Written for the LOTR Community "Adolescent Angst" challenge. For Addie, Starli_ght, and Kaylee for their birthdays.
When someone came into the stable where Merimac Brandybuck was going through Brandy Hall’s records for the pony herd he looked up only briefly, expecting to see Gomez or one of the other stable hands coming in on regular stable business. Only this time….
“Frodo!” he called joyously, slamming the record book shut unceremoniously, hurrying forward to embrace his young Baggins cousin. “You’re home! How wonderful to see you! Are you here alone? Oh, of course not, not with two ponies in tow! So, Bilbo agreed to ride this time instead of walking here from halfway across the Shire, did he? And he made good on his promise to teach you to ride?”
Frodo was grinning widely as he pulled away from the hug. “Oh, yes, I can ride now.”
“And is one of these yours?”
Frodo shook his head, with an extra toss to get his hair out of his face without letting go of the reins of the two mounts he’d led into the building. “No, we hired them from the Green Dragon. They’re nice enough beasts, I suppose, but nowhere as intelligent or affectionate as the pony Mum and I used to dream about that would be mine one day.”
Mac laughed. “I can imagine! Here—let me show you where you can stable them.”
Frodo followed as Mac led him to a pair of empty stalls side by side that had always been reserved for visiting mounts. Between the two of them they soon had both ponies unsaddled and rubbed down.
“Well, they are good enough ponies, I suppose,” Mac noted, “but neither is of exceptional quality, I must say. You deserve a much better mount than either of these.”
Frodo finished his work on the mane of the pony he’d been grooming and gave a grunt. “I’m not certain I even wish a pony at this time, Mac. They are a good deal of work, and I’m busy with my studies and with my explorations about the region of the Hill, my work as a copyist and all. And I can see why Bilbo likes to walk about as he does—you can see so much more when you’re walking and not having to pay attention every moment to what the pony’s doing and whether or not he’s gotten distracted. And they can startle, it seems, at the most inconsequential things, imagining that a blowing ribbon is a dangerous snake or that Odo Proudfoot’s stick is going to be used to strike them. I’d never dreamed they could be so—so very silly!”
“That’s only because you’ve not been introduced to an exceptional pony such as my Domino, Frodo.”
“If you say so,” Frodo said, obviously not willing to be convinced otherwise.
After seeing the ponies fed and watered, Mac and Frodo swung closed the stall gates and headed out of the stable towards the Hall, at which time Mac thought he saw something behind the tumbled curls that covered Frodo’s forehead. “Wait a minute!” he directed, pulling the younger Hobbit to a halt and reaching out with his other hand to push the curls aside. “Did one of those ponies kick you or something?”
Above Frodo’s eyebrow a sticking plaster partially covered a healing split to his skin and a bruise that was fading toward yellow.
Frodo’s face grew paler, and his cheeks went decidedly pink while his sensitive mouth thinned in remembered anger. “Only if the pony had two heads and answered to both Lotho and Ted,” he responded, his tone bitter.
“Lotho?” For a moment Mac was confused by this answer until enlightenment touched him. “Lotho?” he said again, his face clearing. “You mean Lobelia and Otho’s foul get? He’s still doing his best to make your life miserable?”
Frodo nodded, his face uncharacteristically grim. “He and Ted Sandyman, whose father owns the mill, are the worst bullies I’ve met yet, and are constantly lying in wait for me. I try to give them as good as I get, but it’s hard when it’s two against one. And it’s not like here—no one about my age lives on the Row or beyond me except for Ted, who lives in the mill on the Water, and as he’s the one supporting Lotho there’s no way that I can encourage him to take my part in the fights. The two of them hid out in the woods at the south end of the Hill a few days ago and leapt on me as I came into it to visit the stream there. There is a place where the Sun shines down upon it that is home to a number of caddis fly larvae, and Sam and I love to watch them build their shells out of whatever they can find to make them of. Until lately neither Lotho nor Ted has come near the spot, but somehow they became aware I spend time there and brought the warfare to me there. Lotho grabbed my arms and Ted hit me with a branch and left this.” He touched the sticking plaster. “Cousins Otho and Lobelia keep trying to make it seem that somehow I’m antagonizing Lotho on purpose so it’s not his fault that he attacks me, and they refuse Bilbo’s demands that they try to make him stop, not that I think he’d stop just because they told him to. But now the Sackville-Bagginses are to head down to the South-farthing next week, so I shan’t have to worry about Lotho for somewhat better than a month, and without Lotho, Ted is too cowardly to approach me himself. But until the S-Bs are gone Bilbo decided I needed a breathing space, so we decided to spend a few days here.”
