on, play with us," Mugwort said. "You'll see, you can win more money than you'll make in two weeks shoeing horses at your shop."

"But... How much do I need to get in the game? I only have four silver coins," he stupidly admitted, and Frodo shuddered. He should interfere, and not let these men rob him. But Frodo was alone here. He knew what to do but was too afraid to do it, and shame made him flush dark red, though his eyes blazed angrily at the laughing drunkards.

"Ah, two silver coins is the minimum bet," Mugwort claimed. "Put down your money and take a chance."

"Don't do it," Frodo said, jumping back when Mugwort took a swing at him.

"You have something to say, halfling?" the man roared, but his friend Ferny laughed.

"Come here, little one," Ferny called, cackling more when Frodo shook his head and shrank back against the wagon. He didn't like that man, and certainly wouldn't go closer to any of them when they were all drunk. "No? Your loss, ratling," the man said, crudely grabbing at his crotch while his friend hooted with laughter and the young blacksmith watched, wide-eyed.

"He's so pretty," the blacksmith observed, and Ferny said something too low for Frodo to hear that made them all laugh. But the blacksmith still stared at Frodo, his eyes darting back to the other men nervously. Frodo looked around for a way out that didn't involve walking past the three of them, but he couldn't see another door. The window openings in the walls were too high for him to reach, though he thought he might be able to climb the rough boards.

"You should see him in his little corset and wig," Ferny jeered. "Just like a princess, if hairy-footed rats could be princesses."

"Are you sure he's not really a girl?" Mugwort teased, laughing at Frodo's angry flush. "Maybe we should pull down those breeches and check." It was probably just meant as a mean-spirited joke, but the blacksmith didn't take it that way. Before Frodo could even move he was there, holding Frodo, one big hand pulling at his braces.

"Stop that!" Frodo cried, hitting at the hand holding him. "Let go!"

Ferny only laughed, but Mugwort came closer to join in the fun, elbowing the blacksmith roughly and leering at Frodo. "Pretty when he turns all red, ain't he?" The man moved in as if to kiss him, and Frodo spit at his face.

With an angry roar Mugwort backhanded Frodo so hard the blacksmith released him, but he was too dazed to take advantage of his release to get away. His head was spinning, even as a part of him was thinking "no performances for a week unless I can get some cold water to keep down the swelling." He knew the men looming over him weren't going to help him.

"Get away," Frodo said, trying to sound cross and confident, but he knew it came out as a plea. The blacksmith stooped over him.

"You really walloped him, Mugs. He's gonna bruise up bad."

"The rat spit at me! He's lucky I don't kill him right here and feed him to the pigs." Mugwort stomped closer and kicked Frodo in the ribs, making him cry out and roll into a ball.

"Hey, I'm not gonna get any fun if you do that," the blacksmith argued, and then those big hands were on Frodo again, pulling at his clothing. He cried out, begging the man to stop, then shrieking for help when it continued. But the only ones in earshot were Mugwort and Ferny, and their only interest seemed to be in watching as his clothes were pulled and torn from his body.

The ponies were stomping with fear, still harnessed to the wagons but upset by Frodo's cries. The blacksmith was touching him, and whenever Frodo struggled he hit him -- not as hard as Mugwort had, but just enough to show Frodo he couldn't get away, though he continued to squirm.

"He's a slippery one," the blacksmith complained. "I can't get my cock out with him like this."

"Tie him up," Ferny said in a voice quivering with excitement. "Tie him to the manger and we'll all take a turn."

Frodo screamed for help, but it only made the men quickly stuff a dirty rag in his mouth. Then they did just as Ferny had suggested, positioning Frodo over the trough and binding his hands to the post with a harness. He tried to move, to fight them, but his feet didn't even touch the ground and he was too stretched out to get any leverage. Those big, hateful hands were still touching him, more than one of them, and then a large finger breached the opening to his body. Frodo screamed through the rag.

Ferny laughed. "Squeal, ratling. No one's going to hear you."

"He's still pretty, even like this," the blacksmith said in stupid wonder.

"I can make it prettier. Look at this," Mugwort said. A heavy hand came down on Frodo's bottom, over and over, until he was sobbing. "Like that?"

"It's so red," the other man whispered. "I can see your hand print."

"It'll feel warm. I've done this before with a halfling, they're so tight -- you can't imagine."

"You did? I've never -- just with goats. Not even with a girl."

"Halflings are better than girls," Mugwort said, and Frodo screamed again as he was once more breeched. It felt so large, but Mugwort said "See? He's tight even for your fingers."

"Yeah," the blacksmith breathed. "That's it, I'm gonna take him. Damn these laces."

"You gonna take a taste, Ferny?"

"Leave him for me."

"Sloppy thirds," Mugwort teased.

"Who took care of your last halfling, Mugs? You didn't know what to do with him once you'd fucked him. Leave him for me."

Frodo felt his legs pushed apart and tried to struggle, but he was in agony and couldn't stop the man from moving behind him. Hands grasped his inflamed rear and pulled the cheeks apart, and he screamed once again, knowing it was useless. He could feel the blacksmith's hot breath, hear his grunt as he positioned himself to push inside...

"What's this?"

Bilbo! Frodo gasped, wishing he could warn him, for he knew these men would kill them both. But then a second, deeper voice called out "Stay where you are! Don't move, any of you."

Frodo was immediately released, the man quickly moving away with a muttered curse. He heard a ringing sound, then Ferny screamed and Mugwort bellowed, while the blacksmith fell over, trying to pull up his leggings.

"Frodo! No, no, this can't have happened..." Bilbo's hands were shaking as he untied Frodo. He tried to gently help him down, but Frodo was no help and once his hands were freed, he dropped in an undignified heap into the straw beneath the feed trough, his legs too weak for him to stand. He pulled the rag from his mouth, coughing, as Bilbo knelt beside him, weeping. Frodo found himself in the odd position of hugging and comforting his cousin while he sat naked and bruised on the stable floor.

When Bilbo calmed himself and pulled away, Frodo finally realized that there were three more men in the barn, but even at first glance they were very different from Ferny and his ilk. For one thing, they all carried swords -- swords currently at the necks of the miscreants who cowered on the floor, trying to deny what had been plain for all to see.

"I weren't gonna hurt him," the blacksmith kept repeating. "He's just pretty." The bright-haired man guarding him made a face that showed his distaste.

"He's a simpleton, Strider." Strider? Frodo looked up, then, and saw that it was the man he'd met all those years ago, after his first performance in Bree. He was just as Frodo remembered him, taller than most and ruggedly handsome despite his soiled travel clothes. But he wouldn't meet Frodo's eyes, and that hurt more than the pain in his ribs.

"Perhaps," Strider replied. "But they shall still be punished for this. Look at the halfling -- they beat him, too." The tall man pulled the leather laces from the neck his own tunic and bound Bill Ferny's hands, then ripped a band of cloth from Ferny's shirt to tie up the bleeding wound on his leg before continuing, "The body of a hobbit similarly beaten and raped was found in the woods not two months ago. He'd been cut many times, until he bled to death. I suspect these men know something of that, too."

Frodo gasped, remembering their talk. Leave him to me, Ferny had said. "Ferny killed him, but Mugwort is the rapist," Frodo said clearly, flinching when Ferny lurched toward him, trying to attack him despite his bound hands. Strider slammed the hilt of his sword into the ruffian's temple and he collapsed, unconscious. The casual violence made Frodo want to vomit, but Strider was speaking to him, so he pulled his attention back to him.

"They bragged of this?"

"I didn't understand what they were saying, but yes. Ferny said he 'took care' of the last halfling Mugwort had."

"He's a liar," Mugwort said, but the blacksmith said, "No, that's what you said, Mugs," and the dark-haired stranger holding Mugwort laughed shortly.

"You see, Eomer? Simpletons can be useful. Testify about what Mugwort said, blacksmith, and you may be spared when your friends hang." As he spoke, this man bound Mugwort with the same harness they had used to tie Frodo. When he finished, he moved to tie the blacksmith, too. "Eomer, you should fetch the sheriff, and send a boy to get the doctor for the halfling."

"Yes, Halbarad," the blonde replied, and when he heard his voice Frodo realized he was younger than the others. It was so difficult to tell with Big People. Frodo stared at them, thinking about what had nearly happened to him, and it wasn't until Bilbo shook him that he knew he'd been spoken to, repeatedly, and never heard one word.

"I'm fine, Bilbo. You came just in time... like in one of your plays."

"Frodo, my lad," Bilbo said, and then he was crying again. Frodo patted his arm but kept his eyes on the men.

"We shall not harm you, Frodo Baggins," Strider said, and Frodo frowned.

"I didn't say you would."

"No, but you are watching my every move." The man took a step closer, then knelt down, and Frodo wanted to move away but held himself very still. "We met Bilbo and were discussing his need for actors. He has offered Eomer a place in your troupe, and we came here to see his map, and offer our help with finding the best road to Rohan. I have traveled between the Mark and Bree many times."

"I'm ... just not used to big people," Frodo admitted, not realizing he'd been shrinking back, into the corner, until his back touched the wall. Strider hadn't moved any closer, but Frodo was still breathing as if he'd been running. Then Halbarad took a step. Frodo cried out and stood to run, but fell over when his legs once again refused to support him.

"Frodo, lad, these are Rangers. Lawmen. They won't harm you," Bilbo pleaded, but Frodo was panting, wild-eyed and not understanding his words.

"I feared this would happen. Bilbo, leave him until the doctor comes."

Bilbo looked startled, and asked "Is the doctor a hobbit?"

"No. No," Strider repeated. "Damn. I didn't think... there is a hobbit healer, in Staddle. But Doc Thistle is the best person, and he lives closest to Bree."

"That won't matter if he cannot examine Frodo," Bilbo said crossly, and Frodo wanted to reassure him that he was fine, but he couldn't get enough air in this cursed barn. The ponies whinnied again, stomping their distress, and Frodo wanted to do the same, to scream and run and go back so this day never happened. It made no sense, he knew that, but he just needed some fresh air.

The door burst open, Eomer leading in three more men, and Frodo cried out and ran, but Strider was faster. The big Ranger grabbed Frodo and put a hand over his mouth as he tried to scream. He kicked and struggled, but he couldn't breathe--

***

The doctor examined Frodo while he was unconscious, and the report was reassuring in many ways. Frodo had broken ribs, which would be painful for some time to come, but his other injuries were less severe than they'd feared. "I'll give him some poppy juice, to keep him asleep. With enough rest, he may forget some of the details of their attack."

"Can he travel, Doctor Thistle? I don't want to stay in Bree another night," Bilbo said, his voice shaking with anger. It didn't matter that Frodo hadn't actually been raped. Well, it did matter very much to him, and he supposed to Frodo. But those men had done plenty of damage nonetheless.

"I'm afraid that would be rash, Mr. Baggins." The doctor smiled, adding, "Though I understand your wish." He seemed like a kindly man, and Bilbo resigned himself to obedience. Truth to tell, he wasn't sure if he wanted to head south on the Greenway, or back to the Shire, where poor Frodo wouldn't have to face any Big Folk ever again. Bilbo felt torn, and his nerves were on edge. They were still in the barn, and every noise from outside made him jump.

"I don't want poor Frodo to see this nightmarish place again," he continued. The ruffians he'd hired and their blacksmith friend were gone, dragged to the local jail by Strider, Halbarad, and Eomer, who'd all insisted on accompanying the sheriff and his deputy.

It was sheer luck Bilbo had fallen in with them, asking Strider if he knew anyone who was seeking a job and finding that young Eomer was looking for a way home, to the land of Rohan far to the south. If Bilbo had returned alone, what could he have done to stop three Men? Bilbo turned away, feeling angry and impotent, and moved to the wagons. He could at least do something useful and unharness the horses.

But the doctor's soft voice called, "You'd both be welcome at my home, in Combe. The village isn't too far from your road but it's much quieter than Bree proper. Our house is isolated from neighbors, so no one but my son would need to know you were staying there."

Bilbo froze with a hand on Misty's muzzle. "Why are you being so kind?" he asked, feeling horrible even as he said it. Just because most Men seemed to do nothing without a price, he shouldn't insult this kindly doctor.

"No reason," the doctor said, then he laughed at Bilbo's expression. The sound warmed Bilbo's heart and he made his decision while watching the man gently force open Frodo's mouth and carefully ease liquid down his throat.

"We'd love to visit Combe, Doctor Thistle."

"Call me Doc. Everyone here does." He stood, grunting a little as he lifted Frodo, and carried the lad to the wagon. "He will heal, Mr. Baggins."

"Bilbo," he corrected with a smile, feeling more hopeful than he'd thought possible this day.

They were on the road shortly, Doc driving the wagon with Frodo and their luggage, and Bilbo managing the one with their equipment. When they passed the jail and Eomer waved to him, Doc called, "I'll go ahead with Frodo, he'll be asleep for hours. Strider can show you the road to my house."

Bilbo pulled up at the next building, and tied Meadow to the hitching post as Eomer ran over to him.

"Mr. Baggins, the sheriff wanted your testimony, too. And your cousin's -- is he with Doc?"

"Yes, Frodo is still asleep."

"Oh." Eomer looked a bit surprised. "You trust the doctor, though he's a stranger, even after what happened?"

"My lad, hobbits always want to trust others, and look for the best in them. That's what led to my poor Frodo being harmed today, my foolish desire to trust people I knew were trash." They were at the door now, and Bilbo paused to add, "Doc is cut from a very different piece of cloth, Eomer, as are you. And I won't hold you or him responsible for what those men did. Neither will my Frodo."

The young man smiled, and it warmed his deep brown eyes. "I appreciate that, sir. I haven't met many holbytlan while I've been here, but I'm proud to know you." They shook hands then, and Bilbo filed away the word "holbytlan," planning to ask later if that was how Eomer's language named hobbits. It certainly sounded similar.

But then the Sheriff saw them, and the questioning began. Bilbo tried very hard to control himself, but there were tears on his face before the hour was over.

"Very well, sir, we have your statement, and those of these men," he said, indicating the others with a face that showed his disapproval of the rangers, and even Eomer. Breelanders weren't fond of foreigners, though they had once enthusiastically welcomed the Baggins Revue. "And Pinny the Blacksmith confirms it, too, and pretty much admits that he wanted your boy."

"My cousin, Sheriff, and a fine, well-educated lad."

"I thought he was an actor."

"That, too," Bilbo admitted, but he could see the truth in the Sheriff's eyes. He thought Frodo was a whore, that all actors were trash. The men he had in custody were guilty, but they wouldn't be punished. Bilbo saw the same knowledge in Strider's eyes, too. Halbarad looked dourly unimpressed, but Eomer's face was dawning with horror. Fortunately, Halbarad pulled him out the door before he said anything.

"So, you can be on your way, Mr. Baggins. We're all set here."

"I can see that, Sheriff," Bilbo said, but he had to press his lips together to hold back harsher words. "Thank you."

He walked out the door with Strider, who followed him back to the wagon. "I'm sorry, Bilbo."

"You did nothing wrong, Strider," he said. "And you can do me a great favor now by telling me how to find Doc Thistle's house."

"Did he invite you to stay there?" The man smiled, and Bilbo had to smile back, for the expression lit and transformed the Ranger's face. "That's just like Doc."

"He seems a fine man, and I very much appreciate his kindnesses."

Strider nodded. "Here, let me go with you to the crossroads. From there you can't miss it." Bilbo found the law man was good company as they slowly progressed, asking questions about the show and many more questions about Bilbo's plans for the future. Strider had traveled south, past Rohan, and freely gave advice about areas he thought would welcome entertainers, as well as those that would not.

"Minas Tirith, I'm afraid, is very suspicious of strangers. The Steward of Gondor doesn't take kindly to wanderers. You should probably stay north of Gondor, or travel west when you're ready to leave Rohan, and go back through the Gap toward the coast line. The people there are hospitable."

Bilbo grunted noncommitally, wondering if Strider had some reason to want to keep him from Minas Tirith. That seemed a ridiculous idea, yet he decided the rangers might not be as trustworthy as he'd first thought. After all, the law in Bree didn't seem to respect them. Of course Bilbo appreciated their assistance, but even as Strider showed him the road to the doctor's home and he cheerfully waved farewell, Bilbo was resolving to have nothing more to do with Strider.

***

Frodo woke in a strange room, in an enormous bed, to the sight of Bilbo fast asleep in a chair beside him, with his feet propped on Frodo's bed.

It took a moment to remember everything. They were in Bree-land, and the men Bilbo had hired to act in their troupe were drunken gamblers, ruffians and murderers. It came rushing back at Frodo -- the assault, and his own odd reaction to the men who'd been trying to help him. He realized he didn't understand any of it -- how could anyone be as cruel as those men? And why, when he'd longed to see the man again, had he been so panic-stricken with Strider?

He was now in some man's home -- he could tell from the silence outside the open window that this was no Inn. Frodo took a deep breath and gasped with pain. He tried again, a small breath which he let out slowly. His fear seemed to have receded. After all, Bilbo trusted whoever had provided this shelter. Trusted them enough to fall asleep while watching Frodo. They had to be safe.

He couldn't relax enough to fall back to sleep, but Frodo rested in the bed. It was nice to hear cicadas and hoot-owls outside, and he wondered if the countryside was as pretty as the Shire. Sometimes Frodo missed home with an awful ache. But Bilbo was determined to go on, and Frodo already knew that as soon as he was well, he would follow Bilbo.

It wasn't for the fun of the shows, not anymore. At first they had been wonderful, even dressed like an elf-lass. But now they were just work, a routine no different than a farmer's planting and tilling. It wasn't for the excitement of travel, either, though Frodo had once thought wandering outside the Shire would be wonderful. It was mostly because Bilbo had no one else, at least not family -- and because no one in his family wanted Frodo, except Bilbo.

Even if Bilbo only wanted him because he fit the costumes, Frodo would stay.

There was a gentle knock on the door, and Bilbo snorted but didn't wake. "Mr. Baggins?" a clear voice softly whispered, and Frodo replied "Come in, please."

"You're awake!" Frodo could hear the excitement in the whisper. A figure approached the bed, and Frodo saw that, though quite tall, he looked young. "How do you feel? My father said you have cracked ribs, so it may hurt to breathe."

"A little, but ... I'm Frodo, Frodo Baggins at your service," he continued, nodding his head instead of trying to bow. He wasn't sure if that was really what you said to a man. Bilbo had taught him the polite forms for elves and dwarves, and somehow he didn't think this boy would understand Elvish. Indeed, his eyes were popping merely from Frodo's simple words.

"Oh! I'm Tol, Tolbert Thistle, at your service," he replied. "Pleased to meet you, Frodo," he finished with a grin, grabbing Frodo's hand and pumping it up and down. Ah, that must be the right thing to do, and Frodo filed the information away in his mind as he grinned back. Tolbert reminded him of his cousins and Brandy Hall, the way they first treated guests with formal politeness but eventually let curiosity win out.

Tol was pouring water for Frodo now, and helped him sit forward to drink. "I know lots of hobbits," he continued. "Living here I would. But I've never met an actor before."

"Well, I've performed in Bree, but only really spoken with one man. So I believe we both have plenty of questions."

"You're our guest, you can ask first," Tolbert said.

"Your father is the healer?"

"He's a doctor, yes. He studied healing with someone trained by ... well, I don't know why we call them doctors, really."

Frodo almost laughed, forgetting Bilbo was still sleeping. "In the Shire, we call those who've studied for two years with another doctor by the title."

"Oh, that's probably true here, too, then. I've never wanted to learn healing, so I didn't know. Was there anything else you wanted to know, Frodo?"

"Oh, far too many things to ask you tonight. Perhaps in the morning? Though I think you should ask me one question now. I don't want you to fall behind, that wouldn't be fair."

"You boys are old enough to know it's very dangerous to wake a weary hobbit," Bilbo grumbled, making both of them jump as he tried to move his legs and groaned. "You shouldn't have let me sleep like this, Frodo, all twisted up."

"I'm sorry, Bilbo. Come to bed and get some real rest. There's plenty of room here." He gingerly moved toward to the side, wincing a little.

Tol said "Steady," and helped support him, and Frodo was proud not to flinch. Tol was just a boy, after all, and a very kindly one. "Or you can sleep in my room, Mr. Baggins," Tolbert continued.

"Wouldn't dream of putting you out, my boy," Bilbo replied, equally polite though he was stretching and widely yawning.

"It's no trouble, there's a bed in Dad's examination room, too."

"No, Frodo and I can double up and it will still be a luxury, after days and nights on the road, sleeping under the stars. Right, Frodo?"

"Yes, indeed. This bed is very large, and so comfortable, too." He smiled up at the boy, who returned it charmingly though it didn't look as if smiles were his habitual expression. It was hard to see in the half-light of one small lamp, but Tol's hair was lighter than Frodo's, falling past his ears. He was very thin to a hobbit's eyes, but Frodo suspected he was still growing, and not yet caught up to his height.

Tolbert looked toward the door, then back at them. "I'll leave you to rest, then," he said.

"Before you go, Tolbert, if I may -- why did you stop here in the first place?" Bilbo asked.

"Oh," he said, blushing at the question. "Dad sent me to see if you were hungry, Mr. Baggins, since you didn't have any dinner."

"Indeed? Your father is most thoughtful, and he understands hobbits very well. I am hungry -- more hungry than sleepy, actually. Frodo?"

"Oh, I'm famished, Bilbo," he said, and Tol let out a startled laugh, but caught his mirth and blushed even brighter.

"Well, good. I'll get a tray for you both."

"No need, dear boy. We'll explore your larder with you. You're feeling up to that, Frodo?"

Frodo saw the sharp concern in Bilbo's eyes, and it was hard to smile convincingly in response, but he tried. "As long as you'll hand me my trousers, I'm ready to follow you."

Bilbo took Frodo to the outhouse first, and then to the kitchen where they washed up. The room was lit only by an open hearth, and Tolbert was cleaning the table with a damp cloth. There was a scrabbling noise coming from what Frodo thought must be the pantry.

Despite that warning, Frodo jumped a bit when a man came through the doorway, his arms full of apples and a brick of cheese. He was older; gray-haired, though some of that was the effect of cobwebs in his hair. And -- flour?

"Here, Dad, let me." Tolbert took several of his burdens, and the man laughed.

"Our pantry is shamefully empty, Bilbo. We weren't expecting hobbits, you see."

"Don't give that another thought -- we have our own supplies, you know." With the words, Bilbo was out the door and Frodo was alone with the two big people. But he was fine... well, just a little nervous.

"Dad, this is Frodo. Frodo, my father, Doc Thistle."

"Good to meet you, my boy," Doc said, and this time Frodo knew enough to pump his hand briskly. It made Doc smile for some reason, which made Frodo stop. Still, it was a very nice smile. He was too big, but with his tattered old vest and ragged cuffs, Doc reminded Frodo of someone... Bilbo, actually, but not Bilbo the impresario and manager. No, he was like Bilbo had been back at Bag End on those summer nights so long ago, back when Frodo visited for a month every year. He remembered Bilbo sitting with his pipe and a book, and pausing when Frodo would come in the room, and smiling like that, always ready to give him his attention...

"Here we go. Provisions to last us until the market opens tomorrow morning, at least." Bilbo dropped a side of bacon on the table, as well as bags of potatoes and onions. "No, stand aside, Tolbert, and let me fix us a little light dinner. Frodo, cut up those apples, won't you? Two apiece ought to do it. And Tol, if you can, find me some meal. Flour, or maize if you have it."

Doc and Tol seemed amazed by how quickly Bilbo had the bacon crisply fried up, and the onions sliced and frying in the leftover grease. Frodo filled a pan with the apples, then crumbled the bacon while Bilbo mixed eggs, milk, and the maize meal together. Finally the onions went in the pan, and Bilbo poured the mixture over it all and set it in the oven to cook.

While they were waiting for the piggy pudding, Bilbo fried up the potatoes and they ate them with slices of the cheese melting on top. Neither man ate very much, Frodo noticed, and when the potatoes were gone, he asked about it.

"Are you saving room for the pudding? It's a very small one, you know."

Tolbert just looked amazed, but Doc laughed. "No, Frodo, men don't manage to put away as much food as hobbits, and never will. For instance, I hear that in the Shire hobbits eat a meal called 'second breakfast.'"

"Yes," Frodo replied cautiously, not sure if Doc was making fun of him.

"In Bree-land, no one's heard of that. Even the hobbits here don't know about such a meal, though they still eat more than men."

"But -- don't they get hungry between breakfast and nuncheon?"

"Bree-land is not as prosperous as the Shire, Frodo," Bilbo said gently. "The hobbits here don't have the luxury of taking a meal in the midst of their work day, and don't have as much food available to them, either."

Frodo knew his mouth was hanging open. The thought of a hungry hobbit with no food -- it was horrible, the worst thing he'd ever heard. Much worse than the plights Bilbo's elves got into.

"Neither men nor hobbits miss what they've never had, Frodo," Doc said softly. "Don't feel it so, lad. The hobbits of Staddle and Combe are very happy, and they believe themselves well-off. If you asked them, they wouldn't change with anyone."

"I think our pudding is ready," Bilbo announced, and he removed the pan from the oven with Tolbert's assistance, since everything was man-sized. "Do you have any maple syrup? It's really best with that."

Doc returned to the pantry, soon calling "Success!" and returning with a bottle he had to carefully wipe clear of dust.

Bilbo's pudding was wonderful, rich and savory, and even the men ate heartily. Once he was full, Frodo started to feel sleepy. He felt his eyes closing as he sat at the table, and finally out of the comforting hum of voices half-heard, Doc said, "That's it. Time for you to rest, Frodo."

He tried to stand up, but he was so tired. A moment later he felt himself being lifted, and carried down the dark hallway. As soon as his tired brain registered that it was Doc carrying him, Frodo was wide awake. But Doc merely settled him back in the soft bed where he'd first woken.

"Bilbo will be in soon to help you, if you're too tired to undress."

"No, I'm fine. I don't know why I was so sleepy at the table, sir," Frodo said with a yawn.

"I can see you're wide awake now," Doc smiled. "Just call me Doc, Frodo, not sir. You've had a long day, with a lot of excitement." The simple words seemed to bring it all back, how frightened he'd been and how callous Ferny and his friend were. He shivered, and Doc placed a hand on his shoulder. "You're safe here, Frodo. Those men are in jail, and Strider has asked some of his fellow rangers to guard the village while you are here."

"Strider?" Frodo repeated, stupidly, and then he remembered all the questions he had about the man. "What is a ranger, Doc?"

"Lie back and I'll tell you what I know. It isn't much, I'm afraid." Frodo settled back against the soft pillows, and Doc actually tucked him in, sitting in the chair Bilbo had been in earlier.

"I've known Est.. Strider for about .. oh, seven years now, I think. Tolbert was just a boy then, not much taller than you are. He was wandering in the woods one day, looking for herbs to help me, and he nearly fell over Strider. Strider had injured his arm, weeks earlier, and it became infected. He was too weak to move, feverish and sick. Tolbert came running for me, and ... my wife and I managed to get him back here, and into this very bed. We treated him for a week before he began to improve."

"You saved his life, didn't you?" Frodo asked, his eyes drifting shut.

"We did, and soon Halbarad and the others found him here. They'd been frantically searching for days, thinking he was hurt or lost in the woods somewhere. They are such fine hunters, they tracked him and Tol though days had gone by since they met. And when they saw that Strider was recovering, we all became friends. Since then, Strider visits here when he's in this part of Bree-land, and the rangers all come here when they need healing."

Frodo heard all the words, and saw the vision in his head of tall men coming through the woods, seeking this friendly house and its warm fires. But he was too tired to open his eyes, so Doc's voice trailed off and a gentle hand felt his forehead. Then the room grew very silent, and Frodo once again found sleep.

***

"Frodo? How are you feeling today?" It was Eomer, Frodo reminded himself. The blonde young man who wanted to return to his homeland. He was a friend; there was no reason to fear him.

"I'm very well, thank you," he said cheerily, continuing to wash the breakfast dishes. "Doc says I'll be ready to travel in a few more days. Are you still traveling south with us?"

"Oh, yes. That is, I want to, very much. I hope Bilbo hasn't changed his mind?"

"No, he says you're perfect for the hero roles. The only thing better would be if you played the fiddle -- then he'd take you along and never let you go!" Frodo laughed, and Eomer joined in. He had a nice smile, Frodo thought, and beautiful, warm eyes. If only he weren't so very big. Even standing on the step stool to reach into the sink, Frodo was shorter than the man.

"I've been helping Strider with his duties, but he's getting ready to head east again. So he told me to make myself useful here, until we leave. Can I help with the dishes?"

"You can dry the glasses, so they don't get broken when I finish the pots and pans," Frodo said. "There's a towel on the doorknob."

They worked together in silence for a few minutes, then Frodo said, "Have you known Strider many years, like Doc and Tol?"

"Oh, no, I met him only last year, when... when I first came north."

"We don't need to speak of this if it troubles you, Eomer." Frodo was almost bursting with curiosity, but he was trying very hard to be polite and considerate.

"No, I think I'd like you to understand. My father was killed by orcs raiding our land, and we lost our home. My mother's brother offered us a place with him, but ... my mother chose to remarry, instead."

"Oh!" Frodo tried to imagine such a thing, and couldn't. "My parents were both killed when I was twelve," he admitted. "My aunts and uncles raised me, until Bilbo adopted me and took me traveling with him."

"I'm very sorry for your loss, Frodo," Eomer said. "I suppose you cannot understand why, when I'm fortunate enough to have one parent still living, I would chose to leave her."

"No," he stammered, though such a resentful thought had crossed his mind. "I... I can imagine that you might miss your father, and feel your mother was making a mistake in trying to replace him. I'm sorry, I don't know the right way to say it..."

"But you do understand, I can see that. The man ... he wasn't worthy of my mother, not in the least. But he is an advisor to my uncle, so Uncle Theoden approved. I couldn't stay with them and watch them together. It hurt me too much. So I ran away, and wound up in Bree with no money and no prospect of a job... If I hadn't met Strider, I don't know what would have happened. I'd either be dead in some alley from cheating at cards, or starving along the road south."

There was nothing to say to that, at least nothing Frodo could think of that seemed remotely adequate. So instead he asked, "Would you mind if I sing? Sometimes that makes chores go faster."

"Oh, please do. Can I join in?"

"Certainly." He did a rousing version of "Crash Clatter Clean," Bilbo's dishwashing song, and Eomer didn't exactly join in, though he was convulsed with laughter during the choruses.

"Oh, that's so funny. A song about dish washing!"

"Bilbo has songs for everything, you know, and he's taught them all to me. You'll learn some for the shows, I'm sure."

"Well, I had no idea what a wonderful poet Mr. Bilbo is," Eomer said. "Amazing. Songs for everything. You'd think my people would be the ones who do that, since we don't have writing like you and the Bree-landers."

"You don't write? But -- are all your books from other lands, then?"

"We have no books, no one would have any use for them."

"Your people don't read?" Frodo's hands stopped working as the enormity of that though hit him. "Do you mean you can't read? How will you learn your parts in the plays, Eomer?" Frodo was dismayed.

The young man blushed, but answered, "Bilbo told me he'd read them to me, and help me to learn."

"Oh, of course he will. So will I, if you won't mind." Frodo felt like an idiot, but even more terrible for embarrassing Eomer. He rattled on, "You know, the sword-fighting and singing are more important than the actual words, I think. But don't tell Bilbo I said so. Authors are touchy, you see."

Eomer smiled at him. "I see. Thank you, Frodo. I'd be very grateful for your help."

"Good. We can start today, unless you have something else you must do."

"No, not at all."

It was only half an hour later that Frodo settled at the table with a pile of Bilbo's scripts, Eomer seated across from him, looking eager. But they'd only gotten as far as choosing a story when there was noise in the yard, and Tolbert came in with a basket of eggs precariously balanced on one arm, the other loaded down with bags of supplies.

There was much fussing for the next hour or so, putting the foodstuffs away with Eomer's help. Frodo even detoured to start bread for the evening meal, and when he was finished kneading and settling it to rise, he turned back to the room. Tol was at the table, standing beside Eomer, looking through the scripts.

"You're just in time to help us, Tol. Can you read the part of Elleator, the elf-lord?"

"Certainly. Are you practicing for a performance, then?"

"No, Bilbo hasn't cast any of the shows yet. But I wanted Eomer to hear the stories -- to help him prepare. I'd just feel silly doing all the parts by myself."

"I suppose you would," Tol laughed. He opened the script to a page and began reading aloud. "Help me!" he squeaked in a high voice, then said, "Don't resist me, fair one!" in a low growl. Eomer and Frodo both laughed with him, and then they all sat down to begin their reading.

As it continued, Frodo found his mind wandering at times, wondering what it would be like to live in this village with Eomer and Tolbert as his friends. He missed having a friend his age. He'd had Sam with him all those years without quite realizing how much he depended upon him. The other hobbits had just been too old, often treating Frodo like a child rather than a friend.

But these men, though they were both younger than him, seemed just the right age. They made Frodo happy, and he felt... important, too. Not just because of his role in the play, but because they included him. It was as if the three of them sharing a joke was better than laughing alone, or even than just two of them.

"Frodo? Are you daydreaming?" Tol poked him with his rolled-up script. "It's time to demand rescue, Princess."

"With another song, I hope," Eomer said, his eyes bright and happy. "I wish the whole play were singing. Except that I don't sing very well, and then Bilbo wouldn't want me in his troupe."

"Oh, yes he would!" Frodo said emphatically. "We're so short on actors he'd teach you to sing, Eomer, or stand behind you and sing the songs himself while you moved your lips!"

They were laughing and singing so loudly that another big person was in the kitchen before they noticed the noise of his arrival.

"Strider!" Eomer jumped up with a smile, as did Tol, but Frodo remained in his chair, looking at the table. He didn't want to see Strider's eyes, see pity or revulsion. Somehow he could forget that Eomer had seen him naked and bruised, and Tol had nursed him. They weren't so... superior? Whatever annoying thing it was that Strider was.

Eomer continued happily, "I was afraid you'd leave without saying farewell."

"No, my friend." Strider put a hand on Eomer's arm, and was staring at him. It gave Frodo the courage to lift his eyes, and he closely watched both their faces. Eomer seemed to lean into Strider's touch, though it was merely friendly. Couldn't he see how neutral Strider's face remained? Even with Tol, Strider seemed cool to Frodo, barely friendly, despite what Doc had told him of their long acquaintance, and how he owed his life to Tol.

"I wish you bright sun and clear skies on your journey, Eomer. Bilbo is a most resourceful hobbit, so I know you'll be fine until you reach your home again."

"Thank you, Strider. I .. I hope we'll meet again."

With those words, Eomer blushed but Strider looked thoughtful, his eyes drifting off as if to glimpse the future. "I believe we shall. Our fates are bound..." Then he looked down at Frodo, his eyes startled. "All of us," he concluded, sounding surprised.

Frodo frowned, looking away from him and down at the table. He wasn't sure he wanted his fate bound to this man, no matter how nice Tol and Doc said he was. Strider was so dour, so serious about everything. He seemed the complete opposite of hobbits, and even more annoyingly, he was inches taller than Eomer and the men of Bree. How could anyone like someone so looming and stern? Even if Strider was handsome, with beautiful eyes.

Eomer was hugging Strider now, thanking him for all he'd done to help him, and Tol tactfully left the room. But Frodo wasn't about to leave Strider alone with Eomer, and glared at the Ranger when he briefly glanced his way and nodded. Frodo was happy when Strider was out the door and vanishing down the road toward Bree proper, and when the three of them were too low-spirited to continue their reading and chatting, Frodo blamed the ranger for interrupting their happy afternoon.

***

"Bilbo, why can't we stay in Combe?" Frodo knew his cousin wasn't expecting the question, but was surprised by how long the silence stretched out. He felt compelled to keep talking. "You and Doc have become friends, haven't you? You seem to fit so well together, the way you both love books and... and we're helpful to him, aren't we? We cook and clean..."

Frodo stopped and sighed. It wasn't working; even with a stump playing the role of Bilbo, he couldn't find convincing arguments. Much as he wanted to stay in Bree-land, or even go back to the Shire, he knew it couldn't be done without bringing pain to Eomer. His friend wanted to go home, and traveling with the Revue was the safest, best way for that to happen.

Even if Frodo had the money to buy Eomer a fine horse and outfit him, he couldn't send him on so long a journey all alone. The thought was horrifying, and he didn't like to imagine how Eomer had found his way north last year. Frodo thought perhaps he spent too much time thinking about Eomer, actually. Certainly the strong, muscular men in his dreams now tended to have bright, fair hair and warm, dark eyes...

Frodo picked up a stone and threw it at the oak tree's trunk, pleased that he still had some skill though it had been a long time since his cousins taught him to throw properly.

Bilbo was being called to the south, somehow. Frodo didn't understand why, but he could see how impatient Bilbo was for Frodo to finish healing. And he was healed, certainly he was well enough to travel now. Doc knew it as well as Frodo did, though he hadn't said anything to Bilbo yet.

Oh, he was still a little nervous around strangers, at least big people. And big people were all he was likely to encounter from now on; he'd never heard of hobbits living to the south. But his ribs were fine now and hardly pained him. He could walk, and he was sure that riding in the wagon would be fine, too. His bruises were faded, too, and wouldn't even need to be covered with their face paint.

It was time for the Revue to take to the road. But Frodo would miss Doc's kindly ways, and Tol's easy friendship. He thought about Strider, away somewhere to the east, and was annoyed at how mysterious the man always pretended to be. Just as well he wouldn't have to see him again, with his knowing grey eyes and somber, stuffy attitude.

He headed back to Doc's house, anticipating how happy Bilbo would be when he told him he was ready to leave in two days time.

***

Doc Thistle looked out the kitchen window and saw his son talking with Frodo and Eomer as they packed the wagon, and he smiled as he poured a cup of tea. Tol was fascinated by Eomer's tales of a land to the south which Strider named as "Rohan" and Eomer called "The Mark." They'd become fast friends quickly, with Eomer visiting the hobbits almost daily. Doc suspected the boy -- well, he was older than Tol, but still a boy. Doc suspected Eomer was afraid of being left behind. Whatever adventures he'd been seeking in the north when he left his home, Eomer had obviously had enough of Bree. Doc supposed the credit for that was due to Estel... he couldn't seem to remember to call him Strider, like the others.

As for Tol's fondness for Frodo, well, hobbits were nothing new to a boy raised in Bree-land, of course. But hobbits who traveled and performed plays were much different than the merchants and farmers of Staddle. Tol thought the world of Frodo and loved to listen to his stories and wander in the woods with him, for Frodo knew a lot about plants and herbs, too. Doc himself had grown quite fond of hearing Frodo's voice raised in song as he washed dishes after a meal, or overhearing his chatter with Bilbo as they cooked their elaborate, enormous meals.

Doc suspected Frodo and Bilbo would have stood out as special even if they'd stayed in the Shire and herded pigs. The two of them had such quick minds, and such large hearts. Having them stay in his home, though it happened because of a horrible incident, had been a true blessing for Doc and Tol. With Frodo and Eomer, Tol laughed in a way Doc hadn't heard since his wife first fell ill, three years before. They'd both been missing her so much that the house had grown quiet. But Doc hadn't noticed until having Bilbo and Frodo here brought back days full of interesting conversation, nights of storytelling and laughter, and that hopeful light in Tol's eyes.

Tol wanted to go with them. It was plain in the longing looks he cast at the wagons full of strange stage properties and canvas sets, and even more clear in the way he fell silent sometimes when Doc entered the room. It should hurt, Doc thought, then chuckled. The reason it didn't bother him was that he was no better than his 19-year-old son. Doc wanted to join the troupe and head south, too, and if he didn't have people in Combe relying on his services, he might be packing his own clothing this night.

"Your son will miss Frodo, I think," Bilbo said from behind him, and Doc turned with a smile.

"We both will. Frodo is a dear boy." He moved back to his table, leaving the view of the young men. His mind was made up at last. "Will you take a cup of tea, Bilbo?"

"Thank you, I will. And how about some of the fruit bread Frodo made yesterday? It's past tea time, and there's no sense starting on our road with empty bellies." Bilbo soon had a full meal laid out, bread and butter, apples, and fruit bread with jam.

Doc shook his head, wondering when he'd next bother to make such an elaborate spread for himself. He knew the hobbits would take more time preparing meals while on the road than he did in his own tidy kitchen. It made him think of Jilly again, and how he missed her. He was glad when Bilbo spoke, breaking in to his melancholy thoughts.

"Your friendship has helped Frodo heal in more than body, Doc, and I thank you for that. It gives me such joy to hear him laugh with Eomer and Tol, and know he doesn't fear all Big People."

"Most of the credit goes to Frodo himself, I think, for not giving in to fear and prejudice. And, perhaps, to you bringing him to Bree before, so that he knew not all men are monsters." Doc took a deep breath. "Bilbo, are you still in need of any actors in your troupe?"

The hobbit looked a bit startled, almost wary, as he said, "Yes, I wanted to hire on two actors. We only have Eomer to take a role now, and that will only be until we reach his homeland, unless he decides to continue."

"I think he'll stay home, this time," Doc said. "Whatever drove Eomer to leave, he still loves his homeland and misses his family very much."

Bilbo nodded in agreement. "So, I am still in need of at least one actor. I'd planned to use a younger man, of course, someone who could play both villains and heroes. But with Eomer so perfect for the young, dashing men and elves of my stories, I can certainly use you in the troupe to cover the other roles."

Doc spit tea all over the table, then laughed so loud and long that all three boys came inside. Their puzzled faces only made him laugh more.

"He was asking about the troupe," Bilbo offered, looking equally puzzled. "But I don't know what's so funny about that."

"Oh, Bilbo," Doc wheezed. "I shall miss you more than I can say, my friend." He wiped his eyes and smiled at them all. "Tol, come here a moment." He put an arm around his boy's waist, and looked up at him. Not really a boy anymore, Doc had to admit, for Tol's eyes were wise with pain and loss. "I wasn't asking for myself, Bilbo, but for Tolbert. Could you use him in your troupe, acting those roles?"

"Dad! Can I? But I can't, you'd be alone here -- oh, dad!" Tol threw himself into Doc's arms, and he wasn't sure if the boy was laughing or crying. Frodo and Eomer looked delighted, but Bilbo's face was solemn, as if he sensed what it meant to Doc to let his son follow this dream.

"You've found some good friends, I think, and it's too soon to say farewell to them. Travel south to the Mark, my boy, and see the sights. I'll want to hear all about them when you return."

"Dad... I'll write, every week. Just like Frodo does."

That drew startled looks from Bilbo and Doc both, and Frodo blushed as he answered, "I send letters to my friend Sam Gamgee, back in Hobbiton. He's the only family I've got, save Bilbo," he added with a shy smile. "And he used to travel with us, in the Shire, so he isn't bored hearing about the size of the audience, or what play we're staging."

"Does he write back to you, Frodo?" Doc asked thoughtfully.

"He has while we've been here. I've had two letters at the post office in Bree now. Sam's engaged now, Bilbo, to Rosie Cotton -- Farmer Cotton's daughter, you remember her. But he still likes to hear where we've been, and what we've seen."

"Samwise is a most unusual hobbit," Bilbo said. "It's very nice of you to correspond with him and stay in touch, Frodo."

"He's a good friend, and it's nice to think that when we go back to Hobbiton there'll be no need to catch up. We'll still know each other, no matter how many years have passed."

Bilbo nodded in a way that confirmed Doc's suspicions. The older hobbit never intended to go back to the Shire. Young Frodo might still feel ties to that land and those people, but Bilbo had somehow lost his.

Doc thought that perhaps he'd been a bad friend to these hobbits, after all. He certainly hadn't spoken with Bilbo about such serious subjects. They'd discussed books, and news, the local gossip -- but not his feelings. Doc didn't know why Bilbo, seemingly alone among hobbits, felt such wanderlust. But Doc brushed aside these questions and instead asked the more practical one.

"I know you've described the Shire's postal system, and that some influential family has long paid for a post-runner between their Halls and Bree--"

"Yes, they're our relatives. The Brandybucks have done business with hobbits in Bree-land for many years," Frodo interrupted.

"But how do you expect letters to travel to and from the Mark?" Doc looked at Eomer. "Do your people have a post office system?" Eomer flushed a little and shook his head. Doc nodded and looked back at Frodo and Tol. "I'd love to have letters, my boy, but I don't see how it can be done."

"But it can!" Tol insisted.

"Halbarad told us!" Frodo added.

"The Rangers use a system along the Greenway -- that's still the road you intend to follow, isn't it, Bilbo?"

"Yes," he replied.

"A letter may be addressed and left in the box, and when a Ranger passes who is traveling this way, he'll carry it to Bree," Frodo explained.

"It may take a long time for my letters to reach you, Dad. And I'm not sure if there's any way for you to write back to me," Tol added. "But I'd like to try."

Doc's only response was to rise and hug him. Then he pushed the boy away and gruffly said, "You'd better pack now. Quickly. You don't want to delay Bilbo."

"Oh, I won't! I can be ready soon, Bilbo."

"Go along, then," the hobbit replied. "Frodo, you help him. You, too, Eomer -- you know what kind of clothes he'll need for the road."

The three of them scampered out of the room, reminding Doc of nothing so much as the lambs his neighbor raised each spring. Tol was so young...

"I'll take good care of him," Bilbo promised. "And Frodo's a steady lad. He won't lead him into trouble."

"Thank you, Bilbo," Doc replied. They sat in silence, staring at the untasted food on the table, listening to the excited voices rising and falling down the hall in Tol's room. Then those, too, ceased. Frodo and Eomer walked through, carrying a pack and two small bags, and without a word they took them to the wagon.

Bilbo stood, then, and bustled for a bit with his cup and plate, until Tol entered and stood in the doorway, staring at Doc. Then Bilbo looked out the window, and said "I'd best check the ponies. We've a long way to travel before we stop tonight. Don't be long, Tolbert."

"I won't," he replied, and Doc stood again to say farewell, feeling that old grievance he'd always carried against the ways of the world. Surely doing what was right should be easier, shouldn't it? This hurt so much.

"I'll miss you, Dad."

"I love you, my boy. Keep your eyes open on the road, and be a credit to me."

"I promise, Dad." Tol hugged him tightly, and Doc swallowed hard and kissed his cheek.

"Goodbye, Tol."

The boy was crying and didn't have more words, but he turned and smiled back as he went out the door.

Doc thought he should wave, or even go say farewell to the others. But all he could do was sit at his kitchen table as the sound of the wagons gradually faded, and the afternoon wore on. He didn't move until the sky was dark around his empty house.

***

Both wagons were silent as they drove along the road through the crowded streets of Bree, and even after they turned south just past the Pony onto an empty stretch of road.

Frodo was full of thoughts of the Shire -- sad, but they kept him from looking for the stable behind the Inn, or thinking about the last time he'd been there. In Eomer's wagon, Tol seemed torn between the melancholy he should feel, leaving his father and home, and the excitement he did feel, to be going beyond familiar territory. Even Eomer seemed a little out-of-sorts, his face set with what looked like determination. Frodo wondered if he was unsure of his welcome when he finally reached his home, many days from now.

Only Bilbo looked perfectly content, but he too kept silent. That was quite a change, for Bilbo usually whistled and sang while he drove, saying it helped to pass the miles. Frodo approved of his tact today, and tried to smile at him in thanks. But instead his eyes wandered back along the road, as if he could see the past by looking hard enough.

They'd gone about an hour on their way south when Frodo spied a figure ahead, walking toward Bree on their road. He grabbed Bilbo's sleeve and pointed, cautious though it was just one man, and Bilbo signed to Eomer and Tol, too, ensuring they were all alert in case of trouble.

As they continued, Frodo thought the figure looked familiar despite the deepening dusk. Graceful, purposeful movement. Shaggy hair, dark clothes, a worn green cloak. Frodo frowned, not sure how he felt. It would cheer the others to see Strider, but Frodo ... well, he'd have to speak to the man -- something he'd been wishing to do and dreading for weeks now. He'd recognized how unreasonable his anger had been, and regretted it. But admitting it to Strider's face would be difficult.

When they finally drew close enough, Eomer happily called out, "Strider!"

The Ranger waved at them, and flashed one of those smiles that made him look so very different. Frodo saw the others all smile back, but all he could do was stare stupidly.

"I hoped I'd meet you on your road, Master Baggins," Strider called to Bilbo.

"If that was so you can give me more advice, Strider--" Bilbo began, and Strider actually laughed.

"No, I've no more advice for a stubborn hobbit," he said. "I simply wanted to wish you a safe journey until you find your way home again."

Bilbo shook the Ranger's hand then, before climbing down to water the ponies. Tol rose to help him, but first gave Strider an exuberant hug. They exchanged whispered words, and Frodo supposed Tol was asking Strider to look after Doc, if he could.

Then it was Eomer's moment, and he too climbed down to hug the man. His conversation with Strider was audible to Frodo where he sat, halting words of thanks. It was touching to see how much Eomer admired and respected Strider, and Frodo was glad to see mutual respect in Strider's eyes.

When Strider turned to face him at last, Frodo was grateful Bilbo was still fussing at the back of the wagon. He climbed down and walked away a bit, turning to be certain the man was following him. When they were far enough for the dim light to give a false feeling of privacy, Frodo turned.

"Before we move on, I wanted to thank you, Strider." The man just nodded shortly, not even stooping to allow Frodo to meet his eyes as Doc or Tol would have done. Frodo flushed with shame but ploughed ahead. "I'm sorry I was so rude -- I've been inexcusably rude every time you've seen me, I know that. But I do appreciate what you did for me and Bilbo, and how kind you've been, not to speak of that..."

"Thanks are not necessary, Frodo Baggins. I was only doing my duty."

"Oh." Frodo felt as if he'd been slapped. "Well, perhaps if I were a hobbit of Staddle, that would be true. But you owe no duty to Shire-hobbits, do you?"

"My people are not limited by borders, Frodo. The rangers exist to serve, to protect and to guard against the encroachment of evil." With those words, Strider turned to leave. Frodo felt a childish urge to spit after him, but he controlled it.

Which was a great relief because Strider suddenly turned back and knelt, offering a hand to him. Frodo took it, but Strider didn't pump hands the way Bree-folk did. Instead, his other hand closed over Frodo's, and Frodo felt himself turning red even as he memorized the warmth of those big, calloused palms.

"We will meet again, Frodo Baggins. Until that day comes, it is my wish that the stars shine brightly on your path." Strider's eyes were so serious, so intense -- Frodo felt himself leaning forward, and for a dizzy moment he felt just like he was in one of those romantic scenes that ended a show. Warm lips touched his, just for a second, and Frodo puckered as he'd been taught to do for his stage-kisses. Strider's lips, though, were loose and lingered. But then Strider moved his mouth to Frodo's forehead, and pressed a kiss there.

Frodo frowned, opening his eyes just as Bilbo called, "Frodo! Time to go." Strider pulled back abruptly, dropping Frodo's hands, and hastily rose, brushing at his dusty knees.

"Goodbye," Frodo managed to choke out before rushing to the wagon. Strider, with his long legs, was already past them when Bilbo started scolding him.

"Frodo, use your eyes. Tolbert is riding with me now, and you're to go with Eomer, to spare the pony a bit. What are you thinking?"

"Sorry," he managed, knowing he was still blushing. But Eomer helped him up and didn't tease, though for a moment their eyes met. Frodo thought perhaps Eomer was the one person who understood what had just happened, but instead of feeling jealous, as he might have, the thought just made Frodo smile up at Eomer ruefully. He returned the gaze and Frodo's treacherous heart did a little flop at the sadness in those brown eyes.

He turned away and stared at the landscape, knowing he was fickle and ridiculous. No matter what strange desires Frodo harbored, no worthy man would want a hobbit. Only someone twisted and evil, like Mugwort, who wanted to hurt someone smaller...

Frodo shivered and wished he had a jacket in this wagon. The truth was, no matter what his dreams showed him, Frodo could never be with one of the big people. Not now.

***

Frodo finished chopping the vegetables for their stew while Eomer and Tolbert gathered wood for the fire, and Bilbo fed the ponies. While he worked, he thought about their show in Tharbad the night before last. The audience had seemed pleased, but Bilbo was upset that they'd been unable to find a musician in the hamlet. He felt his songs didn't sound as good without accompaniment, and Frodo agreed that it was harder to keep in tune alone.

Still, they'd had two good-sized houses at the Inn, and took some coins as well as food in payment. Frodo thought they'd be welcome again, when they headed back north toward the Shire. If they ever did. Bilbo's eyes were fixed south, always south, and he seemed obsessed with getting to Gondor by the end of the year.

That was many leagues ahead, though, and in the meantime Frodo had better get them all fed for this night. It was still cold, and a hot meal helped everyone sleep more comfortably. He emptied his waterskin and Eomer's into the pot, covering the vegetables, and carried it to the fire.

"Here, let me." Tolbert's longer reach easily put the pot on the flat rock they'd set over the flames, supported by thick logs. "That right?" he asked, and Eomer answered "Yes, but we're going to need a lot more wood to keep this burning hot enough."

"I can gather more. There was a lot of deadfall in that area," Tolbert said, pointing toward a gully to the south.

"I'm going for water," Frodo told them. "Do you need some, too, Tol? I can manage it."

"Sure. My skin is in the wagon. Thanks."

Their camp was close enough to the stream that Frodo could hear the quiet voices even while he filled their water skins. When he was done, he sat for a moment, watching the water's flow and thinking about the days to come. They were more than halfway to Rohan, by Bilbo's reckoning. The maps he'd drawn with Strider's assistance weren't perfect, but Frodo could see the mountains looming ahead of them now, and knew that soon, Eomer would have to make a choice.

He wanted his friend to be happy, of course. Eomer's experiences in Bree, which they'd never discussed in any depth, had been enough to send his thoughts homeward. Whatever he'd been running away from, he was now ready to face again. Or nearly ready, if Frodo was any judge. Eomer still seemed nervous when he spoke of seeing his family again. But he'd begun his stint as an actor with the goal of getting home, and that still hadn't changed. Which wasn't surprising. Frodo knew himself that the charm of their constantly-traveling life could wear thin. But -- he would miss Eomer's company, his easy laughter and bright smiles. Tol, too, was dreading the coming separation.

He picked up the heavy skins and headed back to the camp. The fire was still burning brightly, and delicious steam was rising from the stewpot. It would be a good meal; their bread was getting stale, but the gravy would soften it. And none of them were fussy eaters.

The fire was burning well, but Eomer and Tol were nowhere in sight. Frodo thought they both must have gone for more wood, though there was a sizeable stack now. He carefully hung the water skins on the wagon as Bilbo finished grooming their animals.

"I'll find more wood, Bilbo, if you don't mind watching the fire."

"Certainly, certainly." Bilbo seemed even more absent-minded than usual these days, but he had paper and his quill with him, and Frodo hoped he'd be writing a new play for them. Something that used Tol and Eomer properly. Something Eomer could be proud of performing in when he reached his home. "The stew smells wonderful, Frodo."

"Thank you, Bilbo." He went in the direction Tol had indicated, toward the gully that paralleled the road. He was picking up larger pieces of wood, keeping an eye out for the others, when he heard what he thought was an animal. He froze for a moment, then recognized Eomer's voice. He quietly set down his burden and slowly and carefully walked toward the noise. Was Eomer in pain? Had he been hurt somehow?

But when Frodo reached a thick bed of ferns, he realized what he'd heard. Eomer was stretched out on his back, his shirt open and his trousers shoved down around his feet. His fist was wrapped around his engorged cock, and it was moving purposefully.

It was so big. Frodo hadn't really seen one like this before, just bulges covered by clothing. That day in Bree, he hadn't wanted to look. But Eomer... It was big and thick, and Eomer's face twisted as his hand moved. His body glowed golden in the fading sunlight, fair hair sparse on his chest but thickening as it led downward.

Tol was beside him, still clothed but also with trousers and shirt open, and his own hand busy inside the loosened fabric. He leaned closer to Eomer and whispered something -- Frodo couldn't hear the words, but he heard Eomer's groan in response, and saw the way his body arched up, as if he were about to explode. Tol reached to brush one of the hard brown nipples on Eomer's chest, and Eomer cried out again, then his seed erupted from him. Tol groaned, frozen while Eomer's body shuddered and spent itself.

Beyond the guilt Frodo felt, observing such a private moment, he felt lust. His own body was hard, just from watching them. Even in his private imaginings, he'd known Eomer would look this way, sun-kissed hair glittering as his strong tanned arms and big, competent hands moved in synch. The passion clouding his eyes was something Frodo had dreamed of seeing for so long.

But Frodo's reaction to this scene still surprised him -- and even more so when Eomer reached out to grasp Tol's hardness. Frodo felt as if he were the one being touched, and the sight of Tol's head falling back as he gave himself to the pleasuring made Frodo fall to his knees, his own seed spilling in his trousers.

With a moan he hoped was covered by Tols' sharp grunts of ecstacy, Frodo crawled away. When he was far enough to rise, he ran toward the river and washed himself, feeling cold with shame.

He returned to camp, but he couldn't look at either Eomer or Tol when they returned, separately, their arms full of firewood. Frodo pretended to sleep while dinner finished cooking, then frightened Bilbo by having no appetite. He pleaded a headache and promised to eat in the morning, and crawled in the back of their wagon, covering his face with his blanket.

He was still awake later, when Bilbo quietly crawled past him into his own bedroll. Frodo felt so confused, angry and sad and... aroused. His dreams that night were full of Eomer and Tol as he'd seen them, beautiful and so right together that Frodo woke crying.

***

"Frodo! Wait for me, I'll help you."

"No need. I'm fine." He kept walking, wishing his legs were a bit longer. It wasn't fair that Eomer could so easily overtake him.

"If I stay at camp, Bilbo will have me skinning squirrels again. Let Tol do that today," Eomer laughed, but Frodo frowned up at him in confusion before pulling his eyes back to the dusty ground beneath his feet. Why did hobbits have to have such feet, anyway? How could anyone with tiny, hairless feet even walk alongside such great clodhoppers? "Frodo," Eomer said in a wheedling voice. "Talk to me. You've been upset for days now, and avoiding me. And Tol, too."

"I don't know what you mean," Frodo lied. "We did a show two days ago -- how could I have been avoiding you?"

"And what a show, indeed," Eomer said with a laugh. "One farmer and his family, entertained by the inimitable Baggins Revue for the price of some eggs and freshly-baked bread."

"He did have seventeen children," Frodo said seriously, but his eyes were merry enough to please Eomer.

"The babes still in the cradle don't count as audience, Mr.Baggins!"

"Perhaps you're right," Frodo laughed. "The way they squalled when I sang, I suppose they should be considered part of the entertainment."

They'd reached the river bank now, Eomer playfully shoving Frodo toward the water. "I should dunk you for that horrible joke."

"If you do, we'll have to wait here half an hour for the water to clear up before we can fill the skins," Frodo reminded him.

"If it means you'll finally talk to me, I don't mind the wait," Eomer said, wrapping his arms around Frodo and moving as if to throw him in.

"Don't!" Frodo shrieked, laughing, the water skins falling from his hands. "Eomer, don't!"

"Then tell me what's been wrong. Is it... is it because you saw me with Tol three camps ago?"

Frodo gasped, pushing away from the arms still trying to encircle him. "I... I didn't mean to..."

"It's all right, Frodo. We're not angry, just worried that you seem to be upset."

"I.." Frodo was tired of being speechless, but also tired of feeling so uncomfortable around his friends. "Why didn't you tell me?" He moved away and abruptly sat, just staring at the river.

Eomer didn't laugh or scoff, he moved to sit beside Frodo and thought for a few moments. "I suppose we would have, eventually. It's new for us, you know."

"Then you weren't in love back in Combe?"

"In love?" Eomer repeated, sounding surprised.

"Well, you were touching each other in a way that certainly seemed like more than friendship," Frodo insisted rather crossly.

Eomer blushed, but shook his head. "It's not love, Frodo, not what you mean by the word. You're thinking of the romantic love in Bilbo's plays. Tol is -- well, I do care for him. I'd protect him and I know he would do the same for me. But we're only sharing pleasure together, because it's more enjoyable with Tol than by myself, with only my own two hands. Can you understand that?"

"Not -- Well, I do know about -- touching myself."

"You must! I mean, you're even older than I am. Of course you've done that."

"Yes, of course," Frodo said, wishing he truly felt older than Eomer. Bilbo and Doc had once discussed how hobbit ages compared to those of men. Doc had insisted that men in their teens compared to hobbits in their tween years, pointing out that Frodo and Tol might be the same age, they were so similar. "But I don't see the difference between doing that, alone in the woods, and having Tol watch you. Except that knowing he's there would be embarrassing."

"No, it's not -- because it's Tol, and because I want him there. I feel his eyes on me -- and it makes the pleasure double, as if his and mine combine." Eomer looked distant, a half smile on his face. Then he turned back to Frodo and the hobbit felt pinned. "We've talked about you joining us, you know. We never thought you'd be interested. But if you are -- oh, Frodo. If you'd just try it, once---"

"I--" He couldn't imagine it, not beautiful shining Eomer and sweet Tol looking at him the way that the blacksmith had done. It made his stomach roll. "I'm sorry." Frodo fled from Eomer, forgetting his errand and the waterskins until he reached the safety of the wagons.

***

Rohan wasn't terribly different from Bree, or the villages where they'd performed as they traveled south. It seemed less populated than Frodo had expected. He'd somehow thought Eomer's land would be more like the Shire. Of course he understood they raised horses -- Eomer talked about that all the time -- but he'd imagined them as part of a well-ordered farm. Instead, the West Emnet was wide, flat, empty land. Beautiful, in a way. Certainly Frodo's first glimpse of a herd of horses moving gracefully amid the tall grasses was breathtaking.

But the village -- Frodo still wasn't certain if it was the main village in this Emnet, or the only village -- was tiny. And instead of being surrounded by the fertile fields Frodo had imagined this far south, the houses had tiny plots, more like the Shire's gardens, where they'd cleared out rocks and tilled the soil to raise their food. The horses evidently ate the grass that grew wild on the open land, for there were no storehouses of oats or hay, either.

There were dozens of questions to ask Eomer, if he ever came back to them.

Frodo used his dressing mirror to steal a glance at Tol without turning. He was still standing at the window in his travel clothes, not even pretending to apply his makeup.

"You should put on your costume," Frodo said quietly.

"Why? Can we perform without Eomer?"

"We can be ready, as Bilbo asked."

"I'm sorry, Frodo, I just... Did you know? That Eomer's uncle was the king of these lands?"

"No. Just that he'd left because his mother was marrying." Though Eomer had mentioned his uncle "approving" the match. Frodo hadn't thought that meant the uncle was someone in authority. Instead, he'd assumed that women of Rohan had even less freedom than the hobbit lasses who were routinely governed by the men of their household.

The door burst open and Bilbo came bustling in, looking pleased with himself. "We have a fiddler, Frodo. It will sound a little different than what you're used to, but it will be good to have music again. And I think he may be willing to travel on with us, at least for a time." He glanced around, not nervous, just bubblingwith that pre-show energy. "Tol, get into your costume!" he scolded. "Eomer will be here in a few minutes."

"He's back?" they both asked.

"Yes, yes. He had to go see his family. That's the real problem with the lack of reading and writing in this land, my boys. A long, dusty ride when a note could do the job! He rode to this Edoras place, but he's back now. So get ready."

Frodo smiled at Tol before turning to the mirror to don his wig. Tol was scrambling into his fancy tunic, looking so very relieved that Frodo once again wondered if his feelings for Eomer weren't stronger than he'd admitted. Would Tol want to stay in Rohan with his friend?

There was no time to consider it. Eomer came rushing in, his face pink with excitement, and began changing clothes. "I'm sorry to be late."

"How is your mother?" Frodo asked, wondering if his question was polite or rude.

"She is well enough, I suppose," Eomer said, his face twisting a little. "Her husband tried to keep me from seeing her, if you can believe that. Why Uncle Theoden listens to him I'll never understand..."

Tol looked at Frodo, just as open-mouthed with astonishment.

"But... you did see her, didn't you?"

"Yes, my sister heard me shouting. She snuck out the window and met me at the stable. Good old Erkenbrand lent me one of his finest horses, you know, so I'd been careful to wipe him down and find him a manger before I went to the house. Anyway," He paused, looking down to buckle the belt that held his scabbard and false sword, laughing a little as he always did at the too-light weight of it on his hip. "Eowyn snuck me in through the kitchens. Mother looked happy to see me alive. I think he'd been telling her I was dead in a ditch somewhere."

Tolbert stammered, "You have a sister? Eomer, you never said..."

"Yes, Eowyn is my younger sister. There's just the two of us -- well, there was just the two of us for many years. Now, it seems, mother is expecting a new little one, the spawn of that bastard..." He saw their faces and stopped. "I'm sorry. I can't see it as anything but that man seeking more power, though perhaps I'll feel different after it is born. If I were going to be here, which I'm not."

"You're not?" Once again, Frodo and Tol spoke as one, and Frodo knew his smile was also echoed on Tol's face.

"Of course not. I'm going to Gondor with you -- unless Bilbo is going to fire me." He pulled on the high boots he wore over his trousers, smiling at them, and Frodo found himself looking to see if there was some difference, some extra sparkle when he faced Tol. But, no. They were all friends, and Eomer's face was simply friendly. Frodo wondered if Tol felt that, as he did, like a blow to his stomach and a weight on his heart.

"I'd like to meet your sister," Tol said. "Do you suppose we'll be performing there?"

Eomer's face changed, and he looked white and a little sick. "No, of course not," he replied, but he looked uncertain. Frodo realized Eomer had never before considered that he would perform in front of his family, but of course Bilbo was planning to perform there. Edoras was on their way south, and if the King lived there, large numbers of people would be present: his servants and merchants and even soldiers. Bilbo wouldn't miss such an opportunity. But ... was Eomer so ashamed of what they did, then?

That made Frodo feel ill, too, thinking that someone like Eomer might look down on actors just as much as the people of the Shire or the hobbits of Staddle. Frodo had always been so proud of their work. Yet Eomer might see an actor -- particularly one who paraded around in a woman's dress -- as a fine chance companion, but not someone admirable or worthy of lo...

He wanted to talk to Eomer, to be reassured that he didn't think Frodo was trash. But if he did ... if Eomer admitted that here, in front of Tol and Frodo both, how could any of them perform? So Frodo kept silent, rouging his lips and wishing he could breathe deeply.

Bilbo came back in the room, hissing "Places!" and the show began. Except for the strange sound of the Rohan fiddle, it was just like a dozen other shows Frodo had done. Eomer, whatever his concerns, was word-perfect with his lines and quite fierce in his battle with Tol. Tol's evil innkeeper was booed enthusiastically, Bilbo and Frodo's songs were applauded, and when the show concluded with Frodo in Eomer's arms, the audience rose to their feet and stamped and shouted.

The post-show routine, however, was quite different. Erkenbrand immediately took to the stage with the cast as they bowed, and invited everyone present to walk back to his house for food and drink. And he herded the actors with him, not letting them change, so Eomer was still in his embroidered costume and Frodo was in his gown.

Bilbo was fretting a bit about the costumes. "Be careful as you eat and drink, lads. We don't want any accidents." But other than that, he seemed charmed by the man's hospitality and was obviously enjoying all the compliments showered on him as actor, author, and owner of the Revue.

While his attention was on Bilbo's conversations, a tall man with his face shielded by a hood came up beside Frodo. "Good evening. May I assist you to Erkenbrand's house?"

Frodo looked up. The man's voice was polite and cultured, but he was still wary of big people he didn't know. "Thank you, but I.. I don't need..." Just as he spoke, Frodo tripped in the darkness, almost falling flat on his face. He was saved from spoiling his costume only by the man's big hands grasping his shoulders and keeping him from the fall.

"Easy, miss." The man was still holding him, or Frodo might have fallen over again, jerking away from him. He thought-- well, of course, he was supposed to think that during the play. But... he really thought Frodo was a lass?

He indignantly said, "Let me go," and didn't bother adding "please" or any thanks for the assistance. In fact, he was about to say something very cutting -- just as soon as he could think of anything. He glared up at the tall man, wishing he had Bilbo's wits for just a few moments.

But the fool just looked down at him with a somewhat spoony expression on his face. "Your voice sounds very different here than it did in the show," the man said. "But you are equally beautiful whether by moonlight or lantern, Miss Frodo."

Without a word Frodo turned on his heel and stalked away, hoping to never again see this Rohirrim oaf. He stayed plastered between Eomer and Tol for the rest of the way, and when they reached the big house he clung to Bilbo's side so long that his cousin began to look concerned. He sent the man speaking with them to refresh their glasses of wine, then turned to Frodo.

"Are you still so nervous with the big people, Frodo, or is something else wrong?"

"I'm sorry, Bilbo. I'm not... I'm uncomfortable in these clothes, for one thing. You said to be careful, and I'm trying, but I'm afraid if I walk around or eat, I'll ruin these skirts."

"You must be warm in your wig, too. I could see how red your face was when we arrived. But there's nothing to be done just now, Frodo. We can't leave it in a bundle on the table -- you should keep it stretched on your head until we get back to the wagons and your wig-stand."

Frodo opened his mouth, but there was nothing to say. He was warm, uncomfortably laced-up, and desperately afraid that every man who spoke to him was assuming he was indeed a hobbit lass -- and heaven alone knew exactly what they wanted with a hobbit-lass!

Bilbo turned back to their host, and didn't even remember to offer Frodo one of the fresh drinks. He turned away, bored and tired and... there was a man staring at him from across the room. A very handsome man, older -- not as old as Doc, nor as Erkenbrand their host. But possibly Strider's age. He was shorter and sturdier-looking, with long pale hair much like Eomer's. Well, almost everyone in the room, male and female, looked a bit like Eomer.

And Frodo rudely staring back had evidently encouraged the man, for he was smiling and approaching. Frodo squirmed but there was no place to run.

"Good evening." The man stooped down, which was a mercy. "I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your performance this evening. I rode a long way to see this troupe of yours."

"Thank you," Frodo managed to squeak out. "I... Rohan seems very vast to me. I suppose I would think everyone in the audience came a long way to see us."

The man laughed at that, and Frodo decided he had nice teeth, though his eyes were still... thoughtful? "I'm Theodred of Edoras, and I believe your name is Frodo?"

"Frodo Baggins. Pleased to meet you, sir," Frodo said, but it seemed that the men of Rohan didn't stick out their hands to pump like the Breelanders did. Theodred just looked at his hand, as if confused, so Frodo hastily pulled it back.

"Is 'Rohan' the name your people give to The Mark, then?" he asked, and Frodo blushed. Surely he'd heard Eomer speak on this subject often enough to know better.

"I'm sorry, I do know that's not the proper name for your land. I've no excuse -- my people don't even know about lands this far south, much less have names for them. The men of Bree call this land Rohan, or at least, the Rangers do."

Theodred nodded. "Frodo, if you don't mind..." he began, but then Eomer and Tol walked past, laughing with some others, and when Eomer glanced toward Frodo, he stopped.

"Theo? Is.. How..?" And then the two of them were hugging, laughing even as Theodred kissed Eomer's face.

"I should have known you'd play the damned hero, Eomer. Though I don't blame you for wanting to rescue such a lovely lass as Frodo."

"I can't believe you rode here -- thank you." Eomer was glowingly happy, and Frodo knew he should be pleased. But he felt very much left out of it, and rather... jealous. He'd grown used to the idea of Tol having more with Eomer than he could ever claim. Now Frodo began to feel that everyone in Middle-Earth had more of Eomer's love.

Eomer looked down, and said, "Have you met Frodo, then? He's the only hobbit crazy enough to come here with Bilbo, and possibly the only one beautiful enough to portray an elf-maiden."

"We just introduced ourselves," Theodred said. "Though I tried to speak with him outside, earlier." Frodo blushed at that -- this was the same man he'd been so rude to? But Eomer was still speaking.

"Frodo, this is my cousin Theodred. Uncle Theoden's son, heir to the throne of The Mark, and pledged to my wildcat of a sister, should she ever grow out of her tomboy ways and become a woman."

Theodred was laughing at that. "Should she ever agree to the marriage, you mean. Even as a youngster she claimed I was too old and too stupid for her, and I fear her opinion has not changed."

Frodo laughed a little hollowly, though he was relieved to know this was a relative. But if Eowyn could marry her cousin, would being cousins keep Eomer and Theodred from being lovers? Or did they also make love without being in love, as Eomer would say? It almost didn't matter, really. Either way, Theodred was closer to Eomer than Frodo could ever be.

Frodo blamed the headache on his wig, and the pain made him restless and ready to leave. Tol wasn't in any hurry to go; he seemed to love the men of the Mark, and was laughing at their tales and flirting with their women-folk, too. Bilbo was at his happiest, singing songs with these men and telling stories. And Eomer... Eomer was home. Frodo saw the comfortable happiness in his beautiful eyes.

He decided to head back to the wagons alone, doubting any of the others would miss him. And he could get out of his stupid corset at last, and maybe really have something to eat before bed for a change, since they were all eating their fill courtesy of Erkenbrand. Frodo slipped out the front door, but stopped almost immediately. It was much colder than earlier, the wind howling over the flat plain carrying a definite chill. And it was very dark, clouds hiding the moon. What landmarks were there? None, no trees or rivers. Without the stars, how did these men or their horses know where to go?

He was looking around, thinking about just asking someone to show him back to the village, when the door opened behind him.

"Frodo? Are you leaving?"

Theodred. "I was thinking of finding my way back to our wagons," he admitted. "I'm sorry ... about earlier, being so rude. I was angry and embarrassed..."

"No need to apologize, Frodo. I..." he laughed but it didn't sound happy. "Perhaps my cousin Eowyn is correct, when she says I have no tender manners to woo a woman. Or, it seems, even to recognize a hobbit in woman's clothing."

"It was unreasonable of me. After all, I've done all this to make you think I am a female. Why be upset if the disguise works?"

"As soon as I saw you inside, in better light, I realized. Once you were no longer acting like a woman or speaking like one, it was obvious."

"Well, that's a relief," Frodo admitted, and then they both laughed.

"Now that we've both apologized, may I see you to your home? It's difficult to see on such a cloudy night."

"I'd appreciate that very much, Theodred." As they walked, Frodo warmed enough for comfort. Theodred asked about Eomer joining the troupe, but he didn't pry, accepting the simple answers Frodo gave.

"He's a wonderful actor," he said. "But of course he was being a real-life hero in Bree, so I think it all comes naturally to him."

"Eomer was a hero, you say? How?"

"He was assisting the Rangers in that land, and I saw him arrest one man with his sword..." Frodo trailed off, realizing he didn't want to speak of that day. But now Theodred was very interested.

"My little cousin used his sword on a man? Tell me more."

"Oh, well, I should let Eomer tell you the tale," Frodo said, relieved to see the buildings of the village looming up. "Can we get inside the hall? I need some of my things."

"Certainly. But where are you sleeping tonight, Frodo? Here in the village? I'm certain Erkenbrand intended for you to stay at his home, instead."

"I can sleep in the wagon," he said cheerfully, following Theodred around the building to the side door. "If it means being able to unlace this corset and take off my wig, I prefer the wagon to a featherbed."

Theodred laughed, pulling down one of the lamps and lighting it. Frodo realized if the man hadn't been with him, he'd never have reached it, and wondered if he'd have been able to find his way in the darkness.

Frodo carefully put up his wig and took off his gown, then washed his face and hair in the now-cold water he'd left backstage before the show. Then he turned to unlacing the tight corset, aware that Theodred was still there, sitting quietly and watching him.

"You're almost as thin without the corset as with it," he commented, making Frodo blush as he shook out the undergarments that protected him from the bone stays, which had been plastered to his skin with sweat.

"It's not normal for a hobbit, but I have to be able to fit my costumes," he admitted. "Most of us are built more like Bilbo."

"Until news came of this Revue of yours, I believed the holbytlan were only a legend, creatures out of a bard's song." Theodred looked him over, head to toe, while Frodo quickly moved to cover himself by slipping on his own shirt. "You're just as fair, in your own way, without the makeup or the moonlight," he said, not moving from his seat on the wardrobe trunk. But Frodo trembled and stepped further away, just the same. "It's strange to me that you seem so shy when off stage, Frodo. Though I must admit it's part of your charm."

"Theodred -- sir. I'm not trying to be charming. Please believe that... I..."

The man was on his feet and in two steps had closed on Frodo and laid his hands on his arms, pulling him close to him.

Frodo froze. This wasn't Ferny or his friends, it was Eomer's kinsman and the prince of this land. But that thought only led to more panic. If Frodo angered Theodred, would he arrest him? Or harm Bilbo? He was aware his thoughts sounded very much like one of Bilbo's story plots. But he knew nothing of these men, their customs or laws. Why hadn't Eomer spoken about such useful things while they traveled, instead of merely sharing stories of his father's battles with orcs and telling how he'd learned to ride their huge horses?

Theodred's face loomed close to Frodo's, his lips searching. Frodo managed to turn his head, and they grazed his cheek instead, and the tip of his ear.

"Please stop," Frodo whispered, and Theodred pulled back, looking surprised and somewhat confused.

He was still so close to Frodo that his eyes looked enormous as he asked, almost plaintively, "Are you afraid of me?" Frodo couldn't speak, but he must have answered for Theodred moved back, still not releasing him. The man seemed to be shaking, Frodo thought, until he realized it was his own tremors he felt. "I don't intend to harm you," Theodred said, sounding almost angry.

Frodo whimpered a bit, trying to curl up against the arms hold him upright.

"Frodo, what... just how old are you?"

The oddness of that question made Frodo answer without thinking. "Twenty-six. Twenty-seven in September."

"Not a child, then. Are you? Holbytlan seem very different from men," he muttered, his eyes searching Frodo's face. "When does a holbytla become an adult?"

"We .. come of age ... when we're thirty-three," he managed to say, though his breathing was as short as if he still wore the corset. "Theodred, can you please let me go?"

The man released him abruptly, but of course as soon as he did, Frodo fell over. He still backed away, scuttling without rising, toward the corner beneath the table. Theodred watched him, the puzzlement on his face giving way to what appeared to be anger. Frodo bit his lip, not wanting to cry before the man, but he couldn't stop the sobbing sounds of his breathing, or the fear that shook him.

"Frodo, who hurt you so?" Such a kindly question, asked in such a gentle voice, just made him sob aloud as he struggled to answer.

"In Bree... Eomer stopped... arrested..." Frodo struggled to find the right words, but somehow truths he'd never admitted poured out instead of an explanation. "Sometimes I wish he'd killed him."

Theodred's face was hard as he said, "I wish he'd killed the man, too. I -- Eomer said that the men of Bree live with holbytlan in their midst. Didn't the villain know how young you are?"

"He didn't care. They were drunk, the three of them..." Frodo was crying now, every moment of that day before him in memory, as if it had just happened. "I'm sorry. I know you're nothing like them."

"Not intentionally," Theodred admitted. "I am the one who should apologize, Frodo, once again. I misread the admiration you bear for Eomer, it seems. Now that I know what he did to help you -- well, the way you watch him is understandable."

That stopped Frodo's tears and brought him back to the present as none of Theodred's reassurances could have done.

"You-- You saw me watching him? Are you saying everyone can see how I feel about him?" Frodo gasped. "Oh, no--"

"I doubt very much that Eomer sees it," he said comfortingly. "But I would imagine the others know. I only watched you for a few hours tonight, and your feelings were clear to me, though I misunderstood what they meant." Theodred shook his head. "And that is why I must finish my apology, Frodo. I'm afraid there has always been a kind of rivalry between Eomer and me. A foolish rivalry, as he is so much younger. But -- well, again, I'm very sorry to have distressed you with my behavior."

Frodo nodded acceptance, but Theodred still stood as if waiting. Then Frodo realized he was still tucked under the table, curled in on himself. But the idea of moving seemed impossible, still.

"Shall I leave, Frodo? Will that make you more comfortable?"

"Oh--" he wanted to deny it was necessary, but he couldn't.

"I'll say good night to you then. I am pleased we met, Frodo. And, to be honest, a little disappointed, too." Theodred smiled, then, reminding Frodo how attractive he was. Enough like Eomer that Frodo might have encouraged him, if that day in Bree had never occurred.

"Theodred," he began, then suddenly asked "Should I call you Prince Theodred?" instead of finishing his original thought. Theodred laughed.

"Just my name is enough. Though I'll admit, if I thought the reminder of my station would make you feel safer in my presence, I'd exploit it."

Frodo blushed. "It's not you. I'm afraid of all Big People, just a little, though I hate myself for it."

"Why? Surely you have good reasons for fear."

"Reasons to fear and hate the men who assaulted me, yes." Frodo crawled out and stood beside Theodred. "But I was taught to look for the best in those around me, and I know it is wrong to harbor ill-will to a whole race of beings because of the actions of only three. But when I'm frightened... I can't listen to my reason, or control my behavior." He looked up at the man beside him. "I know you are a good person, nothing like those men."

Theodred looked almost sad as he replied, "I am more like them than I care to admit, for your beauty and desirability made me behave improperly." His big hand touched the side of Frodo's face lightly, just a glancing caress, and Frodo managed not to flinch. "You need time to heal, Frodo. I do understand that." Then he reached for Frodo's hand, and Frodo extended his.

Theodred raised the hand to his mouth, placing a kiss on it. "This is what I wanted to do earlier tonight," he admitted. "Your courage is as great as your beauty, Frodo. I'll leave you now. Sleep well."

Even hours later, as he tried to sleep, Frodo could feel the touch of those lips on his hand.

***

Frodo woke the next morning to the noise of the others returning. They'd evidently slept at Erkenbrand's home, as Theodred had said he intended to do. But Frodo was glad he'd stayed here, far from all the confusing men. And in his own guise, rather than in his foolish costume.

Bilbo had brought him breakfast: fresh rolls, sweet cheese, and apples. "You missed some fine eggs, my lad, prepared very nicely. But not exactly portable," he chuckled, amused as always by his own wit. Frodo was busy eating instead of being a good audience at the moment. He'd been too uncomfortable the night before to take much food, and despite his puny frame he still had a hobbit's appetite.