Just then a whirlwind in the shape of a Hobbit lad came racing toward them from the direction of the Hall and threw himself on Frodo. “Frodo! Frodo! You’re here—at last! Did Sam come, too? Shall we take him down and show him the Brandywine and do you think he’d like to swim with me? I’ll show him the gardens—he’ll like them, I know! And----”
Frodo threw his arms about Merry and lifted him up to hug him before setting him down on the ground once more. “Wait, Merry mine! No, Sam didn’t come, too. His father doesn’t think it’s fitting for a working Hobbit to go about visiting his Master’s kin. But, no, even if he was here I don’t think you could convince him it’s safe to go swimming. His dad has told him that Hobbits and rivers just don’t mix, and he’s afraid to go into water deeper than his knees. And I won’t try to force him to change his mind. After all, it’s mostly just those of us who have Brandybuck blood and who’ve lived near the river who like swimming.”
“That’s silly!” Merry protested, but Frodo just laughed kindly.
“It’s the way most Hobbits think, whether we think it’s silly or not. He does know that I swim and like it, and he’d be terribly impressed to know that you like it, too. But you aren’t going to get him to try it, so don’t even bother trying to change his mind.”
Merry didn’t look convinced, but agreed for Frodo’s sake not to press Sam should the two of them end up near water deep enough to swim in. “The Whitwell Tooks are coming, and they are bringing the lasses and little Pippin, too. Aunt Eglantine says he’s always trying to copy me and what he thinks I’m doing! And….” But then he stopped, having caught sight of the bruise and the sticking plaster. “But you’ve been hurt! Did someone hit you?” The child’s face darkened. “Was it that Lotho Sackville-Baggins again, and that Ted Sandyman? I heard Mummy and my dad talking about it, how they keep trying to hurt you. Do you hit them back?”
“Yes, I hit them back, but they’re both older than me, and more muscular than I am, too. It’s hard to defend myself properly when one of them is holding me still so the other is free to hit me. But they both end up going home with bruises of their own each time. Eventually they’ll realize it’s not worth it to attack me.”
“Well, you should ask Uncle Mac here how to stop people from hitting you. Dad says he’s the best he knows for knowing how to protect yourself.”
Frodo gave Mac a thoughtful glance. Merimac Brandybuck laughed. “You know yourself that not even Brandy Hall has ever been completely free of bullies, Frodo Baggins. We had them even when I was a small lad, and there was one that I finally had to face down when I got into my teens who wasn’t impressed that I was the Master’s grandson—in fact he seemed to hold that fact even more strongly against me, just as Gomez used to hate it that you were living in the Heir’s apartments when you weren’t even Sara’s child. I finally stopped him, partly due to advice Granfer Gorbadoc gave me and partly what I’d learned on my own. I realized that with my longer arms I could hit him just right before he had a chance to close on me and knock him down, and he stopped trying to bully me in the end. Come out to the stable tomorrow and I’ll show you.”
They separated at the back doors to the place, Mac heading for his own apartments he shared with his wife Amaranth and his children while Merry accompanied Frodo to the visitors’ wing where he now shared a room with Bilbo when they came.
Late that afternoon Frodo had good reason to appreciate Mac’s comment that the Hall had never been free of bullies. He and Merry were going out to the storage buildings to fetch in some raisins and dried currants to mix into scones when they heard a booming voice before them. Merry stopped and went stiff at the sound of it.
“Oh, no—Tolman Smallburrow is out here.”
“Who?” Frodo asked.
“Tolman Smallburrow. He’s a hired Hobbit—was hired to help with a lot of the lifting work and to work on the farm. He’s not fully of age as yet, but he’s quite broad and strong, and he keeps bothering us smaller Hobbits.”
“Have you told your dad about what he does?”