Eomer threw himself in the wagon beside Frodo, still in his costume from the night before. "Did you enjoy yourself at all last night, Frodo?"

He swallowed hastily to answer "Oh, yes. I ... just wish I didn't have to pay the women's parts, still. And... there was a man who thought I really was a hobbit lass, and that embarrassed me."

"Really?" Eomer laughed at that. "You can tell none of my people have seen the genuine article except me, can't you?"

Tol stuck his head over the side. "What's so funny?"

"I think someone in the crowd last night tried to court our Miss Frodo," Eomer joked, still laughing, and Tol joined him. But Frodo couldn't laugh about it. He'd been afraid, and not only then. But it wasn't something he could blurt out, either. He imagined saying your prince wanted me last night, even after he learned the truth, and he thought Eomer might hit him. Theodred was his beloved cousin, after all.

"Theodred said he had a nice talk with you," Eomer continued, and Frodo started. "He came back last night just as we were wondering where you'd gone to, and told us you wanted to get out of your wig."

"Yes, Bilbo was quite concerned about you. Though not as concerned as he's going to be if he sees you laying about in your costume, Eomer," Tol scolded.

"I'm coming, little nag," Eomer said, ducking as Tol tried to slap at his head. "Careful. The hero can't be bruised for our next performance."

"Go change, stinky hero!" Tol said, coming to sit in the place Eomer had just vacated. "Bilbo says we're going to Edoras next. And Eomer's family will all be there, Theodred says."

"Do you suppose he's nervous about that? About having them see him in the play?" Frodo asked, looking after Eomer.

"A little, I'd guess." Tol lay back in the wagon, an arm shielding his eyes. "I'm still tired. I don't think I've ever been up so late before."

"Rest, then," Frodo said, looking down at him. Tol seemed very young sometimes, and it was easy at such times for Frodo to overcome his jealousy. He didn't know what Tol wanted from Eomer, only what he had -- a physical relationship that, by itself, wouldn't satisfy Frodo. Somehow, he doubted Tol would remain content with having quick tumbles now and then. Tol seemed to have strong affections, and was lavish with showing love to everyone.

Soon Tol's breathing had evened out in sleep, and Frodo climbed down to find Bilbo. He was in the second wagon, also sound asleep. And Frodo assumed Eomer would be the same, wherever he'd landed. None of them were used to late parties.

He cleaned up their dressing room and moved everyone's goods back beside the wagons, careful not to disturb the others. Then he sat, staring at the mountains in the distance, daydreaming about the Shire. He'd posted his last letter back to Doc, to be forwarded to Sam, just before they'd crossed the Ford of the Isen. He wasn't sure he'd ever see Sam again. The further south Bilbo took him, the more dangers Frodo saw on all roads. And they'd been lucky to make it out of Bree unharmed.

Of course, here in Rohan they were probably safe. Eomer knew this land and could steer them out of any trouble. But Bilbo intended to keep going south, following the old road to Minas Tirith. Eomer didn't know anything about those lands, or the men who lived in that city. Frodo didn't even know if they'd understand the language. Already, here, he'd heard people speaking in a different tongue, like Theodred's use of another word for hobbits. But they understood well enough for the play, and that was all Bilbo seemed to think was important.

"Frodo?"

He jumped at Bilbo's voice. "Yes?"

"You seem sad, my lad. What's wrong?"

"I.. Bilbo, do I have to keep playing the women's parts? Surely Tol is young enough -- he has no beard yet."

"Frodo, can you imagine sword fighting with Eomer? People would laugh, not be frightened. And do you realize how short your dresses would be on Tol? Not that he isn't thin enough to wear them, but really."

Frodo closed his eyes and nodded. He'd asked an old, foolish question instead of telling Bilbo the truth, and it served him right that he was being treated like a simpleton. But how could he say "I want to go home?" He had no home except the one Bilbo had given him at Bag End. And he knew Bilbo wasn't ready to turn back north.

"I'm sorry. I'm just tired, I suppose."

"Of course you are, my lad. I'm the only one who feels the pull of the road, I think, and it makes me feel younger than you sometimes." He was staring off into the distance, but not to the northwest like Frodo had been. No, Bilbo's eyes were fixed south. "We're wasting time here. Oh, we'll perform for the king. You don't turn down even a prince of the land you're passing through, Frodo, remember that. But the people here are too scattered. We could spend years moving around to every little settlement, to tiny crowds that can barely pay us in food."

"You want to move south quickly, then, after this next performance?"

"Yes, that's the only way to go. Gondor is more civilized, my boy. We can play for a month in Minas Tirith and never have the same crowd twice."

"Is it like the Shire, then?" Frodo asked wistfully.

"Not at all," Bilbo chided. "It's a great white city of stone, set into the mountains. You've heard those stories before, Frodo. Where is your mind today?"

The only answer to that question would be to turn Bilbo's head from the southeast, where he was still staring, toward the Shire. Frodo's mind and his heart were both fixed on the land of his birth, which he feared would remain only a memory.

***

"Theo! Are you riding with us, then?" Eomer looked so very happy to see his cousin that Frodo tried to smile, too. It wasn't very convincing, he knew, even before he saw Tol's sharp glance.

"I'd like to, if your ponies don't set too fast a pace," Theodred said, laughing when Eomer made a face.

"These are some of the finest animals from the land of the Holbytlan, Theodred. Don't turn up your nose at them."

"It's difficult not to do that, when they're so very small," he replied. "But they do seem like fine sturdy creatures. Still, it wouldn't hurt to spare them a bit of the weight, particularly when we reach Edoras and they have to climb. Would you like to ride, Eomer?"

Frodo hadn't thought about how much Eomer might be missing the horses he grew up with until that moment. Eomer's eyes lit up and he -- and Tol, who probably had no more idea how to ride than Frodo did -- were soon on horses Erkenbrand was lending them for the trip to the Golden Hall of King Theoden. With much laughter, the cousins took off in a race over the wide open spaces to either side of the road, leaving the wagons far behind.

Frodo knew he was pouting, just a bit. He wasn't even offered a horse to ride; everyone assumed he'd be happy driving the wagon, plodding along behind Bilbo. It was what he seemed doomed to do for the rest of his days, and at the moment it felt almost unbearable.

Eomer and Theodred came flying back, and Eomer fell in beside Tol, advising him on how to hold his feet, his hands, and Frodo even heard some advice about how to sit. Riding seemed very complicated. But he would still have liked to try it...

Suddenly Theodred said to one of the older men riding beside him, "Wouldn't your back feel better sitting on that wagon, Galme?"

"I suppose it might, Theodred," the man admitted.

"Go on then. You can drive without pulling at your leg wound, can't you? Good. Then, Mr. Baggins, would you care to ride with me?"

Frodo stood, still holding the reins, frozen. "Ride -- with you?"

"I'm afraid you can't handle one of our horses alone. But my horse can bear us both, if you'll allow it."

Fear warred with a sudden, fierce desire to ride and feel the wind on his face, as the others were doing. "I'd like that very much, if it wouldn't inconvenience you, sir."

The man waited until he'd lifted Frodo onto the horse and climbed up behind him before whispering, "You know you may call me Theodred," in Frodo's ear, making him shiver. Then, as if reading Frodo's mind, he signaled to his mount and they, too, were racing along, the earth beneath the horse's strong legs nothing but a blur of color.

Frodo knew he was laughing, but he didn't realize how he'd thrown his head back, onto Theodred's chest, or how tightly he was holding on to the man's arms. Nothing about Frodo himself seemed important, only the joy of speed and the exhilaration of the living creature beneath him.

When Theodred finally pulled the horse to a stop, Frodo's laughter turned to tears that he hid as he bent forward to stroke the animal's neck. "That was... wonderful," he managed to say, hoping his voice sounded normal.

"You feel the same call all men of the Mark do, I think, for the freedom of the road."

"Oh, no." Frodo settled back in the saddle, against Theodred's chest. "At least, not usually. Most days I just want to go home, and settle in some nice smial and never travel again."

"Smial? Is that your word for a house?"

"Well, yes, except that we don't build houses like you do. In the Shire, we build tunnels into the hills of our land, and those are our homes. Very comfortable, you know, with lovely fireplaces and nice, soft upholstered chairs. Not like life on the road at all."

"Yet it seemed when we were galloping that you longed for nothing more than escape from all the everyday things of your life."

"Oh... I suppose that's the Took in me, coming out at last. I want both, I suppose, though I know it's impossible." He suddenly realized how close they were sitting; how the man's body pressed against him and the strong arms encircled him. "And this horse -- what is her name?"

"His name is Brallo."

Frodo bent forward again, petting the horse. "Brallo, thank you for carrying me so far and so well."

When he sat back, he wasn't surprised to feel Theodred's arms close about him, nor the brush of lips on his head. Somehow, out here in the daylight, feeling lips move to his neck didn't make him panic. Instead, Frodo turned and let Theodred kiss him.

It was even more thrilling than he'd imagined. The man's lips were soft, as was his fine beard. His strength could be felt in the hard muscles of the arms Frodo clung to -- but that strength was carefully measured against him, holding him loosely enough so he could relax while supporting him in the saddle. And that mouth -- it was pulling sensations from Frodo, up from his toes, it felt.

Just as Theodred broke off the kiss, whispering, "Sweet Frodo," there was a shout and suddenly Eomer was pounding up beside them.

"Theo, what the hell are you doing?" he hissed. "Frodo, are you all right?"

Frodo blinked, confused, then tried to smile. "I'm fine, Eomer. Theodred took me for a ride."

"I can see that. Theo, he's not some toy for you to steal."

"Cousin, watch your tongue. I'm well aware of Frodo's age, his feelings -- and I wasn't doing anything he didn't want. Was I, Frodo?"

"No," he replied, though he wasn't sure if that was true. He hadn't expected the kiss, not until it was actually happening. Then, it felt inevitable, and perfectly right. But now he was shaking in reaction.

Tolbert was riding up, and some of the other horsemen, too. Frodo was blushing, he could feel the flush on his face, and hoped his first kiss wasn't about to become a topic of general discussion. But Eomer rode up, mastering his horse though it was reluctant to move so close to Brallo, and he simply snatched Frodo out of Theodred's arms. He had Frodo settled in front of him on his saddle before Frodo even realized what was happening.

Then they were riding away, Tolbert following, back to the wagons and Bilbo, and their destination far ahead.

***

Despite asking Eomer questions about his family all the way to Edoras, while happily perched before him, Frodo wasn't ready for the whirlwind that was Eowyn. When she first appeared, joking with Theodred and cheerfully insulting Eomer, it was several minutes before Frodo realized who she was -- or that she was a she. Instead of being outfitted like one of their dainty stage princesses, Eowyn was in ratty men's clothing, her hair tied back in a tail and her face smudged with dirt, and she rode as if dragons were chasing her.

"This is my sister, Frodo, difficult as it is to believe in her femininity," Eomer's introduction had them all laughing. "Eowyn, this is Tolbert Thistle, from Combe, and this is Frodo Baggins. He comes from a land up north called the Shire."

"I've never met a holbytla before," she said, nodding at him. Then she turned to Tol, who blushed fiercely under her frank stare.

"M'am," he managed to say, and Eowyn laughed.

"Don't try to treat me like some girl," she said, turning away from him. "Frodo, you seem to have some sense. Would you like to ride with me for a while?" she asked, and he didn't know what to answer. "I smell better than my brother or any of this rabble."

"I.. I'm sure you speak the truth, my lady," Frodo managed. "But your riding is rather ... astonishing for a novice such as myself."

"What, holbytlan don't have enough sense to hold on to a mane?" She laughed. "Well, I can see what's pulling your wagons. Perhaps you wouldn't be comfortable with me." Then she dug her heels into her horse's side and was off, a flash of golden hair and a loud voice calling to some other riders.

"She's... she's beautiful, Eomer," Tol said slowly.

"But crazy as a moon-struck owl," Eomer said. "Don't be hurt by anything she says. She's very young, you know, not yet seventeen. Her mouth runs ahead of her thoughts most of the time."

When they finally reached Edoras they bid Erkenbrand and his men, and their noble beasts, farewell. Eowyn stayed nearby while they were all busy with duties, preparing for the show the following night. They would perform in the Golden Hall high up the hill, a place called Meduseld, if Frodo understood Eomer. Eowyn's home was up there, too, and the rest of Eomer's family.

But as visitors, and not very warmly welcomed ones, they were instructed they would be sleeping right beside the gates to the city. Frodo thought the room was more than comfortable, but he could see Eomer felt it as an affront that he wasn't welcomed in his stepfather's house, nor were his friends.

The worst part of the day was carrying the stage properties and sets up the hill, a slow process of walking alongside one of the wagons with both ponies hitched to it. The people of Edoras were very curious, both about hobbits and their animals, and some were bold enough to come forward to touch them. A boy no taller than Frodo came up and pulled at the hair on his feet while he was trying to guide Meadow around a rock.

When they finished unloading, Frodo wanted nothing more than to leave the wagon where it was, and to stable their animals in the beautiful barn just a short distance away. But the guards stationed there told them to move along and be quick about it, as no one from the king's household was offering any hospitality to them. Theodred had vanished when they first arrived, and Eowyn could not speak for her uncle or her mother.

"May we unhitch the wagon and leave it here tonight?" Frodo had to ask, though he felt certain of the answer.

"No. Go back where you belong," the guard said, and they all sighed, resigning themselves to another trip up that steep hill with the ponies pulling the cart. Though it turned out that going down was worse. The empty cart had to be held back, so it didn't push the animals down the hill too fast. Bilbo took the reins, and it took the rest of them to drag on the cart and keep it slowed. By the time they reached their camp, Frodo's feet were bruised and even bleeding a bit where he'd run into more rocks.

"Here, Frodo, let me help you with that." Tol was definitely Doc's son, Frodo thought, smiling as he sat back and let his friend examine the cut on his foot, then clean and bandage it for him. And Tol was his friend, a good one, despite the jealousy Frodo felt at times.

"You seem to like Lady Eowyn," Frodo observed, just to watch Tol's face turn pink again.

"She is ... so different from other girls I've known."

"And beautiful," Frodo added, and Tol nodded.

"Beautiful even though you can tell she doesn't give a fig how she looks. So many girls run around all prissy and primping, and she just pulls back her hair and rides out into the sun..." He signed, his eyes far away. "She has freckles, Frodo, tiny freckles."

He smiled and looked away. Tol was definitely spoony about her, and how could that be a bad thing? Surely it meant his heart wouldn't be broken if Eomer loved another... Frodo closed his eyes, remembering how it felt to have Eomer holding him so protectively. But then he remembered Theodred's big brown eyes, looming close just before he kissed him, and a wave of heat suffused Frodo's body, making him gasp a little.

"Sorry. Did I hurt you?"

"Oh, no, not at all Tol. I was just remembering ... something I forgot." Tol looked confused at that ridiculous response, but didn't press for further answers, and Frodo smiled gratefully.

And if for the rest of that afternoon, as they bartered for food at the marketplace, Frodo's eyes were scanning the crowds of tall men, looking for one face, no one chided him for his inattention.

***

He'd always prided himself on his ability to communicate with other races, but Bilbo had never before met Big Folk who were so very unpleasant.

He still felt perfectly comfortable, of course. Why should a hobbit of good family be uncomfortable meeting anyone -- even a surly king? Particularly when said hobbit had fed those destined to be dwarven kings at his table, and known Bard the Bowman when he was still a commoner. This King Theoden was just a man, after all, who put his trousers on one leg at a time like any hobbit.

"Your majesty," Bilbo politely offered, bowing low. Theoden nodded, but didn't deign to praise their performance. Well, the king did have a line of guests to receive. Bilbo moved back, trying not to feel offended.

Eomer's mother Theodwyn and her husband Grima were waiting nearby. Bilbo turned to them with a sigh, knowing he must be polite. The poor woman looked twice her age, was uncomfortably swollen with child, and over all that she seemed uncertain and awkward despite her velvet finery. Well, she wasn't the first to find she'd made a bad bargain in a marriage, though Bilbo knew many who carried their burdens more gracefully. Still, Bilbo felt a twinge of sympathy for her as Grima pounced on him in a most unbecoming manner.

"Master holbytla, your ... fantasy was quite entertaining," Grima breathed. Bilbo managed to stay in place and not take the step backwards that the man's close proximity seemed to demand. He deliberately turned as charming as he could manage, determined to handle him just as he would have confounded the Sackville-Bagginses in such a situation.

"I'm so glad you enjoyed our performance, sir. We aim to entertain and divert, and perhaps leave a thought or two with our audience as well."

"Ah, yes, the 'moral' of the story. I've heard that's still done in other lands. Our bards have found that if they insist on inserting such pesky things in their tales, they will find their audiences much smaller."

Bilbo looked at him. "Really? The fashion of the court, I suppose. Most of the men of the Mark I've encountered value friendships, love, loyalty, and honesty."

Theodwyn looked away, blushing, and Grima's face turned an even more unbecoming shade of white. "Yes, well. I see that despite our many shortcomings, all so kindly pointed out by you, we've attracted notice from afar. That messenger speaking to the King is from Isengard, if I'm not mistaken."

"Isengard," Bilbo repeated, remembering the sight of the black stone tower in the distance as they'd traveled. He'd avoided it, telling himself there was no audience there for a performance. When Frodo had asked why they didn't travel that way, Bilbo had told him that Saruman was no doubt wandering Middle-earth the same way Gandalf did, and that no wizard would appreciate nosy hobbits poking around his property.

Now Frodo was speaking with Theodred, smiling and blushing like a rose. The prince was certainly polite, whatever his father's attitude. Was it only snobbery, or something more? Bilbo looked at Eomer, talking with his sister and Tol. Eomer was a fine young man, and must have been raised to be something more than a wandering actor. Perhaps that alone accounted for the King's dour expression and their lackluster reception.

"Ah." When Grima spoke, Bilbo realized the messenger had turned and was seeking someone. Bilbo glanced around, but no one was nearby, so it seemed the man was seeking out their group.

He walked straight up to Bilbo and gave a small bow, saying, "Master Baggins? Theoden King kindly directed me to you. I bring a message from my master, Saruman the White. He wishes your troupe to come to Isengard, to perform for him, when you conclude your performances here at Edoras."

Bilbo was left speechless for a moment, torn between pride and annoyance. His hand crept to his waistcoat pocket as he pondered how to diplomatically answer the man.

"I'm very sorry, but we cannot head northwest at this time. We are traveling south, to Gondor."

"But my master would very much like to see the stage shows he has heard so much about," the man insisted, looking vexed. "He offers you this, as an incentive," and there was a bulging purse danging from his fingers. When Bilbo made no movement to touch it, the man impatiently jerked it open, showing the gold within.

"I thank Saruman and honor his wisdom in all matters. But it is impossible. We are bound to travel south."

For a moment the man just stood staring at Bilbo, astonished. Then he composed himself, bowed, and said, "I hope you have no cause to regret your course, sir." He walked away and Bilbo turned to face two even more amazed looks. Theodwyn's mouth was hanging open, and Grima looked ready to cry, his hands clutching as if to forcibly stop the messenger. From what Eomer had told Bilbo, his mother's husband cared a great deal for money. Grima wouldn't have refused that purse.

"Well." Bilbo smiled broadly at them. "My lady, will there be dancing this evening?"

"Dancing?" He'd actually managed to startle her into speech, but she seemed to have frightened herself by talking. Grima was glaring at them both.

"Why on earth would there be dancing here?" he asked disdainfully.

"Well, there are a number of beautiful ladies," Bilbo said with a smile, nodding at Theodwyn. "And an even greater number of dashing lords to partner them. This hall is certainly large enough for eight or ten couples to stand up, and a little music would cheer some of the gloom. Don't you agree?" He knew he was putting Theodwyn on the spot, even as he leered charmingly. She blushed and stammered without actually agreeing.

"We've had enough of such cheer this evening, with your ... revue," Grima said, putting more contempt into the seemingly polite words than Bilbo could have imagined. He didn't bother replying, just though about re-writing some of his villains, and hoped the smile on his face covered the coldness he felt toward these people. Grima -- well, he understood why Eomer blamed Grima for everything bad in life. But he was a commonplace avaricious and insensitive creature. Lady Theodwyn was the one who shocked him. How had such a weak-willed woman borne children like Eomer and Eowyn?

"Bilbo, Theodred asks that you speak to him for a moment."

"Certainly, Frodo my lad. Excuse us." Bilbo firmly steered Frodo away with him; he was glad to escape but wasn't going to make his boy pay for it.

Frodo giggled when they were far enough away. "I believe you owe Theodred a recipe for ale now."

"I'll gladly pay it! Whew. I'm as sociable as the next hobbit, but this evening is truly draining me, my boy." He pulled a colorful handkerchief from his pocket and swabbed at his face. "Thank you, Frodo -- and you, Prince Theodred."

"Ah, Master Baggins, I'd hoped we no longer needed titles between us. Frodo calls me Theodred. Won't you?"

"I'd be happy to do so," Bilbo smiled. "Your father seems quite tired."

"He is always tired, of late. I'd like to take him out for a good gallop with his knights, to visit the Eastfold and remember how our people live. But Grima has convinced him he must lean on his advisors and knights instead, ignoring his subjects to 'preserve his strength' for the many cares that weigh on him."

"King Theoden is too young to require such coddling," Bilbo agreed.

"He is. He was. This constant brooding has drained his strength."

Eomer had silently joined them as they spoke, and he added, "My uncle has aged ten years in the year since I left."

Bilbo nodded sagely, but had nothing to say. He had no idea how such an unpleasant man had become a trusted advisor to this king, and if his own son couldn't overcome Grima's influence, it seemed a hopeless case. He glanced at Tol and saw he was talking animatedly with Eowyn, a slight smile on his face.

"Have you been matchmaking, Eomer lad?"

"No! Well... not really. I just found a topic I knew would appeal to both of them," he said with a smile. "If I may ask, what business did Saruman's man have with you, Bilbo?"

"He wanted us to backtrack, to perform for the wizard at Isengard."

"Truly?" Frodo looked excited at the thought, and Bilbo remembered how many questions he'd asked about the tower and the wizard as they traveled in that land. "Can we? Do you suppose -- might Gandalf be visiting? You said they're both from the same order of wizards, didn't you? They must know each other."

"I'm sure they do, though I doubt Gandalf the Grey is there. He doesn't stay in one place for long, Frodo."

"I know." Frodo had wanted to meet Gandalf for years, possibly since he first heard the story of Bilbo's adventure to the Lonely Mountain. "But... oh, Bilbo, to meet a wizard! How exciting."

"I've no doubt you will meet one someday, but not today. I told them we're heading south, to Gondor." Frodo deflated before his eyes, and Bilbo knew he should feel badly about it. He loved Frodo dearly. He'd do anything for the boy... but not this. His hand crept to his pocket as he continued, "No doubt we'll be back this way some day, Frodo."

It was plain as if Frodo had spoken the words that he didn't believe Bilbo, but Frodo tried to smile. Theodred was frowning slightly, his concern plain. But Eomer had stepped between the prince and Frodo, and was speaking.

"You know it's true, Frodo. We'll have to come back this way so I can get home eventually." He playfully shoved Frodo's shoulder, and Bilbo was glad to see Frodo's smile grow more genuine.

One of the guards pounded a long, heavy staff on the stone floor of the hall, and the crowd's conversation died. The King was rising, rather slowly, as if his back were stiff. Grima was standing to the side of him, not offering support, but watching him intently.

"Theoden King speaks," the guard intoned loudly, and you could hear a pin drop in the big room.

"Welcome to my subjects and to our spectacle-producing visitors from the north. These are strange times, as we meet those of the holbytlan race and those Eorl the Young left behind him in the far north." It occurred to Bilbo that none of the king's words were exactly friendly-sounding, though they weren't openly hostile, either. Grima was smiling -- that had to bode ill.

"Tonight we welcome back my sister-son, Eomer son of Eomund, and hope that he has grown up enough during his truancy in the northlands to face his responsibilities. Eomer, there is an eored of men awaiting your command in the East Emnet."

There was polite applause at this announcement, but Eomer looked as stunned as Bilbo felt. Eomer had announced his intention to travel to Minas Tirith to his mother and her husband; he'd told Bilbo that yesterday. Surely they would have told the king... but as Bilbo looked at Grima's face, so calm but with hatred burning in his eyes for everything Eomer represented, he knew the truth. This was a deliberate attempt to make trouble between Eomer and his uncle. Even, perhaps, between Eomer and Theodred. How long would his cousin be pleased to have Eomer shirking duties to which he'd been chained for so many years?

Frodo had figured it out; the dismay on his face as he looked from one man to another was clear. Tol and Eowyn were with them, too, and Eowyn had laid her hand on Eomer's shoulder, which he covered with his own before stepping forward.

"My lord King," Eomer began. "Nothing will please me more than taking up my father's duties, when my own obligations have been fulfilled. However, I have pledged my time to the Baggins Revue, and until we return from Gondor..."

The King cut him off. "Do you pretend this ... frivolity you partake of is more important than the defense of your homeland?"

"No, my lord. But you want men of honor serving you..."

"Men of honor are those who protect their home and obey their liege lord, boy!" Theoden thundered, and for the first time Bilbo saw the king instead of the cranky old man he was rapidly becoming.

"My lord..." Eomer faltered, then shot a wild look at Bilbo. Well, it wasn't the first time he'd stepped forward into danger, even if this seemed more tricky than sneaking up on a dragon.

"I believe Lord Eomer is merely trying to tell you he is under contract to me, King Theoden, and feels bound by that obligation. However, I understand your feelings on this matter. It sounds to me like you have dangerous borders to defend, and I can see where a fine young man might be needed here for business more important than that of my troupe. Still, a contract is a contract," Bilbo was doing his best to seem bumbling and unthreatening, but the king's face was still very red and angry.

"Perhaps if the holbytla explained this idea of a 'contract'," Grima whined. "Men of the Mark are bound by their word."

"Ah, yes, but people in my land rely on reading and writing, and we have a contract." Bilbo pulled out a script from his pocket and made a great show of paging through it. "Ah, right here. 'I, Eomer son of Eomund, hereby bind myself to the Baggins Revue for the period of twelve months, beginning 12 Forlithe Shire Reckoning 1394."

Eomer's eyes were closed, his face suffused with relief, and Frodo's eyes looked likely to pop out of his head, while Tol just looked confused. Then Eowyn stepped forward.

"Uncle, you cannot ask Eomer to break a sworn vow, even one that is forged in such a foreign manner."

"He had no right to bind himself in such a fashion."

"Say instead he had no choice, your majesty, for without such assurances I would not have given him a place on my wagons, and the time and training necessary for him to become an actor." Bilbo tried to look as officious as possible, his arms crossed and one hand tightly clutching the script. "I've altered costumes, fed him the inordinate amounts of food you big folk eat..." Tol choked at that, but they were actors and not one of them dropped the cue.

"When I am again free, nothing will please me more than to return to your service, my lord King," Eomer said humbly.

"I am not pleased at this, Eomer, though it seems I have no choice unless I wish to dishonor one of my kin and one who should be a leader among my Riders." He stared at them all for a moment, then turned away, saying, "Be gone immediately, and do not come back until you are free to serve The Mark."

That was a command that was easy to obey. They moved quickly, gathering their materials with relieved faces. Tol and Eomer ran to get the wagon and both ponies, and Theodred accompanied them. Eowyn remained, offering her assistance with packing. They all managed to get their properties and set pieces quickly loaded without drawing much attention, only to face the worst part of their ignominious departure: the trip back down the steep hill with the full wagon, all of them straining to keep it from tumbling off the road. At least Theodred's familiarity with the road kept them from any mishaps in the darkness.

Finally it was done and they were at the gate of the city, both wagons properly loaded and the horses hitched and well watered for the trip.

Eowyn was crying as she hugged her brother and said farewell to him, but she was calm by the time she reached Bilbo and surprised him with an embrace. "You've saved his life. Grima wants him to be killed, as my father was, by the orcs of the East Emnet." She pulled back to look him straight in the eyes. "Thank you, Bilbo Baggins."

"You're most welcome, my lady Eowyn. I wish... I hope that your days here are more pleasant in the future."

Even more disturbing than the bleakness in her face was watching Theodred with Frodo, the two of them shifting uncomfortably as they spoke words of farewell. Bilbo wanted to tell them to just kiss and get it over with, but with Eomer watching, his eyes burning, perhaps that wouldn't be wise. They did embrace, in the end, but then Eomer was beside them, offering to help Frodo onto the cart. At least Tol got a hug from Eowyn, too, which made him look more cheerful despite being unwelcome to remain in her homeland.

They were silent as they drove out, seeking a safe place to camp far away from the city walls. Bilbo wanted to make a joke, but couldn't think of anything funny about the situation. He knew he was the only one feeling relief as the horses turned southeast and the road stretched before them.

***

It took four days of travel to be halfway to what Eomer called the Mering Stream, and Tol was uneasy almost the entire time.

It was partly homesickness, he could admit that to himself. He was completely out of touch with his father now, as the rangers' message boxes weren't to be found along this route. Tol hated to think it, but dad was old now. Oh, he'd always been health enough, unlike Ma. But Dad was almost sixty now. What kind of son left his aging father merely to chase adventures and see more of the world?

Much as he hated to admit it, Tol had done just that. He'd never be an actor. He managed his duties, just as Eomer did, but they didn't have the skills Bilbo and Frodo so effortlessly displayed. Besides, the longer he did this, the sillier it seemed. Play-acting wasn't something for grown men to dedicate all their efforts and attention to doing. Perhaps it was different for the hobbits, coming from the peaceful Shire. But when Tol thought about Eomer's people, surrounded by enemies and danger -- well, they'd tricked the king into letting Eomer leave, but Theoden had told the truth. Defending Rohan was far more important work than anything Eomer was presently doing.

Tol doubted Bilbo would agree with his conclusions, though. And that was yet another cause of unease. Bilbo was odder with each mile that passed. He hardly seemed like the same easygoing, happy hobbit who'd lived in their home those weeks while Frodo healed.

At least Frodo seemed to be changing for the better. He was more relaxed since Edoras, though perhaps not truly happier. Like Tol, Frodo didn't want to go further toward the shadow land that bordered Gondor. None of Bilbo's cheerful descriptions of Minas Tirith hid the fact that it was a fortress city, facing the might of Mordor. And if the orcs of that black land still raided Rohan's East Emnet, there would only be more of them in the lands ahead. No one with common sense would willingly travel to such dangerous places.

"Eomer," he said softly, hoping the hobbits in the other wagon wouldn't overhear him. "Do you hear someone behind us?"

"All I can hear is our ponies and the squeak of the wagon wheels. Why would anyone be following us, Tol? The dangers lurk ahead, as far as I can tell. When we cross the Mering, we will enter Gondor. Despite our old alliance, I don't believe they're friendly to travelers and strangers these days."

"Well, I can understand why," Tol said. "Living with that on their borders--" He nodded to the dark range of mountains far ahead. Though so distant, they were still ominous. It was more difficult each day to push forward, in the face of that threat.

"Yes," Eomer agreed.

"It's time to find a place to camp for the night, lads," Bilbo called. "Perhaps you can do some hunting while there's still light. Our supplies are low."

Tol snickered a bit at that. Bilbo always said the supplies were low. Hobbits.

"Right," Eomer called, and they moved closer to the other wagon so Eomer and Bilbo could compare ideas on what would be a good camp. There needed to be water, of course, for them and for the ponies. Trees for shelter might be nice, too. It had been a long time since they'd left the forests surrounding Bree behind for rocky, more open lands where the wind felt like a slap in the face.

They finally settled on a level spot where some rocks and a few sparse trees provided some shelter, and while Frodo built a fire and Bilbo prepared food, Tol joined Eomer in seeking game. He couldn't remember seeing many animals while they drove, but surely there were coneys in the brush. They both had bows, though Eomer was a much better shot. It had always been a game, for Tol, not a necessity when the Combe market had meat and he had ample coins. Thinking about that made Tol realize that at least he was learning on this journey, and he hoped such lessons would stay with him even if he eventually settled back in Combe to a quiet life with his father.

They returned to camp hours later, with coneys and a bird Tol had managed to shoot down.

"Excellent work," Bilbo said cheerfully, and Tol did feel better when he smelled their stew cooking and Frodo handed him a bowl of berries in exchange for the coneys. Hobbits excelled at finding food, and that was a comfort so far from home.

Still, as he sat with Eomer sharing the fruit, his sense of unease grew again. Tol felt there were eyes on him, on all of them. And the sensation didn't come from the east, though he'd tried to tell himself it must.

Bilbo walked past to stir the pot and Tol quietly called him closer. "Have you seen any other travelers in this land?" he asked in a low voice.

"No," Bilbo answered at the same time that Frodo said "Yes" very matter-of-factly.

"You have?" Eomer's voice was sharp, and he and Bilbo both looked as concerned as Tol felt. "When?"

"Oh, for days now. Someone is on the road behind us, and they're in no hurry, either, for you know how often we've stopped early to hunt or wandered a bit off the trail, looking for food. Yet they still haven't passed us." He looked at them more closely when he finished and finally saw their alarm. "What? Why shouldn't there be others using this road to go south?"

"There may be other chance travelers headed to Minas Tirith, Frodo, but it sounds as if these folk don't wish us to see them. Why else stay carefully behind us, out of sight?

"But... they're not being stealthy. They've had a fire each night," Frodo protested.

"Where have you seen this?" Eomer asked. "I've seen no one behind, nor other fires."

Frodo blushed a little. "I don't sleep very well," he admitted. "Sometimes I go for a walk, just to relax. I can see our fire for a good long way -- and I saw the one behind us, too. For three nights, now."

Bilbo looked at Eomer, who nodded in response. The old hobbit turned back to them and said, "Frodo, we're going to see who this is, later tonight. Eat now, quickly, then rest, all of you. We'll go find their camp when they believe we're sleeping as usual."

The words were bad enough, but Bilbo's next action made Tol sick with apprehension, for he went to the wagon he generally drove and removed a sheathed sword from under the seat, and tucked it inside his coat before returning to the fire. Once he sat down to eat, he slid the sword under a blanket, within easy reach.

Tol couldn't eat, though Bilbo pressed him to try. "You'll need your strength and wits later, and you'll be glad then if your belly isn't complaining."

Frodo, too, seemed distracted, playing with his bowl without actually reducing the amount of food inside it. But they managed to go through the motions and pretend to talk in case they were being observed. Certainly Bilbo being more gregarious than the rest of them wasn't at all unusual.

When they finally climbed into their bed rolls as usual, it was a great relief to be silent. Of course, every noise in the night, even the normal animal calls, seemed startlingly loud and ominous. Tol's breathing seemed to echo, and he wondered if the others felt the same. His heart pounded against his chest though he tried to relax.

Finally Bilbo silently rose and gave the signal for them to follow him. The hobbits were so quiet, even on uncertain ground in the darkness -- they could probably get closer to the other camp without discovery. But that wouldn't be enough, despite Bilbo's tales of his youthful adventures -- which Tol wasn't positive he truly believed, despite the sword now hanging at Bilbo's waist. If there were enemies ahead, Tol and Eomer would be needed to help the hobbits. At least Eomer had a sword, too, and knew something about how to use it.

They rounded a hillock and Tol saw the other camp fire, which appeared quite bright in the inky blackness, though it was probably banked down for the night like theirs. Tol was again struck with remorse for not speaking of his unease days ago. He shouldn't have convinced himself that he was being foolish. These pursuers would have been easy to spot. But instead Frodo had been out here alone, unaware he could be facing danger. It made Tol's stomach lurch just thinking of it.

They crept closer, keeping together as Eomer scanned the area around them continually. There was no sign of others, no lookout. But why would there be? They certainly hadn't thought to post a night watch, either. Still, it made Tol more hopeful that these were truly just fellow-travelers from who they had nothing to fear.

In fact, as they moved even closer, it seemed there was only one figure bundled in a bedroll by the fire, and only one horse tied nearby. Fortunately the animal was far enough that they wouldn't startle it into betraying their approach.

Bilbo signed at them to move back and they obeyed, regaining some distance from the fire.

"It's just one person," he whispered. "Should we leave them in peace?"

Frodo nodded eagerly, but Eomer shook his head. "There is no regular trade or traffic to Gondor through these parts," he insisted softly. "For our safety, we must be certain there is no threat on our heels."

Bilbo sighed. "You're right, of course. It could be Saruman's man, the messenger I refused... perhaps he has followed us, intending to persuade us to accompany him to Isengard."

"Force us, you mean?" Frodo asked.

"I don't know. I can't imagine Saruman ordering such a thing. Not if he's at all like Gandalf. But his man -- he struck me as a bit of a ruffian, actually, despite his fine clothes and courtly manners."

"He reminded me of Grima," Eomer agreed, then looked dumbstruck. "Do you suppose--?"

"I don't know, lad. All that's certain is that Grima has your uncle's ear. You'd best watch your step when you decide to go home. We didn't endear the King to your current profession."

"No, we didn't." Eomer sounded grim. "I'm going to see who this is."

"We'll all go," Tol said, and Frodo agreed, while Bilbo actually drew out his sword.

"It's not a servant of the Enemy," Bilbo stated, though Tol didn't understand how he could know that for a fact.

"Come, then."

They crept back, silently as they could manage, and the bundled figure remained motionless. When they were in place around the fire, surrounding him, Bilbo spoke again, loudly.

"Hoy, show yourself, stranger."

At the words the blanket exploded, a figure jumping to its feet, sword in hand. Tol saw the spill of golden hair, but still didn't understand until Eomer dropped his blade, crying, "Eowyn!"

It was Eowyn, in men's clothing and a rough hooded cape. Eomer continued, "What on... why are you here?"

"Eomer, I..." She looked uncomfortable for a moment, then proudly threw her head back and said, "I've run away from home."

"You can't."

"But I have. I want to join the troupe, as you've done, and perform."

"Noooo," her brother whined, and she replied, "Oh yes" quite smugly.

It all suddenly struck Tol as very funny. They sounded like the children they'd once been, 6 and 10 years old -- not like two adults who'd just been ready to fight for their lives.

Their bickering and the great relief Tol felt at finding a friend made him snort. Then he choked off a chuckle, while Eomer and Eowyn glared at him. He turned, catching Bilbo's eye -- and then the two of them were laughing, doubled over with relieved mirth.

"Bilbo," Eomer said plaintively. "It's not funny. She cannot stay here--"

"No, you're right. She must come with us."

"She should go home!"

"You'd send her so far alone, unchaperoned? No, it can't be done. And we don't have time to backtrack, either. The only thing to do is pack her bedroll in our wagon and bring her along. Though I do hope, my dear, you've brought more clothing than these rags. We don't exactly have a wide range of costumes in your size."

Tol was still grinning madly, watching Eomer fume and Bilbo fuss and Eowyn glow with triumph. He looked over to see if Frodo was sharing the fun, but the hobbit looked very thoughtful. Well, it would mean more work for Frodo, altering costumes and teaching Eowyn her role. Her role? What would be left for Frodo to do if Eowyn performed the female roles he'd always handled?

Tol felt his happiness drop away. He wanted her here, of course. There was no one he admired more than Eowyn, and now he would have a chance to truly become acquainted with her. But ... Frodo was his friend, a good friend. For that matter, he wasn't sure if Eomer would truly resign himself to this. Or, for that matter, how Eomer would feel about any friendship he developed with Eowyn.

It felt as if the world was changing too quickly, and in this one day Tol had become an adult. But, unlike his childish dreams of being grown and finally knowing everything, reality was full of dilemmas with no easy answers.

***

"You sing beautifully, Eowyn. Bilbo was very wise to write a new role for you, and have you sing during the break."

Frodo overheard Tol's quiet remark and smiled to himself as he stitched at her costume. Eowyn, no doubt ducking away from Tol's adoration as usual, came walking past and looked down at him with dismay.

"I'm so sorry you have to do all this extra work, Frodo. I wish my mother had placed more importance on learning such skills."

"Don't worry. It's quiet and relaxing. And if I get bored, Tol will read to me, if I ask him."

"Good." She smiled, but looked embarrassed. "I... well, you know I can't read. But I can sing, if you'd like. Or tell some simple stories, not as elaborate as the bards' versions." When he smiled she plopped down beside him crosslegged, somehow graceful despite her disregard for proper behavior. She began a song, something sweet and sad in her language. Because he couldn't understand the words, Frodo let his thoughts roam as the melody lightened the work of his hands.

Eowyn knew how to embroider. She'd already offered to add such decorations to all the costumes, once they reached Minas Tirith and could find the colorful threads sold for that kind of work. But she hadn't been taught plain sewing, for her family had servants to attend to such work.

Well, Frodo might have grown up the same, if fate hadn't taken his parents. He doubted his young cousin Merry Brandybuck could sew, or cook either. Merry was no doubt being raised for a very different life at Brandy Hall, with servants aplenty. Just as Frodo would be at a loss in such matters as livestock breeding, harvest planning, cider-making or settling property disputes, Merry wouldn't know how to survive on the road. And who was to judge which was "practical," really?

Wandering as he did, it was practical for Frodo to spar with Bilbo using their wooden stage swords, gaining stagecraft. And it was equally practical to then be allowed to practice with Sting, to become accustomed to the weight of the real blade, and to be instructed how the blade glowed when orcs were near. Yet neither skill was of any practical use in the Shire.

Eowyn's song finished, and Frodo nodded to her. "Thank you, milady."

"You." She shoved at his shoulder affectionately, just like Eomer often did. Then she sprang up and bounded off, reminding him of the ponies in the spring, when they were what Bilbo called "full of oats." How very strange that Eowyn made Frodo feel so old and wise, while her brother could make him feel like a child.

As his eyes followed her, they crossed with Tol's. He, too, was staring after Eowyn. Frodo began to understand what Theodred had seen when he'd observed Frodo watching Eomer. With a shrug, Frodo turned back to his sewing, wondering if Eowyn could ever grow as fond of Tol as he seemed to wish. He thought again about reminding Tol that she was betrothed to Theodred. Though they were far from her home in Edoras, Eowyn was still not free to do as she wished. And truly, what woman grown would prefer a wandering life like theirs, or even the quiet cottage in Combe, to being the mother of kings in her own land?

Tol no doubt knew all this, just as Frodo knew Eomer felt only friendship -- and perhaps occasional lust -- for Tol and him. Yet Frodo, at least, yearned for more. He thought Tol did, too, even if the boy was confused about which sibling he wanted. Though they'd been friends since they met, such common suffering certainly made Frodo kinder to Tol in little ways every day. Of course, that might also be because he and Eomer no longer vanished at the same times, as they'd done before reaching Rohan. The physical sharing between them seemed at an end, perhaps because Eomer was still upset about the situation with his family. Still, it might be that Tol no longer sought out Eomer, because of her.

Either way, it shouldn't matter to Frodo. But it did.

Sometimes at night, he lay in his bedroll thinking about Theodred's kiss, the soft lips and rough whiskers, the way he'd forced open Frodo's mouth with his tongue -- and Frodo remembered the way his body had responded, coming alive with desire. He owed Theodred much for taking away his dread of such contact, for now he knew he could be with a big person and feel desire, not fear. But he didn't just want to be with someone for a night or two.

Frodo wanted love. Real love, the kind that meant you'd be happier with each other than without. The kind that meant you'd stay together forever, or for as long as you were given. He didn't want Eomer to merely use his body, he wanted to share his soul with him -- and to be Eomer's confidant in return, sharing his life and everything that was important to him.

But it wasn't going to happen, and perhaps that was for the best. He'd seen the land of Rohan now and heard what the king expected of Eomer. There didn't seem to be any room for Frodo in that future, so perhaps it was just as well that he and Eomer remain simply friends. After all, having that was certainly better than never knowing Eomer would have been. Frodo would always have his memories of all their fun together, learning the scripts and practicing with Tol. And, for those lonely nights, he'd have the memory of Eomer's stage kisses, overlaid with what he'd found in Theodred's arms.

It was enough. It would have to be.

"We should cross the Mering Stream tomorrow, Frodo," Eomer said cheerfully, dropping the game he'd caught well away from the fabric in Frodo's arms. "Then you'll finally be in Gondor, and see that land."

"It's very exciting, isn't it?" Frodo smiled up at him and was glad to see Eomer's eyes sparkling, too. "I suppose some hobbit may have traveled this far before, but I've never heard of such a thing. Bilbo and I are real explorers now."

"Yes, we all are. Though... Frodo, do you think Bilbo ever means to return north? I know he won't stop me if I must return to my home with Eowyn, but he cannot expect Tol or you to travel so far alone..."

"I wouldn't go north without Bilbo, Eomer. I can't leave him. He's my only family now."

"But you don't want to wander all your days, I know that. You ... Frodo, you belong back in the Shire, among your own people. So does Bilbo."

"He doesn't. You're right, I want to go home. I've wanted it for a year now. But Bilbo's not like me. He says he feels drawn to Gondor for some reason, and my place is at his side."

"Frodo," he whispered. "He is much older than you are. What if he dies here, so far away? How will you manage, a hobbit among the race of men?"

"He won't die -- he's never been sick a day. And he looks young -- you'd never guess he's 105, would you?"

"No, I wouldn't have thought that," Eomer admitted, but his brows were still drawn together in a frown. "I just thought... You could come back north with me, to Edoras." Frodo looked sharply at him, but saw the truth immediately. Eomer wasn't offering what Frodo wanted. "Perhaps we could find one of the Rangers to escort you back to Bree, with Tol. From there you'd be able to safely reach the Shire."

"Eomer, I know you've been raised to be responsible for your people," Frodo said, trying to speak kindly. "But you aren't responsible for me, or even for Tol. Don't give it another thought. Please."

Eomer looked hurt as he rose and said, "I'll go clean these where there's no danger of getting blood on the costumes, then."

"Good. The drying rack is hanging on the side of your wagon," Frodo called after him, trying to sound cheerful though he felt like crying.

***

The men were upon them before they could halt the wagons, even as slowly as they traveled. They were all on horseback, and dressed in colors that blended with the mountains and rocks of the land, with hoods covering their heads and much of their faces.

It fit every description of bandits Frodo had ever heard, yet these men shouted at them to climb out of the wagons, pushed them up against the sides with their hands on the wood, and searched them for weapons as if they were the evildoers.

"What business do you have in these lands, strangers? And what are these -- not children, certainly, but they look nothing like dwarves."

"We're traveling to Minas Tirith," Bilbo said very calmly, and Frodo once again admired his cool head when danger threatened. "My name is Bilbo Baggins, and this is my kinsman, Frodo. We are hobbits from the Shire, far to the north of these lands. And the others who travel with us are also from the north, Bree-land near my home, and Rohan just beyond your borders."

"They do seem to be Rohirrim, Boromir," one of the men said softly. "Look at their hair, and the sword we found in his wagon. The decoration work is horse-heads, typical of that land."

"I'll admit these -- hobbits, you said? -- they look nothing like orcs, as we first feared."

"Orcs?" Frodo squeaked, then was sorry when two pairs of piercing eyes landed on him. "You... I've never seen orcs, but I don't think they look like us."

"In these troubled times, Frodo, we suspect all strangers," the soft-spoken one said. "Captain Boromir is ordered to detain any travelers in our land, and to ascertain their business. I suggest you cooperate with us, for we are ordered to kill trespassers, or, if we judge them honest men, to send them to the Steward of the White City for judgement."

"Well, send us along. That's where we're headed, you know, to see the Steward and perform for him," Bilbo rattled cheerfully, despite his still-raised arms.

"This one is a woman!" one of the men cried, and pulled Eowyn away from the wagon. Before anyone could stop him, Eomer had tackled the man and was flung back with a hard blow that cut open his face. Eowyn cried out, and swords rang as they were drawn from their scabbards.

"Eomer!" Eowyn was on her knees beside him in an instant, with Frodo immediately behind her, and the soldier who pushed her aside slammed his fist into Frodo's face. Frodo tried to move back to Eomer anyway, but another soldier picked Frodo up and threw him aside. Frodo's mind went blank, his vision filled with color, and when hands touched him he fought wildly, ignoring pain and not hearing any voices until Bilbo finally broke through, holding his wrists, forcing him to be still.

"Frodo, stop. You must stop this instant."

"Eomer," he sobbed, and Bilbo pulled him close, into a careful hug.

"He's fine, he'll be fine. Listen."

The captain was berating his men, Eowyn sheltered behind him white-faced but unhurt. The kindly, soft-spoken soldier was bent over Eomer. Boromir had evidently ordered his men to stop fighting, and to leave Eowyn alone, and was now speaking sharply of the need to await orders rather than acting rashly and behaving like their enemies from the Dark Land.

Tol had crept up beside Eowyn and was protecting her, too. Frodo relaxed for the moment, but that only caused all the bruises on him to suddenly cry for attention. He wiped at his face, wincing when his hand grazed a cut and smeared blood across his cheek.

"Frodo, Bilbo -- do you need assistance?" It was the soldier, the one who cared enough to learn their names.

"Who are you?" Frodo asked, and was glad the man only smiled at his rudeness.

"My name is Faramir, I am a son of Gondor. Your friend is fine, though we don't carry bandages and his wound requires one. Bilbo, do you have something that will do?"

"Yes, certainly." With a last pat to Frodo's shoulder Bilbo rose and dug in their kit for some clean linen. Faramir remained with Frodo, stooped down and examining his face.

"I'm sorry you were injured. It was foolish though very brave of you to fight so many larger men."

"I'm not brave. I was frightened, for Eomer," Frodo admitted. "And for myself. I... It reminded me of something that happened."

Faramir stared at him, as if reading the truth of his words. "Then I am doubly sorry, Frodo, that our men frightened you. I do not believe any of them would have injured your friend's sister, nor deliberately hurt you." Eowyn and Tol had joined them, carrying some water and more bandages.

"I'll tend to him," she said boldly, but Frodo heard the waver in her voice and knew Faramir was sensitive enough to hear it, too. It was almost funny, at the idea of Eowyn as nurse when Tol was present. She might know how to bandage a horse's leg, but Frodo couldn't imagine her tending his cut.

"Go see to Eomer," Frodo said gently. "Tol can help me, won't you?" She touched his face before she turned away and went quickly to Eomer's side. Frodo saw Eomer reach up to take her hand, and tears came into his eyes. Their happiness seemed so very fragile out here in the wilderness.

"You will be safe, Frodo. My brother..." He stopped and cleared his throat. "Captain Boromir has asked me to escort you to Minas Tirith. You shall be under my protection as I guide you on this journey. I swear, I will do all in my power to prevent further harm to any of you."

So it was that as the Captain and the rest of the men rode away, Faramir tied his horse to the wagon and helped set up their camp for the night. He gathered wood and kindling with Tol, leaving the others to rest while Bilbo pulled together a meal. Faramir contributed some waybread the soldiers ate, and dried fruit. It was an early camp, and Bilbo and Eowyn both helped pass the time while their food cooked by singing and telling tales. Faramir, too, joined in with a tale of his city. Frodo couldn't exactly picture it, but the tale was one of nobility and courage and high deeds, and it made him think better of their destination despite the rough treatment they'd endured from the soldiers.

It seemed to Frodo that Eowyn was still afraid of the Gondorian, staying close beside her brother. The whole side of Eomer's face was swollen and bruised; he, too, carefully watched the man and seemed more comfortable with his sister well away from the stranger. Frodo knew Eomer must be in pain, too, for Frodo's arms and bottom ached, and the cut on his head throbbed despite the willow bark tea Bilbo had given him.

When they'd finally eaten and full darkness surrounded their camp, Faramir once again spoke. "Your songs of Rohan are very beautiful, lady Eowyn. But I'd like to hear a tale of the horse people, if you would be so kind."

His eyes were so warm and full of pleading Frodo was surprised when Eowyn only said, "Not tonight," and turned back to Eomer.

"Then what of a tale of your land, Tol? We have legends of the old north kingdom, still told in Gondor. But I would learn what the men of Bree tell of themselves."

"My father's favorite story is an old one, which he read in a book when he was a child," Tol began. "He recited it to me at bedtime when I was a boy. The dwarves used to pass through Bree, you see, on the great roads that served the ancient kings, running north, south, east and west." Tol continued, spinning a tale that Frodo could hear in Doc's voice, of treasure and daring young men and fair maidens won, not by ill-gotten dwarf-gold, but by clever wits and true hearts. "So Ned and Merinda lived happily every after, and Larlo the dwarf went north and was never heard from in Bree-land again. Some say he still lives, in his cavern far away, with only his gold and jewels to warm him. But others say he still has the lock of Merinda's hair he stole from her, and that is his greatest treasure."

Eowyn's eyes were glowing as she listened to Tol, and Frodo knew he was not the only one noticing her happy absorption in the romance of the tale. Faramir, too, had his eyes on her -- where they had been since the first mention of the beauty and goodness of Merinda. Tol smiled at her, but then sent a glare at Faramir that surprised Frodo. He didn't know Tol had such malice in him. Then again, he'd never thought of Tol telling such a romantic tale, and doing it so beautifully.

"Good job of that, Tolbert lad. We shall have you tell such tales for the children of Minas Tirith, if you have more of them."

"I have a few," Tol said, looking embarrassed but pleased at Bilbo's praise.

"You will need the permission of the Steward of Gondor to perform in Minas Tirith, Bilbo, or even to have storytelling for the children. But I should warn you -- our city has diminished, and there are fewer youngsters each year. They don't prosper in the shadow of the Black Land. Families with any money send their children away, to grow up in Lossarnach or Lebennin."

"I understand that. Captain Boromir was quite clear that we must stand for judgement. But since our errand is harmless and may entertain your people, and divert them from their worries, I'm confident we'll be welcomed."

"I hope so," Faramir said, but he looked sad. "I fear Lord Denethor may think your diversion a frivolous thing that keeps people from more important duties. However, the worst he will do is send you on your way -- I don't believe he'll judge you any danger, for it is clear you are not evildoers."

Frodo spoke, surprising himself. "You don't know us very well, to say such a thing."

"Yet I have spent far more time with you tonight than the Steward will spend before passing judgement, Frodo. Men of Gondor learn to judge a person's heart quickly, and act just as swiftly to root out those bent to evil who will bring danger to our people."

"So you have read all our hearts?" Frodo asked, and Faramir actually laughed.

"Enough for my own comfort, at least. I hope to get better acquainted with all of you as we continue on our road."

"And you shall, you shall indeed. But now, our injured ones need their sleep. Tomorrow will be another long day on the road." Bilbo had laid out Frodo's bedroll beside the fire, since it was a clear, warm night. Now he helped Frodo get settled inside, his sharp eyes noting every wince. He dropped a kiss on Frodo's forehead as the others settled in their blankets. Tol was sleeping near Eomer and Eowyn, and they placed her between the two of them.

Faramir remained on the far side of the fire, curling up with nothing but his cloak. Frodo wasn't surprised to see Bilbo bring him a spare blanket and a pillow from their set pieces. When Faramir smiled up at Bilbo and gave thanks for his kindness, Frodo thought he understood how one could quickly judge another's heart. He saw the man's quality, not just in his admiration for Eowyn's courage, but in his courtly thoughtfulness for all of them, their heritages and their feelings.

With a last glance at Tol and Eowyn, Frodo closed his eyes, breathing a wish that no heart would be aching this night. He slept, and his dreams were of kissing a handsome, noble king with beautiful grey eyes.

***

Faramir proved to be a skilled hunter, and a good companion on the road. He usually rode his horse beside one of the wagons, and Frodo watched with envy as Eomer, Eowyn, and even Tol took turns joining him on Winfara, Eowyn's horse. Tol was the least accomplished rider, for Doc had never owned a horse. Combe -- indeed, all of Bree-land seemed very compact, as did the Shire, compared to the vast territories of Rohan and Gondor.

Eowyn was as expert on horseback as her brother, though Frodo honestly didn't see much difference in how Faramir rode, either. But Faramir himself said his skills didn't match those of the Rohirrim, and quoted some Gondorian proverb about Eomer's people being one with their animals.

Certainly they all looked more comfortable and confident in the saddle than Tol, who'd confessed to Frodo that riding still gave him aches and pains. The worst had been on the first day, when Tol rode for too long and was hardly able to sit that evening. Now he'd learned the proper way to hold himself in the saddle, and his legs were growing stronger. Still, he never rode for as long as the others.

And Frodo never rode at all, but he watched them, remembering how it felt to fly along with Theodred. Not that any of them were racing now, or engaging in any foolishness. They didn't want to tire the horses or risk an injury. Further injury, Frodo corrected himself, for Eomer's face was still swollen and discolored, and his own ribs still ached.

Still, he wanted to ride. It was true that he didn't think he'd be comfortable on horseback for very long. And he was just a tiny bit afraid of the horses, but it would be fine as long as someone rode with him to control the beast. But Frodo had to admit, perhaps that was the whole point. What he really wanted was the chance to sit before Eomer, held close in his arms, talking confidentially with him as the miles passed. Kissing... But that, Frodo knew, he must learn to do without. It would not happen.

This day Frodo was riding with Bilbo doing the driving. It left him free to daydream, and watch Tol speaking with Eowyn in the other wagon, while Eomer and Faramir rode together, talking. As Frodo stared at the sunshine glowing on their bright, uncovered heads, Eomer laughed at some comment of Faramir's. The beauty of them both made Frodo's heart flutter in his breast.

He could still vividly remember watching Eomer with Tol, and all the beauty of their large bodies. Sometimes he wished he'd answered differently when Eomer had asked him to join them. But he couldn't have, not then. And perhaps he was only fooling himself to think that it would be any different now. After all, Frodo had done nothing but allow a man to kiss him. That had aroused him -- but would he have remained so if Theodred had tried to do anything more? Could he even touch himself in front of another? He was still a little afraid of big people, even after all this time with them.

But a part of Frodo wanted to try. Sometimes, like today, it seemed the longing would kill him. He wanted it to be night time, so he could wait for the others to sleep and wander away from the camp. He wanted to be able to close his eyes, touch himself, and remember the sunshine on Eomer's face, and Eomer's stiff cock in his big, rough hand.

Bilbo had asked Frodo not to go so far on his night-time excursions. He'd made it clear he understood why Frodo had been leaving the camp, and Frodo had been embarrassed and relieved, too, that Bilbo still remembered how it felt to be a tween even though it had been many years ago. Certainly Bilbo didn't have such urges now -- did he? Frodo couldn't imagine Bilbo waiting for him to leave, and using the brief solitude for the same purpose. No, Bilbo certainly wasn't imagining such things.

But Frodo's yearnings were very natural, yet he knew they wouldn't lead to anything more. At least, not with Eomer and Tol. Frodo valued their friendship too much to risk offending them, as might happen if fear overcame him during love play. For that matter, Frodo couldn't imagine admitting his inexperience to them, not when they seemed so confident in their own bodies and with each other. What if Frodo tried to join them, then did something wrong? He'd never recover from such embarrassment! He'd probably wish he never had to face either of them again.

That had to be another reason Theodred seemed so ideal, in retrospect. Frodo might never see him again -- even if he'd embarrassed himself, it wouldn't matter. Much. Oh, their paths might cross, if Bilbo some day headed back to the Shire. But Theodred's rank would naturally keep an appropriate distance between them. The king didn't mingle with passing strangers -- Theoden had never spoken to any of them except Bilbo, and his kinsman Eomer of course. Theodred, as prince, would normally have the same distance. Even if Frodo had made a complete fool of himself with Theodred, Frodo wouldn't have to endure daily, hourly awkwardness.

But that wasn't true with his friends. Frodo thought that knowledge might be the reason he couldn't keep his eyes off Faramir now, as he smiled at Eomer while he spoke. Faramir was big and beautiful -- and good, too, a kindly and noble man. Why not imagine kissing him, and experimenting with lovemaking?

Well, perhaps it was wrong to imagine such a thing when the man was obviously head over heels for Eowyn. But then, so was Tol -- and Frodo thought he might once again be sneaking off with Eomer for release from time to time. Perhaps the Gondorian would have the same attitude toward friendly sex-play as Eomer. That thought was enough to make Frodo squirm on the seat, imagining the man's reddish-gold whiskers against his face, and the softness of those lips.

He closed his eyes and leaned back, letting the sunlight beat on his face and turn the darkness behind his eyes red. He thought of Faramir, half undressed like Tol had been, and imagined soft grunts and moans coming from between his lips. But his imagination ran wild, and now all three of the men were there -- and Theodred, too. They were all naked, long pale limbs intertwined, and they touched and rubbed and kissed each other frantically, as if they starved for the taste of one another.

Frodo sat forward with a jerk, his eyes flying open.

"There, lad, calm down," Bilbo said. "You were just dozing, everything's fine."

Frodo turned bright red, but fortunately Bilbo's eyes were on the road. "The sunshine... it makes me sleepy," Frodo said, and it wasn't a lie. Nor the whole truth, but he couldn't discuss such things with Bilbo. Though -- who else? No one, unless he wrote a letter to Sam. Though he was afraid Sam might find the thought of Frodo with one of the Big People appalling, even without knowing about the attack in Bree. Well, there was no way to post a letter anyway.

They rode on in silence until the sun finally dipped below the mountains behind them, and dusk came down. Tol and Bilbo called to each other, seeking a place to set up their camp for the night, but then Frodo noticed Bilbo was staring off to the southeast.

"There's something on the horizon, I think," Bilbo said, squinting into the distance. "Something raising a lot of dust, it seems. Faramir," Bilbo called. "What can you see ahead?"

Bilbo had pulled his wagon to a stop and Tol did the same, while Faramir and Eomer rode ahead a bit, staring in the direction Bilbo pointed out to them.

"It's a party -- perhaps just travelers, but it could be raiders. Just to be safe, pull the wagons together, and get your swords ready. If they're harmless, this is still a good enough place to camp."

Bilbo's hand move to where Sting rested beneath the seat, and he pulled the blade out just a bit. And Frodo saw the glow before Bilbo noticed.

"Orcs," he breathed, staring in horror at the elvish blade as if it had conjured the enemies.

"What?" Bilbo looked down then, and with a curse he pulled the blade all the way out. Faramir and the others stared in surprise at the blue flame it seemed to emit. "Orcs, Faramir -- those approaching are servants of the Enemy!"

Faramir drew his blade then, as did Eowyn and Eomer. Tol pulled out a cudgel he'd cut after they crossed into Gondor, a sturdy piece of wood that was long enough to be an effective weapon for one as strong as he. Only Frodo sat unarmed as the orcs drew closer, their twisted, ruined faces glowing with malice in the rapidly-dimming light.

"Where did they come from?" Eomer asked. "They cannot have been traveling by day, from what you've told us."

"No, but there are caves in these mountains -- their scouts may have spotted us days ago, and set this place as an ambush. They had only to wait for the sun to retreat."

They were speaking so calmly. It annoyed Frodo no end, how calmly men behaved while doom and death marched closer. Bilbo, at least, had the decency to be quiet, even if he looked resolute.

The orcs closed on them quickly, their numbers immense. Faramir spurred his mount forward with a cry, and Eomer followed, and Frodo craned to watch them both, even as Bilbo pushed him down on the floor of the wagon and rose, brandishing Sting. The orcs weren't dismayed by finding their prey armed, nor by the way those on horseback swept through their ranks, cutting down three and four of them with each swing of their swords.

For some reason, the orcs seemed to be concentrating on their wagon, though enough were at the other to keep Eowyn and Tol busy. Claw-like hands reached in, grasping at Frodo's ankles, and he scrambled further back, in a panic until his hand landed on their skillet. He grabbed it and moved forward, knocking aside the goblins until he was behind Bilbo, back to back as they defended themselves.

Faramir was riding back now, splattered with black blood and still striking on both sides as he rode. Eomer had circled and was by the other wagon, riding down the orcs and keeping them from the terrified pony. Frodo swung his arms one more time, finding the pan heavier with each stroke, and he wondered if the others were tiring as rapidly. How much longer could they hold out?

Then, as a hand grabbed at his left arm and Frodo turned to strike, something hit his right shoulder. He cried out in surprise, and he dropped the skillet. When he tried to pick it up again, knocking away the grasping hands, only his left hand obeyed him. He still aimed blows, but they weren't as powerful and the orcs were closing in. He saw long, evil-looking knives raised, and something inside said he was going to die. But instead of just sinking to the floorboards of the wagon and giving up, Frodo was filled with rage.

He wasn't ready to die! He wanted to see Minas Tirith, and make his way home again to see Doc reunited with Tol, and Bag End, and Sam with his Rosie...

With a shriek of hatred, Frodo launched himself into the orcs, who were so startled that they fell back, allowing Frodo to drop to the ground. He was dazed by the fall, for the earth seemed to be spinning... but he picked up a knife from one of the many bodies around him, and began swinging at those enemies still surrounding him.

He heard a cracking sound and a cry from Eowyn, and Tol was knocked out of the other wagon. Frodo pushed toward the spot where he should be, ignoring blows to his body and dodging the blades swung toward him, using his knife only when he was close enough to strike. When he reached the other wagon, Frodo saw Tol was bleeding but on his feet, grimly swinging what was left of his cudgel. Frodo stooped quickly to free another blade from a dead orc, and pushed it into Tol's hand, knowing it was hopeless, for neither of them knew anything about fighting. Yet they kept on, amidst the shrieks of the orcs, until there was a pile of dead and wounded surrounding them.

Then, at last, the attack was over. There were a few orcs still surrounding them, but Eomer ran up and beheaded one and another fled, only to be cut down by Eowyn as it passed the wagon. Tol stabbed at another as Frodo dropped to his knees. If more orcs came now, it was over -- he was too tired to get back on his feet. His head pounded, the air around him stank of the orcs' bodies -- and he was very, very thirsty.

Tol was beside him, grim-looking with the blood and dirt on his face, but he whispered "It's over, Frodo. Faramir and Eomer drove them off at last." Then he reached to touch Frodo's shoulder, but gasped and pulled back. "Eowyn, get me linen for bandages!"

Frodo wondered who was injured, but decided he was too tired to care, and sank to the ground among the dead.

***

It was a motley group that arrived in Minas Tirith, on foot, six days later. Frodo was in their one remaining wagon, along with all their belongings, but no one else burdened poor Blossom. Instead, Bilbo or Tol walked beside the pony, leading her, as the rest of them limped along, leading their horses, too. Everyone had injuries from the battle with the orcs, and they were only alive because there had not been a second attack.

They'd burned the second wagon that night, orc bodies piled on and around it. Faramir had been the most fortunate of them, suffering only cuts to his legs above the heavy leather boots that protected him. Only one was very deep, for Faramir had remained on horseback the entire time, providing his skill at maneuvering in such battle situations.

Eomer had been thrown when Winfara, Eowyn's horse, was stabbed. He had bruises and cuts all over, but none very serious. Tol's worst injury had been the shallow cut to his forehead, fortunately not poisoned. Though it had bled alarmingly, Tol and Faramir both claimed that was normal for such wounds.

Eowyn's left arm had been cut badly, and she was still wearing a sling to support it. And Bilbo, too, had multiple cuts on both arms, and bruises from being pulled from the wagon when he tried to defend the pony. Faramir's quick actions had saved his life.

Frodo had too much time to brood as he was borne along each day, staring at the sky above him. He thought about what would have happened if Faramir and the other Gondorian soldiers hadn't found them. He could imagine it in great detail, and though he hadn't told anyone, he dreamed of the battle each night. Sometimes it was just him and Bilbo, alone, and he watched Bilbo pulled down and slaughtered, just like their pony had been, and was forced to see the orcs eat Bilbo's entrails. But no one questioned why Frodo would wake with a gasp -- he was never able to find his voice in any of these nightmares, and that was part of the horror.

He'd almost bled to death. Tol told him that, but he still couldn't quite believe it. The blow to his arm had been a sword-cut, deep enough to set his heart's blood flowing, but all he'd noticed was that it numbed his arm so he couldn't fight very well. Faramir told him such actions happened in battle, when a soldier was so focused on the fight he didn't notice injuries. Gondorians named it blood lust, and said it masked all pain, temporarily.

Whatever it had been, it was long gone now and Frodo had been in pain for days. His body had been in agony that first day, so that now the jostling of the wagon seemed minor. But he still felt every rock and every rut, even laid on as many blankets as they had. If Sam had still been with them, Frodo knew he would have rigged something -- a hammock, perhaps, made from the canvas of their sets. But none of them had the skill. And the thought of Sam enduring the orc attack made Frodo sick to his stomach.

He was terribly weak, and thirsty all the time, but at least there was no fever or infection. There were healers ahead in Minas Tirith, and Faramir promised Frodo they would have pain relievers and better remedies for his wound. Frodo hoped it was true, for he was such a burden to them all right now. He'd spent time each day teaching Eowyn his lines, for she'd have to take his part if they had a chance to perform, even without a proper costume. She listened and recited the lines after him, but Frodo saw her turn away and wipe tears from her eyes, and he wondered if he was dying or if she was simply, like him, weary and worn with too much pain.

Now the White City loomed before them, though the gate was still a half day's march away. Faramir wanted to ride to the city and get help for them all, but Bilbo thought they should try to arrive on their own. "We don't want to abuse the city's hospitality right from the start. Frodo is doing well enough for one more day, aren't you, lad?" Bilbo's hand was gentle, pushing Frodo's hair from his brow.

"I'll be fine."

"He's in pain, Bilbo."

"We Bagginses are tough enough to endure a little pain. Though I'll brew some willow bark tea right now -- everyone could use a dose, I think. And then we'll get to your healers under our own power, tomorrow, instead of asking for help to reach your city."

Faramir nodded but he didn't agree, Frodo could see that. Then he asked, "Frodo, would you like me to lift you so you can see the city walls before the sun sets?"

"Oh, please." He had to bite his lips as Faramir picked him up, but the view was worth it. The city rose up like something out of a dream, really as beautiful as he'd been told, but beyond imagination. The tower at the top was incredibly high to hobbit eyes, banners floating in a wind that couldn't even be felt down where they were. The city seemed to grow out of the mountains.

The contrast as Faramir moved and Frodo was again facing east was shocking. The mountains in that direction were black and shadowed, somehow. There were green lands between, but they looked faded to grey by the shadow of the Dark Land. As Faramir settled Frodo on the ground, in a nest of blankets Tol had prepared, Frodo asked, "Will the Steward understand if I cannot stand for his judgement?"

"The Steward... The Steward is my father, Frodo, and he will hear from me of your valor and deeds."

"Valor?"

"Frodo, despite a terrible wound you ran to Tol's assistance, and gave him a blade. You may have saved his life -- be sure that Tol and Eowyn both know that."

"I was only afraid," he confessed.

"We were all afraid, but all did what was necessary. You have all proven to be noble companions as brave as you are beautiful." With those words, Faramir kissed Frodo's brow before rising and leaving him.

It bothered him to watch the others all working so hard, after walking so many leagues this day, while he lay useless. But he had no energy, not even for cutting up food for their soup. Bilbo made soup every day now, for Frodo to have broth while the others ate the boiled meat and vegetables. As Eomer and Tol piled up firewood and Eowyn finished wiping down the horses, Frodo felt the ground vibrate.

"Bilbo -- riders are coming," he called, not surprised when everyone tensed and moved to strap on the weapons they'd only recently removed. Faramir came and stood beside him, turned toward the city and squinting in the failing light. He raised his arms and waved them very deliberately. Frodo supposed it was some kind of a signal, for the men approaching sped up, but didn't draw their blades.

"Who is that?" came a loud voice.

"Mablung? Are you back on garrison duty? How much did you drink this time?"

"Faramir!" The leader of the group laughed and swung off his horse almost before it stopped, embracing Faramir and slapping his back. "What on earth -- " He stopped speaking, staring at Bilbo as he stood holding the soup pot in one hand, with the other on the hilt of Sting.

"These are traveling actors from the north. We met them on patrol, and I was assigned to bring them to the city to be judged."

"Actors? I thought this was a sick child," he said, looking down at Frodo, who nodded. "Where do they grow actors only half-sized?"

"You've heard the stories of the little people to the north, haven't you?"

"But I never believed them, not a word! I thought that old wizard was half-cracked," he said, smiling. "Halflings!"

"Indeed, halflings who'll be entertaining in the city ere long, though not as soon as they would wish, I'm afraid. We are all injured -- a band of orcs attacked us six days from here. Frodo has been grievously wounded."

"Hello, Frodo," the man said, stooping beside him. "He's very pale -- has he bled too much?"

"Yes, he kept fighting despite a deep wound. Mablung, may I take your horse and ride him to the Houses of Healing?"

"Certainly, you should. Is your mount injured, then?"

"Yes, cut and bruised by the spawn of Mordor, curse them."

"Will this halfling not be afraid, alone among a city of men? Perhaps someone should take the other, too?"

"You are a noble soul, Mablung. Can one of your men help us?"

"Darot, you're with Faramir. Now introduce me to the others before you go."

"Bilbo, this is Lieutenant Mablung of the Minas Tirith guard. Eomer and Eowyn of Rohan, and Tolbert of Bree-land, far to the north." Frodo listened to the introductions with his eyes closed, too weary to care about their reactions. Faramir knew and trusted the man; that was enough. "Bilbo, Mablung has offered me a horse, to take Frodo to the healers tonight."

"You can't, Faramir. You know he's not ... He'll be afraid, though he seems too weak to make a fuss."

"We thought perhaps you would consent to ride with us, and stay with him. You need treatment, too. The rest of us will rejoin you tomorrow."

"You'll come back and stay with us tonight?" Eowyn asked, and Frodo opened his eyes in time to see Faramir turn to her and her cheeks grow pink under his steady gaze.

"I will, my lady. And Mablung will see to your safety until my return. He's a friend, and trustworthy. No harm will come to you." She nodded, and Faramir turned away and spoke with Mablung for many minutes. Frodo dozed off for a time.

When he awoke, he was being lifted and passed to Faramir, already seated in the saddle. Bilbo was opposite, with the other soldier, and he smiled at Frodo as if riding with such men were an everyday pleasure outing.

As they rode, the pain of the movement striking him more sharply than the orc's blade had done, Frodo remembered the day he'd longed to ride with Faramir, held before him like this. It seemed a hundred years ago.

***

The healers of Minas Tirith were very good at their job. They had Frodo fed with beef broth, sedated and finally resting in a soft bed within a few minutes of arriving. Bilbo let them treat all his wounds, too, and dose him with willow and other herbs. They promised him a bed in the room with Frodo that night, but first he and Faramir had business with the Steward.

The Citadel was only one level up from the Houses of Healing, but Bilbo gratefully accepted a ride. The city was vast, even on these highest levels, and the stone pavement looked like it would be tiring to walk upon. Still, he was encouraged at how many people there were everywhere. They would have audiences for months here, unlike the tiny hamlets in Dunland and even in Rohan, where the people lived too far apart for their purposes. This great city was meant for actors, and Bilbo felt reassured as he hadn't been in days that he'd made the right decision bringing them all so far, through such dangers.

Bilbo hoped it didn't show, but he'd been very worried about Frodo -- indeed, about all of them. To him, they were all children. He knew Doc had entrusted Tol to his care, and despite his dislike of Eomer and Eowyn's family, Bilbo felt responsible for their safety as well. Watching Frodo suffer, so pale and still for so many days now, had broken his heart.

But now Bilbo was positive things would go well for them, and he was eager to speak with Lord Denethor. He listened carefully to all Faramir's advice and instruction as they rode, knowing protocol was important with such rulers. He might only be called a Steward, but Denethor reigned over a kingdom much vaster than Theoden's lands.

When they reached the Tower, Bilbo was happy to see a small stretch of green grass. It was a touch of home, and he was happy to feel it beneath his feet when they dismounted and walked past a fountain with a dead tree beside it, leaning over the water. It made him sad to see that, but then awe overtook all other emotions as the great doors swung open and he entered the hall.

The room was full, even at this hour, with supplicants, soldiers and scribes. Denethor sat on a throne beside a dais that held another, larger chair. Bilbo supposed this was the difference between a high king and the office of steward. But to watch people bowing and speaking and running to do his bidding, one would never guess that Denethor wasn't the king himself.

When it was finally their turn, he and Faramir approached. Faramir bowed low, greeted the Steward in formal, courteous language, and presented Bilbo to him. "Mr. Baggins is the proprietor of the Baggins Revue, a troupe of traveling actors who didn't realize they needed permission to travel in our lands. Captain Boromir asked me to escort them here for your judgement, and to give you his message that they mean no harm to our lands or our people, and beg leave for them to perform in the city to amuse the populace."

Denethor stared at Bilbo for a long time before he answered, and Bilbo could swear he saw some uneasiness pass over the man's face. The stare made him nervous enough to clutch at his waistcoat pocket, before he remembered where he was and smoothed both hands down to rest at his side.

"The sentence of death is commuted for the members of this troupe, though ignorance of our laws is no excuse." With that pronouncement, the Steward turned away and motioned for the next group to approach.

"Excuse me, sir," Faramir began, and the angry look Denethor turned on him made Bilbo take a step back. But Faramir continued, "Do they have your permission to perform, Lord Steward? And might you consider granting them patronage?"

"Do you suppose I care what goes on among the low-life scum in this city? I have important work at hand, Faramir, and no time to deal with such trivialities. They may remain and perform, or leave and go back to Rohan, or throw themselves to the bottom of the Great River for all I care. Leave my presence immediately."

Bilbo remembered to bow as he backed away with Faramir, who looked very sad. When they were finally back outside, he paused by the fountain for a moment. "I wouldn't have recognized him as being my father, were he not on his throne. He has changed more in the months I've been away than in the last ten years."

"That can happen, when you travel," Bilbo replied, but Faramir shook his head.

"I'm very sorry to have turned his anger on you, Bilbo, though I don't expect it will last -- as long as you stay out of his sight." Faramir sighed. "I shouldn't have pushed him for a decision, but I wanted to know you would be well before I leave."

"Leave?"

"I go back to your friends tonight, and I will see them here tomorrow, and find you a place to stay. But then I must go back and rejoin Boromir's troop, and return to my duties."

"Ah, of course. We'll miss you, lad."

Faramir smiled at that. "You are most generous, Bilbo Baggins. I feel that I've done nothing but lead you into danger."

"Nonsense. These are dangerous times, that's all. You kept your word. Yes, I heard you that first night, promising Frodo you'd defend us with your life." Bilbo smiled at him. "You're a good man, and a better son than the Steward knows."

"Do all hobbits have such sharp ears?"

Bilbo laughed. "Yes, I'm afraid so."

"Let me take you back to Frodo now. Don't worry about money; the healers are paid by the city for their services." Faramir looked thoughtful all the way back, even when they dismounted and wound through the buildings to the place where Frodo slept soundly. With a few whispered words to the healer watching in the room, Faramir left Bilbo with a bow.

Bilbo was happy to undress and climb into the other bed, his weary bones aching from the long day. He wanted to rest at peace, now that they'd finally reached this destination. But even as he closed his eyes, he felt the pull to go further. Why stay in this city with the Steward so unfriendly? Without his patronage, they would truly be performing in the lowest quarters, to those who couldn't afford to pay very much for their tickets.

He woke the next morning with the same thoughts foremost in his mind. There were more lands to the east to be seen, and Bilbo wanted to go to them.

***

When Faramir arrived to fetch him the next afternoon, Bilbo realized the man had been very busy on their behalf all day. Faramir rode down through the city with Bilbo tucked ahead of him on the horse, and repeated the information Bilbo had been too tired to attend to the day before. He learned what each level offered, and where the marketplace stretched. And when they finally reached the first level, there was a long, low building with a faded sign leaning against the wall beside the door, and Bilbo's wagon stood out front, half unpacked.

"This was the best place I could find for you to stay -- and your performances can take place inside. The building used to house a tavern." Faramir dismounted, then assisted Bilbo down to the ground.

Eowyn came out the door at that moment, and greeted Bilbo with a hug and a smile. "Is Frodo any better?" she asked, then as he nodded she looked up at Faramir. "Good day, my lord Faramir. Thank you again for escorting us here this morning."

"You're very welcome, my lady. I hope you will be comfortable living here."

"It's very different -- but clean and snug. There is new bedding, with fresh straw -- I think we must thank you for that?"

"I asked a woman I know to make sure it was ready to receive you. I'll thank her for such thoughtfulness, on your behalf." Eowyn blushed again, then turned to take another armful of costumes. But before she went inside, she smiled dazzlingly at Faramir again.

"The Raven's Call," Bilbo read off the old sign. "Let me add my thanks, Faramir. You seem to have thought of all our needs. But I must ask ... how much is the rent?"

"The tavern owner died two years ago, and no one has claimed the property. In such a case it reverts back to the city, so no rent is owed."

"No rent -- or the rent is owed to the Steward of Gondor, who refused us patronage last night?"

"Rent is owed to one of the Steward's household, who claimed this property as part of his inheritance. That person offers you his patronage, feeble as it is, and hopes you find success and good fortune in his city."

Bilbo make a deep bow to Faramir. "My lord, your generosity will inspire us to new heights. In fact, I've thought about making a new play, based on some of the stories you told us, for when the crowds tire of our current entertainment."

"I know you will do well here, Bilbo." Faramir's eyes roamed the street, as if checking for dangers.

"And I'll take good care of Lady Eowyn. Eomer and I will both be looking out for her best interests, rest assured." Faramir smiled at that, and turned back to Bilbo.

"I think Master Tolbert will do the same," he said with a smile.

"Yes, well... we all love her, you know. But a hobbit can see and love that which is far above him, and know there is value in the reaching."

"As Frodo loves Eomer, you mean?"

Bilbo nodded. "Tol's love for Eowyn is much the same. He's from a small village and a simple family. In his heart, Tol knows there is no place for him in a royal household."

"Perhaps," Faramir admitted. "Or perhaps, in such dangerous times, a quiet life with a fine young man is more appealing than you realize. What can I offer a bride except long absences while I patrol Gondor's extensive borders, and the knowledge that I could be taken from her at any time?"

"Eowyn is a woman accustomed to such a life, Faramir. You know what she would chose -- to ride with you and face the dangers together."

"Ah, but the Steward's family needs heirs, not shieldmaidens."

"Why not have both?" Bilbo looked up at Faramir's young face, and saw the yearning in his eyes. "But I see you've already answered that for yourself. Good luck on your road, Faramir. I believe you'll find it takes turns you cannot foresee."