Merry shook his head. “He’s said he’ll break the head of anyone who complains about him, and we believe him. No one dares think of tattling on him. I don’t think he’ll try anything on you, though—you’re taller than he is and almost a Hobbit grown, too, after all. It’s the little ones he loves to beat on.”
Frodo’s face darkened, but after a moment he stepped forward to complete their errand with Merry reluctantly but staunchly a half-step behind him.
Tolman Smallburrow proved to be a lug of a lad, one whose only claim to acceptance was his strength, which he was as willing to use to cow the smaller denizens of the Hall as he was to help shift bales of hay or carry in loads of wood for the fireplaces or lumber for building or repairs. At the moment he had one of the smaller lads held still with a single hand grasping the child’s shoulder, holding the lad out at arm’s length and laughing as his victim tried vainly to land a blow of either hand or foot while a gaggle of frightened lasses milled vainly about, unable to do anything to stop the torment their friend was suffering. At last Smallburrow ended the one-sided fight by bringing his other fist down to clout the child’s ear, leaving the small lad sitting in the dust of the yard that held the storage sheds, holding his hand to the side of his head.
“Stop that this instant!” Frodo called and ran forward.
Smallburrow laughed and turned, widening his stance and readying himself for Frodo’s rush. Tolman Smallburrow was fully willing to take on this new victim in spite of Frodo’s height, rightly judging that this stranger was no match for his muscles and likely no competition to begin with. There was no question that Frodo went down fighting, but he still went down, and Smallburrow left him with a kick to the middle that thoroughly winded him. As Frodo lay on the ground with his nose bleeding and with him struggling to draw breath, Smallburrow sneered down at Merry, the other lad, and the lasses. “And don’t none o’you think t’tell the Master on me, or I’ll do twice as bad t’you next time as I sees you, understand?” With that, he left, swaggering off toward the cider presses at the edge of the orchard and disappearing into the trees.
Only once he was gone did the children crowd around Frodo to help him to his feet. For a moment the tween stood bent over, clutching at where he’d been kicked, but he finally forced himself to straighten up. Once he was able to breathe normally he saw to it that the sheds were opened and those who’d come to fetch out raisins, sultanas, or other dried fruit obtained what they’d been sent for, and together they returned to the Hall, all solemn and anxious save for Frodo, whose expression was full of suppressed fury and determination.
Frodo went to the bathing room before he returned to his bedroom to change into clothing that wasn’t dusty and spotted with blood from his now swollen nose. He looked quite presentable when he came into the dining hall for supper. He had reason to believe that Bilbo noticed the new bruises, but knew that the old Baggins would be content to follow his lead. Only after the two of them had withdrawn to their room rather earlier in the evening than they usually did did Bilbo make any comment.
“Still another bully here, then?”
“Yes, although I was rather surprised he’d think to challenge me. I was wrong.”
“Shall I speak to Rory or Sara?”
“No—I shall see to it myself. Mac has agreed to teach me a strategy or two that should help me.”
Bilbo appeared most satisfied. “Good, then. Merimac Brandybuck was once one of the prime targets for bullies here within Buckland, but he learned how to deal with them in the end. You’ll do well to learn what you can from him, Frodo-my-lad.” So saying, he patted Frodo on the shoulder, only realizing his mistake as he saw Frodo wince. Once he saw Frodo strip off his shirt to replace it with his nightshirt he realized how extensive the beating his lad had received that day had been. He wisely kept his thoughts on the unknown current bully of Brandy Hall to himself, however, resolving to have a quiet word with Mac in the morning.
The next morning Frodo again found Tolman Smallburrow tormenting the same small lad, and again the bully had him laid out in short order. But this time Merimac happened by in time to forestall Tolman landing a kick that might well have broken a rib or two. He hauled Frodo to his feet and held the two of them, each on either side of him.
“You,” he directed at Frodo, “as a visitor to Brandy Hall may be ignorant of the rules against fighting we have here, but you,” he said directly to Tolman, “certainly have reason to know them well. We do not tolerate fighting here, and if I catch either of you fighting again I shall bring the offender gladly before the Master. Do you hear?” He shook them both. Frodo nodded his understanding immediately, and was let go and directed away with a look. It was a few moments, however, before Tolman Smallburrow also gave his grunt of acknowledgement, although it was unlikely he planned to change his ways.