"Thank you, Bilbo. Farewell." As soon as Faramir vanished around a corner, Bilbo turned to the wagon and rolled up his sleeves. Tol came out the door, sweaty and laughing, followed by Eomer. They both ran to greet Bilbo and inquire after Frodo.

"He's fine, or he will be with a few days of real rest and good food. The healers here know what they're doing, lads, and they want to see all of you, too. The salve they put on my cuts has done more in one night than a week of my treatments."

They finished the unpacking, carrying the canvass flats they'd salvaged inside to be leaned against the walls in the main room. The room had long benches and tables, and a huge hearth that would hold a whole stag on a spit. The bar still held mugs, though there was no ale nor spirits of any kind in the building. Bilbo wondered if another tavern-keeper would be willing to transport barrels here for performance nights. Bilbo would sell more tickets with the promise of drink.

There were smaller rooms in the rear, a tiny bedroom for Eowyn and a larger one with mattresses for the four of them. Faramir had indeed had this supplied just for them, and Bilbo sent more good wishes after the man while he unpacked his and Frodo's clothing.

The kitchen was the last place they inspected. "Well, this will be our sitting room. We can't light a fire in that great hearth except during performances, but this is nice and cozy."

"I'll carry in in some chairs from the other room, and one of the tables, too."

"Good idea, Tol. But first -- We should be able to do a performance a week from today. Until then, Eomer, what food is left?"

"Not very much, I'm afraid. Some dried meat, and potatoes that haven't turned... That's all, I fear."

"I wonder if there's any place for you lads to hunt near here?"

"It seems you'd need permission to go in and out of the city, Bilbo," Eowyn said. "Did Faramir take you to the Steward?"

"Yes, and he said we could leave... but you're probably correct, getting back in would be the problem, I'll wager. Hmm, then we're going to have to pay market prices. We'd best do a show right away. Tomorrow night?"

"But Frodo--" Eowyn began.

"He taught you his part, didn't he?"

"Yes, Bilbo."

"We'll just make do, then. And keep in your song during the break, if you don't mind. We've got to have money for food, Eowyn. I know it's asking a lot of all of you -- we're tired, and still recovering. But this is necessary."

He went to his room and rummaged until he had paper and ink, then sat at the table and scratched down words while the others took some tea. "Now, let's head to the sixth level. That's where the healers may be found, and our Frodo."

When they left, Bilbo patted Winfara and then Blossom, then unhitched the pony. "I think a nice, reliable beast like Blossom should be enough to get us a translation, and perhaps some flyers to post."

Tol looked uneasy. "I suppose we need to advertise -- in their language, of course. But... it could take a long time to earn enough coins for another pony, Bilbo."

"This city is massive, Tolbert, and you've only seen a small portion of those who live here. We'll do well enough. The flyers will be good for weeks at a time, until they fade in the rains. We're announcing three shows a week, no dates and no title. Just 'exotic music and artists from strange lands far to the north.'"

Tol smiled at that, but he still looked away too soon. Eowyn, too, had her fists clenched in her skirt. Bilbo felt a little miffed -- he'd led them this far, and now they were going to start questioning him? Why, he was as anxious to move on as they were. More so! For he wanted to travel east, to the lands bordering Mordor, just as soon as possible.

They slowly walked through the city, a better advertisement for the shows in their persons than any of them realized. Bilbo taught them what Faramir had shown him -- how the gates moved from one side of the city to another, each level able to be secured as a separate fortress. He took them through the marketplace, which was already full of wonderful scents, but kept them walking, knowing the healers would feed them for no cost.

They found a place to sell Blossom, and then someone who would make up flyers for them using ink and cut roots to stamp impressions on paper. It was very reasonable in price, though the man charged extra for translating what Bilbo wished said into the dialect and lettering commonly used in the city.

When they finally reached the Houses of Healing, the three of them were hurried inside to be bathed and tended, while Bilbo returned to Frodo's room.

"Bilbo!" Frodo looked too pale, still, but his eyes were happy. "We're here at last, aren't we?"

"Yes, my boy." He hugged him gently, then laughed. "You're looking much improved already."

"I am. Except my arm is still weak, and it hurts to move it much. But the healer says they will help me regain strength, and show me how to use the muscles without pain."

"Good, good. You won't believe what Faramir has done for us, lad. We have our own house -- well, an old tavern, but it's home for you now, as soon as you're released. We'll be doing our shows there, and living quite comfortably under a roof."

"It sounds wonderful. Faramir did this?"

"Yes, he thought of everything. He's a good man."

Frodo just smiled happily at that, and Bilbo wondered if the affection Frodo had been showering on Eomer was being diverted at last. Well, there'd be no trouble in that, though Frodo would pine once he learned the Gondorian was gone from the city. But for now, if it helped him improve, let Frodo think his hero was coming to visit at any moment.

One by one the others joined them, clean and bandaged, and all hugged Frodo and sat to talk with him as excitedly as if a month had passed since their parting. Bilbo watched them, their happiness healing his heart, and the trays of stew and broth the healers brought to them soothed his immediate worries about money.

When it grew late in the day, and Bilbo knew some of their flyers would be ready, he gathered the troupe and they bade Frodo farewell. As he hugged him, Bilbo noted that his color was already improving. He'd be fine, and Bilbo had been right not to tell Frodo they would be performing without him. No sense in worrying the lad; they'd find something for him, some part to take, if Eowyn remained in the leading role.

They were all tired, but agreed to scatter and post bills for the performance as they made their way down through the levels of the city. Bilbo kept Eowyn with him, claiming he needed her higher reach, but from Eomer's grateful smile he knew they all understood that he was trying to keep her safe.

It was past midnight before they were safe in their house, all resting except Bilbo. He was sitting by the embers of their fire, paper and ink at hand, but really just daydreaming, not setting down ideas for the next show. He'd been too busy all day, but now that it was silent and dark, he kept thinking about what lay on the other side of the great river.

***

The gossip was all over the city, and Eomer couldn't have explained to anyone why the news made him so uneasy. Saruman, the wizard who'd never left Isengard in Eomer's lifetime, was in Minas Tirith. He'd ridden through the market at noon today, on his way to an audience with the Steward.

Since he'd heard, Eomer had been back at their house, just watching. He didn't know why, but he expected trouble. Perhaps it was the memory of Saruman's man asking Bilbo to detour to the wizard's tower fortress. There were many things Eomer didn't understand about hobbits, and one of the mystifying things about Bilbo was how he'd found the courage to turn down Saruman's request and the sack of gold offered to sweeten the journey.

Eomer had been surprised but quite pleased with Bilbo's choice at the time. He remembered his father and some of the others eored leaders discussing the wizard on their western border, and questioning whether he was truly a friend to the Mark. They didn't trust him, but no one was willing to cross such a powerful wizard who lived in a stone fortress. The King, it seemed, had made up his mind to consider Saruman an ally, helped by Grima's counsel. But Eomer still trusted his own instinct over the honeyed words of his mother's husband. There might be wizards who did no evil, like the grey wizard, Gandalf, who figured in Bilbo's tales of adventure. But even in those stories, Eomer heard some of the same things that bothered him about Saruman's behavior. Gandalf would ride ahead or vanish, often at crucial times. He had affairs on his mind that were far more important than Bilbo's safety, it seemed, despite being the one who'd involved Bilbo in the quest to the Lonely Mountain.

The worst thing was that now, Eomer felt the same could be said about Bilbo. There was something on the old hobbit's mind, something more than writing the new script or seeing to their well-being. Bilbo was almost... pining, always staring off toward the mountains of shadow, always alone -- planning another journey, if Eomer was any judge. And Frodo knew it, too. The dread of waiting for Bilbo's decision was easy to read in Frodo's expressive eyes.

Frodo still didn't look well, though the healers had released him a week ago. He'd always been slight, but he was terribly thin now and didn't seem to have much appetite, either. Of course, knowing the hobbit, that was probably because money was so short for them, and food so very dear in this stone city. They had no patch of earth to grow food and nothing to hunt except rats. They were at the mercy of the merchants of the marketplace, and not even Bilbo was a good enough negotiator to bring back much food for their coins each day.

Well, they'd all lost some flesh on the journey south. And they were all still in Bilbo's hands, even if he was becoming more like a wizard and less like the hobbit Eomer first met in Bree. Eomer had been amazed, then, that someone like Bilbo existed, wise and loving and adventurous. He'd thought all truly good folk were like Doc, narrow people with narrow lives, and those who were extraordinary were all like Strider, loners who might do good but who wouldn't allow anyone close to them.

Strider and Halbarad and the other rangers he'd met were all like that, secretive and diligent, but duty-bound. They were like his father, and just as worthy of admiration. Eomer only understood a fraction of what they did to keep Bree-land safe, but he knew the hobbits of the Shire were indebted to these men whose names they would never hear. Doc and Tol wouldn't have been living in quiet safety without Strider's watchfulness.

But Bilbo, with his desire to travel, had seemed like the ideal, someone Eomer could model himself on for a time. Bilbo was brave, Eomer had seen that immediately, in how he approached men and how he ran to defend Frodo, even unarmed, though he was much smaller than the three ruffians. But Bilbo had a family -- well, he had Frodo, but he'd managed the troupe for years, taking care of all of them, leading them and making a success of something no other hobbit had ever done. How could Eomer not admire him?

And at Doc Thistle's house he'd seen more of Bilbo, and only found more to like. Eomer found he had no problem trusting his welfare, and that of his friend Tol, to Bilbo's capable hands.

But that was long ago, and now Bilbo was so very changed. He frightened Eomer, who found himself wishing that Bilbo would just leave, run off and never be seen again. Frodo would be upset, of course -- but Frodo would go home, then, with Eomer, Tol and Eowyn to defend him until he was in safer territory.

What Eomer feared now was that Bilbo would announce his plans to leave, and Frodo would insist on going with him. He knew Tol wouldn't be so foolish, and Eowyn had definitely had a bellyful of adventuring, too. She was ready to go home, so long as Eomer promised to keep her with him. But Frodo... he would risk his life to follow Bilbo, even into the deadly shadow to the east. Bilbo was his family, and Frodo seemed to believe he owed Bilbo some kind of debt for adopting him.

"Brother, if you're going to sit and stare, at least stir the pot."

He'd been so lost in thought he hadn't even smelled food, though he was hungry as usual. "Beans?"

"Unless you've brought us something better," she replied, slamming the ladle into his hand. He obediently stirred, watching her carefully wash her hands before returning to the fancy work she did for the ladies of the city. Once she'd planned to add such embroidery to her own costumes, but the threads were even more dear than food, and a lot less important to them all.

So instead, Eowyn had gone to the sixth level and offered her services to the wealthy. When she returned with an armful of gowns, she'd had to ask for help from the others, for she had no designs to use. At home she'd followed patterns for such work that everyone knew, most of them motifs dear to the Mark, showing running horses in waving grass, or braided manes of various hues.

But Frodo had come up with designs that the ladies seemed to love, intricate repeating patterns that hugged a curving neckline or cascaded down from a shoulder to adore a sleeve hem. Tol, too, had drawn some designs of leaves and flowers. He was clever with such things, and had a book full of sketches of herbs and plants he'd seen in all the places they'd traveled. Eomer had first seen it when they reached the Mark, for Tol had asked him to name the plants, writing down what Eomer told him beside the drawings, and sometimes pressing a sample between the pages, too.

Tol was a wonder, though his mooning over Eowyn was rather funny. She wasn't interested in him, as far as Eomer could tell. After all, she was pledged to Theodred, and Tol should remember that. But as Eomer watched, Tol was staring at Eowyn, his script forgotten.

"Aren't you supposed to be teaching us our lines, Tol?" Eomer asked, pretending to be absorbed in checking the pot he stirred, but unable to hide a smile when Tol jumped a little.

"Yes, of course. Eowyn, you sing the song as you sit at Bilbo's knees. You know, the one Frodo taught you about no place comparing to home."

"This one?" she asked, singing a verse as she continued to work her needle.

"Yes, that's it. Did Frodo teach you the new lyric, the one to make it sound as if you're singing of a house here in Minas Tirith? White stones surround my garden, white stone protects my heart?"

"Yes, but I've forgotten how it continues. You sing, Tol." She smiled at him and Tol nearly dropped his book, and Eomer had to cough to cover the snort of amusement.

"Uhh. Frodo sings it much better. And I'm not sure of all the verse, myself." He turned to Bilbo, but the old hobbit was staring out the window again, as he'd been doing for days, and not paying any heed to their conversation.

"Where is Frodo?" Eomer asked. "I haven't seen him since this morning."

"He was looking for work again today," Tol said. "He thought perhaps the healers needed someone to run errands, or help prepare medicines."

"He walked all the way up to the sixth level? He's not strong enough for that."

"He's tougher than you think, Eomer," Tol replied.

"Perhaps that's true when he's eating enough. Tol, can you take over stirring this? I'm going to go look for Frodo. Eowyn, please don't leave here for any reason, not until I return. I'm... I'm uneasy, and I'd like you both to remain where you're safe."

"What do you fear?" Eowyn whispered, pulling him down beside her. "What have you heard?"

"Saruman is in Minas Tirith. I fear he's brought his minions along, and that they still may wish to command where this troupe performs." He glanced at Bilbo, but he hadn't moved and didn't seem to be listening to them. "Please, promise me. Stay together and stay here."

Tol nodded and Eowyn kissed him and whispered "Promise." Then he was gone, striding through the first level and scanning the crowd for Frodo's small figure. Dusk was falling in the city, the shadow of the mountain spreading eastward, and Eomer had no money for a torch. He stayed to the lighted road, the main way, and hoped he wasn't passing Frodo in some dim alley.

He found the hobbit on the fourth level, recovering from a faint. Frodo had earned a silver coin from the healers for the afternoon, but before he could spend it he'd passed out. In the confusion, someone might have tried to rob him, but the coin was still clutched tightly in his hand. A woman -- a loose woman, if Eomer was any judge -- was hanging over him very protectively, and Eomer wondered what long-lost child Frodo brought to her mind.

"He just keeled over right here," she said. "Poor little thing. So pale." She stroked his cheek, and Eomer thanked her for her help with his most courtly manner, ignoring the ravages of age and her brassy, dyed hair.

"He just needs some food. I'll bring him home."

"You do that." She pressed her hand into Eomer's, and when she released him he felt the heavy coin she left behind. "Take care of him." Eomer put a hand to his breast and bowed, pledging to her as he would to a noble woman of his land. She seemed to understand, nodding back before she vanished down the dark street, no doubt just beginning her evening of work.

Frodo was embarrassed but glad enough of Eomer's help. The two coins would buy them food tomorrow -- no sense in wasting tonight's beans, and surely even that would help Frodo feel stronger. Eomer tucked the money into Frodo's waistcoat pocket, and they walked through the dark city, quieter now except when they passed taverns or inns.

As they walked through the arch from the second level to the first, two shadows detached themselves from the wall and began to follow them. Eomer saw it, and didn't know what to do. He didn't have his sword, and there were two of them.

He leaned down and whispered to Frodo, "Trouble. When we reach the next street, run left. I'll go the other way, and meet you at the house."

"Separate? Isn't that dangerous?"

"No, there's just one," he lied. "You've got our money. Run as fast as you can, Frodo."

The hobbit obeyed -- Eomer thought it was a sign of how very tired he was, that Frodo obeyed him without more questions. As Eomer turned to face the men, he breathed a prayer that Frodo would be safe. Then there was a blow to his shoulders, from behind, and he tried to spin but there was only pain and darkness.

Eomer woke to the sound of voices, though it took several moments to make sense of the words.

"He's not the danger, then."

"No, Lord Denethor." The second voice was beautiful, soothing to hear. Yet the words chilled Eomer's heart as he continued, "Still, there is some danger, some power -- I felt it even as they passed Isengard." Saruman? Who else could it be? But ... Denethor ... that was the Steward of the city, wasn't it? Faramir's father was involved with this abduction?

"We should release him."

"Certainly. I'll call my men. But mark my words -- there is something amiss in your city. Don't you feel it?"

"I have too many duties to waste time chasing down reasons for every belly ache one of my advisors feels, Saruman the White. Powerful and knowledgeable as you are, even you cannot tell me what this danger is. How can a simple man know anything more?"

"You know in the same way I know, my lord. Do you suppose I cannot see on your face the marks of the same terror I have set my mind to face, alone within my highest tower?"

"It is true, then. One of Gondor's palantiri remained." Eomer had his eyes closed, but he could hear the swish of rich robes as the Steward paced. "I don't suppose Beren knew how much he was entrusting to you when he handed over the keys to Orthanc."

"Perhaps not, my lord. Though it seems clear to me that the House of Stewards presently has deeper wisdom and knowledge than many who claim to spring from Gondor's royal lineage."

"You... you have heard something, then? Of an heir?"

"No, my lord. Only rumors, no doubt the same vague stories you have heard. But consider -- that may be what we are sensing. This uneasiness from the Great Eye, and our own troubled hearts might be harbingers of an heir from the north kingdom, kept hidden all these years. I've heard there is another man in this troupe, not Rohirrim like this one, but from a city near Fornost."

"Have your men return this one, and set a trap for the other," Denethor ordered. "I will speak with you when you next report to me."

Eomer moaned when the men lifted him by the arms and dragged him out -- he didn't think total silence would be very convincing. Not that it mattered that he'd overheard their talk; they spoke in riddles and he didn't understand half of it.

He was dumped in an alley on the third level, and as he haltingly found his way back to the first level, his head pounding, Eomer wished again that there was someone older and wiser for him to confide in. Someone who was like the old Bilbo he still remembered, rather than the stranger Bilbo had become.

***

Frodo was staring at the toymaker as he put the finishing touches to some kind of bird, carved from a piece of pine-wood. If he remained here the rest of the afternoon, he might see it finished, painted by the man's assistant -- or perhaps she was his wife. Frodo didn't know their names; he'd never spoken to them. He was just one of the hangers-on, and because of his height he fit in among the children who watched with no money to buy toys. It was entertaining to watch them create colorful, beautiful whistles and animals, and even to see those who came and bought the goods. The fourth level marketplace was crowded every day, but on the weekly market day there was music and even dancing, and shops that weren't open other days filled tables and stalls with their goods.

Of course, if Frodo did have any money, he wouldn't be spending it here. Pretty as the toys were, he was too old for such foolishness. Anyway, he'd rather be watching the taffy-maker twist and knead the strange candy he sold, or see the cookies decorated with pictures and names. But when your purse and belly were empty, the smells in that section of the market were torture. Even here, the wind carried scents that made Frodo's stomach growl. Their dinner last night, bread and thin gravy, was long gone.

Bilbo had gone to find work today in the stationer's row, offering to clean and sort the books that showed up from far-flung places. Frodo knew Tol and Eomer were busy with odd jobs, mucking out stables and exercising some wealthy man's animals, even though Eomer had been badly bruised by those thieves two nights ago. Eowyn was doing her fancy embroidery, for she always had a job ready to fill the days between their shows. It was a lot of tedious work for very little pay, but she was doing her part.

Only Frodo had no skills to offer. Now he felt the full shame of his orphaned upbringing, the true consequences of never being destined for any particular trade. The things he'd been so proud of on the road -- his cooking skills, the rudimentary sewing he could manage, even the reading and writing of Elvish which Bilbo had so patiently worked on with him -- all were useless here, in this tall stone city of men. Here there lived expert chefs, fine seamstresses, and true scholars. Frodo was only fit for menial tasks. Yet Men didn't want hobbits as their servants.

He'd tried, knocking at prosperous-looking houses and offering to sweep or scrub. He'd been hired to dust and clean, but the woman of the household was bothered by everything about him. She'd complained it was like having a filthy child tracking dirt off hairy feet in her fine house. They'd sent him off with less than half the promised wage, since the job was barely begun.

Well, Frodo wouldn't just give up. He'd never tried asking in the candlemaker's section. Perhaps someone there had need of an assistant with small hands and fingers, to do some fine work. Frodo carefully backed out of the crowd of children and started through the market proper, to find the shops where they made candles. At least the smells there, wax and dyes, wouldn't torment him with hunger.

He turned a corner, moving past the soap vendors, and saw a very tall man in long grey robes -- not the fashion in Minas Tirith at all -- moving purposefully toward him. Frodo stood still, and as the man approached he rumbled, "Here you are at last! Who knew it would be so hard to find a hobbit? You should stand out more among all these men. Well, never mind. Where's Bilbo?"

"He's..." Frodo glanced around, getting his bearings. "He should be down this street, I think."

"You seem like a bright enough lad, not that I'd expect anything less. Show me the way!" Frodo wondered why he was obeying such a rude man, but he seemed almost familiar.

Frodo led him down the narrow alleyway that opened onto the short street where books were sold, along with ink and paper and even tobacco, though it was nothing like their pipe-weed. However brusquely the man spoke, he was very good at not outpacing Frodo, so that it really felt as if they were walking together. Even Tol had to be reminded sometimes to slow down for Frodo.

There was the faded red of Bilbo's second-best waistcoat, outside the last shop. He was sorting books onto a display table, concentrating so much that he didn't see them until the tall man said, "Bilbo Baggins. Well met, old friend."

"Gandalf?!" Bilbo looked like he might fall over, and Frodo was almost vibrating with excitement. How had he not seen that this wasn't an ordinary old man? The description was just as Bilbo had always told it, the long beard, the travel-worn grey cloak and robes, the sharp eyes and hat and pipe. Gandalf!

The wizard knelt and Bilbo was in his arms, hugging him and laughing. People of the city milled around them, all looking on with interest though they proceeded about their business after a moment. Too many had seen their show by now for the hobbits to be much of a novelty any longer. Frodo heard some passers-by whispering "Mithrandir," and wondered what the word meant. It sounded almost elvish.

"And who's this bright-eyed chap?" Gandalf said, turning his attention to Frodo again. "I couldn't believe it when I saw him, and realized there were hobbits in Minas Tirith." But that wasn't the truth, Frodo thought, a tiny frown crossing his face. But he hid it, nodding and smiling as Bilbo introduced them.

"We're here performing for the city, Gandalf. We've been here for months now, giving regular shows in our own building on the first level."

"The first level?" Gandalf's tone showed his knowledge of the city; the first level was reserved for stables, storehouses, the soldier's barracks -- and brothels amidst hovels where the poorest of the poor lived. Frodo had heard of Faramir's embarrassment when he'd first showed them the abandoned tavern, the only place he could give them without the Steward's assistance.

"Yes, yes. We're not highbrow entertainment, you know. Everyone welcome. Admission is only one copper, and we're doing quite well." Trust Bilbo to put such a good face on it. Most days they barely had enough to eat. Certainly they weren't saving up money for the trip home, as Bilbo had promised to do. Eowyn's horse had been sold last month, and now their wagon, too, was gone, used as firewood when the weather turned cold.

"That's wonderful news. Now, let's go have a meal and some ale before I go meet the rest of your troupe. My treat, I insist. Ah, Frodo -- I'm sure you don't want to listen to two old men talk about olden times." Frodo opened his mouth to protest, then closed it. He didn't know what Gandalf wanted, but he would try to assist him. Surely Gandalf could figure out what was wrong with Bilbo, and why he kept talking about heading east. Frodo and the rest of them could hardly stand to look in that direction when they were high enough in the city to see the mountains looming across the great river.

"Here, lad, buy some wine or ale for all of you." Gandalf tossed him a purse, and Frodo didn't exclaim over its weight, just nodded and turned away as Gandalf steered Bilbo toward the fifth level. But Frodo turned back a moment later to watch them, then checked the bag. There was no note, which he'd half expected. But he hardly felt disappointed, since there was enough money for a feast, good food and plenty of it. And possibly he could even afford some wine, to put a glow on Eowyn's pale face and make Eomer and Tol smile.

Frodo ran to the market stalls and was soon reminded of how much more polite merchants were when you had coins. It had been so long since those days in Hobbiton, after his adoption, when Bilbo's name and wealth made everyone treat Frodo so differently. He blessed Gandalf's kindness as he bought roast chickens, fresh crusty bread, cheese and grapes. And the wine merchant actually offered to send his boy along to carry the bottles back to the first level, so Frodo arrived in what felt like a triumphant procession.

They were amazed at his bundles of food, and listened eagerly to the news of Gandalf's arrival. Soon they were gathered around the kitchen table sharing the food with bright smiles. Frodo told them how happy Bilbo had been to see Gandalf, and even shared his hopes that the wizard's influence would help resolve whatever was preying on Bilbo's mind. Frodo didn't usually discuss Bilbo's odd behavior, but he knew they'd all been worried. So he tried very hard to cheer them, and it worked so well that soon they felt as relaxed and happy as they'd been when they first began traveling together.

The food was mostly gone, and they all had full bellies for once. The wine was going quickly, too. It felt marvelous to be sitting around their tiny fire, relaxed and surrounded by friends. They were still talking, mostly nonsense now about the city gossip and their next show, and then Frodo heard Eomer say, "I was so surprised to see Strider, I couldn't speak. I wish I'd known we would have such a fine supper tonight, for I would have invited him."

"Strider?" Frodo said, sitting up. "Here, in Minas Tirith?"

"Yes, I saw him this morning when I was exercising Aristor's horses." That was one of the regular jobs Eomer had found. "He came riding in, leading a second horse, looking dead tired."

The others went back to their conversation, but Frodo stayed hunched forward, his brow creased. Two coincidences? He didn't believe it. Gandalf had said "here you are at last" when he saw Frodo -- did he think he'd found Bilbo? But "at last" would mean Gandalf was here looking for Bilbo, wouldn't it? But the wizard wouldn't know to look for them here in Minas Tirith...

Strider would know they'd headed south, though. Frodo thought back, trying to remember. Surely Bilbo had begun talking about Minas Tirith when they were in Bree. But even if he hadn't, a ranger could have delivered one of his letters to Doc while Strider was visiting.

Of course, Gandalf used to visit Bilbo in Hobbiton, on occasion. Perhaps he'd been there and spoken to Sam? That seemed just as likely, really. Why would Strider know Gandalf?

But... Gandalf and Strider had arrived here in the city on the very same day. And Eomer had mentioned Strider leading another horse...

Frodo wanted to trust Gandalf; what he'd heard from Bilbo and what he'd seen of the wizard today made him like Gandalf, very much. He was clever and thoughtful and kindly.

And of course Frodo had good reason to trust Strider, even if the man's secretive ways and guarded speech, and his know-it-all attitude always rubbed Frodo the wrong way. Strider couldn't be that much older than Eomer, for heavens sake, but he behaved as if he were Eomer's father sometimes. And Strider even tried to boss Bilbo and Doc, too.

It was all very puzzling, but not as awful as the knowledge that Strider had come to Minas Tirith and not even looked for Frodo. They'd parted as friends, hadn't they? Well, perhaps that was overstating it, though Frodo could still remember the way Strider's hands felt, holding his. Strider was Eomer's friend, Strider owed his life to Tol -- Frodo was just a foolish hobbit in trouble who he'd treated kindly, and Strider had said that was only because it was his duty to help him...

If only Frodo hadn't gone to wander the marketplace... He should have been close to the tavern instead. If he'd hurried back to get the others, rather than buying the food and wine by himself... Regrets dragged at Frodo, spoiling the lovely night and turning his full stomach sour with disappointment.

***

"You've been staying with Tol, then?" Strider! He was here at last. Frodo had been afraid he'd left Minas Tirith, after waiting for days without seeing him.

And now it was very obvious that Strider and Eomer were speaking privately, and Frodo knew he should leave and let them continue. But it was too late; he'd heard the question and Frodo wasn't moving until he understood what was going on.

"Yes, just to make sure he's safe. I don't know what they meant by any of it, Strider, and I didn't want to discuss it with the others. They let me go with no harm done, so I lied and said that robbers roughed me up because I had no money." Eomer sighed. "I can't imagine they'd harm Tol -- how could anyone do that to such a kindly person? But Saruman and the Steward both seemed... odd."

"I'm very glad you told me this," Strider said, and Frodo took a step backwards, hoping to come back into the kitchen more noisily. But instead he backed into the broom and knocked it over into the tin bucket they used to fetch water. When the din died down, he was facing two tall men, one laughing at his clumsiness -- though Eomer was well used to it -- and the other looking grim, as usual.

"Hello, Strider," Frodo said cheerfully, ignoring the man's frown. "I heard you were in Minas Tirith. Oddly enough, you arrived the same day as Gandalf the Grey, here to find Bilbo, evidently."

"Gandalf told you this?" Strider asked roughly, pulling Frodo to his feet so swiftly it surprised both him and Eomer.

"No, he... well, he actually told the opposite to Bilbo. But it wasn't true, you know, not after what he said when he found me. Not that I'm saying Gandalf is a liar!" Frodo squeaked when Strider swiftly raised his other hand. But he didn't strike Frodo, just grasped his shoulder and gave him a shake before releasing him, though he remained right in front of Frodo, blocking his path.

"Frodo, one day someone will have to teach you the value of discretion. I hope it's not a very harsh lesson, but the way you rattle on I'm afraid it will be." Strider shook his head. "Hobbits."

Frodo slid to the slide and moved away, his feelings hurt though he didn't want Strider to know. "I don't rattle. Not always, anyway. I... well, you're Eomer's friend and if he thinks you're trustworthy, should I be all cold and suspicious and nasty just because you--" He cut himself off from further rudeness, though he thought Strider knew exactly what he'd been about to say. "Just because you'll think I rattle?"

"I always forget that you are still a tween," Strider said condescendingly, and Frodo wanted to strike him for that. Who did Strider think he was?

"We all forget that," Eomer said, putting an arm around Frodo affectionately. "He's the steadiest of us all, Strider, you should know that. Frodo is the one who keeps us all together."

"Eomer! How can you say such a thing? You know Bilbo is the one who does everything."

"Bilbo? Once, perhaps, but you know how much he's changed, Frodo. He barely remembers meals, and he pays no attention at all to any of us, including you. If you didn't keep the schedule, this place would fall apart, and the troupe would have disbanded already."

Frodo wanted to protest. But it was true that Bilbo spent a lot of time daydreaming lately. "He's very old, you know. Bilbo is one hundred and five now."

"Yet he looks remarkably young for that age," Strider said, and Frodo turned to him with a frown. But Tol and Eowyn chose that moment to come back into the kitchen after setting up the main room for the evening's performance.

"You should never trust something that sounds too good to be true, Tol," Eowyn said.

"But five silver coins -- you shouldn't have turned him down. We need the money."

"I didn't like the looks of the man, and I didn't want you going off with him alone. Take Eomer if you want to chase after him."

"After who?" Strider asked calmly, and Eowyn turned to him with a smile.

"A man came to the window while we were cleaning, and offered Tol money to help him fix a wagon wheel. But I told him Tol couldn't leave just now, since we're performing tonight."

Frodo saw Strider and Eomer exchange looks, and he frowned, too. It did seem like a lot of money for something a person might do just to be neighborly.

Eowyn was still speaking, over Tol's protests. "Just imagine how heavy the wagon must be if he broke it, and if he has to pay that kind of wage for help. What if you hurt yourself and couldn't make it through the show?"

"Well, it's too late now," Eomer said heartily. "But Eowyn's right -- if that man or anyone like him comes knocking, find me first."

"All right," Tol said agreeably enough, but he looked as if he had further questions. He settled by the fire, in one of his favorite seats for watching Eowyn as she moved around the room.

"Would anyone else like some tea?" she asked. Frodo watched Tol and Strider fall all over themselves to help her with drawing water, filling the kettle, and even settling it on the fire. While he shook his head and tried not to be jealous, Frodo cut very thin slices of the oat bread he'd made yesterday, and spread the butter even thinner, arranging them on a plate in quarters, so it looked like more. He wasn't certain who, exactly, he was trying to fool. They were all hungry, and Strider would figure out soon enough that this was the only food in the house.

But Strider's mind seemed to be elsewhere, for as soon as they were all seated around the big table he said, "I need to speak with you all, but what I'm about to tell you cannot be discussed with anyone else. Not even Bilbo."

Everyone frowned at that, Frodo noticed, but no one protested. He felt that he should, but he was stopped by the same realization he'd had when Eomer was discussing Bilbo's odd behavior. There were many things they no longer shared with Bilbo. They didn't complain to him about the lack of food, just found ways to earn money and make do. Schedule questions and performance decisions were brought to Frodo now. And Frodo was positive Eomer and Tol had plans to leave Minas Tirith, too.

Strider's voice interrupted his thoughts, and Frodo made himself focus. "As Frodo mentioned, Gandalf and I came to Minas Tirith deliberately. Gandalf visited Bilbo's home in the Shire, and found it abandoned. He sought information on Bilbo's whereabouts from the ... Gamgees?"

Frodo nodded shortly.

"They showed him your letters, Frodo, and Gandalf then rode to Bree to seek my assistance in tracking you. That's how we finally arrived here."

"But why?" Eomer asked the question in everyone's mind. "I've heard tales from Bilbo, I know Gandalf is his friend. But that doesn't explain traveling such a distance, Strider, nor why Gandalf would need your help. The wizard has been in my land before, and I'd bet that he's been in this city, too."

"That is all true, Eomer. And the answer has to do with your abduction by the Steward..."

Shocked gasps interrupted that, and questions from Eowyn and Tol that kept Eomer and Strider busy with explanations while Frodo thought over what he'd heard and seen. "This has to do with Bilbo's refusal to travel to Isengard, doesn't it?" he finally asked.

Strider smiled at him, and even though he was shaking his head Frodo helplessly smiled back. "There are too many threads interwoven to give you a simple answer, Frodo. All I can tell you is that Bilbo's odd behavior, and his drive to come south, have worried Gandalf. I came with him because ... well, because his business is often my business, and because my skills could be of use to him."

Frodo's heart sank and his smile faded. He'd been hoping Strider would say he'd come to Minas Tirith because he cared about them... all of them. Frodo knew he'd never hear Strider say such words to him, but he would have cherished even friendly concern. But no; only duty had brought Strider south.

"And now that you've found us, what do you intend to do?" Eowyn was probably the only one of them who wasn't completely happy at the thought of leaving the city.

"Eat your bread and drink your tea," Strider said lightly. "Gandalf commands me, my lady, and I don't know what he's decided. But now you know the truth, and you will all understand that if I ask you not to be alone on the streets, there is good reason."

"We'd have already known that if Eomer hadn't been so secretive," Tol joked, and as Eomer shoved at his shoulder the back door creaked open.

"Bilbo!" Frodo jumped to his feet to fetch another cup and plate. "We're having tea, come join us."

"Hello, my lads and lass. Strider. A nice hot drink sounds marvelous right now." Bilbo sat at the head of the table and accepted the napkin and saucer from Frodo. "I have news for you all, very good news. We're not going to be here in Minas Tirith much longer, no indeed."

He took a large bite of bread and chewed happily, obviously waiting for questions. But everyone was just staring apprehensively at him.

"Where are we going, Bilbo?" Frodo finally managed to ask.

"Onward to new territory, my boy. After our next scheduled performance, we'll pack up and move on to Ithilien."

"You intend to travel so close to the Black Land?" Strider asked.

"Now, now, don't be so glum. There are people living in the south of that land who must need entertainment. Perhaps we can even perform for the garrison at Osgiliath."

Bilbo chatted cheerfully while they all exchanged horrified looks. No one was surprised when Strider excused himself and left, no doubt in search of Gandalf.

***

"Come in, Gandalf. I'm afraid you're too late for breakfast today."

"I don't come to see you only for your cooking, Bilbo, fine as it remains after all these years," he said grumpily, settling himself at the long table they'd moved beside the kitchen fire. "My friend Strider is keeping Frodo away so we can talk, but where are the rest of your motley children today?"

Bilbo laughed and set a kettle on the fire. "I can only imagine what the people of Rohan would do if they heard you speaking thus of their king's relations." He filled their pot with tea and sat across from the wizard. "For that matter, I think if you met Doc Thistle you might not be so cavalier about describing his son."

Gandalf nodded as he held a taper to his pipe, drawing on it until the tobacco caught. "Ah, that's better. Not as good as Longbottom Leaf, but these southern growers do a good job with what they have. Now, where are the other upstanding young people who deign to travel with you and bless your troupe with their acting talents?"

Bilbo laughed long and loud at that, and Gandalf smiled to hear him. Perhaps there was still hope, after all.

"I don't think you have to go quite that far. Though they have learned much, none of them are natural actors like my Frodo. However, to answer your question, Eomer and Tol are escorting Eowyn as she delivers her needlework to a client. Since you and Strider seem to feel the city is so very dangerous, they've been staying together on all their errands for the last few days."

"That seems like a wise policy, for there are dangers everywhere these days, Bilbo. Which brings me to the reason for my visit today. What is this I've heard from Strider? You intend to leave Minas Tirith soon?"

"I do," Bilbo affirmed, pouring the steaming water over the tea leaves. "I want to head east, Gandalf, and see what those lands hold for me."

"Bilbo, my dear old friend, this is madness. You must know how dangerous such a trip would be -- you cannot live here, in the shadow of the dark land, and not be aware of the evil so close at hand. You cannot have walked through Minas Tirith these months with your eyes and ears closed."

"No, of course not. But... Gandalf, I don't know how to explain it to you. I feel called to explore what no one else has seen. You know the peaceful byways of the Shire never were the same after you took me adventuring."

"Never the same, eh? Indeed. Yet you still seem much the same, in looks at least. Fifty-five years have passed us by without touching you, Bilbo."

"Without touching either of us, I'd say. Bagginses have always been fortunate, keeping their stamina as they age. And you know how long lived the Tooks can be, too."

"Yes, quite true." Gandalf accepted the cup of tea Bilbo had poured him and continued, "But your wanderlust has far exceeded that of other hobbits, and now you speak of feeling 'called' to continue on your road..."

"Even when I'm happiest, Gandalf, I still feel -- stretched. Tired, I suppose. When we're on the road, that feeling is easier to push to the back of my mind, somehow."

Gandalf puffed on his pipe for a few moments, his sharp eyes raking Bilbo from head to furry toes while he sipped at his tea, his eyes far away. "So, you want to keep going, into eastern lands. How do you suppose your troupe will be safe?"

Bilbo looked a bit abashed at that. "Actually, there won't be a troupe any longer. Eomer is taking his sister back to Rohan, and Tol wishes to go with them. He's determined to make his own way back to Bree, for he's been away from his father for a year now." He paused and looked closely at Gandalf. "But hasn't Strider told you all this?"

"He mentioned the wind seemed to be in that direction, yes. How do you intend to earn money as you travel, then?"

Bilbo smiled. "Well, perhaps the children, as you call them, don't know everything about my finances. I still have some savings tucked away, more than enough for Frodo and me, since it seems we'll be on our own from now on. At least my lad still keeps an adventurous spirit."

"That 'lad' has been through too much already, Bilbo -- a wound that nearly took his life, and an attack which could have destroyed his spirit."

"But it didn't. Frodo is heartier than the others realize. You know what hobbits can endure, Gandalf."

"I do indeed. My question, Bilbo, is whether you should ask Frodo to endure more -- or free him to remain here, or even to return to the Shire, to wait for you there in comfort and safety."

Bilbo really looked thoughtful, for a few minutes at least. But then his hand crept to his vest pocket, and his eyes grew distant. When he spoke again, his voice had changed.

"Frodo can do as he likes. I don't need him." Bilbo turned to gaze out the window, looking to the east though there was nothing to see from this low in the city. "But he needn't wait -- I'm never going back to the Shire."

"Never?" Gandalf waited for Bilbo's nod, then continued, "I suppose you still intend to make Frodo your heir?"

"That's all taken care of, for years now. Bag End, the farms -- they're all Frodo's already, or will be as soon as he comes of age."

"Very generous of you, Bilbo, and prudent. And I believe Frodo is already more mature than many hobbits of twice his age."

"Quite true." But Bilbo was only half listening to him, Gandalf could tell. He pushed a little more.

"But surely you need to turn over any valuables you've carried with you, and make legal arrangements for Frodo to take over the management and effects of the troupe?"

"Gandalf, do you suppose someone would contest his ownership? Who? Not one of our troupe. They all love Frodo."

"Yes, he's very special. Still, you must have things you should entrust to him before you go." He pointed to Bilbo's vest pocket. "What about your magic ring?"

Bilbo's hand was protectively over the pocket before Gandalf had finished speaking. "What business is it of yours if I take it or leave it to Frodo?" His voice was harsh and he was breathing as if he'd been running, not standing quietly.

"As I've told you before, Bilbo, magical rings are not to be taken lightly. Yours shouldn't be carried heedlessly into danger -- and you do know in your heart that you are venturing into serious dangers, Bilbo. The might of Gondor no longer ensures safe passage in the lands bordering Mordor, my friend."

Amazingly, Bilbo laughed. "You think I'll be knocked on the head by robbers just as soon as I toddle off alone, don't you?"

Gandalf chuckled at the phrasing, but his reply was very serious. "I'd say instead that you will be traveling where friends are few and safe harbors scarce. If you don't fear the usual hazards on the road, you should fear the servants of the Dark Lord, Bilbo, for they roam the shores you wish to see."

"I'd be safer if you traveled with me, Gandalf."

"My road does not lead east, Bilbo -- not yet, at least. But it would ease my mind greatly if you truly will make Frodo your heir, and leave your ring in his care."

Bilbo's eyes grew wary again, and his hand again clutched at his pocket. But a moment later, he smiled. "You're right. The ring -- I'm always worried about it lately. I wake up thinking it's slipped from my pocket and is lost. Why not leave it with Frodo?"

"I can't think of a reason."

***

"What would you like me to say?" Strider seemed genuinely confused, but it just made Frodo angrier. He slammed the water bucket to the ground, then stomped toward the front of their tavern, not caring if the man followed him or not. "Frodo!"

He whirled around and hissed, "How about being honest, and telling me Gandalf needs to speak privately with Bilbo? I am capable of understanding such a confidence, you know, and being cooperative. Yet you pretend instead that you wish to show me the view from the gate! As if I haven't spent too many days here staring out that gate, wishing I could leave this blasted city--"

"I'm used to keeping my own council, Frodo. I didn't mean to offend you."

"No, I suppose you meant to charm me with your usual gruffness and disregard for my feelings!" As soon as the words were out, Frodo wished he could recall them. But it was too late. He watched anger flit over Strider's face, but it didn't frighten him. He merely felt grim satisfaction at finally seeing some honest emotion from him.

"Is that what you think of me, Frodo Baggins? That I'm incapable of caring about your feelings?" Strider loomed over him, reminding Frodo of their second meeting, that horrible day in Bree.

"No-- well, yes, you do seem to think of me -- and perhaps all hobbits, though I don't really know that. You show more respect to Bilbo, possibly because of his age." Frodo paused, took a deep breath, and said, "What I mean to say is that you treat me like a child."

"Are you of age, Frodo?"

"You know I'm not. Nor am I in need of nappies or a nanny. We've all grown on our journey, Strider, even if we don't match the levels of maturity and caution you seem to expect."

"I am aware of the hardships of travel, and what you've managed --"

"Oh, of course you are! I've overheard you saying as much to Tol and Eomer. But me -- you seem determined to have me always be like a child, or a victim for others to protect."

"No, Frodo -- I swear that wasn't my intent."

Frodo looked up into his eyes for a long moment. "I believe you. But you don't realize how you treat me."

"Perhaps that is true." Strider paced away, his hands in fists at his side.

"But, Strider--" When the man looked back, Frodo smiled. "I won't hold it against you if you'll forgive my rudeness in turn."

As always, Strider's smile changed his face in a very pleasant way, and made Frodo's own smile grow wider.

How very attractive Strider was like this. Frodo tried to cut off the thought, but his mind and body were in agreement for once and saw no need to stop appreciating the lovely sight before them, broad shoulders, strong limbs, and a face that looked years younger with a dazzling smile. Frodo blushed, his smile faltering -- and Strider's expression grew more serious, too, though his eyes remained fixed on Frodo.

"You say you are no child," he began.

"I'm not!"

"And you're not afraid?"

"Of you?" Frodo wanted to sound scornful, but it came out rather breathless instead.

Strider took a step closer. "You should be afraid of me, Frodo. I'm a ranger, dark and dangerous..."

Frodo sprang forward, cutting off the words by mashing his lips against Strider's with an inexpertise that shamed him. Still, it was effective enough to make Strider's strong arms enfold him and his mouth open to mesh with Frodo's in a long, arousing caress. Frodo thought back to what Theodred had done, the things he'd liked about that kiss, and he pulled back to nip gently at Strider's lips.

Strider reacted by pulling away in surprise.

"Don't you like that?" Frodo gasped.

"Who have you been with, Frodo?"

"No one. Just a man. He kissed me," and Frodo lightly kissed Strider's chin, "on horseback--"

"Did he indeed? Has my innocent hobbit learned more than kissing on horseback, from one other than me?" The words sounded angry, but Strider's hands were roaming in a very friendly manner, and his lips descended on Frodo's neck in a flurry of kisses.

Frodo didn't bother answering the question, instead throwing himself against Strider and hugging him close. He didn't dare pull the big, calloused hand to his arousal, but that was what he'd learned from Theodred -- that men still fascinated him. And with Strider, the right man at last, there was overwhelming lust that left no room for fear.

Frodo lifted his head into another eager, long kiss, nips and slow explorations alternating until he was dizzy and breathless yet again. When they pulled apart, Strider's mouth grazed Frodo's ear, and he said in a husky whisper, "You can no longer say I treat you like a child, Frodo."

"No," he gasped, dropping another quick kiss on the man's mouth which made Strider moan as their bodies rubbed together.

Gandalf's cough from the doorway made them pull apart, though there was no hiding their flushed faces, reddened lips, or the aroused state of their bodies. But Gandalf didn't seem surprised in the least.

"Bilbo would like to speak with you, Frodo. And I believe you should be checking on the whereabouts of the others, Strider."

As Frodo nodded a farewell to Strider, pleased to see the promise of continuing their conversation in his eyes, he wondered why whenever he heard Gandalf use the man's name, it seemed somehow wrong.

***

Tonight's performance was the troupe's farewell, and because they'd announced that, the house was more crowded than it had been since their first days in Minas Tirith. Gandalf sat beside the fireplace, in the shadows with his pipe, watching the audience slowly fill the room.

Strider was backstage with Frodo, no doubt kissing him silly. Well, the dazed look the hobbit had whenever he'd been alone with the Ranger only made him more attractive, and would serve his role tonight. The idea of him and Eowyn portraying sisters -- only Bilbo could come up with such a scheme and make it work. But tonight's special programme was based on Gondorian history, and the two were playing the beautiful sisters who'd both wooed Aelfold, the second steward of the city. Eomer was playing that role, his bruises concealed with powder. And Tol was King Akfarzul, who settled the matter for the steward by claiming Lelitha, the eldest sister, as his bride. Tol's injuries did not show, though his ribs were still quite painful.

Thank heavens Aragorn had gone to look for them, and Eowyn had run straight into him at the second gate. He'd tipped the balance, foiling the attempt to abduct Tolbert, and gotten them all home safely. And now word had been spread throughout the city that they would be leaving soon, so Gandalf waited here for whoever might appear at tonight's performance.

It was easy to piece together what had happened, with only small leaps of logic. Well, perhaps it was only easy for Gandalf, for he was the only one who knew all the necessary information. Eomer hadn't understood what he'd heard, but Aragorn -- it was damn difficult to remember to call him Strider, though that deception was crucial while in this city. Strider had understood, and the two of them had discussed the abduction until they thought they had a clear idea of what had happened to bring danger to the troupe.

Saruman and Denethor both had felt a disturbance, and they both realized it was tied to Bilbo's acting troupe. But they both assumed it was a direct threat, some warrior-man bearing a new weapon, or someone who had come to Minas Tirith to seize power. Thus, they were only interested in Tol and Eomer, not paying any attention to the hobbits.

Even more disturbing was the news that they both had strayed so far from the right as to use the palatiri hidden in their strongholds. Many among the wise had long suspected that these objects were not truly lost, but with Sauron possibly holding one of the Seeing Stones, it seemed best that they remain hidden. Not only had Saruman and Denethor usurped tools they had no right to use, they seemed to be foolish enough to place trust in the visions revealed to them. Two wise fools, deceiving themselves -- and no doubt giving the Dark Lord even more information about their defenses. Gondor could not stand for long with its Steward's mind poisoned.

But tonight Gandalf had more immediate concerns. Bilbo was packed and ready to go, and he was planning to leave immediately after tonight's performance. Frodo had resisted remaining behind, at first. But a few longing looks from Aragorn had reinforced the longings of Frodo's heart, for it was obvious he had no desire to continue traveling. Aragorn was bothered by his part in persuading Frodo, feeling it was deceptive to use their newly-admitted feelings for each other to achieve a goal. But he understood why Gandalf had insisted. Frodo was the only being in Middle-earth whom Bilbo would trust with his ring -- and Gandalf was convinced that only a hobbit could safely hold such an object. It had taken many years for whatever power was drawing Bilbo toward Mordor to gain control of his will, and Gandalf hoped Frodo, who had never used the ring, would be far away before he felt any effects from carrying it.

So Gandalf had insisted that Strider use Frodo's affection for him, and any other means to take the ring north and give them time to gather information. He'd spent the last two days in the city's archive scanning ancient scrolls, and Gandalf was ready to search for the Gollum creature as soon as they could head north. He intended to get Frodo and Tol on the road to Bree with Strider, while he sought out the mountain passes where Bilbo had found his ring so long ago. Then he and Strider would meet in Rivendell to consult with Elrond, while the ring remained safely hidden in the Shire.

But tonight there were still dangers to evade in Minas Tirith, for surely Saruman would realize as soon as he saw Tol that he was not the cause of his disquiet. Tolbert was a fine young man, but obviously not of Numenorean stock, nor a warrior. No, Saruman would immediately look elsewhere -- and that is why Aragorn was here, ready to play his role in deceiving the wizard. It made Gandalf smile, to think that the truly important acting this evening was not that being done by the professional actors. If his plan worked, Saruman would not even think to examine the hobbits as threats, not when Aragorn was wearing his father's ring openly for the first time and carrying the hilt of Narsil. That should be enough distraction to put Saruman off balance, but hopefully not cause an actual confrontation, not with Denethor and the might of this city firmly behind Saruman.

But Gandalf didn't think that would happen. If his assumptions were correct, neither Denethor nor Saruman trusted the other. Saruman would see what they wished him to see, and he would refrain from taking immediate action simply to keep Denethor in the dark. In fact, Saruman might decide that Aragorn being in the city was no threat to him, and might work to his advantage. Saruman could accumulate more power in the north with Gondor distracted by fighting off the claims of an heir to the throne.

Bilbo came out from the back room wearing his costume and makeup, and circulated through the crowd, welcoming people he knew as he passed. Finally he reached the door where Tol and Eomer were taking admission fees. "Go get dressed, lads, I'll take over now."

Indeed, the arrivals had slowed to a mere trickle, and most of the seats in the room were taken. Gandalf rose and looked over the crowd, wondering if one or more of them were hirelings of Saruman's. So it was that when he felt the arrival of a tall figure in a heavy cloak and hood, Gandalf only had to turn to meet Saruman's eyes.

"Gandalf? I had no idea you were in Minas Tirith, my old friend." He was perfectly composed as he doffed the hood and pretended he'd been openly moving about the city.

"Ah, well, I've only recently arrived, my dear Saruman, and indeed, I hadn't heard that you were a guest here, either. I'm consulting the city libraries, as usual. I suppose you are doing the same. Perhaps we can help each other?"

"Sadly, no, my business is complete and I'll be leaving soon. Though I'm certain I can help you with any questions. There is more lore stored in my memory than you'll find in the archives. I've studied Gondor's records for many years now."

"Well, I'm sure your help would be invaluable, but I won't delay you with my minor affairs. Come, you'd best take a seat for the show." He hustled Saruman into a seat on the end of a long bench, and settled beside him with a little grunt, his long robes pulled close.

As if he knew what Gandalf wished, Bilbo lowered the lights at that moment and the performance began with Frodo and Eowyn singing a duet. It was an old melody, but the words were new. As the two of them entered, both attired in blue and white, their golden locks shining -- though he knew Frodo's were only a much-used wig carried for many years now -- they made a lovely picture. The verse was about family love, yet feeling a longing for something beyond their own courtyard. They each had solo verses, setting up the differences between them, for Eowyn's character wanted to find glory in battle, protecting her homeland, while Frodo's only wished for peaceful times to raise a family with someone worthy of love and admiration.

Saruman was facing the stage, but not really listening at all. Gandalf felt as if he could hear the wheels turning in the other's head as they sat side by side, but he kept his own eyes on the performers. When Eomer entered, Saruman actually looked down and away, his mouth in a sour line. But after his courtship of the two ladies began, and he went back to Osgiliath to report to the king, Saruman's interest picked up. Tol seemed to confuse him, at first, but the longer he remained on stage the more disappointment showed on Saruman's face.

The performance continued, songs of battles and historic events covering the transitions. It was truly wonderful, Gandalf thought, how Bilbo could take epic events and turn out such an intimate story for his troupe of five to perform. Eowyn had her chance at glory, defending her sister and family from Bilbo, Tol and Eomer in orc-masks, and Frodo swooned very prettily into hero-Eomer's arms when wounded by an arrow while helping pull his sister back. Saruman was twitching with impatience now, very obviously ready to leave the show when the lights came up at intermission.

The place erupted around them, however, since most in the audience were well aware of the short interval of time they'd be able to buy ale. So though they rose, neither wizard could pass out of the room immediately. Which was just perfect, for Aragorn chose that moment to stride out from where he'd been watching backstage, and walk past them. Saruman was riveted, as Gandalf intended. The ranger was exuding menace and power, something he rarely did, and it seemed for a moment as if a diadem shone on his brow, no doubt a trick of the firelight.

"Excuse me, Gandalf, enjoyable as this is, I cannot remain for the rest of the performance."

"Oh, what a shame. I hear this ale is quite good, from one of the finer taverns on the third level actually." Gandalf fussed with his pipe and joined the line for the ale, watching as Saruman pulled on his hood to follow Aragorn out of the door. But Aragorn was immediately turning back and re-entering the kitchen, while the wizard would be searching for him down the streets and byways of the first level.

As soon as Saruman was gone, Gandalf moved back to the stage area. With one last glance to be sure he wasn't observed, he passed through the curtained doorway and into the kitchen. Aragorn was there, smiling at him grimly.

"He took our bait, it seems?"

"Indeed. I'd forgotten your power, dear boy, for you keep it so well hidden beneath your ratty cloak."

"I learned to do that from the master, Gandalf Greyhame."

He smiled grimly. "Thinking about you should keep him distracted until we can get the hobbits safely away."

"Safely? With Bilbo headed east, it doesn't seem like he's moving toward safety."

"I'm hoping that his obsessive desire will fade, Aragorn, and he will turn away from his intended path. But even if it does not, he will be safer without the ring than he has been in many years, and certainly safer than he is in Minas Tirith at this time."

"It is a grievous blow, to find that Denethor's mind is being corrupted."

"In his pride he has opened the city to the power in Mordor."

"Say in his fear, for I believe he is still motivated by the desire to protect Gondor."

"Perhaps. It seems more likely that he feels the kingship is his in all but name, and that the palantir is rightly his to use." Gandalf shook his head. "A sad thing for us all. Gondor will still oppose the Dark Lord, but is no longer a reliable ally. What is known to Denethor will be revealed to Sauron."

"Will you two hush, please?" Bilbo was in the doorway, looking very testy. "We're still performing out here, you know."

Gandalf and Aragorn nodded, wondering what he'd overheard. The hobbits seemed to think the war news was far removed from their lives, even though they were living in the city. Gandalf checked the side table where Bilbo's rucksack sat, fully packed for his journey. There was a purse, traveling money for the "children." A letter for Frodo lay beside it, and Gandalf poked at it thoughtfully. Though the envelope was marked from holding an object, nothing was in it now except a slip of paper.

He sat with Aragorn in the dark room as the fire died, listening to the applause from the next room. Eowyn's songs always won her great praise, and this certainly was a role after her own heart. She alone in the group was not anxious to return to her home, and Frodo had given Aragorn and Gandalf the key to her discontent. She still hoped for news of Faramir, and leaving his city made her believe she might never see him again.

Gandalf smiled. He knew Faramir, and thought young Eowyn had given her heart to a worthy hero, noble, brave and blessed with a loving heart. Gandalf could only hope that Denethor's folly would not destroy his sons and ruin this city.

The swell of applause grew, and Gandalf realized the performance was over when he heard the stamping and cheering. Then Bilbo went out on stage and said some words, thanking them for their patronage over the past months. Gandalf and Aragorn moved to where they could watch the stage just in time to see Eomer and Tol move to turn up the lanterns, as Bilbo concluded his remarks, his hand in his vest pocket.

"I've enjoyed my time in your lovely White City very much, but now I'm leaving... forever. Goodbye." And with the word, Bilbo vanished before their eyes. With a muttered curse, Gandalf moved his staff and a pouf of smoke and flash of light obscured the stage, while the audience exclaimed over what had happened in excited voices.

Gandalf felt the shove as Bilbo pushed past them, still invisible but obviously angry, too. "You've spoiled my little joke," came a petulant voice from nowhere, and then Bilbo was before them again, his ring clutched tightly in his hand.

"Bilbo Baggins, I've told you such magic should not be lightly used, yet you thought to play a joke?"

"I'm leaving. What can it hurt? This will give the city a reason to remember me."

"They'd remember you for your shows, Bilbo," came Frodo's voice from the doorway. "Your songs, your words -- those will live on. Didn't you hear how pleased the audience was?"

"Frodo, where are the others?" Aragorn asked.

"They're with the audience -- it will take a long time for everyone to leave now that they have this to discuss," he said with a puzzled look at Bilbo. "I told them Gandalf had arranged a joke with Bilbo, and caused him to disappear."

"Very good," Gandalf said at the same moment that Bilbo exclaimed, "Why would you say that?"

"Because for all the years I've known about your ring, Bilbo, you always told me to tell no one. I don't understand why tonight you're ready to reveal it to the world."

"It's still mine," Bilbo grumbled. "I suppose I can do what I wish with my own property. I didn't steal it, you know."

Aragorn placed his arm around Frodo, which helped dispel the hurt confusion Bilbo's attitude was causing the younger hobbit. Gandalf moved forward.

"Well, my friend, you have made your sensation and vanished into the night -- and now I think you must do just that, and begin your journey as we planned."

"Indeed. Well, I'm quite ready." Bilbo's hand was over his vest pocket as he moved to don his coat and cloak. Gandalf watched him ignore the envelope with Frodo's name on it, and instead pull on his pack and turn to the door. "Goodbye, then."

"Bilbo!" Frodo's cry was louder than Gandalf's, but Bilbo turned to the wizard instead of his kinsman.

"It's mine. I don't care to leave it here, no matter what you say." Gandalf said nothing, and Frodo watched with an open mouth, pulled back into Aragorn's embrace, as their wills battled silently. "You want it for yourself! Thief!" It was a voice so unlike Bilbo's that it seemed to come from another place and time.

"Bilbo Baggins, we have been friends a very long time." Gandalf stooped then, keeping his face kindly though he was exerting all his power against the thing influencing Bilbo. "Trust me, as you used to. Frodo is your heir and he will guard your treasure."

As he stared at Gandalf, Bilbo pulled the ring out of his pocket and held it in his hand, fingers tightly curled over it. But the longer they remained frozen in the struggle, the looser his grasp became. Suddenly he threw the ring down, away from him, and it rang against the stone floor.

"It's yours, Frodo my lad," he spit out, the words sounding like a curse. Then, suddenly, a shadow cleared from his brow and Bilbo laughed. "I'm off to explore, my boy. Kiss me, quickly now."

Frodo ran to him for a long hug and a kiss to his cheek, and Bilbo kissed his brow in return. "I'll miss you terribly, Bilbo. Come home when you can."

"Now, now, you'll be back with your Sam and your cousins and all your friends. Don't think I haven't noticed you pining for the Shire. Give my regards to Doc Thistle, and enjoy yourself, lad." Bilbo turned to the others then. "Say goodbye to the children for me, Gandalf. Strider. See to Frodo's safety, will you?"

With their nods and Frodo's last embrace, Bilbo turned to the door. As he crossed the threshold, he looked back just once, then shook himself and kept walking. Frodo stood in the doorway, but Gandalf looked over him and saw Bilbo shift his pack, then heard him begin whistling an old traveling song.

Frodo looked up at him then. "Will he be all right, Gandalf? He's been so... He's too old to be traveling alone. I should have gone..."

"No, Frodo, he's not too old for the journey he'll be making now. I don't expect Bilbo will go much further alone, though I don't believe he'll return to the Shire, either. I think he and I will meet again, sooner than he expects, and he'll travel north to his old haunts with me."

"To the Lonely Mountain?" Frodo asked. "But that's not what he's been saying."

"No, no indeed. But I expect a change of heart." Gandalf turned into the room, and the ring seemed to wink at him in the flickering firelight. He thought Aragorn, too, was staring at it, exerting all his will not to pick it up. "Frodo, will you put Bilbo's ring in this envelope for me?" He removed the note from Bilbo and held out the open envelope to Frodo, who obeyed him without seeming to notice the odd tension in the room. Gandalf saw the ring had actually chipped the stone of the floor when Bilbo cast it aside.

He sealed the envelope hastily and put it on the table. "Bilbo left you a note, Frodo. And you should tuck the ring in your luggage -- and don't use it for any reason. Keep it safe, and secret. No one should know you now bear it."

"No one?" he asked. "But no one knows about it at all, except you and now Strider."

"I'm afraid Bilbo's prank may have revealed the ring to someone tonight. For that reason alone, I'd like them to believe the ring left Minas Tirith with Bilbo."

Frodo nodded but looked unhappy. He carried the envelope out of the room, much more concerned with Bilbo's note, which was clutched in his other hand. "I'll -- I just want to read this, Strider, and change my clothes. Then I'll be back."

"That's fine, Frodo." It was amazing how Aragorn's face softened when he was with Frodo. Gandalf tried to remember how he behaved with Arwen, and couldn't really compare them. Aragorn truly loved Arwen, but it was a hopeless emotion that filled him with despair. Having Frodo to love, and Frodo freely giving love back to him so innocently and passionately, was a balm to Aragorn's lonely heart.

Eomer and Eowyn came rushing into the room. "Strider, will you help us close the house? Some people are refusing to leave, and they're getting unpleasant now that the ale is all gone, too. I'm afraid we'll have to escort the bartender back to his home."

"Eowyn, child, stay with me and make some tea for an old man, would you?" Gandalf said, nodding at Eomer's smile of thanks. "Lovely performance tonight, my dear. It's easy to see that you are a daughter of kings, and have the heart of a shieldmaiden. Even those in the audience who didn't hear of your exploits would know it, seeing your performance."

"Thank you, Gandalf, but you don't have to compliment me to keep me here with you. I understand why Eomer doesn't want me in the common room any longer."

"It's better to be cautious when we can, my dear. You'll face enough dangers on your road home, I fear."

"The true danger I face, Master Gandalf, is dying of boredom in a cage once I reach my home." She banged the full kettle down a bit loudly, then shook her head and laughed at herself. "Truly, I am still the child you call me. Strider has told me there will be many chances for valor when war comes to Rohan, as it must. Yet I still wish I could be with .. Eomer, in open and honorable warfare, protecting my people and their lands."

Gandalf looked at her young, beautiful face and saw a vision of her, aged only a little but her eyes much changed from facing certain death and terror, one arm hanging useless at her side. But the image wavered, as such visions always did, for no future was set in stone. "Faramir is a fine young man. I've known him many years, since he was a boy."

"Really?" She was too eager to hear stories to protest ignorance.

"He was being trained as a warrior, with his older brother Boromir. But Faramir always found time for stories I could tell him, and old scrolls in the city's archives about the deeds of past kings and stewards. He is a throwback to the ancient days, when the nobility were taught to be both scholars and soldiers."

"That must have been a very different time in Gondor," Eowyn said. "With that shadow to the east, I can understand why they now favor warriors over all other men."

"Yes, but unless a warrior knows of the perils he may face, how can he avoid making the same mistakes his ancestors committed?" Gandalf smiled at her. "Faramir blends wisdom and strength, something we all should aim to achieve."

The others returned, then, to join them for tea, and soon Frodo came into the room, all traces of his makeup removed and in his own clothing again. His eyes were red-rimmed but he smiled and laughed with them, discussing the performance and their plan for leaving the next morning. While they spoke, Gandalf cast his mind out, tracing Bilbo's path out the city gate and toward the river. He would have to go far north to cross, before he could continue eastward. It seemed to him that Bilbo's steps had already slowed, as if he finally felt the presence across the river as an oppressing force, fraught with danger, rather than one that allured.

***

Frodo knew he was being overly dramatic as they finally walked out the gate of Minas Tirith. Surely no one else wanted to weep with joy at the feeling of freedom? It was like going outdoors again after a long illness had kept him confined to one stuffy room.

Then Frodo looked around him. Eomer was smiling; Tol's face was dazed, as if sunshine were new to his eyes; and Strider was stretching as if he'd just uncurled from a chair. Even Eowyn, dressed once again in her brother's cast-off clothing, seemed to be breathing deeply as she squinted in the sunshine. Frodo allowed himself the happy, giddy laughter he'd been holding in as they filed past the guards. And though the others turned to him, no one asked what was funny.

Gandalf had headed out on his own horse before dawn, saying his business wouldn't wait. But Strider was traveling with them, adding to Frodo's joy. He still worried about Bilbo -- how could he not? But Frodo was nonetheless relieved to finally be turning his face north and west, away from the shadows of the dark land, toward home.

Aragorn's horse carried the supplies they couldn't manage on their own, for there had been no money for a cart and pony. They'd abandoned their stage properties, costumes, and sets, so anxious to leave that they didn't delay even one day to see if they could barter them for food. They knew it was a risk, being on foot through the dangerous territory ahead, but they were all willing to chance it to get home.

Their course paralleled the great wall of the city for a time, until it curved into the mountain rock while the road continued north. The bright sunshine was warm, but the air was cool enough for comfort as they walked.

Frodo was a little breathless, trying to keep up, but he'd vowed not to be a burden to any of them this time. He knew he'd added to their hardships on the journey south, and sometimes felt that Bilbo's restlessness was partly his fault. Surely if he'd been a better companion, Bilbo wouldn't have wanted to leave him. Leave them all. He shifted his pack and thought of Sam, safe in the Shire with his family and Rosie, and wondered if anyone would be truly happy to see him return to Bag End.

Well, it didn't matter. He would be happy just to get to Combe, and see Doc ... That was a startling thought, how much he was looking forward to being in Bree. Once, he'd thought he never wanted to see that village again. Somehow it was different now, after Minas Tirith. Despite that horrible day when he'd been attacked, Frodo was looking forward to being back in a land where there were other hobbits, and where big people lived side by side with them and understood them. Besides, he'd never have to face Mugwort or Ferny again. They'd probably remain in jail for the rest of their lives, after murdering that poor hobbit.

Then Frodo's mind wandered to Edoras, and he thought about seeing Theodred again. Frodo glanced over to Strider, and blushed. He shouldn't be thinking about kissing anyone except his Strider, he knew that. But he did owe Theodred many thanks, and he hoped there would be a quiet time to speak with the prince while Eomer and Eowyn were resettled in their home.

"Frodo, are you in need of rest?" Strider, always so considerate, must have seen how red his face was.

"No, Strider, I'm fine. Just... thinking." And he felt even more blood stain his face. Strider's scrutiny changed, a wicked smile flitting across his face for a moment.

"I see. Still, we shouldn't be walking so fast and not thinking of your comfort. Tol, Eomer, slow your pace!" Strider's hand was on Frodo's shoulder, gently supporting him, and somehow sending fire through his body -- just a simple touch! And somehow Frodo was remembering every hour they'd spent kissing and touching, working each other into an absolute frenzy of unsatisfied longings.

For they'd never done more than kiss and caress, though Frodo had tried very hard to change that. Strider always stopped him, pulling Frodo's clothing back together and often removing Frodo's hand as it burrowed inside Strider's leggings or under his shirt. It was wonderful and wonderfully frustrating, and Frodo was determined that during their journey, he would finally get what he wanted. He was going to see Strider without all his confounded clothing, and would really make love with him at last, until both their bodies were finally satisfied.

And if it didn't happen soon, he'd see what Strider thought about him renewing his acquaintance with Theodred. Oh, he wouldn't tease the prince -- but perhaps Strider still wondered who that man on horseback had been. If he did, Frodo might use it to his advantage. As Bilbo used to say, all's fair in love and mushroom-hunting.

They stopped for a meal in the shadows of the White Mountains, and Strider told stories about the ancient kings who'd come to Middle-earth when Numenor fell. As they were re-packing their knapsacks, a lone rider came out of the northeast, moving swiftly but obviously scanning the terrain for something.

The rider moved closer, and Eowyn cried, "Faramir!"

It was their brave benefactor, though Frodo wouldn't have recognized him, he looked so weary and worn. The orcs were evidently keeping their troop very busy, for Faramir's clothing was mud-splattered and his tunic needed mending. Frodo thought it likely that each jagged rent covered a matching wound, and he once again felt useless among all these fine warriors. Even Tol, though not raised to warfare, was more helpful, because of his healing skills.

Tol was watching Eowyn embrace Faramir with a weary, resigned face. When they broke apart she was blushing, and quickly introduced Strider to her soldier. They seemed to look at each other a little too long, and Frodo thought perhaps Faramir was jealous. But his words proved otherwise.		

"Mithrandir brought me word of your journey, and I had to come at once. Boromir is angry, of course, but even he understood I had to stop you."

"Stop us?" Eowyn said, turning pink and smiling up at him.

"You cannot truly intend to travel these dangerous roads on foot! There are orcs roaming everywhere, and one more warrior in your midst won't keep you safe."

"We hope to avoid notice, and move quickly to safer lands," Eomer said.

"There are no safer lands, not unless the north is truly as peaceful as it seems in the stories of Frodo's Shire." Faramir looked quite distressed. "My friends, you must return to the city."

"We cannot, Faramir. Now that we have left, your father will not welcome us again," Eomer smiled at him. "We have chosen our course. Believe me, the city can be dangerous, too."

"I cannot escort you-- I have duties that I must not shirk," Faramir pleaded.

"I will guard them," Strider said. "If you advise it, I will keep them off the main roads, and take them by longer, more secret ways." Again the two men stared at each other, and Frodo saw that they were somehow akin to each other, more alike than even Eomer and Tol. Whatever their eyes communicated, it made Faramir nod at last.

"I do advise that, for the orcs watch the old roadways. The more you can travel in the wilderness, away from known paths, the safer you will be." With a final nod, he turned from Strider. "Eowyn, my lady. If fate is kind, we shall meet again when the world is less dark."

She went into his arms and passionately kissed him before Faramir even knew what hit him. "We shall meet again, no matter what happens. I do not fear the darkness." The others were staring, just as stunned as Faramir himself. Frodo wanted to giggle, but he covered his mouth and watched as the Gondorian stumbled back to his mount, stammered a formal farewell, and rode off.

"Well." Eomer, speaking as dryly as he always did when his sister acted up. "Shall we move on, then?"

***

Three days had passed since they left Faramir, and true to his word, Strider was taking them through the wilderness far from the road. They'd seen no one, and heard nothing but birds and beasts. Their progress was slow, for they hunted each day, needing good food to strengthen them for walking. Certainly they had more plentiful food now than they'd had while in the city. And Strider gave them time to pick winter berries when they ran across them, and gather nuts from beneath trees as they walked.

Despite the hardships of travel, in some ways Frodo thought they were all happier than they'd been in Minas Tirith. The feeling of a full belly made a great difference to him, as did the pleasure of having Strider always with him, even when they were merely silently walking together. He thought part of it might be the way the Dark Land receded behind them, easing their hearts.

As he walked, Frodo was resolving that tonight he would draw Strider away from the fire. Eowyn was to take the first watch, and Frodo knew she would sympathize with his desire to have some private time with Strider. With any luck, tonight they would finally make love at last.

Such thoughts made the time fly past, so it was growing dark before Frodo realized the others were seeking a spot to set up camp.

He flew about his usual tasks, pulling down the rabbits from Strider's horse to be cleaned and skinned while the others gathered wood and water, and built up a cooking fire. Soon the meat was simmering with wild onions and other herbs, and they were all washing the dust from their faces and hands.

Frodo couldn't help smiling more than usual as he thought about his plans for the evening, and he blushed whenever Strider caught his eye. The man would cooly raise an eyebrow in inquiry, and Frodo would have to look away before he burst into flame just thinking about what he'd like to say.

Eowyn noticed, and began to tease him unmercifully during the meal. Tol picked up on it, too, and was laughing again at last. Frodo was happy to hear him, even if it was uncomfortable. Eomer seemed confused, but finally something that Eowyn said let him in on the joke, too, and then he joined in the razzing. But not before Frodo saw a tiny bit of pain cross his eyes.

Of course. He'd been so selfish, not to realize that Eomer still loved Strider, too. Somehow Frodo had brushed aside his friend's feelings, too caught up in his own happiness.

He looked at Tol, broken-hearted over Eowyn, and then at Eomer, still pining for Strider. Couldn't the two of them find happiness together, now that neither could have the person they really wanted? But perhaps they'd finally reached a time when simply taking pleasure wasn't enough. Frodo had never thought that it would satisfying, not in place of real love...

By the time they'd cleaned up and settled in their bedrolls, Frodo was feeling very guilty about his plan to sneak off with Strider. But he was determined to try, for if not now, when would they next have the chance? The fine weather was holding, but even that was chancy.

Frodo waited until Tol and Eomer seemed asleep, then carefully unwrapped himself from his blankets and moved to where Strider was curled. He kissed his man, just a gentle touch to his cheek, and watched those star-colored eyes open to gaze at him.

"Frodo." The warm, sleepy voice washed over him as Strider's arms pulled him closer, and Frodo gave himself willingly to a long, lovely kiss. But then Frodo was tucked under Strider's chin, wrapped in his blankets and weighed down by heavy limbs. Frodo squirmed and finally managed to pull away.

"What's wrong?"

"Don't go to sleep," he hissed in a whisper. "I need to speak to you."

"Yes?"

"Not here!" Frodo wished he were standing, so he could stamp his foot with impatience. "Can we move away from camp, for just a moment?"

Strider looked concerned, but he agreed and gracefully rose. Frodo sighed happily as he brushed off his trousers and followed the man. It was going to work!

Strider stopped to say a few words to Eowyn and they were walking hand in hand among the trees, the light of the fire fading behind them. The stars seemed to grow brighter overhead.

"What is troubling your mind, Frodo?"

"I..." He looked up, tongue tied, and Strider crouched beside him at last. "I love you." He flung himself against the man, pressing a fervent kiss to his lips.

But Strider pulled away, an odd expression on his face. "You brought me here to say that?"

"I took you away from the others so I can finally show you how much I love you, silly ranger." Frodo's hands were busy loosening laces on Strider's shirt as he spoke. But those big hands came up to gently cover and still Frodo's.

"There's no need for you to show me anything, Frodo," he said, softening the words with a kiss. "I see all I need to know in your face each time to look at me, love."

"Oh, Strider -- I want this, perhaps more than you do--" He snuggled against the broad chest. "Just being this close to you makes me ache. I've longed to see you, see all of you." Then Frodo's face was tipped up into another of the long, lush kisses that made his toes curl and his whole body ignite.

Frodo poured all his love and yearning into kissing Strider back, forgetting his plans in the bliss of the moment. His hands merely clutched at Strider's shoulder, instead of pulling off his clothing. Further words were lost in the press of lips, the touch of tongues, the sweet nips to a bristly chin under ripe, red lips.

Frodo drifted away, floating on pleasure, and when he found his wits again he was lying atop Strider, his clothing open, big hands exploring bare flesh and leaving a trail of fire behind. Strider's shirt, too, was hanging open, though Frodo would swear he hadn't done that. Still, it pleased him greatly to explore the broad expanse, nipples hidden amongst thick curls of dark hair. Frodo sighed against Strider's chest, idly licking at one of the tiny nubs, gratified to hear a moan break from the swollen lips still gasping for breath.

"Frodo Baggins, you will be the death of me yet," Strider gasped.

"If one could die from frustration, I would already be a shade haunting you, Strider," Frodo replied tartly, pushing his hips down so the man could feel Frodo's arousal pressing into his stomach. "Please, show me what to do, so I can please you."

But Strider's arms wrapped around him, just as they had back at camp. "Everything you do pleases me, Frodo. Every touch, every smile. I love you, dear, foolish hobbit."

It wasn't the answer Frodo wanted, but it was still very satisfactory. Frodo kissed Strider's neck to show his approval. That led to being pulled up into another long kissing session, and soon Frodo was once again writhing against Strider while the man's hips bucked each time Frodo's knee carefully rubbed against his big, hard cock. Strider's hands closed over Frodo's bottom, pressing him down, and it was bliss.

Then Frodo heard a noise behind them, and broke from a kiss with a sigh. It must be Tol or Eomer, come to find out where they'd gone. He turned, and something struck him.

Frodo heard Strider's cry as everything went dark.

***

"Eomer! Tol, wake up!" Eowyn's voice was pitched low but urgent. "I heard a cry, and voices."

"Where's Strider?" Tol asked.

"And Frodo?" Eomer added.

"They wandered off together, about an hour ago." She sounded so remorseful Eomer couldn't scold her, though he was not happy at being awakened. "Strider told me he'd stay within calling distance. I heard him calling out Frodo's name." Her hands were shaking.

Eomer was finally awake now, and he stared at her for a moment, snorted, then laughed. "They snuck off alone and you're surprised to hear Strider was crying Frodo's name?"

Tol laughed, too. "They're pleasuring each other?"

"Of course." Eomer tried to settle back into his bedroll, but Eowyn hit his arm.

"Do you think I'm a fool? It wasn't that -- I told you, there were voices. Other voices!"

That sounded like real trouble. Eomer pulled on his sword belt as Tol lit torches from the embers of the fire. Then the three of them were crashing through the brush in the direction Eowyn pointed them, calling for Strider and Frodo. But there was no answer, and it took them too long to search.

When they finally found an area where the ground had been trampled, Tol spotted the flash of pale flesh that was Frodo, unconscious and bleeding from a wound on his temple. Tol bent to examine him, Eowyn holding the torches, while Eomer tried to read the ground as he'd been taught by Strider.

"I need to take Frodo back to camp, to treat him. He must have turned into the blow -- it could have killed him, being struck so hard..." Tol was muttering to himself, and Eowyn was fidgeting beside him, no doubt feeling as useless as Eomer did.

"They must have taken Strider," Eomer announced. "Look, his cloak is here on the ground. He wouldn't have willingly left it behind."

"His cloak? He would never have left Frodo, especially when he's been injured," Eowyn argued.

"You're both right," To said. "But why would anyone take Strider?"

"I don't know. Let me help you carry him back to the fire."

Eowyn lit their way as they carried the hobbit between them. When Frodo was finally on his blankets before the fire, Eowyn rushed to warm water and Tol dug through his pack for his supply of herbs.

"One of us must ride back to the city," Eomer said.

"But who there would be willing to help us?" Tol asked, his face grim as he washed blood and dirt out of Frodo's hair.

"No one," Eowyn said. "The city, like its Steward, has no heart."

"But perhaps you could find a law man..."

"Faramir would come to our aid," Eowyn said confidently.

"He is a soldier under the Steward's command. He cannot come and go as he pleases. But perhaps he could find a way to track Gandalf, and get word to him of what has happened..." Eomer had been trained to leadership, yet never had it been so difficult to decide what was the right course of action.

Frodo groaned then, as Tol cleaned his wound, and they waited for him to fully wake and tell them what had happened. But the hobbit was dazed with pain and had seen nothing. All he would say was "We must find Strider."

The third time he groggily repeated himself, Eomer sighed, looking to Tol and his sister. "Eowyn, you must ride to Faramir's camp, and beg aid of the captain. Tol and I will take Frodo and track these men. They have been careless and it will be easy to see if their trail leads back to the city, or elsewhere."

"You suspect Saruman," Tol guessed.

"After what happened to us in the city, I do." Eomer turned back to Eowyn. "I'll help you with the horse. Ride swiftly, and stop for nothing and no one."

He pulled their supplies from Strider's horse, piling them on the ground. He repacked a saddlebag for Eowyn with extra provisions, and filled her water skin and Strider's before tying them on to the saddle.

Eowyn kissed Frodo and embraced Tol, then she was in his arms. "I swear I'll find help and be back soon."

"Just be safe, my sister. If we head toward the city, I'll tie a white cloth to these trees. But if there's no flag, you'll know the trail leads to Isengard." They kissed and he boosted her into the saddle, and with a few swift movements she was gone, the sound of hoofbeats fading in the pre-dawn light.

Eomer turned to Tol and Frodo. "We should try to rest, so we're fresh for tracking them when the light is better."

"Frodo is already sleeping," Tol admitted. "I'll rest with you, though I doubt we'll sleep."

Eomer gathered their blankets to pile on either side of Frodo, for warmth and safety. He realized Strider's was still on the ground, and his sword belt was there, too, abandoned. Eomer picked them up and handed the heavy sword to Tol.

"You should wear this now. You may need to use it, before our journey ends."

Tol looked a little sick at the thought, but he nodded and accepted it. They were silent, rolled up in their blankets, for a long time. Neither slept until their hands met and entwined over Frodo's shoulder. Then they finally were able to close their eyes.

***

Walking was a misery. Everything was pain, in his head and feet and heart. Frodo pushed on, following Eomer and Tol as they tracked the men who'd ridden off with Strider.

None of them had heard the enemy horses, for they'd been left tethered far from their camp. The men had taken Strider to where they'd left their steeds; the tracks were clear even to Frodo and Tol.

To Frodo's great relief, the trail showed Strider had been able to walk, though at first their enemies had dragged him away from the place where they'd been assaulted. If Strider could walk, he couldn't have been seriously injured, could he?

For two days now Frodo had tortured himself with such dark thoughts, and questions that had no answers. What did they want with Strider? He still didn't understand why Saruman and Denethor had wanted to see Eomer and Tol, either. But now there was no way to explain it away; they'd been assaulted and it was clear that the men came from the direction of Isengard. Of course, they could be Rohirrim, though Eomer denied it. Frodo guessed he was correct; if the king had sent men to abduct anyone, it would have been Eomer himself, since he was the one needed to carry out the king's business. As far as Frodo knew, Theoden had never heard of Strider.