Some time after second breakfast Frodo turned up near the stables to find that Mac was already awaiting him. Mac had fetched in the scarecrow from the grain field, where it really wasn’t as yet all that much use, after all, and on it he demonstrated several moves that he’d learned over the years were useful in dealing with bullies or those so taken with drink that they’d fight the Thain himself had he made the mistake of getting in the way,
“It’s best, I’ve found,” he said, “to let them make the first move. That way you can use their own weight and speed against them, and if the fight is seen it is plain that you aren’t the one who started it so the opinions of other people will almost always be on your side. Who, after all, can the bully complain to if others have seen he was the one who threw the first punch or who made the first rush? It makes the lesson go even further home when they can’t get anyone to feel sorry for them when they’re picking themselves up off the ground after a failed attack against you!”
The young Baggins quickly realized just how important it was to reach out at just the right moment to take his opponent unawares so as to best throw him to the side or over his shoulder, and he was smiling with delight after the fourth time he managed to do that with Mac.
Merimac rose panting. “Well,” he managed, “it appears you have that down. Now, shall we work on developing a proper punch?”
It was soon apparent that Frodo was quite capable of using this tactic, and that with his long arms he had excellent leverage to throw a blow to his greatest advantage. After he’d sent the scarecrow sailing across the empty paddock where they were working for a fifth time, Mac straightened and wiped his sweaty brow. “I’d not wish to be struck by you, Frodo Baggins,” he said with respect. “I will caution you—you have so much power behind your punch that you could easily hurt someone seriously, perhaps even kill someone, if you were to fully lose your temper. You must never, never let yourself fully lose your temper, do you understand? You must be very careful to not hit any harder than you need to in order to merely stop the bully. Will you give me your solemn vow that you will keep these warnings in mind?”
Frodo was surprised. “You truly think that I could badly hurt someone?” he asked, feeling shaken by the idea.
“Oh, yes,” Mac assured him. “Will you vow to use only the force you need to stop a bully and no more?”
Frodo gave a most serious nod. “I so vow,” he said, his voice somewhat unsteady. “I swear and promise that I will only use my punch in defense, and only such a punch as is needed and no more than that.”
Reassured, Mac gave him a twisted grin. “Good enough, then. And I pity anyone who thinks to get the better of you, Frodo. Let Lotho learn that he and his fellow are no match in the end for you. Just remember not to keep the thumb inside the fist as you strike—don’t want to break it, after all.”
Frodo nodded as he wiped his face with a handkerchief. As he pulled on his waistcoat over his now dusty shirt he commented, “There’s one here I hope to try it on before I leave.”
So he already recognizes that Tolman Smallburrow needs to be stopped? Mac thought. I just hope Frodo doesn’t hurt him too badly.
As the two Bagginses mounted their ponies preparatory to returning to Hobbiton, Merimac was pleased to see how easily Frodo completed the maneuver without the need to resort to a mounting block. Frodo sat the pony well and with that marvelous grace that was becoming all the more apparent the closer the lad came to maturity. “I look forward to hearing the details of your next encounter with Lotho Sackville-Baggins,” Mac said.
“I shall be glad to let you know exactly how it goes,” Frodo assured him. “I do believe that I shall now be able to stop him in his tracks.” With that he gave a conspiratory nod, and turned his pony to follow Bilbo toward the Bucklebury Ferry. As he rode away, Mac noted that Frodo had gauze bound about his knuckles.
So, it looks as if at least one lout about the place has found his match in Frodo Baggins, he thought as the two Bagginses disappeared down the track. Good. Hope I can recognize who it was that received Frodo’s first honest blow in retaliation for being a bully. I do suspect it’s that Tolman Smallburrow.
That night as the inhabitants of Brandy Hall gathered in the dining hall for dinner, Mac noted that Tolman Smallburrow sported quite a black eye, and that Pelto Brandybuck, son to Porto Brandybuck, a very small lad who always seemed to be wearing shirts just too big for him, was glancing at the larger lad with distinct satisfaction in his gaze.
Good enough, Frodo! Mac thought with fierce pride. Lotho and his minion don’t realize it yet, but they aren’t going to be able to get the best of you any longer.
Somehow the strawberry fool for afters tasted just that much sweeter that evening.