The sun was setting, and a ray of light caught the edge of Strider's sword where it hung from Tol's waist. The sight made Frodo want to scream, or beat the earth with his fists like a hobbit-child having a tantrum. But he took deep breaths instead, to ease the pounding in his head and calm him. He reminded himself Strider wasn't helpless, even without his weapon. And Frodo grimly kept walking, even though he knew the men were far ahead of them by now.

When they heard hoofbeats, Frodo's first thought was that Eowyn was returning to them.

"There are many horses," Eomer said, and Frodo imagined Faramir and a troop of men, with horses for all of them. That lovely thought only lasted a moment, however, for Eomer continued, "They approach from the west. Be ready to fight."

The three of them dropped their knapsacks and drew closer together.

"Frodo, stay between us," Tol said firmly, though the arm holding Strider's sword wavered a bit. Frodo nodded and watched with horror as the blur blocking the setting sun grew larger. He counted six of them riding down upon them, and hated himself for being unskilled, useless even if he'd had a weapon. Frodo set his jaw and hoped he could face death bravely, so at least his friends wouldn't be ashamed of him.

Then the horses were upon them, and Eomer cut down the first horseman with a mighty, two-handed stroke. Frodo saw Tol trying to use his long blade, too, but Tol wasn't a warrior. He'd been taught to heal and protect living creatures, and he flinched back when his blow send blood gushing from the neck of a screaming horse. Frodo, too, felt sick with fear and revulsion.

The man whose horse had fallen knocked Tol to the side and while another man rode over him, the first grabbed Frodo and picked him up.

Frodo struggled without crying out -- what was the use? Eomer and Tol were already fighting for their lives. There was no one to help him. So he kicked and hit at the man as fiercely as he could. But the man was oddly gentle with him, not striking Frodo or drawing his weapon. Instead, Frodo found he was being wrapped up in a cloak. Panic replaced the cold, clear-headedness he'd felt when he thought he would die. Frodo fought more wildly, but the fabric bound him, muffling his screams, and soon he was lifted higher and thrown down. Not slammed to the ground, but tossed across the back of one of the horses, for it immediately began moving.

Frodo stopped trying to call out or struggle. It was useless, and he might learn more by listening if only he could calm the racing heartbeat that pounded in his ears along with his rasping breaths. After a time he could hear that there was more than one horse; there were others to both sides of him. The men riding them weren't speaking, though he heard a groan from the rider in front of him.

The jostling went on for a long time, and Frodo's head felt like it would explode. It must be full dark by now, he knew. He might be able to find a way out of the cloth binding him, now that he was calm, but he didn't want to fall off the horse and be trampled by the others. Even if he somehow avoided that, he would be lost in the wilderness, far from anyone. If Eomer and Tol were somehow still alive and unharmed, they still wouldn't be able to track him until sunrise.

And what if these men were taking him in the opposite direction of whoever had taken Strider? That didn't seem likely to Frodo, but it could be. And then, how would poor Eomer chose who to follow?

He'd fallen asleep but woke when he was pulled off the horse at last and dropped to the ground, then dragged over rough earth and onto a smoother surface. He heard voices speaking, a man saying, "Bret and Tiny were killed by that Rohirrim warrior. No great loss, though I wouldn't have minded staying longer to get some back. But orders is orders."

Then Frodo was thrown about a bit, and the blanket finally opened. Firelight dazzled his eyes.

"What's this?"

"The woman was gone. We grabbed the halfling instead."

"You fools! How could she get away?" The man staring down at him looked familiar, somehow. Then Frodo realized he was reminded of Gandalf. This man's height, the way he was clothed, and the authority in his voice were all similar. Could this be Saruman the wizard? "This won't do at all..."

The speaker turned away, but one of the others grabbed Frodo and pulled him free of the cloth, holding him by the back of his neck. "Why not? He's almost as pretty as a girl, and little. If you thought threatening a woman would move him, why not try with this one? They were rolling about together that night we grabbed him, and the ranger had this one's clothing half off."

"Indeed?" The man turned and reevaluated Frodo with a long stare that made him shiver. "Why didn't you tell me that before? Bring him."

They dragged Frodo into another room where it was cold and fireless, but candles illuminated the figure huddled in the far corner, tied hand and foot.

"Strider!" Frodo tried to go to him, but was restrained by the man, who laughed at the way Strider's head shot up and his face turned white.

"Frodo! No, Saruman, you will not harm him..." Strider tried to struggle to his feet, then, but he couldn't move his legs enough to manage it. Another ruffian pushed him back with a laugh.

"I see my men told me the truth. This halfling is dear to you, ranger?" Strider didn't answer in words, but Frodo could see the anguish in his eyes and so could the wizard. "Your silence will bring him great pain. Surely it would be better to be reasonable, prove yourself my friend, and enjoy the protection I can give you both?"

Frodo shook his head. For a moment, the wizard's words had seemed so very reasonable and sensible... But this man had hurt Eomer, tried to hurt Tol, was keeping Strider his prisoner, and sent those men to harm them all. Frodo steeled his will to ignore the persuasive voice.

"Don't listen to him," he said to Strider.

The next thing Frodo knew he was being pulled to his feet, his head ringing. Blood was dripping down his chin, and Strider was on his feet, shouting something.

"That was nothing, Strider. Tell me your real name, and your purpose in this land, or I'll begin experiments to see just how much pain a halfling can endure." Now Frodo heard only truth in the wizard's words, and a lust for inflicting pain was coloring his voice. "Why are you traveling with these mongrel races? What is your purpose?" Frodo didn't understand the question, he'd never been clear on what Saruman wanted with any of them, but he knew if Strider was keeping silent, there was a good reason.

Frodo saw the anguish in Strider's face, and smiled as best he could with his swollen mouth. He tried to silently convey that he understood, that he knew it wasn't Strider's fault. But Strider just looked more upset, tears standing in his eyes.

"Very well. You have chosen this. Tie him," Saruman commanded, and ropes were bound to Frodo's wrists, then his arms were stretched with a man holding the end on either side.

The pain began, though Saruman didn't touch him. Frodo writhed with agony and knew he was screaming. He tried to go far away, back in the Shire with Sam on a sunny road. It didn't help, soon he was sobbing with the pain, and he heard Strider's voice though no words reached him.

It finally ended, but before Frodo could feel relief Saruman ordered, "Strip him."

Frodo screamed and thrashed, and the men had to beat him with their fists to restrain him enough to tear away his clothes.

"That's an interesting reaction, isn't it?" the wizard purred. "He endures pain beautifully. Too well, perhaps. But it seems being naked in this cold room terrifies him." He bent down beside Frodo and ran a fingernail down his body, laughing softly when Frodo sobbed and tried vainly to twist away. "I'll give you some time to think of how many ways I can have my men use this hobbit. They'll be happy to warm him up, I believe." He turned to the men holding Frodo. "Tie him securely and leave him with the ranger."

Frodo was soon bound and dropped beside Strider on the cold dirt floor. The men left, following the wizard into the other room. Frodo heaved a deep breath.

"Frodo." The broken, hoarse voice didn't even sound like Strider. "Forgive me..."

He could only reply in a whisper, his own voice nearly gone and his throat parched. "Not... your fault. Don't tell..."

Strider pulled Frodo into his lap, and tried to warm him with his own body though he was icy, too. Frodo was miserable and afraid, and he knew the men would return to torment them again. Everything hurt, his body and his mind. Yet with Strider holding him, he slept.

***

Eomer woke with the sound of galloping in his ear, Tol's warm body tucked beside him in their blankets. It took a moment to realize that it hadn't been a dream; the earth was vibrating. He gently shook Tol's shoulder.

"Riders."

Tol was immediately alert, and they quickly rose, kicking their gear to the side, and readied their weapons, setting themselves for battle

But this time the troop advancing turned when they were spotted, and slowed. Then Eowyn's fair voice called their names even as Eomer picked out the faces of Faramir, Boromir, and Gandalf the Grey.

He rang to hug his sister as she swung off the still-moving horse, her face wet with tears though she now laughed. He held her close, relieved to see her unharmed, but when they parted she gasped.

"You've been hurt! Tol -- you're both injured." She cataloged the bandage on his arm and he bruises on Tol's face, her hands fluttering nervously as they never did around horses or weaponry.

"We were attacked a second time, at dusk yestereve," Eomer replied. "Gandalf, I'm glad you've come."

"If this is truly Saruman's work, I shall be needed." The wizard remained on his horse, peering into the west as if he saw something.

Boromir pointed to the east and two of his men rode a short distance, circled, and came back with their faces twisted in distaste. "Two men and a horse, and the crows are feasting," was the report.

"We killed those two, but there were too many of them. They took Frodo."

"But why?" Eowyn asked, and Eomer could only shake his head. He'd asked himself that many times without finding an answer.

"You needn't concern yourselves with that," Gandalf said rather sternly. "We've brought horses for you -- are you well enough to ride? Good. Then we should move on, right now. If you agree, Captain?"

Boromir looked uneasy for just a moment, then his face cleared and he nodded. "They are not citizens of Gondor, but these are still our lands. The Steward would not have travelers under his protection assaulted in this manner. We'll track these attackers and see they are punished."

Eomer saw Faramir send a reassuring smile at Eowyn before he turned to bring the spare horses to them.

"Will you be able to ride, Eomer? Tolbert?"

"Yes, we'll manage," Eomer replied, and Tol nodded. Faramir bowed to them both as he handed over the reins, his face serious.

"I do not enjoy battle," he admitted. "But we shall overcome these evildoers."

Gandalf called, "There's no time to lose. Quickly now."

Eomer and Tol gathered their packs and blankets as Eowyn re-mounted her horse, and in minutes they were riding west, following the trail as swiftly as possible. Eomer felt hope stir in his breast for the first time in days. It was good to ride swiftly, rather than creeping along on foot. And now there were enough of them to actually succeed in rescuing Strider and Frodo.

They'd been riding for at least an hour when Gandalf called for a halt, and Boromir confirmed the order. They pulled up, and Eomer saw that the wizard was frowning. "Keep following this trail. I believe our friends are to be found on this path. But I must take a different road for the moment. I'll join you soon."

He rode off like a madman, and as they stared after him Eomer marveled at how little information Gandalf shared, yet he expected to be unquestioningly obeyed by free men. The others all looked as disgruntled as Eomer felt, except Faramir, who turned to his captain and said, "There is good reason for everything Gandalf does. We should not delay seeking the captives."

"You and that wizard," Boromir grumbled, but he gave the order and they picked up the trail.

Two leagues further they saw smoke and shortly after that Boromir spied the lone building tucked into a valley between rocky uplands. It was shabby and looked long-abandoned, but for the fireplace. They halted to consider options, but there was no sheltered way to approach. They rested the horses a few moments, giving them water, and took some food themselves, preparing for battle.

Eowyn refused to remain behind, as Eomer had known she would. He looked at her and Tol in despair, for neither of them was equipped for a battle, yet both were too proud and loyal to be denied. "You both must stay to the rear. Eowyn, I know you are brave and can use a sword, but I beg you to think of what we may find inside. Strider and Frodo may need nursing -- you and Tol must not be incapacitated, for you are the only two here with healing skills."

She nodded and swallowed, and Tol was pale but his jaw firmed at the thought of how they might find their friends.

They re-mounted, set themselves, and waited for Boromir's command. When it came, they thundered down the slope toward the cottage. The men inside poured out and onto their horses, and Eomer couldn't tell if they intended to fight or to flee. It didn't matter; they were a rabble, only brave when they outnumbered unarmed victims. The charge became a slaughter, and only when it was over did Eomer remember that perhaps it would have been wise to keep a prisoner or two, to answer their questions.

He vowed to keep a clearer head in the future, and not let battle madness guide his actions. He stormed into the cottage beside Faramir, blade in hand and ready for more fighting. But no one was in the first room where the fire still burned. There wasn't even furniture, though some of the wood stacked beside the hearth bore the shape of chair or table legs.

"This way," Faramir said, and opened the door into a second room. The sunlight coming through the one high window was the only illumination, and it seemed at first that they'd only found Strider. Then Eomer saw that he was huddled over Frodo, both of them tied with heavy ropes, and both unconscious. Tol and Eowyn came rushing in as they moved Strider and saw Frodo was naked. Tol rused over to check on them, feeling at their chests and pulling open their eyes.

"They're alive," Tol whispered. "We need to warm them, they're too cold. Eowyn, get someone to help you fetch water. Heat it all on the fire, in whatever containers you can find."

Faramir helped Eomer carry Strider into the other room and settled him on the floor beside the fire. Tol carefully picked up Frodo, who moaned though he did not wake. Eomer went back for the hobbit's clothing, but found it in shreds, so he went outside for his blanket. He helped Tol lift Frodo and wrap him warmly.

Boromir came in for a moment and watched them work on cutting away the ropes without doing further injury to their friends. "Are they badly hurt?"

"I can't tell," Tol admitted. "I need to clean them to better examine their wounds. I believe they were knocked unconscious when we arrived, and hopefully they will wake soon. Then we'll be able to learn more."

"I'll have the men see to burial, then. Faramir, remain here to assist them."

"Yes, sir," he replied, but Eomer could see gratitude in his eyes and knew Boromir saw it, too. He nodded and left, and Eomer heard his confident voice outside. Boromir was a warrior he could admire and perhaps learn from. Perhaps he should offer to assist; Eomer was no use in a sick room and Faramir was here if Tol required anything. But just as he was about to make an excuse and go outside, Gandalf came bursting into the cottage. Then wild horses couldn't have moved Eomer, not until he heard the wizard's news.

But Gandalf didn't speak to any of them, just looked around the room assessingly, and quickly moved to Strider's side. He laid his hands on Strider's brow and closed his eyes for a moment. Strider stirred almost immediately, his eyes opening as cracked lips rasped, "Gandalf..."

"Tend him," the wizard said to Eowyn, and turned to Frodo. His eyes were filled with sadness as he looked down at the hobbit, yet his face hardened into a stern resolve that was almost frightening.

Tol warned, "He's badly hurt."

"I must speak to him immediately," Gandalf replied, and again his hands moved, covering Frodo's brow as he frowned in concentration. This waking took longer; emotions passed over Gandalf's face as Eomer watched, pain and horror and then, oddly, a reassuring smile. Finally, the wizard gasped at the same moment Frodo did, and both pairs of eyes popped open.

"Give him some water," Gandalf commanded, and Tol obeyed though he looked unhappy. "Frodo, where is Bilbo's ring?"

Frodo looked completely blank for a moment, then he said, "Hurts" in a rasping whisper.

"I know, Frodo, and we shall ease your pain soon. But where is the ring?"

Then Frodo's eyes widened and he cried, "Strider," wildly looking around the room.

Strider, who was struggling to rise, said "I'm here," then coughed until Eowyn pushed a dipper of water into his hand.

"Frodo, concentrate. This is important," Gandalf insisted, his hands closing over Frodo's shoulders and shaking him, just a little. "Where is your ring? Did they take it from you?"

"Ring... the envelope from Bilbo? It's in my pack... I dropped it when they attacked us."

Gandalf's surprise was almost comical, and he released Frodo abruptly. Tol moved to support Frodo, lifting him to lean against Tol's chest, his arms circling him protectively.

"It was never here?" Gandalf said. "Frodo, do you mean they didn't know what you carry?"

"They wanted Eowyn," Frodo said, and Eomer felt his stomach drop. "To make Strider tell them something. Don't know what." Frodo was woozy, his eyes were closing even as he spoke.

"Frodo, stay awake. Where is your pack?"

"Leave him," Tol said sternly. "He told you, he lost it when we were attacked, he doesn't know anything more. It's all right, Frodo. Sleep now."

"I must find it," Gandalf said, rushing to the door, but Eomer blocked his way.

"Gandalf, you can't leave..."

"I don't have time for this, Eomer son of Eomund!" the wizard thundered, but Tol's quiet words stopped them both.

"I picked up Frodo's pack, I've been carrying it. It's on my horse, tied to my pack." He was angry, and tears marked his face. "Is whatever you're seeking really so important, Gandalf? Don't you see what they did to him?"

"I am concerned with all of Middle-earth, Tolbert Thistle."

"Start by being truly concerned with one hobbit!"

Strider, supported by Faramir and Eowyn both, was limping over to where Frodo lay in Tol's arms. "Tol, don't be angry. Frodo understood, even without knowing our reasons." They settled him beside Frodo, and he took the hobbit from Tol and gently stroked the hair out of his face. "My brave hobbit," Strider whispered.

Gandalf pushed Eomer aside and strode out to the horses. He came back with the knapsack that held Frodo's belongings and dumped it on the floor by the fireplace. He pushed at the clothes and food with his staff, until he found a bulging envelope with Frodo's name written on it. Then Gandalf sank to the floor, his head bowed, and looked over to Strider.

"Saruman?"

"Yes, it was him."

"It seems my deception in Minas Tirith worked too well. You were his target."

"I told him nothing. He ... this morning he resumed tormenting Frodo to make me speak. They broke his fingers, and his wrist..." Eomer hadn't noticed the swollen left hand, but now he saw the purpling bruises. "Saruman put agony in his mind, too, without ever touching him."

"I will do what I can to heal that," Gandalf said.

"They threatened... to rape him," Strider continued, "But Saruman sensed something -- your approach, perhaps? He left swiftly, then."

Eowyn was weeping, but her voice was as angry as Eomer felt. "What was so vitally important that you would stay quiet while they did that to him?"

"My lady, Saruman is allied with evil," Strider began, but the wizard cut him off.

"Not allied, not yet. But certainly he has communicated with the dark power that is reassembling armies of orcs in Mordor," he finished.

"It is not yet time for me to be revealed to Saruon or his minions," Strider continued. "Even without knowing any of this, Frodo trusted my judgement. And he was not deceived by Saruman's lies, Gandalf, nor persuaded by the power of his voice. Frodo's will is much stronger than any of us knew."

"We've all seen his valor," Eomer corrected, and Faramir, Eowyn, and Tol all nodded.

"He and Bilbo both showed uncommon courage," Faramir agreed.

Tol sighed. "I wish Bilbo were here, now, to comfort him." It was plain to Eomer how much Tol missed his father, too.

"Bilbo is on his way north, to Rivendell. I couldn't bring him with me; it's far too soon for him to see Frodo again. But Bilbo will be safe with the elves, much safer than you have been." Gandalf stood then, leaning heavily on his staff, and looked at them in turn. When Eomer met his gaze, he felt his heart was being read and his loyalty weighed. "It is my plan to bring Frodo to Rivendell, as soon as possible. But first, we must deal with the treachery of one who is powerful in my order. Too long has Saruman been plotting for himself, rather than caring for the people he was trusted to serve."

Eomer nodded, though he really didn't understand. Whatever Gandalf was thinking, they would have to remain here for days while Strider and Frodo healed. Saruman would be back in his tower at Isengard long before they could follow -- and who could assault him there? Certainly not the six of them.

"Mithrandir, few as we are, our troop is needed back in Ithilien," Faramir said. "Should I ask Boromir if I may remain with you?"

Eomer saw Eowyn's face light up at that, but Gandalf shook his head. "Strength is not needed, my lad. I will stay with our friends, and protect them until we reach Edoras again."

"I'll tell Boromir at once," he said, bowing to them all.

Before he could leave the room, Gandalf said, "Faramir, what you have heard here today is not to be discussed with anyone. Not your brother, nor the Steward. Do you understand?"

"I have always trusted your wisdom, Mithrandir. And I hope I have shown that you may trust me."

"Indeed you have, or I would not have spoken so openly before you. Go on, then." Gandalf waved his staff, and Faramir left.

Eomer and Eowyn followed him out, and walked with him to where the ruffians were laid in a shallow grave. The soldiers were filling in the dirt, and they looked as pleased as Boromir to hear they were now free to return to their encampment and resume their normal duties.

"We'll take our horses, since you have those of the ruffians to ease your road. Though it may be days before your injured friends will be able to ride."

"We cannot thank you enough," Eomer said. "Some day, I hope we may ride into battle together, Captain."

Boromir's smile was dazzling. "I'm sure we shall. Until that day, may the sun shine on your road, Eomer. Lady Eowyn." He turned away, calling out orders to his men.

Faramir had his horse's bridle in his hand, but he stopped to embrace Eomer and Eowyn both. "We shall meet again, my friends. I hope when we do that the day is full of joy, not danger and evil news." He swung up into his saddle.

"Eode wuldor fullice," Eowyn said, and Faramir smiled down at her though Eomer doubted he knew the meaning of her words.

They stood together and watched the Gondorians ride off to the east, not turning away until they were lost from view. Eomer gave his sister a hug before they returned to the others. They were both busy the rest of the afternoon, for there was plenty of work to do. Eomer gathered more wood to build up the fire, and carried in more buckets of water. Eowyn prepared a stew using the dried provisions they all carried, for there was no time or energy for hunting this day. Eomer thought there would at least be rabbits in the valley, not too far from the house, and tomorrow he would find fresh meat to build strength in them all.

Tol was still attending to Frodo and Strider as Eomer watered the horses and made sure they were tied where there was plenty of grass for them. He spent some time with each of them, learning their temperaments. Then he stood stroking the ears of the one he wished to ride, a sturdy gelding with good spirit. How long would Strider and Frodo need to recover?

Strider's body was covered in purple and green bruises. They must have spent their days beating and tormenting him, before they'd come for Frodo... Eomer took a deep breath. No, they'd come for Eowyn, and he thanked every god that she'd been safely away, despite the guilt he felt for Frodo's suffering. He couldn't have lived with himself if she'd been hurt...

 Strider had been interrogated for days, and he'd mentioned some kind of torment of the mind... Could Saruman have done that to him, and not just to Frodo? Eomer decided to mention the possibility to Gandalf. He didn't want there to be a bit of doubt that Saruman might be controlling Strider in some way, or influencing his decisions.

Not that Eomer entirely trusted Gandalf, either. But Strider did, and he was wise and experienced. Eomer had to be guided by him in this matter, for he sensed that it would take many years to gain Gandalf's trust.

Eomer went back inside and, seeing everything necessary was done, stretched out for a short rest. They'd need to keep watch this night, and even when they reached Rohan, for being in his own land was no longer a guarantee of safety. He closed his eyes, listening to Eowyn and Tol softly consulting about making willow tea.

Gandalf was speaking to Frodo, his voice low, and though he didn't mean to listen Eomer found himself clearly hearing words of reassurance and love. It surprised him, how much the wizard truly cared for Frodo. He'd felt like they were pawns on Gandalf's game board since he first met the wizard, but now Eomer heard in his voice the concern of a shepherd for one of his lambs. Oddly enough, he now believed that Gandalf wouldn't rest until he'd brought Frodo back to safety and full healing.

***

Frodo woke to the voices of his friends, and until he tried to move he thought he was back at The Raven's Call in Minas Tirith. But the pain in his left hand brought back memories with sickening swiftness, even before four pairs of worried eyes converged on him.

"I--"

"Here, have some water." He smiled up at Tol before drinking. He was such a natural healer, though none of them had seen that back in Combe. Frodo wondered if Tol was giving him some kind of herbal potion. He could remember what Saruman had done, but it seemed very long ago and he knew in his heart that they were safe now.

He finished the water, then said "Thank you. Where's Strider?"

"He's sleeping, Frodo, as you should be. But I know the insatiable curiosity of hobbits too well to imagine you'll rest until you've asked some questions." Gandalf was smiling despite the gruff words. "But first -- how do you feel?"

"My hand still hurts," he admitted. "Actually, I feel as if you dragged me behind your horse for a day over rocky soil." Frodo laughed, though that hurt, too. Tol looked concerned, but that just made him laugh more. "I'm fine, I... I'm just relieved. You rescued us, just like in one of Bilbo's tales. And I can see you're hurt, Tol, and you Eomer -- but -- I thought you both might have been killed by those men." He reached out to them, and Tol took his right hand with a smile, while Eomer leaned in and playfully shoved Frodo's left arm aside before hugging him quite gently.

"There, can't have you saying I added to the rocky ride," Eomer said with a laugh of his own. "We're all fine. Well, maybe a little banged up, but well enough to ride on as soon as you're feeling better."

"Eomer! He's nowhere near ready for that," Eowyn scolded. "Would you like some stew, Frodo? Tol thinks warm food will be good for you, don't you?"

"Uh, certainly," Tol said with a blush, but Eomer laughed again.

"Not your stew, miss -- that's not fit for man nor hobbit. If Frodo wants good cooking, he's going to have to supervise it himself."

"But a little of the broth might do you good," Tol said quickly, while Eowyn slapped at her brother and Eomer pretended to weep. Frodo laughed again, very happy to see them so lighthearted again. He couldn't remember how long it had been...

The atmosphere in Minas Tirith had kept them all pinched, as if the stone of the city pressed on their spirits. The freedom of the road agreed with them all, for they'd sorely missed the ability to come and go as they pleased. Frodo himself felt that fresh air and soft earth beneath his feet were treasures beyond gold. He'd noticed the change in his own feelings as soon as they left the city, but now he saw they were all happy and giddy. His joy in their happiness mingled with relief at the rescue until Frodo wanted to sing, dance, and laugh.

He looked at Gandalf, who was observing him with a half-smile on his face, and held out his arms to the wizard. He hadn't known Gandalf long, but he was part of their odd family now, and he obediently came and hugged Frodo, even more gently than Eomer had.

"Thank you, Gandalf," he said, and the wizard stiffened a bit and pulled back.

"For what, Frodo?"

"You came to help us. I know you have important business in the north, but you came back when you heard we were in trouble."

Gandalf looked blank for a moment, then he smiled. "We'll speak of this again, Frodo. I want you to travel with me, before you return to the Shire, and come to Rivendell. Bilbo should be waiting for us there."

"Bilbo? You mean -- he really did head north, not east?" Frodo was thrilled at this news. Surely if Bilbo was going to Rivendell, he'd return to the Shire eventually. "What happened?"

"I caught up with Bilbo on the road. He'd discovered that what he truly longed to do was go north, and see the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain once again, and visit with the elves. So I sent him to Lothlorien, another elf-haven which lies north along the great river. From there, Bilbo will have an escort in the wilderness until he is once again among friends."

"Oh, that is wonderful. Of course, I wish I could stop in the Shire, just to see Sam and my cousins... But I've always wanted to see Rivendell, and I've been so worried about Bilbo... Thank you!" He hugged Gandalf again.

"Here's your broth, Frodo. Lean against me and sip slowly, it's very hot." Tol sat behind him, supporting his back, and Frodo happily enjoyed the ... rather oddly flavored soup. Eowyn really could burn water, he supposed, but he smiled at her reassuringly, ignoring Eomer's silly mock-choking faces and smirking.

Strider somehow had slept through all their noise and was actually snoring softly, curled up near the fire. The bruises on his face broke Frodo's heart, but the man he loved was alive and free. All of it made Frodo so happy he thought his heart might burst.

Best of all, he and Bilbo were going to go home at last.

***

They arrived at Edoras dirty and weary, and even Eowyn was a little sore from so many endless days in the saddle. Gandalf hired rooms for them at the tavern, and Eomer was taking them to the bathing-house the soldiers used.

But Eowyn wasn't welcome there, no matter how long she'd been wearing men's clothing, so she pushed the lank hair hanging in her face back once again, and climbed toward her mother's house. If Bryttae was watching out the back windows, as usual, hoping for something interesting to gossip about, she'd get inside easily. Somehow it seemed important to be clean and wearing her own clothing again before she faced them both. Would they be angry? Was it too much to hope her mother, at least, would be relieved to see her?

"Eowyn!" The gasp wasn't from the upper windows, but from a crowd of servants in the courtyard, all wearing their best dark clothing. "Oh, my girl, you're home at last. Too late..."

Bryttae was weeping, and the others stayed well back from them as Eowyn embraced her. "What's wrong? Why is everyone ..." She stopped, realization hitting her. The servants were never ... only that one time, so long ago, that was still burned into her memory. It had been the worst day of her life...

"Mother... Is mother dead?" she asked, and Bryttae's sobs grew louder.

"Ten days ago," she gasped out. "She brought a beautiful little girl-child into the world, but she didn't live to look on her face."

"Ten days..." Eowyn couldn't really feel it, yet. She should be crying, surely. She'd run away and her mother had died, alone with that man. She should feel terrible, but instead she was numb. And something was wrong, for after ten days the household should be back to normal. "You didn't wait all this time to bury her?"

"No, of course not." Bryttae wiped at her nose and eyes, and looked up at her. "You're so dirty as to be a disgrace, Eowyn. Come inside, my girl." She followed obediently to her room, and even let Bryttae start heating water for the bath and undressing her before she asked again.

"Why are you in your good dress, Bryttae? What happened today?"

"Into the tub with you. Today we buried the girl-child. They found her dead in her cradle yesterday morning." The old woman poured warm water over Eowyn's hair and handed her soap. "She'd been named for your mother. Little Theodwyn."

For some reason, those words released Eowyn's tears at last, and as she cleaned herself she sobbed uncontrollably. When Bryttae finally calmed her, she asked if someone could be sent to find Eomer. Bryttae helped her out of the tub and brought towels before she finally left to find a page boy.

Perhaps a quarter hour later Eowyn was in her dressing gown, drying her hair, when Grima appeared in her doorway without knocking. Despite his properly subdued clothing, he looked entirely self-satisfied. "My dear Eowyn."

She evaded his attempt to embrace her. "Thank you for your hospitality, Stepfather." Though she'd protested, her mother had always insisted Eowyn use that title with him. Now she was happy to wield it to remind him of his position.

"Now, my dear, I know you'll be happier calling me Grima."

She nodded. "I need to dress, sir."

"Indeed." His eyes raked over her, bothering her more than a room full of drunken men whistling and ogling her in Minas Tirith. "Well, don't let me keep you."

"I require privacy, Grima," she grated out.

"You are in my home, and even that thin robe is mine, my dear, not yours. If I say the word, you'll be tossed into the street in the rags you wore here -- or nothing at all." He moved closer, and his hand closed on her waist. "Why be disagreeable? We can both have what we want. You can remain in your father's house, be mistress here, with money and servants."

"Be mistress? Surely you can't mean--" Her mother not dead a fortnight, and he was making such odious proposals to her?

"Why not? You can give me heirs, Eowyn, strong sons to carry my name." He moved closer still, his breath warm on her throat when she turned her face away from his. The two hands now holding her close to him were trembling. "Your uncle will approve, if I ask. You've never seriously considered Theodred as a suitor; no one will question your decision."

"I..." She didn't know what to say. His hands were sweaty; she felt the dampness seeping through her gown and shivered when he caressed her, his hand moving down to squeeze her bottom.

Then he released that grip and grabbed her chin, forcing her to meet his eyes, which burned with lust. "I can make it pleasurable for you, Eowyn, very pleasant. Or we can be extremely unpleasant, but I will still have what I want. The choice is yours." He kissed her, a slobbering kiss that made her want to retch. His hand moved up to squeeze at her breast, too hard, and he finished by biting her mouth. She cried out and tasted blood, pulling away so violently that she fell to the floor.

He laughed when she quickly tried to pull her gown closed. "You will have no secrets from me, Eowyn. If you deny me, I'll have you declared a pauper and sold to one of the brothels that serves the garrison."

"My uncle the king--"

"Theoden listens to me, not to a disobedient girl who ran away and left his sister to die without the comfort of her child's presence." He stood looming over her, and somehow his words seemed true, horrifying as they were. What could she do? Eomer had promised to keep her with him, but how could he do that while serving in Uncle Theoden's army? She would be alone, with no one to help her--

"That's right. I'm your only hope, Eowyn. Now open your robe, my dear, and let me see my treasure." He was unlacing his tunic, and she couldn't turn away from the bulge in his leggings. Her hands closed on the edges of her gown, and she knew she would do what he said. She didn't want to, but she must...

"Get away from her, you dog!" Eomer's face was red with rage as he slammed into Grima, knocking him to the floor and falling atop him. Eomer straddled him and punched him, over and over, until Eowyn scrambled to her feet, calling out for him to stop. She threw herself into his arms, pulling him away in fear that he would kill Grima.

Tol was there, too, in the doorway with Gandalf and Frodo. They'd all seen her-- She was horrified with herself, but Eomer stroked her back gently.

"Did he hurt you? I swear, I'll kill him if he touched you-- Did he do this?" He wiped at her lips and there was blood on his fingertips.

"Yes. But... Don't touch him. I... I'll find some clothes and we can just go. Let's leave, Eomer, and go north with Tol. Or back to Minas Tirith, I don't care. Mother is dead, she's dead and I never want to see this place again." She was crying, then, and Bryttae was somehow in the room, patting her shoulder as she and Eomer wept together at the news she'd blurted out so bluntly. Their friends gathered around them protectively.

Gandalf was the one who finally calmed them all. "We must take this matter to the king, my friends. Only he can judge such a situation."

They were a motley procession, Eomer and Tol supporting Grima, whose hands had been tied in front of him. His face was bloody and he was still in half-opened clothing. Bryttae threw a warm fur cloak over Eowyn, but wouldn't allow her to put on more clothes, only warm boots instead of her slippers. "The king must see how he accosted you."

"But I..."

"Nonsense, lamb. I know you. Now hush and let me do the speaking if you cannot."

Gandalf walked with Frodo, leading the way into the golden hall after a few words with the door wardens, and giving up his sword, while Strider and Eomer did the same. They approached the throne, and there they all stopped, stunned into silence.

Theoden sat on his throne. Theodred was there, too, looking ten years older than when they'd left him. And standing between them, in glowing robes, was a tall, white-haired man with a sly smile.

"Saruman," Gandalf said, and Eowyn leaned into Bryttae with a sob. There was no hope for them.

***

"These wild accusations amaze me, Theoden King, and I'm certain you see them for what they are -- the mad ravings of lunatic nomads."

Frodo didn't even look at Saruman as the wizard untied Grima and seduced the king with his lies. Frodo's his eyes remained fixed on Theodred, who had yet to acknowledge him in any way. He had the oddest feeling that Theodred didn't recognize any of them, not even Eowyn, who was crying without sound, clutching her furs around her tightly as she leaned into her servant-woman.

"These are serious charges, Saruman, brought by reputable men and hobbits," Gandalf stated firmly.

"My lord," Grima's voice was silky, calm despite his bruised face and the accusatory glares trained on him. "There is no way to judge this, it being merely their word against that of our friend and ally Saruman the White." It struck Frodo that Grima's voice was much like that of Saruman, filled with the same evil lust for pain underneath the calm facade.

"As for you, worm," Eomer began, but Gandalf hushed him impatiently.

"And your word, friend Grima," Theoden slowly added. "I do not forget that."

There was no help to be found here. Frodo saw helpless rage on Eomer's face, disbelief on Tol's and infinite weariness in Strider's eyes.

Gandalf was speaking again, calling for Bryttae to give witness to what they had all seen Grima doing to Eowyn. Everyone was occupied listening to her, though Theoden's face was twisted in what seemed a refusal to hear truth, and Saruman smiled as if he enjoying hearing about such depravity.

Frodo moved to where the prince sat, his eyes unfocused. "Theodred," he whispered. "What has happened to you?"

He turned to face Frodo and smiled vaguely. "Go to your noon mess, little squire. Growing boys need regular meals."

"I'm not a boy, look." Frodo held up his foot. "I'm a ... holbyt." He couldn't remember the Rohirrim word, but he saw a memory spark in Theodred's eyes.

"I've seen holbytlan before," he said.

"Yes, at Erkenbrand's home. You saw our play."

Theodred's face twisted with pain, and he put his hands over his ears and shook his head. "Hurts."

"I know," Frodo breathed, looking around. The others were still paying no mind to him, and he was glad Theodred was speaking softly, not screaming at the pain that was making him whimper. "He hurt me, too. But you can come back to us now, Theodred. We'll find a way to help you, but Eowyn needs you now."

Frodo leaned forward, his right hand latching on to Theodred's arm, and kissed him. Theodred shook, all his muscles tensing, and Frodo prepared for a blow, but kept his eyes fixed on the man's tortured face.

"You know you can believe me," Frodo insisted. "You know Eowyn doesn't lie."

Frodo was shoved to the floor, landing hard because he was protecting his wrist. Grima hissed, "Get away from him. The prince has been unwell." The noise Frodo made when he fell pulled the others' attention, but only for a moment. Strider came to help Frodo stand, and when he looked back at Theodred the prince was still staring at him, looking puzzled.

"My counselor tells a very different story, Gandalf Stormcrow."

"Indeed, sire, though it pains me to speak of your niece's immodesty and greed, which surely reflects ill on her upbringing. Eowyn returned home because the news of Theodwyn's death reached her, and she wanted to secure the house as her own. She offered to marry me -- I was horrified, as you can imagine. Then she tried to seduce me with her body. I'd just pushed her away when Eomer arrived. She collapsed to the floor and cried out her story of rape, and of course her brother, being easily led, believed her. He has never been a friend to me. It does not surprise me that he would believe the worst."

"If I believed the worst, I'd be accusing you of suffocating your own child, Grima! The servants speak of nothing else." Eomer stopped when Gandalf laid a hand on his arm.

"Your words are poison, Grima," Eowyn said. "Uncle, you know what he says is not true." But the king turned away from her, though his brow was creased with the same puzzlement Frodo had seen on Theodred's face moments before. It seemed as if they were there, trapped inside their own minds, unable to speak or break through the web of lies surrounding them.

"The charges against our good Grima are serious enough," Saruman intoned. "But I confess I'm astounded to be faced by you, friend Gandalf, and accused of evildoing. You have known me too long, and are well aware of how seldom I mingle with mortals. Why, this visit to Edoras on my journey from Minas Tirith is only the second time I've been at Meduseld during Theoden's reign."

 

Frodo jumped, but it was Theodred's hand that had fallen so heavily on his arm, and Theodred looked in his face, then turned back to listen to the wizard intently, his eyes confused. To Frodo, it seemed he was newly awakened and trying trying to shake off a dream. Strider, standing beside them, saw it, too, but made a sign for silence. Frodo obeyed him, though he couldn't stop himself from silently wishing for a miracle. If Theodred would speak for them -- surely Theoden, being his father, couldn't ignore him?

"Where are these ruffians I supposedly employed? Dead, you claim. What proof have we of anything?" Saruman asked. "Who saw me torturing this man -- did you, Eomer son of Eomund?"

"No," Eomer reluctantly admitted.

Saruman gasped suddenly, then whirled to face Gandalf. "My foolish friend -- just what are you attempting to do?" Saruman's voice had changed, and his demeanor switched from wounded sorrow to threatening menace in the space of a breath "Do you dare to test my powers, Gandalf Grayhame?" he thundered, and all of them save Gandalf took a step backwards.

"You have cast many spells in this court, Saruman. Theoden's mind is not the only one too confused to comprehend the truth. But if you thought to ensorcel the rest of us, you are much mistaken."

"If you think to tutor me then you are the one who is mistaken." Saruman flung out the arm holding his staff, and Gandalf flew across the hall, slamming into a pillar which arrested his movement, though it shuddered at the impact.

"Gandalf!" Frodo cried, moving to help him. But at the first step he fell, writing in an agony he'd almost forgotten. Every pain he'd endured in that cottage came back to him, the threats and the torment of watching Strider suffer with him. It had all seemed so distant, but now it rushed back and he couldn't make himself rise or struggle. It was hard enough to just keep breathing and not scream without ceasing.

The others, too, were crumpling to the floor, their cries of pain and fear echoing horribly in the grand hall. He saw that Strider alone was still on his feet , somehow fighting Saruman. That made Frodo fear for his life, for it was clear that his resistance infuriated the wizard.

Saruman raised his staff, but Gandalf was there, crying words of command that somehow protected Strider from the blow, though the man fell to his knees. Gandalf's staff flew out of his hands and Saruman's eyes locked with his. Their faces were set as their minds battled, and it seemed to Frodo that the room was filled with the power they wielded, swirling around them all.

Theoden sat frozen on his throne, watching, his fists clenching and unclenching, and his face pale and sweaty. Grima was smiling, no, laughing at their pain. Frodo writhed helplessly, hating the man.

Then he saw Theodred. Frodo didn't know if Saruman believed he was still controlling the prince, or if he was so distracted by his struggle with Gandalf and the need to control the rest of them that he didn't see. Whatever reason, he ignored Theodred as he slowly advanced on him, even when he drew his sword and raised it in a trembling hand. Saruman remained focused on Gandalf. From where he gasped in agony on the cold stone floor, Frodo watched Theodred strike, impaling the wizard on his blade.

They both screamed, and Theodred fell back and hit the floor in a sprawl. Theoden and Grima, too, screeched and sank to the floor as if dead. The rest of them calmed immediately, the horrible pain gone though their limbs still shook in reaction. They gasped for air, too weak to move.

Theodred moved to his knees, reached up, and pulled back his sword with a grunt. The wizard was still standing, his face frozen in surprise. It had to be a mortal wound -- but wizards weren't mortal. Theodred he crawled to where Frodo lay.

"Are you hurt?"

"It's gone. Theodred, you saved us..." Frodo was crying, remembering all the pain Gandalf had taken away as well as this latest agony. But mostly he was crying in relief, as he watched blood stain Saruman's robe in a great flood.

Saruman gasped and crumbled into a heap, hissing "I curse you, Theodred son of Theoden son of Thengal." He was staring at Theodred as he spoke, his face twisted with pain. "I curse your land, and will bring down this hall," he croaked. Frodo clutched at Theodred in fear, but he stared at the wizard defiantly, and pulled himself to his feet.

"You have no power here, Saruman," Gandalf said, as the others rose with groans, helping those too weak. "Your evildoing is known, and you have been judged. You have forfeited all the grace given you." Strider came and lifted Frodo before Theodred could turn to assist him.

"I -- No!" Saruman's body was failing, and the eyes that glared at Theodred became fixed as his breath stopped. It seemed to Frodo that a mist rose from the carcass, and he was again afraid, for just a moment. Then, with a mighty crash doors and windows flew open in the hall, and a strong wind blew through the long room, dispersing all traces of Saruman. Only his crumpled, stained robes were left on the floor.

Eowyn's cry of "Uncle!" caused Theodred to turn and run to his father, who lolled against his throne in an undignified heap, Grima hanging on to the hem of his robe and sobbing.

Theoden looked years younger, as did Theodred, restored to the health he'd had when Frodo first met him. "My son. Eowyn. Eomer." They assisted the king to his feet and took turns embracing him, all of them seeming to grow stronger and steadier by the moment.

"Grima--" Theoden said at last, looking down at the groveling figure. "Rise."

"He made me do it, I didn't want to kill the child." As he spoke, he lifted his head and tears ran down his face, which finally had the color of life. "He told me I must, because only a male child could inherit the throne when Theodred died. He was going to die, soon, Saruman had it planned."

Theoden looked at his son, relief mixed with gratitude and love clear to read on his face. For just a moment, Frodo wondered jealously what it felt like to have a loving father. His hand went to his waistcoat pocket, where he now carried Bilbo's ring secured to a fine chain, as Gandalf had insisted he must do rather than leaving it in his pack. He thought about Bilbo, surprised when the first emotion he felt was anger at the way Bilbo left them. Frodo shook his head. The horrible things he'd seen this day were obviously having a bad effect on him.

But the horror of Grima's words pulled Frodo back to the present, and he quickly forgot his odd thoughts.

"I couldn't even mourn for Theodwyn, he wouldn't let me but you know I loved her," Grima sobbed. The man was confessing to horrible, inhuman actions that made Frodo sick, and even Gandalf looked dismayed. Freeing Grima from Saruman's influence could not change the fact that he was a ruined man.

"Gather your possessions and your blood money, Grima, for I would have no trace of you remain in my city. Leave the Mark, and never return, under pain of death. Perhaps a better person could forgive your deeds, but I will not forget that you and your master plotted the ruin of my family. Why did Saruman, with all his power, want my throne? No doubt to enslave the good people of the Mark, and I've no doubt you would have assisted him, though it brought death to thousands."

Grima cringed away from all of them as he slunk out, but not even Eomer raised a hand against him. Pity twisted all their features, and when he finally left the room seemed brighter and their hearts were lighter.

"My son -- you have saved us all."

"I should never have been ensnared by their spells, father. Forgive me."

"There is nothing to forgive, Theodred. In you I see the glory of our forefathers reborn. You are my pride." Frodo had to look away for a moment, there was so much naked love on Theoden's face. "My sister-son and sister-daughter, forgive me. I have not protected and cherished you as I should. Eowyn, will you live here with me, and be my daughter?"

She went into his arms, but was whispering to him, pain in her face reflecting in Theoden's eyes.

"Your mother would forgive you, so of course I do, gladly," Theoden said, stroking her hair, and Eowyn's tears spilled though she was smiling. "Eomer, are you now free to serve the Mark? We have need of your valor and honesty, my kinsman."

"Of course, my lord. I would be honored to serve you, and prove my valor defending our people."

"Our people." Theoden's eyes were far off. "I hope our people will be safer now, with fewer enemies to the west, at least. I need to consult with Theodred and my advisors, and we will find you a position suitable for your years and experience, so that you may be ready for a command like your father's some day."

Eomer bowed, looking proud and happy, and Frodo's heart stuttered just a bit. He loved Strider, of course. But he would always love Eomer, too, as a brother and companion. And these fine words sealed their eventual farewell. Eomer would be taking up a man's duties now, important and dangerous work. They might never meet again, and certainly they would never again have common cause. Perhaps it was only Eomer's great kindness that had allowed Frodo to ever feel they were equals, but now he saw how far that was from the truth. Eomer, like Strider, did noble work. Frodo felt useless, for what could a hobbit do?

Watching Eowyn's radiant face, and the way Theodred put an arm around Eomer's shoulder, Frodo knew this was best for them all. He looked up at Tol and they exchanged a wry smile. He turned to his Strider next, tall and proud beside him.

But Strider didn't look back. His eyes were on Gandalf, and they both seemed to be far away, thinking of other things.

***

"Come, Frodo. It's not good to be afraid of one who will be your companion for many leagues."

"You are wise, my lady, but--"

"After all we have seen and done, are you so formal with me? 'My lady' indeed, Frodo!"

"Eowyn -- though it seems far more appropriate to forget the casual nature of our earliest acquaintance, doesn't it? You're part of the royal household now, the mistress of Meduseld--"

"Frodo Baggins, if you don't stop this nonsense I'll -- I'll dunk you in the horses' water trough!"

That threat, which sounded so much like the tomboy of old, made Frodo laugh and soon they were perfectly at ease. Eowyn took him inside the grand stable and introduced her already-beloved horses one by one.

"This is Baylo. I am told he is being gifted to Strider. Baylo is a stallion, proud and swift, and strong enough to carry you as well as a man." She smiled slyly. "If, for some reason, that is your wish."

"I think we all know I won't be riding one of these oliphaunts by myself," Frodo laughed, ignoring her teasing.

"Tell me again?" She sounded like one of his young cousins back in the Shire, and it was so good to see the child in Eowyn peeking out that Frodo gladly repeated the rhyme Bilbo had taught to him and Sam so long ago..

"I shall someday name a family of horses for hobbits, I think. In honor of the oliphaunt, and because it will be very amusing to name our largest horses for such tiny creatures." She wrinkled her nose at him. "If we have a very stubborn horse with pretty eyes -- and no self-control -- we shall name him Frodo."

Frodo swatted at her with his good hand, blushing. It was true that he'd been rather blatant about chasing Strider in the last week. They were finally in a safe harbor, and now that they were installed in the finest guest rooms Theoden could offer they had wondrously soft beds to enjoy. But Frodo's was a torment to him, for he was in it alone every night. He tried to tell himself that Strider was tired, or that he was waiting for Frodo's hand and wrist to finish healing. Sometimes it felt like he'd never get out of the splint and sling the royal healer had made him. But the fact remained that he missed cuddling next to Strider's warmth, but Strider didn't seem to miss him at all.

"To go back to more serious matters, Frodo, will you ride with me? I promise I will not take any liberties, not while you are with me."

"You're not dressed for riding."

"Alas, I am in the only kind of riding gear appropriate for that mistress of Meduseld you mentioned. I have been told I must ride side-saddle now, in such a riding dress." She shook the folds of her skirt. "Bryttae promises she'll make me a split skirt, for those times when I simply must straddle my horse and have a real gallop."

"She is a good friend."

"Bryttae has always been like another mother to me, Frodo, and pampers me still." Eowyn smiled sadly. "I have vowed that I will care for her and heed her advice, since I cannot make amends to my own mother for my disobedience."

Frodo didn't know what to say to that. He'd been so young when his mother and father died. If he'd had any regrets, they'd been lost to the long years since.

"Of course, I've already displeased Bryttae by telling Theodred about Faramir," Eowyn continued.

"What about him?" Frodo realized how rude the question was as soon as he spoke, and he blushed but stumbled on. "I mean, I know you care for him. But--"

"But he is far away and I'm too young for marriage. I know, I've told myself as much. It's just ... after meeting Faramir, and knowing that such a person exists... I could never settle for anything less. Not now."

Frodo's mouth fell open. Eowyn felt the same way about Faramir that Frodo felt about Strider. And she'd expressed her feelings better than Frodo could ever manage to do. Still, he had to defend Theodred just a bit.

"But your cousin the prince is a fine man, brave and honorable."

"Yes, he is -- but to me, he's just Theo, who used to pull my braids and spook my mare for fun. If we do what everyone expects and marry, it might be good enough. Surely we know and love each other. But I want more than that kind of comfortable love, Frodo. I want ... I want a hero. Faramir is that, he's all I could want in a man."

She looked sheepishly embarrassed by her words, but Frodo smiled at her. "I'll let others tell you that it's childish to want such things. They are wrong, and we both know it, for there are such heroes in the world. Since we've been privileged enough to know them, I think we're obligated to honor all they are. And to love them with all we are. Even if..." He trailed off, suddenly sad.

"Even if we never meet again," Eowyn finished, her eyes fixed to the southeast.

Though she was only seventeen, Eowyn seemed more mature than Frodo. He'd selfishly been about to finish his sentence, "Even if Strider doesn't want me."

Perhaps that wasn't the answer, after all. Perhaps it was merely that Strider, like Eowyn, recognized all the dangers in the world, and was more concerned with doing his part than with gratifying his physical needs. Frodo was being foolish, placing so much emphasis on when they'd next be alone with time to kiss, or to do the other things he'd dreamed. After all, Strider was spending a lot of time with Gandalf, and Frodo knew the wizard had important work all over Middle-earth.

Frodo vowed to grow up, and to pay more attention to the serious concerns of others and less to his own jealousy and insecurity.

***

Their month of rest came to an end on a fair, warm morning. Theodred had returned to Edoras in time to bid them farewell, and Frodo saw him exchange a long look with Strider while they loaded their gear and prepared to ride. But Theodred didn't speak to Strider, just bent down to embrace Frodo and kiss his brow.

"You know I would give you gifts beyond these horses and supplies, Frodo Baggins. Your courage in speaking to me helped break through the wizard's spell. We owe you more than gratitude."

"You're the one who saved us all," Frodo protested as Eomer came up behind Theodred.

"Frodo doesn't appreciate his own deeds, Theo. But we will remember them, and our bards will sing of the holbytla who aided a king while wizards dueled." Eomer, too, was wearing his armor and what seemed to be a uniform, worked with designs similar to Theodred's, though not as fancy.

"Don't tease, Eomer," Frodo said, embracing him. "Your bards will be busy singing of your deeds, and Theodred's strength, and my Lady Eowyn's valor."

"Frodo, it's time." Strider was beside Baylo, waiting, with Gandalf just behind him. Frodo looked back at the tall men standing together, so fair and proud. Eowyn joined them, her golden hair blowing in the morning wind.

He bowed low to the three of them. "Farewell, my lords and my lady. I don't suppose our roads will meet again, but I will always remember you." He turned and went to Strider, who lifted him onto the horse first, then swung up behind him. Tol came up beside them, his eyes locked on Eowyn as if he were memorizing her beauty one last time. Thus their journey began, their friends' good wishes and farewells carried away by the wind before they were out of sight.

That first day's ride was very quiet, though Frodo thoroughly enjoyed riding before Strider, held close in his arms. It helped sooth his sadness to know that every step their horse took brought him closer to home and to seeing Bilbo again.

As the journey continued and they rode north through lands with few landmarks and fewer people, Frodo and Tol still found themselves saying "Do you remember?" nearly every day. They told Strider and Gandalf stories of their performances and the annoyances encountered on the road south that now seemed laughable, though at the time they'd been serious hardships.

As Frodo watched Tol, he realized his friend had grown to be a man during their journeys, without Frodo marking the change. Oh, he'd filled out in the last month; they all had, with regular meals involving plenty of food and ale in Rohan and the excellent provisions they'd been given for their road. But beyond that physical change, Tol was self-assured, and his eyes, which had always been a touch mournful, were at peace. He missed Eowyn and Eomer, Frodo knew that. But whatever the state of his heart, Tol was cheerful.

The only way Frodo could describe it was that Tol was determined to be happy, so therefore he was. Frodo honored his choice, thinking it seemed rather hobbity and wondering if Bilbo's influence had been greater than any of them realized.

And they were all pleased to be drawing closer to Combe each day. Frodo was looking forward to seeing Doc again, and sending Sam a long letter explaining that he'd soon be returning to Bag End, though he first was visiting the elves in Rivendell. Sam had always loved Bilbo's stories; Frodo knew his friend was happy and hoped he wouldn't be too jealous to be missing the adventure of seeing Elrond, and retracing part of Bilbo's road to the Lonely Mountain.

When the road began to veer northwest, Gandalf called for a brief half and announced he would be leaving them to ride north alone.

"But you haven't met Doc," Frodo protested.

"My business should not be delayed, not even for the chance to meet such a fine man. I hope a more peaceful time will come, Tolbert, when I can visit your home and meet your father."

"I hope that time is soon, Gandalf. Safe journeying to you."

"And you. Strider, I trust you will see Frodo safely brought to Rivendell."

"Of course."

"There are questions which must be answered, and only one place to find such information. With luck, I'll be at Rivendell shortly after you arrive." He spurred his horse and rode away swiftly, leaving Frodo feeling oddly bereft. He'd only known the wizard a short time, but he would miss him.

Strider was watching Gandalf's departure, too, but he looked away and squeezed Frodo's arm. Then he turned to Tol, still astride his horse. "Ready?"

Tol nodded, and they continued on their road until late in the afternoon, when they slowed to look for a place to make camp. Something about the area seemed familiar to Frodo, and he wondered if they'd camped nearby on their way to Rohan.

That was probably the reason that, as he built their fire and heated water, Frodo was remembering that day when he'd watched Eomer and Tol pleasuring themselves together. He still hadn't seen Strider unclothed, but it wasn't difficult to imagine him in that scene, too, and to know that his body would be more muscular, scarred, and equally beautiful.

Frodo had to close his eyes, move away from his work, and drink some cold water. There would be no appropriate place or time for lovemaking, just as there hadn't been while Gandalf was with them. Oh, they rode together, and even slept close together beside the fire. And Frodo knew he was greedy, to want more when he already had so much. He wouldn't give up their quick, stolen kisses and the hugs and casual touches that meant so very much, not for anything.

But sometimes Frodo absolutely ached for more. He wanted to feel Strider's warm, bare skin on his, and have the time to be able to drive Strider into such a passion that he abandoned all caution. Soon, Frodo vowed, he would find a way and a place to be alone. Then he'd know if Strider loved him --

"Frodo, should I stir this?" Tol was looking at him intently, and Frodo blushed.

"Sorry. Let me do that, you rest a bit." Strider insisted they take turns guarding the camp at night, and Tol was supposed to take the first watch tonight.

"Thank you, I will. Strider is hunting," he added. "He should be back by the time the food is ready."

"Don't worry, I'm fine." Frodo added water and some onions to the pot, and stirred it well. By the time Tol was breathing steadily, Frodo was again lost in daydreams and fantasies where he was the one pleasuring himself, naked in the sunshine while Strider watched with hot eyes and longing in his heart.

***

They reached Bree at sundown, determined to push on to Combe before stopping. But Frodo's common sense -- and his stomach -- changed the plan.

"Perhaps we could just stop at the Pony for some bread and cheese," he suggested as the inn came into view. "Doc won't have any food in his house, I just know it. And I'm terribly hungry."

"Hobbits," Tol said with a laugh. "Are you ever not hungry, Frodo? We have the quail Strider brought down; I'll roast those for you."

"Oh, I know. But.. it's your homecoming, Tol. A celebration. There should be ale, and lots of food, not just travel food. It's such a long time since we had fresh bread." He looked back at Strider. "What do you think?"

"I think Tol must keep riding straight on until he gets home," Strider said. "Go ahead. We'll be there shortly, with some provisions for this welcome-home feast."

"All right, then. Give me the birds." Tol's smile was radiant. "I'll get the spare room ready for you two, and stoke the stove." He rode off at a steady pace, always thoughtful of his horse even when Frodo knew he wanted to gallop home because he was so anxious to see his father again.

"It will be good for them to have some time alone together," Strider said, and Frodo smiled up at him.

"Yes. Now, do you have money for the food? I still have some coins in my purse from our travel fund."

"Good, more cheese for me then," Strider joked. "Ale and cheese and fresh bread, if there's any to be had. Old Butterbur will sell it, but he'll want twice the price."

"It will be worth it, just this once. Tomorrow I'll do the marketing with Tol, and I can take care of the baking and cooking while we're with Doc."

"Frodo, did you suppose we would be staying in Combe past this one night?"

If Strider hadn't been holding him, Frodo would have fallen off the horse in surprise. "Of course! We haven't seen Doc in so long, and there's so much to tell him..." He slowed his words, thinking. "You're concerned about getting back to your ranger duties, aren't you?"

"My men have been working without my aid for many months, Frodo. I need to take you to Rivendell as quickly as possible. You know how highly I think of Doc, but we cannot linger for tales. Nor does he need us, for he will have Tol with him."

"Of course." But Frodo's heart was sinking. He'd been thinking of at least a week in a soft bed, with daily hot baths and lots of good, fresh food. Instead, they'd be back on the road to Rivendell, back to hunting for food and eating dried things as they rode. It could be worse, of course. They might still be on foot.

While Frodo was lost in his thoughts, Strider had reached the door of the inn and was now handing the reins to a lad before reaching up to lift Frodo down. They entered, and the Pony looked just as it had on Frodo's other visits. The common room was full of men, talking and drinking. One voice rose louder than the rest, saying, "She used her broom on him!" and the table around him burst into raucous laughter.

Strider was already leaning over the bar, ordering their food, and Frodo moved to follow him. But he felt eyes on him, and turned back for another look. There, in the corner -- was that Grima? It was, though the man was thinner and more ragged than he'd been in Edoras, dirty and unshaven.

But Grima was staring at Strider, not at Frodo. The eyes Frodo had felt were those of the other man at the table. It took even longer to identify him, because Frodo had never expected to see that face again: Bill Ferny.

He gasped and took a step back, ready to turn and run. But Strider caught him, holding him steady despite the way he'd jumped with surprise at the touch.

"Strider--"

"I see them," he replied in a cold, dangerous voice. "He won't get near you, Frodo. Don't be afraid."

"But..." Ferny should be in jail, unless the men of Bree-land didn't punish murderers. Grima was bad enough, he had plenty of reasons to hate them. But for him to be with Ferny... Frodo looked wildly around the room, expecting Mugwort to jump out at him from behind another table, with the big blacksmith in tow.

"Frodo, calm yourself. Breathe." Strider was shaking him, his fingers digging into Frodo's shoulders. He tried to obey, but he couldn't get any air. Strider turned him, practically lifting him off his feet. "I am here with you and will protect you with my life, Frodo. No one will harm you, I swear it."

How had he forgotten the beauty of Strider's eyes? They shone now with many emotions, anger and pity -- but what Frodo saw was love shining out at him. It was breathtaking. Frodo inhaled deeply. He'd been thinking Strider didn't want him, but all the time he'd been taking his beautiful man for granted, not remembering how once just a smile from him had been the most priceless gift in all Middle-earth.

Frodo smiled at him. "I'm fine, Strider. Thank you." He reached a hand to touch his cheek, feeling the beard which was so fascinating to him, watching the way Strider's lips curved as he smiled back.

"Good. Here, give me some coins. Butterbur, an ale while we wait." He threw the coppers on the bar in exchange for a glass, and took Frodo to a small table in the darkest corner of the room, away from the fire and most other customers.

It was terribly different, yet it reminded Frodo of that first day they'd met. He sat staring up at the man while they companionably shared the ale, thinking how strong and handsome he was. Even back on that first day, Strider had been trying to look after him, though Frodo hadn't known it then. How much things had changed since that long-ago day. But the best difference was that now, Frodo knew what it was like to kiss that strong jaw and to hear moans and endearments coming from those lips when they were swollen and red from being sucked on.

The time went swiftly, lost in such thoughts, and soon they were re-mounting Baylo with extra bundles of food and skins filled with ale. The trip to Combe went swiftly, the dark roads nearly empty as they moved away from the inn. Before Frodo even realized how far they'd gone, the lights of Doc's kitchen windows were glowing not far ahead. In some way, Frodo felt that he was finally home, back safely among those he loved.

"Estel! Frodo! Gracious heavens, it is good to see you both. Oh, your poor hand -- does it still pain you, Frodo?" Doc hugged them and kissed Frodo's brow and bustled them inside, seating them beside the fire with good strong tea to warm them after their ride. He'd hardly changed in the time they'd been gone, though perhaps there were a few new lines on his face. But his glowing smile whenever he glanced at Tol made Doc look almost young again.

"How long have your wrist and hand been splinted, Frodo?" Doc asked, coming over to him and gently taking Frodo's hand in his, examining the way it was wrapped. "You will need to do exercises when you are fully healed, to regain movement and strengthen it again."

"I'm taking Frodo to the elves at Rivendell," Strider said. "They will assist his healing." Doc looked at him, surprise on his face.

"You have trusted my skill in the past, Strider."

"And I still do, but we will not be here for Frodo to enjoy your services. We have people to meet and cannot delay."

Then Tol turned, too, and Frodo could see that he hadn't anticipated saying farewell to them so quickly, either. It didn't change anything, but it made Frodo feel a little better that he wasn't the only one who'd misunderstood.

He watched Doc and Tol working together as they'd always done, slicing the bread and cheese, pouring out glasses of the ale, laughing and talking in what seemed like a complicated dance. It was something Frodo had never learned though he'd once thought that living at Bag End with Bilbo would be like this. As he watched them, tears came into his eyes. He swiped at them, blaming the long day and unaccustomed ale when Strider questioned him.

They did have a true feast and stayed up late into the night talking of their adventures. And when they finally said goodnight, just as Tol had said, he and Strider were sharing the spare room, in the great wide bed Frodo remembered. Of course they couldn't do more than snuggle close and sleep, but that was enough. Frodo was tired, and Strider's arms around him were very comforting, making him feel safe and cherished...

He came abruptly awake with a question in his mind. Doc had called Strider "Estel" when they arrived. Was that his first name? Why had he never told Frodo to call him that? Even those who were just friends should be able to use his name... Like a bolt, Frodo remembered their first meeting once again. "In Bree I'm called Strider," he'd said, and never told Frodo his real name. But... "Estel" was an elvish word, wasn't it? Frodo thought it meant "good wishes" or something like that. Bilbo's lessons had been a long time ago, before they'd left the Shire.

Men weren't named with elvish words. So Estel was just another false name for Strider. Frodo's head was spinning, though he was still being held by a peacefully sleeping Strider. Things he'd noticed months before were striking him with new meaning and significance.

Gandalf knew Strider's real name. That was why whenever he called him Strider, Frodo had thought it sounded wrong. So Gandalf was trusted, but ... Frodo was not. They'd kissed, slept together, faced imprisonment side by side... with Saruman demanding to know Strider's real name. The name Frodo still didn't know, because Strider didn't trust him.

Frodo was so angry that he couldn't sleep. He tried to move out of Strider's arms, but he was securely held. What had seemed comforting now made him feel like a prisoner. He was uncomfortable, too hot, and he wanted to shake Strider, wake him, and demand the truth.

But he didn't, because he knew if he spoke he'd be crying. Instead he silently fumed the night away, until dawn light was peeking in the window and he finally slept for a while.

***	

It was most frustrating to be very angry with someone and for that someone to not seem to notice your anger, Frodo decided.

Strider evidently assumed Frodo was upset about leaving Doc and Tol so quickly when he didn't speak to him all morning. Strider had kept silent, too, even when they were alone in the parlor, Frodo writing a letter to Sam while Strider worked on his own note, to be left with Tol for delivery to another ranger, and Doc was busy in the kitchen repacking their knapsacks with extra supplies he'd insisted on giving them.

Now they'd been riding for hours in absolute silence. Strider's arms had tightened around him as they rode through Bree proper, in a way that would have made Frodo very happy only yesterday. But he'd remained silent long after the last building was past, and so had Strider. Could the stupid man be assuming Frodo was still upset or frightened, even now with Bree so many miles behind them?

"Frodo, I'd like to stop early today to do some hunting for us in these lands where game is plentiful. The lands grow harsher closer to Rivendell, and we may need to make do with what we already have."

"Fine." Frodo wasn't so childish as to not speak at all. But surely an intelligent man could tell now that he was upset? Evidently not, for Strider calmly lifted him down, asked him to make a fire, and left without asking Frodo one question.

He stomped around, gathering wood and growing angrier with each moment. Once, he would have rejoiced at this early halt, and been using the time to plot a way to seduce Strider. They were finally alone, far from other people -- this was Frodo's chance to have what he'd wanted for so long. Yet he was too upset to care.

Strider's cool evasions whenever Frodo had tried to be more intimate now made perfect sense. What Frodo had thought was true love that would lead to soul-sharing was simply the same kind of lust he'd scorned from Eomer. What a fool he'd been! There was no truth, no candor, no trust between them. He'd been honest with Strider, but the man had been holding back everything about himself. Not just from Frodo, but even from Doc and Tol who'd saved his life.

Frodo had a steady fire and a nice meal ready when Strider returned soon after sunset. They cleaned the animals he'd killed and set the meat to dry over the fire, far from the flames, then washed and ate. Frodo was almost totally silent, but Strider asked no questions. And when it grew late and Frodo rolled up in his blanket and laid down close to the fire, Strider still was silent. Much later, Frodo felt the man move close behind him, but he kept his face turned to the embers and let his tears wet the blanket beneath his face.

***	

Four days had passed with Strider mostly silent, seeming lost in his own thoughts, and Frodo had bottled up his feelings until it seemed as if he might never speak again. The further they went toward Rivendell, the less anger Frodo could summon. He was simply miserable, constantly aware of how much he'd lost until he reminded himself that he'd never really had Strider's love to lose.

He could have howled with grief, but he'd learned some lessons in all his travel, and one was that men could be scornful of the way hobbits expressed their feelings. He clung to the not-very-comforting thought that he would at least keep his pride, and not give Strider a reason to despise him.

They rode quite late this night, and it was full dark before they stopped to make camp. When Strider spoke, Frodo actually jumped at the noise.

"We'll be in Rivendell by tomorrow afternoon, Frodo. One more river to ford, and then you'll be in the lands protected by Lord Elrond's power." Strider was staring into the fire, and it was the first good look Frodo had managed in several days at the face he knew so well. It surprised him to see how very drawn and weary Strider looked.

"Oh." He blushed furiously. What a stupid way to break such a long silence. But he couldn't think of anything else to say, and certainly couldn't summon up the enthusiasm he'd once felt at the idea of seeing the elf-haven for himself.

"I... we will be parting, then, for I must return to my duties in Bree-land, unless Gandalf has need of me again." Strider looked unhappy as he spoke.

Frodo nodded. "Yes. I'm... I hope Bilbo will be there."

"Yes." There was a very long silence while their dinner, rabbits wrapped in wet leaves, were laid on the fire to cook. "Frodo, I .. You will be meeting Lord Elrond's household..." He stopped and took a deep breath. "I spent much of my childhood in Rivendell. My mother brought me there... we were not safe without Elrond's protection." He looked very uncomfortable, and when he looked up and met Frodo's eyes Strider actually blushed. "My family has fought the Enemy for generations, and for that reason my father was killed when I was a child. Elrond kept us hidden until I could attain manhood."

"This is the great secret?" Frodo burst out, his voice loud.

"Yes. My heritage was concealed, even from me, until I was of an age to fully understand my responsibilities."

"And that is why Doc calls you by an elvish name, and why you still make me call you by the silly name the Bree-folk gave you, though I know -- I've always known -- it's not your true name? Do you suppose I'm in league with your enemies, Strider?" Frodo had to stop speaking just to breathe, and that was when Strider reached over, pulled him close, and kissed him passionately.

A long, breathless time later Frodo found he was laid across Strider's lap feeling warmer than he had in nearly a week. The big eyes looming above him were swimming with emotions. "My name is Aragorn, Frodo. And there is more I must tell you--"

"Tell me this way," Frodo pleaded, and kissed him again, clinging to his neck. He was determined that he wouldn't let Strider -- Aragorn -- back away or push him off. Not again. Frodo kissed him with all the love in his heart, and was thrilled to hear Aragorn moan, and to feel the way those big hands roamed as their mouths met in a dance of desire.

It was easy, so easy to push Aragorn back, to kiss his neck and caress the growing bulge in his leggings. It was heaven to kiss his ears and neck, to taste the sweat there before rubbing against his bristly beard, and to lick Aragorn's mouth open once again before plunging in to plunder it. He'd missed this all so much, the taste of his man and the way it felt to fly while being held so close.

Frodo's hands were busy, roaming over long limbs and hard muscles, opening laces and discovering how a touch or squeeze would make Aragorn buck beneath him, or cause a moan to escape from his mouth between endearments. It didn't take long for Frodo's clothes to be pulled open again, buttons flying off unheeded so that calloused fingers could find bare skin and set it on fire.

Aragorn was so gentle with him, careful of his wrist yet terribly efficient in stripping off his coat, vest and shirt. Frodo felt self-conscious, then, at his paleness now marred by the ugly scar on his shoulder. But Aragorn kissed his shoulders, taking longer to lick and suck at the old wound until Frodo was squirming and trying to rub against him. Strider didn't relent, but his mouth moved lower, latching on to one of the nipples standing up from the cold as if waiting for him. Frodo threw his head back and groaned, and Aragorn chuckled but simply moved to the other side of his breast, his hands keeping Frodo still despite his wild reactions.

"You are so beautiful," Aragorn said, and Frodo fell forward, his hands landing on the broad chest beneath him and finding hard nubs there, buried among the soft curls. Aragorn's groan was so much like his own that Frodo had to take time to kiss and suck at them, too, and let their arousals rub together happily.

"Frodo, love, I want... oh, by Elentari! We should... Ohhhh." Frodo sat back on his heels, straddling Aragorn, and drank in the sight of him. He was beautiful, and the hard cock poking out of his newly-opened leggings was beautiful, too. Long, thick, flushed with blood -- Frodo had to bend forward to kiss along that length, feeling the twitch as Aragorn's moan filled his ears. He backed away and put his hands around it, wondering if he could do what he'd seen Eomer do for Tol.

But Aragorn had other ideas; he twisted and pulled Frodo to him, and before Frodo could catalog what had been done, they were both fully naked, side by side atop Aragorn's cloak, still kissing as if they were starved for the taste of each other. Aragorn's big hand closed over Frodo's cock, bringing it beside his own, and soon Frodo was lost in bliss. There was a warm, wet mouth tracing his neck, soft hair bunched in his hands as he cried out his pleasure and bucked between the two surfaces, hand and hot arousal.

He was babbling, words of love and pleading and pleasure. The forest around them faded, there was only Aragorn, his grey eyes aflame with passion, every part of him focused on melting Frodo and remaking him into a new creature. Surely no one else had ever felt such love, such wonderful feelings -- how could anyone feel like this, and ever be the same?

Then Aragorn moved his hand, and a long finger breached Frodo's body, making him gasp in surprise. It was different, not precisely unpleasant or painful -- he felt full, and rather embarrassed. But then Aragorn did something that made Frodo squeak with surprise.

"Oh! Again, please, do that again." He didn't even mind Aragorn's husky laugh, just enjoyed the way the man obeyed him. He forgot what he must look like, sprawled naked and aroused, his body jerking with each movement inside him. He forgot everything, knowing only pleasure and climbing toward release. But Aragorn saw it in his face, for his hand moved, leaving Frodo's body and squeezing his cock.

"Not yet, love. There is more."

"Yes," Frodo sighed, and willingly went back to passionate kisses and exploration of the hard body so unlike his own. The area behind Aragorn's knees was soft, and kisses dropped there made him sigh. Higher up, and kisses to his inner thighs made him moan while big hands tried to capture Frodo and haul him higher still. That beautiful cock, standing straight out and now nearly purple, needed to be tasted again, this time a lick across the head that made Aragorn stammer out a plea in a language Frodo didn't know.

Then it was again Frodo's turn to be cataloged, every sigh, moan and exclamation noted by his amazing lover. Soon Frodo was sprawled over Aragorn again, but this time the man was holding him and driving his finger in and out of Frodo's body, their bare skin rubbing together.

"Frodo, I want... I must have you, Frodo, I cannot..."

"Yes. Please, Aragorn, I've wanted this so long. Take me, show me what to do..."

"I will." Frodo closed his eyes, every inch of him alive with anticipation. Aragorn quickly gathered what he needed, then returned to pull Frodo into his arms again.

Oiled fingers opened his body, his legs splayed wide over Aragorn's hips. It hurt just a bit, but slowly the sensation changed and soon Frodo was begging for more, rubbing himself against Aragorn's cock until the man ordered him to stop. More oil, drizzled to coat the pillar of flesh, and then strong arms lifted Frodo, positioned him, and slowly lowered him on to the thick cock waiting to possess him.

It filled him, inch by inch, while Aragorn's oily hand rubbed at Frodo's cock. There was a long pause, a moment when Frodo was caught between pleasure and discomfort, until he realized that it was Aragorn, his Strider, so deep inside him. Changing him, marking him, and owning him.

Aragorn moved, thrusting up, and Frodo cried aloud at the amazing pleasure, better than what he'd done with his fingers -- better than anything. Aragorn thrust again, and Frodo moved to meet him, no longer feeling the hand digging into his hip with bruising strength. He rode Aragorn, lost in the sensations until his release was pulled from him, coating the man's hand and stomach. Frodo wailed as it seemed to go on forever.

When he came back to himself, Aragorn was still sweating and straining beneath him, all his muscles working as he thrust, and now both hands pulled Frodo down to him and raised him up.

"More," Frodo said. "Don't stop--"

Aragorn grunted in response, his breathing harsh and his eyes unfocused. Frodo reached down to squeeze his nipples and Aragorn thrust even harder, gasping with surprise. He looked at Frodo, then rolled them so that Frodo was on his back against the ground, his legs pressed up against his body.

"Oh, yes," Frodo sighed, and Aragorn pounded into him, his thrusts roughly pushing Frodo away only to be dragged back by those implacable hands.

"You're so tight," Aragorn panted. "Hot and -- mine!" With the cry, Aragorn froze, his arms shaking as his body found release deep inside Frodo. They remained locked together, until Aragorn pulled away, then gathered Frodo into his arms and rolled to the side, holding him tightly. When their breathing had calmed, Aragorn pulled the cloak around them.

"Frodo," he sighed.

"Yes, my Aragorn. I love you," Frodo whispered, but he thought Aragorn was already asleep, for there was no answer.

Not much time passed before the smell of their food roused them both. They re-dressed in silence, and Frodo's smiles were not returned. Soon he stopped offering them, instead staring at the fire as he ate beside Aragorn. Frodo's body began to ache, but he still did not regret what they'd done. The world around him seemed brand new, and there was much to ponder. Everything was different.

But as he sat thinking, his food growing cold, he realized very little had changed. They were going to Rivendell, he would be with Bilbo and Aragorn would be gone, back to Bree or wandering with Gandalf, but definitely not with Frodo. And when Frodo returned to the Shire -- he wanted to be there, more than anything, but there was no place for a man in the Shire. At least in Bree, big folk and hobbits lived together... but ... did they? Did the hobbits of Staddle and Archet mix with the big folk there? Was there any place where a man and a hobbit could be together and both be comfortable? Frodo didn't like Bree-land. Well, he liked Doc and Tol -- but ...

"Frodo." Aragorn's voice was so solemn, Frodo was brought back to the present, immediately alert.

"What's wrong?"

"I... I was trying to tell you something, earlier." Aragorn stood, moved restlessly, then began steadily pacing around the fire, avoiding Frodo's eyes. "When I said you would meet Lord Elrond's household... There is one I have not spoken of, his daughter Arwen. She is ... she is beautiful, Frodo, fair and ..." He stopped, running a hand through his hair, his head bent to his chest. "I.. Arwen and I..."

"You and Lord Elrond's daughter..." Frodo repeated stupidly, not understanding. "She is an elf?"

"Elrond will not give his permission unless... well, unless the world changes, and many things come to pass which do not seem likely."

"You... you wish to marry her?"

"Arwen has vowed to give up her immortality, for love of me."

Frodo felt as if he'd been kicked, breathless and in pain. Aragorn... Aragorn wasn't Strider. Strider was a ranger, a wanderer who could take a lover. But Aragorn was important, so important that the elves had protected him in Rivendell for years. Someone who had won the love of an elf-princess, and could somehow do important things to win her hand in marriage.

"Frodo, forgive me. I was trying to tell you all this. But ... my passion overcame me." His voice dropped low as he whispered, "I have wanted you for so long."

He didn't have to say the words, Frodo clearly heard "wanted, not loved." He looked down at his plate, wishing he could throw up what he'd just eaten. Instead he took a deep breath. He'd appeared on stage when he was hungry, cold, tired, bruised and frightened. Frodo knew how to mask his feelings, and he wasn't going to fall apart now. He was still determined to keep his pride in front of Aragorn.

Frodo looked up and smiled cheerfully. "Well, we both have had what we wanted, then. Thank you for trusting me with your name, but I think it best if I go back to calling you Strider, don't you? Just so I don't slip in front of strangers." Frodo looked down and swallowed hard. "I'd better wash up our dishes, hadn't I? We'll be in Rivendell by this time tomorrow evening, and I'm looking forward to having a real meal at a table again. Bilbo always said the elves make wonderful food, unlike anything to be had in the Shire."

He was babbling too much, he knew, but it was the only way to keep back the tears. He managed to get to the stream and be busy washing off their tin plates and knives before his sobs began. That was good, because he knew he'd be uninterrupted; neither Strider nor Aragorn would want to be with him again.

***

"Didn't I tell you? A feast for the eyes, ears, and stomach." Bilbo patted his belly, very satisfied with himself and the dinner they'd finished less than an hour ago.

The sound of faint singing echoed through the valley. Frodo wondered if he would have thought the silvery voices sad, before yesterday. He was changed, just as he'd known he would be.

He'd wondered how one could go back to a normal life after experiencing such transcendent feelings, and now he knew. One didn't chose to return to real life. No, one was forced to go on, to keep eating and breathing even when there was nothing but emptiness.

"So -- you're sure you don't mind remaining here with me, Frodo, while Lord Elrond sends for those he wants to attend this council he's planning?"

"No, it's lovely to see you again, Bilbo. I've missed you very much." The words were true, and Frodo's attempt at a smile was genuine. But Bilbo still frowned thoughtfully.

"Well, you've seen and done many things since I left Minas Tirith," he said. "By the way, Frodo -- did Lord Elrond keep my old ring, or do you still have it?"

Frodo swiftly looked up, in time to catch a very cunning look on Bilbo's face, quite different from anything he'd seen since they reunited this afternoon. "I... Lord Elrond insisted that the ring must be kept hidden, until Gandalf returns to perform some test. He is one of those who will be at the council." Frodo had learned something from Aragorn about evasions and omissions; once he would never have told Bilbo a lie. But Elrond had asked him to keep the ring, saying it must be kept safe and away from all other eyes.

"Yes, well." Bilbo looked quite unhappy for a moment, then added, "I suppose we'll have to go, too, since Elrond asked it. But such things really don't concern hobbits, do they? Mixing with wizards and dwarves and elves and men -- why, you and I are the only hobbits to have ever done such things."

"Yes," Frodo admitted. "I'll be glad to leave them to their own concerns, and get back to the Shire."

"Mmmm." Bilbo's eyes were shut and his head was nodding, just a bit. Frodo decided not to disturb him, though he probably should make him move into his bed.

Instead, Frodo rose and moved to the -- balcony? window? The elves didn't build houses like men or hobbits, just as he'd suspected years ago when he'd helped paint set-pieces. No, Rivendell was like something that had grown in this forest, twining around the river and trees. There was hardly any difference between being indoors or out, and where Frodo stood now was both part of his room and part of the night. The stars were bright above, the sky perfectly clear.

The singing had changed and a lone voice was chanting now. Though it was so far away, Frodo could hear the words if he concentrated, though he didn't know enough elvish to understand. But a dark figure moving far below caught his eye, distracting him. It looked like-- it was. Aragorn was moving purposefully, and the reason was there, hidden among the shadows but glowing as if she carried light within her. He'd met Arwen at dinner and recognized her now, tall and beautiful in a midnight cloak, opening her arms to Aragorn.

Pain stabbed at Frodo's heart, but he set his jaw. He'd said, that day with Eowyn, that they had no choice but to love and honor all that was good in men like Strider. It was still true -- Aragorn hadn't changed, though Frodo had. Aragorn was an honorable man, doing his duty. That alone was reason enough to admire him. But Frodo still loved Aragorn, and always would -- even with jealousy devouring him. Even knowing that Aragorn didn't want him, though Frodo's body was still marked with bruises and sore from the way Aragorn had possessed him.

Frodo knew he should turn away and either go to his bed or find his way back to the common room for more singing and wine. But he remained where he was, his hand gripping the railing, watching, until the two graceful figures far below ended their embrace and wandered off to be lost from sight beneath the trees.

***

Far away a beautiful voice spoke, pitched to be heard only by her companion. "Your note said it was urgent that we speak, Estel."

"Arwen, I..."

 

The end

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